Social Justice Usage
Source: Felluga, Dino Franco. Critical Theory: The Key Concepts. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition, p. 237.[T]he most significant theorist looking at the issue of power is Michel Foucault, who addressed the relation of power to knowledge and subjectivity throughout his career. Although this concept seems as if it should be self-explanatory, it has in fact been inflected by its re-definition in the work of this influential theorist. In his work, Foucault argues that power is not merely physical force but a pervasive human dynamic determining our relationships to others…
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. 52.
In order to oppress, a group must hold institutional power in society. In this way, the group is in the position to impose their worldview on others and control the ideas (ideologies), political rules (the technical mechanisms), and social rules for communication (discourses) that we are all taught (socialized) to see as normal, natural, and required for a functioning society. This domination is historical (long-term), automatic, and normalized.
Power in the context of understanding social justice refers to the ideological, technical, and discursive elements by which those in authority impose their ideas and interests on everyone.[NB: This source immediately hereafter explains power, in the social justice context, by appealing to the postmodern conception of it laid out by Michel Foucault.]
New Discourses Commentary
Power is the chief interest and preoccupation of Critical Social Justice, and the Theory of Social Justice exists specifically to give a critical analysis of power, which it understands in a “systemic” sense (see also, critical theory and the system). That is, Critical Social Justice believes power to be an intrinsic part of society and its operation, and it considers power to be at the root of all interactions between individuals in groups in society. Moreover, power is not to be thought of in the sense of the way one individual might attempt to control another individual, or even in the sense of politics, so much as it is a complicated set of social forces generated and transmitted by all of us at once that controls how people think, vote, believe, act, identify, and so on. The main purpose of power, according to Critical Social Justice, is for the powerful to “impose their ideas and interests on everyone.”
Power in Social Justice is often understood in two senses which have largely fused but are technically distinct: Neo-Marxist and postmodern (see also, Marxian, Post-Marxist, Cultural Marxism, structuralism, and poststructuralism). The Neo-Marxist understanding of power follows from Theorists like Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist, and the Critical Theorists of the Frankfurt School, who were also largely communist (or post-communist) in their orientation. These generally believed that liberal society itself had somehow cheated us of the predicted communist revolution and sought to find out how and why—and to do something about it if they could. They concluded that the Marxist analysis of power as deriving primarily from economic forces was not correct and that social forces and social conditioning were much more influential. These came from state interests, capitalist interests, and the rise of a popular culture that was neither the previous high culture (bourgeois) or low culture (proletariat) and the explicit and tacit collusion of these influences, which they therefore sought to criticize and change. Thus, they advocated combining Freudian psychoanalysis into Marxian thought to find an answer to why so many everyday people supported fascism.
The postmodern understanding of power is, in many respects in Social Justice, currently more influential than the Neo-Marxist (which is more closely associated with identity politics and radical activism like radical feminism and black liberationism). In fact, Social Justice is, perhaps, best thought of as a fusion of these two approaches with the postmodern understanding of power holding dominance. This can be explicitly read in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s famous 1991 paper, “Mapping the Margins,” which developed (but didn’t introduce) the idea of intersectionality.
This understanding owes most of its formulation to a single Theorist named Michel Foucault (as has been detailed by Barbara Applebaum, e.g., in the third chapter of Being White, Being Good), who presented the novel belief that power and knowledge are two aspects of the same phenomenon, which he called power-knowledge. Foucault was also particularly interested in the way the reputation of the knowledge-producing power of science was able to be used, often inaccurately and unjustly, which he referred to as biopower. Finally, Foucault was instrumental in developing the idea that power (indeed, hegemony) works through society as it works through everybody, like a grid, in terms of how it defines people and groups as legitimate knowers, thus people with access to influence and power.
This he saw as mediated through discourses, how we speak about things and understand ideas to be legitimate or not (placing him in the poststructuralist camp, even if he disagreed with the assessment). Social Justice as we understand it today is largely a marriage of the epistemology (understanding of knowledge) developed under postmodernism and the ethical imperative of Neo-Marxist critical activism, although postmodern ethics (e.g., cultural relativism and a certain anti-normativity), also play a highly significant role. The role of power and hegemony within discourses was further developed by another postmodern (or poststructuralist) philosopher, Jacques Derrida, who encouraged deconstruction as the tool for unmaking these structural problems.
