“Dear Mr. President: there are too many states nowadays. Please eliminate three.”
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) recently published an article interviewing two philosophers (Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse) engaging in what could be considered little more than an academic exercise. The question: what role does the family have in promoting economic inequality? No, not the effects of a dysfunctional family. Quite the opposite:
Once he got thinking, Swift could see that the issue stretches well beyond the fact that some families can afford private schooling, nannies, tutors, and houses in good suburbs. Functional family interactions—from going to the cricket to reading bedtime stories—form a largely unseen but palpable fault line between families. The consequence is a gap in social mobility and equality that can last for generations.
So, what to do?
According to Swift, from a purely instrumental position the answer is straightforward.
‘One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.’
So far nothing specific has been proposed to implement such a remedy, but that’s not to say the discussion was meant to be frivolous. After introducing the concept of a social commodity called “familial relationship goods”, the philosophers discuss what policies could be upheld and prohibited when weighed against the problem of inequality. Private schools fail, for example, and parents reading to their children at night is grudgingly held to be permissible:
‘I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally,’ quips Swift.
The premise behind this discussion is so ridiculous, and the strategy so blatant, that it reveals how much of the push by the Social Justice Warriors™ is less about discovering perceived injustices as it is a technique to create an illusionary dragon to slay. I figured it might be useful to use this and other recent movements for social change to demonstrate how mechanical it is, and to find the weak spots to exploit it.
1. Invent a problem – your quest has begun. As you can see from this article, the “problem” can be the most trivial of matters. But if you want to declare that mankind is causing global warming climate change, that American cities have a problem with white police officers are oppressing young black men just for the hell of it, or that the college campus has a “rape culture”, you won’t have to look hard for institutions and activist groups to which you can ally. If you admire creativity in discovering an oppression, you can complain that the colonies of the future on Mars are in danger of too much sexism. That’s right – Mars needs women.
The primary tools to advertise the problem are two: stats and stories. Statistics give you the veneer of scientific truth, even though these “soft sciences” don’t carry the absolutism of, say, biology and chemistry. No matter: if your cause is favorable to the information outlets that matter most, the criticism over the statistics will glaze over the eyes of the non-expert audience. Nerdfights over the data are rarely obstacles to advancing a message.
Anecdotal evidence is a more risky tool, because the stories are intended to appeal to the emotions that any human being can feel. One will defer to the expertise of So-and-So, Ph.D, on details not understood, but everybody’s knows what it feels like to be lied to at one time in their life. But even if caught in a misrepresentation, an earnest enough appeal that the problem is just too severe to let one fabrication be an obstacle to “discussing the issue”.
For example, two years ago, Oberlin College was the target of a series of anti-semitic, homophobic, and racist graffiti incidents on campus. Or so it was thought. After months of navelgazing on campus and in the public of the implications as if these incidents were true bigotry, an investigative reporter from the Daily Caller learned that the vandalism was a hoax, done by an “anti-racist” student activist doing it to prompt such a reaction that followed. What’s more, it was discovered that shortly after the incidents began, the Oberlin administrative officials knew it was a hoax, and had refused to disclose it. Such nondisclosure allowed students to push for more aggressive campus anti-discrimination measures. And what to make of the fact that none of the alleged bigotry was true? The truth is for suckers, I guess.
For a group of people who largely identify as post-religious, the language urging action is infused with a lot of apocalyptic fervor. Earlier this year, the National Association of Scholars published a paper on the “Sustainability” environmental movement on campus, and how this movement has been implemented into nearly every crevice of campus life, even down to removing trays in the cafeteria to discourage people from taking too much food. (A shorter article from NAS on this topic can be found here.) This strategy has a specific ancestry, borne from the progressive tactic of recreating a national unity to fight in World War I. Jonah Goldberg discusses this “moral equivalent of war”, and its goal to have citizens submit some individual rights in favor of the group fight, in Chapter 2 of The Tyranny of Clichés.
Whether the language is the activists’ way of pitching their cause to people looking for a meaning, or whether they share the pre-millennial fervor, the message is the same: “We are heroes on our own epic journey.”
2. Identify the villains in your quest. Now that a goal has been established but not yet accomplished, there must be a reason for that, and that reason is your villain. “The Patriarchy”, “White Privilege”, “Rape Culture”, these villains aren’t individuals, but rather abstractions, which contributes to the self-perpetuating nature of this exercise. These abstractions become a linchpin to broaden the group who can be criticized – from a university president not sufficiently protecting females on campus to a lowly student who may question dubious sexual assault statistics, they can both be targeted as part of the “rape culture” on campus.
