Social Justice Usage
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, second edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2017, p. 240.[Objectivity is] the perception that some things are factual and not informed by social or cultural interpretations; a universal truth outside of any particular framework. A person or position that is seen as objective is seen as having the ability to transcend social or cultural frameworks and engage without bias or self-interest.
New Discourses Commentary
Speaking generally, a bias is some kind of prejudice toward a thing, usually one that’s considered unfair. In this sense, the Theory of Critical Social Justice—including the theories from which it derives, including Critical Theory and postmodernism—doesn’t misuse the term “bias.” It is more accurate to say that Theory is obsessed with bias and thus dramatically overestimates its relevance and impact in many of the situations it examines. This circumstance makes understanding “bias” from the Critical Social Justice perspective a bit tricky because it isn’t misunderstanding the term itself or giving it specialized meaning so much as it has a very peculiar understanding of what factors cause biases or make them relevant. This view of bias ultimately stems from related views about knowledge, truth, reality, power, and how these are ascertained and communicated.
The Critical Social Justice obsession with and understanding of bias very likely stems primarily from its roots in critical theories, specifically and primarily the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School (see also, neo-Marxism, New Left, and cultural Marxism). In a very real sense, this approach to critique, which owes a great deal to Marx (see also, Marxism and Marxian), is a perversion of the older liberal Enlightenment ideal that knowledge, in some sense, is best understood as those propositions that survive rigorous criticism. Critical theories in general, including Critical Theory in the Frankfurt School, were nominally developed to attempt specifically to help people better understand the influence that unexamined (or hidden) assumptions and biases have on our ability to fully understand phenomena in the physical and, especially, sociopolitical worlds. Critical theories should, in fact, expose biases, one would hope ideally to their correction.
The critical method is obsessed with biases in a particular way, however, because it is not a liberal form of critique that looks for errors in reasoning, underlying assumptions, potential sources of bias, and so on (see also, science). It was, being largely devised by neo-Marxists, mostly interested in uncovering a specific kind of bias: false consciousness. Neo-Marxism roughly posits that the ruling elites in society set dominant ideologies that control how people think and behave, and the dominance of these ideologies is known as hegemony. The purpose of a critical theory is not genuinely to expose hidden assumptions and biases, which is an important part of knowledge production, so much as it is to make people aware of hegemony and to unmask the hidden political projects and problematics in the ideologies that it enforces. That is, the obsession with biases in Critical Social Justice owes a lot to deeply Marxian philosophies about how those with power in society control those without it, including to keep them marginalized and oppressed.
The Theory of Critical Social Justice is likewise deeply informed by postmodern Theory, which influences its understanding of bias even further. According to postmodernism, knowledge is wholly a cultural construction (see also, social constructivism), and so every culture encodes its own knowledges and ways of knowing in its claims about what is and isn’t true. This encoding takes place at the level of discourses, which are ways that it is considered legitimate to talk about things, and those with dominance, power, and privilege in society have the capacity to set the discourses according to their own cultural values (see also, episteme, power-knowledge, Foucauldian, metanarrative, and biopower, and also objectivity, value-free, positivism, and science). That they do so at all is considered a form of bias, and, following critical aspects of postmodern Theory, that they tend to do so in a way that benefits themselves is a more profound source of bias, all of which needs to be realized, exposed, re-examined, and so on, often for purposes of deconstruction and subversion.
These approaches (combined as postmodern Theory) were taken up by liberation-type critical activists in the 1980s and 1990s (see also, applied postmodernism), and the result is that cultures that are seen as possessing dominance—especially white, Western, and male “culture,” meaning cultural values that are white supremacist, Eurocentric, Western-centric, masculinist, and patriarchal—are intrinsically biased in a way that marginalizes and excludes the perspectives and “lived experiences” of oppressed groups (see also, epistemic oppression and anti-blackness). In particular, knowledge produced within white, Western, patriarchal contexts is claimed to intrinsically possess biases that white, Western men (and those “adjacent” to them) do not recognize and thus do not account for (see also, internalized dominance and internalized oppression). (NB: It isn’t necessarily the people themselves but the system from which they operate that generates this bias.) These people are believed within Theory to have adopted an ideology that incorrectly sees certain types of (self-serving) knowledge as objective and value-free, and this is a problematic bias that requires critically exposing (see also, positivism and science).
Put a bit more plainly, in the sense of how critical theories would see it, people who occupy dominant social positions (as determined by intersectionality) are biased toward the sociocultural systems (see also, status quo), politics (see also, conservatism), and institutions that allegedly enable their dominance. Thus, their views, when they support or can be construed to support those systems, are viewed as likely to be too biased to consider taking seriously, if not so selfishly biased and harmful (see also, epistemic violence and tolerance) as to require being shouted down and removed from the discourse (see also, call out, cancel culture, stay in your lane, and shut up and listen), including by violent activism (see also, Antifa). This bias is typically viewed to be, if not intentional, at least willful (see also, willful ignorance and white ignorance).
As a result, advocates of Critical Social Justice generally believe that those who benefit from some allegedly unjust system of power tend to be biased in favor of upholding that system of power (see also, complicity, white complicity, and good white, and also, patriarchal reward, neoliberal reward, male approval, and white approval, and also, race traitor, gender traitor, acting white, and white adjacent). Because they view complicity as a de facto state following from benefiting from a social structure, the only possible alternative to “upholding” these systems, according to the Theory of Critical Social Justice, is to want to dismantle, disrupt, subvert, deconstruct, or otherwise radically overthrow the systems that enable them to exist in some form of social revolution. There is no neutral (see also, antiracism).
