Can Social Justice Be Distinguished From Social Justice Ideology?

In response to my recent posts, a couple of commentators were concerned that the exact target of my criticisms was unclear, and that some readers might be left with the impression that I was challenging the cause of social justice more generally. It is incredibly important for my argument that its true target be understood and, as I seem to have failed to convey it adequately in my earlier posts, I wanted to post some brief remarks here (cannibalizing a comment I made earlier) for the purpose of clarification.

Work for social justice is a central and necessary part of the calling of the people of God, a task to which all of us owe our labours. My issue is entirely with social justice ideology, which is, I believe, a serious threat to actual social justice. While it is appropriate and important that we think rigorously about social justice—and not merely tactically, but also more systemically—social justice ideology has established a particular framework of thought and pattern of reasoning that creates some deeply unhelpful dynamics.

Social justice, of the kind that we should be involved in, for instance, calls us to be committed to the concrete work of providing for women and girls in positions of need, for single mothers, abused wives, girls with particular educational requirements, and to the work of ensuring the dignity and flourishing of every girl and woman in society. It is also essential to reflect carefully upon the structures and beliefs of our societies, and the ways in which they may lead us to mistreat or marginalize girls and women. Such study must be deeply receptive and attentive to the particular character of our reality.

Social justice ideology—which I am challenging—takes a different character. For instance, as related to the interests of women in society, it can be seen in an approach that views the entirety of reality through the lens of concepts such as ‘the patriarchy’, ‘male privilege’, ‘toxic masculinity’, the ‘male gaze’, etc., etc. and various other concepts of feminism and gender theory.

It can be seen in the ideological predetermination of reality, whereby we cease being attentive and receptive to reality (for instance, to the natural differences between the sexes in preferences and interests) and start to force the square peg of reality into the round hole of our theories. When this doesn’t have the results we desire, we just push harder and complain about how deeply embedded the structures of oppression are, how sexist and opposed to change men are, and how much women have internalized the patriarchy.

Those who resist the theories of social justice ideology and oppose the measures that are undertaken to put it into practice are all too frequently pathologized, presented as hateful, evil, or ignorant, in need of censoring or some form of re-education. Social justice ideology also frequently encourages cultures of grievance, resentment, victimhood, and balkanization. To oppose the ideology is supposedly to oppose the good of the people the ideology claims to serve.

Social justice ideology can encourage a radical suspicion of those outside of favoured groups. So, for instance, when I challenge feminism as a man, I may be presumed to be doing so in order to reinforce my male privilege. My argument cannot be about truth, but only about pursuing power and cementing my social advantage. Because people who resist the theories or key dimensions of them are pathologized, the idea of finding and pursuing common cause, values, and goods with them is out of the question. They are a negative force in society to be marginalized or ostracized.

All of this, I believe, is profoundly and, when followed consistently, unavoidably at odds with a genuine commitment to the Christian task of pursuing social justice. The actual work of social justice requires us to be deeply attentive and receptive to reality, even though it may threaten our theories. It calls us to recognize that people with ideological differences from us aren’t to be simply pathologized (and, yes, there are things to be learned from social justice ideology too, if it is approached carefully), and that we can often work with and alongside them in the cause of justice.

True justice requires us to be closely attentive to the very concrete needs of our actual neighbours and communities, rather than trying to force them into an ideological slot. For instance, if women, when given the choice and when provisions and a healthier work environment are ensured for them, still do not want to go into STEM subjects in large numbers, we should be more concerned to ensure that they flourish in those areas of society that they are principally involved in, rather than speaking about systemic discrimination against women in such fields. Our concern is not some ideologically predetermined ideal of equality (for instance, premised upon the notion that any difference in outcomes or representation in various areas must be a result of injustice and discrimination), but that our neighbours rise to their full stature as the particular people that they have been made to be in the image of God.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Culture, Ethics, Politics, Society, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Can Social Justice Be Distinguished From Social Justice Ideology?

  1. cal says:

    I am sympathetic to what you’re trying to do here, but I’m not sure this division/nuance is sustainable. You say real social justice is about concrete change, but the conceptual lenses that you critique are trying to do that as well. Therefore, revealing and refuting the “male gaze” is a means to restore dignity to women who are being objectified, utterly shaping all social relations, or “toxic masculinity” is a naming(and shaming) of certain practices/attitudes that women would learn how to identify and preemptively protect themselves from.

    I think if you’re going to make real distinctions, it has to be in the locus of how Social Justice (say, versus, Justice in Society) places this in gender constructs, and certain ideological prepositions, that have a concrete meaning. Thus, you would argue, to the contrary, gender reflects real biological difference in sexed division, and thus not collapsible. Also, it seems to be (though I’m not sure) class and economic status plays a role in real justice that identity-politics obscures.

    But as it stands, this division and critique seems contrived, and seems to say little. It’s not enough to say Feminists are merely ideological, because we’re all carrying baggage of the sort.

