Some Principles & Observations About Social Justice Politics
an attempt at a basic analysis
In an effort to be minimally inflammatory I will today use the term “social justice politics” to refer to the political movement you are all aware of, the one which combines several schools of academic progressivism such as intersectionality, trans-inclusionary feminism, and anti-racism with a focus on interpersonal relations as the primary site of political activity, resistance towards economic class as a political lens, and a belief in the essentially immutable prevalence of bigotry, all expressed through an abstruse vocabulary that signals adherence to this movement and its social culture. Here are some basic observations.
Social justice politics, like most political schools, is right about some things and wrong about others. The problem is that social justice politics also militate against criticizing people who express them thanks to ideas like standpoint theory; embedded in this school of politics is the notion that no one outside the movement (and few people inside) have standing to say that the movement is unhealthy. In a very basic sense this means that social justice politics lack the typical correction systems of other ideologies. When criticism becomes forbidden it is impossible to recognize and address serious internal problems. This meta-problem permeates everything that follows.
This prohibition against criticism is enforced with the same instrument that the members of this community use to enforce everything: absolute social destruction. There is no probation in the eyes of the social justice world. The only penalty is the death penalty, the attempt to commit permanent character assassination. I suppose that some will call this claim inflammatory, but it seems to me to be far easier to find examples of people being forever shunned in the social justice world than to find examples of people who were gently educated and allowed to perform penance. This brutality is self-replicating: the executioners know that they could become the condemned with the slightest slipup. The most reliable way to prevent that is to be the most aggressive prosecutor you can. So the cycle actively rewards a never-ending escalation of vindictive punishment. This makes the social justice world, it’s fair to say, a somewhat unpleasant space.
The desire to find fault in everyone and everything damages your basic perception of the world and make it harder to express your moral purpose. There are times when people are targeted for social exclusion because of perceived violation of social justice norms where many people react not with objection but with confusion; the alleged violation is premised on academic theories so complex and inscrutable that it’s hard for ordinary people to sort them out. And it leaves practitioners of these politics often expending time and energy making critiques that simply aren’t a reflection of what they’re critiquing. I wrote a post recently that argues that historical evidence shows that censorship efforts can’t stop right-wing extremism. This was very, very explicitly an argument that those efforts don’t work, not that they are wrong on principle, which is a different conversation. At the beginning of the piece I said that liberals seem incapable of understanding the is-ought distinction, that there is a difference between saying “this is good” and “this is true.” The reaction to the post was mostly positive, but there were plenty of critics who… seemed incapable of understanding the is-ought distinction, summarizing it as “deBoer says it’s bad to censor Nazis.” But I had very directly and unambiguously not said that. I have to imagine these educated adults are capable of better reading than that. The problem is that their incentive within the social justice world is to condemn in the harshest and most simplistic way possible. So “censorship cannot prevent right-wing extremism” becomes “deBoer loves Nazis.” Eventually this kind of thing undermines your credibility in the broader public, but then again see the next item.
Social justice politics has an inside-outside problem. When you refer to “Black bodies” to describe Black people, and wield that phrase as though it has talismanic power, it becomes a kind of insider jargon that is confusing to those outside of your discourse space, and this confusion is not incidental but by design. The advantage of insiderism is that human beings have an inherent desire to be insiders and the appeal of becoming one can attract converts. The disadvantage is that for insider status to mean anything the outsiders must vastly outnumber the insiders, which provides direct incentives to limit the numbers within your movement, an existential contradiction with the basic project of any politics.
An obvious conclusion one must draw from social justice politics is that most people are inherently bigoted, perhaps irredeemably so. It’s hard to see how someone could not derive that from the basic ideology. It is now perfectly common for people within that world to say that all white people are racist, in the interpersonal sense - that is, that all white people harbor animus and fear towards people of color. And those who do not go that far still see all white people as parts of a structurally racist system which they personally benefit from and uphold via their passive behavior at the very least. Similarly all cisgender people are assumed to perpetuate transphobia, again at least through participation in normal transphobic society and usually through active prejudice, patriarchy conditions the thoughts and behavior of all men and many unenlightened women, etc. Simply taking the basic texts and values of this tradition at face value leads you inevitably to the conclusion that almost everyone you encounter in contemporary society is a bad person.
