The Critical Social Justice (CSJ) movement relies on a specific conception of the world: it does not understand or interpret reality in the same way as the rest of us—especially liberals—do. Our goal is to help people understand this worldview movement and explain how the movement has gained so much traction, despite the fact that so many of its fundamental tenets are bizarre, blatantly false and cartoonish oversimplifications of reality.
The methodology of CSJ is not only incorrect but unfalsifiable, not only ethically dubious but plainly ideologically motivated—so its wide acceptance and social prestige are both bewildering and alarming. But its methodology and cultural prestige are based on two big underlying claims, both of which are false.
Understanding Critical Social Justice
The Critical Social Justice movement is rooted in postmodern beliefs about power, knowledge and language. It conceives of society as constructed of systems of power and privilege, which work insidiously through everyone. These systems, it holds, go largely unnoticed because they seem normal. The names given to these systems include patriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, ableism and fatphobia.
Within CSJ, it is believed that people are born into a society in which these systems dominate, and they learn them, along with everything else, as they begin to discover how the world works and how to function in it. This learning process is called socialization. People are socialized into the oppressive systems of power that permeate society and go on to perpetuate these systems through the ways they have learned to talk about things. These ways of speaking about things are known as discourses. Dominant discourses, CSJ claims, maintain the power of men, white people, heterosexuals, cis (non-trans), able-bodied and thin people over women, racial and sexual minorities, disabled and obese people.
In this conception of society, power imbalances are maintained by legitimizing approaches like science, evidence and reason, as means of knowledge production, while undervaluing things like spiritual beliefs, experiences and emotion. This creates oppression because these approaches are understood to serve powerful groups in society. It is believed that, despite their claims to universality, science, evidence and reason are merely white, male, Western cultural traditions, which have been unfairly elevated at the expense of other ways of knowing. That is, they are tools of white, male, Western politics—insidiously so, because no one recognizes them as such. Because we have been taught to hold these cultural constructs in high esteem, it is very difficult for people to see what is really happening. Critical Social Justice scholars and activists aim to detect these discourses of power, make them visible and dismantle them, so that we might be liberated from the oppression they generate.
Therefore, Critical Social Justice scholars and activists scrutinise the ways in which people—particularly those considered to be privileged—speak about things. Their goal is to find evidence of the ways in which habits of speech and patterns of meaning serve the interests of power, which is assumed to be present in all situations, institutions, relationships and interactions. Because Critical Social Justice scholars believe that these discourses are omnipresent, but often difficult to see, they adopt ideologically motivated interpretations of speech and actions that cannot be falsified by science, evidence or reason—because those three things are also part of the oppressive dominant discourse. Evidence of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. is therefore identified through theoretical interpretations of everything within sight, and they demand that everybody agree with these interpretations, accept that the power dynamics they describe are real and work to dismantle them.
This is a very neat theory and provides a much easier way to deal with genuine social problems than complicated, quantitative and multifaceted approaches, which provide evidence for their claims and present reasoned arguments. Nor can this theory be falsified. People who disagree with the CSJ theory have, SJ theorists explain, simply failed to break through their cultural conditioning and see what the theorists and activists see. Widespread disagreement with their ideas is evidence that this cultural conditioning is powerful and pervasive—which indicates the need for more CSJ theory.
So, how it is possible that this bizarre—if mostly user-friendly—theoretical approach has so rapidly come to dominate over more rigorous approaches, which allow us to understand the world and therefore change it for the better? To answer that, we need to turn to the two central falsehoods of Critical Social Justice.
First, Critical Social Justice scholars and activists believe that they comprise a new and radical grassroots movement pushing back against dominant white, male and Western discourses.
They do not.
CSJ is a well-established, mostly white and middle-class intellectual and political movement with considerable cultural power. It has been a growing intellectual force for over fifty years, and it would not be a stretch to call its influence on the humanities hegemonic. The originators of its key ideas about critique, power, knowledge and language were white Frenchmen, who were prolific in the 1960s and 70s and are now mostly dead. This probably goes some way to explaining why the activists who espouse CSJ theory generally talk as though they were living in the 1950s—before the Civil Rights Movement, feminism and Gay Pride, movements that rely on a universal liberal conception of society, won the support of a predominantly liberal society. The sexist, racist and homophobic social norms they claim are dominant discourses have not, in reality, been dominant for some decades now. Some people are still racist, sexist and homophobic, of course, but they are few in the West and do not enjoy wide social support.
The leaders of the Critical Social Justice industry—and it is an industry—are overwhelmingly based in elite Western universities, where they can demand conformity to their belief system. In universities, media, the arts and other largely liberal cultural institutions, Critical Social Justice is now the dominant discourse and it is deeply illiberal.
