Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing symposium on white fragility and its related concepts. To view all of the essays in this series, click here.
Liberalism vs “Social Justice”
Social justice is a good thing. It is almost unheard of for anyone to say they would not want a just society. Humans are a social species with an innate sense of justice. We aspire to its ideal. This unanimous agreement breaks down when we attempt to make justice real. What does a just society look like? How it can be accomplished? Those of us who consider ourselves progressive generally see a just society as one in which no-one is disadvantaged by their class, race, sex, sexuality, or gender identity. And yet even we disagree with each other about how to achieve that. Brushing broadly, (small-l, classical, and traditional) liberals and radicals see very differently the means by which a just society should be achieved. The main dispute about this is currently between the liberals and the genuinely radical movement that presumptuously calls itself “Social Justice.”
Liberalism—and social justice—predates the current “Social Justice” movement by several hundred years. In the West it formed gradually over the modern period (from the end of the Medieval until roughly now) making society freer, fairer, and more democratic. It did so by moving away from premodern societal structures in which everyone had their place in society, largely defined by their class and sex, and in which everybody was expected to affirm their commitment to the Church and the monarchy and to form heterosexual family units led by a father. In fits and starts with many setbacks and disasters, liberal, secular democracies formed. The idea that one’s identity dictated one’s station in life and conformity of belief as a moral imperative was gradually eroded in favor of individualism, pluralism, and universalism.
This gradually emerging conception of society as made up of individuals who have their own abilities, interests, goals, and desires separate from their class, sex, or race and should have the freedom to pursue them was a remarkable development for the tribal, territorial species of ape known as Homo sapiens. So too was the pluralist idea that people didn’t all need to believe the same thing, and if they believed different things about religion, politics, philosophy, or ethics, nobody needed to be persecuted, arrested, or executed. The concept of the Marketplace of Ideas, where viewpoint diversity and freedom of belief and speech were understood to be good for the advance of knowledge and moral progress, was born and did indeed lead to great advances in science and human rights. Universalism, the idea that we all share a common humanity, should all have the same rights and responsibilities, and are equally valuable regardless of race, sex, or class was an astounding development. All these ideas come under the umbrella of liberalism and resulted because liberalism was and is best — though rarely — understood as both a conflict resolution system and an ongoing reforming impulse.
The inherently progressive nature of liberalism was often regarded with concern by more reactionary conservatives, who felt the need for much greater caution when “reforming” aspects of society. Often, they felt liberals wanted to fix things that didn’t need fixing and lacked respect for tradition and continuity, thus endangering the stability and cultural cohesion of society with their eternal drive for progress. In many respects, they have a point, though it is also one that can be taken too far and become reactionary.
Antipodal to the reactionaries who wish for “history” to stop are the radicals who wish for it to all be done yesterday. These progressive factions regard the reforming nature of liberalism negatively because they deem the process too slow and too conciliatory. Liberals, the more radical leftists felt, are too complacent and tolerant of the status quo in their attempts to reform existing institutions and systems rather than burn them down and attempt to rebuild something better from the ashes. As Marx famously said,
[I]f constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.
The desire to criticize all that exists, along with conflict theory — the idea that society is in constant conflict for access to the limited resources held by the powerful and fought for by the powerless — are Marxian ideas that are clearly present in the current progressive movement known as (Critical) Social Justice (CSJ). These ideas were taken forward from Marxism by the Frankfurt School into the realm of culture as well as economics. The similarity of Herbert Marcuse’s argument in “Repressive Tolerance” to the intolerance of viewpoint diversity seen in the Critical Social Justice movement is striking. His advocacy of “undemocratic means”
would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc. Moreover, the restoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions which, by their very methods and concepts, serve to enclose the mind within the established universe of discourse and behavior…
Although Marcuse himself is seldom cited in the current Critical Social Justice scholarship, this spirit can be clearly seen in the activism he inspired in the New Left, which in turn informed black feminism, which then informed critical race theory and intersectionality. Similarly, the use of “hegemony” to describe the cultural dominance of one set of ideas over all others as a way for the powerful to preserve their dominance was developed by another Neo-Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, and is also quite clearly present in the CSJ ideology.
Despite these indisputable Marxist and neo-Marxist influences, the underlying epistemology — how we decide what is true — in the prevailing radical approach to achieving social justice has its academic origins in postmodern thought. Postmodern theory, which arose in the 1960s, was a vast and complicated body of work. But key ideas about the way knowledge, power, and language work to allow some groups and ideas to dominate and marginalize others were adopted by later (largely frustrated critical) theorists beginning in the late 1980s, who in turn developed the theories which solidified by 2010 and then rapidly escalated into what we now know as “Critical Social Justice.”
