Thinking Critically About Social Justice

Thinking Critically About Social Justice

Uri Harris
Uri Harris
11 min read

Yesterday, the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) released a memo written by an attorney, Jayme Sophir, which determined that Google did not violate United States federal law when it fired James Damore. Sophir reasoned that references to psychometric literature on sex differences in personality were “discriminatory and constitute sexual harassment,” and on these grounds, Damore’s firing was justified. Following the release of the NLRB memo, a number of scientists on Twitter expressed alarm at the justifications provided within the memo, which appeared to relegate the discussion of sex differences outside the realm of constitutionally protected speech.

Sex differences are now "discriminatory & constitute sexual harassment." This will set scientific research back 50 years

— Dr. Debra W Soh (@DrDebraSoh) February 17, 2018

The NLRB’s determination has emerged after Damore, together with another former Google engineer, filed a class action lawsuit against the company alleging an institutionalised culture of harassment towards people with conservative or libertarian political views. Their complaint is eye-opening. Damore and Gudeman lay out in detail the many ways in which this harassment occurs: a pervasive environment of disparaging jokes and demeaning language amongst colleagues; a climate of bullying, mocking, and personal attacks from superiors and others in power; an open endorsement by superiors of bullying (referred to internally as social pecking); an unwillingness by superiors and administrators to act upon threats of violence; the use of incentive programmes to promote and celebrate harassment; a set of training programmes that foment hostility through emotionalised and unnuanced company-endorsed lectures; and a number of other mechanisms that disincentivise or punish political expression, which in Damore and Gudeman’s case eventually led to their dismissals.

Google is far from the only Silicon Valley company where this occurs. A recent survey suggests the vast majority of conservative and libertarian employees at Silicon Valley companies are hesitant of being themselves at work, and that all but the very liberal feel less comfortable expressing their political views in the aftermath of Damore’s very public dismissal. Some of the responses were remarkable. One libertarian respondent claimed there’s a “concerted purge of conservative employees at Apple.” A conservative respondent experienced colleagues openly mocking conservatives and had to sit through “cruel mockery of my home state while others nodded and laughed along.” A Google employee claimed to have lost multiple talented colleagues who resigned rather than continue in “an increasingly extreme, narrow-minded, and regressive environment.”

Silicon Valley has historically had a reputation for being quite libertarian, but it appears to be becoming increasingly intolerant towards conservatives and even libertarians. Companies seem to be rapidly adopting a culture of social justice that is far more consciously activist than the libertarianism and/or moderate liberalism that preceded it. As a consequence, conservatives and libertarians are now viewed less as people with different views, and more as obstacles to moral progress, thus justifying their harassment.

A similar trend seems to be taking place in other parts of society as well. The last few Oscars and Grammys clearly demonstrated a more overt embrace of social justice ideology by the mainstream entertainment industry than before. (Although undoubtedly due in part to Donald Trump’s election.) Likewise, psychologist Jonathan Haidt has been outspoken about the cultural shift towards social justice that has taken place at universities in recent years. Haidt also co-authored a 2015 paper which documented instances of discrimination and a hostile climate towards conservatives, as part of the explanation for why the number of conservatives in academia has been declining. And it’s not difficult to see how a conservative or libertarian would find working in the mainstream entertainment industry uncomfortable.

What has caused this rapid cultural shift? Haidt suggests it’s a combination of ideas that have been developing in left-leaning academic fields for a long time with recent societal shifts that have made these ideas more attractive or powerful to university students, including a more hands-on parenting style and the invention of social media. The ideas, as Haidt notes are: “organised around victims of oppression, it’s a vertical metaphor of privileged and oppressor people, and victims. This idea that everything is power.”

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The methodology underpinning much of the social justice perspective is known as critical theory, which draws heavily on German philosopher Karl Marx’s notion of ideology. Because the bourgeoisie control the means of production in a capitalist society, Marx suggested, they control the culture. Consequently, the laws, beliefs, and morality of society come to reflect their interests. And importantly, workers are unaware this is the case. In other words, capitalism creates a situation where the interests of a particular group of people—those who control society—are made to appear to be necessary truths or universal values, when in fact they are not.

The founders of critical theory developed this notion. By identifying the distorting effects power had on society’s beliefs and values, they believed they could achieve a more accurate picture of the world. And when people saw things as they really were, they would liberate themselves. Theory, they suggested, always serves the interests of certain people; traditional theory, because it is uncritical towards power, automatically serves the powerful, while critical theory, because it unmasks these interests, serves the powerless. All theory is political, they said, and by choosing critical theory over traditional theory one chooses to challenge the status quo, in accordance with Marx’s famous statement: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Gradually, critical theorists broadened their attention to other forms of oppression—gender, race, and sexual orientation especially—but the methodology remained the same: to identify the hidden and complex ways in which power and oppression permeate society, and then dismantle them. A simple illustration of this is given in this short video.

