My 42 years of life can be divided roughly into two periods. The first began with my birth in West Africa to Christian missionary parents. Though my family was forced to leave Africa when my siblings and I became deathly ill with malaria, our missionary-style life continued in Missouri’s Ozark region. My father pastored small churches and ended his career in ministry as a hospital chaplain, retiring only when the neurodegenerative disease that ultimately took his life rendered him unable to perform his duties.
In addition to providing spiritual guidance and comfort to congregants, hospital patients and grieving families, my father conducted a separate business as the owner of rental houses. This not only helped my dad support our large family, it also provided him a way to informally share the teachings of Christ through his day-to-day actions. He would allow renters to pay what they could, when they could, even if they fell months behind on their payments. He would drive renters who didn’t have their own transportation to doctor’s appointments, court dates and the grocery store. He would lend them tools, and sometimes money. His houses were modest and inexpensive, well-suited to the needy families, single mothers, ex-cons, and poor older adults who typically had no family support system. Renters sometimes took advantage of his kindness. He forgave them and stayed the course. I miss him.
In Africa, my mother educated women on hygiene and nutrition so that their babies and older children would have a greater chance to survive into adulthood. After returning to the United States, she worked for many years as a nurse. Once her own children were grown, she again felt the calling of missionary work. As part of a medical missionary team, she traveled to Thailand, Cambodia, Belarus and Haiti to deliver medical and educational services. Now retired and widowed, she volunteers at her church’s local mission, which helps feed and clothe the poor. I have no doubt that, like my late father, she will continue to serve the less fortunate as long as she is able to do so. That is who she is.
After finishing high school, I worked as a security guard and martial-arts instructor while attending the local commuter college in Missouri. During my senior year, and for a couple years thereafter, I worked in social services and community mental health as a case manager.
During that time, I witnessed the same symptoms of personal and family dysfunction that I’d become familiar with while helping my dad throughout my childhood with his rental properties. My clients consisted in large part of poor folks without high school diplomas or job training. Many had been abused or neglected by parents and romantic partners—and ignored by nearly everyone else. Some were homeless men plagued by mental illness and addiction. Others were women who loved their children but had proven unfit to care for them. I met young men who had promising futures until schizophrenia took hold of their brains, women who had accepted violent men as an expected part of life, young adults who gave up college dreams to provide care and income for relatives—and many others who, for any number of reasons, were simply unable to pull together their unraveled lives.
These clients typically presented themselves through a complex cocktail of toughness and fragility that can’t easily be described to those who have never lived or worked in this sort of environment. What I saw was not just a poverty of the pocketbook, but also one that extended to the culture, family and mind.
The second period of my life began when I decided to strike out on an academic path. I’d never really seen myself as an intellectual per se, but I’d come to enjoy scholarly research. And with a little nudging from a few of my former psychology professors, I took a shot at graduate school. With my wife and two small children, I left my hometown to pursue a PhD in psychology and become a behavioral scientist. I spent four years in grad school; then two years as a research fellow and assistant professor in England; followed by what has now been 11 years as a faculty member at a Midwestern American research university, where I study how humans seek meaning and social connection and what happens when these psychological needs are unmet.
I share this story of my life in these two distinct parts because I believe it has given me some insight into the darker side of the social-justice movement that has taken root in academia and the broader progressive culture. Other writers have argued that the secular left has turned social-justice ideology into their religion. I think there is merit to this argument and propose that, just like traditional religion, social justice is often exploited for personal and political purposes, which potentially further harms those most in need of our support.
Like politicians who show up at church for the cameras and sprinkle religious references into their speeches and interviews—but otherwise show no signs that the teachings of Christ guide their lives—many social-justice academics, writers, and activists seem more intent on gaining status within their political tribes and elite professional niches than on actually assisting truly disadvantaged and vulnerable human beings. There are individuals who are sincerely dedicated to the cause and are making a difference. We rarely hear from these folks because they are, like my parents, quietly and diligently working to help others.
It is notable that the most radical and chic forms of social-justice activism play out at elite universities, where tuition can cost more than the annual income of the average American family—not at the community colleges that working class and poor students of all races and ethnicities are more likely to attend. For many of these less fortunate students, higher education is an investment that they desperately need to monetize through study and hard work. They can’t afford to waste time playing identity politics. They are too broke to be woke.
Though it might grant social and professional benefits to members of the elite liberal class, engaging in scholarship and activism that demonizes men, white people, or heterosexuals doesn’t make the world more just, nor does providing students with empirically-unsupported implicit-bias training and “toxic masculinity” workshops. These practices bake the seeds of prejudice and discrimination into educational experiences that are supposedly focused on fighting prejudice and discrimination. In fact, the use of divisive and hateful language in the name of social justice is a red flag: Those on the front lines know there is too much at stake to burn bridges and attack others. They want allies, not enemies.
The world isn’t made more just by ignoring or trying to suppress scientific evidence that challenges one’s preferred worldview, encouraging witch-hunt methods to attack those who deviate from far-left orthodoxy, or promoting a culture of victimhood. These practices push away those who may otherwise support the cause.
Some of the greatest lessons I learned in actual social justice came from my parents, even if they didn’t use the term “social justice.” They showed me that one way to make the world more just is simply by taking responsibility for oneself and one’s family, so that limited community resources can go to those who are most in need. They taught me to treat people as individuals who share a common humanity, a strategy that has been backed by research examining how to reduce prejudice and promote intergroup harmony. They fostered a mentality of dignity and resilience, never letting us wallow is self-pity. I could go on.
My family lived in a part of the world plagued by mass poverty and disease. Here in the United States, I have seen up close the people in our communities who are truly suffering or unable to provide for themselves. And I realize that despite the fact that the Western world is becoming increasingly open-minded and tolerant, we are still sadly cursed with bigotry and hate. But I also know how to tell the difference between those working for a cause and those making a cause work for them. Beware of the false prophets of social justice.
Whether we call it social justice, God’s work, or something else, there are people on the left, right, and everywhere in-between working hard to study and solve the ills that infect our society, elevate humanity, fight injustice, and help those in need. These individuals often receive little or no public recognition. But there are also many who may be in the spotlight but, whether they realize it or not, are, at best, just in the way. Whether we are talking about traditional religions or their new secular substitutes, if you want to find the people who are making our world a more just place, don’t look in the spotlight. Look in the shadows.
Clay Routledge is a Quillette columnist and professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Scientific American. You can follow him on Twitter @clayroutledge
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