In our book, Cynical Theories, we argue that these ideas are best understood as two principles and four themes. The postmodern knowledge principle denies the attainability of objective truth and asserts that what we consider to be knowledge is a social construction. Intertwined with this is the postmodern political principle which claims that society is structured into systems of power and privilege. These systems decide what is knowledge and what is not and what is morally good or morally bad, decisions that are largely accepted by the general population uncritically. Together, these principles present us with a conception of society in which knowledge is a construct of power which is then perpetuated by everybody accepting said knowledge and speaking in ways that uphold the oppressive power structures. These are often referred to as ‘dominant discourses,’ and the purpose of the original postmodernists was to deconstruct them. Later theorists would name these dominant discourses things like ‘white supremacy,’ ‘patriarchy,’ ‘colonialism,’ ‘heteronormativity,’ ‘cisnormativity,’ ‘ableism,’ and ‘fatphobia’ and speak of dismantling, unpacking, or smashing them.
The methods by which CSJ scholars and activists attempt to do this are seen in four recurring themes in their work and activism. Firstly, they aim to blur boundaries and destabilize categories. If knowledge is an oppressive social construct, it is constructed by the categories by which we distinguish things like fact and fiction, reason and emotion, male and female. Secondly, they focus intently on language, scrutinizing it for the ways in which it feeds into dominant discourses that oppressed people. If oppression is perpetuated by discourses, it may be addressed by controlling how society may and may not speak. Thirdly, it stresses cultural relativism and standpoint epistemology — the belief that knowledge is tied to one’s position in society, and in the case of “Social Justice” scholars, identity. If knowledge and morality are constructed by powerful cultural forces, then they vary according to culture, with none being more true or more moral. Further, it leads to the emergence of a radical egalitarianism under which the knowledge that came from the standpoint of marginalized groups is understood to have been neglected and must now be foregrounded while dominant cultural discourses like science, reason, and liberalism must be devalued as products of a white, Western, masculine, and oppressive culture. Lastly, the scholars and activists reject individualism and universalism, arguing that only dominant groups in society get to see themselves as individuals and that so-called universal aspects of our shared humanity are really just the values and knowledge of those dominant groups. Instead, they advocate for a focus on identity groups and a new conception of identity politics differing from the universalizing appeals of the liberal Civil Rights Movement to empower marginalized groups and achieve social justice, which they explicitly conceive of as advocacy for ‘group rights.’
Because of the broadly Neo-Marxist belief that the general population lacks the ‘critical consciousness’ to see these oppressive power systems, which was enhanced by Foucault’s thoughts about prevailing regimes of truth that dominate cultural milieus, the Critical Social Justice scholars and activists see it as their job to enlighten us and make the systems visible by reading them into almost anything and asserting the authoritativeness of their interpretation. In common parlance, stemming from African American Vernacular English, becoming able to see the largely invisible systems of power, privilege, and marginalization in this specifically ‘critical’ way is referred to as becoming “woke.”
This ‘woke’ approach explicitly rejects liberalism and its Marketplace of Ideas, in which anybody can argue for anything and anybody can challenge that argument while onlookers can evaluate these arguments on their merits, leading to the advance of knowledge and moral progress. This, the theorists argue, cannot possibly work, as knowledge is related to one’s position in relation to power and only the powerful will be heard. They frequently deny that liberalism, which included the Civil Rights Movement, liberal feminism, and Gay Pride, has produced any increase in racial, gender, or LGBT equality, but that oppression continues in more insidious and hidden forms. Indeed, we find in the introductory chapter to Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s textbook, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, “Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.”
Thus identity-based academic disciplines and activism formed to address these hidden systemic oppressions in ways the theorists believe liberal approaches simply cannot do. Superficially, it isn’t that their aims differ — both progressive approaches appear to seek racial, gender, and LGBT equality alongside the elimination of poverty — but that their conception of the world and their methods do. Moreover, on closer examination, their aims do differ as well, with liberalism seeking equality and the theorists seeking equity, a form of enforced reparative equality of outcomes more reminiscent of communism than liberalism. Liberalism, CSJ theorists argue, is simply not up to the task of achieving social justice and shoots at the wrong target. Critical Social Justice, liberals (including your two authors) argue, is not only unfit for this purpose — it actually gets things entirely backwards and threatens to undo decades of social justice progress. We intend to demonstrate this by looking at these methods and conceding their valid points while showing how they ultimately and inevitably fail to achieve their goals.
