Sometimes People Legitimately Disagree on Difficult Questions
it's not in fact true that everyone who disagrees with you is secretly evil
I choose this tweet merely because it’s an encapsulation of so much of the assumption of bad faith and avoidance of the social justice perspective. (That Adam Costco is one of the most nakedly self-aggrandizing Last Good White Men is merely a bonus.)
Here’s the deal. I am opposed to the “social justice movement,” while being very much in favor of social justice, for a few reasons. The first is that I think the social justice movement is legitimately wrong on a variety of core issues. For example, civil liberties - I think they’re good; the social justice movement thinks they’re a con on the part of bigots. That’s a genuine disagreement. There’s people in the social justice movement who are explicitly, unambiguously opposed to free speech as a principle. And that’s cool. They’re wrong, is all. You can find plenty of books written that define the reasons free speech is good. But that disagreement between me and them is real. It’s not code for “I think trans people are faking.” (I genuinely don’t have the slightest idea what that could mean.) Unlike many in the social justice movement, I believe that civil liberties are essential even while I understand the vital need to fight racism, sexism, and transphobia. I simply believe that those fights have to be balanced with the defense of civil liberties, and in fact think that waging those fights requires a respect for civil liberties. Costco is free to disagree. But he’s not free to tell me what I “really” think. Another disagreement is about the proportionality of social punishment. The social justice movement often seems to think that anyone guilty of even minor expressions of bigotry should be permanently socially outcast. I don’t agree. But that’s all it is. It’s just disagreement. Happens every day.
But here’s something that should perhaps concern even people like Costco: the social justice movement has coopted basic left goals and has completely failed to meet them. The social justice movement hates racism, sexism, homophobia, and assorted social ills, and yet has achieved nothing in fighting them.
Indeed, I criticize the social justice movement not because I oppose challenging our status quo power hierarchy, but precisely because I do want to challenge that hierarchy. The social justice movement absolutely sucks at challenging establishment power! To pick an obvious example, we’re coming up on two years since George Floyd’s murder. Our country was shaken by intense paroxysms of political anger. Our entire culture seemed to take time to genuflect before not just BlackLivesMovement but the entire “awokening,” the broader social justice movement and the nonprofits who profit off of it. And then… nothing happened. Nothing. There has been nothing like the systemic change demanded by activists in that period. And if you’re inclined to say that there hasn’t been enough time, I will remind you that a) people who say justice can’t wait are probably not in position to make that complaint and b) the MeToo movement is five years old, BLM is eight years old, and the broader social justice movement is much older than that. At some point you have to actually look at your serial inability to create change and ask hard questions.
This failure, by the way, is perfectly predictable when you observe the fact that the social justice movement actively disdains persuading others (“it’s not my job to educate you”) and relentlessly fixates on ideas that are vastly unpopular (“defund the police”). Those seem like valid, important observations.
What Adam Costco is saying, though, is that my noticing the abundant failures of the social justice movement is inherently bad faith. He’s saying that I simply am not allowed to observe that these movements fail so consistently to achieve any of the change that they desire. But I can’t not notice them. I’ve spent my entire life on the socialist left, yes as a writer and commentator but also as an IRL activist, to the tune of hundreds of hours of engagement a year. Like untold thousands of other leftists, I have become convinced that the current approach taken by the social justice movement is a dead end, one that tramples on basic leftist values of moral universalism and civil liberties and does so while earning no discernable advantage. And that in fact has always been the core of my critique, not that the social justice movement is terribly powerful, but that it is ultimately powerless. Sure, they can make some bad stuff happen, get people fired, expend immense resources on meaningless linguistic changes. But there is no specific injustice that the social justice movement has targetted that you can confidently say they’ve solved. If I actually wanted to maintain the status quo of the power hierarchy, I would press for more social justice framing, as it has proven to be very conducive to nothing really changing. I want the left to move away from the norms, language, and tactics of the social justice movement because they have proven to be a total dead end in terms of securing real change.
Could it be, could it possibly be, that I’m sincere about this? Could I just legitimately and uncomplicated disagree with Adam Costco and the horde of anti-anti-woke types he represents? Could it be that, in the complex and ever-shifting scrum of political life, some people who you disagree with are arguing in good faith, even if you’re sure they’re mistaken? Could it be that I’m just wrong? Not secretly opposed to the broad principles I’ve dedicated my adult life to fighting for, not an agent out to defend a status quo I hate, but just incorrect about the social justice movement and its pathologies? Could it be that I’m sincere?
Nah, couldn’t be. Now please be good social justice liberals, put a sign in your window, donate to a nonprofit that will spend your money on itself, and nod along to every call for “justice” that rings out. That’s what real allies do.