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A Defence of Social Justice

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.

Intersectionality

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.

Moral Relativism

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.

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22 comments

  1. The big problem with this article for me is that the author writes about social justice without making any serious effort to define it. Father Coughlin’s slogan was “social justice,” but I’m assuming that was not the same as the author’s understanding of the term. I’m inclined to reject it as more of a motto than a meaningful concept, but if the author wants to argue that something called “social justice” has value, then he needs to tell us what he means by those words.

  2. I sort of agree with the author, but the article also looks like an attempt to define a sensible Motte of social justice in comparison to the Bailey of Social Justice.

    As noted previously (Andrew Miller), Social Justice is not “a sensible ideology taken too far”, the “taking it too far” is the whole point of the ideology.

  3. Social Justice is the decadent phase of the largely justified social revolution that occurred from the 1960s onwards. The SJW types are cosplaying real battles against injustice that were won decades ago – which is why they are usually more interested in ‘calling out’ other liberals than in confronting real racists and sexists.

    The game relies on the fact that everybody who matters already agreed that racism and sexism etc are bad – and are terrified of being accused of same. In 2019 bigoted attitudes are a marker of low social status and tolerant ones a marker of mainstream sophistication. Social Justice is sort of a toxic version of hipsterism in this regard- it’s a demonstration of high social status very similar to overt displays of religious piety in the old days.

    Meanwhile people who care about lower case social justice carry on running food banks, teaching in rough schools and confronting real injustice that actually has the power to hurt them. They do sometimes use similar language to the SJW types but they still use these terms in their original meanings: e.g Racism means discrimination bases on race whoever does it.

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    1. ‘In 2019 bigoted attitudes are a marker of low social status and tolerant ones a marker of mainstream sophistication.’

      I think you’re broadly right, except for this point. It’s not ‘tolerant’ views that they care about, as if that was true they wouldn’t have an issue with old school progressive liberals. What is the marker of sophistication’ is to understand that your individual agency is irrelevant, that it’s about ‘structure’ and particularly ‘power’. Anything tied to a universalist humanist word view is to be mocked, and decried as really no better than the bigoted right as it’s does nothing to challenge white, western, male, hetronormative power structures. No better example than the a liberal defence of free speech is now routinely portrayed as a right wing position. That’s where the real status currency lays.

    2. I think you are right about Social Justice’s intellectual roots. Many of the core SJW concepts can be found in the writings of the radical New Left during the 60s. If you look through the pamphlets of the SDS and the Weathermen you can find the precursors. The writing of the original radicals is actually much better since it lacks the obscurantist jargon and sophistry of the post-modernist.

      The most interesting part is that the contemporary SJW movement, like the New Left before it, is fundamentally bourgeois. They studiously avoid the class based advocacy of the old left which would, of course, be very awkward for them. Instead, we have the topsy-turvy spectacle of Harvard students railing against “privilege”. The SJWs even seem to hold the working classes in contempt; a dramatic and fundamental break with left wing tradition.

  4. The author’s heart is in the right place but unfortunately in practice it will be impossible to support social justice without it being mistaken for Social Justice. It would be sorta like trying to be pro-German but anti-Nazi during WWII — unfortunately there was a war on, and such nuance was not possible. Sometimes an old house can be renovated, but sometimes it must be demolished. Let’s continue to advocate for justice, but Social Justice is toxic beyond any antidote.

  5. The key word here is average. Most of us would without hesitation agree that some groups are, on average, better off e.g. economically, but from this does not follow much information about a particular individual. It is easy to prove that West Europeans are better off than East Europeans, but it does not take much effort to find examples of the opposite. Or let’s look at group-level differences between men and women. Most extremely rich people tend to be men. From this fact follows basically nothing telling us about individual men and women. Thus, the entire SJW ideology is based on lack of understanding of the concept average.

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    1. Even an ‘average’ is misleading if we read that as the ‘mean.’

