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What the Right Gets Wrong about Social Justice Culture

When moral visions clash, it’s common for people to assume their opponents have bad motives rather than different perspectives. And it’s usually wrong. If you advocate some policy you believe will save lives, whether it’s a plan for fighting COVID-19, increasing health-care coverage, or reducing homicide, your opponents probably don’t oppose your plan because they want more people to die. They may think their own plan will save lives, or they may be concerned about other values entirely. You may very well have fundamental moral disagreements with them, but the thing you hate most about their position probably isn’t what’s driving them.

We see this in the current debates over the new social justice movement. The critics of social justice activists sometimes talk as if what’s driving the activists is a kind of oversensitivity, as if they’re the equivalent of small children having tantrums to get attention. In 2016, for example, an Iowa state legislator introduced the “Suck It up, Buttercup” bill, which would have fined universities offering counseling and “cry rooms” to students upset about the 2016 presidential election. And in 2018 then-US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a speech about threats to free speech on college campuses, warned that schools were creating a generation of “sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes.”

The social justice activists aren’t snowflakes, though; they’re not people who just haven’t learned to suck it up. Sessions and others may perceive them that way—that is, the sensitivity the activists often display may be what they object to—but surely the activists themselves and those inspired by them are driven by moral concerns, by a vision of how to improve the world. Failing to understand that leads the activists’ critics to underestimate them. Even as the critics have scoffed that the activists will never make it out in the real world, corporations, major newspapers, mainstream politicians, and others out in the real world have begun adopting and implementing these activists’ ideas.

The “snowflake” language fails to capture the moral seriousness of social justice activists. If you understand them mainly as undisciplined and self-absorbed, you’ll expect the movement to fizzle out, but it’s clear that’s not happening, and won’t happen anytime soon. The activists’ seriousness is better captured by critics who see them as adherents of something like a new religion. John McWhorter has written about what he calls the new religion of anti-racism, with its own notions of sin and Judgment Day and its own rituals. For example, anti-racist classes and seminars commonly teach whites to regularly acknowledge their privilege, which McWhorter sees as a “self-standing, totemic act… based on the same justification as… fundamental sinfulness is as a Christian.”

This is closer to the mark, but the problem with many of these comparisons is that they’re coming from those who have negative views of both the social justice movement and religion. McWhorter says that some of the key anti-racist ideas aren’t very well thought out, but that this is a feature of religion: “It is inherent to a religion that one is to accept certain suspensions of disbelief. Certain questions are not to be asked, or if asked, only politely—and the answer one gets, despite being somewhat half-cocked, is to be accepted as doing the job.” Others may point to the “cancel culture” aspects of the social justice movement and compare it to religious people persecuting heretics, apostates, and unbelievers. This is all fine as it goes, but it is limited to criticism as opposed to analysis, and it overlooks a more fundamental aspect of the social justice movement: that social justice culture is a moral culture, similar in some ways and different in others to other moral cultures. It also overlooks other, more positive ways the movement resembles religious movements.

Social justice culture as moral culture

In 2014 Jason Manning and I first wrote about the rise of a new moral culture. We called it victimhood culture because among those who embrace it, victimhood comes to act as a kind of moral status. While there are right-wing versions of it, most of the activists embracing this new culture are on the Left, and they see themselves as pursuing social justice. This culture, then, which can also be called social justice culture, is a moral framework concerned primarily with documenting and fighting oppression.

This new moral culture differs from prior ones, particularly in dealing with conflict. The honor cultures of many traditional societies valued bravery above all else, and in these societies people needed to stand up for themselves, often by engaging in violence, to demonstrate they weren’t cowards and wouldn’t let others take advantage of them or insult them. A duel over an insult, which seems so strange to most of us, made sense in this context. Surely if someone calls me a liar, we might think, our firing guns at one another doesn’t prove I’m not a liar. But what it does prove is that I’m not willing to let such an insult stand without a fight, that I’m willing to risk death to try avenging it. It may not prove I’m honest, but it does demonstrate my bravery, which may be more consequential.

In the United States and elsewhere, honor culture eventually gave way to dignity culture. It became more important to recognize one’s own and others’ inherent worth, so reputations weren’t so important. People came to believe they should let most insults stand, and that they should rely on the legal system for solving more serious disputes.

