Conformism, Features, Politics, Top Stories

The Institutionalization of Social Justice

Over the past few years, social justice activists have demonstrated an increased ability to suppress controversial viewpoints. To take a few examples:

A few months ago, mathematician Theodore Hill described in a Quillette essay how progressive groups were able to get a research paper of his on a biological phenomenon known as the “Greater Male Variability Hypothesis” removed from two separate journals, as well as to intimidate his co-author into silence.

Hill’s article was published just a week after another article by endocrinologist Jeffrey Flier, former dean of Harvard Medical School, who described how social justice activists had managed to get an academic journal to initiate a review of an already-published research paper by Brown University medical researcher Lisa Littman on gender dysphoria. Brown also deleted a reference to the paper from its website.

Both Hill and Flier point out that they’ve never experienced anything like this before. Hill wrote: “In my 40 years of publishing research papers I had never heard of the rejection of an already-accepted paper.” Flier noted: “In all my years in academia, I have never once seen a comparable reaction from a journal within days of publishing a paper that the journal already had subjected to peer review, accepted and published.”

Pressure to suppress controversial viewpoints isn’t just coming from external activists. In many cases, social justice activists within organizations have managed to exert pressure.

Last year, Google engineer James Damore was fired after an internal memo he wrote was leaked to technology website Gizmodo, causing an uproar within the company. His resulting lawsuit offered some insight into how social justice ideology has become institutionalized through training programs and lectures, and is now being implemented into a variety of company policies. This extends to Google’s products as well. Podcast host Joe Rogan announced on his podcast in February about having dinner with a highly ranked YouTube executive who, when asked why a user had received a community guidelines strike for putting a video of a conversation between authors Sam Harris and Douglas Murray on his playlist, was told that it must have been “hate speech.” (Murray is a prominent critic of contemporary European immigration policies.)

Ex-Google engineer James Damore. Photo: Andy Ngo

That same person, when asked why videos with psychologist Jordan Peterson are often flagged and demonetized, reportedly responded that he’s “a troublemaker.” Last year, Peterson was locked out of his YouTube account due to allegedly violating its Terms of Service, in the midst of widespread crackdown from YouTube against conservative channels. When Peterson reported the story to a conservative news outlet, his account was restored without explanation. (YouTube is a Google subsidiary.)

It isn’t just Google. A recent survey suggested that intolerance towards non-progressives is spreading throughout Silicon Valley, with one respondent claiming there’s a “concerted purge of conservative employees at Apple.”

It’s important to note, of course, that these are select incidents. Controversial research papers are published all the time. Harris, Murray, and Peterson all regularly speak in front of large audiences without issue. Peterson has sold two million copies of his recent book and is in the midst of a worldwide tour.

But it’s also clear that if the most ardent social justice activists could have their way, these restrictions would become the norm. And given what appears to be an increased ability of these activists to exert influence, especially through powerful corporations like Google and Apple, it would be foolish not to take this possibility seriously.

Indeed, many centrists and conservatives are deeply concerned. Following the forced resignation of Ian Buruma as editor of the New York Review of Books, Quillette founder Claire Lehmann wrote an editorial assuring readers that her publication wouldn’t give in to activist pressure and that its decentralized organization made it tougher to attack. Immediately, several commenters pointed out with seemingly genuine concern Quillette’s dependence on a payment and technology infrastructure run by companies that could be pressured to decline its business.

This isn’t just limited to speech. Under the charge of cultural appropriation, social justice activists (both inside and outside organizations) have tried to use cultural power—and in some cases institutional power—to restrict the clothes people wear and the food they eat.

Following the birth of the #MeToo movement, activists have in many cases succeeded in convincing universities and other organizations to introduce stricter regulations on interpersonal contact. As an example, Netflix has reportedly implemented a set of rules that prohibits lingering hugs, flirting, asking for a colleague’s phone number, and looking at anyone for longer than five seconds.

Recently, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority has said it will ban advertisements that encourage gender stereotypes, after reportedly conducting a year-long inquiry into the matter.

In some cases, efforts by social justice activists involve not just restrictions on speech and behavior, but compulsion. UCLA now requires all professors applying for a tenure-track position to submit an “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion” statement.

Taken together, these incidents suggest a desire by social justice activists to regulate a wide range of speech and behavior and an increasing ability to do so. But what are they ultimately working to achieve? Perhaps the best place to try to understand this is at universities, where social justice activism seems to originate and where the culture that supports it is strongest.

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Earlier this year, former Evergreen State College professor Bret Weinstein testified to the US House of Representatives on challenges to the freedom of speech on college campuses. Weinstein and and his wife, Heather Heying—also a professor—left Evergreen last year after they were targeted in a series of escalating student protests that threatened to become violent.