      If, indeed, most of the wealth is owned by 1% of the population, and that 1% is white, male and middle-aged, this makes the *average* white, male and middle-aged person appear more wealthy than they *typically* are.

      Those outliers represented by the 1% skew the statistics. I, personally, do not profit from Elon Musk’s wealth.

    2. Glad to see someone making this point. At a very basic level, the SJW concept of privilege involves a fallacious application of group averages to individual cases. Like many bad ideas, this is a perversion of a perfectly legitimate concern. Many of us can look at our individual lives and appreciate that others have not been so lucky, whether in terms of health, or intelligence, or wealth, or exposure to violence, etc. A rational person with a modicum of compassion can sympathize with those less fortunate and appreciate that equal effort/skill/whatever doesn’t always garner equal rewards. They can also potentially look for ways to help those less well off.

      What you can’t do, though, is say that someone has an advantage because an arbitrary group they fall into comes out ahead of some other group on average. The mean can’t tell you about the individual and it can’t be causal. If my group is more likely to win the lottery than yours, that is essentially irrelevant if neither of us has actually won. Or conversely, if I have won the lottery, there is an equal distance between me and the non-winners both in and out of my group. Of course, the lottery may actually be unfair and we can try to fix that, but you can’t say that an individual benefits or suffers from averages. My ‘privilege’ or ‘oppression’ can only depend on what has actually happened to me.

  6. The problem with social justice isn’t the social or the justice or even the intersectionality but the “only this”–that only power relations exist, that people are only their tribal/group identity, and that the advantaged in some way are guilty of a crime (and can never be cleansed of their original sin). Yes of course it is tough to be a black person in a wheelchair, but it is not necessarily some evil person’s fault.

  7. For at least 4000 years we made do with the concept of Justice. Then some leftists set out to erase the concept of Justice by replacing it with Social Justice. Social Justice is Injustice. Why? Because all sentience is individual and consequently all suffering is individual, all joy is individual, all justice is individual and all injustice is individual. The fact that some people can’t remember their neighbour’s names does not turn collective nouns into the names of persons.

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      1. You destroyed apartheid. You got Zimbabwe. Now South Africa is falling into the same abyss. I do not want to justify apartheid. I want to say that simple solutions are stupid and bring even more suffering. But you prefer KISS, keep it simple and stupid, and never feel responsibility for the results.

        “Next time we’ll do it better!” How many times do you need? And how many lives should be destroyed?

        KISS for mechanisms. Society is a living organism. The first commandment of the doctor – primum non nocere. It’s about one human being. Millions of lives cheaper?

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  8. Eisso Post gets close to the crux of it. Everyone has some sort of conception of social justice. Even those who thinking the powerful should dominate the weak, or deny basic rights to an out group in defence of an in group will conceive of their world view as socially just. That has nothing to do with ‘Social Justice’ as a collection of ideological positions, or indeed with whether your version of social justice is morally or intellectually defensible.
    It’s also a mistake (one I see being made all the time) to simply view many of these Social Justice ideologies as reasonable ideas ‘taken too far’. The ‘taken too far’ IS the ideology. At best they’re a kind of Deepity, true at a banal level but false and actively poisonous in their detail. Of course it’s true that injustices can intersect, but that’s only connected to ‘Intersectionality’ at a most superficial level. Intersectionality relies on a world view that we’re a collection of communitarian identities, that objective morality is simply a white, male western construct, and everything is a power contest between identity groupings. It’s roots are in thinking that essentially rejects the idea of the individual human as anything more that a product of particular histories and cultures, each with their own relation to ‘power’. Without that foundation there is no ‘Intersectionality’ just a simple banal truism. Same goes for Privilege Theory, which is rooted in the same anti humanist construct that replaces rights with ‘privileges’ (A difference that isn’t merely semantic, but a profound shift in thinking). Without the anti humanism, you’re just left with banal historic observation that as a white man in many circumstances my life has probably been easier than women or non white people. An observation that tells you nothing about moral progress, what our response to it should be, or what justice should look like.
    I don’t think the example of the infanticide is a valid one regarding moral relativism, as it implies a universalist morality has no capacity for nuance or considering circumstance. It need not be culture. I doubt most people who make the same judgement of a mother who after years of violent abuse form her husband in desperation took her own life and that of her children. The killing of the children is still wrong, but it’s unlikely to be seen in the same light as someone who did it for purely malicious reasons.
    I do fully accept that many of the people who spout the Social Justice jargon ridden cliches are simply responding to what’s fashionable, and probably haven’t taken the time to actually understand what’s implicit in the ideas they’ve latched onto. However, that doesn’t change the fact the ideas are both largely wrong, and actively harmful to the very concept of justice many of these people think they’re pursuing.
    I really think it’s a mistake to believe if they’d just dial back the excesses they’d be on the right track. What’s needed is that for those of us who truly believe in a humanist conception of justice to make the case for it, as unfashionable as that may currently be.

