No current intellectual or social movement in the west enjoys the momentum of Critical Social Justice (CSJ). One reason for this is that people don’t understand CSJ well, and if we are to challenge it, we clearly first need to know what it is.
This is not easy. The movement incorporates a dizzying array of seemingly unrelated sub-movements. Most serious descriptions of the movement are sympathetic to it and written from a Critical Social Justice perspective. In addition, up until recently, many of these descriptions have been dense, esoteric and impenetrable.
This is changing. Proponents of CSJ, such as Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi, are becoming more explicit and easily understandable, while CSJ sceptics like Stephen Hicks, Jordan Peterson, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have been successfully explaining it to the uninitiated. Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book Cynical Theories provides a particularly effective guide to CSJ. At the core of its analysis is the definition of two foundational postmodern (CSJ) principles: the knowledge and political principles.
The knowledge principle states that all knowledge is culturally constructed, defined through language by the culture in which one lives and that different cultures construct knowledge differently. The political principle is that knowledge is constructed by oppressor groups in a way that perpetuates their oppressive and advantageous position, to the detriment of oppressed groups. This implies that all knowledge must be biased. Given that different cultures have different socially constructed forms of knowledge, no specific form of knowledge can be more authoritative than any other. In this view, knowledge systems are simply stories about reality. Science, for example, has no more authority than religion or superstition.
In addition to Pluckrose and Lindsay’s two principles, however, there is a third postmodern principle, which I will call the subject principle. The subject principle is that people behave in a way that perpetuates existing structures of power. Crucially, this behaviour depends on the status in the oppressed/oppressor hierarchy of the identity groups to which they belong. I call it the subject principle because people are seen to be subject to their cultural settings. This is why the postmodernists often use the term subject instead of individual.
One example of the way in which the postmodern principles can be seen to operate is criticism of SATs as racist. The SAT (scholastic aptitude test) is a standardized test first developed in the 1920s, used to assess university applicants in the US. It has been criticized as racist, partly because of an achievement gap between the test scores of black and non-black respondents. The term racist here, however, does not mean racist as it is normally understood, i.e. racial prejudice or discrimination. Racist in this context has its own CSJ meaning.
Since, according to CSJ, knowledge is wholly socially constructed, knowledge can’t be relied on to represent reality. This includes methods of establishing aptitude, such as the SATs. Moreover, according to the political principle, since the SATs were primarily developed by white European males, they are designed to perpetuate white European male advantage. For the most part, this process is unconscious. According to the subject principle, everyone—both oppressors and oppressed—simply behaves in such a way as to perpetuate existing patterns of oppression. This is why racism is considered systemic: everyone participates; they can’t avoid it.
The SATs are seen as a tool unwittingly constructed to evaluate aptitude in such a way as to perpetuate oppression. It is for this reason that whites supposedly perform better on them on average than some other oppressed groups.
It could be argued that the political principle already implies the subject principle, since it states that knowledge is constructed through cultural systems and structures that encompass identity and behaviour. However, I believe that highlighting the subject principle helps clarify this relationship and facilitates comprehension of the CSJ perspective.