For example, people entering public institutions and many private companies are now often expected to write statements confirming their support for the CSJ conceptions of diversity, equity and inclusion. The CSJ industry equips universities and other institutions with bias response teams to detect people diverging from its mandated discourses, and its activist-administrators employ ever more diversity, equity and inclusion officers in an increasing number of fields. This ideology now has the power to make universities implode, large corporations fire people and recall items, authors retract their books and celebrities offer grovelling apologies for being insufficiently woke often over nothing more substantial than the discontent of a handful of perennially disgruntled Twitter users.
Critical Social Justice ideology often claims to be an edgy, radical grassroots movement, pushing back against oppressive dominant discourses. This claim is becoming increasingly unconvincing as Critical Social Justice captures ever more of the public sphere and intimidates increasing numbers of people into affirming its deeply illiberal and utterly unfalsifiable beliefs. Never edgy to begin with, its snark has become boring. There’s nothing radical about pointing to universal complicity in invisible systems of power, the oppressiveness of science and reason, the cultural construction of knowledge, the violence of certain kinds of language (and of silence), and the fragility of those who dare to disagree with its increasingly tired claims. Its ideas are old and worn out, and they are becoming increasingly divergent from any semblance of social or material reality. It’s time to retire these ideas in favour of some fresh, new, genuinely useful and serious proposals, which address the society we actually live in, in 2020, with tools that can help us understand and address issues of social justice.
Second, Critical Social Justice scholars and activists believe that they have a much more sophisticated understanding of social justice issues than the average person. The average person needs CSJ to teach them to engage their critical consciousness or wokeness because we are all mere receptacles of discourses of power, which we repeat uncritically, thus perpetuating oppression.
No, they do not. No, we do not.
The Critical Social Justice metanarrative (roughly the right side of history) is a ludicrously simplistic framework, centred on a cartoonish understanding of privileged and marginalized identity groups, whose relative statuses are believed to be maintained by the ways in which people talk about things. These group identities are understood to dictate individual members’ experiences, knowledge and relationships to power in predictable ways. However, both individuals and social reality are actually considerably more complicated than this, as most of us know from observing our fellow humans as we go about our normal lives.
The rest of us are not sleepwalking about in a comfortable haze of common sense nor do we need CSJ advocates to awaken us, either voluntarily or through mandated re-education programs. The scales will not fall from our eyes after learning that white people have all been socialized into white supremacy and are unavoidably racist, or that men have been socialized into more competitive and emotionally reserved behaviours, which have turned their masculinity toxic. Our masks have not slipped if we disagree—even indignantly—with these conceptions of us and the world we live in. The only masks we’re wearing are to slow the spread of Covid-19.
We are not convinced that psychological, cognitive and behavioural differences between the sexes are all social constructs that just happen to have been constructed in the same way in all cultures, including those of the other great apes. We are sceptical of the idea that gender and sexuality are cultural constructs, since we are a sexually reproducing species and have been for millions of years. We don’t believe that sex is a spectrum because there are only 18 possible configurations of biological sex, two of which are so overwhelmingly dominant as to make sex effectively binary. We think it unlikely that it is only ableism and fatphobia that have led us to believe it is preferable if all one’s body parts work and one stays within the optimum bodyweight range for a fully functioning biped. And no, we’re not all racists. Stop projecting that onto us.
A Point of Reply
These two falsehoods perpetuate the idea that the Critical Social Justice movement is fundamentally about goodness. But that doesn’t make them true. Critical Social Justice is neither a radical, new fight against social oppression nor a more sophisticated understanding of how society works. It is an unfalsifiable, ideological mess.
We understand that adherents to CSJ believe that they have seen the light and become aware of the theoretical systems of power that can be detected in everything if one adopts the right critical mindset. We accept that they think the world would be a significantly better place if everyone else adopted that mindset. We know that they believe that privileged people who disagree with them are trying to protect their privilege and marginalized people who disagree with them have internalized dominant narratives that go against their own interests. We know because they keep telling us so—and we have listened to them, considered their propositions carefully and concluded that they are mostly ridiculous. What’s more, we recognize this entire belief system may be utterly unfalsifiable, but because it’s so simple and neat it removes a lot of the moral and factual ambiguity that make it so difficult to negotiate the complicated mess that is modern social life for a species of ape whose brain evolved in a quite different ancestral environment.
We recognize that the right to believe in Critical Social Justice must be protected under the liberal principle of freedom of belief, but we must insist that the faithful devotees of CSJ cease trying to impose this belief on the rest of us. Theirs are not the only tools through which to analyse society and human interactions. We ask that they recognize that we see things differently from them. They see the world as full of oppressive dominant discourses, which they want to dismantle. But Critical Social Justice itself is a dominant discourse that could do with some dismantling. We believe that they have embraced an internally coherent but simplistic belief system that could benefit from the additional complexity that an empirical look at reality would provide. We recognize, respect and support their right to believe whatever they wish, but we have tolerated their bullying for long enough. It’s time they respected our principled disagreement.