“Systemic power” is understood on a variety of levels, including ideological, political, institutional, discursive, epistemic, and social, and it is viewed as working through a process called “socialization,” wherein society’s rules and expectations, including routine social interactions, teach people to be certain ways and not others and to accept certain things and not others (see also, social construction and social constructivism). This process creates “hegemony,” which in turn is effective because systemic power is, as observed above, “historical, automatic, and normalized” (see also, status quo). The point of Social Justice is, ultimately, to use critical methods to study systemic power, usually in terms of dominance, oppression, and marginalization, and to generate radical activists who will challenge, disrupt, dismantle, subvert, and/or seek to overthrow it by remaking the system itself (see also, revolution).
On the ideological level, power is believed to work through hegemony, which is mostly maintained through institutions and discourses—how things are allowed to be spoken about. Social Justice views ideologies as “big, shared ideas of a society that are reinforced throughout all of the institutions and thus are very hard to avoid believing” (see also, metanarrative). The power to control people in this widespread belief that you’d be “crazy” not to accept is what is meant by hegemony. For example, Social Justice considers “white supremacy” to be the ideology that they claim maintains white privilege and white dominance of society, as critical race Theory and whiteness studies describe it. That is, they believe that there is a “big, shared” idea in our society, “reinforced throughout all of the institutions” of society, that whites are and should be privileged and maintain dominance of society, so much so that this is “very hard to avoid believing.” This tells you an awful lot about them, we think.
Given that our laws are no longer discriminatory in any direct sense (they are, in fact, firmly anti-discriminatory), Social Justice identifies “institutional” power dynamics in terms of the existence of any disparate outcomes. The belief is that if there are disparate outcomes that fall adversely to any minoritized group on average, at least part of the reason must be unjust institutionalized power dynamics or policies that impact minoritized groups unfairly (see also, institutional racism). On this view, differences in outcome are treated as proof of institutionalized injustice any time those differences score negatively for minoritized groups, but not otherwise. (Compare, however, how Asians and Jews tend to outperform whites in many areas of attainment, and, rather than these being treated similarly, they are used to accuse groups like Asians and Jews of being white adjacent, white, acting white, and so on, and adjusting policies so as to hamstring their opportunity in the name of equity).
A great deal of interest in how the “system” of power operates in society under Social Justice is discursively, i.e., in terms of how things are considered legitimate to be spoken about. This view owes much to the postmodern Theorists, especially Michel Foucault but also Jacques Derrida, who was obsessed with how power hides within language and thus shapes our reality. This is why Social Justice has such an obsessive focus upon language and its uses, including “microaggressive” statements, problematic speech and writing, words with a history of offensiveness, and so on. The belief is that the unjust power of language is quasi-magical and almost permanent is, thanks to postmodernism and the problematizing critical mindset, front and center throughout Social Justice. This manifests in practice in restricting speech in the name of inclusion and “safety,” seeing free speech as a false ideology that limits freedom, opportunity, and democracy, problematizing written and spoken words endlessly (up to and including cancel culture for transgressions) and typically via “close readings” that go looking for offense (often out of context), and demands to use politically correct (“inclusive”) language in all circumstances.
Epistemics have to do with knowledge, and largely thanks to Foucauldian ideas, Social Justice is extremely concerned with who is considered able to produce knowledge and for what purposes. The belief is that knowledge is nothing more than a cultural artifact, one that automatically carries the biases (unexamined and/or implicit) of the group of people who produced it, including their natural self-interest to maintain any power and privilege they have. This results in multiple knowledges that cannot be judged as any one being better than another (see also, cultural relativism, God’s-eye view, position, and standpoint epistemology), each dependent upon the set of cultural assumptions that went into making it—including the desire to perpetuate one’s own dominance and privilege, which one is likely to be unaware of even if not self-interested (see also, white ignorance). (This view also may tell us a great deal about the people making Social Justice Theory.)
A great deal of contemporary Social Justice Theory is therefore directly concerned with theorizing knowledges, in the plural. Concepts in this domain include cynical ideas like privilege-preserving epistemic pushback, active ignorance, willful ignorance, and pernicious ignorance (among many others), all of which are ways that people who belong to dominant groups allegedly resist learning more about “oppression” (by which is really meant, being disinterested in, being skeptical of, or rejecting critical theories).