Social justice culture is similar to honor culture in that people might be concerned even with small slights and insults (microaggressions) that would be ignored by people in a dignity culture, but it’s similar to dignity culture in that people often appeal to authorities and other third parties rather than handling the slights themselves. The elevation of one virtue over others—from demonstrating bravery in honor cultures, to recognizing the worth of every individual in dignity cultures, and opposing oppression in social justice cultures—occurs along with different ways of conceiving of and responding to transgressions. It is important to note in this context that people immersed in different moral cultures commonly find each other’s behavior offensive or incomprehensible. And just as those in dignity cultures object to the violence of honor cultures as being foolish and cruel, and just as those in honor cultures object to the avoidance of conflict or the appeal to law in dignity cultures as cowardly and weak, those in dignity cultures sometimes see social justice activists as self-absorbed and childish—snowflakes. What they miss is that their behavior makes sense given their assumptions. That doesn’t mean it’s always sincere—people don’t always have pure motives when they express moral outrage and condemn wrongdoing—but it seems it often is, and it’s probably as sincere as that of any other activist group.

That the activists are usually sincere doesn’t mean that they’re right. I have been writing for some time about the threats the new culture poses to free speech and due process. But those who are concerned about problems arising from the new culture would do well to understand that these problems don’t come because people just haven’t learned how to be adults, or how to live in the real world. Problems that arise come from the culture’s elevation of social justice concerns above all else and from the interpretation of nearly all human interaction and all social institutions in terms of oppression and victimhood.

Social justice culture as religion

Social justice culture is a moral culture, like honor or dignity culture. It’s also a political ideology, like Marxism or liberalism. But is social justice culture also a religion, like Christianity or Islam? It depends on how we define it. In her book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, Tara Isabella Burton makes the case that social justice culture is a kind of faith, and the most likely contender for a new civil religion.

Burton draws from social scientists in identifying the basic elements of religion as providing meaning, purpose, community, and ritual. What’s key though is that in our highly fragmented society people draw from religious traditions, spiritual practices, pop culture, diet plans, political ideologies, and hobbies in different ways to create their own personalized sources of meaning, purpose, community, and ritual. So the important question isn’t always whether something is or isn’t a religion—whether it’s CrossFit, SoulCycle, Harry Potter, transhumanism, witchcraft, positive thinking, the prosperity gospel, or the men’s movement. The question is how people draw from these sources to create their own remixed religion. Some people may immerse themselves totally in a single practice, while others, say, draw meaning from one source, purpose from another, and community and ritual from yet another.

Unlike many of the other new frameworks of belief, social justice culture provides a comprehensive vision of right and wrong, and of our place in the world, and as it becomes more institutionalized, it’s becoming the most likely contender for a new civil religion. As Burton puts it, “It provides both an explanation for evil (an unjust society that transcends any one agentic individual and, more specifically, straight white men) as well as a language, symbol set, and collection of rituals (from checking one’s privilege to calling out someone else, to engaging in enlightened activism) with which to combat that evil force… The new world that will inevitably arise from the ashes of patriarchal, racist, homophobic, repressive, Christian society will be infinitely better, fairer, and more loving than what has come before.”

The future of social justice culture

It’s clear that social justice culture is here to stay. It’s not a passing fad, and those who embrace it aren’t going to give it up when they leave college campuses and enter the workplace. Increasingly it is the culture of the workplace.

That doesn’t mean that social justice culture in its purest form, the form embraced by its most zealous advocates, will ever have widespread appeal. Remember that in a culture of remixed religion, people often draw piecemeal from different traditions and practices. Many of those who are partly connected to social justice culture likewise draw from it selectively, or in combination with other perspectives and practices. As the culture becomes more widespread, it may moderate and change.

However it plays out, those who have problems with the new culture, or with aspects of it, aren’t going to get anywhere simply by dismissing it or mocking it. To the extent that social justice culture offers a new moral vision, they’ll need to offer an alternative moral vision. It’s not sufficient to just offer skepticism or mockery; critics must offer alternative sources of meaning, purpose, community, and ritual. Whether the alternative vision is just the older culture of dignity, and whether the alternative religion, in the sense meant by Burton, is one of the older religions, like Christianity, or one of the older political ideologies, like liberalism, remains to be seen. It could also be something entirely new, or even a synthesis of social justice culture and something else, but it’s also possible that the social forces that gave rise to the emergence of the new culture will inhibit the acceptance of alternatives. And if alternative visions are successfully inhibited, social justice culture really will become our new civil religion.


