[UPDATED] Social Justice Bullies: The Authoritarianism of Millennial Social Justice
UPDATE: 7/22/17 — I have written a response to this article entitled In Pursuit of Truth Only: A critical response and explanation. It is a response to my own writing that better explains my position and revises some critical concepts. I implore you to read the response as well, if not instead.
Social justice, as a concept, has existed for millennia — at least as long as society has had inequity and inequality and there were individuals enlightened enough to question this. When we study history, we see, as the American Transcendentalist Theodore Parker famously wrote, “the arc [of the moral universe]…bends towards justice.” And this seems relatively evident when one looks at history as a single plot line. Things improve. And, if history is read as a book, the supporters of social justice are typically deemed the heroes, the opponents of it the villains.
And perhaps it’s my liberal heart speaking, the fact that I grew up in a liberal town, learned US history from a capital-S Socialist, and/or went to one of the most liberal universities in the country, but I view this is a good thing. The idea that societal ills should be remedied such that one group is not given an unfair advantage over another is not, to me, a radical idea.
But millennials are grown up now — and they’re angry. As children, they were told that they could be anything, do anything, and that they were special. As adults, they have formed a unique brand of Identity Politics wherein the groups with which one identifies is paramount. With such a strong narrative that focuses on which group one belongs to, there has been an increasing balkanization of identities. In an attempt to be open-minded toward other groups and to address social justice issues through a lens of intersectionality, clear and distinct lines have been drawn between people. One’s words and actions are inextricable from one’s identities. For example: this is not an article, but an article written by a straight, white, middle-class (etc.) male (and for this reason will be discounted by many on account of how my privilege blinds me — more on this later).
And while that’s well and good (that is — pride in oneself and in one’s identity), the resulting sociopolitical culture among millennials and their slightly older political forerunners is corrosive and destructive to progress in social justice. And herein lies the problem — in attempting to solve pressing and important social issues, millennial social justice advocates are violently sabotaging genuine opportunities for progress by infecting a liberal political narrative with, ironically, hate.
Many will understand this term I used — millennial social justice advocates — as a synonym to the pejorative “social justice warriors.” It’s a term driven to weakness through overuse, but it illustrates a key issue here: that, sword drawn and bloodthirsty, millennial social justice advocates have taken to verbal, emotional — and sometimes physical — violence.
In a dazzlingly archetypical display of horseshoe theory, this particular brand of millennial social justice advocates have warped an admirable cause for social, economic, and political equality into a socially authoritarian movement that has divided and dehumanized individuals on the basis of an insular ideology guised as academic theory. The modern social justice movement launched on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Jezebel, Slate, Huffington Post, et al. is far more reminiscent of a Red Scare (pick one) than the Civil Rights Movement.
When George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four (and here some will lambast me for picking a white male author from a historically colonialist power despite the fact that he fought and wrote against this colonialism), he wrote it to warn against the several dangers of extremism on either side of the political spectrum. Orwell’s magnum opus is about authoritarianism on both ends of the political spectrum. If the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, then the arc of the political spectrum bends toward authoritarianism at both ends.
The very fact that I am drawing a connection between the text most referenced when discussing politics-gone-bad is a problem in itself. But it warrants further exploration.
“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy.” — George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
This particular brand of social justice advocacy assaults reason in a particularly frightening way — by outright denying it and utilizing fear-mongering to discourage dissent. There is no gray: only black and white. One must mimic the orthodoxy or be barred forcibly from the chapel and jeered at by the townspeople. To disagree with the millennial social justice orthodoxy is to make a pariah of oneself willingly. Adherence to the narrative is the single litmus test for collegiate (and beyond) social acceptance these days.
Take, for instance, a topical example: the University of Virginia/Rolling Stone rape story debacle. The author of the article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, writes an article accusing several members of the UVa student body of raping a girl named “Jackie.” “Jackie” is Erdely’s only source. In the Rolling Stone’s redaction article, Erdely and the Rolling Stone’s fact-checking is called into question and it is argued that “there were a number of ways that Erdely might have reported further, on her own, to verify what Jackie had told her.” Erdely took Jackie at face value. Why? Because, at the behest of millennial social justice advocates, we are told not to question rape victims. To do so is “victim blaming” and can potentially “re-traumatize” the victim.
In “Fighting Against ‘Rape Culture’ Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry,” author Charles C.W. Cooke expands on the issue of this Rolling Stone debacle. Cooke writes that there was an initial questioning of Jackie and Erdely and he notes that the backlash to this line of inquiry was met with extreme hostility. Cooke writes:
In the Washington Post, Zerlina Maxwell argued that “we should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser [of rape] says,” for “the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist.” This view was seconded by the lawyer and journalist Rachel Sklar, who confirmed for posterity that she considers “women who speak of their own experiences” to be automatically “credible,” and anybody who asks questions to be a rape apologist. On Twitter, meanwhile, Slate’s Amanda Marcotte concluded that anybody who has questions about a given account must by definition be engaged in a dastardly attempt to demonstrate that no rape stories are ever true, while CNN’s Sally Kohn grew angry at Jonah Goldberg when he asked for more evidence. Perhaps the best example of the all-zetetics-are-heretics presumption came from the remarkably ungracious Anna Merlan, who rewarded Reason’s Robby Soave for his investigative work by throwing an epithet at him: “idiot.”
