We Need Liberal Social Justice, Not "Critical Social Justice"

By Helen Pluckrose / symposium.substack.com
Apr 21, 2021
We Need Liberal Social Justice, Not "Critical Social Justice"

This is a contribution to Symposium No. 1, our invitation to explore and explain the basic principles of a liberal outlook.

Liberalism is a much misunderstood word. In the US, it can be used to mean “left.” In the UK, it is often understood as “centrist,” and in Australia, it can be taken to refer to the conservative party. However, liberalism is not a political position. It is a set of values that seeks to defend every person’s freedom (individualism), tolerate and even appreciate difference (pluralism) and recognise and value our shared humanity and see in it a moral responsibility to ensure that the same rights, freedoms, and responsibilities belong to everybody (universalism.) Liberalism, therefore, can be at home on the left where it mixes with left-wing aims to distribute goods more evenly to enable everyone to reach their potential, or on the right where its concepts of freedom extend more into the realm of markets and overlap with libertarianism. 

Liberals on the left and liberals on the right might therefore disagree with each other on economic issues. What they agree on however, are the centrality of the individual, the importance of freedom of belief and speech, the value of tolerating different ideas, and the need for a consistency of principles in which the same rules and freedoms apply to everyone.

This is where those of us who are "liberals" in the widest sense of that word often find ourselves in opposition to the advocates of "Critical Social Justice." This is clearly not because we are opposed to "social justice." Indeed liberalism is a model for achieving social justice and it has been highly successful, making liberal democracies the most advanced in human rights and freedoms of all systems of government. 

Critical Social Justice, however, is something very different from liberalism and, in fact, opposed to its understanding of social justice. It does not support the primacy of the individual but focuses instead on the group defined by identity. Despite its rhetoric of “diversity,” it is not tolerant of different viewpoints but instead seeks to impose its own as a moral orthodoxy. And Critical Social Justice is deeply skeptical of universalism, understanding the world instead as constructed of systems of power, privilege, and marginalization that need to be readjusted by applying different rights and freedoms to different groups.

Liberal concepts of social justice and critical concepts of social justice may well see themselves as seeking the same ends—a just society in which everybody is able to access everything society has to offer, but we have very different ideas of how to get there and, indeed, very different ideas of society. 

To understand this, it is important to understand, in more depth, the difference between a liberal conception of social justice—a vision that is, in fact, widely supported today—and the very narrow and censorious approach of "Critical Social Justice," which is the vision at the root of today's illiberal left.

What Is Critical Social Justice?

Critical Social Justice (CSJ) is a specific theoretical approach to addressing issues of prejudice and discrimination on the grounds of characteristics like race, sex, sexuality, gender identity, dis/ability, and body size. It has some of its intellectual ancestry in Marxist thought and the concept of "critical consciousness," that is, becoming aware of oppressive power systems—hence the connection with the term "woke," which uses the African-American Vernacular English word to describe being able to see systems of oppression that are invisible to most people. But Critical Social Justice derives more from postmodern concepts of knowledge, power, and discourses.

CSJ holds that knowledge is not objective but is culturally constructed to maintain oppressive power systems. This is believed to be achieved primarily by certain kinds of knowledge being legitimized by powerful forces in society, then being accepted by everyone and perpetuated by ways of talking about things—discourses.

These oppressive power systems believed to exist and permeate everything are called things like white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, heteronormativity (assuming that most people are heterosexual), cisnormativity (assuming that people are men or women depending on their reproductive systems), ableism, and fatphobia. However, it is believed, most of us cannot see these oppressive discourses and systems because they are just the water we swim in. The marginalized have a greater ability to see them and so have a greater competence to define them and point them out. Knowledge is thus tied to identity and one's perceived position in society in relation to power—often referred to as "positionality."

