Social Justice Usage
Source: Thompson, Sherwood (ed.). Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, p. 192.
Recognition of the merits of cultural pluralism also stemmed from the intellectual, artistic, and cultural developments that, together, are referred to as postmodernity. Postmodern thinkers rejected the confidence and hubris of the Enlightenment and Positivism, both of which presumed that truth could be known and discovered and that truth was universal and constant. Postmodernists are much more skeptical about truth. For them, no direct, necessary correspondence exists between reality and ideas about it—because there is no unitary, unified reality. A center does not exist, ontologically, epistemologically, or culturally. As a result, postmodern thinkers reject the idea of a dominant voice or metanarrative with claims to authority. This rejection of a dominant voice legitimized different voices rather than strengthened the dominant culture. An outgrowth of this intellectual turn is that cultural minorities or enclaves began to be and are valued as different voices, each voice with its own claim to partial, provisional truth.
New Discourses Commentary
For most of us, the concept of “truth” doesn’t seem terribly complicated until we try to define it. Truth is… what’s true—this is actually the first definition for “truth,” paraphrasing a bit, in some dictionaries. Truth is that which is in accordance with reality is another. Philosophers understand that “truth” is a more complicated topic, and people in different schools of thought have different understandings of what truth is. Some, for example, hold that truths must be in some way transcendent of all human contingencies—that which absolutely holds for all people in all times (sometimes in all possible universes). Scientists tend to use a more pragmatic understanding (sometimes called “provisional truths”) that could be rendered as statements about reality upon which we can bet and reliably win. Most people, including nearly all scientists and many philosophers, generally agree that for something to be a “truth” means its having something to do with accurately describing reality.
The postmodern school of thought, which profoundly informs the Theory of Critical Social Justice, however, does not see truth this way. In fact, it is openly hostile and radically skeptical of these understandings of truth, which might generally be described as being “realist” in orientation because they see some correspondence between truth and reality. Postmodernism is generally anti-realist in orientation, meaning that it does not necessarily see a connection between “truths” and reality. Truths might happen to describe reality, say as the Earth and the Sun describing a dynamic system in which both travel along eliptical orbits around their common center of mass (which is inside the Sun), or not, say as the Sun going around the Earth. Under postmodern thought, both of these understandings are “true” in the cultures that consider them true. That is, postmodern thought sees truth as entirely a matter of human (social) contingencies. This is what the American postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty meant when he wrote, “We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that the truth is out there.”
Truths, in postmodern Theory, are socially validated statements about reality, which means that they are, ultimately, products of not just the cultures that produce them but of power within those cultures. The French postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault described this as power-knowledge, insisting that knowledge claims (truths) are ultimately only expressions of power. This sound strange, but the logic is accessible. What is considered true is decided by people by some social process of validation, the thinking goes, so “truth” is a social and political status conferred to certain ideas, which is then reinforced by their acceptance as true. Simultaneously, “truths” confer (political) power, as “knowledge is power” implies, because if it is accepted that a proposition is true, then people who accept it as such will behave accordingly. Thus, Foucault Theorized that “truths” are socially constructed by the systems of power (and the powerful within them) in society and then used to dominate, particularly in the attempt to maintain their power and exclusive status (see also, hegemony, episteme, and biopower).
In Critical Social Justice, “truth” is still considered culturally contingent, but because of the strong influence of identity politics at the core of the Critical Social Justice project (which could be said to use critical and postmodern Theories to do identity politics – see also intersectionality and positionality), the relevant cultures are ones rooted in various identities Theorized to be “minoritized.” Thus, “knowledge” and “truth” as we generally conceive of them are considered shorthand for “cis, straight, white, Western, male knowledge” or “cis, straight, white, Western, male truth” (see also, white science, white mathematics, and white empiricism, and also feminist empiricism), which are just one way of knowing. In fact, they’re a particularly bad one because these dominant groups not at all aware of their self-serving biases or limitations of their own knowing system (see also, internalized dominance and meritocracy).
