Social Justice Usage
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, pp. 68–69.
The belief that your group has the right to its position [is an ideology of the dominant that maintains dominance]. Ideology is a powerful way to support the dominant group’s position. There are several key interrelated ideologies that rationalize the concentration of dominant group members at the top of society and their right to rule. …
A fourth related ideology is the ideology of human nature. This ideology rationalizes privilege as natural—“it’s just human nature; someone has to be on top…”—and underpins ideas about civilized versus uncivilized societies. Through this ideology, some societies are seen as more “advanced” due to genetic superiority, cultural superiority (holding values and characteristics such as innovation and tenacity), and/or divine forces (such as Manifest Destiny or the Protestant work ethic). Because they are “advanced” societies, they often “help” less advanced societies. Concepts such as “First World versus Third World” illustrate how human societies are ranked and how these rankings are rationalized. Science and religion have historically been used to support this ideology. For example, science has been used to argue that it is biologically natural for women to be second to men, while religion has been used to argue that it is “God’s will.”
Ideologies such as “Someone has to be on top” further support these hierarchies—consider who is more likely to believe that someone has to be on top: those on the bottom or those on the top? Thus for scholars of critical social justice, because it is so difficult to separate ideas about nature from culture, the question moves from “Is this true?” to “Who does this belief serve?”
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 74.
All the dominant ideologies in society support willful ignorance. The ideologies of meritocracy, equal opportunity, individualism, and human nature we described above play a powerful role in denying the “current” and insisting that society is just.
New Discourses Commentary
Among all of the various facts of the world, perhaps the one that the Theory of Social Justice rejects the most vigorously, consistently, and fundamentally is the idea of human nature, which it insists is an ideology that members of dominant groups have constructed so that they can maintain their dominance. The idea that human beings have a fundamental nature as a consequence of our biology—what it literally means to be human, a member of Homo sapiens—is entirely anathema to the Theory of Social Justice. It is, in fact, not unreasonable to claim that the rejection of human nature is fundamentally at the root of the Theoretical project every bit as much as a critical methodology and belief in systemic power structures are (see also, critical theory).
Social Justice rejects human nature because it is ultimately socially constructivist in orientation. That is, the Theory of Social Justice sees all realities of social life as social constructions—the product of cultures and their norms, traditions, expectations, values, and ideologies. In this regard, it utterly rejects biological essentialism—the idea that there are essential characteristics in humans that result from biology—especially in the Theories that deal with sex, gender, and sexuality (see also, queer Theory, gender studies, masculinity, masculinities studies, and feminism). This has a big kernel of truth to it, so it tends to get much more credit than it deserves.
Put simply, in the so-called “nature versus nurture” debate, pure biological essentialism would be 100% nature; pure social constructivism would be 100% nurture. In reality, most people recognize that some things—like fashion norms, language and linguistic accents, and so on—are socially constructed products of culture while others—like primary and secondary sex characteristics and some gender expressions around them—are biological in nature, though they appear in statistical distributions and may not apply strictly to any individual in a population. The prevailing view by nearly all people (especially scientists) is that “nature” and “nurture” (biology and culture) interact in complex ways that aren’t well understood, and the amount of influence in each case is difficult to determine.
Very few people today are pure biological essentialists, but most in Social Justice are very strongly to completely socially constructivist and benefit heavily from arguing a false dichotomy between these two positions. That is, while almost no one believes everything is “nature” (the incompatibilist view of free will notwithstanding), there are people who believe everything is “nurture,” and these people are almost all invested in, convinced by, expounding, or producing Social Justice Theory. Moreover, the 100% (or nearly so) “nurture” people like to mischaracterize the debate as “nature versus nurture” when, indeed, it’s “‘some complicated combination of nature and nuture’ versus ‘all nurture.’”
The underlying (and axiomatic) view in Social Justice is that human beings are blank slates who are socialized into the socially constructed identity roles society expects of them, largely by mostly invisible systemic power dynamics that script what it means to be white (whiteness), black (blackness), some other (minoritized) race, male or female (sex), straight, gay, or bi (sexuality), masculine or feminine (gender), sex and gender matching or not (cisgender or trans), and so on and so forth through all possible combinations of the various identity categories that allegedly have systemic power at the roots of their definitions (see also, intersectionality). In various domains in this regard, they have more of a point (e.g., race) than in others (e.g., sex), but in all cases, they exaggerate and/or misunderstand the role and nature of social constructions and Theorize in ways that are extremely unlikely to be accurate to their subjects or helpful to their alleged charges (see also, progress and progressive).
Because Social Justice Theory arises from a combination of various failures of the theories of communism (see also, critical theory, Frankfurt School, New Left, Marxism, Marxian, Neo-Marxism, Cultural Marxism, Post-Marxism, and postmodern) and is ultimately both critical and largely structuralist (and poststructuralist) in orientation, its attachment to a blank slate ideology is ultimately a way to attempt to prevent there being any relevance to genuine differences human beings face as a result of variations in their genetics—especially when these could be construed as systemic, as with sex differences and highly correlated gender differences—which they see as not only sometimes being unfair but intrinsically unjust. This, they believe, will unmake (or dismantle) bigotry of all sorts. Thus, it is a starting point for “justice,” particularly the kind of justice they call “social justice,” i.e. “justice for groups.” In other words, this ideological belief that (mostly—there are two important caveats) has little bearing on reality, is maintained so that not just equality (which is also a problematic ideology) but also equity can be achieved (equity can be thought of as “social communism,” in some sense).