The Critical Social Justice theorists and activists apply their "critical" methods to analyze systems, language, and interactions in society to "uncover" these power systems and make them visible to the rest of us. They believe that in this way society can be revolutionized and social justice achieved provided the rest of us accept our moral imperative to pay attention to and accept their interpretations. This is often referred to as "doing the work" or simply "educating yourself." Any skepticism of these interpretations is assumed to be an attempt to preserve one's own privilege if one is of a group perceived to be privileged, or, if one is not a member of a privileged group, it is seen as evidence of one having internalized the oppressive power system. This is, of course, completely unfalsifiable and therefore makes it impossible for any disagreement to be seen as legitimate. This is often known as a “Catch 22” situation or a “KafkaTrap.”

Liberalism is the approach to achieving social justice that preceded the CSJ approach and is still the one most commonly held by the general public. It is associated with philosophers as diverse as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill who each, in different ways, focused on freedom, individuality, and equality of opportunity. Liberals primarily want every individual to be able to pursue their own goals and fulfillment provided this does not infringe on anybody else's pursuit of the same. 

Liberals do not usually deny the existence of dominant cultural narratives, although we might disagree with CSJ adherents about what those narratives are. For example, CSJ adherents believe society to still be dominated by white supremacist and patriarchal discourses and themselves to be a radical movement pushing back against such systems of oppression. But while bigoted attitudes certainly still exist and some normative assumptions also need to addressed, racism and sexism are widely regarded negatively by society. White supremacist and patriarchal views, rather than being a norm, are generally regarded as extremist far-right positions. They have very little social prestige. Far more mainstream as a dominant narrative are liberal values which hold that people should be treated as individuals and frown upon making assumptions about their position in society based on their race, gender, or sexuality. These values formed the principles of the Civil Rights Movement, liberal feminism, and Gay Pride which were largely successful because they appealed to people’s empathy for individuals, tolerance of difference, and shared humanity. There has been growing, however, another dominant narrative which again calls upon us to evaluate people by their race, gender, and sexuality, and this is not commonly seen as an extremist position and does have considerable social prestige. This is Critical Social Justice and it is powerful, holds prejudiced assumptions, and needs to be resisted by liberals. 

Crucially, liberals accept that many different ways of talking about things (discourses) exist in society and believe that individuals have the agency and free will to evaluate and reject or accept these ideas. This is often referred to as the "marketplace of ideas" model and is credited for the cultural changes that have occurred over the last 70 years or so in which attitudes towards race, homosexuality, and gender roles have become much more liberal.

Liberals tend to think less in terms of revolution and more in terms of reform. For example, we believe that secular, liberal democracies are generally good frameworks but that they have failed to extend all their benefits to all people equally and these barriers must be removed. Enabling women and racial minorities to access all professions and be paid equally and enabling same-sex couples to marry are liberal reformist approaches.

Therefore, while the CSJ approach advocates for identity politics, liberals advocate for removing social significance from identity—that is, eradicating the idea that one's race, sex, or sexuality tells us anything about anybody's abilities, morals, or roles in society. While the CSJ approach argues that knowledge is relative, positional, and tied to identity, liberals argue that knowledge is objective (at least in principle, although we should never be too sure of having obtained it) and individuals of any identity may access it, although experiences and perceptions may vary. Where the CSJ approach insists we are all socialized into the acceptance of certain discourses, and therefore language must be closely scrutinized and policed to dismantle oppressive power systems, liberals believe that culture has influence but that individuals have agency and can use language to argue for and against ideas, and that bad ideas (including bigoted ones) are best overcome by better ideas.

Ultimately, then, Critical Social Justice and liberal social justice are opposed in many ways in their approach but ultimately seek the same outcome—a just society in which nobody is discriminated against due to their race, sex, sexuality, gender identity, religious or cultural background, physical ability, or weight.

To understand what Critical Social Justice is, we have to understand what it means by "critical." Many people associate the word "critical" with critical thinking, which is generally understood to mean the examination of an argument or claim in the light of reason and evidence rather than accepting it uncritically. This is not what is meant by Critical Social Justice.