Bradley Campbell is an associate professor of sociology at California State University, Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter 
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Comments

  1. They seem religious in their zeal, the fact that anyone who even marginally disagrees is ostracized. If they’re truly trying to make a better place for all of us, then they should try a more reason and dialectical approach.
    I think there are many on the right who would like to find some common ground and to possibly tone down the rhetoric. Both sides are becoming more entrenched, because they can’t find that common ground, and the hatred and resentment is growing by the minute.

  2. “To the extent that social justice culture offers a new moral vision, they’ll need to offer an alternative moral vision.”

    I think this explains a big part of Jordan Peterson’s popularity.

    I’m old enough to remember Billy Graham, who traveled the world filling stadiums with people who wanted a moral vision.

  3. This is the first article I’ve read recently comparing Social Justice Culture with religion. That some consider it the “most likely contender for a new civil religion” is unsurprising to me; among most of my colleagues and many of my friends, Social Justice Culture and its terminology has most certainly taken root. The concentration on purpose, community, and ritual is also unsurprising. In January I spent a few days with a Hasidic Jewish community, and one of the most remarkable things I noticed was the degree to which children and adults alike explicitly talked about fulfilling their purpose in their community (and Hasidic Jewish communities certainly aren’t lacking in rituals, either). Granted, this was striking to me because I, like most Westerners, don’t live in a nearly closed community on the right of the spectrum. Nevertheless, as often happens at these times, I return to reflect on purpose, community, and ritual, as I ceased attending church years ago, and like many in the West without the built-in spiritual community that churches and other houses of worship provide, many of us poke around, as the author noted, in all kinds of different practices as we try to cobble together our own individual sense of purpose, community and ritual. For many, Social Justice Culture certainly fills the bill, what with its comprehensive vision of right and wrong, as well as that of our place in the world, as the author notes. So yes, while “snowflakes” and their deeds cause many on the right to laugh, many of these folks on the right haven’t even noticed that the ground is moving right out from underneath many of them, and it is increasingly they, the ones on the right, who are finding themselves to be in a smaller boat. That’s true where I live, at any rate, although I’m sure SJC will take more time to permeate western Iowa, rural Alabama, etc.

    I identify with the center-left, and I often find myself at odds with my friends and colleagues who’ve drunk the unadulterated SJC Kool-Aid. In a recent discussion, I found myself arguing behalf of Columbus statues remaining in place, as well as on behalf of using the American flag in protest marches. Both of these opinions were very unpopular with two groups, but I can persistent enough and can talk circles around most of them so that at the very least, they simply stop trying to argue. That said, there are far more ominous tendencies among my SJC peeps: the desire to change the flag, the desire to “rethink” last names so as to eliminate an insidious element of the patriarchy, and even the desire to DESTROY the White House and Capitol Building because they were built in part by slaves. Because they are friends and colleagues, and because I don’t fear that their vision will be implemented anytime soon, I can speak calmly with them about how many of their ideas are completely bonkers. In an America where these would come to outnumber the rest of us, though, I’m a bit wary of what could happen.

  4. The social justice activists aren’t snowflakes, though; they’re not people who just haven’t learned to suck it up.

    The article is wrong about this. There clearly are snowflakes that are part of the social Left. The author seems to conflate SJWs (social justice warriors) with snowflakes. These are two different groups.

    A snowflake is a person in denial of reality and who seeks out a space where facts that would cause them grief are excluded. Whereas a SJW would actively attempt to suppress the Right’s speech wherever possible a snowflake would just be happy that the SJW’s have created a safe place for them.

    “universities offering counseling and “cry rooms” to students upset about the 2016 presidential election.”

    If you need a cry room and that cry room is a safe space where the results of the 2016 presidential election are not mentioned, then this is an obvious case of denial. Anybody who needs to consistently deny reality, by denying the election happened or maintaining that the election was stolen, etc and explicitly doesn’t want to be exposed to other points of view is a snowflake.