A consequence of the above item is profound fatalism. If these bigotries are so ubiquitous, so inevitable, and so pernicious, it becomes difficult to imagine how the world might ever become fixed. Social justice politics present themselves as revolutionary, but a minimum prerequisite of revolutions is a belief in the capacity for change. Recently I criticized the obsessive focus on Meghan Markle as the victim of racist oppression, given that (for example) many poor Black communities still drink contaminated water. I got a decent amount of flak for that, on the theory that as a Black woman Markle lives under racism no matter what her level of wealth or celebrity. That is indeed true and lamentable, and I would never say that Markle’s life is free from these oppressions. What I would say instead is this: if being an immensely famous multimillionaire who has ascended to a state of literal dynastic royalty is insufficient to rescue a Black person from a state of oppression so profound it deserves to drown out all other stories about racism for weeks, what possible hope should anyone have for racial liberation? What’s the best we can hope to do for an average Black person? I suspect that many people, if forced to confront the consequences of that thinking, would simply give up. This is inherently contrary to progress. If you want people to stop caring about your causes, convince them there is no hope.
Because a vast infrastructure of social justice publications, think tanks, and “consultants” have sprung up to monetize elite interest in these politics, progress in fact becomes threatening; success undercuts your reason for getting paid. (This is true of the think tank industrial complex/professional activism in general. Young leftists, go in fear of organizers with business cards.) In contrast, permanent failure permits those within the social justice movement to be righteous critics of society in perpetuity, and that position is more fun and socially rewarding than doing the work of building an actually just society. Matt Yglesias was excoriated for saying that BlackLivesMatter had succeeded in reducing racist police violence, because to say that was to suggest that reducing police violence was possible and in so doing understate the depths of Black oppression. What are we to make of a world in which complimenting a movement on its success in pursuing its stated aims results in condemnation from that movement itself? Why would an undecided person feel confident joining that movement if progress is not just unlikely but actively rejected?
One problem with this fatalistic belief in the universality and inevitability of bigotry is that many or most people find it profoundly unattractive. The progenitors of this school of politics created the social expectation that racism is a uniquely pernicious evil, as it certainly is. But, for one thing, the more you generalize and universalize an accusation, the less it has meaning. Terms like “problematic” have become parodies of themselves because of their relentless application. More importantly, this dynamic makes it really hard to apply social justice politics in mass spaces. As I have argued media is suffering from this problem right now. Last year Wesley Lowery wrote a piece for the NYT in which he discusses media’s abandonment of journalistic objectivity, a change which he both acknowledges as real and asserts is a good thing, as journalists have now discovered “moral clarity” and can speak truth to power. Setting aside the fact that everyone believes themselves to be in possession of moral clarity, Lowery’s indifference to (or disdain for) the audience is remarkable. Media sells a product, the margins of which are slim. It is essential to sell to as large of an audience as you can. At the very least, the takeover of establishment media by social justice has alienated the ~40% of the country that identifies as conservative, and as I said above, in fact the vast majority of Americans are indicted by the ideology. People don’t like being accused of bigotry through mass generalizations by the tiny slice of America (urban, college educated, socially liberal, culturally elitist) that produces the vast majority of our news. Proof? Media has never been less trusted or popular than it is now. Never. What would Lowery’s attitude be towards his industry being financially crippled by this political “awakening”? I have no idea. There’s no indication in his essay that he cares.
When you represent your politics as a matter of intense emotional importance and profound moral value, and insist that there are no exceptions to the rules, and promote an ethic of refusal to compromise, and establish harsh reprisals for people who step outside of your norms, it profoundly undermines your credibility if you don’t practice what you preach. Many or most members of the social justice movement were enthusiastic and aggressive promoters of the Joe Biden campaign. Joe Biden was credibly accused of rape. Joe Biden was accused of, videotaped during, and admitted to inappropriate touching of many women. Joe Biden was a key architect of the crime and prison policies that the social justice movement correctly identifies as racist, including being perhaps the single most important champion of the infamous sentencing disparities between cocaine and crack. Yes, there are realpolitik considerations that can compel you to support a candidate who is contrary to your values. But a) many in the social justice world angrily rejected skepticism of Biden from socialists and b) the entire ethos of the social justice world is a refusal to compromise. You’re left with a group of people who will excoriate someone who uses the word “crazy” as a hater of the disabled but who went to war on behalf of a man who was a key part of perpetuating the myth of the welfare queen. It’s bizarre.
