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.