Social justice, then and now

July 31, 2020 • 8:45 am

UPDATE: Reader Daniel Sharp has a positive review of Cynical Theories in the New English Review.


I’ve now finished Pluckrose’s and Lindsay’s new book, and can recommend it to readers (it has a pretty good position on Amazon though it won’t come out till August 25). Click on screenshot to go to the Amazon site:

It’s more academic than I imagined and less of a screed against Social Justice (which they capitalize to indicate the woke version against classical “liberal” social justice), but I found that emphasis refreshing. While casting aspersions on the value of “Social Justice”, they spend much more time drawing out its roots in Postmodernism, which transformed itself into what they call “Theory”: the postmodern philosophy of activism that has two tenets. Their characterization of “modern” postmodernism involve these propositions (quoted from p. 31 of their book):

The postmodern knowledge principle.  Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.


The postmodern political principle. A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.

We can dismiss the first one for reasons I’ve discussed before; the second is the basis for all “Social Justice” activism.

Their schema involves four “themes” of postmodernism: the blurring of boundaries, the power of language, cultural relativism, and the loss of the individual and the universal. The last principle involves a vision of society as a mixture of identity groups competing for power: a zero-sum jockeying to oppress others, with cis white males currently on top.

And this last idea, the replacement of the universal and the individual with competing groups, made me think (the book is good at promoting thought), and then realize why, when I was such a big advocate of the goals of the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties—at least instantiated by Martin Luther King and his followers—I am much more dubious about today’s Civil Rights movement as embodied in the Black Lives Matter program. Although I abhor the use of violence to attain any political goal, and there’s a lot of tacit endorsement or ignoring of demonstrators’ violence in the modern movement (I’m not exculpating the police here), in contrast with the foundational nonviolence of Dr. King, that’s not the main reason I am less enthusiastic about the current  wave of antiracism.  Yes, the goal of both movements was equality, but the modern movement comes with an emphasis on group identities that I see as repellant and ultimately divisive. 

The passage below from Cynical Theories (p. 261) was sort of an epiphany for me, and I’ve copied it out:

. . . the critical approach to Social Justice encourages tribalism and hostility by its aggressively divisive approach. Whereas the Civil Right Movements worked so well because they used a universalist approach—everybody should have equal rights—that appealed to human intuitions of fairness and empathy, Social Justice uses a simplistic identity politics approach which ascribes collective blame to dominant groups—white people are racist, men are sexist, and straight people are homophobic. This explicitly goes against the established liberal value of not judging people by their race, gender, or sexuality, and it is incredibly naive to expect it not to produce a counter-revival of old right-wing identity politics. Arguments that it is acceptable to be prejudices against white people, men, straight, or cisgender people because of historical power imbalances do not work well with human intuitions of reciprocity.

If a majority feels threatened by a vocal minority with institutional power, it is likely to try to change those institutions, and not merely because of paranoid fears about losing dominance and privilege once had. If it becomes socially acceptable to speak of “whiteness” and call for punishment of anyone who can be interpreted as expressing “anti-blackness,” this will be experienced as unfair by white people. If it becomes acceptable to pathologize masculinity and speak hatefully of men while being hypersensitive to anything that can be called “misogyny,” almost half the population (as well as much of the other half who loves them), is likely to take this badly.  If cisgender people, who are 99.5 percent of the population, are accused of transphobia for simply existing, failing to use the correct terminology, allowing genitals to influence their dating preferences, or even having non-queer Theory beliefs about gender, this is likely to result in much unfair antagonism against trans people (most of whom do not believe in this either).

As a classical liberal (or so I see myself), I have an instinctive revulsion towards the practice of dividing society up into competing groups and demonizing them on an oppression scale. Yes, of course we need to work towards equity, for the residual effects of slavery and bigotry are still bloody obvious in society. Dr. King’s tactics went a long way toward rectifying inequalities: who can deny that minorities are better off now than, say, in 1960?