Much of this rhetoric comes from the idea that there is a pervasive rape culture on campuses nationwide that must be stamped out; more systemically, there are socially-endorsed and institutionally-endorsed modes of patriarchy that continually oppress women. The ideas purported in the quote above seek to remedy that under the name of social justice. But in what world are these statements liberal, let alone in accordance with social justice?
In “No matter what Jackie said, we should generally believe rape claims,” author Zerlina Maxwell suggests that we should generally write the equivalent of a blank check to someone who comes forward with a rape accusation. This is not justice and it certainly is not social justice either. It is an illiberal perversion of the justice system. Sir William Blackstone is famous for what is known as the Blackstone formulation: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” This axiom is a foundation of modern justice systems worldwide. It as a formulation that assumes innocence; to condemn on the basis of a certain accusation because of the identity or oppressed status of the accuser is a dangerous road to go down. It erodes the most essential tenet of liberalism: due process.
Due process, or the idea that a governing body must respect all legal rights of an individual, is granted to Americans by the 5th and 14th Amendments. To suggest that there is no recourse for the accused — and to ask for it is actually rape apology — is absurd, reactionary, and further highlights the black-and-white nature of this certain brand of millennial social justice advocates. To speak dissent against— or even question at all — the orthodoxy is to have your words twisted into less positive terms: one does not ask for “due process,” one asks to let rapists go, perpetuates rape culture, and favors rape apology. Why, after all, would someone ask for due process when a woman is accusing a man of rape? The millennial social justice advocate views this as an insidious question that results from sexism against women and is corroborated, they feel, by a statistically insignificant rate of false rape accusations.
To the social justice advocate of our time, conclusions are not contingent on facts; rather, facts are contingent on conclusions. In a global example of confirmation bias, the truth is malleable. The malleable truth is molded around the theoretical viewpoints of social justice. In order to uphold the sanctity of this viewpoint, adherents ostracize dissension. It’s nothing new — it’s a tactic as old as religion itself. Instead of holy texts, though, the millennial social justice advocate bows at the altar of the currently-in-vogue ideological Trinity: Marxism, Feminism, and Post-Colonialism.
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.” — George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
The Newspeak of the millennial social justice advocate is an intricately and powerfully designed mechanism that seeks to eradicate and socially criminalize dissent.
Let’s talk about racism. The mantra of the movement is thus: It is impossible to be racist against white people because racism is the equivalent of prejudice and power. Since white people have social and economic institutional power and privilege (in America), those who are racially oppressed cannot be racist toward whites since those who are racially oppressed do not have power.
Why can’t I simply rebut this with a trip to the dictionary? Because this is laughed at by social justice types. The image of a white person walking to the dictionary to define racism is literally a trope at this point because the millennial social justice advocate finds it so entertaining that a dictionary, constructed by those in power for those who speak the language of power, can possibly give an accurate definition of a word.
Do you see where I’m going with this? It is now possible to absolve yourself of guilt by working enough academic nuance into a word to fundamentally change it — in your favor.
The same is said of sexism and men — that one cannot be sexist against men because we live in a patriarchal society (I thought I’d link to Tumblr since this social justice plays out on the every day stage of social media just as much as it does in article headlines). And yet, when it is brought up that men face legitimate social, political, and economic issues, they are told that feminism has the solution for them as well.
Orwell calls this “doublethink.”
Instead of the discussion being focused on how advocating to “kill all white people” as a political statement or how the hashtag #KillAllMen are prejudicial and hateful sentiments, the millennial social justice advocate excuses and legitimizes these phrases and behaviors by suggesting that they are not racist or sexist but are legitimate expressions against their oppressors. The discussion of how legitimately hateful and anti-liberal these statements are does not ever surface because, as the script goes, this is “derailing” discussions of legitimate problems of oppressed people to focus on the non-problems of oppressors.
What I am talking about so far is not meant to discredit feminism or any social justice position that seeks to empower oppressed people or remedy social ills. As I made abundantly clear to begin with, these are fundamentally good and necessary goals. What is the issue here are the tactics used by some from a purported place of moral high ground to immunize themselves from criticism while promoting a close-minded authoritarian vice-grip on society through chillingly sinister tactics.
This brings us to the supposedly sound statistical underpinnings of the modern social justice movement. But, as Mark Twain famously said: there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.
