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, p. 4.[The] scientific method (sometimes referred to as “positivism”) was the dominant contribution of the 18th century Enlightenment period in Europe. Positivism rested on the importance of reason, principles of rational thought, the infallibility of close observation, and the discovery of natural laws and principles governing life and society. Critical Theory developed in part as a response to this presumed superiority and infallibility of the scientific method, and raised questions about whose rationality and whose presumed objectivity underlies scientific methods. ()
New Discourses Commentary
The Theory of Critical Social Justice is particularly skeptical of, if not hostile to, science. This hostility is so profound that it isn’t entirely incorrect to say that the point of Critical Social Justice (and much of the postmodern Theory it has adapted to its purposes) exists to undermine scientific credibility without bothering to learn any science at all. Critical Social Justice sees science as just one way of knowing among many. Further, it considers it a cultural artifact of white, Western, masculinist cultures, which makes it a “way of knowing” that is inherently problematic and in need of having its hegemonic influence disrupted, dismantled, deconstructed and replaced with alternatives. Obviously, those would be critical theories, instead.
In general and simplifying in the extreme, science can be thought of as a set of essentially liberal methods that seek to authenticate and explain statements and certain interrelated collections of statements (theories) about objective reality through the process of falsification. Those hypotheses which survive the process of falsification are regarded as provisionally true. Theoretical scientists may balk at this characterization, but nevertheless, when theorizing produces no falsifiable statements about reality, that theorizing is not usually considered scientific, and until theoretical predictions are vindicated by experiment or observation, they are treated with due suspicion. Furthermore, no scientific theorizing can survive once its claims have been falsified. All this said, we hasten to make a note. This entry does not take the purpose of explaining what science is in any greater depth (as that is done in many other resources in tremendous depth already); its objective is to explain how the Theory of Critical Social Justice views science and why it takes that view.
Postmodern arguments about science tend to impugn it for several reasons of varying degrees of importance, and central to these accusations—which tend to be poorly informed—is the rather banal claim that scientific theories and models are necessarily “social constructs.” This idea postmodernism naively treats as far more profound than it is, as is typical of their reliance upon finding profundity in tricks of language and other deepities. While the specific models and theories of science are themselves technically social constructs, this is not the case in the way social constructivism maintains. This is because science is fundamentally a realist endeavor—unlike social constructivism—that accepts that the statements it regards as provisionally true must somehow correspond to physical reality to qualify for that designation (see also, objectivity). That is, while scientific statements, theories, and models are necessarily abstractions of some sort expressed in language and thus are “socially constructed” in that sense, they are social constructions that have some robust correspondence to the genuine machinations of objective reality that enables incredibly accurate descriptions of and predictions about its workings.
The Theory of Critical Social Justice holds that objectivity is neither possible nor desirable. That is, Theory is radically subjectivist in orientation. It therefore sees the claim in the sciences that its tested and unfalsified statements correspond to objective truths in some way as naive and problematic, literally calling them “positivist,” which hearkens to a philosophical current from the 19th century and more specific movement beginning in the 1920s and 1930s. Positivism in its strongest form asserted that only those statements that can be verified though logical proof or experimental observation can be considered knowledge. Critical Social Justice Theory tends to brand as positivist any belief that the sciences can or should attempt to make statements about objective reality. Indeed, it often just equates “the scientific method,” which it plainly doesn’t understand, to “positivism,” literally suggesting that they’re the same thing.
Here we are forced into another annoying aside thanks to the generally underinformed criticisms of Theory. The Theory of Critical Social Justice, being rooted in both critical theories and postmodern Theory, tends to blur many lines of thought from 19th and early 20th century philosophy of science into something it can easily criticize, mostly in vague terms, and seems not to accept or even realize that positivism is not widely endorsed any longer. Indeed, it hasn’t been in fashion for some time. Positivism hasn’t widely been considered valid within the philosophy of science since the early 1960s (thus, predating postmodernism entirely). It is considered to have been chipped away at by Quine, Popper, and Kuhn, particularly. Thus, in attacking “positivism” as though it is science, Theory fights a politically useful philosophical ghost.
