If democracy is about individual rights (justice for individuals), then social justice is about group rights (justice for groups). –Lynn Lemisko (in Educator to Educator, p. 193)
Over the last few years, it has become apparent that, for whatever nobility and moral worth lies in the project called “social justice,” something has gone badly wrong with the ideological movement on the far left that repeatedly calls for—or, more accurately, demands—it. For anyone who has tried to stand up to this movement, however, it rapidly becomes extremely clear just how difficult it can be to take it on. Even questioning whether this particular movement using this particular approach is the best way to achieve social justice has become verboten to an observably extreme degree. After all, it has named itself after something that is (and largely should be) seen as an almost unqualified good for society.
The strength of the social justice brand is, in fact, entirely reasonable. It fights for social justice, which not only sounds good but is something most of us generally support. It is, in fact not just the project at the heart of progressive politics but also one integral to liberalism as a political philosophy, which has always sought to protect even the least of us from tyranny. This makes social justice a well-justified concern of every fair-minded person—left, right, or center—on this side of the Civil Rights Movement, Gay Pride, liberal feminism, and collapse of European colonialism, people who realize that the content of one’s character and due application of one’s talents should be the primary deciding factors where one’s social standing is concerned. The overwhelming majority view and broad liberal consensus is that we should have societies that are as fair and kind as it is possible to be, even if we don’t all agree on what fairness and kindness look like or what the limits of possibility are.
Still, the ideological movement that’s visibly more likely to carry pitchforks than water for the cause of social justice has become a menace and threatens to become a tyrant, and this is a shame. We risk losing a lot of progress at the hands of this abominable fumble. Something claiming to speak for social justice is rotten, and I am declaring that something the enemy of free, civil, and liberal societies. This may be seen as controversial, but the dispute is borne in ignorance. It, itself, openly and admittedly begins and ends with a ruthless criticism of liberalism and free societies, which it deems as inherently and systemically oppressive.
Attempts to name this ideological enemy—for enemy it is—are therefore necessary so that we might frame our arguments against it with the requisite precision and clarity needed to challenge it, but they are also fraught. One might be tempted to call it the Social Justice Movement or Social Justice ideology or just Social Justice made into a proper noun, as many have, including myself and my colleagues. This clearly has its problems. It feeds into exactly the nearly perfect branding that the movement wants, it risks the genuinely positive valence of that which genuinely deserves the name “social justice,” and it places people who understand, thus resist, this parasitic ideology on a back foot of having to explain why on Earth they’d be against social justice in the first place.
It’s quite the pickle. Call it something it doesn’t recognize in itself and miss the mark, as we’ll see, or call it what it claims to be and make it virtually invincible. Clever phrasing to manage this problem, as my colleagues and I have become fond of, like “I’m against Social Justice because I’m for social justice,” only work in print (and kind of fail at the beginnings of sentences), and they still require a great deal of explanation. Though the cliche doesn’t always hold, in this case it does: when you’re explaining, you’re losing.
Other attempts to name the enemy are similarly frustrating. Some, with more historical roots, might be tempted to wrap it up in the mostly defunct New Left that proceeded from the Neo-Marxist Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, especially following Herbert Marcuse’s post-war critique and radical outline for social activism. While a repressive approach to tolerance is certainly very much still in vogue in the movement of today, the New Left is more or less defunct as an identifiable entity now, perhaps except under the unwanted and mostly marginal agitations of the hooligan group styling itself as Antifa, for “anti-fascist.” Moreover, we really ought to admit that no one really knows what any word that starts with the prefix “neo” means and give up on accusations of Neo-Marxism entirely.
From similar quarters, then, we might hear the movement called “Cultural Marxism,” probably more than half rightly, but for all the truth this carries, it’s a difficult—and icky—position to defend. For one thing, “Cultural Marxism” means at least three things, one of which is legitimately an antisemitic conspiracy theory (and thus not what is meant by the appellation). This makes it difficult for such a branding to keep. It really can take some doing to convince everyday people that the Marxian ideas of critique and conflict theory (that they aren’t familiar with anyway) are being retooled in terms of “cultural” factors that are theoretically tied to facts of identity instead of economic class. By the time you do, someone will show up and accuse you of claiming we live in a culture that supports Marxist thought or of peddling an antisemitic conspiracy theory, and you’re hardly any better than when you started.