I sometimes almost think that the dogmatically BINARY, DUALISTIC character of the oppressor/oppressed worldview of the Critical Social Justice ideology might well actually be perhaps the biggest single problem with the whole “woke”/CSJ mentality. The CSJ mind-set is just so starkly, remorselessly, uncompromisingly dualistic, black-or-white, yes-or-no, us-or-them, self-or-other, with no room for nuances, for in-between shades of gray, or for “yes, but…,” “on the one hand, but then also on the other” qualifications of absolute positions. It often strikes me as a good example of what General Semanticist Alfred Korzybski called the “two-valued thinking” of “Aristotelian logic” in his 1931 “Science and Sanity,” and of the “thinking in pairs,” forcibly foregrounding extremes as equally un-nourishing if superficially opposite as “soot” and “chalk,” that Jacques Barzun criticized in “Classic, Romantic, Modern.” As linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argued long ago in his “Language, Thought, and Reality,” this kind of two-valued black/white either/or… Read more »
Dear Dr. Pincourt, Sorry to be a couple of days late answering your March 25 reply to my comment discussing Norman Podhoretz’s “Southerly” observations, Thomas Flanagan’s Monism/Dualism/Pluralism typology, and Isaiah Berlin’s “Hedgehogs”/”Foxes” distinction. I’m glad you found my remarks interesting and well-thought, and felt that I addressed an important concern. I’ve always thought pluralism gave a more accurate, nuanced picture of reality in most fields and domains than dualism or monism–and likewise always felt that Isaiah Berlin’s “foxes” who “know many things” similarly have a better view of reality than his “hedhehogs” who just know one or two ‘big things.” For that reason, too, I’ve always liked Jacques Barzun’s warning in “Classic, Romantic, Modern” against “thinking in pairs,” his name for the habit of reducing intellectual and culture to seesaw oscillations between extreme binary opposites like “Classicism” and “Romanticism,” “Idealism” and “Materialism,” “Left” and “Right,” “Liberalism” and “Conservatism,” “Science” and… Read more »
As I’ve often noted here and elsewhere, one of my own top-UNfavorite academic jargon terms has long been “interrogate” used where most of us would speak or write of “examining,” “analyzing,” or “criticizing” an idea, concept, belief, or argument–a usage that always reminds me of a brutal police grilling. In the last couple of years, I’ve particularly gotten a huge kick out of the reactions, very similar to my own, of “Retired in Chicago” blogger and former Northwestern University publications editor Marianne Goss and of the late George Washington University historian Leo Ribuffo. In her many years as an academic publications editor, Ms. Goss had seen “plenty of academic jargon” that made her “wince,” but the use of “interrogate” with an inanimate object, as by professors whose “courses interrogate concepts,” especially stood out for her, as she had up to then always thought of “interrogate” as “what police do to… Read more »
Well as a follow comment to my just posted comment, I received a message that “Your comment is awaiting moderation.” Now there’s something very disturbing that in a country that supposedly values free speech, but then again the CSJ movement holds little regard for such liberal values.
A thoughtful article, but ultimately the CSJ movement is a muddled invention of anti-humanism cloaked in impenetrable discursive “thinking” (not sure thought is an appropriate word to even use). I often find the TV series TWD an appropriate fun word game for CSJ as “The Woking Dead”.
As I’ve been noting, the “woke” mentality and “Critical Social Justice Ideology are good examples of what Isaiah Berlin called a “Hedgehog” worldview that sees just “one big thing” (as against a “Fox” vision that sees many things)–and also of what Canadian political scientist Thomas Flanagan called a “Dualist” (as opposed to a “Pluralist”) vision of politics in his 1995 paper on “The Politics of the Millennium.” They can likewise just as well, I’d add, be seen as illustrating what the neopundit Norman Podhoretz in 1979 called an increasingly “Southerly” direction of American racial and ethnic (and by extension also sexual) politics. Podhoretz lamented what Flanagan would describe as the growingly Dualist turn in American racial and ethnic attitudes, away from an earlier Pluralism (in Flanagan’s terminology) he found greatly preferable. Podhoretz criticized a Dualistic, literally black-and-white “Southerly” perspective on American ethnic and racial relations in a September 30, 1979… Read more »
As I observed the other day, the “woke” mind-set and “Critical Social Justice” ideology are a classic example of what the late Sir Isaiah Berlin would have called a “Hedgehog” type outlook in his celebrated 1952 dichotomy of thinkers and writers into “Hedgehogs” and “Foxes,” inspired by the the ancient Greek poet Archilochus’ epigram that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin used “hedgehogs” to describe intellectuals and artists who “relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate,” to “a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance.” His “foxes,” on the other hand, were the writers and thinkers who “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory,” only very loosely “connected, if at all,” to any one central cause, force, ideal, or principle. They preferred to “lead… Read more »
As I wrote the other day, reading Prof. Pincourt’s blogposts from the links he provided, I found them interesting and thought-provoking, finding myself in basic agreement and sympathy though with also with a few questions or possible caveats–not so much disagreeing with his views as feeling a need to point out that some of his observations might be better regarded as rough approximate generalizations rather than as infallible absolute universal laws–he himself wrote me that his posts were “largely about giving people guidelines which are not intended to be immutable or 100% accurate all the time.” After I’d written that as very much a liberal-arts. “humanities and social sciences” rather than a STEM type myself I felt a little concerned about his observations about the spread of “wokeness” and “Critical Social Justice” among humanities & liberal arts academics along with the comparative immunity so far of STEM types, he assured… Read more »
Mr. (Dr.?) Park – thanks for your comments; and for reading, understanding and commenting on my other posts! I actually have a category for the people to whom you refer who are CSJ critics but in the humanities and social sciences, and who are not classical liberals. I refer to them as “Scholars who seem woke, but don’t use woke words.” Also, I don’t mean to be categorical about scholars in the social sciences and humanities. I’ve just observed that those who are critical of CSJ, are not classical liberals and in the social sciences or humanities are few and far between. I certainly have not meant to exclude them. I think they can help! My posts are largely about giving people guidelines which are not intended to be immutable or 100% accurate all the time. Also, I appreciate your humor about dating. I actually laughed out loud.
