Argue as if you are right and listen as if you are wrong.—Karl Weick
It’s easy to feel agitated by the brand of Social Justice currently trending on the left, which prioritizes identity over reason, outrage over facts and moral posturing over genuine advocacy. Given the violent protests, pervasive deplatforming and general lack of civility of its most fervent adherents, Social Justice can seem like a morally bankrupt ideology. Upon witnessing such behaviour (ironically deployed in the name of fairness, equality and diversity), many of us have come to scoff at Social Justice as an absurd, irresponsible outgrowth of immature, narcissistic children, who have no idea just how good they’ve got it.
Yet, I worry that by writing off Social Justice we may be missing something important. Viewed in isolation, many tenets of Social Justice have merit: the world is less fair than it could be; some classes of people are more privileged than others; and power imbalances do make countless people miserable. Social norms can change society for the better, especially when handled with nuance. And, even though the loudest voices on the Social Justice left lack any hint of such nuance, perhaps we should think twice before rejecting the entirety of Social Justice. By appreciating its value, maybe some new social norms can arise organically.
In equating Social Justice solely with its worst excesses, we become like the leftist who, after hearing about an inappropriate police shooting, assumes that all cops must be racist. True, Social Justice ideology is behind an alarming number of shameful incidents, both on and off university campuses. But it has also spurred many young people to do important work in fields such as legal defence, social work and immigration. Like it or not, Social Justice has become a defining ideology for large swathes of the upcoming generation.
Fortunately, Social Justice is not all bad, and by understanding its worth maybe we can mend some part of our fractured political discourse. Despite outward appearances, many people on the Social Justice left are capable of engaging in sane, rational discussions. However, because they speak in terms of intersectionality, moral relativism and victimhood, they often blend in with their more deranged counterparts.
I’d like to offer a level-headed interpretation of some of the central creeds of Social Justice. Paradoxically, the problem with many Social Justice advocates is that they don’t take these creeds seriously enough. Instead of applying them in a principled way, they get derailed by the uglier aspects of human nature, succumbing to tribalism, essentialism and hatred of the other. In this sense, they take on the fascist tendencies they claim to abhor.
Let’s start, then, by considering intersectionality—a case that shows just how badly the devotees of Social Justice can fumble an idea that, at its core, is banal and uncontroversial.
For almost all of us, life is an uphill battle. No matter how kind our teachers, loving our parents or loyal our friends, our lives are full of challenges. As we age, we often lose loved ones, our health and our cherished belief in the benevolence of the cosmos—losses that often occur in unexpected and jarring ways. And—because the cosmos cares little for fairness—some types of people face harder battles than others.
Of course, the identity of a person does not provide definitive proof of the challenges she may face. But many people play the game of life with a social handicap, merely because of their identities. Where multiple identities overlap—or intersect—in a single person, they can compound, giving rise to a kind of synergistic adversity. Although Social Justice advocates often take intersectionality to ridiculous extremes, its truth is on display amongst many victimized populations.
For instance, people with intellectual disabilities are far more likely than the general population to experience violence and sexual abuse. If they are girls, the likelihood is even higher. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was estimated that 16–32% of boys with developmental disabilities experienced sexual abuse. For girls with developmental disabilities, the numbers were much higher, at 39–83%. In other words, disability and gender can intersect to produce an especially vulnerable population.
Intersectionality should not be controversial. The field of population economics, which searches for correlations between wellbeing and identity (including race, age, gender, etc.), can be thought of as data-driven intersectionality. It should be obvious that identities can overlap to give rise to oppression (or, if you prefer, hardship). But, because the Social Justice left often applies intersectionality in a way that demonizes whiteness and maleness, it has become something of a farce. In this way, Social Justice advocates have sabotaged a perfectly reasonable cause.
Intersectionality originated with black feminists, but has since played upon various configurations of race, class, gender and sexuality. Taken to its logical (and compassionate) conclusion, it should be able to encompass the experience of anyone whose race, class, gender, sexuality, religion or disability intersect to create undue hardship, whether that person is a black single mother or a white opioid addict.
There are few things more frustrating than arguing with a moral relativist. More than once, I’ve been deep in conversation, wrestling over questions of right and wrong, trying to reach an agreement about good and evil, when, with a cheap about-face manoeuvre, my conversational partner reveals that they are, in fact, a moral relativist, unbeholden to parochial notions such as good and bad. Then, it’s rarely long before the moral relativist goes on to deny the very possibility of knowledge, and, with it, any hopes of finding common ground. (A necessary measure, since moral questions are simply factual questions that we happen to care a lot about.)
Obviously, when moral relativism holds that nobody can be objectively right or wrong, or that morality is solely the product of culture, it has nothing worth saying. Almost nobody is a moral relativist in practice and to pretend otherwise is untenable. Fortunately, though, I sometimes find that a moral relativist is actually a moral pluralist in disguise. And, while unalloyed moral relativism is a bad idea, moral pluralism is a pretty good one.
Ardent relativists (claim to) believe that moral judgments are futile, since moral questions have no wrong answers. Moral pluralists believe that there are better and worse answers to moral questions, but that in practice, it may be difficult or impossible to find the best answer. This difficulty arises because differing values occasionally conflict, and there is no good way to know which to prioritize.
Take the values of freedom and safety, which are both well worth cherishing. Human beings flourish when free to pursue our own interests, social groups and business opportunities, in safe environments free from near-term threats. Unfortunately, more freedom often brings less safety, because the unconstrained behaviour of some will always impact the safety of others, whether through inadvertence, ignorance or ill will. Contrariwise, more safety often brings less freedom, as cautionary measures limit our privacy, independence and capacity for risk. Freedom and safety therefore conflict: to maintain freedom, we need constraints on our safety (and vice versa), and it is improbable that we’ll ever strike a perfect balance between the two. A moral pluralist recognizes this fact, while acknowledging that some balances are clearly better than others (a mixed economy, for instance, is better than the freedom of pure capitalism or the alleged security of pure Communism).