Complicating the problem of naming the enemy in the “woke” ideology of Social Justice further is that what’s going on with this movement today is undeniably postmodernist (and poststructuralist)—despite protestations from overly narrow philosophers who contend that postmodernism proper died out thirty years ago. This makes it even more difficult to get anything Marxist, Marxian, or even Marxish to stick to the effort to create social justice, no matter how accurately the terms at hand might apply.
The unavoidable issue is that the postmodernists were, themselves, not Marxists or even Neo-Marxists like in the Frankfurt School, and everyone who knows anything about postmodernism knows this well. They were Post-Marxists who had realized, almost as if betrayed, that even the Marxist metanarrative had failed us all. (You can almost hear them saying, somewhere between the lines, et tu, communism?)
This means that the postmodernists, socialistic or even communist in orientation as they might have been (and they were), were far too pessimistic, cynical, and nihilistic to be real Marxists, structuralists, or anything–stable-ist of any kind. That would have required precisely the kind of commitment they studiously avoided by writing thousands of pages to declare it naive, foolish, idealistic, out-of-touch, and in immediate need of deconstruction. So much for Jordan Peterson’s highly accurate “Postmodern Neo-Marxism,” then, which, besides, is far too specialized for successful widespread application. Of course, for all its accuracy, that highly technical sobriquet misses the fact that all of the ideology’s proponents talk endlessly about a relatively small number of things, key among them being social justice.
We’ve had a hell of a time with this problem, I can tell you—with “we” meaning mostly Peter Boghossian, Helen Pluckrose, Mike Nayna, and myself—since we realized the immensity of communicating our reasoning for having taken up the work of the Grievance Studies Affair, sometimes referred to as “Sokal Squared.” “Grievance Studies” was a neologism (or so we thought—it had been used before with very nearly the same meaning by the ever-insightful Stefan Collini some time earlier, though we didn’t know it) we concocted to try to remedy this problem, which Mike alluded to the You-Know-Who/Voldemort motif from the Harry Potter series: “no one will just name the thing!” Indeed, much of the existing literature around this problem studiously avoided naming it, lending strength to the postmodernism at its heart, which made it very frustrating and difficult from a communications point of view.
You-Know-What Studies wasn’t going to cut it, and our initial waffling “fields like gender studies” wouldn’t either. The question we had to answer was what’s the essence that makes a field be like gender studies. We ground on this problem for a while, and the closest thing we came across before settling on “Grievance Studies” was the impossibly unwieldy and bewildering “critical constructivist epistemology,” courtesy of the enormously influential late critical pedagogy professor and activist Joe Kincheloe (who we can also thank for the “decolonize everything” push happening right now). Trouble was, we barely even understood that term at the time.
Still, it’s nearly always best to name your enemy something that they would or do call themselves, when you can, because then they can’t deny that the name fits. You can make them wear it, and that’s a lot easier if they’re happily putting it on every morning anyway. Capital-S-Capital-J Social Justice was a decent stopgap for this purpose for this reason, but it generates a lot of unnecessary confusion and problems. Argumentative albatrosses tend to build up around it everywhere, and not just philosophical ones.
Fortunately, two critical educators, Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo, the latter of which is quite well-known and can thus be treated as representatively authoritative, provided me with a solution to this naming problem in their 2012 education manual Is Everyone Really Equal? They, themselves, call what they’re presenting critical social justice. This fits. I’ve just added capitals to make sure we understand the proper noun for what it is—the enemy, which we can now name: Critical Social Justice. This is how they introduced this concept to the world:
To clarify our definition, let’s start with the concept “social justice.” While some scholars and activists prefer to use the term social justice in order to reclaim its true commitments, in this book we use the term critical social justice. We do so in order to distinguish our standpoint on social justice from mainstream standpoints. A critical approach to social justice refers to specific theoretical perspectives that recognize that society is stratified (i.e., divided and unequal) in significant and far-reaching ways along social group lines that include race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Critical social justice recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e., as structural), and actively seeks to change this.
