Social Justice Advocates Don't Get to Just Exempt Themselves From Politics
Sam Adler-Bell published a critique of (let’s all groan inside, for different reasons) wokeness. I think it’s an interesting and at times trenchant critique. But because it’s about wokeness, there’s been another big controversy over the term “woke” and whether white people are ever allowed to use it. As usual, that tired meta-debate has obscured the actual politically load-bearing issues in the essay.
You already know what I think about this: you have to let people discuss your politics, and it’s childish and unhelpful to refuse to name them. You don’t like woke, fine, you don’t like political correctness, fine, you don’t like identity politics, fine, you don’t like CRT, fine, but please fucking pick some other term then. You’ll notice that I’m still doggedly trying to make “social justice politics” happen - I think it’s simple and neutral and gets the point across - but for fuck’s sake, a writer should be able to tackle a large and immensely culturally influential political tendency without having to accept such a contested word. The current reality is Voldemorting - declaring your politics simply off-limits to discussion by insisting that any name we might use for it is inherently bigoted. It’s a mark of weak people who can’t defend their perspectives, but it’s also a vestige of the fact that people who embrace social justice politics think that they are somehow naturally exempt from the ordinary way things work. I get to just live in my own little political fantasy reality, and that’s justice.
But the naming issue is just part of a broader, deeply unhelpful tendency within social justice politics, which is that its proponents are constantly demanding to be freed from all of the regular practices of politics. “Don’t name our movement!” is one thing. Deciding that some people have to stop speaking is another - “it’s time for white men to step back!” But they’re not going to step back. The fact that you might have been able to enforce such a condition in your seminar on the humanities at Columbia does not mean that this is a principle that will survive in the scrum of American politics. Indeed, the only white men you’ll shut up are the ones who are most sensitive to your perspective, which seems strategically perverse to me. But you hear that shit absolutely all the time, that according to social justice, you don’t have the right to speak in this instance, so shut up. I’m sorry to inform you that the people who reject social justice also reject that little childish dictate and all the other bizarre rules that people invented on Tumblr and then expected to simply enforce on the rest of the world. See, you can’t dictate the rules of the fight to the people you’re fighting with, because in order to do so you first have to win the fight. That’s politics, baby.
And this might be the biggest vulnerability of “wokeness” overall: its proponents have no out-of-coalition arguments. Everything that’s said in the name of social justice in the country is said as if everyone who needed to hear it was already in solidarity, was already part of the coalition. But of course, social justice has not even been able to entirely capture the left; I may not personally represent a larger tendency in the specifics but there are many, many left-leaning people who find the social justice school of politics deeply wrongheaded and counterproductive. It can be easy to forget that because social justice politics has become hegemonic among left-leaning institutions. (This mostly has to do with the little oddities of American civil rights law, the dominance of far-left social values and moderate economic values among young college-educated elites, and the basic institutional tendency towards avoiding controversy and risk, but either way, social justice politics is fundamentally an institutional politics.) But there are many, many people in this country who have a deep revulsion for that discursive culture and the pious social-climbers who espouse its values. Worse, the social justice movement seems indifferent to changing minds, and so you’re going to be caught in the same dispiriting scrum of politics as all the rest of us. Sorry.
“Center us! Put us first!”
Uh… no. No, I decline. That’s not what left politics is - left politics says everybody matters and counts the same and we only help some of us by helping all of us. The idea of chopping up the progressive coalition into a hierarchy of virtue-by-demographics is totally contrary to the self-interested solidarity that makes political movements work. More to the point, the state legislatures that dominate day-to-day American politics are not going to center you or your needs. So what do you want to do about it? Organize to change that condition, or once again get mad that some white guy wrote an essay that doesn’t kiss your ass?
What underlies all this is the phlogiston of contemporary progressive politics: the immense condescension with which racial politics are treated. To the extent that America’s racial politics have become more emotional and linguistically radical, they’ve also become wrapped in a layer of pandering and head-patting on the part of benevolent white liberals who have little need for material change (as they’re already affluent themselves) and much to lose from appearing not to kowtow to social justice norms (as their lives are unusually dependent on reputation). An outcome of this situation is that you have a lot of people who ostensibly support a social justice agenda and yet are totally indifferent to whether anything actually gets done. Defunding the police was the ultimate example. Nobody thought we were going to defund the police! We can’t get a single piece of meaningful gun control legislation passed in a country with weekly child-slaughterings, and you’re going to defund the police forces? But untold thousands of white lefties put “Defund the Police #ACAB” in their Instagram bios anyway because actually meaningfully changing policing practices had far less interest to them than did appearing to be the right kind of person. This is why I’ve said for years that one of the social justice agenda’s biggest problems lies in its adherents; many of them are really only onboard with appearing to be onboard.
Osita Nwanevu responded to Adler-Bell’s essay.
He points out that the word “socialism” is no more well-loved by the American people than many frequently-critiqued social justice terms and ideas. And, yeah. Agreed. Other people balance the popular with the principled in complex ways as well. What Adler-Bell complains about is to some extent just what politics is. I would suggest that social justice politics bear the brunt in that regard because, again, social justice politics owns institutions. Certainly, though, it’s a universal condition in politics, the constant back-and-forth between making a movement appealing to outsiders while satisfying the demands of insiders, who cement that status by demanding more and more.
But the important thing is that Nwanevu here is asserting that social justice politics is politics like any other. The trouble is that he’s doing so in a debate that once again reveals that social justice politics is not like any other, that we’re not allowed to just talk about it like anything else, that guys like Sam Adler-Bell aren’t permitted to just go around critiquing it. We live with this constant two-step where social justice advocates complain that their beliefs are treated differently from other political beliefs, but then turn around and insist that people are not allowed to criticize them because their political movement is unlike any other. And it’s just not sustainable. The army of people who pop up every time an essay like this gets published and beats their chest about how we don’t need white bros to lecture us etc. etc. are demanding that their politics should exist outside of politics. But nobody gets to just decide that, and humoring that idea is a perfect example of how those who claim to respect social justice advocates actually find them childlike and weak.
I think standpoint theory is just wrong, personally, just irrational and wrong. But more to the point, in a country where everybody still gets to vote for the leaders they want, and especially one with America’s weird structural advantages, standpoint theory will always be powerless: if you could convince everyone to accept standpoint theory and let it reign in our discourse, you’d have already achieved all the political victories you needed anyway. (That is to say, if you could actually make people accede to the demand that they shut up and listen, you’d have already done the heavy lifting of convincing them of the basic correctness of your philosophy.) Here on Planet Earth, everybody has a politics, everybody else gets to make fun of those politics, and the woke demand that woke politics can never be criticized is childish and unhelpful. People are going to criticize you if you want to change the world. Grow up.