The video presents a historical analysis of the word marijuana, showing it to be rooted in ethnic stereotypes of Mexican immigrants. It then argues that using the word marijuana perpetuates an image of Hispanic people as drug-users, and then finally suggests people stop using the word marijuana and instead use the word cannabis, which is Latin and has no ethnic association.

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There’s something missing from the social justice narrative though, demonstrated by the situation in Silicon Valley and those other fields I mentioned: it doesn’t take into account the power and oppression it exerts itself. In a society where social justice advocates are outside the dominant power structure—as was the case when these ideas were originally articulated—this doesn’t matter much, since their power is negligible. That’s increasingly no longer the case, as social justice advocates have come to exert major influence over central areas of society, and consequently have also gained substantial power over society as a whole. Clearly, an accurate model of societal power must include social justice ideology and its advocates.

If this seems strange, it’s because social justice advocates have created a portrayal of themselves as being outside the flow of power; everyone else is exerting power or being oppressed by it, while they are simply observing it, and any power they do exert is selfless and unoppressive. Oppression is class-based, we’ve been conditioned to think, or based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. We therefore don’t see the power and oppression exerted by social justice advocates, because it’s based on none of those things; it’s based on values. And there’s nothing selfless about it. People exert power to shape the world according to their values, while preventing others from doing the same. In fact, there are close similarities between value oppression and other forms of oppression.

Take for instance morality. Marx proposed that a society’s morality serves the interests of its ruling class, while purporting to be universal. Capitalist societies, he argued, have a morality centred around classical liberal principles such as the sanctity of private property and the freedom from government intervention, combined with religious virtues such as the Protestant work ethic, self-reliance, accepting one’s lot, and expecting to be rewarded in the afterlife. Workers internalise these values as their morality, thus preventing them from questioning the status quo and improving their situation. Instead, they dutifully work hard without complaining, while considering attempts to change the system immoral. Morality is a tool the bourgeoisie uses to ensure that workers act in its interests, rather than in their own.

An analogous claim can be made of a social justice society, it seems to me. This is most obvious in parts of society where social justice ideology is strongest. In those parts of society, values like equality, liberation, and cosmopolitanism aren’t just treated as values—organisations of society that different people prefer to different degrees—they’re considered moral. Consequently, conflicting values are considered immoral: people who value a more competitive society, or a smaller government, or a stronger national identity, or a tougher culture, or more traditional family structures, or less immigration aren’t just regarded as having different values; they’re regarded as bad people.

This is especially clear in the context of immigration, which is something I’ve witnessed myself. I grew up in a part of Europe undergoing significant changes due to immigration, and I lived close enough to troubled areas to see how working-class people were especially affected by rising crime rates and cultural clashes. Yet there was a virtual ban in mainstream society on people expressing their concerns. Anyone doing so would be met by a unified front of academics, journalists, and cultural figures expressing their moral outrage, wrapped up in sophisticated words and scientific-sounding terminology like xenophobia. (Further implying that being critical of mass immigration is a psychological disorder.) And being morally tainted could have serious consequences for a person’s career and personal relations.

This is unquestionably an exertion of power. Morality is used here by the intellectual and cultural elite as a tool to suppress the expression of values by people they disagree with. By embedding their morality in thick moral concepts like xenophobia, producing academic theories supporting their position, and filling the culture with idealisations of their values, they produce an impenetrable web of power that—combined with the threat of direct moral condemnation and its social consequences—shuts down any expression of alternative values, or even of information that threatens the idealised picture of the dominant values. Hence, you get situations where people in these areas are afraid to come home at night and are wondering how things could have changed so quickly, yet no one is allowed to talk about it. And when someone does say something, they are met with a wave of sophisticated terminology backed by academic credentials that they have no way of parsing. All they know is something is wrong, but they’re unable to parse the academic discourse, and so they’re effectively shut down. And as conservatives and libertarians become increasingly scarce in academia, academia becomes more and more a tool of power to oppress their values.

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So, assuming we accept that power and oppression work on values, what do we do about it—should we make conservatives and libertarians protected groups and add them to the oppression hierarchy? No, I don’t think that’s the answer. The larger lesson from including value oppression in our societal power analysis is that it reveals the limitations of social justice ideology. We can’t simply set as a goal to ‘fight oppression’ and ‘dismantle power structures’ because social justice ideology doesn’t just do those things, it simultaneously creates its own power structures and oppression. Social justice advocates don’t see this because their power analysis is incomplete; it doesn’t include value oppression.