Believing objectivity is possible—or desirable—is seen as a problematic view within Theory because it is argued to uphold a hegemonic system of dominant ideologies and discourses that commit the standard sins. A belief in the possibility of objectivity allegedly maintains the inequitable status quo and unfairly excludes or marginalizes other “knowledges” and other “ways of knowing.” In particular, science (and objectivity) refute “lived experience,” at least when it is incorrect about reality, and this is especially problematic when it contradicts the lived experience of marginalization or oppression (see also, standpoint epistemology, positionality, and intersectionality, and also epistemic injustice, epistemic oppression, and epistemic violence).
Critical Social Justice Theory rejects objectivity because these strongly preferred alternatives are, of course, both integral to its ability to make its claims and necessarily subjective and interpretive. The only valid interpretative tool for these subjective experiences is said to be Theory itself (see also, critical, critical consciousness, engagement, truth, reality, realities, ways of knowing, knowledge(s), and lived experience). Radically subjectivist advocates of Critical Social Justice proceed along the assumption that one’s identity is relevant to knowledge, which is, when oppression is involved, is called standpoint epistemology. In other situations, knowledges are believed to be the property of cultures, described, for example, under headings like “racial knowledges” (see also, episteme).
The cause for this profound misunderstanding of knowledge, and thus science, in Critical Social Justice arises because it is ultimately socially constructivist in orientation. Moreover, it has also accepted the postmodern error of seeing science as just another narrative among many possibilities. Postmodern Theory tends to assert, thanks to the influence of Michel Foucault, who laid out “archeaologies,” “genealogies,” and “historiographies” of science that portray it as having been consistently wrong, problematic, and political. Postmodernist thinking adds to this confusion about the nature of science rather profoundly thanks to Jean-François Lyotard, who further miscategorized science as a metanarrative to be radically skeptical of as a matter of principle.
Thus, having imported much of this radically skeptical line of postmodern thought, Critical Social Justice sees science as social constructs specifically produced by powerful white, Western men—adding sometimes that they are straight, cisgender, able-bodied, healthy, of normal weight, and so on and so forth. This is meant to imply that science is a “way of knowing” (among many potential alternatives) that has encoded the self-serving political biases of those dominant identities. This makes it inherently exclusionary of all alternatives (see also, internalized dominance and ideology). Thus, despite proceeding from a fundamental misunderstanding of the principle of universality in science—that scientific claims to truth are only true if it is irrelevant who does the experiment—Critical Social Justice tends to believe that the authority of science has been unfairly privileged above that of other approaches, especially “lived experience.”
Because the approach in Critical Social Justice is ultimately one that seeks reparations for oppression historical and present, it therefore views science ultimately as white supremacist, patriarchal, masculinist, Eurocentric, colonialist, imperialist, heteronormative, ablenormative, cisnormative, thinnormative, and all of the other relevant problematics. Thus, it contends, its knowledges are likewise problematic (and not to be trusted as much as those produced by other, less problematic ways of knowing). Scientific knowledge can therefore be disregarded under Critical Social Justice thought—and often is as a matter of moral imperative.
Importantly, this means that Critical Social Justice is not just radically culturally relativist, which would put scientific knowledge on par with those produced by “other ways of knowing.” It also sees science as inferior because of its problematic intrinsic relationship to systems of power, dominance, and privilege (see also, problematize). When scholars of Critical Social Justice say that objectivity isn’t desirable, this line of thought is what they are appealing to. Upholding the ideal of objectivity and using the scientific methodologies to maximize it merely reproduces the oppressive biases and power dynamics encoded therein—while denying the opportunity and access for “transformational” alternatives to be heard.
