I started criticizing social justice back in 2010, which doesn’t sound so impressive until you realize that’s two centuries ago in Internet Years. At the time, you rarely heard such criticism outside of wingnutty lesbianism-causes-witchcraft circles. It felt bizarre, transgressive, and novel.
But over the past few years I’ve been privileged (sic) to meet many other people with the same concerns. Some were kindred spirits. A few at least had interesting ideas. Many others were horrible people next to whom the lesbian-causes-witchcraft types looked like Voltairesque voices of reason.
But they all had something in common: they were nobodies, and nobody cared what they thought. The lesbian-causes-witchcraft types had their talk shows, but among moderate liberals social justice criticism stayed mostly confined to a bunch of small blogs.
Now that’s over – during the past year big national media have unleashed a flood of social-justice-critical stories. The Atlantic published The Coddling Of The American Mind. Salon (Salon!) published Campus PC Panic Is Getting Ridiculous and How Coddled Young Radicals Got Discomfort All Wrong. The New Republic published Trigger Happy. Even President Obama has condemned what he called “coddled” college students, saying “that’s not the way we learn”. The UK political class is up in arms about Germaine Greer being denied platform, and the US political class is up in arms about the Halloween costume argument at Silliman College (nominative determinism!) in Yale. Complaining about social justice seems to be getting, dare I say, almost trendy.
As the old saying goes, “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”. But as the other old saying goes, “I know some Trojans who would be a lot happier if they had.” So let me explain why this sudden outpouring of support for my position makes me uncomfortable.
When I or some other random blogger complains about the social justice movement, we tend to worry about points like the following (I won’t prove/defend these claims here, just clarify what I’m worried about):
- The level of social-justice-inspired bullying online and offline that can drive people to suicide for even slightly disagreeing with social justice orthodoxy.
- The chilling effect on research when science is subordinated to political ideology, and how researchers whose results contradict social justice orthodoxy can expect to be ignored at best and subject to death threats and harassment campaigns at worst.
- The trivialization of and hostile response to anybody who claims to be suffering in a way that doesn’t fit the social-justice narrative, and opposition to attempts to alleviate such suffering.
- The use of social justice as a bludgeon by which sophisticated elites from top colleges can condemn all subcultures except their sophisticated elite subculture as being problematic, and credibly demand that they subordinate themselves to the sophisticated elites as penance.
- The conflation of the vitally important will toward political reform with the most trivial pop culture clickbait, so that instead of worrying about inequality and technological stagnation our brightest minds are discussing whether the latest Game of Thrones episode reinforces structural oppression, or if people’s Halloween costumes are okay or not.
Meanwhile, when important public figures and nationally circulating magazines complain about the social justice movement, I usually see language and arguments more like the following:
- College students are big babies!
- Waaaaaaaaah! Waaaaaaaaah!
- They’re so coddled! And weak! And they want everything to be safe all the time!
- Life isn’t a “safe space” and doesn’t have “trigger warnings”! Grow up!
- Baby! Baby! Baby! Waaaaaah! Waaaaaah! Waaaaaaaah!
These seem like different agendas. In particular, the nobody-blogger angle focuses on ways in which social justice is used to justify aggression, and the mass-media angle focuses on ways in which social justice is used to coddle weakness. Thus the national magazines’ focus on trigger warnings, which happen to be one of the pieces of social justice I really like and have defended at length precisely because they do sometimes help weak people.
But there’s another common thread to the mass-media criticism: they’re all about things that happen on colleges and inconvenience college professors. Compare the recent bullying of a fan-artist to the point of suicide because she drew a cartoon character too thin and so was “erasing fat people” – to the recent students at Yale getting angry at an administrator who said she wasn’t going to enforce cultural sensitivity on Halloween costumes and so yelling and throwing stuff at her and her family.
I feel for anybody who gets yelled at and has stuff thrown at them, but the first of these two stories seems by far the most important; lots of teenagers commit suicide every year because of bullying, the idea that somebody deserves to die because they picture a cartoon character differently is abominable, and anyone who’s been on the relevant parts of the Internet knows this kind of thing is common as dirt. If I were a news editor, I’d consider the first study a much bigger deal. Instead, the second has gone viral in the national media, and the first remains stuck among the same few second-tier sites and SJ-critical nobody bloggers whom these kinds of things are always stuck among. Why?
I worry that the media, especially the online thinkpiece media, overrepresents an insular demographic of Ivy League academics and their friends who spend most of their time on college campuses and don’t notice things that don’t affect them personally. When people on Tumblr are being bullied to suicide or told that they’re garbage or outed or getting death threats, that’s the commoners. When a Contemporary Perspectives On American Literature professor is inconvenienced, AAAAAAAAH SOCIAL JUSTICE HAS GONE TOO FAR! SOMEBODY WARN SALON.COM!
Or to be even more cynical: social justice was supposed to be Yale’s weapon against Caltech and Podunk. But now Yale students are using it against Yale professors and administrators, and now it’s a problem. It’s like the police beating up city council members with the truncheons they usually reserve for poor ghetto-dwellers; you can bet there will be a newfound concern about police brutality at city council meetings.
And on the one hand, anything that inspires discussion of police brutality at city council meetings is good. Certainly the SJ-critical movement has been stuck on the same side as people a whole lot creepier than self-serving humanities professors, so what’s the problem?
I think that is the problem. When creepy white supremacists criticize social justice, they’re at no risk of taking over the wider SJ-critical movement. As the old saying goes, white supremacists are the best argument against white supremacy, and most of them couldn’t take over a blanket fort with a flamethrower. But rhetorically-gifted Yale professors who get thinkpieces published in The Atlantic are exactly the sort of people who would take over the wider SJ-critical movement, become its most important voice, and define what it means both to the rest of the world and to its own members.
That would be a disaster. Any general knows that you want to hold the high ground, and it really really shouldn’t be hard to hold the high ground against the sorts of people who continue to defend bullying someone to suicide because they drew a cartoon character differently than other people. But the mass media seems determined to find a way to yield the high ground and insist against all evidence that it’s punching down. Yale administrators might be the only group more sheltered than Yale students, yet they’re the only group the media seems to have the energy to defend. Worse, media seems to be defending them in a way that attacks activists for being weak and defenseless instead of pointing out when they’re strong and abusing their power.
I’m not saying that there aren’t important arguments to be had about trigger warnings and safe spaces. There are. But they’re only one of many problems, and far from the worst. And if people must focus on trigger warnings and safe spaces, I wish they would use one of about a zillion good arguments that don’t involve the pseudo-Nietzschean “You’re all babies! Stop crying, little babies!” tone. All this is doing is granting social justice activists their most dubious claim: that they are trying to use their ideology as a shield for themselves rather than a sword against others (as Popehat brilliantly puts it).
Finally, I think this might be a wake-up call to worry about the role of academia in media more generally. A friend on Tumblr pointed out that Hillary Clinton’s official list of campaign priorities include “ending sexual assault on campus”? Why not just “ending sexual assault”? Studies find that women are less likely to be assaulted on college campuses than off them. Isn’t “ending sexual assault on campus” the same kind of priority as “ending murder in gated communities?” Every murder is a tragedy, and murders in gated communities are no exception. But wouldn’t it reveal a lot about who mattered in a society if “end murder in gated communities” was how they framed their anti-murder initiatives?
I worry recent criticism of social justice is revealing the same thing.