Let’s return to the Rolling Stone/UVa Rape example. There is an oft-cited statistic that “one in five women will experience sexual assault on campus in America.” This shocks the conscience, as it should, and is used to fuel the hysteria of rape culture on campuses nationwide. Unfortunately for social justice advocates—and fortunately for college-aged women everywhere—this statistic is criminally misleading. As Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post writes, this one in five statistic results from “a single survey, based on the experiences of students at two universities. As the researchers acknowledged, these results clearly can be generalized to those two large four-year universities, but not necessarily elsewhere.” But why should advocates for victims of sexual assault include that? 1-in-5 is a great way to fear-monger. In a report released by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics entitled “Rape and Sexual Assault Among College-Aged Females, 1995–2013,” Lynn Langton, Ph.D. and Sofi Sinozich report that “the rate of rape and sexual assault was 1.2 times higher for non-students (7.6 per 1,000) than for students (6.1 per 1,000).” Using deliberately misleading statistics in a Machiavellian campaign — wherein the eradication of sexual assault on college campuses requires the misinterpretation of data and the removal of due process — does more to “derail” genitive conversations of sexual assault on campus than having productive, legally responsible conversations ever will.
Take also, for instance, the wage gap statistic recited everywhere between a sociology class and the President’s speeches: That women make 70-something cents on a dollar to a man. The truth is that this is, again, a misleading statistic that tries to apply nationally aggregated data to the level of the individual. TIME writes that “the 23-cent gender pay gap is simply the difference between the average earnings of all men and women working full-time. It does not account for differences in occupations, positions, education, job tenure or hours worked per week. When such relevant factors are considered, the wage gap narrows to the point of vanishing.” This is corroborated by a seemingly endless amount of sources like the Wall Street Journal and Abigail Hall who quips that “you wouldn’t compare the incomes of elementary school teachers with Bachelor’s degrees to those of individuals with PhDs in physics and complain that there is a ‘teacher-physicist wage gap.’” Note that there are five sources in this paragraph alone.
Using misleading statistics to push an agenda does no one any good. It derails progress by attempting to support a legitimate cause with shoddy foundations. Foundations that, in time, will collapse — and a movement with it.
Here’s the issue — many reading this will be incensed just by the fact that I am bringing up these statistics in a negative light. After all, why would I do such a thing if not to paint feminism in a bad light or to play down the issue of rape on campus? As a heterosexual male, it is assumed that I am doing this fact-checking not in the name of academic honesty, but for sexist reasons or because I am a rape apologist or because I think women are “asking for it.”
But here’s the thing — who I am does not (or should not) have any bearing on facts. The problem with this brand of modern social justice advocacy is that who one is as a person (race, class, gender, etc.) is the be all and end all of their capacity to have a certain viewpoint. A millennial social justice advocate can discount an opinion simply because it is said or written by a group they feel oppresses them. It is a logical fallacy known as ad hominem whereby one attacks the person saying an argument rather than the argument itself. But this logical fallacy has become the primary weapon of the millennial social justice advocate. It is miasma to academia, to critical thinking, and to intellectual honesty. Yet it is the primary mode of operating on college campuses nationwide.
This already long article could go a lot further. I could talk about how the balkanization of individual groups of people based on Identity Politics is a regressive, inflammatory ideology that flies in the face of true diversity. I could talk about how “separate but equal” does not become a good thing because the Left repurposes it and calls it a “safe space.”
The fact of the matter is, this particular brand of millennial social justice advocacy is destructive to academia, intellectual honesty, and true critical thinking and open mindedness. We see it already having a profound impact on the way universities act and how they approach curriculum.
The arguments made under the banner of this type of social justice are often petty, usually mean-spirited, and always absolved of any guilt by the speaker’s moral self-positioning. And yes, sometimes they’re sexist and racist, too.
To view everything through a particular theoretical viewpoint (that is, feminist, Marxist, post-colonialist, etc.) is an intellectual limiting exercise that works only in a vacuum. The world is more than one viewpoint. The ostricization of those who hold alternate viewpoints is not any way conducive to social progress. The opposite of hatred is not hatred in the opposite direction. There is no excuse — none — for being a bad person toward another on the basis of their identity.
Let me finally be abundantly, abundantly clear (I learned this was necessary a few months back). Social justice and social justice advocacy is a good thing. To utilize one’s education to solve social ills is an admirable goal.
The version of millennial social justice advocacy that I have spoken about — one that uses Identity Politics to balkanize groups of people, engenders hatred between groups, willingly lies to push agendas, manipulates language to provide immunity from criticism, and that publicly shames anyone who remotely speaks some sort of dissent from the overarching narrative of the orthodoxy — is not admirable. It is deplorable. It appeals to the basest of human instincts: fear and hatred. It is not an enlightened or educated position to take. History will not look kindly on this Orwellian, authoritarian pervision of social justice that has taken social media and millennials by storm over the past few years.
Those who need to hear this message will probably respond that I am 1. too privileged to understand 2. tone-policing the oppressed (and that I shouldn’t tell the oppressed how to treat their oppressors) and 3. really just a closet racist/sexist in a liberal’s clothing. I expect these responses — partially because I am so used to having seen this script play out over the last four years at NYU.
But the fact of the matter is — anyone unwilling to engage in productive, open, mutually critical conversations with people they disagree with under the moral protection of liberalism and social justice are not liberals, are not social justice advocates, and are not social justice warriors; they are social justice bullies.