As indicated, the intense skepticism of science in Critical Social Justice has roots in both critical theories and in postmodern Theory. As part of the development of Critical Theory (see also, Frankfurt School and Neo-Marxism), science and philosophy were labeled “traditional theories” and separated from “critical theories,” which have a different goal and different epistemological underpinning (see also, problematize). While Critical Social Justice today is brazenly anti-intellectual in everything except outward appearance, no such accusation sticks firmly to the original Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School. Where the original Critical Theorists seemed to understand that this separation of the two types of theories implied a need to use them in tandem, and thus was often quite intellectual in its pursuits, later critical theories seem just to have become lazy and dispensed with the far harder traditional theories entirely. This rejection of intellectualism even led famed Critical Theorist Herbert Marcuse, progenitor of the New Left, to decry the anti-intellectualism of radical movements that had taken up critical theory by the early 1970s (see also, radical feminism, liberationism, liberation theology, black feminism; and black liberationism).
Postmodernism worsened this problem considerably and bears much of the blame for the anti-intellectualism of Critical Social Justice today. Postmodernism was far more skeptical of science in general—if not blatantly and maliciously envious of it and its ability to produce knowledge. While postmodern philosophy could have targeted ideologies like scientism (undue belief in science) and positivism (undue belief in the totalizing objectivity of science) directly and with a limited scope, it instead was content to blur all of the relevant boundaries and treat those views as identical to “science” (Lyotard was particularly guilty of this).
In turn, postmodern Theory came to see “science” as a grand, sweeping mythology rather than a set of methods and processes that are, in fact, quite epistemologically rigorous (see also, narrative and metanarrative). Moreover, following the claim by Michel Foucault that power and knowledge are, in fact, identical (see also, power-knowledge), Theory has since seen science, objectivity, and truth merely as (identity) politics by another means (see also, episteme). It recommended uninformed, radical skepticism of science as a result and openly led to suggestions that science, in already being political by default, should be politicized intentionally (ironically, as a form of “depoliticizing” it from the way dominant groups had already “politicized” it). This particular failure in understanding science has had disastrous consequences ever since everywhere it gets taken seriously.
If this wasn’t bad enough, Critical Social Justice fused these two lines of thought in the late 1980s and early 1990s (see also, applied postmodernism). It thus carries both the dismissive late-critical and radically skeptical and culturally relativist postmodern attitudes toward science into its current Theory and activism. Critical Social Justice therefore sees science as an unjustly favored, hegemonic, single way of knowing that belongs to a culture of intersecting dimensions of dominance. Thus, it posits that science, more than anything, upholds oppression and must be called into (critical) question (see also, multiplicities) and infused with its own form of political activism—which would technically render it not science.
As a result, adherents to Critical Social Justice hold a number of positively alarming views about science except when science appears to support its claims. For example, they see forwarding science outside of the West as a form of colonialism, leading to demands for decolonization that include calls to return to local “ways of knowing” that, at times, include superstition, tradition, mythology, and witchcraft (“Science Must Fall” is the name of one such movement). They see the application of biology and medical science to questions of sex, gender, sexuality, obesity, disability, race, and anything else to do with “identity” as wholly unjust and oppressive (see also, biopower, healthism, medicalizing, and nutritionism). These, they believe, minoritize groups to which they apply. Arguments have even been given that medical examinations, autopsies, and epidemiological claims (that were, until that point, very vigorously supported) maintain racism because they sometimes demonstrate facts contrary to the prevailing Critical Social Justice narrative.
Thus, Critical Social Justice tends to see the effectiveness of science not as effectiveness but as an application of hegemonic power and dominance that excludes and marginalizes other ways of knowing (see also, epistemic injustice, epistemic oppression, and epistemic violence). This is especially true when it discredits the claims, narratives, or ambitions of Critical Social Justice Theory or activism. Advocates therefore tend to urge rejecting science as problematic and replacing it with other ways of knowing. Allegedly, and apparently by magic, this view of science and activism against it will help achieve “Social Justice.”