Still, I fear that division and identity politics won’t be so efficacious—for reasons outlined by the authors above. (They also discuss the “negative stereotypes” created by Theory, including the infantilization of women and the “soft bigotry” against blacks as instantiated by the “white culture” posters at the National Museum of African American History & Culture and the patronizing tone of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility criticized by John McWhorter in his review of the book.)

And I resent any movement that makes the untestable claim that all white people not only have benefited from “privilege”, but are imbued with often unconscious bigotry. Or that males are inherently misogynistic, and we inhabit a “rape culture.” You wouldn’t hear Dr. King making divisive claims like that, for his appeal was to unity: to universal sentiments that were not personal attacks but irresistible appeals to justice.

Now many of us (Including to some extent me) have been cowed by Social Justice advocates into silence, for who wants to be labeled a bigot, a sexist, or a transphobe? Further, I constantly hear that we’re wasting our time on criticizing our own side: that we have bigger fish to fry, including a large smelly one named Trump. Why don’t I just become like HuffPost and write about the odiousness of Trump all the time? But divisiveness is just want Trump wants; he uses it all the time to try to promote his moribund campaign for President. More important, when the Democrats win in the fall, and the college students have moved on to grasp the levers of power in the media and government, I don’t want to face fighting an Authoritarianism of the Left, with its cancel culture, demands, and policing of speech. To prevent that, we need to start pushing back now on the extreme Left.

So I was heartened by Pluckrose and Lindsay’s final couple of pages in which they promote not only open criticism of the pernicious and authoritarian form of Social Justice, but put forth positive principles of classical liberalism. You can, and should, read that for yourself. I’ll quote only one more paragraph:

The solution is liberalism, both political (universal liberalism is an antidote to the postmodern political principle) and in terms of knowledge production (Jonathan Rauch’s “liberal science” is the remedy for the postmodern knowledge principle). You don’t need to become an expert on Jonathan Rauch’s work, or on John Stuart Mill, or on any of the great liberal thinkers. Nor do you need to become well versed in Theory and Social Justice scholarship, so that you can confidently refute it. But you do need to have a little bit of courage to stand up to something with a lot of power. You need to recognize Theory when you see it, and side with the liberal responses to it—which might be no more complicated than saying, “No, that’s your ideological belief, and I don’t have to go along with it.”

This book will help you recognize Theory when you see it, and then you’ll start seeing it everywhere: in the New York Times, in the Washington Post, in the petulant acts of cancel culture, and on most every college campus in America.

62 thoughts on “Social justice, then and now

  1. Thanks Jerry. I look forward to reading the book.

    A small typo: Do you mean naive rather than native when you quote, “it is incredibly native to expect it not to produce a counter-revival of old right-wing identity politics.”?

  2. Paul Moroni has an article on

    His argument is that Liberal values arose from the naturalistic Enlightenment which superseded prior ancient philosophies. Postmodernism is a recent swing of the pendulum back towards group identity and power dynamics between groups (and my pet peeve “other ways of knowing”).

    So you could draw the conclusion that the Woke are anti-Enlightenment and therefore anti Liberal.

  3. Here are two new, eye-opening texts by James Lindsay, which are relevant supplements to the book:

    * The Complex Relationship between Marxism and Wokeness:

    * No, the Woke Won’t Debate You. Here’s Why:

    By the way, I think the best label for what Pluckrose&Lindsay are talking about is “Postmodern Critical Social Theory”.

    1. I highly recommend “No, the Woke Won’t Debate You. Here’s Why”. I found it analyzed the Woke’s thinking superbly. It left me angry that these people have such sway right now though their reasoning is so self-supporting and flawed. It explains why it is so hard to fight these people and their stupid ideas.

      1. Can you tell us – is the title deliberately the style “something something. **Here’s why.**”? Meaning deliberately mocking the headlines of modern times?