    • quinnjones2 says:

      Hi Cal, You did not address this comment to me but I would like to say a bit about your comment that ‘this division and critique seems contrived.’ With specific focus on the word ‘contrived’, the following seem to me to be contrived::
      surrogate motherhood and IVF to give offspring to same-sex couples
      transgender surgery
      When people insist on their rights to the above and disparage those who are not happy about their demands, I start having thoughts such as:
      what about my family member who is profoundly deaf?
      what about my family member whose child has autism?
      what about my family member whose child has Downs syndrome?
      what about my friend who has severe cerebral palsy?
      what about my friend who has recently lost most of her sight in both eyes?
      etc etc
      To attend to the needs of the family members I have listed above seems to me to be social justice.
      To attend to the demands of the ‘contrived’ list I gave above seems to me to be deference to social justice ideology.
      I’m not really au fait with all the terminology and I may be off the mark.
      You sometimes end your posts with ‘my two cents’.
      I live in the UK, so I suppose what I have written here is ‘my two penn’orth’ . 🙂

      • quinnjones2 says:

        Correction: ‘To attend to the needs of the family members…’ should read: ‘To attend to the needs of the family members and friends…’

      • cal says:

        I’m not sure what you think I’m saying exactly, but I’ll elaborate. The rhetorical difference between Social Justice and Social Justice ideology seems thin. The people under the category of Social Justice Ideology would also care for your family members and see them flourish. But to merely ascribe the negative aspects and keep for ourselves the positive aspects doesn’t seem to be fair in adjudicating differences.

        I think it’s more laborious, but more worthwhile, to take the punch on the jaw of rejecting the phrase “social justice”, tout court, and reconstructing other sets of concerns to work for equity in our particular societies. It’s trying to get away from, and around, and actually address, the concerns of people in the “social justice” crowd.

        For example, the typical SJW will argue for abortion because of a woman’s right to her own body and control. But an underlying assumption is that the fetus (or the zygote) is not actually a person that can be said to die. Therefore, the issue of it being a “murder” is foreclosed. And of course, if we want to argue for the personhood of the fetus (or zygote), one has to properly demonstrate some ramifications of this (what, therefore, is the nature of a person? should police investigate every case of miscarriage to determine any false play? what does this mean in terms of the state? etc etc.)

        It’s only if you do it brick by brick, and issue by issue, unveiling and arguing for a particular intellectual claim or preposition, that anything meaningful will emerge. I find it unfruitful to fight for a phrase that is heavily contested, freighted with all sorts of stuff, and many times vacuous, with the only gain as a rhetorical higher ground.

        But, as it stands, it seems like a sleight of hand to claim that our opponents are just ideological, while we care about real people. That sounds like a recipe for gridlock in conversations.

      • quinnjones2 says:

        Hi Cal,
        I’m still pushed for time so I will just add that I don’t want to attempt to persuade you to change your mind about this – I just wanted to say, as best I can, why I think that there is a difference between social justice and social justice ideology. All opinions we form and all decisions we make are based on some premise or other – I suppose it’s just a matter of trying to discern what that premise is.
        Thank you for the conversation.

    • quinnjones2 says:

      Thank you for explaining, Cal. This is a big issue!
      I just looked up some dictionary definitions of ‘ideology’. There are many definitions, but this one (from About Education) defines ‘ideology’ as I understand it:
      ‘An ideology is a set of cultural beliefs, values and attitudes that underlie and justify either the status quo or movements to change it. The culture of every social system has an ideology that serves to explain and justify its own existence as a way of life. Ideology can also underlie movements for social change, which rely on sets of ideas that explain and justify their purpose and methods.’
      I also looked up ‘social justice’ and again found many definitions. I think that this brief excerpt from Wikipedia defines social justice in a nutshell:
      ‘Social justice is the fair and just relation between the individual and society.’
      I really think that the distinction that Alastair has made between ‘social justice’ and ‘social justice ideology’ is valid, and not contrived.

      • cal says:

        How does one seek a “fair and just relation between the individual and society” without “cultural beliefs, values and attitudes that underlie and justify…movements to change it”?

        One has to define what fairness is, the purposes and meaning of Human life and Human society, the exact nature of the relationship of an individual to a social polity. Thus, everyone who’s involved in social justice has some constellations of ideologies, using the bare-bones definitions employed. It’s parsing out beyond that where points of disagreement may be highlighted and negotiated between people who, ostensibly, want the same thing (namely, the flourishing of all Human life).


      • quinnjones2 says:

        Cal – just a quick reply for now because I am pushed for time.
        ‘How does one seek a “fair and just relation between the individual and society” without “cultural beliefs, values and attitudes that underlie and justify…movements to change it” ‘
        I will speak for myself. I became a Christian in the first place (24 years ago) because my own sense of justice was violated by the ideology of the prevailing culture I lived in at that time. I sought God’s justice. I know that Christians do not see eye to eye about several things, but nonetheless I think that Christian faith and cultural beliefs are two very different things.
        Back later!

    • I addressed some of these points in a comment elsewhere:

      Social justice ideology typically include many valid concerns of social justice: a commitment to addressing wrongs committed against a racial group, or the genuine abuses committed by men against women, or the more general social processes by which such groups are prevented from rising to their full stature. Social justice ideology typically develops around good causes, but grows unchecked.

  2. mnpetersen37 says:

    If this is the definition of social justice ideology, then is rightest social justice work that, say, calls taxation theft and opposes laws like the ACA not prudentially, but dogmatically, also social justice ideology? Or claims that only a particular reading of the US Constitution can be made honestly, and so politicians who disagree with that reading are not honest? (Obviously the alt-right is, but I’m asking about things more mainstream in, at least parts, of the right. And, I believe I could come up with other examples.)

    • To add to my briefest of responses, yes, there is an overlap here. However, there are very, very important differences.

      People who hold the sorts of positions outlined above may present me as stupid or ignorant for disagreeing with them, but they are highly unlikely to regard me as evil. The sorts of ad hominem attacks that one encounters on the social justice left are extremely different. Things really are personal there, because people who disagree with them don’t just go against supposed reason, but are violating the sacred value of care. It is this sacred value that produces many of the most toxic and Manichaean dynamics that I am identifying.

  3. Pingback: An Evolving Canon for Freedom of Perception – Social Justice Reformation

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