Despite the seemingly unified front of Critical Social Justice in tone and agenda, it is actually composed of several distinct schools of thought—sub-Theories of Theory. Each of these is hostile to science in is own particular ways, largely because each is eager to deny any truths it sees as it being “better” not to know. Though the attacks on science in each sub-Theory arise in different ways, they ultimately all have the same purposes: forwarding subjective (highly interpreted) lived experience over objectivity, putting the eradication of problematics in place of falsification (see also, problematize), and politicizing science (thus making it not-science) by claiming that it is and always has been political rather than an attempt to minimize any political influences. These are worth a closer look in greater specificity:
Critical race Theory is extremely skeptical of any science that potentially indicates physical, biological, or especially cognitive differences between the races. It also rejects any science that could indicate its analyses or remedial prescriptions might be incorrect. These, it is believed, would justify racism and so must be suppressed, even if true (see also, impact versus intent). It is also hostile to requests for evidence to be brought to bear upon its claims. Typically, the argument made is that asking for evidence is a denial of the “realities” of the lived experience of racism, despite those “realities” only being considered valid if they have been (highly) interpreted through Theory. Like all political endeavors, of course, critical race Theory will cite any science that seems to support its claims, often doing so out-of-context. It will also apply pseudoscience like the implicit bias program in the same regard.
The critical race Theory hostility toward science often has the result of suppressing science that shows that racism isn’t as big a problem or isn’t a significant factor for differences in outcomes (see also, equity) when critical race Theory claims it must be significant, if not the sole, source of the problem. This denial is particularly relevant when careful studies show that discrimination (thus racism) is unlikely or positively not the source of disparities in outcome. Particularly concerning, it would also suppress any evidence that indicates that taking liberal and colorblind approaches to racism are more effective than increasing race salience, which is its preferred method, in fear that colorblindness leads to racism blindness and liberalism is plagued by problematics like interest convergence.
The specific critical race Theory goal in fighting science is to preserve its narrative that racism is the central explanatory factor in everything that goes wrong in society, which the evidence only occasionally supports. In this sense, science is explicitly characterized among the “master’s tools” that uphold and build the “master’s house” of society. Following the remonstrations of the black feminist Audre Lorde, critical race Theory broadly accepts a belief that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” meaning not only that science isn’t for black and brown people but also that black and brown people using, doing trusting, or supporting science is complicity in the allegedly anti-Black “system of dominance” that keeps racial minorities down in “white” society. They, paradoxically, use this claim to then argue that more (politically) Black “voices” are needed within the sciences and thus more (politically) Black activists need to be appointed as scientists or science administrators.
Queer Theory and gender studies, along with women’s studies, masculinities studies, and some branches of feminism, are profoundly skeptical of science in a similar way. Obviously, however, these replace the focus upon race with one on sex, gender, or sexuality (see also, blank slatism, biological essentialism, and sex essentialism). As science continually shows that there are biological roots to these components of one’s identity, including the incredibly obvious case that biological sex is, in fact, biological, these Theories cannot abide it. These Theories hold that these identity factors, if real, can be used to justify any of the pantheon of problematics relevant to these categories of identity, including sexism, misogyny, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, homophobia, and transphobia, to name a few of the more significant ones.
The basic argument is that if there is a biological component to sex, gender, or sexuality that results in on-average differences (especially in terms of sex/gender), then apparently justified arguments could possibly be made that support the various -isms and -phobias. For example, if a trans woman is, in fact, a trans woman and not just a woman, that fact could be used to justify “transphobic” beliefs like that “woman” is a biological category rather than a social one. Of course, consistently liberal ethical arguments against these sorts of discrimination are already commonplace in society, rendering these Theoretical agitations distracting, at best. (These might read, “some people are gay, get over it” or “let people, whether man or woman, choose for themselves and not according to stereotypes, even in their willful rejection.”
This leads these critical Theories to suppress any science that might claim there are any differences between the sexes at a cognitive or psychological level, that the sex categories of “man” and “woman” are meaningful and stable (as though science is needed for this), or, perhaps surprisingly to many, that one’s sexual identity is not a matter of one’s choosing and/or one’s radical politics. This last example bears lingering upon. The overt anti-science attitude in these Theories causes queer Theory and gender studies to suppress science that indicates that sexual orientation is natural (kind of like their unintentional cobelligerents on the Religious Right). The problem with sexual orientation being a fact of nature is that it would render LGBT identities that could be more useful as queer political identities to become considered normal, rather than radical. This is unacceptable because it isn’t disruptive enough.