The definition we apply is rooted in a critical theoretical approach. While this approach refers to a broad range of fields, there are some important shared principles:
- All people are individuals, but they are also members of social groups.
- These social groups are valued unequally in society.
- Social groups that are valued more highly have greater access to the resources of a society.
- Social injustice is real, exists today, and results in unequal access to resources between groups of people.
- Those who claim to be for social justice must be engaged in self-reflection about their own socialization into these groups (their “positionality”) and must strategically act from that awareness in ways that challenge social injustice.
- This action requires a commitment to an ongoing and lifelong process. (p. xviii)
Even though it’s not 250 words long, there’s so much in that introductory passage about Critical Social Justice that we could spend pages and pages discussing it, but let me draw your attention to a few key points that characterize Critical Social Justice and identify it—not social justice—as the right target, thus the right name for this enemy of free societies.
First, note that the authors take pains to explain not only that Critical Social Justice isn’t what most people mean by “social justice,” it’s also something so distinct from social justice that “some scholars and activists prefer to use the term social justice in order to reclaim its true commitments.” That is, Critical Social Justice does not have the same “true commitments” to social justice as most people. They tell us explicitly that people with ”mainstream standpoints” about social justice mean something entirely different than what they will describe. This leads us to a staggering conclusion: Critical Social Justice doesn’t represent social justice. It represents a particular approach to that idea that must be distinguished from social justice lest people confuse the two.
Second, observe that the authors indicate explicitly that what sets Critical Social Justice apart is that it relies upon a critical theoretical approach. This is, in fact, the belly of the beast. It also makes clear why there’s so much weight to the wide-ranging attempts to brand this enemy with terms like Neo-Marxism, New Left (liberationism), and Cultural Marxism. Put simply, they’re not wrong. Critical Social Justice is critical theory. Moreover, this status is precisely what sets it apart from “mainstream standpoints” on social justice—the ones that represent its “true commitments.”
Third, pause to appreciate the fourth bullet point given above telling us what Critical Social Justice stands for: “Social injustice is real, exists today, and results in unequal access to resources between groups of people.” Volumes could be written on this point alone—and perhaps they should be. “Social injustice is real.” That is, Critical Social Justice begins with a reification of social injustice. This seems like a small point, perhaps even an obvious one, but it’s a very big one that takes a little explaining.
Of course, before proceeding, it is quite clear to virtually everyone that social injustices do occur and have occurred in far greater levels in the past; I will not and would not deny that. It’s also quite clear to the majority of us that these social injustices legitimately represent a problem that deserves our attention; this I fully agree with. This, however, is where the postmodern context of Critical Social Justice has to be brought into scrutiny. (The above discussion of this point on my part aside, Sensoy and DiAngelo mention these roots, along with those in the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, a few pages after the above passage.)
Because Critical Social Justice is postmodernist in orientation as well, for it nothing is objectively real. Everything, and very much not least knowledge, is under postmodernist thought merely a contrivance of social constructions, which are in turn reflections of social power and its concentrations (“positionality” “must be engaged”). Race is a social construct; okay, fine, probably so. Gender is a social construct; erm, maybe, but we’ll let you (mostly) have it. Biological sex is a social construct; wait, what? Various theorists take their social constructivism more or less neat as compared with others, but the general attitude of antirealism at the heart of postmodern thought and the Critical Social Justice movement is hardly a matter of legitimate controversy. The postmodern view is that, short of our own unnarrated subjective experience, everything in human life is a socially contingent construct. Reality may be out there, but we can’t know it.