In his testimony, Weinstein claimed there’s a “de facto code of faculty conduct” at Evergreen, where “one’s right to speak is now dictated by adherence to an ascendant orthodoxy in which one’s race, gender, and sexual orientation are paramount,” that student protestors are “unwitting tools of a witting movement,” and that “what is occurring on college campuses is about power and control.”

A VICE documentary report conducted shortly after the protests noted that “many students told us they’ve been hesitant to publicly dissent,” and a former student of Weinstein told the reporter she was “afraid of having a nuanced opinion, because I’m afraid my opinion will be stigmatized.” Evergreen president George Bridges commented that, “there is this issue of what I can say and what I can’t say, and who’s going to dismiss me or demean me for saying it, and that is new in the American discourse.”

These issues aren’t unique to Evergreen. A months-long investigation into the state of free speech at elite private school, Tufts University, by The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education last year found that students have been “systematically investigated, interrogated by police, and punished by Tufts for speech the university claims, generally, to permit,” and that “numerous students told us the campus climate is ‘toxic’ for free inquiry, with a passionate but small and exceptionally like-minded student body attempting to silence ‘offensive’ or disfavored speech—even reporting it to administrators and police, or characterizing it as a literal act of ‘violence.’”

Also last year, writer William Deresiewicz argued in a long essay based on personal experiences that elite private colleges have become “religious schools,” where “[t]o attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.” There’s a narrowly defined “dogma,” he argued, and to defy it is to commit “heresy.”

Now, there has been pushback against the narrative of campus intolerance from some social scientists, which in turn has led to further counter-arguments. Psychologist Lee Jussim suggested in a comprehensive overview earlier this year that there is an intolerance problem, but that it has been overblown in the conservative news media.

That said, these discussions have naturally focussed on larger incidents where invited speakers have been protested or faculty members fired. The more interesting phenomenon described by Deresiewicz and Weinstein is a shift in the everyday culture on campuses, characterized by students policing themselves and others according to a narrowly defined dogma. Consequently, this policing is not primarily directed at conservatives, but at other progressives.

But why care so much about what’s happening on college campuses? In his testimony, Weinstein suggested this “happened on college campuses first because colleges are soft targets,” and is now spreading to other institutions, including “the highest levels of the tech sector and the press,” with the courts not far behind. There’s good reason to pay close attention to highly progressive colleges as a potential window into the future. Indeed, this does appear to be happening, as described earlier.

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How do we make sense of this? It might seem strange to invoke French philosopher Michel Foucault, since he is often associated with the contemporary social justice movement, but few people have been able to understand and critique conformity as well as him. If we want to understand why so much conformity is being produced in progressive environments, and why it is spreading, Foucault is a good place to turn.

I would argue, in fact, that many of the mechanisms that Foucault characterized as producing conformity in the earlier criminal justice system have close analogues in what we might describe as the emerging social justice system. Two are especially central:

  1. Individualized Reformation

Conformity comes from people adhering to shared norms, which have existed throughout history. But what changed with the modern criminal justice system, Foucault argued, is the focus on reformation rather than punishment. This shift brought with it a methodology of categorizing and studying criminals as individuals so that they could be reformed more effectively. The more individualized the analysis, the more tailored the reformation process could be.

So, while individuality is often celebrated as an accomplishment of modernity, Foucault pointed out that it could actually be used as a tool to produce more conformity. By examining people as individuals, one can determine more precisely how and why they deviate from the norm and figure out more accurately how to make them conform.

And indeed, what separates contemporary social justice activism from earlier approaches like Marxism is the extent to which it has become more fine-tuned, most notably through the development of the analytic framework of intersectionality. What characterises intersectionality is that it allows for many dimensions of privilege. In principle, each person has their own unique combination of privileges.

This individualized conception of privilege clearly has its advantages over, say, the sweeping class accusations of former communist regimes, which in many cases condemned people for privileges they didn’t have, but it also has its downsides. The more precisely privileges can be specified, the more precisely they can be corrected for. So, while this might be more effective at reducing inequalities, it’s also more effective at producing conformity.

Kurt Vonnegut illustrated an extreme version of this idea quite vividly in his dystopian 1961 short story Harrison Bergeron. In the story, equality laws require that every person be fitted with “handicaps” that make them equal. These handicaps cover a variety of different personal traits. While satirical, it demonstrates the notion of individualized equality-enforcement. The more accurately a person’s privilege can be ascertained, and across the more dimensions, the more accurately the handicap can be designed to correct for them.