One good way, I think, we could “interrogate” :=) :=) the Critical Social Justice ideology and “woke” mentality is through the “lens” or “prism” of the late Sir Isaiah Belin’s metaphor of “Hedgehogs” versus “Foxes,” inspired by the Greek philosopher Archilochus’ “The hedgehog sees one big thing but the fox sees many little things.” Adapting Archilochus’ observation, Berlin used “Hedgehogs” to describe writers or thinkers who see all of life and reality, especially politics, morality, and social relationships, through the lens or prism of one or two Very, Very Big Ideas, and “Foxes” to denote those writers and thinkers who rather interpret life and reality, particularly ethics, politics, and social relations, through the lens of many interacting modest, finite, limited concepts, factors, causes, and circumstances. The “woke” and CSJ ideologues are very obviously Hedgehogs by Isaiah Berlin’s definition, while Charles Pincourt, Helen Pluckrose, and James Lindsay, among others, fall much… Read more »
I’m glad Charles Pincourt, Andrew Miller, and “Anonymous” enjoyed and appreciated by comments the other day about irritating ubiquitous woke/CSJ/postmodernist buzzwords (“woke crossover words” as Prof. Pincourt calls them) like “subjects,” “bodies,” “valorize,” “interrogate,” “gaze,” etc., and particularly glad that Prof. Pincourt found that I’d provided him with a few more such crossover words to add to his own list. In my own case, while I’d been hearing nd seeing various people over the years mention “discourse” as a characteristic trendy postmodernist/deconstructionist buzzword, I think “valorize” and “interrogate” were the first ones to strike me myself with their pretentious jargonaceous ugliness. I constantly found myself thinking, why can’t they just say that somebody likes, enjoys, values, respects, or approves of something instead of “valorizing” it, and why don’t they ever examine, analyze, criticize, or question an idea, concept, argument, or belief instead of “interrogating” it, which, just like that retired… Read more »
I too have noted the use of ‘bodies’ as a way of implying victims with no agency whatsoever.
Whilst I don’t have much confidence of turning things round in the short term, getting the non academic fellow travelers to genuinely understand what all the weaponised jargon really implies is key to winning any battle of ideas.
I don’t actually believe most people who happily parrot woke jargon really subscribe to a world view so anti humanist or believe anyone no matter how oppressed is devoid of individual agency as CSJ implies.
Glad to see someone finally pinpointed the wokesters’ and postmodernists’ addiction to the word “subject” in CSJ and postmodernist lingo, as the preferred pomo word for “individual.” I myself have been noticing it for a long time, and found its continual use rather irritating, just as I also find their addiction to words like “interrogate” (instead of “examine” or “analyze”), “valorize” (instead of “like,” “value,” “prize,” or “approve of”), “gaze” (for “attitude” or “perspective”), “subaltern,” etc., similarly annoying. Incidentally, though Prof. Pincourt didn’t mention it, another typical CSJ and postmodernist word for “individual” or “person” that I likewise find highly irritating is “bodies”–though I notice subtle distinction in usage: they use “bodies” for people seen as victims of discrimination or oppression, but “subjects” when they allow for a certain degree of agency–“subjects” entertain opinions, attitudes, beliefs, “gazes,” or “discourses,” while “bodies” are just passive victims. Incidentally, I got a huge… Read more »