Social justice politics are obsessive about the linguistic, symbolic, cultural, discursive, and academic to the detriment of the material. The reasons for this are pretty plain: the parts of contemporary society that the social justice world controls are media, academia, the arts, nonprofits - in other words, the domains of ideas, the immaterial. The man with only a hammer seeing a world full of nails, etc. But this means that basic aspects of material suffering ultimately receive scant attention. I already mentioned above that Meghan Markle received vastly more press coverage in that news cycle than the Black-white wealth gap that touches the lives of every Black American. From the standpoint of promoting mass racial justice this makes no sense. But the wealth gap is a difficult problem that the cultural industries have no capacity to solve, and they don’t spend a lot of time reporting on poor Black people. Because the British royal family is sensitive to public perception they fixated on that problem which they thought they could change. Sadly for poor Black people the wealth gap does not have a public relations team, nor is entry into wealthy royal families a realistic path for most. The triumph of the linguistic overall the practical can be found all over this world. For example, consider the recent rigid policing of the term “person suffering from homelessness” over “homeless person.” The thinking is that the former stresses that homelessness happens to some people at some point while the latter defines them by that condition. I’m sympathetic to this reasoning; it makes sense to me. I’m also sure that if you polled a thousand homeless people you would not find a single one who would list this among their top ten problems. But when you’re a bookish arts kid language is everything, and anyway, social justice politics does not have anything substantial to offer the homeless in material terms. So language policing it is.
What are we left with, given these tactics, philosophies, justifications, and conditions? What kind of real-world practices do these political tendencies create? Here’s a perfectly frivolous example.
“Knuckles” here refers to a character from the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise of video games. As I understand this controversy, a fan artist depicted Sonic characters as humans, a common practice, and portrayed Knuckles as white. Another artist, themselves white, “corrected” this by altering the original fanart so that human Knuckles appeared Black. This prompted a days-long Twitter meltdown in this community about the racial identity of a cartoon monotreme from a digital world in which our protagonists gather golden rings to assist in their quest against a villainous scientist named Dr. Eggman.
How are the dynamics of social justice politics revealed in this scenario?
Insiderism. This is a controversy that could only occur in a discursive space that deliberately excludes most people, a debate about obscure aspects of a little-known lore that even most fans of the series likely care nothing about. Participation in this argument requires not just obsessive knowledge of Sonic but also possession of the bizarre vocabulary and argumentative style of social justice politics. The end result is that the idea of weighing in on this would be intimidating for someone who is just a casual fan of video games. But while the right to engage is restricted to the insider few, the consequences are often universalized. The people who shape the narrative of video game culture are vastly disproportionately drawn from the world of social justice compared to gamers as a whole, a consequence of the discursive economy of social media and professional opinion writing. And so the lessons drawn from controversies like this one are the ones that favor the viewpoints of social justice politics, and those who would dispute those viewpoints have already been pre-excluded from the conversation. If you don’t have the vocabulary to engage in social justice discourse, you are excluded from influencing the public conversation that shapes internet cultures, but of course “should our space become dominated by social justice concerns” is one of the fundamental questions these cultures face. “You can’t be in the conversation about whether we should all adopt this vocabulary because you don’t have this vocabulary” is quite a trick.
Irrelevance. A few things to remember about this scenario is that Sonic the Hedgehog is for children, Knuckles is an echidna and echidnas do not conform to human racial categories, and Knuckles is not real. What could be the relevance of this debate to the movement for racial justice? It’s hard to see any scenario where the outcome of this argument has any meaningful consequences for the terms being debated. And yet the debate on Twitter showed that the participants found this to be a matter of immense political importance. What’s more, questioning the usefulness of this kind of argument tends to lead to harsh reprisals; all of this is apparently very serious business. This is a function of the disdain for material conditions in social justice politics. Since every political consequence is assumed to be an emotional consequence above and beyond all things, the asserted potential for hurt feelings always trumps the actual real-world concrete impact.