The first caveat here, which bears mentioning, is that—again—sometimes they have more of a point here than at other times. For example, there are few good reasons to believe that there are socially significant genetic variations by race, and those that do exist are still not best assessed racially (using sloppy and broad categories like “black,” “white,” and “Hispanic,” each of which is genetically diverse) but with genuinely biologically relevant categories like genetic lineages in human subpopulations.
The second caveat is that where biological features are much more relevant than blank-slatist social constructivists will admit (like with the correlations between sex and gender and the fact that there are psychological differences between men and women), those variations are statistical in nature, i.e. differences in averages or in distribution variance, and thus they say very little about any individual. This is why sentences like, “he’s a very feminine man” make perfect sense—the set of traits that come along with male biology can express themselves in ways we (socially) understand to be very feminine. This variability is usually poorly understood and selectively applied by social constructivists to attempt to make the (false) point that “therefore” the ideas that gender has anything to do with sex or even that sex itself isn’t socially constructed must be incorrect. (The example of height differences between men and women, while not thinking it’s a violation of biological possibility to have a very short man or a very tall woman, should suffice to explain what is meant here.)
Thus, the denial of human nature is at the core of the Social Justice project and at the heart of Theory. This is because they believe to admit any such intrinsic differences will guarantee misusing those facts to justify systemic oppression and other bigotries—which is, to be fair, a possibility that we should be aware of and account for. Under a liberal ethical paradigm, rather than being a conspiracy by which the marginalized are held down further by being tricked into believing they have more freedom and opportunity than they already do—it is perfectly possible to acknowledge statistical differences between groups and, in recognizing that they’re statistical, if nothing else, refuse to craft discriminatory policies as a result. That is, liberalism understands and works to accommodate exceptions to the rule, if a “rule” of sorts exists, and isn’t bound by the kind of naive, facile essentialism that Social Justice Theory fears.
As can be read in the examples (above and below), their interpretations of “human nature” get even weirder than the facile biological essentialism versus social constructivism false dichotomy that Theory constructs. This is where the (failed) communist roots of Critical Social Justice Theory really show: it’s clear that they impugn even the idea that humans would, by nature, see themselves as individuals (rather than just members of identity or social groups) and, in particular, compete as such (thus necessarily producing relative winners and losers). The idea that competition, thus relative winners and losers, is intrinsic to human nature is therefore cast as an ideological lie that the privileged powerful tell themselves and others to justify their power and oppression of others (see also, internalized dominance and internalized oppression). This is blatantly visible in reframing such situations (as in the example below) through the question “whom does it serve to say that oppressing others is natural?”
The conflation in Critical Social Justice Theory of differences in outcomes and discrimination/oppression is blatant here (see also, equity), with Theory taking the view that differences in outcomes must imply discrimination (because everyone is born equal, blank slates to be written upon, lacking human nature). Under a radically socially constructivist view (i.e., Social Justice Theory), there is no other possible explanation because those have been axiomatically removed from consideration. The only possibility for differences in outcomes along identity group lines must be some kind of discrimination and oppression dynamics that indicates the systemic injustices of power in society (that they assumed must be there from the outset).
Biological essentialism; Blackness; Blank slate; Cisgender; Communism; Critical; Critical theory; Cultural Marxism; Dismantle; Dominance; Equality; Equity; Essentialism; Feminism; Frankfurt School; Gender; Gender studies; Identity; Ideology; Individualism (ideology); Injustice; Internalized dominance; Internalized oppression; Intersectionality; Justice; Liberalism; Marginalization; Marxian; Marxism; Masculinity; Masculinities studies; Minoritize; Neo-Marxism; Norm; Oppression; Post-Marxism; Postmodern; Poststructuralism; Privilege; Problematic; Progress; Progressive; Queer Theory; Race; Scripting; Sex; Sex essentialism; Sexuality; Social construction; Social constructivism; Social Justice; Socialization; Structuralism; Systemic power; Theory; White; Whiteness; Willful ignorance;
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, pp. 133–134.
- “Injustice exists in every society—it’s just human nature.”
- “Somebody has to be on top.”
Because it’s virtually impossible to separate nature from nurture (culture), claims that specific human dynamics are natural are very difficult to substantiate. There is no line at which we can say that some pattern of human relations occurs before or beyond the forces of socialization. Even patterns we observe in infants can only be interpreted through our cultural lenses. Because it is so difficult to separate nature from nurture, the more useful question for our purposes is, whom does it serve to say that oppressing others is natural? In other words, who is more likely to say that oppressing is human nature: those on the top doing the oppressing, or those on the bottom being oppressed? This argument always serves to support the dominant group and not the minoritized group.
The human nature argument also demonstrates how oppression changes and adapts over time. While it would no longer be acceptable in mainstream society to justify some oppressions as natural (for example, racial), it is still acceptable to justify other oppressions as natural (such as gender). A more constructive and ethical use of a human nature argument is to notice that throughout history, humans have strived to overcome oppression and make society more just.
Revision date: 2/4/20