Thus, on the other hand, Critical Social Justice generally believes in cultural knowledges (e.g., racial knowledge) that have been marginalized by “dominant discourses,” which are deemed to be straight, white, male, able-bodied, thin, Western, Eurocentric, etc. These are believed to arise because different identity-based cultures have different ways of knowing (epistemologies) thus recognize different knowledges, and dominant ways of knowing (e.g., science, reason, logic, dialectic – see also, master’s tools) are believed to have utilized their greater power to unjustly exclude them from the range of “acceptable” ways of knowing and knowledges (see also, epistemic injustice, epistemic oppression, and epistemic violence).
One result of this is that what is considered to bear the status of “true” in Critical Social Justice is criticized as being what dominant groups consider true and then impose upon minoritized groups. That is, to use just race as an example, it is believed that being able to decide what is and isn’t true and then enforce that is a property of whiteness (or, in other contexts, misogyny, masculinism, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, thinnormativity, ablenormativity, or patriarchy). Thus, this privilege and enforcement might be seen as an act of racism, sexism, colonialism, fatphobia, transphobia, or any of the other applications of systemic power that Theory believes define the functional realities of everything. Examples of this kind of thinking are helpful to understanding just how ridiculous and tendentious it can be.
For example, the biology of sex (see also, gender and sexuality) being considered “true” by people who accept biology is often considered a transphobic or sexist application of power if they suggest that men and women are different, either physiologically or psychologically on average, respectively (see also, biological essentialism and sex essentialism). Teaching science in South Africa has been deemed “colonialist” and inappropriate, for example, in the “Science Must Fall” movement, and generally calls to “decolonize” the curriculum across education see knowledge claims as being the result of colonialist power (see also, postcolonial Theory and critical pedagogy). Calling obesity a health risk is deemed a fat-shaming, medicalizing, and healthist narrative that is used to oppress fat people according to fat studies. Here, medical truths are considered as being imposed upon obese people (see also, biopower). Examples of this sort are nearly endless because this is a high-priority interest and activity within the Theory and activism of Critical Social Justice.
Another result of this is that much of what is presented in defense or application of Critical Social Justice is considered to be “true for me” when people disagree. Because Critical Social Justice is centrally occupied with oppression understood through allegedly systemic power dynamics that pervade everything, a claim that something was oppressive being “true for the claimant” is the most usual context. Any such claim cannot be debated or disagreed with (see also, impact versus intent, shut up and listen, and white fragility) because it is incontrovertibly true under an epistemology that elevates “lived experience” as it is understood in Critical Social Justice (no possible epistemic resources exist that could challenge one’s claim of having experienced oppression). This approach, in practice, dramatically empowers offense-taking (see also, microaggression) and tends to make problems unsolvable.
Since the “lived experience” of oppression is deemed to be the only genuine gateway to truth under the thought of Critical Social Justice, it tends to adopt epistemologies (ways of knowing) that center the experience of oppression as revelatory of truths. Central among these is standpoint epistemology, particularly as it is understood under intersectionality. Though not strictly considered a “standpoint epistemology,” a related approach is the intentional inclusion of allegedly historically and/or systemically excluded and marginalized knowledge(s) and ways of knowing, which include tradition (but not Western ones), spiritual beliefs (but not Christian ones), magic, witchcraft, superstition, storytelling, and mythologies. Their status as having been systemically (and unjustly) excluded from the Western canon is taken as sufficient to validate the importance and value of their purported claims upon the “truth.”