If you ever query someone from this world about why so much of what they focus on politically is pop culture ephemera, they will say things like “the personal is political” and “representation matters.” But what’s the theory of harm in this scenario? Black children who play Sonic and who are aware of the obscure fact that Knuckles has been “coded” as Black will log onto Twitter, see this one small account’s depiction of a white Knuckles, and this would cause them to doubt their value in the world? Once you have made the prevention of emotional harm the central focus of your politics, you will find yourself running up against the fact that emotional harm is a ubiquitous and ineradicable part of the human experience, far beyond the ability of any political movement to prevent. Meanwhile we might consider the implications of this debate trending on Twitter and while, to pick an example, Black children suffering from far higher levels of lead contamination than their peers goes unnoticed. How did we get to a world where the racial identity of Knuckles creates a days-long political fight while the material architecture of Black oppression simply hums on along undiscussed and unchallenged?
Politics in everything. Because social justice politics avers that the personal is always political and that all human conditions have political valence, political analysis (and political posturing) infects every aspect of human life. So something that many people enjoy as a respite from the things that make them tired in life becomes aggressively politicized. Something like video games. In fact “aggressively politicized” is not going far enough. They become mandatorily politicized. In video game media saying “keep your politics out of my video games” has become a trigger of immediate mockery and shorthand for “the wrong kind of gamer.” The website Kotaku, made up almost universally of people who embrace social justice politics, has long been a forerunner in telling its audience that they have a sacred obligation to view their hobby first through a political lens. But a huge portion of video game sites now tow this line. Sports coverage has become deeply politicized as well. (RIP.) In both fields suggesting that media coverage should not be all political all the time will get you painted as some kind of oafish anachronism. But most people hate politics. Most people don’t want to think about politics. Most people engage with politics when they feel that they have to but otherwise want to avoid them. Politics are unpleasant.
GamerGate was an embarrassment and more or less explicitly an attempt to exclude marginal groups from video game communities. Fuck GamerGate. But when GamerGaters said that the video game media as a whole is trying to push a progressive agenda, they were obviously correct. I don’t know why people bother denying such things. And again the video game media seems totally unconcerned with what the consequences might be in terms of their audience and their influence. When Sonic the Hedgehog fandom becomes infected with the idea that literally everything in our mental lives is an expression of race politics, that’s not going to make some person who is on the fence about racial issues become progressive. It’s going to leave them running from the lunatics who want to live like this. But the question is, do the people who favor social justice even want the support of the undecided person in the first place, or are they happier rejecting another apostate?
You might ask why I’ve gone with this trivial example. Why not talk about something more serious? But this is the issue: under this political ethos all things become trivial. The insistence that all things have political valence, no matter how ridiculous; that every last aspect of your life is a potential site of political struggle; and that these struggles are of vast importance even though they have no material impact on the world - these things combine to make social justice politics totalizing and yet unserious, inescapable and thus mundane, unremarkable. Paradoxically the intense emotionalism of this school of politics, the insistence that feeling a particular way amounts to doing something, must inevitably leave its proponents unable to make basic distinctions of priority and practice, unwilling to distinguish between what makes them feel intensely and what could make the largest impact in real-world terms. This is not a popular sentiment, to say the least, but it is true: oppression is not emotional, oppression is material.
This insistence that we think of everything politically at all times reminds me of the immediate post-9/11 period, when people were talking about “constant vigilance.” If it’s constant, it isn’t vigilance. Likewise, training an entire generation of young people (or, that is, a generation of the progeny of the college educated) that everything is politics won’t make politics more important to them. It will rob them of the ability to become uniquely motivated by political anger. If you have been trained to become enraged by a white teenager wearing a prom dress inspired by traditional Chinese garb - despite the fact that actual mainland Chinese people overwhelmingly viewed it positively - it means that you have no special reserves of feeling, or political motivation, or political vocabulary, to address the fact that the American media has been in an anti-China meltdown for months. You spent your outrage on dresses and the “cultural appropriation” of serving lo mein in a college dining hall. Where do you have left to go when your country is laying the intellectual groundwork for an eventual, actual war against China?
