Tuesday, April 6, 2021

What Is "Social Justice Politics"?

I was quite taken with this essay by Freddie DeBoer on social justice politics. I recommend it in its entirely though by no means do I agree with all of it (he does, after all, identify himself as a "communist", which makes him more than a little bit to my left). Here are some choice excerpts from the essay, which does a fine job of pinpointing the deeply counterproductive nature of this kind of politics.
He defines "social justice politics" as:
"[T]he political movement you are all aware of, the one which combines several schools of academic progressivism such as intersectionality, trans-inclusionary feminism, and anti-racism with a focus on interpersonal relations as the primary site of political activity, resistance towards economic class as a political lens, and a belief in the essentially immutable prevalence of bigotry, all expressed through an abstruse vocabulary that signals adherence to this movement and its social culture."
Great definition! He goes on to list some of the principal aspects of the movement:
"The desire to find fault in everyone and everything damages your basic perception of the world and make it harder to express your moral purpose. There are times when people are targeted for social exclusion because of perceived violation of social justice norms where many people react not with objection but with confusion; the alleged violation is premised on academic theories so complex and inscrutable that it’s hard for ordinary people to sort them out.....An obvious conclusion one must draw from social justice politics is that most people are inherently bigoted, perhaps irredeemably so. It’s hard to see how someone could not derive that from the basic ideology. It is now perfectly common for people within that world to say that all white people are racist, in the interpersonal sense - that is, that all white people harbor animus and fear towards people of color. And those who do not go that far still see all white people as parts of a structurally racist system which they personally benefit from and uphold via their passive behavior at the very least. Similarly all cisgender people are assumed to perpetuate transphobia, again at least through participation in normal transphobic society and usually through active prejudice, patriarchy conditions the thoughts and behavior of all men and many unenlightened women, etc. Simply taking the basic texts and values of this tradition at face value leads you inevitably to the conclusion that almost everyone you encounter in contemporary society is a bad person.....
Because a vast infrastructure of social justice publications, think tanks, and “consultants” have sprung up to monetize elite interest in these politics, progress in fact becomes threatening; success undercuts your reason for getting paid. (This is true of the think tank industrial complex/professional activism in general. Young leftists, go in fear of organizers with business cards.) In contrast, permanent failure permits those within the social justice movement to be righteous critics of society in perpetuity, and that position is more fun and socially rewarding than doing the work of building an actually just society....
One problem with this fatalistic belief in the universality and inevitability of bigotry is that many or most people find it profoundly unattractive. The progenitors of this school of politics created the social expectation that racism is a uniquely pernicious evil, as it certainly is. But, for one thing, the more you generalize and universalize an accusation, the less it has meaning. Terms like “problematic” have become parodies of themselves because of their relentless application. More importantly, this dynamic makes it really hard to apply social justice politics in mass spaces....[T]he takeover of establishment media by social justice has alienated the ~40% of the country that identifies as conservative, and as I said above, in fact the vast majority of Americans are indicted by the ideology. People don’t like being accused of bigotry through mass generalizations by the tiny slice of America (urban, college educated, socially liberal, culturally elitist) that produces the vast majority of our news.....
Social justice politics are obsessive about the linguistic, symbolic, cultural, discursive, and academic to the detriment of the material. The reasons for this are pretty plain: the parts of contemporary society that the social justice world controls are media, academia, the arts, nonprofits - in other words, the domains of ideas, the immaterial. The man with only a hammer seeing a world full of nails, etc. But this means that basic aspects of material suffering ultimately receive scant attention."
He then goes on to describe a bizarre social justice twitter fight that broke out about the "racial coding" of the Knuckles character in the Sonic the Hedgehog video games. Very amusing. But he draws some lessons from it. Here's one:
"Because social justice politics avers that the personal is always political and that all human conditions have political valence, political analysis (and political posturing) infects every aspect of human life. So something that many people enjoy as a respite from the things that make them tired in life becomes aggressively politicized. Something like video games. In fact “aggressively politicized” is not going far enough. They become mandatorily politicized. In video game media saying “keep your politics out of my video games” has become a trigger of immediate mockery and shorthand for “the wrong kind of gamer.” The website Kotaku, made up almost universally of people who embrace social justice politics, has long been a forerunner in telling its audience that they have a sacred obligation to view their hobby first through a political lens. But a huge portion of video game sites now tow this line. Sports coverage has become deeply politicized as well. (RIP.) In both fields suggesting that media coverage should not be all political all the time will get you painted as some kind of oafish anachronism. But most people hate politics. Most people don’t want to think about politics. Most people engage with politics when they feel that they have to but otherwise want to avoid them. Politics are unpleasant.....
The insistence that all things have political valence, no matter how ridiculous; that every last aspect of your life is a potential site of political struggle; and that these struggles are of vast importance even though they have no material impact on the world - these things combine to make social justice politics totalizing and yet unserious, inescapable and thus mundane, unremarkable. Paradoxically the intense emotionalism of this school of politics, the insistence that feeling a particular way amounts to doing something, must inevitably leave its proponents unable to make basic distinctions of priority and practice, unwilling to distinguish between what makes them feel intensely and what could make the largest impact in real-world terms. This is not a popular sentiment, to say the least, but it is true: oppression is not emotional, oppression is material."
He concludes, quite rightly in my view:
"The question is not “should the social justice agenda be implemented,” but instead “can the social justice agenda possibly win?” The social justice world is seemingly incapable of making intelligent and strategic decisions about where and how and why to politicize any given issue. The discursive and social practices of that world seem almost designed to make those politics strange and alienating to most people, of any gender or race. It operates as though the world has an infinite supply of outrage and that regular people will respond the right way, when you ring the bell, again and again. And its myopic emphasis on the gender semiotics of Dr. Who, or whatever the fuck, over the day-to-day realities of actual human inequality robs it of both moral clarity and the ability to focus on what actually matters. The problems with this school of politics are abundant, overflowing, and many people who espouse them every day do so purely out of fear of social censure. They can do great damage. But they cannot win."
Exactly. Those on the left who do want to win need to recognize this kind of politics has to be marginalized, not encouraged. The future of the left depends on it.

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