        1. I didn’t have a problem with the headline though I didn’t really have an objection to the “Here’s why” kind of title in general. Perhaps it is a bit overused. In this case, he’s obviously talking to his audience, those who dislike the Woke philosophy, and they may well be wondering why it is so hard to engage the Woke in discussion. The article directly addresses that question. Although the title has a similar form, it isn’t a “Here’s all you need to know about …” title.

          1. Come over here little boy. Naughty, naughty. You don’t quite know how to tie your shoes now do you…You’re tripping on the laces…here’s why.

      2. Indeed. As Lindsay concludes, “The hard truth is this: if you don’t yet understand this, you don’t know the fight we’re in or have the slightest idea what to do about it”.

      3. It is unwinnable, except, I think, by accident in a given case. Once you deny truth matters, you are a sitting duck for *any* ideology.

        What I mean is that sometimes there is a residual of what I take to be human universals., whether the person in question sees it.

        I asked an Native American activist once: “Did Europeans colonize and brutalize hundreds of thousands of Native Americans?”

        “Yee. what sort of stupid quustion is that?”

        “Then, ‘Europeas colonized and brutalized hundreds of thousands of Native Americans’ is true.”

        There was a great pause, and then …


        My friend had seen what Aristotle says about truth – or some of it: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true”

        And she realized truth and justice are sisters, and can help each other. Fighting for justice without truth makes me sad, angry and frustrated – since so often the people who want justice are *right*, in these cases of the throwaway.

    2. The relationship between marxism and wokeness keeps popping up in my mind too. They are certainly at odds in some respects but they both define society in terms of groups – classes or racial or gender groups, and pit them against one another.

  4. Hurrah!

    I am curious if they address “lived experience” or “grievance studies” in this book.

    I dread that libraries will decline to stock this – for who knows what reason. “Oh, it doesn’t have many good reviews on Amazon” or some other excuse. But I am hopeful.

    1. Mine works, so you likely experienced just a local or temporary problem. But the pre-order is only available for kindle or hardback. I’ll be waiting for the paperback.

  5. Pluckrose and Lindsay are concerned that Social Justice identity politics may produce a counter-revival of old right-wing identity problems. Here we have a chicken-and-egg problem. It is much more historically accurate to say that white identity politics will not need to revive itself since it never left. It has always been part and parcel of the nation’s history going back to 1619. There have been periods when it became relatively muted, but not for long. It presented itself in one of its more virulent forms going back to George Wallace and Richard Nixon starting in the mid-1960s. Succored by right-wing media, the emergence of the Tea Party and now Trump, it has been a major force in American politics for half a century. The Social Justice movement is a reaction to these events, and, unfortunately but not surprisingly, extremist views have emerged to counter extremist views.

    In a heterogeneous, democratic country such as the United States, identity politics have always been with us. It is a pipe dream to think it will go away because there will always be groups, often based on race and ethnicity, vying for political and social dominance. A major explanation of Trump’s popularity with his cult that it views him as a bulwark against its fear of losing social dominance. As the great historian Richard Hofstadter explained more than half a century, political movements are often energized by “status anxiety.” Such is the case with Trumpism.

    The culture wars of which identity politics is an important part will not go away any time soon. It will last after Trump is gone. There is much bemoaning about identity politics, but few solutions are brought forth to mute it. This is probably because there are no easy solutions. Prior to the Civil War, the politicians and the Constitution ran out of compromises to solve another political and social divide. This situation was ultimately resolved (at least partially) by a horrific war. What will happen now is impossible to predict. We live in a time of many dangers and we cannot assume there will be a happy ending.

        1. Precisely what I was looking for! Thank you!

          … by the way, when I think of the Virginia colonies I think of 1607. So that explains my confusion. Then one year later, 1620. I wonder if that is part of the sophistry of the NYT effort – intimating something about the Thanksgiving holiday fantasy of Pilgrims and Indigenous Peoples…

          but I speculate….

