The Problem of “Social Justice Elitism”

by Joseph Laycock

A recent piece by Amer F. Ahmed outlines a phenomenon he calls “social justice elitism.”  Ahmed is the associate director of multi-ethnic student affairs at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He notes a tendency among certain students to “out social-justice” each other by denouncing the subtle prejudices of others. Ahmed’s essay is echoed by a popular discussion on the blogosphere about “social justice warriors” or “SJWs.”  Urban Dictionary defines SJW as:

A pejorative term for an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation.

It goes without saying that more must be done to promote social justice on college campuses and this is why I am glad that Ahmed is drawing attention to this problem. As much as anti-intellectualism can be disguised as critical thinking, “social justice elitism” can choke out sincere discussion about what a more just society might look like. This problem is especially germane to religious studies.

The “Safi-Hughes Controversy of 2014” demonstrates the need for a larger conversation about the academic study of religion and identity politics. Undergraduate courses in religious studies can be a transformative environment in which students make a sincere effort to apprehend the experience of other polities.  They can also become arenas in which the SJWs spar while other students (and even faculty) serve as intimidated spectators. By taking the problem raised by Ahmed seriously, it may be possible to promote a more effective conversation about social justice.

I have been thinking about this problem ever since an experience I had as a Master’s student at Harvard Divinity School. While the political culture of HDS was overwhelmingly progressive, seminars were often plagued by the sort of one-upmanship described by Ahmed, wherein the perfect were made the enemy of the good. Then one night there was a party in the courtyard of Beckwith Circle, an apartment complex for divinity students. A large, slightly inebriated man wandered up from the street and joined us. The stranger turned out to be a Neo-Nazi who proceeded to debate us about whether the holocaust had really happened. He also asserted that deporting all Jews from the United States and Western Europe was the only way to prevent widespread violence and rioting when the population rises up against “Jewish arrogance.”

The divinity students made a few efforts to debate him, but of course, the Neo-Nazi had come prepared for this debate. No one asked him to leave. Instead, one by one, they excused themselves and retreated into their apartments. I was one of only two students who continued to talk with this person. While I became mildly concerned the encounter might end in violence, everyone remained calm. I stopped trying to argue with him and instead asked him how he became a Neo-Nazi. He told me he was a quarter Jewish and that he had been attacked in a nightclub “for being Jewish.” He also praised the intellectualism of the Boston Neo-Nazis he had met, who could allegedly read Sanskrit. My overall impression was of someone struggling to form a sense of identity from the resources available to him. Eventually, he left of his own volition.

I woke up the next morning feeling frustrated with my fellow divinity students. What did it mean that we spent so much time in seminar challenging each other over increasingly subtle concessions to the kyriarchy, but retreated when confronted by an honest-to-goodness Neo-Nazi? What if well-meaning academics had made this Neo-Nazi feel vilified and ashamed, driving him into the arms of the white supremacists?

In the years since this incident, I have thought a lot about the difference between sincere discussion about social justice and the more self-interested rhetoric described by Ahmed.  First, true discussion about social justice is conjunctive rather than disjunctive. That is, it creates connections by promoting an understanding of the experience of the other. By contrast, the rhetoric of social justice elitism divides people by assessing the degree to which they contribute to a system of injustice. Second, while sincere dialogue about social justice requires courage, social justice elitism rarely involves risk. Speaking truth to power is a frightening undertaking. So is talking about social justice in a way that leverages one’s privilege or runs the risk of being misunderstood. The rhetoric of social justice elitism generally occurs through channels in which there is no risk of being challenged: online comment sections, gossip, and seminars full of like-minded people.

Ironically, I suspect that we engage in social justice elitism for the same reason an otherwise reasonable man became a Neo-Nazi: out of a desire to construct and perform an identity. While the SJWs really do care about social justice, they are also invested in constructing a heroic self-narrative. This often entails a Quixotic project of creating villains by casting whoever is around them as the forces of oppression. As a teaching assistant, an undergraduate asked me about a paper she wanted to write on the Bible and gay rights. She explained that she was very pro-gay but knew “by word of mouth” that the professor opposed gay rights. In essence, she wanted to know if she would be punished for defending gay rights against an intolerant authority figure. The problem with this narrative was that there was no such authority figure. The professor was an arch-progressive and the victim of malicious gossip. At its worst, the move to create villains where none exist can amount to “weaponizing” the values of social justice. I have even seen cases where undergraduates have used the rhetoric of tolerance to punish faculty for giving them low grades. There has probably never been a religion professor who “hates other cultures,” but this accusation has been made on teaching evaluations.