  9. If you want to fight for social justice, come over to our side and help us rid the banks of usury, the media and entertainment industries of dishonesty, and corporate America’s fetish with pushing an ever-expanding labor supply. Why do we tax capital at half the rate of labor? Why can banks borrow from a private company, the Federal Reserve, at 3% while gouging the rest of us? Let’s fix these things together as Americans!

    This is supposed to be a civilized society where we can have different political opinions without getting fired. I think most SJWs have their heart in the right place, but lose themselves to the cause to the point where they dehumanize anyone who disagrees with them so they can justify their violent/hateful behavior.

    There are times when I want to extend an olive branch to them, but then shit like the Berkeley Anti-Free Speech Riots of 2017 and their arrogance causes my heart to harden towards them. I only show respect to those who show it back.

    The Constitution is for all Americans, unlike identity politics.

    “Frenchmen, we do not accept your surrender. You surrender only to the enemy. If you’re Vichy, fight us. If you’re Frenchmen, join us.”
    — American commander, “The Big Red One”

  10. All for social justice but against Social Justice. It’s as simple as that and I think most Areo readers already know that.

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    1. While I agree re: sj vs SJ and that most Areo readers are in that category, reminders are a good thing. A carefully and rationally constructed viewpoint can rot into a hateful dogma over time in the right conditions. I’ve experienced this: I’ve become so angry at a cruel minority of the SJ that ill-will became my reflexive response to reading most any SJ buzzword. Personally, it helps to remember the good intentions that exist in the SJ community – and to do so proactively, often. Thus I appreciate this article. Perhaps had the SJ community made explicit that which “goes without saying” (e.g. “OF COURSE we don’t think people can be judged on skin color alone”), the ideology wouldn’t have become so warped.

      1. But they DO think people can and should be judged on skin colour alone. It’s implicit in their ideological thinking. They’re not over zealous liberal humanists. Whatever ‘good intentions’ they may have, they’ve hitched their wagon to ideas that can only lead to exactly what we’re seeing. The intolerant dogmatism isn’t a bug, its a feature.

      2. O, I know a lot of well-meaning people you could no doubt call SJW’s. If I didn’t, the whole question wouldn’t bother me at all. But it irritates me all those people in art, in politics, in sustainable projects are hard to communicate with because their talk and thoughts about ‘privilege’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘diversity’ (sic!). They would be better company and more effective in what they did if they threw away the IdPol dead weight,

        1. Sadly, they’d 1. Think they weren’t being good and proper progressives anymore. The dogma has become so entrenched they find it literally impossible to be in favour of progressive social justice ideas without the IdPol woo. 2. Probably be excommunicated form the group for wrong think. Wanting to be part of group who both ‘get it’ and are morally pure is a really powerful one.

    2. The author seems to think that the thinking opponents of Social Justice don’t have their own profound definition of justice and ithe causes of its absence. They may be wrong, but their opposition to Social Justice is not an opposition to justice, just a very different understanding of what it is. Therefore, they cannot simply reject the excesses of Social Justice as the author advocates. That’s a pipe dream solution.

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