        2. But not the arrival of the first slaves, so I still don’t particularly see the significance. Those black slaves were treated as indentured servants under the same terms as the white slaves that had long been there. Or, if you don’t think indentured servitude is slavery, then those blacks weren’t treated as slaves in the Virginia colony. Either way, the 1619 date isn’t special regarding slavery, only the arrival of blacks. I certainly don’t see how it can be called the year of our nation’s true founding, as the 1619 project does…

          (By the way, if you don’t think indentured servitude was ever slavery, consider that many were kidnapped off the street or otherwise forced into bondage against their will (e.g. as punishment), that the contracts could be extended indefinitely if they were ‘disobedient’ and that this could be abused to keep people in bondage indefinitely… Probably for some it was truly voluntary and executed fairly, but I doubt that was the case for most.)

          1. It is uncertain as to the exact status of the Africans that landed at Jamestown in 1619. Slavery in Virginia was not formalized to many years later. The date is largely symbolic and other dates can be chosen as to when the country was founded. But, the symbolism is important because even if the Africans were indentured servants, they were in a condition that was semi-slavery. While it is true that whites also arrived in the colony as indentured servants, but in time they and their descendants could become the equals at least in law of their “betters.” But the condition of the Africans and their descendants grew only worse with time.

        1. I would not take the New Discourses site as any final word on the 1619 Project. Its views on this subject are totally derivative from other sources.

    1. My main takeaway was different. The main point not being that left wing ID politics stokes more right wing ID politics, but rather that it turns away more traditional liberals and actually hurts liberal causes for equality. The authors’ clear articulation of this is a step forward.

      1. Yes, it’s the particular flavor of identity politics practiced by one component of the Left (the Woke) and the problems it creates for the rest of the Left.

    2. I know this is considered an old school and perhaps even outdated framing at this point, but I don’t see divisions based on race and ethnicity as inevitable, while I do see divisions based on class as somewhat inevitable. My family lost their “Arab-ness” in just a couple of generations, and even though I was immersed in Middle Eastern culture growing up, it never really took. Today I’m about as stereotypical an American suburban mom as a person could be, newfound Cricut obsession and all. There are perhaps a few cultural holdovers – I do side eye the obsession with ‘sleep training’ as a weird facet of emotionally distant white culture, and think it’s super bizarre that even my pediatrician is trying pressure me into it. (Crazy *ss white people. This is why they all have a therapist. No one is leaving my little habibi alone in a dark room to cry himself to sleep.) But for the most part, even though it’s a culture I would have liked to have held on to, my siblings and I are all pretty assimilated after, again, just a couple of generations. Trying to incorporate my ancestral culture tends to be like trying to remember to do Pilates – I always think I’ll get to it at some point, and somehow it never happens.

      I think many, many families have similar stories. Ethnicity may stand out a bit more right now because the number of immigrants has increased a great deal over the past couple of decades, creating a new wave of immigration – but historically these distinctions have rarely lasted for long. Black / white race relations in the US are one very tragic exception to this, but overall, I think people are separated more by the social mores of their class and, to a slightly lesser degree, geographical location in the US (South vs. coasts vs. midwest, etc.) So I do agree that we will likely never had One Universal Culture, but I see divisions as generally being based more on international competitions between countries and, domestically, political differences between various socioeconomic classes and socioeconomic cultures and ways of life.

      1. Thank you so much for sharing your (and your family’s) personal experience in acclimating to life in the U.S. I could be wrong, but it seems to me the more pressure put on immigrants to maintain homeland culture as well learning as that of the U.S., the more angst results. Having lived on the West Coast of the U.S. all but a few years of babyhood, and living with people from a great many different parts of the world, I’ve had a chance to observe many modes of adapting and the associated ease or difficulties.

        My family is of such mixed origins, mostly European (English, Irish, Dutch, Welsh, Scots, German, French, supposedly a smidgeon of Neanderthal) the unique cultures of each group was lost a very long time ago. The earliest I can trace back to in my family are my Germans arriving in New Amsterdam (New York prior to becoming New York)in the 1500s. We are one mixed up bunch after that.