Under Critical Social Justice, however, social injustice is real, like really real. (It is, after all, a matter of unnarrated subjective experience.) That is, Critical Social Justice roots itself in a worldview that denies that anything is real (as opposed to being socially constructed), that objective truth isn’t possible (in the general sense, not the philosophically technical one), but that the subjective experience of injustice or oppression isn’t just valid or important but objectively real in how our societies are structured. Note well: “Critical social justice recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e., as structural), and actively seeks to change this.” This, by the way, reminds us that the postmodern (i.e., poststructuralist) roots of Critical Social Justice are utterly central to its worldview.
Though it goes too far afield for this essay, the subject of how postmodernism mutated, not died, to admit the Critical Theory of the Neo-Marxists in limited, class-disinterested fashion is developed at length in my forthcoming book with Helen Pluckrose, Cynical Theories. Interested readers are strongly encouraged to have a look.
Fourth, notice the focus upon social activism. The passage just quoted indicates that Critical Social Justice “actively seeks to change” the “fabric of society,” which it deems as being “structurally” unjust. That means that signing up for Critical Social Justice carries with it signing on to a badly designed bid for social revolution that seeks to dismantle the current fabric of society. Dismantle it, though, and replace it with… what? Replace it with Critical Social Justice, of course, which is to say critical theory that operates in service to Cultural Marxism (the conflict theory, not the conspiracy theory) using postmodern social theory as its primary apparatus. The kids, quite rightly, call this “clown world,” but it isn’t funny. Humor isn’t really allowed. In the Critical Social Justice revolution, we’ll have to prefer “post-comedy” or “post-humor,” which is meant to teach lessons, not evoke laughter.
Unsurprisingly, then, this commitment is to be serious, as indicated in the next-to-last bullet point in their list: “Those who claim to be for social justice must be engaged in self-reflection about their own socialization into these groups (their ‘positionality’) and must strategically act from that awareness in ways that challenge social injustice.” Must. Must. Twice this sentence explains that it isn’t sufficient to be for social justice, to care about fairness, or to work for equality. You have to sign up for the revolution, and the revolution starts with you.
It’s right there in black and white: to claim to be for Critical Social Justice, one must interrogate themselves and society, and one must “act strategically” from that awareness—a critical consciousness—“in ways that challenge social injustice.” This is consistent with the demand, reaching all the way back to Max Horkheimer’s description in 1937 that a Critical Theory must be applicable by social activism, and it is a core demand of Critical Social Justice today. It also extends that demand to a program Spanish Catholics in the fifteenth century would have been proud of.
Hence, fifth, and last (so as not to belabor the point), the last bullet point on their list admonishes that to sign up for Critical Social Justice requires a commitment; a lifelong commitment to an ongoing process that results from a personal awakening to a critical consciousness. That is, it’s a faith. It’s a faith that requires not only penitence but evangelism, since it can’t yet apply torquemada (except metaphorically and applied in a social fashion).
Critical Social Justice is a kind of religious worldview that seeks to enforce Critical Social Justice and produce more activists for Critical Social Justice. These will be critical theorists and activists who claim to be about social justice when they are, in fact, about critical theories. Rather than a God to worship and serve, the upside-down postmodern faith of Critical Social Justice offers an Enemy—systemic injustice—to destroy, and whatever remains or gets erected in place of what it deconstructs will then be subject to the same fate.
This probably isn’t what you think you’re defending when you, as a good and decent person who cares about people and the problems of society, defend social justice. Most of the people who support it have no idea because they, like most normal people, have never read the primary literature. The fact is, Critical Social Justice is not about social justice at all; it has stolen social justice from the people who care about it and need it most.
I therefore propose that the enemy we face is not social justice, though it will tend to wear this name as a suit of armor. We should clearly and consistently name this thing Critical Social Justice, and it will be up to us to learn to tell the difference. Again, enemy it is—of all free societies and the overwhelming majority of those who would live within them. I therefore further propose that we should use this name, learn to differentiate the two, and hold the Critical Social Justice ideology to its commitments: an anti-liberal fusion of postmodern theory and Neo-Marxist Critical Theory. Then we can be clear that Critical Social Justice has co-opted the very idea of social justice from those who wish to promote its true commitments, as they, themselves, openly recognize, and we can do something about it.