The degree of perceived injustice can be as small as you can imagine, down to the “microaggression“, something these crusaders came up with to equate serious civil rights abuses with things like insensitive remarks, and, remarkably, entering a room full of white people.
One item to note is that because this strategy calls for identification of abstract enemies, these groups identify themselves by similar abstractions. Heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual, which are classifications of behavior, become classifications of people, even though human sexual behavior is far less static for this classification to match reality. No matter: it makes for a more compelling victim hood narrative to identify one self as a “gay American” than to identify as an individual American who engages in homosexual activities. Or to identify oneself as a “fructose American” in response to a soda ban. No difference.
Even more sinister is the idea that these groups of people have uniform traits. For African-American activists and feminists, for example, members of these groups must share a liberal ideology, because that is (to them) what it means to be an African-American or a woman. To these people, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas can’t exist, at least not exist in terms of speaking as a Black Man. Sarah Palin can’t “exist” as a voice for Women. To be conservative and a member of these groups disrupts the “narrative” that they, as a group, have been set back by a system that oppresses them. Individual accountability and achievement are things to explain away rather than celebrate in this arena of ideas.
3. Propose a solution that will advance their cause, no matter the price. Let’s go back to the situation described in the ABC article: some children were advantaged over others because, among other things, one group had parents who read to them at night, while the other group didn’t.
Their proposed solution was to remove the advantage (parents reading to children). These two philosophers valued the principle of “equality” more than the (now) two disadvantaged groups of individual children.
While this example can be dismissed (at least for now), it is only one of many more serious distortions. Viewing the world not as a republic of individuals accountable for their own actions, but as a blurry collage of competing interest groups, can have dangerous consequences. For example, in the early days of the Soviet revolution, Vladimir Lenin’s enforcement squad, the Cheka, carried out executions by the bulk, based on their class or occupation. As Paul Johnson cited in Modern Times: The World From The Twenties to the Eighties (p. 70):
First came condemned categories: ‘prostitutes’, ‘work-shirkers’, ‘bagmen’, ‘speculators’, ‘hoarders’, all of whom might vaguely be described as criminal. Following quickly, however, came entire occupational groups. The watershed was Lenin’s decree of January 1918 calling on the agencies of the state to ‘purge the Russian land of all kinds of harmful insects’. This was not a judicial act: it was an invitation to murder.
But one doesn’t have to be engaged in revolutionary bloodletting to fall prey to this fallacy. There are movements to require white people to “check their privilege”, as if membership by ethnicity in America is no different than membership to the country club. A similar movement has been proposed for “male privilege” that is supposed to be a systematic oppression against women. It’s the holy grail of grievance politics: racism without racists, sexism without sexists, it removes the burden of having to provide details of oppression, and insulates them from the risk of when facts of the “scandalous” story go sideways, like when a police shooting in Missouri wasn’t in the black man’s back, but was in self-defense when the black man tried to shoot the officer with his own gun and who, after repeated warnings, charged at the officer. Or when a feature story about a gang rape at a state university collapsed in the face of even a minimal query of the allegations.
But this is the secret that the activists don’t want you to know: victims are more valuable as victims. The solutions that would help them as individuals are secondary to the cause. The high-profile police incidents in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other places have (the truth of the narrative being irrelevant) provided fodder for a movement to nationalize the police force. Activists touting a college campus “rape culture” are calling for more funding in response to the “crisis” of more reports of campus assaults. But as the article states: “Of course, they don’t acknowledge that more reports doesn’t necessarily equal more assaults.” Wouldn’t it be easier to allow citizens to better help themselves to fight crime, like, say allow them to carry guns? Nah, not so much. In the case of campus sexual assault, to say that guns are the solution exposes the ruse that in most cases, “sexual assault” on campus doesn’t mean what you think it means:
The women on a campus most likely to need to defend themselves from sexual assault, it appears, are not those attacked by a stranger while walking about the campus, but those drunkenly trying to fend off a formerly trusted male friend in his or her bedroom. It is not a situation in which they would be likely to have a pistol within easy reach or to summon much will or capacity to use one.
To reveal to citizens that they have the power to solve problems threatens the monopoly sought out by these activists. You will always be a victim, nothing more. The only hero in this epic journey will be us, the only available weapon being the exercise of government power.
There’s more to be said about the premises behind this line of thinking, such as the competing visions of the government as either a confiscator and distributor of “liberty” to distribute to the aggrieved classes of people to correct injustices of the past, or as humble facilitator of institutions to allow individual citizens to enjoy the liberties without unjust interference. But I think this can help explain the mindset behind much of the social justice movement that’s currently polluting the political atmosphere.
[ Edited to use blockquote function.]