This view of bias holds that it is ultimately hidden from one’s awareness as a form of false consciousness (see also, internalized dominance and internalized oppression). The critical view is that this bias must be exposed and acknowledged, so the activist or Critical Social Justice Theorist’s role is to awaken a critical consciousness of that bias (see also, wokeness). This perspective has been dramatically amplified over the last two decades due to research into the concept of implicit bias (or unconscious bias). Implicit bias is, allegedly, exactly what is claimed to be the problem by Theorists in Critical Social Justice (and also certain more contemporary strains of critical theory, especially in the New Left). Implicit bias suggests that there are very deep-seated biases along lines of matters of identity like race, sex, gender, sexuality, and so on, that people are largely or entirely unaware of and yet that produce significant enough effects to be measurable (thus probably have larger real-world consequences in aggregate—see also, microaggressions). The intense focus on implicit bias and implicit bias testing and training by advocates of Critical Social Justice results from a belief that implicit bias proves their Theories about false consciousness, upon which most of their mind-reading ability and claims to nebulous “systems” of injustice rest, to be valid.
One particularly important outcome of the Critical Social Justice view on the ubiquity and inescapability of bias is to make positionality—how one’s social position relative to systemic power dynamics influences one’s status as a knower—and standpoint epistemology—how the lived experience of oppression confers unique insights to the oppressed but not to the dominant—core parts of their epistemological program (see also, intersectionality and ways of knowing). The briefest and simplest possible summary of this view would be that because the Theory of Critical Social Justice posits that bias is ubiquitous and inescapable, knowledge(s) can only be forwarded in terms of their biases, so the correct approach to making knowledge claims is to intentionally include as many different acknowledged biases as possible (while understanding their social contexts). That is, it sees everyone as biased, but some biases are privileged (thus extra biased) and some are marginalized (thus less biased, sort of playing on a double meaning for the word “bias”). This is absolutely and directly anti-scientific and very unlikely to be a good way to understand reality.
See also, Implicit bias
Acting white; Anti-blackness; Antifa; Antiracism; Applied postmodernism; Biopower; Call out; Cancel; Complicity; Conservative; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical theory; Cultural Marxism; Deconstruction; Discourse; Dismantle; Disrupt; Dominance; Episteme; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; Eurocentric; Exclusion; False consciousness; Foucauldian; Frankfurt School; Gender; Gender traitor; Good white; Harm; Hegemony; Identity; Ideology; Implicit bias; Injustice; Internalized dominance; Internalized oppression; Intersectionality; Knower; Knowledge(s); Liberalism; Liberationism; Lived experience; Male approval; Marginalization; Marxian; Marxism; Masculinism; Metanarrative; Microaggression; Neoliberal reward; Neo-Marxism; New Left; Objectivity; Oppression; Patriarchal reward; Patriarchy; Positionality; Positivism; Post-Marxism; Postmodern; Power-knowledge; Privilege; Problematic; Race; Race traitor; Radical; Reality; Revolution; Science; Sex; Sexuality; Shut up and listen; Social construction; Social constructivism; Social Justice; Standpoint epistemology; Status quo; Stay in your lane; Subversion; System, the; Systemic power; Theory; Tolerance; Truth; Value-free; Ways of knowing; Western; Western-centric; White; White adjacent; White approval; White complicity; White ignorance; White supremacy; Willful ignorance; Woke/Wokeness
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, second edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2017, p. 41.
Guideline 5 addresses the perception that the content of the class is subjective, value-based, and political, while the content of mainstream courses is objective, value-neutral, and unpartisan. We discussed this perception under Guideline 3 as it relates to common views on the social sciences. Here we want to consider this perception using the lens of positionality as it relates to the instructors of these courses. Because instructors of critical social justice content are more likely to name their positionality and encourage students to do the same, they are often seen as more biased. Mainstream courses rarely if ever name the positionality of the texts they study (for example, the idea that Columbus discovered America is from the colonizer’s perspective, but certainly not from the perspective of Indigenous peoples). Unfortunately, because acknowledging one’s positionality is a rare occurrence in mainstream courses, doing so reinforces students’ perceptions of mainstream courses as objective and critical social justice courses as subjective. Yet all knowledge is taught from a particular perspective; the power of dominant knowledge depends in large part on its presentation as neutral and universal (Kincheloe, 2008).
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, second edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2017, p. 204.
The “radical scholars” objection reduces scholarship in critical social justice education to personal values and political correctness. But “radical” must have a referent; what knowledge is it radical in contrast to? When we object that social justice perspectives are radical and subjective, we are also saying that mainstream perspectives are neutral and objective.
When the scholarship that professors are drawing upon is reduced to subjective and biased personal opinions, that scholarship is transformed from a highly complex and informed body of knowledge into the personal opinions of a single professor. The effect of this is that all opinions become equally valid and therefore the scholarship, now reduced to opinion, can simply be dismissed. This strategy effectively positions social justice classrooms as places of ideology, opinion, and subjectivity, while simultaneously positioning other kinds of classrooms—those in which allegedly neutral or “transparent” frameworks are taught—as objective spaces of real and preferred knowledge.
Critical theory challenges the claim that any knowledge is neutral or objective, and outside of humanly constructed meanings and interests. Yet ironically, only forms of knowledge that name their perspective are perceived as biased and open to debate; in other words, only when someone acknowledges their subjectivity are they seen as having subjectivity. Accusations that professors have a liberal bias (“radical” or “Marxist” or “socialist” or “left wing”) typically emerge in courses that attempt to challenge the idea of neutral knowledge.
Revision date: 5/11/20