        1. No intent to imply my whole life has been one of babyhood. I will soon be 80 years old and hope that I’ve behaved as an adult most of that time. I was born in MO, moved to OR when about two years old, then to CA around age four where I lived until the late 1970s. Then back up to OR and WA. Much of that time was spent in urban areas in and around cities and/or universities. So, my perceptions may be skewed by all of that.

        2. Thanks! I think for my dad and grandparents, having their own island of culture in the US was probably very helpful… but at this point, yes, I suppose I mostly feel a bit wistful and nostalgic that this will not be passed down to my son. For my grandparents, a little slice of Middle Eastern life in the US was a place to feel at home – for me, that would really be more like a yoga class or book club, so it’s a different dynamic. But, such is life, always changing. As you mentioned, your family is from “all over”, and presumably the people that started all the cultures they originated from arrived from other, different cultures as well when German, French, English, etc. culture were established. Maybe four generations from now people will be colonizing Mars and speaking with nostalgia about trying to maintain some semblance of old fashioned US culture, ha ha!

          1. As I understand it, a future generation of your family will rebel against your assimilation and take an interest in the language and culture of their forebears, and will probably complain that they weren’t taught about it by their parents.

      2. Good point. I think a major division in US culture now is city vs country, which has much to do with the shift of the population away from rural toward urban. Urbanites now are more educated, richer and more liberal. The people left behind have decided to opt out of the economic push to technical jobs in hopes of living happily ever after on “grandpa’s farm”. tRump’s core, generally, hung back, and lost out.

        1. This worries me, as it seems like the ability of people to self-segregate geographically really compounds the more age old issue of class differences. A year or so ago it seemed to me as if this would escalate indefinitely, but now I wonder if a natural equilibrium will be reached. Rural areas are suffering from the flight of so many people and young would-be professionals in urban areas appear, from what I can tell, to be facing a job market that is oversaturated with highly qualified applicants. Perhaps smaller towns will find a way to offer jobs and attractive amenities to young people who need more opportunity. Housing prices, for example, are always a compelling start, when comparing the cost of a single family home in an urban suburb to one in a fairly rural area.

          1. A case in point – here in SW Idaho, the locals are almost all farming and small business. There is a huge influx of retirees and others moving here from California (too crowded), with $millions from the sale of their house. They buy land and generate a building frenzy. Local tech companies (there are a few) are happy to have a pool of technicians to draw from. But the locals are having trouble adapting to the new cultural influences. Standards here are often pretty lax. Eventually there will be something of an equilibrium reached as housing prices rise. I believe there will also be a homogenization of cultures and growth on all sides.

      3. I’m puzzled by your characterization of “sleep training” as a part of white culture. I thought it was a fringe thing.

  6. Good stuff.
    What gives me heart to stand up to this is the authors’ argument, and excellent articulation, that social justice movements born of critical theory can actually hurt liberal causes of equality. Not just in a revival of right wing ID politics, but in turning off the politically moderate who recoil at the more extreme woke castings of these issues.

  7. I apologize but I am compelled to share this observation :

    I saw a pride flag one day. Rainbow. But then I looked carefully: at the top on the flag, I was astonished to see an additional color band. I had been missing a color of the rainbow!

    I leave it as an exercise for the reader to identify the additional color band on the rainbow flag.

    I think I share this because it illustrates the notion, argued here (if I am correct) that identity is a strong component of the efforts towards equality today, though I’m not sure exactly how…

  8. When you look at social movements, you’ll see at least two ways to direct one’s energy and time.

    There are the passionate, even impulsive, expressions of outrage and protests en masse out in public (and now also on social media platforms).

    And then there is the patient, incremental, and often tedious and frustrating work of rolling up one’s sleeves and figuring out detailed solutions to the problems identified. Such solutions can take years, if they happen at all.