    “The “snowflake” language fails to capture the moral seriousness of social justice activists. If you understand them mainly as undisciplined and self-absorbed, you’ll expect the movement to fizzle out, but it’s clear that’s not happening, and won’t happen anytime soon.”

    The author does make a good point here. The “snowflakes” aren’t a threat. It’s the SJW’s who are a threat. Perhaps some of the snowflakes became SJW’s but it’s really irrelevant. It’s the SJW’s who are a threat.

  5. It’s clear that social justice culture is here to stay. It’s not a passing fad, and those who embrace it aren’t going to give it up when they leave college campuses and enter the workplace. Increasingly it is the culture of the workplace.

    I am not sure this is accurate. It may indeed be, but I think it is too early to tell. The Cultural Revolution lasted for about a decade and safely died away. And I remember when the Soviet Union was itself an inevitability… recently I watched the old movie 2010 and loved that the Soviets were still a great power. My grandfather (1903-1999) outlived the entire history of the Soviet Union (1917-1991).

    I am not sure this will have the staying power that some like to assume. Nevertheless, this “woke” nonsense must be resisted at every turn. It is an insidious creed and one which has no place in a society that values healthy discourse, creativity or liberty.

  6. This is a brilliant article. As tempting (and easy) as it may be to mock social justice activists, it’s important to take their views seriously – especially since they’re spreading beyond elite academic institutions into the “real world.” As Campbell notes, “the activists … are driven by moral concerns, by a vision of how to improve the world. Failing to understand that leads the activists’ critics to underestimate them.” Activists may have laudable intentions – “documenting and fighting oppression” – but their misdiagnosis of the problems our society faces can lead to disastrous consequences.

    What are the tenets of the social justice culture? It includes the following beliefs:

    • Individuals should be defined first and foremost by the groups to which they belong. Although race is a cultural construction, it’s the overriding determinant of one’s status in society.

    • Any differences in outcomes between groups are caused by discrimination, full stop. Consideration of other factors (personal preferences, bad choices, dysfunctional subcultures, etc.) is forbidden because it amounts to blaming the victim.

    • Euro-American civilization is uniquely evil. Insofar as it’s compared to other cultures, its crimes and atrocities are foregrounded while they’re represented by idealized versions.

    • Speech that’s deemed to be offensive can be deeply harmful, equivalent to violence. It should be restricted in order to protect people who belong to oppressed groups.

    • Anyone who doesn’t accept the maximalist claims of social justice activists is perpetuating the structures of oppression that permeate society. Someone who holds a moderate but supportive view – e.g., trans people should be treated with respect but there are important differences between transwomen and biological women – must be regarded as an enemy, not an ally.

    • It’s illegitimate to claim that Western culture has made progress toward becoming fairer and more inclusive. Although overt forms and de jure forms of oppression have been largely dismantled, structural and de facto oppression is just as potent as it’s even been.

    • Instead of developing a sense of resilience, people who belong to oppressed groups (and those who claim to speak on their behalf) should be hypersensitive to supposed slights. Anyone who violates the current iteration of the social justice code must be punished, even if they do so unintentionally.

    • Historical figures should be judged by contemporary social justice standards, not the moral norms of the time in which they lived. The same applies to the past of living people, whose actions and utterances should be carefully scrutinized.

    • The principle of charity should never be applied to people (past or present) who fall short of social justice ideals. Attempts to understand alternative perspectives or find common ground with individuals who have different views are illegitimate, because they perpetuate oppression.

  7. I’ll admit that I’m making broad generalizations, but I honestly think they’re representative of prevailing views among social justice activists. If you don’t believe me, read bestselling books like White Fragility and How to Be an Anti-Racist – you’ll find each and every one of these tenets reflected in their pages.

  8. An America that is so fragile that it can’t survive if I publicly state my opinions isn’t an America worth saving. It’s certainly not the American of my forefathers who committed treason against the King of England, or that fought against the Nazi’s in Europe who weren’t a direct threat to America but were a threat to democracy, or that fought against the Soviets for a 50 year long Cold War or who protected the Rights of silly Nazi wannabes to march in Skokie, IL.

    A strong America can tolerate diverse opinions.

