The idea of social justice has taken an increasingly central role in social and moral discourse in recent years. But do we have an adequate shared understanding of what is meant when this term is used? I argue below that in the mouths of applied postmodern activists, Social Justice has come to be imbued with a new meaning as a tool to promote an ideological agenda based on dialectical reasoning, the establishment of a hierarchy of victim classes and the stigmatisation of purported oppressors. In this way political debate is subverted into a moral crusade led by a priestly class intent on silencing or marginalising their critics through the agency of Twitter-storms and cancel culture.
In an article I published here last year on Legality and Morality: A Marriage of Convenience? I considered the problem of what I termed category mismatch, by which I meant the application of arguments appropriate for one sphere of human knowledge or endeavour to a quite different sphere. I will look here to bring such considerations to bear on the relationship between politics and morality, specifically in relation to the way category mismatch is perpetrated in the laudable but ultimately quixotic Quest for Social Justice.
Nowhere perhaps is category mismatch more obvious in the relationship between politics and morality than with the oxymoron “political correctness.” The whole point of politics is of course that it is the realm in which there is within a community a lack of consensus about priorities and values and that it seeks to supply a mechanism by which agreements and decisions can nonetheless be reached. The concept of political correctness by contrast denotes an egregious attempt to bestow moral authority upon one side in relation to a politically contentious issue, effectively removing it from the realm of politics by viewing it through a particular moral prism. In this way it seeks to assert authority independently of a proper process of scrutiny.
It is no coincidence that this term appeared in the late 1980s and had taken on a pejorative meaning within a decade or so. As argued by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay in their Cynical Theories (Swift Press, 2020), this period corresponded to the applied turn in postmodernist theory (referred to by its proponents as just “Theory”). As they explain
Theory, in this sense, has not gone away, but neither has it stayed the same. Between the late 1980s and roughly 2010, it developed the applicability of its underlying concepts and came to form the basis of entirely new fields of scholarship, which have since become profoundly influential. These new disciplines, which have come to be known loosely as ‘Social Justice scholarship,’ co-opted the notion of social justice from the civil rights movements and other liberal and progressive theories.
Notice their use of capital letters for the co-opted notion to distinguish it from the previous liberal interpretation which focussed largely on rights and economic equality. I shall follow their convention below.
One of the key aspects of the notion of Social Justice in its (applied) postmodern guise is its privileging of dialectical forms of reasoning over any other form of discourse. This makes its core ideas very difficult to tie down and by that token its advocates difficult to engage in dialogue with and its arguments well nigh impossible to refute. This is because it is arguably a form of nihilism: it doesn’t really believe in anything, bar the validity of its dialectical reasoning as the sole means of achieving a just social order and societal improvement more generally.
So, I would suggest, the theory of Social Justice is more accurately characterised as a tool for identifying and countering Social Injustice. You will look in vain in Theory for a blueprint of what a just society looks like or reference to evidence from the past or elsewhere in the world of models which one might want to emulate. Rather you will find instead a long (indeed ever-lengthening) list of grievances which must be addressed for the elusive ideal form of society to be attained. So it is against Fascism (Antifa), anti-racist (Black Lives Matter), against homophobia and transphobia (Stonewall), anti-police (Black Lives Matter again), anti-colonialist (Rhodes Must Fall), against anyone in the UK or the US associated with slavery (Black Lives Matter again). You get the idea.
Identifying Victim Classes
Another key aspect of applied postmodernism is its attack on epistemology. The basic proposition set forth is that all knowledge is subjective and the privileging of one perspective over another is therefore a manifestation of a power dynamic: the powerful exercise their hegemony by imposing their perspective on the rest of society, with the consequence that weaker, minority groups come to feel oppressed. Such perceived oppression is defined axiomatically to represent injustice which the Social Justice Warriors then see as their duty to remedy. As I have sought to explain in a recent article on The Culture Wars and the “Right to Offend”, the authenticity of a claim then depends not on objective criteria of logic or evidence but on the degree of oppression which it is claimed has been experienced:
the method postmodernists (or those in thrall to their thinking) propose to get around the lack of a firm grounding of ‘knowledge’ is to replace universal truth with ‘my truth.’ The legitimacy of my perspective then lies not in its objective grounding (which can never be satisfactorily demonstrated) but in its being a representation of my lived experience, on which subject I am of course uniquely qualified to pronounce. When there is need to adjudicate between conflicting perspectives, the final step is that it is not evidence or logic which is paramount but rather the identity of the person who is asserting ‘their truth.’
In this way a competitive hierarchy of identities is posited which have relative authority based on the degree of injustice which is deemed to have been experienced by the relevant identity group. The great thing about this is that you do not have to provide evidence of having personally experienced actual injustice, only of your membership of the relevant group, which status will typically be defined by possession of a shared characteristic such as race, ethnicity, gender or religious affiliation. When one thinks about it in these terms, one starts to understand why the Culture Wars are being waged as they are: identity and the associated assertion of victim status become a proxy for evidence and logic as a badge of authenticity affirming the truth of your narrative and the right to be believed and taken seriously. Consequently we are engaged in a battle not of conflicting truth claims but of competing claims to victim status.