(NB: Queer Theory and gender studies are actually enthusiastically content to have it both ways on this point and to make deliberate political use of the inherent contradiction. We see this paradox most often when trans identities are argued to be natural (“born in the wrong body”) and yet gay and especially lesbians not wanting to have sex with trans people because it violates their sexual orientation being a form of “transphobia.” This unrepentant embrace of contradiction is, in fact, a deliberate strategy in queer Theory.)
As mentioned above, postcolonial Theory will often position science as a white, Western way of knowing. The corollary to this perspective is an insistence that science isn’t suitable for people outside of the white, Western, Eurocentric context (see also, Orientalism). In fact, science is described in this sense as a form of cultural colonization. This will lead postcolonial Theorists to suppress the development or use of science outside of the West and to insist that traditional and superstitious ways of knowing are equivalent or better in the East or global South (the “Science Must Fall” movement is a key example).
The smaller branches of Theory reject science in their own ways as well. Fat studies rejects medical science where it associates fat status (e.g., obesity) with health (see also, medicalizing, healthism, nutritionism, and Healthy at Every Size). Disability studies is similarly skeptical of medical science for similar reasons, up to and including rejecting the authority of doctors to apply medicalizing labels (like “deaf” or “depressed”) and, at times, preferring both self-diagnosis and lack of treatment for disabilities and mental illnesses as a result. How any of this is supposed to help fat people who struggle with health problems related to their obesity or disabled people with medical conditions is utterly mysterious outside of a vague nod toward their feelings, as one might hear in a support-group setting.
Not only is science suppressed under Critical Social Justice, the political imperative within Critical Social Justice often distracts from and discredits science by sidelining the science for the politics. Making science political—thus not science—is one of the primary goals of the Critical Social Justice movement, for once that is accomplished, it can assert its own political dominance to bend what it will call “science” to legitimizing its own ideas to the exclusion of all others. (A careful reader will pick up that much of what passes in Critical Social Justice as criticisms of that which it does not like is also an admission of what it intends to do, as its central thesis is that the things it doesn’t like are fundamental components of how social systems operate.) This approach to politicizing and controlling science has been tried before in the Modern world, most famously by Trofim Lysenko, whose Soviet Science led to the starvation and murder of tens of millions.
Some very specific programs in this direction are already being formulated and implemented. In addition to the critical approaches to medical science within fat studies, disability studies, queer Theory, gender studies, and so on, for example, medical science is also being subverted directly by requests to focus upon diversity, equity, and inclusion in medicine and medical outcomes, including through initiatives like health equity. Critical approaches to environmentalism tend to recognize the validity of climate science but then forward a radical and almost nonsensical “Social Justice” political agenda called “climate justice” that overwhelmingly distracts us from and discredits good climate science, which already sees dangerously undue skepticism for politicization from the other side of the political aisle. These programs are immediately identifiable by statements like “racism is a public health crisis,” “we have to examine the social determinants of health” (which has some validity but less than the activists claim), and “we cannot solve climate change until we end racism.” These statements, as they are given, are preposterous and could only be uttered in earnest by someone who understands neither the relevant science nor racism.
As science is, bar none, the best way of knowing truths about phenomena occurring in objective reality, regardless of one’s subjective feelings about those facts, the Critical Social Justice hostility to science is all reckless and dangerous. Not even in the cases where there are meritorious concerns (as with potentially justifying biological racism, sexism, and so on) does it benefit people to suppress truths in favor of narratives—comforting or political. The Critical Social Justice rejection of science therefore has every likelihood of doing great harm and doing it most to those who would benefit from science most—those who are genuinely oppressed.
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Revision date: 6/11/20