Postcolonial and decolonial theory make some strong points about the problems with colonialism. Colonialism did trample over other cultures while demeaning and exploiting the human beings belonging to those cultures. It justified its imperialist domination on the grounds of bringing scientific knowledge, logical reasoning, and enlightened ethics to barbaric and backwards people. Those people, once free of literal colonialism, still had both a material and psychological aftermath to deal with, which would involve a reconstruction of their own cultures and overcoming colonial attitudes which had marked them as inferior and “other.”
Liberals agree that this is an accurate description of the effects of colonialism and argue that the idea that science, reason, and liberalism belong to white, Western people is simply racist. Instead, they argue, there is significant historical and current evidence that these approaches have genuine advantages and belong to all humans, and that most cultural differences are morally neutral, are meaningful to people, and should be respected. This does not include cultural relativism, where misogyny, homophobia, and punishment for apostasy are morally acceptable, and so Western liberals stand with Eastern liberals in opposing all of these.
Critical Social Justice, unfortunately, gets this backwards. Rather than accepting science, reason, and liberalism as things that work and that belong to every individual who wishes to embrace them, they reinforce the old colonialist ideas that they are white, Western, and male ways of knowing, while other ways of knowing belong to Eastern cultures. The only difference between the colonialist attitude and the Social Justice attitude is that the former believed the Western ways of knowing to be superior and the Eastern ones inferior while the latter reverse this hierarchy to say that Eastern ways of knowing should be both valorized and protected from being in any way appropriated by Westerners or replaced by methods developed in the West, including science and liberalism. This leads to cultural protectionism and a demonization of science, reason, and liberalism as oppressive Western discourses. This attitude is rarely appreciated by the numerous non-Western scientists, doctors, and engineers (including those residing in the many Western countries that rely upon them to fulfil those much-needed roles).
Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality also started well. Critical Race Theory traces its roots back to freed slaves who argued for the recognition of African Americans as full human beings. It included the work of abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and leaders of the Civil Rights Movement like Martin Luther King, Jr, who dreamed of a world in which people were valued for the contents of their character and not the color of their skin. So far, so liberal. Intersectionality too made valid points when it argued that black women could be subject to prejudicial stereotypes not placed on black men or white women, and so the intersection of race and sex needed to be considered.
Critical race theory went wrong when it abandoned liberalism, became “critical,” cynical, and postmodern, explicitly eschewing universalism and embracing identity-first politics. The theorist credited with coining both the terms ‘critical race theory’ and ‘intersectionality’ — Kimberlé Crenshaw — explicitly argued against the liberal approach of removing social significance from racial and gendered categories and instead argued for increasing their salience. Liberalism argues that while someone’s race or sex might be meaningful to them, these categories should be understood to convey no information about anyone’s character or role in the world. For the critical race theorists, this is wrong. Race and gender must be made significant in everything. How else can people see the white supremacy and patriarchy understood to permeate everything? Thus, we see a return to racial and gender essentialism — construed as cultural and subjected to a similar form of cultural protectionism as under postcolonial theory — where there is an expectation that to be black and/or female is to have a specific political perspective of the world and that to be white and/or male is to have internalized toxic whiteness or masculinity and to be inherently oppressive. Does this seem to have improved race relations at all? We think not.
Queer Theory and Gender Theory, which developed from feminism and gay and lesbian studies and was deeply influenced by Foucault and selective readings of Derrida, also began with a solid point. Society really has significantly changed how it sees homosexuality, thus showing that ideas of homosexuality being a sin or a disorder were oppressive social constructs. Society really has significantly changed how it sees gender roles, and the acceptance of women’s right to control their own reproduction and enter every part of the public sphere has amply demonstrated that their former subordination as unfit for roles other than domestic ones was an oppressive social construct.
Liberals not only accept this as true. We were the ones instrumental in getting wider society to accept it as so. The slogan “Some people are gay. Get over it” is inherently liberal. The work of feminists to open up all opportunities to women and to obtain control over their own finances and bodies was a liberal aim. Consequently, both gender equality and LGBT equality advanced significantly during the 60s and 70s when liberal activism dominated and before queer theory and intersectional feminism emerged to screw everything up.