  9. Wouldn’t worry about it too much. I don’t think you’re taken that seriously.

  10. His “engagement” was telling everyone on the other side they should stop talking. I don’t respect that, not in the tiniest bit.

  11. You are disingenuous. Of course, it is only Western civilization and mostly white male historical figures who are judged by contemporary standards. How can you test this? Try talking to an Social Justice acolyte about the atrocities native tribes committed in the Black Hills of Mt. Rushmore. Oh, they will be quick to say “give the land back to the Lakota” but will then utterly fail to acknowledge the wicked deeds the Lakota committed upon the Cheyenne when stealing the land in this region. Never mind, how the Cheyenne previously butchered the Kiowa to steal the land for themselves.

  12. Please tell us exactly how you would go about ensuring equality of outcome in your woke utopia. “Circumstances of birth” include both IQ and nurturing environment. Do you actually believe we have the power to eliminate the effects of these on a person’s success?

    I agree with you here. Let’s stop discriminating against white men in hiring decisions and university admissions.

    No one should be denied employment based on gender pronouns, but I also should not be compelled to use pronouns that were made up 5 minutes ago. You don’t get to invent new words and then force me to use them.

    I agree with you here, as long as the disability does not affect job performance.

    Very few claim that past discrimination has zero effect on disparate outcomes currently, but the idea that a disparity always indicates discrimination has been thoroughly debunked by Thomas Sowell and others.

    No, SJWs are in denial about the past moral failings of their favorite victim groups. It turns out that individuals of every possible race and ethnicity have murdered, raped, plundered, and enslaved other individuals. America is singled out as uniquely evil and its virtues ignored.

    Does this include the following examples?

    • Men aren’t women
    • There are only two genders
    • It has been empirically shown that an unarmed black man is no more likely to die in an interaction with police than an unarmed white man.

    No, we are not evil infidels. We seriously do not believe these structures of oppression exist, and we base that belief on data and empirical evidence.

    Civil rights activists like Bob Woodson would disagree with you on this. Aren’t you denying his experience?

    Here’s a secret you should have learned by now: life is hard. Teaching people not to develop resilience does them no favors, and it is irrelevant whether their “deplorable conditions” are fair.

    Careful, Peter. Your totalitarian impulses are showing.

    If you were born a white man in Alabama in 1830, would you have been an abolitionist? You would have had to stand up for unpopular opinions that you believed to be right, risking social ostracism in the process. Does that describe how you live your life today?

  13. Yes it should be quite the barrel of lols.

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  14. I read Oilman and barberp425 and so many others and see that they are all firmly within the bubble.

    ‘There are hundreds of thousands in the streets’, ‘Biden is very likely to win in November’–there are so many things like this. Leftist triumphalism, despair on the right.

    Because the media and the twitter and the official channels all say so.

    But as one poster noted, when they look out to the streets they see a fat cat sunning himself. There are no protesting hordes.

    Not there.

    Not across most of the country.

    There are protesting hordes in deep blue cities. In places that went for Hillary.

    In places that went for Trump? There are cats sunning themselves. Kids playing. People wondering just how much idiocy state governors can promulgate. People wanting the economy to come back.

    No one really wants what barberp425 is selling. Not even barberp425.

    They want what they have now idealized in ways that agree with the politics they like but without disruption. Reform that doesn’t inconvenience. Revolution that leaves Starbucks open and the internet functioning.

    In short, nothing has changed since 2016, despite everything, the political landscape is the same.

    The same bubble that had Hillary with a 90+% chance to win on Election Day is what’s informing the media NOW.

    Pull your head out of the bubble and take a long hard look at that cat.

    And understand what it means.

  15. As well as fuel and just about any other raw material you can think of. One can, of course, produce sprouts and loose greens in urban settings, which means that urbanites may well become tasty and nutritious.

    I have a feeling your understanding of economics is a little shaky. Urban areas depend on massive imports of food, energy, and raw materials (including the lead for your proposed war). What do you have to trade for these? Primarily financial assets of one form or another. But they’ll rapidly become worthless, you can’t survive eating digital stock certificates.

    Personally I think what we are watching now is the fall of the mega-urban social model that took hold in the late 19th century. There is no reason for them to exist now other than as holding pens for masses of people. I do feel sorry for those living in them.

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