Social Justice ideas and the postmodern thought that underlies them are extremely difficult to critique in a balanced way. This is largely caused by black-and-white thinking: many people wrongly believe that one must come down either on the side of the core beliefs of Social Justice or against them. That is, one must claim that social reality is culturally constructed, or it isn’t; that grand narratives need to be challenged, or they don’t; that people hold implicit biases, or they don’t; that language is powerful, or it isn’t.
This is a misconception. Liberal critics of the postmodern conception of the world, currently most visible in Social Justice activism, don’t claim that these ideas have no validity. They do. Given the choice of believing that culture strongly influences what a society accepts as true and believing that it has no impact, rational people who value evidence and reason must conclude that it does. The idea that recognition of this belongs to postmodernists or Social Justice activists, while the rest of us wander around in a comfortable haze of common sense waiting for them to make us woke to it is simply false. Humans in general have been aware of the existence of culture, the power of narratives and the tendency of humans to hold biases they are not fully aware of since long before Social Justice came into existence. Where liberals with progressive aims disagree with the Social Justice scholars and activists is on how to understand these biases and address them. It is essential to be clear about this if we are to make any kind of balanced and fair critique of Social Justice, and if we are to do so confidently en masse.
Is Knowledge a Social Construct?
This question underlies everything else so requires unpacking carefully. It is also potentially misleading because in one sense it certainly is. Knowledge is the product of knowing. In order to know anything, one must have consciousness. In order to know anything more complex than basic instinctive recognition—eg, fire hurts me—one needs language and a big brain. Therefore, knowledge requires humans. Because humans are social animals and knowledge claims become legitimised in a society when there is a consensus that they are true, knowledge is a product of society. But is it a construct of society? That is, have we made it up rather than discovered it? Does what we are claiming to be knowledge represent human-made beliefs or an objective reality?
For the postmodernists of the late twentieth century, and consequently the Social Justice activists right now, we can never be sure that we have obtained objective knowledge because cultural influences are so powerful. Therefore, what we are looking at when we see knowledge claims is what the dominant groups in a society have decided is true. What is interesting and important about this are the power dynamics in play. Who is benefited by this and who is oppressed? It is these power dynamics and cultural assumptions that must be identified and deconstructed.
For the empiricists and rationalists whose methods inform traditional liberalism, we can never be sure that we have obtained objective knowledge for a number of reasons, including the fact that cultural influences are powerful. Therefore, we need to regard all knowledge as provisional in principle and keep finding ways to mitigate error and bias in order to get closer to objective knowledge. These methods include requiring evidence for truth claims and reason in arguments, supporting viewpoint diversity and allowing anyone to challenge anything, setting up systems to test, attempt to falsify and replicate knowledge claims. What is interesting and important is discovering what is true. It is this that must be prioritised.
Therefore, when we hear the claim that knowledge is a social construct, this is almost never just a claim that knowledge is produced by societies of humans, which is accepted by nearly everyone. What we are usually hearing is radical scepticism that objective knowledge can be obtained, suspicion of the political motivations of those who claim to have found it and advocacy of accepting multiple knowledges founded in cultural beliefs and lived experience and foregrounding those of the historically marginalised. Liberals can reasonably object to this conception of knowledge without either denying that culture has profound influence on what is claimed as knowledge or dismissing the importance of cultural beliefs, perspectives and experiences to the ways in which humans find meaning and experience the world.
Do Grand Narratives Need to be Challenged?
Yes. Grand narratives can be understood as the (often moralistic) explanatory stories for how the world or society works. Religion provides the most influential and lasting example, but secular ideologies like nationalism, colonialism and Marxism also come complete with overarching stories and a simple explanation of problems and solutions. Postmodernism did not invent the understanding that uncritically accepting such large overarching narratives is a bad idea. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, secularism and the Civil Rights movements were all critical of dominant, overarching narratives and all took place before postmodern ideas morphed into Social Justice scholarship and activism in the late 80s. This work certainly needs to be ongoing forever, as humans’ love of stories and simple, neat explanations are probably not going anywhere, but we do not need to do this through either postmodern radical scepticism or the theoretical and ideological framework of Social Justice, which is quite clearly now a grand narrative in itself.