Where queer theory went wrong was when it decided that because history had been so wrong about the normality and moral neutrality of homosexuality and the abilities of women to be competent and successful participants in the public sphere, sex, gender, and sexuality must all be social constructs created by people pressured to perform those roles, and thus must be infinitely malleable. The aim of queer theory is to break down those boundaries between male and female, masculine and feminine, and gay and straight, so that anybody who doesn’t fit the category of “feminine woman attracted to men” or “masculine man attracted to women” is liberated from the social pressure to do so, even passively or by incident. In reality, humans are a sexually reproducing species, cognitive, psychological, and behavioral differences between the sexes really do exist, and sexuality does not appear to be a choice. Furthermore, liberal society has shown that it can capably accept the existence of gender non-conforming people and homosexuals as a normal and morally neutral human variation without any need to deny biology or decry it as an oppressive social construct.
Unfortunately, the main effect of queer theory and associated gender ideologies — aside from their relentless campaigns against progressive civil rights ambitions like marriage equality (because these normalize formerly “queer” identities and render them unproductive for further radical identity politicking) — is to create hostility towards trans people, the majority of whom don’t accept or even read queer theory, and the vilification of gender-critical feminists (pejoratively called TERFs) as they attempt to raise reasonable objections about the effect of self-identifying one’s gender on women’s spaces and sports.
Disability and Fat Studies and activism also had quite positive beginnings. In disability activism, particularly, the work of scholars and activists to change societal expectations that the individual with an impairment must find ways to overcome it to an expectation that society should make employment and social opportunities more accessible to people with impairments was very positive. Fat activists too raised good points about unkindness toward and discrimination against the obese, providing evidence that these existed and did nothing to help people lose weight. Stereotypes of obese people being unreliable, undisciplined, and lazy worked against their job prospects, and many obese people avoided seeing their doctor for non-obesity related illnesses for fear of having to discuss their weight.
Disability and Fat Studies and activism went wrong when they went critical-postmodern and decided that the belief that it is better if all one’s body parts work and one maintains a weight that doesn’t impede movement or damage organs were both oppressive dominant discourses called “ableism” and “fatphobia.” Again, medical science was blamed for being a white, Western, male, and capitalist construct. Much theory has been produced arguing that attempts to cure or alleviate disability and illness are part of a neo-liberal agenda to produce workers and consumers for capitalist systems (as this is what the theory says is the meaning given to people by neo-liberal systems). It also perceived the aim to reduce the existence of disability as akin to wishing that existing disabled people did not exist. Medical scientists researching the health risks of obesity and the increasing percentage of the population suffering from obesity were and are accused of fatphobia and supporting a capitalist diet industry.
In addition to this silly, anti-scientific attitude, real consequences for the health of disabled and obese people will arise if these scholars and activists succeed in intimidating medical professionals and researchers from offering advice and developing treatments. Worse, disabled and obese people expressing a wish not to be disabled or obese are liable to be shamed and bullied by activists. It is difficult to see this postmodern theory of disability and fat activism as helping the lives of disabled or obese people.
The way to address the unwarranted dominance of Critical Social Justice ideas over liberal ones begins by recognizing that they are both progressive worldviews. This is often denied by advocates of CSJ, who frequently mischaracterize liberalism as a defense of the status quo. This is simply wrong. Liberalism is no more the belief that society is already adequately liberal than “Social Justice” is the belief that society is already adequately socially just. They both aim to make society more just, but one of them is liberal and the other illiberal.
Also, the claim that liberalism seeks to maintain the status quo while CSJ is a radical, grassroots progressive movement fighting the status quo is ridiculous. Liberalism is inherently open to enabling progress, and liberal societies tend not to stay the same for very long. This claim that CSJ is itself fighting the status quo becomes less convincing the more entrenched in education, media, employment, and politics Critical Social Justice becomes. It is increasingly hard to deny that CSJ is a dominant and influential part of the status quo whose power liberals (and others) are seeking to challenge. Whereas liberalism inherently questions the status quo, CSJ deliberately seeks to establish a new one under its dominion.