Note again that correspondence to reality here is not considered “possible, or even desirable” (to paraphrase critical whiteness studies educator Robin DiAngelo – see also objectivity). One’s claim on the truth under this way of thinking appears to merely be that one has claimed it, but this is not quite correct because one’s claim on the truth is given more attention and weight if it comes from a “way of knowing” that centers lived experience of oppression (standpoint epistemology) or that has been systemically excluded (see also, research justice). Validity of method and methodological rigor cannot possibly enter the analysis—except as exclusionary applications of power from white, Western, sometimes male culture—because those would imply that there is some connection between reality and truth, which is denied for everything except oppression and power (thus, exclusion must be the result only of unfair applications of power, not methodological weakness or absence). Under such an analysis, only systemic marginalization establishes a superior claim on truth, and so “truth” in Critical Social Justice roughly means those beliefs that have been most oppressed by white, Western men (especially using science and reason to validate them).
Ablenormativity; Bias; Biological essentialism; Biopower; Cisnormativity; Colonialism; Critical; Critical pedagogy; Decoloniality; Discourse; Dominance; Episteme; Epistemic injustice; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; Eurocentric; Exclusion; Fat shaming; Fat studies; Fatphobia; Feminist empiricism; Foucauldian; Gender; Healthism; Hegemony; Heteronormativity; Identity politics; Impact versus intent; Inclusion; Injustice; Internalized dominance; Intersectionality; Knoweldge(s); Lived experience; Marginalization; Masculinism; Master’s tools; Medicalizing; Men; Meritocracy; Microaggression; Minoritize; Misogyny; Narrative; Objectivity; Oppression; Patriarchy; Positionality; Postcolonial Theory; Postmodern; Power-knowledge; Privilege; Race; Racial knowledge; Racism (systemic); Radical; Realities; Reality; Research justice; Science; Sex; Sex essentialism; Sexism (systemic); Sexuality; Shut up and listen; Social Justice; Standpoint epistemology; Systemic power; Theory; Thinnormativity; Transphobia; Ways of knowing; Western; White; White empiricism; White fragility; White mathematics; White science; Whiteness; Whiteness studies; Women
Source: Foucault, Michel. In Rabinow, Paul (ed.), The Foulcault Reader: An Introduction to Foulcault’s Thought. Penguin, 1991, pp. 72–73.
The important thing here, I believe, is that truth isn’t outside power, or lacking in power: contrary to a myth whose history and functions would repay further study, truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.
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. 114.
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 “Whom does this belief serve?”
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.
Objective: 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.
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. 55.
Mainstream academic knowledge refers to the concepts, paradigms, theories, and explanations that make up the traditional and established canon in the behavioral and social sciences. This type of knowledge is based on the belief that there is an objective truth and that with the right procedures and methods it is possible to attain this truth. For example, many university courses teach theories that explain the psychological, physical, and intellectual development of children as a cohesive group. This development is said to occur through predictable stages that can be named, studied, and applied to all children, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or gender identity. School knowledge refers to the facts and concepts presented in textbooks, teachers’ guides, and other aspects of the formal curriculum designed for use in schools.
Transformative academic knowledge refers to the concepts and explanations that challenge mainstream academic knowledge and that expand the canon. Transformative academic knowledge questions the idea that knowledge can ever be outside of human interests, perspectives, and values. Proponents of transformative academic knowledge assume that knowledge is not neutral and that it reflects the social hierarchies of a given society. Transformative academic knowledge recognizes that the social groups we belong to (such as race, class, and gender) necessarily shape our frame of reference and give us a particular—not a universal—perspective. Therefore, each of us has insight into some dimensions of social life but has limited understanding in others.
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. 224.[O]ne of the key skills in adopting a critical social justice perspective is asking questions about the meaning given to any event. In this example we would ask: From whose perspective is the story true? Whose perspectives are missing? Are all of the elements true, or were some of those elements (such as the neighborhood being ruled by a gang or Miguel’s mother being an addict) added to make the story more exciting or “real” (appealing to a mainstream audience who has come to expect these tropes)? How much was rearranged, added, or subtracted in order to create the dramatic pacing a movie requires, and who made these decisions? Do these decisions reinforce stereotypes, or challenge them? Asking questions such as these is an important first step in unpacking the social construction of knowledge.
Revision date: 4/26/20