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.