I’ve been trying for a long time to get my head around the problems with the secular religion known as “Social Justice.” It’s something that has confused me for a long time, and I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on it. Which is weird for me, because I am usually pretty good at putting my finger on things that bother me, at least when it comes to ideas.
I’ve tried to explore the emotional logic of Social Justice and the social dynamics it creates (or more precisely, destroys) by emphasizing perception, emotions, and cynicism over facts, intentions, and trust. I’ve also tried to analyze the broken notion of justice that it pursues, which is actually just partiality (and therefore anti-justice) dressed up as justice. But I think I have found the thing that best summarizes my biggest disagreement with Social Justice, and it’s actually something I’ve known for a long time without realizing it. But before I get into that, I want to explain what exactly I’ve been looking for and why I think I may have finally found it.
I’m a pretty analytical person, and I have joked that I get triggered by logical fallacies the way others get triggered by hate speech. Some people don’t like political incorrectness; I don’t like mental incorrectness. It really bothers me, and usually when I hear someone say something really off, I have to go for a walk to sort things out. It’s like my mind is a shelf of meticulously organized knick-knacks, and fallacious statements have a way of messing up the shelf. What I’ve wanted is a simple, reliable way to figure out how things got moved and how I can put them back. It’s like having an illness without a diagnosis: you just want a magic word that you can say that makes it all move from inside your head and into reality.
I think the emotional and relational problems with Social Justice are many, and I think restoring them can do a lot to make our society much healthier. But I think there is some faulty thinking, a faulty philosophy, at the root of Social Justice, and I don’t think the church can give a full response to Social Justice if it does not account for this faulty philosophy. I think it is this faulty philosophical commitment that allows the emotional and relational problems to burn out of control. I will describe it, and then I will name it.
A confession of that philosophy could be as follows: “Your mind does not tell you what is real.” Another statement might be, “There is no theory-independent perception of the world.” You could call this a “tabula rasa” view of the mind. The basic idea is that everything we know, we come to know through our mind and our sense organs. But our mind and sense organs structure sense data in a particular way when they give it to us. For example, there are broad swaths of the electromagnetic spectrum that we cannot see. Or, we unconsciously create and deal with unifying abstractions like “face” rather than the constituent elements. This leads us to erroneously identify faces in clouds or rock formations.
This creates a doubt about how we know things. It makes us feel as though our mind and senses are lying to us because they are pre-arranging the information we get, structuring it in a way to lead us, like a lawyer leading a witness, to certain conclusions without giving us informed consent. This doubt can become become severe enough that it becomes “closed.” In this case, our beliefs and perceptions can at best only tell us about ourselves, but are simply unreliable for telling us about the real world.
This can lead to a more pernicious doubt, which is that we are somehow involved in the process by which we come to know things–whether we recognize it or not. There are no thoughts that just “come” to us naturally, on their own. There is no notion of a belief that we come to through much pain and experience, perhaps even against our will, no notion of a fact which is so pervasive and inescapable that would cause even the most persistent skeptic to either give in or go crazy. We are responsible for what we believe, of course, insofar as we ought to ensure that we aren’t engaging in motivated reasoning, that our beliefs are coherent and supported by evidence, and so on. But when you combine this responsibility with the notion that our minds cannot reliably tell us about reality, we begin to feel that we should believe certain things because we ought to believe them, but not necessarily because they are true.
Contrast this with “common sense,” which would say that our minds deal with abstractions like “faces” because faces are real. In this “realist” view, our mind is not a lawyer leading a witness but a counselor helping a patient see the truth. Our mind, with all of its baked-in tendencies, and our senses, with all of their pre-structuring ways, are the way they are precisely so they can deliver reality to us. In this common sense view, we trust our mind to reliably connect us to what is real–even if we aren’t always able to reliably articulate it, even if we sometimes make mistakes.
A corollary is that if our mind’s connection to reality is at best tenuous and at worst completely severed, then we need a powerful mechanism to explain how people form beliefs at all. If our gut-level, innate reactions to certain truths don’t come simply by virtue of our mind’s connection with reality, then where do they come from? The answer seems to be that they come from social conditioning.
All our deeply held moral beliefs don’t come from an innate moral sensibility which can be either sharpened or dulled through study and practice, but rather through society constantly policing us to think one way rather than another. Because our minds have no reliable connection to reality nor a structure which puts limits on the kinds of beliefs a person will naturally believe, we suspect that all people are equally susceptible to conspiracy theories, false narratives about history, or deception at the hands of fanatics.
How is any of this related to Social Justice? Consider the above statement, “our beliefs and perceptions can at best only tell us about ourselves.” This doubt is what makes the notion of “unconscious bias” at all plausible. Unconscious bias is a rhetorical device used to dismiss a person’s point of view. Suppose you think that women are more nurturing than men. You probably think this because of the thousands of micro-interactions you’ve had with women, compared to men, accumulated over a wide variety of circumstances and people. This vast expanse of experiences teaches you this fact, and it lives as an intuition, humming in the background. Labeling it as an “unconscious bias” has the effect of stripping away legitimacy without having to do any actual work. You can simply dismiss that person’s experience out of hand.