Including values in our power analysis makes it clear there can be no such thing as simply removing power, because it takes power to remove power. Consequently, power doesn’t disappear, it redirects. In order to remove what they perceive as oppression—say by class, or race, or gender—social justice advocates have to erect their own power structure. They reshape morality, the culture, the language, and the legal system to make people do what they otherwise wouldn’t. And the more they try to eliminate those other forms of oppression, the more tightly they have to oppress people’s values. To increase freedom on one dimension, one must remove it on another.

This isn’t just theoretical speculation. Some of the most explicitly social justice-oriented societies ever to exist were the communist regimes of the 20th century, and they were characterised by tremendous oppression of their citizens. Why—when the explicit aim of these regimes was to liberate their citizens from oppression—did the opposite occur? The answer, surely, is that they made the same mistake contemporary social justice advocates make: not including themselves in the power analysis. (Which is especially questionable when you’re the dictator.)

This means they could send millions of political opponents and dissenters to prison camps, have a population living in terror of a secret police ready to pounce on any word deemed subversive, erect walls manned by armed guards to prevent people from leaving, yet consider themselves liberators for having reduced class differences. This is what happens when you: 1) base your ideology on the dismantling of power, 2) leave out important dimensions of power in your analysis, including your own exertion of it.

The irony of doing a proper power analysis—not the selective power analysis of social justice ideology, but a complete one—is that you end up with something not that far from the Hobbesian view of human nature that formed the foundation of classical liberal thought, and which social justice advocates dislike. Granted, you have a much better understanding of the way power permeates language and culture and morality, but the underlying idea is still the same: people try to shape the world to their values; these values often conflict; the best way to deal with this is through an open society that allows for free debate and which has mechanisms in place to limit the power of any person or ideology.

Social justice ideology thinks it can remove power from society, but it thinks this only because it omits value oppression from the analysis, which is the dimension in which its advocates are exerting their power. Societal power doesn’t go away, it simply accumulates where there’s a gap in their analysis. In the extreme case, you get the absurd situation of communist dictators proclaiming themselves liberators while running some of the most oppressive regimes in modern history.

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Social justice advocates need to acknowledge this and improve their analytical approach. The main problem, I think, is that they’ve been misled by their own rhetoric, especially the notion of criticality—derived from critical theory—that permeates the social justice literature. A common theme is that they are critical, while other people accept things as they are. Some writers have even suggested that social justice advocates are the true inheritors of the Socratic approach to philosophy and/or of Enlightenment thinking.

This confuses two types of criticality. It’s certainly true that social justice advocates are highly critical, but this is not what distinguished the Socratic approach or Enlightenment thought from previous traditions. In fact, the most critical people are usually religious people, especially fundamentalist religious people. Why? Because they have an explicit norm, such as The Bible, to which they can compare everything and criticise whatever doesn’t match up. It’s not criticality that distinguishes Socratic and Enlightenment methodology from religious tradition, it’s meta-criticality: the process of continually digging up one’s assumptions and methods and questioning them, potentially indefinitely. In religion, especially fundamentalist religion, certain beliefs are beyond question; they are sacred and must if necessary be taken on faith. This is what Socratic and Enlightenment thought diverged from, regarding nothing as sacred and treating all beliefs and methods as provisional.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach, of course. Explicitly declaring one’s own beliefs provisional reduces the force of their criticism of society or other people’s beliefs, which is part of why religions can be so powerful; they offer certainty and their adherents can criticise everything around them with confidence. Social justice ideology is far more like this than like the Socratic or Enlightenment methodology. Its advocates are highly critical of society and other people’s beliefs, but they mostly reject meta-criticality, often going so far as to shut down anyone who criticises their beliefs.

A recent article by undergraduate student Coleman Hughes describing the teaching style of his two different philosophy courses demonstrate this well. His one course, a standard philosophy course, is full of meta-criticality; all theories are critiqued—often by the professor presenting them—and nothing is sacred. This is the Enlightenment approach that has become the norm at Western universities. The second course, a social justice course that combines intersectional feminism and philosophy, is entirely different; while the professor is highly critical of society, the theories presented are treated as sacred and criticism of them is unthinkable. Hughes compares it to being in a temple. This is neither Socratic nor Enlightenment-inspired, it’s a return to a pre-Enlightenment approach to knowledge where beliefs are sacred.

There is certainly value in analysing power and oppression in society, including the many ways in which they work beneath the surface. But any such analysis must include value oppression, and describe the mechanisms through which power is used to suppress views that dissent from the dominant discourse. And this requires including social justice advocates in the analysis, which invariably means criticising social justice ideology itself. The fact that many social justice advocates try to prevent this should be a major red flag to anyone genuinely interested in the pursuit of truth. Furthermore, as the failures of the many 20th century communist regimes showed all too clearly, there are few things more dangerous than trying to dismantle power structures while simultaneously having major gaps in the framework through which power is identified. It’s a recipe for disaster.

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