In her 2017 paper, "Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes," Alison Bailey, a professor of philosophy, explains the difference between critical thinking and critical pedagogy (a Critical Social Justice teaching method). First, she shows us the ways in which these things are similar:

Philosophers of education have long made the distinction between critical thinking and critical pedagogy. Both literatures appeal to the value of being "critical" in the sense that instructors should cultivate in students a more cautious approach to accepting common beliefs at face value. Both traditions share the concern that learners generally lack the ability to spot inaccurate, misleading, incomplete, or blatantly false claims. They also share a sense that learning a particular set of critical skills has a corrective, humanizing, and liberatory effect.

So far, so good. But then Bailey starts to show us the differences:

The traditions, however, part ways over their definition of "critical."... The critical-thinking tradition is concerned primarily with epistemic adequacy....  To be critical is to show good judgment in recognizing when arguments are faulty, assertions lack evidence, truth claims appeal to unreliable sources, or concepts are sloppily crafted and applied. For critical thinkers, the problem is that people fail to "examine the assumptions, commitments, and logic of daily life...the basic problem is irrational, illogical, and unexamined living" (Burbules and Berk 1999, 46). In this tradition sloppy claims can be identified and fixed by learning to apply the tools of formal and informal logic correctly.

Yes, this is what is generally understood by critical thinking. When someone tries to employ critical thinking, they are essentially looking for flaws of reasoning or unevidenced claims or unwarranted assumptions being made due to an ideologically biased interpretation of a situation. The value of critical thinking is understood to be that it helps us to discover what is true or what is morally right. Critical thinking is central to the liberal conception of the marketplace of ideas in which people evaluate certain ideas before "buying" into any of them. While every individual will have their own biases that limit their ability to impartially examine ideas for their merits, the expectation is that they should try to do so and to make reasoned and evidenced arguments for their own position. Meanwhile, people with an opposing view will do the same for their position and this back and forth will lead to some ideas winning out over others in public consensus.

Critical pedagogy, Bailey explains, is something quite different:

Critical pedagogy begins from a different set of assumptions rooted in the neoMarxian literature on critical theory commonly associated with the Frankfurt School. Here, the critical learner is someone who is empowered and motivated to seek justice and emancipation. Critical pedagogy regards the claims that students make in response to social-justice issues not as propositions to be assessed for their truth value, but as expressions of power that function to re-inscribe and perpetuate social inequalities [emphasis mine].

So, "Critical" in this neo-Marxist sense is not about discovering what is true but about uncovering power dynamics. "Truth" is considered to be a social construct created in the service of power. Therefore, critical pedagogy is looking for the oppressive power dynamics that are assumed to underlie all claims of truth, in order to dismantle them. This is a political endeavor aimed at empowering this neo-Marxist concept of social justice and challenging critical thinking. Bailey is explicit about this purpose of critical pedagogy.

Its mission is to teach students ways of identifying and mapping how power shapes our understandings of the world. This is the first step toward resisting and transforming social injustices. By interrogating the politics of knowledge-production, this tradition also calls into question the uses of the accepted critical-thinking toolkit to determine epistemic adequacy.

Kiaras Gharabaghi and Ben Anderson-Nathe argue similarly for a political understanding of "critical" in their 2017 paper, "The Need for Critical Scholarship," saying:

Critical scholarship is less an approach and more an invitation; it is a way of thinking about research as a form of resistance. While resistance is usually associated with the politics of the day, with tangible forms of oppression or with nuanced forms of manipulation, we believe that we must balance the production of the orthodoxy with resistance to system-preserving truths.

We see here the belief that oppressive systems of power are what are accepted as truth and thus that this requires resistance by default. Gharabaghi and Anderson-Nathe argue not for the critical thinking that evaluates arguments on their merits in order to reach conclusions but to begin with the assumption that power imbalances underlie the whole process of thinking and that to think this way is to be "critical.

And so we invite you to submit your scholarship that is critical not in its conclusions but in its starting points: Is attachment really the framework in which we must see the entire life form of youth? Is trauma a universal concept? Does resilience explain something in particular or is it a way of identifying the economic, social, and cultural processes that re-produce a colonial, white, heterosexist, ableist social order? How do binary constructs of ways of being and of living impact on the full diversity of humanity? Are we either male or female? Are we racialized or white? Are we religious or atheist? Are we rich or poor? Are we perpetrator or victim?

