I have always disagreed with people who liken the aims of Critical Social Justice (CSJ) activism to those of communist regimes. Last year, I still believed that, unlike communism, which has a clear end game of seizing the means of production for the proletariat, CSJ cannot become totalitarian because it is too contradictory, divided and irrational and too often operates like a circular firing squad since its proponents often lack a common goal.
Critical Social Justice has some intellectual underpinnings in “critical” neo-Marxism, but it is mostly grounded in postmodern notions of power, knowledge and language, which view society as constructed of oppressive systems of power and privilege that legitimize some forms of knowledge over others, which then creates ways of speaking about things—discourses—that perpetuate the oppressive power structures. Most people, it argues, are blithely unaware of those oppressive discourses and need theorists and activists to reveal them to us.
CSJ manifests in current scholarship as postcolonial and decolonial theory, Critical Race Theory, queer theory, intersectional feminist, disability and fat studies or simply as (Critical) Social Justice Scholarship. It appears in activism as a drive to decolonize everything, see whiteness and white fragility everywhere and scrutinise language for evidence of transphobia, ableism and fatphobia. It is colloquially referred to as wokeism to indicate an awareness of the oppressive power structures of white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism, cisnormativity, fatphobia etc. that the majority of us are sleepwalking through.
At the beginning of 2019, I predicted that CSJ would break into smaller and smaller squabbling factions and eventually self-destruct. I still thought it was dangerous and needed addressing urgently. Before it inevitably imploded, I feared that it could take out a lot of good people, damage a lot of vital institutions, inflict potentially fatal wounds to liberalism, empiricism and rationalism and undermine or even reverse progress on racial, gender and LGBT issues.
However, over the over the past six months, it has become clear that CSJ can become totalitarian. Beginning in 2019, factionalism within CSJ has been gradually replaced by hierarchies. First, white women ceased to be a priority: the white women’s tears and Karen memes demonstrated their fall from oppressed to oppressor. White gay men also fell foul of the system by frequently failing to be woke and lesbians were automatically suspected of being TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). Asians, Jews and Hispanics became “white adjacent” because large numbers of them failed to espouse Critical Race Theory. Over the last six months, the idea of combating anti-blackness and transphobia has taken centre stage and, with it, totalitarian aims to revolutionise society by abolishing the police, compelling white people to confess their inherent complicity in white supremacy and punishing and silencing anyone who disbelieves in the queer and gender theories behind trans activism.
It should be clear by now that there is a genuine and serious problem here that affects the real world, not just the ivory tower and a few mad activists. There is ample evidence of Critical Race Theory and trans activism being imposed on the workplaces, universities and schools of average people. Anyone still claiming that the Social Justice left is just a few fringe loons must be wilfully blind.
However, when it comes to politics, morality, values and culture, we humans seem to long for simplicity. We want problems we can grasp, straightforward solutions, a cause to support and an enemy to fight. Never has this been clearer than since the US election.
Unfortunately, the problems we face right now—including the culture wars with their various feuding factions and sub-factions on left and right—are extremely complicated and navigating them in a responsible, nuanced way is hard work.
Right now, many things seem very precarious and people therefore feel extremely vulnerable. We have to balance the need to protect people from the coronavirus with safeguarding the economy to stop people from losing their businesses, jobs and homes. Global power shifts are causing significant uncertainty about economic stability in the west. The need for action on climate change has become urgent. All these issues have been intensely politicized because we are also going through momentous cultural shifts. There is a sense of existential dread: democracy and even the future of the west seem to be at stake.
At such times, people generally don’t want to think about things in a responsible, nuanced way while remaining open to a variety of different perspectives. That feels like a luxury that can only be indulged in times of security. In times of crisis, people want to be presented with a simple problem broken down into some clear evil that they can fight.
Humans can also be quite single-minded and tend to focus on one problem to the exclusion of all others. This is not an entirely negative thing. We need people to specialize and to bring their specialized knowledge to bear on situations. However, interpreting society through a single facet of it can cause people to become blinkered, trapped inside ideological bubbles and to catastrophize.
I myself have focused intensely and almost solely on Critical Social Justice over the past few years. This has caused some to accuse me of misdirecting my critiques at a fringe element of the left and neglecting the greater problem of the populist, post-truth right. However, when I recently urged Americans to vote for Biden, despite the likelihood that his victory would embolden the Critical Social Justice activists, many felt that—despite having critiqued CSJ for years—I underestimated the threat. This is not true.
Critical Social Justice is not the only or even the biggest problem in the world. Its body count is very low in comparison to Covid-19 and in comparison to the death toll likely to result if we do not address climate change and antibiotic resistance. Nor is the authoritarian ideological lunacy of the Social Justice left a greater risk than that of the truth-denying, conspiracy-mongering Trumpist right. Ethical conservatives should be addressing that problem as a matter of urgency.
Nevertheless, Critical Social Justice is a legitimate danger to liberal secular democracies.
We are in the midst of an attempted cultural revolution. This must be acknowledged, understood, faced head on and defeated.
People who anticipate that CSJ could evolve into something akin to a Maoist revolution complete with struggle sessions are not conjuring this possibility out of nowhere. Many people within the movement strongly advocate such a scenario and they enjoy a public respectability that right-wing authoritarian extremists do not. Neither are people wrong to think that Trump would oppose CSJ over-reach more forcefully than Biden will. Biden may not oppose it at all. This doesn’t make Trump a likely saviour of liberal, secular democracy, however.
I still think it unlikely that this attempted revolution can succeed in the long term, even in America where its advocates are strongest. Liberalism is too deeply rooted in American culture and in the Anglosphere, and CSJ is too incompatible with fundamental human intuitions of fairness and reciprocity to gain widespread public support. But therein lies another danger. If expectations of fairness and reciprocity are felt to be being transgressed, the darker side of humanity—our tribal and territorial instincts and our wish to avenge injustice and prejudice—emerges. This is particularly dangerous as the targets of CSJ movements add up to a majority. White, working class men and, increasingly, women; LGBT people who reject queer theory; Asians, Jews and Hispanics; and a growing number of black people who don’t buy into Critical Race or postcolonial theory are being incentivised to fight back. Some on the populist right do so with the same tools as the woke: identity politics, collective blame, competitive victimhood and dehumanising tribalism. This is unlikely to end well.
All the following things are true:
CSJ is neither the only nor the biggest problem in the world.
CSJ is a genuine problem that has been underestimated and it has respectability and power.
The populist, post-truth, conspiracy-mongering right is also a significant problem.
The woke left and the populist right feed each other’s narratives of injustice, victimhood and existential danger and thus increasingly lead people to condone violence as a solution.
CSJ is genuinely attempting a cultural revolution against the majority of the population.
The general population is unlikely to stand for this.
The populist right certainly won’t.
This all adds up to a recipe for disaster unless the liberal left acts fast to publicly discredit Critical Social Justice and assert an alternative worthy of respect. At the same time, an ethical conservative right needs to reject populist conspiracy theories and post-truth narratives in favour of a rational and consistent conservatism that has integrity.
The question now is not which side is worse but: How can we, making common cause with people from both left and right, defend the values of liberal secular democracies, including freedom of belief and speech and respect for science and reason, and push back the ideological lunacy before it spirals out of control and takes all of us with it?