    It seems to me that the latter behavior is much more difficult and less rewarding in the short term, and that there are relatively few people with the capabilities to undertake this work. For every 100 folks that shout in a protest march, how many of them actually have the desire or ability to effect real change? These emotional expressions seem heavily biased towards the exact kinds of people that are probably least able to sit down and work out detailed solutions to complex problems. And, social media has further swollen the ranks of these kinds of folks in these movements.

    Right now, there is a lot of heart in social justice, but not a lot of neurons.

    1. The first example you give has been demonstrated fully in Portland, OR where those “demonstrators” who were violent did more harm than good for the “cause”.

      Your second example was demonstrated by John Lewis who worked to the very last, and beyond, for the “cause”. Even then, he passed the baton on to the many young people he had faith in and believed they may/will achieve as much, or more, than he did. “Good trouble”. Never give up. Continue to grow your ranks and have faith that “we will overcome”.

  9. Nice review, I’ll be buying the book.

    Since I agree with almost all of what you wrote, I’ll respond to the one part that gave me pause:

    > Although I abhor the use of violence to attain any political goal

    I believe that you mean violence such as we’ve seen at too many recent protests. I will note, though, that politics itself is inherently violent. Political power is the ability to use the force of the state to achieve one’s goals.

    I think it’s important to make that clear in these discussions because most good people don’t support the arbitrary use of force (that reluctance is part of being a good person in the first place). Whatever alternative to the nationalist, populist right and the authoritarian, regressive left we come up with should reduce the amount of violence used, by both individuals and the state. That is one of the characteristics that distinguishes classical liberals from the other groups.

    1. I will note, though, that politics itself is inherently violent.

      Of course that’s true in that government is inherently violent, but when you compare to a situation of having no government, i.e. every man for himself and might makes right, I think it’s clear that a good government is the best protection against violence that we have.

      I think it’s safe to say that life is inherently violent, and concentrating the violence in one entity that’s nonetheless accountable to the rest of us (ultimately under thread of violent revolt) is the best system we’ve come up with so far to minimize violence…

  10. I can see this “infantilization” potentially creeping in under the well-intentioned “kindness” themes from various modern sources. Say “kindness” to yourself enough times, it starts to sound like the old “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”. Perhaps it’s just for kids, but at some point everyone is going to need to say something and they’re not going to know if it’s “nice” or “kind” to absolutely everyone else, when it might simply be something else – and so what if it is?

  11. Do we really need to use the term “cis”? This seems to be giving undue weight to the small – but noisy – minority who are “non-cis”.

    1. I agree. I don’t really want to accept any of this new terminology. I feel that the Woke have invented this new terminology for the purpose of oppressing the rest of us rather than to introduce needed clarification. I also find I don’t want to concede any ground to the Woke but I am trying to keep an open mind.

    2. I only use cis, LGBTQIAP+ etc. to wind up my kids. I then brush off any of their criticisms by pointing to my impeccable Woke credentials and reminding them of the Wikipedia Editor of the Week award that I received earlier in the year for my awesome contribution to Gender Studies. (Yes, really… it came as a huge surprise to me, too! But it’s my get-out-of-jail-free card, and I’m not going to knock it.)

  12. For those interested in a good discussion of Black integrationist vs nationalist movements, and passive vs active resistance;

    Martin & Malcolm & America (A Dream or a Nightmare) James H Cone, 1991

  13. “we need to work towards equity…”

    “Equity” is used by Critical Theorists instead of the liberal word “equality.” Equity means equality of results rather than of opportunities.

  14. If you accept the modern SJ concepts of identity why bother to change anything to be more equal? If it is futile because we are all battling it out for dominance why not just keep fighting? It seems like a losing ideology. Nothing will get better. It’s like the Presbyterianism of social justice.

    1. Worse: if you accept the view, there’s nothing left but “is too!” or violence. This is one time I am glad, however, that people are a multitude – there might be a way in still. (See above about my NA friend.)

  15. Andrew Sullivan has a thoughtful piece about this book on his new website ‘The Weekly Dish’.

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