Of course, no social justice advocate thinks like this, but the principle is similar. An example is the “progressive stack,” which attempts to rank various combinations of privilege and directs people to speak in reverse order.

More importantly, people can be reformed through privilege training, which can be broken down into specific types of privileges based on race, gender, sexuality, class, and many other dimensions. People are taught their specific privileges and how to correct for them. The more their privileges can be broken down and individualized, the more precise the reformation process can be.

(A video assembled by Evergreen alumnus Benjamin Boyce demonstrates this kind of reformation process. Footage of a staff meeting showing staff members standing around in a circle while a white staffer says: “I refuse to let whiteness consume me.” At that same meeting, staffers were asked to play “the believing game” if they had questions about a proposed equity plan and to board a metaphorical canoe to signal being on-board with the plan.)

  1. Self-governance.

Before the French Revolution, Foucault showed that criminal trials were conducted in secret and were often quite arbitrary due to the absolute power of the monarchy and its appointed judges. After the Revolution, there was an emphasis on making criminal justice as transparent as possible.

This, of course, had many benefits. Yet, a by-product of it was that regular people became more familiar with the system; to some extent they internalized the system and became participants, rather than subjects. The logical conclusion of this was represented in British philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a hypothetical prison where the prisoners could be watched at all times, not just by the guards but even by the general public. The Panopticon represents the idea of the transparent and democratized criminal justice system, instituted during modernity, taken to its endpoint.

Here, again, there are obvious parallels to social justice. In fact, far more so than criminal justice, social justice is conducted in this fashion. Activists internalize the norms of social justice and monitor their surroundings for people violating them. College campuses, and increasingly social media and even broader society, are becoming more Panopticon-like, where everyone is observing everyone else for violations of the rules of social justice.

What’s interesting is that there is very little formal authority directing this. Students internalize the rules of the system and essentially become its agents. They perform the work that in the criminal justice system would fall to judges and prosecutors, but because they’ve internalized the norms of social justice, they do it entirely of their own accord, providing them with a sense of purpose.

Even more interestingly, perhaps, is how academics, especially in the social sciences and humanities, do what in the criminal justice system would fall to lawmakers. Because social justice is essentially defined by a single norm—equality—defining its laws is reduced to identifying behaviors that produce inequality. So, passing laws in the criminal justice system is replaced with identifying behaviors that produce inequality. Here, also, this is mostly self-motivated as academics too have internalized the norms of social justice.

So, what for criminal justice is a vertical system of lawmaking and prosecution becomes for social justice a horizontal system, where academics identify inequality-producing behaviors which are passed on to activists, who monitor society for these behaviors and utilize shaming and other mechanisms to punish the people who perform them.

There are other similarities one could point to. For example, Foucault pointed out how crime novels and other cultural products helped reinforce the legitimacy of the criminal justice system in the eyes of regular people. Something similar could be said about contemporary social justice-oriented books and movies: they both reinforce and help legitimize the system.

Also, there is the notion of docility. Foucault showed how the criminal justice system inherited military methods of discipline and combined them with scientific insights to develop practices to make criminals docile and thus more receptive to being reformed. Here, also, there are parallels to social justice. Privilege training, implicit bias training, and other forms of training function as a means of disciplining people to become more docile over time and thus less resistant to social justice reformation, even when faced with severe accusations.

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These parallels are interesting, I think, because they suggest we might be experiencing an institutionalization of social justice in a way we haven’t seen before, perhaps mirroring the development of the modern criminal justice system, which it might eventually replace, at least in part.

Here it’s useful to realize that, while the modern criminal justice system with its transparency and democratized lawmaking seems natural, it’s a very recent phenomenon. There’s nothing in principle preventing something similar happening with social justice.

As part of this process, contemporary social justice has increasingly let go of what now look like naïve Marxian ideas of revolution and universal liberation. Instead, it has solidified from within to encompass large parts of society, from academia to the culture to major corporations to the legal system to politics, while adopting a more incremental and pragmatic approach. This is what happens when something becomes institutionalized.

But there’s a lot to be concerned about. The extent to which highly progressive universities have become conformist and dogmatic as they have adopted this is troubling. But we can now see why: use of analytic individualization tools to reform people of their privilege combined with a self-governing structure where people internalize the norms of social justice and continually monitor themselves and each other for violations is bound to produce a high level of conformity.

Yet, even these concerns of conformity and suppression of dissent pale in comparison to what might happen as technology continues to develop. China, which has already instituted a system of social credit combined with wide-ranging surveillance technology, provides a glimpse of this. This could become totalitarian very rapidly, especially as governments continue to work with Google, Facebook, and other technology companies to regulate speech.

Feature photo by Andy Ngo.


Uri Harris is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @safeortrue.