Liberals who find themselves being told that they have the choice of uncritically accepting grand narratives—often described as accepting the status quo—or subscribing to Social Justice ideas in order to dismantle the (often invisible) forces of patriarchy, white supremacism, imperialism, heterocentrism, ciscentrism, ableism and fatphobia and heal from their whiteness or detoxify their masculinity should feel quite confident in rejecting this false choice. As liberals, we can, instead, eject both the conservative impulse to keep things the same and the radical one to turn a largely liberal society on its head. We can seek to reform and improve society by identifying specific injustices, providing evidence that they exist, making reasoned and principled arguments for ending them and appealing to the predominantly liberal culture’s sense of fairness and empathy to bring this about.
Do Humans Hold Biases of Which They Might Not Even Be Aware?
Yes, of course we do. We are very much products of our time and culture, and we internalise culturally dominant ideas in society as common sense. Michel Foucault was right about this! Homosexuality and the rights and roles of women have been regarded very differently in different times and places. A reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin reveals that, while progressive for her time, Harriet Beecher Stowe held assumptions and biases against black people which are shocking to us. Social Justice activists are absolutely right to warn that we cannot trust that we have finally got it right. In the future, people will probably consider some of the things we are doing now as deeply immoral in ways that we cannot understand. These scholars and activists are right to say that prejudices don’t simply vanish when legal equality is achieved, and that much hidden discrimination can exist, which affects the material realities of certain groups in society. They do well when they advise us to be introspective about this and examine our own thought processes honestly.
Unfortunately, this is often not what they advise. Instead, they push adherence to a very specific conception of society as systems of power, which has been becoming more dogmatic, concrete and actionable over the last fifty years. Within this framework, it is assumed that systems of patriarchy, white supremacy, classism, heterocentrism, ableism and fatphobia lie beneath the nice, clean-looking surface of secular, liberal democracies and pervade everything, emerging as symptoms which can be detected and interpreted by those knowledgeable about Social Justice. These symptoms are largely invisible to the unenlightened masses through whom they operate, but marginalised groups have an advantage in being able to see them because they have experience of them and so must be listened to and believed as long as they are speaking within these lines. Members of dominant groups should not believe themselves qualified to have an opinion on whether any action or speech is racist, sexist, transphobic, etc, even if it is their own speech or action and they believe themselves to know that it was not. Power works through people on an unconscious level: so, if you are a man who disagrees with a female colleague and she feels this is because you do not trust the judgement of women, her experience of the situation fits the Social Justice conception of society and you must apologise and do better.
Essentially, Social Justice scholarship and activism tries to replace one set of ideological biases with another (and many of them seem to feel we retain the kind of racist, sexist and homophobic bias prevalent in the 1950s). That is: unlike the original postmodernists, they understand their own conception of society as objectively true and believe themselves to have a moral imperative to read society through it, detect prejudice everywhere, draw it to the attention of society and have offenders reprimanded or punished. Suggestions that they might be suffering from confirmation bias and utilizing motivated reasoning are usually understood as evidence that you are the one still comfortably ensconced within your privileged ignorance and behaving defensively and selfishly. It can be very difficult, if not impossible, to convince them otherwise.
Liberals do not have to go along with this. There is another choice apart from insist that we have already achieved full social justice and are free of all prejudice and anyone who says otherwise is a self-victimising snowflake and insist that oppressive power dynamics are present in every situation and must be identified and called out and anyone who disagrees is just protecting their own privilege. If Social Justice Scholars and activists are able to step outside the cultural narratives enough to see and challenge them, other people can too, even if they don’t do so in the same way. Liberals can. It was liberal drives that successfully challenged and overcame feudalism, theocracy, slavery, colonialism and patriarchy, before the Social Justice movement ever emerged. We can continue to see and oppose social injustice in the familiar forms of racism, sexism and homophobia, and we can do so when it calls itself Social Justice too .