Again, is vs. ought. The question is not “should the social justice agenda be implemented,” but instead “can the social justice agenda possibly win?” The social justice world is seemingly incapable of making intelligent and strategic decisions about where and how and why to politicize any given issue. The discursive and social practices of that world seem almost designed to make those politics strange and alienating to most people, of any gender or race. It operates as though the world has an infinite supply of outrage and that regular people will respond the right way, when you ring the bell, again and again. And its myopic emphasis on the gender semiotics of Dr. Who, or whatever the fuck, over the day-to-day realities of actual human inequality robs it of both moral clarity and the ability to focus on what actually matters. The problems with this school of politics are abundant, overflowing, and many people who espouse them every day do so purely out of fear of social censure. They can do great damage. But they cannot win.
Perhaps the time has come for people to be brave enough to define what parts of this political school are worth saving, and what it’s time to leave behind.
"An obvious conclusion one must draw from social justice politics is that most people are inherently bigoted, perhaps irredeemably so."
I actually have to agree with this -- most people do make baseless snap judgments. The thing is, if it's inherent in humans to make snap judgments and prefer their own kind, then why are we blaming? Why not just put mitigating mechanisms in place and leave it at that?
If you look at a picture of any orchestra from the 1940s, you will see literally not a single woman there (even on the harp), and no Black people. Go to any American orchestra nowdays, and you'll see zillions of women and minorities. I remember seeing the LA Chamber Orchestra when I lived near their Burbank theater and realizing that out of the whole violin section, there was ONE man.
This all came about due to screened auditions, which American orchestras use (and European ones do not). Instead of bitching out the juries about prejudice and forcing them to undergo struggle sessions, they just said, "Okay, fine. We're putting up a screen during the first two rounds of the auditions."
This was originally done to keep jurists from being biased in favor of their own students, but the literal next audition season after the screens went up for either Boston of Cleveland, ALL four open violin positions went to women. ALL OF THEM.
To the credit of American orchestras, the juries swallowed hard, took their medicine, and the screens stayed up. And they are still up -- precisely because people will always manage to judge based on something stupid and irrelevant.
And that's it. No blame, no name-calling, no accusations, no struggle sessions -- just a piece of fabric. Identify the problem, identify an impersonal solution, implement, and then take metrics that allow you to judge how successful you are. Had we tried to fix the problem by fixing individual hearts and minds, it would never have worked. When people audition without a screen, women and minorities are STILL judged more harshly to this day. It's better than it was, but it's still there; genres of music that do not screen are still horribly overbalanced in favor of white men.
But there are ways to fix problems without fixing individual hearts and minds. If I'm auditioning for an orchestra (or trying to get a job, or whatever), I just want a fair g/d shot. I don't care if the jurists grovel before me and confess to their repulsive sexism although to be honest, I might not mind since I'm also human and imperfect, but really as long as the screen is there, I don't care if the assistant principal oboe is an asshole or not.
Yes, I know that this exact mechanism won't work for a lot of injustices, but it's an example of how changing hearts and minds is not only unnecessary to justice and fairness, but that focusing on that can blind us to simpler solutions that will basically make the problem go away while allowing people to retain their right to remain assholes in perpetuity. Because people will remain assholes, whether we like it or not.
Great post. I would go even further and say it’s not enough for SJP folks to ignore the material plight of marginalized groups. In the rare event that an initiative to address those concerns gains momentum, they will co-opt it and make it about the plight of privileged academics and journalists.
After the murder of George Floyd, I was appalled to see elites try to make the movement about their own professional grievances. An officer of the state KILLED a black man over twenty dollars. And I saw tenured academics using the hashtag to complain about (for example) all-white panels at sociology conferences.
They saw an opportunity (lots of outrage and emotion) and instead of asking “how can I address police violence” they immediately turned to their own professional and social circles with a list of demands about things like the size of their book advances and who wins awards.
All of a sudden, it was the summer of “give me what I want or you’re a racist” in every elite or artsy or academic organization. Meanwhile, ordinary people were in the streets trying to address what actually happened. Imagine what these elites could have done if they had supported this movement instead of making it about themselves.