Thus not only are individual victims of injustice identified but entire victim classes. Having so identified them by what is essentially a moral argument (against injustice) made by the applied postmodernists, their political agenda, which it is purported looks to provide redress against the injustice, can be smuggled in without further justification.
Another of the keys to the success of the proponents of Social Justice is their privileging of intentionality. By this I mean that instead of looking at the details of proposed policy prescriptions and considering the possible or likely outcomes which might ensue, we are encouraged to consider solely the motivation of the proponent in terms of their intent to address perceived inequities or injustices and/or promote the interests of those experiencing harm or relative disadvantage. In this way it self-evidently participates in a category mismatch between the realms of politics and morality.
This is not to say that this tactic is not in widespread use by proponents of other political positions. But as a tool of Social Justice it is turned into a veritable weapon of mass destruction where no one is safe from possible ambush. I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek piece about this three years back under the title Lexicon for the Moral Maze, followed up last year with An Extended Lexicon for the Moral Maze. There I sought to debunk the various phrases advocates of dubious proposals often use to focus attention away from the details by emphasising the (invariably noble) motivation they claim is driving their actions. A particular bugbear of mine is the phrase “It’s all about…” which I suggest should be unpacked by recognising:
When someone introduces a proposal with this phrase, what it means is that there are associated unintended consequences, probably of an undesirable nature that you should not give consideration to lest your uncritical enthusiasm for what the speaker is proposing be dampened.
Of course the flip-side of privileging intentionality is that when offence is taken or oppression allegedly experienced, those who are deemed to have caused this can be assumed to have intended it. So the same category mismatch argument which cedes the moral high ground to the Social Justice lobby ensures that there is no space left there for those they seek to criticise. No time need be wasted listening to “whataboutery” on behalf of those who already stand condemned in the court of what passes for moral judgment in postmodern terms. (“Whataboutery,” incidentally, is the preferred technical term used to describe misguided efforts by those accused in this court to deploy the “It’s all about…” argument on their own behalf.)
As erstwhile friends and colleagues queue up to denounce those whose “moral shortcomings” are thus identified before they themselves are denounced as racists, fascists, homophobes, etc., this process leads inexorably to the phenomenon of “Cancel Culture” and the initiation of witch-hunts. As I argued in Is Woke the New McCarthism?:
[these] labels are used in a way which makes it difficult to resist imputation either to yourself or to anyone to whom you feel they have been unjustly applied. That is because part of the infection is deemed to be an inability or unwillingness on the part of the person resisting to see the fact they enjoy privilege in relation to the person alleged to have been maligned or offended. The only way to avoid condemnation is to become part of the process and offer some sign acknowledging the veracity of one’s accusers’ claims and the justice of their cause. This can take the form of an admission of guilt either on their own part or on the part of those they sought to defend (or both). For example the practice of “taking a knee” serves exactly this purpose, with the result we have the spectacle of supplicant police entreating forgiveness from the mob they have been sent to control.
So, taking the category mismatch to its logical conclusion, the quest for Social Justice takes on the form of a moral crusade, with its vocal advocates taking on the role of the new high priests. As I observed in addressing this phenomenon in Is Progressive Liberalism a New Religion?:
as with moral crusades in the past, virtue and vice having been distinguished and the latter having been exposed, it is for the high priests who are the custodians of moral certainty to prescribe how atonement and salvation are to be achieved. So it is that, following each new scandal or injustice uncovered, the clamour increases for a new commission or regulatory body with quasi-legislative inquisitorial powers. For those charged with such onerous responsibilities as custodians of public morals, it is never enough that the letter of the law is adhered to or duties half-heartedly discharged. The public must be seen to celebrate and take pride in the new moral framework which has been imposed on them, join in chorus to condemn those who hold to the old ways and testify to the great social improvement and enhancement of justice which is being achieved thereby. And, should they fail to do so, they should be ‘called out’ as the collaborators and facilitators of wrongdoing which they are.
I have sought to show in the preceding how the notion of “social justice” has been transformed and weaponised in recent years by proponents of applied postmodernism through a sleight-of-hand which I refer to as “category mismatch.” The following problematic elements were identified as symptomatic of this transformation:
- Disingenuous conflation of the realms of politics and morality
- Dialectical reasoning and unfalsifiable nihilist narrative
- Identifying of victim classes and, correspondingly, oppressor classes
- Privileging of intentionality preventing honest debate
- Cancel culture and witch-hunts
- Moral crusade led by a self-appointed priestly class.
Much ground has already been lost to the applied postmodernists who seem to exercise a large degree of control over the narrative framework in which contemporary moral deliberation takes place. For those who adhere rather to the historically established approach to social justice based on the upholding of liberal principles and human rights to devise counter-strategies and push back, an understanding is first needed of the tactics and methods of the applied postmodernists and to alert others in turn to the sleight-of-hand that is being deployed to bias the terms of the debate in their favour. My hope is that what I have shared here will be found to be a useful contribution in this process.