Is Language Powerful, Dangerous and Hurtful?
Yes, it is. Humans have long known this. It is how we spread our ideas and our knowledge. Language has produced ideologies that justified the torture, murder and exploitation of millions. We are a story-telling species and the stories we tell shape the way we see our world. The way we talk about things really matters. We can enflame or soothe tensions. We can abuse or comfort people. We can spread lies or truth. We can incite violence, hatred, paranoia and fear or we can urge calm, reason, empathy and compassion. Humans have always known the power of language for good or ill. Blasphemy and heresy laws have existed to prevent people from damning themselves and others to Hell and they still exist. Political dissidents have been tortured and murdered. The desire to control language in order to control society is not new.
Postmodernists did not invent the idea that language is powerful and potentially dangerous. Freedom of speech has been denied to most people throughout history: that hard-won right was only gradually secured in Western liberal democracies over the modern period. This was a new and unusual state of affairs.
Nor did Social Justice activists introduce the idea that language can hurt. We have been wounding each other with words forever. The children’s rhyme sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me would not exist if we did not have to train ourselves to tolerate upsetting language. The idea that words can be violence makes intuitive sense to anyone who has ever experienced words so hurtful they feel they’d rather have been punched in the face.
The postmodern idea of discourses that construct social reality is not without merit. Considering how women, racial minorities and homosexuals have been spoken about historically, it is clear that horrible ideas have been spread by language and maintained in order to normalise the oppression or second-class status of certain groups in society. Even the much-derided concept of microaggressions has validity. People really can find themselves repeatedly encountering seemingly innocent language that implicitly assumes that they are inferior, inadequate or outsiders and this can be hurtful and dispiriting. Similarly, the idea that people can be erased by language makes sense to anyone who has ever found themselves left out of an account of something in which they had a central place. (Just today, the Jewish Chronicle reported that the University College Union left Jews out of its description of people who were killed in the Holocaust).
It is not the idea of the power of language that is wrong but what Social Justice scholars and activists suggest doing about it. The problem is the intense scrutiny of language for evidence of bigotry, the resulting minefield of potential offence, the rapidly changing dictionary of socially accepted and offensive words, the requirement not to say certain things and to say other things. Demands for censorship, no-platforming and firings for the expression of offensive ideas are all manifestations of the intense and neurotic focus on language in the Social Justice realm.
For liberals, the power of language has never been doubted. We are just more optimistic about it. To liberals who value the concept of the marketplace of ideas, language is primarily something that can be used to formulate arguments and advance knowledge and moral progress. As painful as it can be to tolerate ideas that challenge your cherished, deeply held and even sacred beliefs, it is how we progress in both factual knowledge and human rights. The concept of the marketplace of ideas holds that only by allowing the free exchange of ideas can we rid ourselves of the unworthy, fallacious and unethical ones and advance the worthy, true and good. Although some may consider this naïve, societies which have been open to this free exchange of ideas have made the greatest technological and scientific advances and achieved the greatest equality. Jonathan Rauch calls this process “liberal science” and argues that it led to the huge increase in acceptance of homosexuality and decrease in anti-Semitism. Any Social Justice activists wishing to claim that liberals who oppose their censorious approach to language just don’t recognise how powerfully it can impact society would do well to recognise that we’d hardly be arguing so hard for freedom of speech if we didn’t know powerful a tool it can be.
Do not be sucked into a false dichotomy in which you can either accept the core tenets of Social Justice or reject them. Don’t be misled into thinking that you cannot criticise Social Justice approaches if you believe that culture has influence, humans have prejudices and language has power. Don’t let anyone tell you that the only way to work for a more just society is to support the Social Justice methods and conception of the world. Reject the claims that only Social Justice ideas can deconstruct grand narratives and recognise the problems of bias and the power of language. This is not remotely true. These concepts are very essence of liberalism, which predates both postmodernism and Social Justice. History bears witness to its success.