This game of heroes and villains is not merely annoying or hypocritical. It directly undermines the very causes that SJWs advocate. When well-meaning students fear being attacked for their lack of sensitivity, the opportunity for a sincere dialogue or a teachable moment about structural injustice closes. A judgmental classroom environment also lends credence to the canard that higher education claims to promote critical thinking while actually enforcing “liberal brainwashing.” The most ironic consequence of these sorts of attacks is that untenured white male professors (i.e. professors like me) may feel discouraged from discussing those voices and traditions that have historically been neglected by academia. Had the professor I worked under not invited students to write on Biblical hermeneutics regarding homosexuality, he probably would not have been slandered as homophobic. Because SWJs tend to punish sins of commission rather than sins of omission, it may feel safer to stick to dead white men and texts translated by dead white men, instead of the lived experiences of minorities.

The first step toward improving this situation is to acknowledge that the problem exists.  Religion faculty need to feel comfortable discussing the sort of rhetoric outlined by Ahmed with their colleagues without fear of being misunderstood as insensitive or reactionary.  Nor should the SWJs be vilified. It may well be that a certain hubris is an unavoidable pitfall when we first begin to take the idea of a more just society seriously.

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2 Responses to The Problem of “Social Justice Elitism”

  1. Carl says:

    There are so many excellent points, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. A wonderful take on the issues.

    I feel modern-day academia (i.e. professors in their roles as teachers rather than scholars) has failed to communicate to the current generation of students that we all do better when we demonstrate the moral strength of our positions through honest engagement and informed (though no less committed) argumentation. Though there may be times when one simply has to shout over an appalling moral position, my experience has been that even the most extreme positions can be engaged in an honest, open exchange of ideas. If anything, my experience has been that the more one brow-beats others into agreement, the less likely one is to be able to articulate the core arguments that undergird the position.

    Perhaps—in addition to your excellent point about identity—”SJW’s” do what they because they fear that their positions are not strong enough to stand up under the withering gaze of someone with a contrary, but well-researched, position. If so, this ultimately falls back on us as teachers. When we hold SJW’s (and ourselves) to a standard that prefers sound argumentation to loud brow-beating, I think we’ll all be in a better place.

    Thanks again, Joseph. This is quite the phenomenal piece.

  2. Pat says:

    Great post.

    “Ironically, I suspect that we engage in social justice elitism for the same reason an otherwise reasonable man became a Neo-Nazi: out of a desire to construct and perform an identity. ”

    This statement I think sums it up best when you consider that many of the people in this movement, group whatever you’d call it, are people going through a period of transition. Many of them are young people who are either leaving high school to go to college (if they are going to college) or leaving college to go out into the world. With that in mind the need to establish an identity becomes paramount, even if it is just on a subconscious scale. They need to latch onto something and stick with it so they can have a group. It really is no different than the cliques people attach themselves to in high school. And just like the “cool kid” clique, which many of these people didn’t belong to, they conform themselves to it . They do it to the degree that they don’t even question the other more established members of the group, for fear of being shunned and left “alone in the world” as far they see it.

    To add to it many of them are looking for a means to feel important, especially those who are in their 20s. In the western world we tend to be taught that by our 20s we should have things locked down. We’ve more than likely finished high school, we’re “supposed’ to have gone too and finished college with a nice shiny degree and a job waiting for us at the end of the journey. At said job we’re “suppose” to excel and “make something of ourselves”. But in reality no one has 20s like that, many of us may never have finished or perused any form of higher education. Most of us won’t have a stable job for the better part of a decade and all the hard work we did in school learning this, that and beyond won’t really amount to much unless we enter a specific field…Which most of us don’t, in fact many of us will find that the thing we worked to be qualified for isn’t the thing we’ll spend our time doing for a career for the rest of our lives. We live in a society that tells us we aren’t worth while or important unless we are doing something “important” and so many of these individuals find something that is important to them and they latch on. They latch on and cling to it; never really questioning a thing, until they enter the territory of zealotry.

    Just my two cents.

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