Further concepts like “white fragility” and “white complicity” have been devised and deployed to explain further why members of privileged groups might reject critical methods and their rather uncomely accusations. All of this is applied in the service of defending the idea of epistemic oppression (and the related idea of epistemic violence) which attempts to posit that white culture (see also, whiteness) doesn’t equally value the epistemic worth of lived experience and “ways of knowing” of minoritized groups—at least not as these are interpreted through critical consciousness. Theory explains that this rejection isn’t a rejection of Theory due to its lack of merits (see also, white empiricism) but follows instead because of a putative endorsement of underlying systemic racism, sexism, or other bigotry that white people don’t want to engage with (see also, internalized dominance, good white, racial contract, racial stress, racial stamina, privilege-preserving epistemic pushback, active ignorance, pernicious ignorance, willful ignorance, human nature, meritocracy, individualism, universalism, white comfort, white complicity, white equilibrium, white ignorance, white innocence, white solidarity, and white talk). These might be hidden (see also, code and mask).
Socially, “the system” is built to be self-maintaining through these processes, which lead people to be socialized into the system and accept it as ordinary, natural, and normal (see also, status quo). In other words, Social Justice believes that power in society is enormously significant and determinative, works along the lines of demographic groups as a result of self-interest and bigotry by those in dominant groups (white, male, straight, able-bodied, thin/fit, etc.), and is essentially the result of everybody brainwashing everyone constantly into believing that things always have been this way and therefore should be this way.
Every theoretical construct in Social Justice operates on this view of power. Feminism explores it with regard to “patriarchy,” men having systemic power over women. Critical race Theory explores it with regard to race. Queer Theory and gender studies look at it in terms of sex, gender, and sexuality. Postcolonial Theory looks at it in terms of national origin, indigineity, and historical colonial status (but only by European powers). Fat studies looks at it with regard to “fat” or “fatness,” which it uses to avoid saying “obesity,” which it regards as a “medicalizing” narrative they must resist and thus not perpetuate. Disability studies looks at it with regard to ability status and ableism. Black feminism looks at it mostly in terms of how black men and white women have it over black women, and intersectionality tries to mash the whole thing together into a “sophisticated” theory relying upon a “Matrix of Domination” that is supposed to sort out relational privilege and oppression for everyone with regard to every possible meaningful group identity.
This means that everything Social Justice talks about is this one thing: systemic power, which it assumes from the outset is core to the structure of society and defines every possible social interaction (see also, wokeness). If you want to do Social Justice, all you have to do is consider any behavior or interaction and come up with some way to problematize it by finding the unjust systemic power within it and complaining about it in the hopes that someone will do something about it as a result (and then complain about that too).
Put very directly, Social Justice is a vast and grotesquely simplistic conspiracy theory about social control with no conspirators in particular, and the operant concept at the bottom of the whole worldview is the idea of systemic power, which works in mysterious and unjust ways.
Ableism; Acting white; Active ignorance; Bias; Biopower; Black feminism; Black liberationism; Cancel culture; Close reading; Code; Colonialism; Communism; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical race Theory; Critical theory; Cultural Marxism; Cultural relativism; Decoloniality; Deconstruction; Derridean; Dis/ability; Disability studies; Discourse; Dismantle; Disrupt; Dominance; Engagement; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; Equity; Eurocentrism; Fascism; Fat studies; Feminism; Foucauldian; Frankfurt School; Free speech (ideology); Gender; God’s-eye view; Good white; Hegemony; Human nature; Identity; Identity politics; Ideology; Implicit bias; Inclusion; Individualism; Institutional racism; Internalized dominance; Intersectionality; Justice; Knower; Knowledge(s); Liberalism; Lived experience; Marginalization; Marxian; Marxism; Mask; Matrix of Domination; Meritocracy; Metanarrative; Microaggression; Minoritize; Neo-Marxism; Normal; Normativity; Oppression; Patriarchy; Pernicious ignorance; Position; Postcolonial Theory; Post-Marxism; Postmodern; Poststructuralism; Power-knowledge; Privilege; Privilege-preserving epistemic pushback; Problematic; Problematize; Queer Theory; Race; Racial contract; Racial stamina; Racial stress; Racism (systemic); Radical; Radical feminism; Revolution; Sexism (systemic); Social construction; Social constructivism; Social Justice; Socialization; Status quo; Structural; Structuralism; Subvert; System, the; Standpoint epistemology; Theory; Universalism; Ways of knowing; White; White adjacent; White comfort; White complicity; White empiricism; White equilibrium; White fragility; White ignorance; White innocence; White solidarity; White supremacy; White talk; Whiteness studies; Willful ignorance; Woke/Wokeness
Revision date: 2/5/20