Why, though, would a moral pluralist claim to be a relativist? Apart from mere semantics, there actually is something relative about morality—and it’s here that Social Justice can help us fine-tune our views.
Morality does not emerge from the ether. Rather, it surfaces because of the possibility of having better and worse experiences (combined with the ability to reflect on that possibility). For humans, experience can be made better or worse on two main levels. First, there is the level of human nature, where universal human needs emerge: we all require food, shelter, safety, social support and some degree of autonomy. Many Social Justice advocates are blind to this level of morality, all too willing to champion norms and practices that oppress women and minorities, so long as they take place in cultures other than our own.
The second level of morality is that of culture, which does not supplant universal human needs but tweaks them in novel, sometimes alarming, ways. Culture informs our values, affecting how we think and feel about things like aesthetics, gender norms and personal liberty. Although Social Justice types often put too much weight on culture and too little on human nature, different legitimate moral standards do exist, depending on culture.
Consider the uncomfortable topic of infanticide. In developed nations, killing one’s newborn is morally wrong. We have social, economic and medical structures in place to ease the burden of caring for unwanted children (and contraceptives to prevent them). But, in cultures facing extreme scarcity (as was common during prehistoric times), infanticide may be an uncomfortable necessity. If access to food is uncertain, resources should first be rationed to those capable of acquiring further resources. In such cases, it may actually be immoral to abstain from killing a newborn: otherwise, the entire community could suffer. Now, this is not to say that we should be comfortable with infanticide—on the contrary, we should view it as an aberration and in the poverty-stricken places where few alternatives exist, we should work to change the context that makes infanticide tempting in the first place. But, until that context changes, we must apply different moral standards to those who inhabit such impoverished cultures.
There is more than one right way to be moral, and acknowledging this need not send us down a slippery slope to nihilism—besides, if we are overly afraid of slippery slopes we can never climb to higher ground. Morality is relative, but in a principled way, as it exists relative to human nature and culture. Understanding this can help us defuse our outrage over the practices of others, without losing hold of a well-calibrated moral compass. So the next time you find yourself confronted with a moral relativist, perhaps you should ask what, exactly, relativism means to them.
Privilege and Victimhood
Everyone loves a good underdog story. From Nelson Mandela emerging from prison to dismantle apartheid to Simba returning home to overthrow Scar, people who succeed against all odds are often particularly satisfying to watch. We’ve got a soft spot for victims, and this fact of human psychology affects our politics in many ways, both good and bad.
Deployed properly, an emphasis on unjust power imbalances can help remedy the injustices of the world. Our tendency to empathize with victims contributed to moral turning points such as women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Deployed poorly, however, an emphasis on victimhood can metastasize into something ugly and counterproductive. We see this today when Social Justice advocates fawn over certain minorities, or when white nationalists believe that they’re falling victim to white genocide.
Although victimhood culture has gotten out of control, infantilizing and essentializing those it purports to protect, we should not throw it all away: classes of victims do exist, and many people—through no credit of their own—are more privileged than others. For example, as a straight white man I do, on average, have an easier life than, say, people who are transgendered (who are twenty times more likely to attempt suicide). In Social Justice terms, I might say that, in this respect, I am a beneficiary of privilege. Acknowledging this does not mean that I should rail against whiteness or personally seek out and destroy the loci of oppression within the system. It simply means that when I come across a trans person I should be kind to them, and when I encounter people with anti-trans attitudes I should point out the error of their ways. By choosing instead to play the victim card with accusatory hatred, Social Justice types alienate people from the causes they care about, thus hurting those they claim to support.
How, though, can we acknowledge privilege and victimhood without succumbing to the zero sum, black-and-white thinking that characterizes so much of our politics? The answer is simple—but requires a bit of nuance.
There can be victims without distinct oppressors and privilege without clear-cut malice. The largest source of oppression in the universe is not ill will, but happenstance, ignorance and the constant drip of entropy. Aside from fringe groups (on the far left and right), most people in the developed world are too self-concerned to spend much effort actively making others miserable. Faced with this fact, we should focus our efforts on empowering victims themselves, rather than dismantling the bogeymen hiding among our social, political and economic institutions. And, as I’ve argued previously, instead of seeking to demolish privilege we should aim to spread it more broadly.
But, to empower victims, we can’t take the common Social Justice approach of treating them with kid gloves: to do so infantilizes them and, in a perverse way, victimizes them further. Instead, we should focus on the most efficient ways to solve the definable problems faced by victimized groups. This could involve giving free reversible contraceptives to all women (starting with populations with the highest single motherhood rates), or working to improve public schools in poor neighbourhoods. If, instead of rallying against white privilege, Social Justice advocates united their outrage and compassion around such initiatives, they could do much more good for the victims they care about.
A recent event demonstrated to me how my exasperation with Social Justice is undermining my own values. Last year, Canada updated its national anthem, eliminating a reference to sons in favour of a more gender-neutral phrase. Learning of this, my initial reaction was annoyance: it seemed like yet another petty victory for the Social Justice left. But, upon reflection, I recalled how I used to sit in elementary school assemblies reciting the line, “In all thy sons command,” while wondering: what about all the daughters?
Granted, this is a trivial issue, but I worry that the sentiment is widespread. It would be a shame if the legacy of the Social Justice left were to turn people against causes—and groups of people—that they previously might have cared about. Although it’s easy to caricature Social Justice as a defunct ideology, there are people and ideas within its ranks worth taking seriously.