The label is rhetorically effective because it smuggles in a hidden assumption: namely, that the real-world experience that gives rise to that belief is in no way connected to what’s real, and therefore provides no justification for that belief. This is true even though having passively formed a belief makes it more reliable because it was less likely to be formed as a result of motivated reasoning. But in the Social Justice view, it is precisely that passivity that makes the belief unreliable, because it shows how unaware you are that your inner lawyer was leading the witness. Unconscious bias is simply a way to assert at the outset that we have no reason to suspect that anything you believe has any bearing on reality. Your mind does not tell you what is real.
Or, consider anytime someone invokes “society” as an explanation for something, such as beauty standards or reactions of disgust at homosexual behavior. Of course, moral standards for sexuality, or aesthetic standards for beauty, can vary widely. But the principled move here is to deny that these judgments have any connection to reality at all. Being disgusted by homosexual acts simply informs us that we have internalized society’s homophobia, as opposed to saying that society merely clarified and enforced the already existing disgust that God has placed in man’s heart. Similarly, “conventional” beauty standards are merely that: conventional. There is no rational or natural basis, and the broadly shared recognition of certain individuals’ beauty tells us nothing about beauty itself but only about the society those allegedly beautiful individuals and their beholders occupy.
Or, consider the Social Justice concern over policing “Fake News” and conservative content on social media like YouTube. Because the mind has no natural boundaries or limits, listening to Ben Shapiro criticize the “radical left” will easily lead you to become an alt-right nazi sympathizer and a flat-earther. In this view, all people are highly susceptible to the wrong kind of influence because they have no internal “brakes” on their mind that would stop them from indulging in radical thinking. In the realist conception, man has certain natural barriers, like a conscience and an internal “B.S. sensor” that helps them gauge the plausibility of a claim.
This would also explain why the Social Justice crowd would have no compunction about engaging in thought policing. In their mind, society is constantly engaged in thought policing, because our beliefs come to us as a result of society’s thought conditioning. Now, all societies engage in thought conditioning, but what is specifically denied by Social Justice is that the conditioning has any connection to reality or the truth. Beliefs are merely the result of conditioning, and therefore can be conditioned away and replaced by new ones, with only cursory attention ever paid to actually providing sound, rational arguments for the new beliefs. So information is controlled in order to “nudge” or influence you, rather than information being freely given alongside arguments designed to persuade.
Or, consider that mass shootings are never talked about in terms of crime but as a gun problem. There is no concept that a person, in order to commit a mass shooting, would have to forcibly overcome so many internal barriers of mind and conscience. In the realist view, such a person is depraved and ill. But in the Social Justice view, such a person is actually a victim, a victim of circumstance and conditioning, for which they cannot be expected to bear any responsibility.
Again, all of this is not to deny that social conditioning plays a role in belief formation, or to deny that our perceptions are ever influenced by our desires or pre-existing beliefs. Rather, it is to emphasize that, alongside these “psychological” concerns exists a rational part of the mind that is capable of know what is true. We can learn to think clearly and balance our motivations, experiences, and peer pressure against sound thinking. But if we deny that this kind of intellectual check-and-balance is possible, then all that remains is conditioning and motivation. We become irrational.
So the point is not that every intuition we have about morality, truth, beauty, and so on is always right. In fact, we are often wrong about these things. Nor is it to assert that people easily resist conditioning, or that no ideas ever pose a risk to people because everyone knows exactly how to discern truth from falsehood. Rather, it is to affirm that our intuitions are made to connect us to the truth. Intuitions may be foggy and unclear, or formed by a process of motivated reasoning. But intuitions can also be formed by paying attention to reality and honed through the proper motivation, the motivation to know the truth.
This is why the Scriptures give us both doctrinal statements of truth and exhortations to grow in wisdom and discernment. Like any skill, we must develop, through study and practice, the ability to sift truth from falsehood. Abandoning this battle merely makes us more susceptible to motivated reasoning, more susceptible to peer pressure.
In the way of naming this phenomenon, I think it is probably safe to label this kind of thinking as an expression of post-modern epistemology (I recommend Stephen Hick’s Explaining Postmodernism for a treatment of the philosophical history of the subject). Post-modern skepticism denies that the mind has any contact with reality, and then asserts that arguments are merely power plays–hence the demands for the victim hierarchy associated with Social Justice.
Not all of Social Justice is bad in this way. I think a lot of, like sympathy and justice for the oppressed, are Biblical concepts. But while the end goal might be partially shared by Christians, the thinking that gets us there needs to be grounded in reality. Social Justice indulges far too much in anti-realist thought. You can protect yourself from this by reminding yourself, whenever you hear odd statements about gender, about “society,” about your own perceptions, that Social Justice is trying to convince you: Your mind does not tell you what is real.