In our immediate moment, we need to protect the freedom of individuals not to believe in Critical Social Justice theories. The imposition of CSJ on private individuals most commonly occurs in employment, in universities, and in primary education, although in the UK, police have also contacted private individuals to “check their thinking” following a non-CSJ-compliant social media post. In employment or education, people might be required to attend ‘diversity training,’ where they are expected to affirm beliefs in invisible systems of power and privilege permeating everything in society and their own complicity in them, or write “diversity, equity, and inclusion” statements affirming these ideas even if their own political, philosophical, religious, or ethical beliefs are quite different. This problem is a product of mistakenly putting CSJ “training” or “teaching” in the same category as data protection or algebra, where people can reasonably be required to accept and comply with procedures. CSJ should actually be regarded as belonging to the same category as religion, where it is understood that freedom of belief is a basic human right. That is, the concept of secularism needs to be applied to CSJ — You may believe this, express this, and live by this, but you cannot impose it on me or anyone else who believes otherwise. (One will note that liberalism explicitly allows for this, not only in permitting reactionary conservatism and theonomist religious beliefs, but also, here, in the preceding sentence, for the explicitly anti-liberal CSJ itself.)
In the long term, the only way to effectively defeat “Critical Social Justice” is on the field of ideas. This requires people to accurately conceive of how it works, recognize its workings as problems, understand what kind of problems they are, and feel confident to critique them. The problems are numerous.
Firstly, there is an epistemological problem. CSJ’s reliance on highly dubious socially constructionist theory about power, knowledge, and language and its suspicion of science, reason, and empirical, rigorous research as oppressive, white supremacist, patriarchal, imperialist social constructs have real-world consequences and are sexist and racist. Respect for properly conducted science is necessary for any functioning society, but particularly so during a period in which humans are endangered by factors ranging from a coronavirus pandemic to climate change to antibiotic resistance to an obesity epidemic. Respect for an individual’s ability to make and evaluate reasoned arguments regardless of their identity and theorized position in relation to power is essential to the continuation of a Marketplace of Ideas in which knowledge can advance and moral progress can be made. A theory that cannot be critiqued is one that cannot correct errors and is likely to become increasingly erroneous and divorced from reality — risking, at best, what the Chinese have for centuries dubbed “the bad emperor problem.” Like emperors of the past, Critical Social Justice scholarship and activism has made itself unassailable.
Secondly, there is a psychological problem. Critical Social Justice theories simply don’t work well with human nature if social justice is the aim. Humans are tribal and territorial animals, and it has taken significant amounts of time and effort to enable the forming of societies that expect us to extend our innate senses of fairness and reciprocity beyond our immediate tribe and to the whole of society — even if people in it look and believe differently. Liberalism, with its focus on individualism, pluralism, and universalism, has performed best at achieving this because of its embrace of individual agency underlain with a shared universal humanity. Identity politics, standpoint epistemology, conflict theory, and the application of different rules to different groups encourages us to draw our circles of empathy back within our own tribes and to turn our sense of fairness and reciprocity into tit-for-tat vendettas.
This leads to the third major problem with Critical Social Justice ideas, which is a social one. The increase of CSJ’s racial identity politics can only serve to justify an increased white identity politics, which has a far longer and more harmful history, particularly in the United States, and has only recently become broadly socially unacceptable. This is unlikely to work out well for racial minorities. Similarly, societies which have recently begun to enable women to control their own reproduction, to enter all professions, and to overcome sexist beliefs about the moral, intellectual, and social inferiority of women are unlikely to see continued support of women’s equal value if it becomes acceptable to regard more masculine traits such as competitiveness, stoicism, and assertiveness as toxic or even pathological. The astoundingly fast progress in the realms of LGBT rights and acceptance are also endangered by CSJ approaches to gender theory. This is most dangerous for trans people. While society largely came to accept “Some people are gay. Get over it,” and would be quite likely to apply the same ethics to acceptance of trans people, it is unlikely to respond well to being called transphobic, threatened and intimidated if one objects to being referred to as a ‘vulva haver’ or ‘menstruator,’ believes biological sex to be a reality and fundamental to one’s sexual attraction, or has concerns about women’s spaces and sports if trans women are accepted straightforwardly as women in every situation.
Ultimately, Critical Social Justice, while having some value in bringing to the fore identity issues that liberalism’s focus on the individual and universal can inadvertently neglect, is an inferior model for attaining social justice when compared to liberalism. This is largely due to its complicated theoretical approach, which is actually deeply reductionist and bears little correspondence with reality. CSJ threatens individuals’ freedom of belief, speech, and agency, and their ability to make and evaluate arguments. It is divisive, alienating, and disempowering and brings out the worst of human nature, thus threatening to undo much of human history that has progressed to make genuine diversity, equality, inclusion, and social justice a reality. Critical Social Justice will never make real our innate desire for justice.