Like Bailey, Gharabaghi and Anderson-Nathe reject the idea of objective knowledge or objective truth but regard knowledge as a social construct which is tied to a person's identity and their position in society:

Critical scholarship can perhaps be characterized in another way. It is a way of approaching knowledge that is inherently not certain, always fluid, rooted in the lived experiences of people with multiplicity of life-contexts and informed by dialogue, relationship, and connection with those who have a stake in the knowledge being generated. Critical research is not out to create truth; it aims to consider the moment and looks forward to a way of seeing that moment in ways we could not have imagined. Finally, it invites into the research process an active identification of and engagement with power, with the social systems and structures, ideologies and paradigms that uphold the status quo.

The "critical" idea, then, has its roots in Marxism. Marx himself advocated the "ruthless criticism of all that exists." However, Marx and traditional Marxists believed and continue to believe in objective truth and in science as the best method for obtaining knowledge. However, the neo-Marxists or post-Marxists and then the postmodernists who turned their attention to culture and the relation between power, knowledge, and language became radically skeptical of the ability to obtain objective knowledge. They also moved increasingly from critiques of economics and class to those of identity—race, gender, sexuality, etc. This move occurred in academia. An excellent source for following this development isThe Critical Turn in Education: From Marxist Critique to Poststructuralist Feminism to Critical Theories of Race (2016) by Isaac Gottesman, in which he says:

After the fall of the New Left arose a new left, an Academic Left. For many of these young scholars, Marxist thought, and particularly what some refer to as Western Marxism or neo-Marxism, and what I will refer to as the critical Marxist tradition, was an intellectual anchor. As participants in the radical politics of the sixties entered graduate school and moved into faculty positions and started publishing, the critical turn began to change scholarship throughout the humanities and social sciences. The field of education was no exception.

The turn to critical Marxist thought is a defining moment in the past 40 years of educational scholarship, especially for educational scholars who identify as part of the political left. It introduced the ideas and vocabulary that continue to frame most conversations in the field about social justice, such as hegemony, ideology, consciousness, praxis, and most importantly, the word "critical" itself, which has become ubiquitous as a descriptor for left educational scholarship.

"Hegemony" refers to the dominance believed to be held by powerful groups or sets of ideas over all others while "ideology" refers to those ideas and is usually used negatively.  "Consciousness" refers to one's understanding of one's position in the world as part of a social class and in Marxist thought it can be true or false depending on whether it tallies with Marxist ideas of class consciousness or not. The working class were held to have a false consciousness if they did not recognize their own exploitation. Within cultural and identity studies and related activism, the idea of a false consciousness remains but it is more often applied to the privileged. They are believed to be unable to see their privileged positions unless they develop critical consciousness or, more colloquially, become "woke." "Praxis" refers to putting these theories into practice.

Says Gottesman:

Initially sequestered in curriculum studies and sociology of education, today critical scholarship is frequently published in the journals of some of the field's most historically conservative areas, such as educational administration and science education. The critical turn radicalized the field.

Indeed. One could even quite reasonably argue that this ideology has become"hegemonic."

The problem of left-wing bias in the academy has been pointed out repeatedly as a problem for knowledge production even by those of us who are left-wing ourselves. A marketplace of ideas cannot work to advance knowledge and make moral progress if all its wares are rooted in the same ideas. Gottesman acknowledges the "critical Marxist tradition" to have more recently become mixed with other identity-based theories:

Since its beginnings in the 1970s and 1980s, critical educational scholarship has also pushed far beyond the Marxist tradition and its focus on political economy and social class. Although the critical Marxist tradition remains a foundation for much of the work that followed, critical educational scholars now engage a range of intellectual and political traditions that help us better understand culture and identity, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, constructions of ability, ecological crisis, and their myriad intersections.

These theories have much more to do with postmodern concepts of knowledge, power, and language, to the extent that James Lindsay and I have referred to them as "applied postmodernism." But do these newer intellectual and political traditions really help us better understand culture and identity, or is there still value in exploring them via a diverse range of viewpoints? Liberals would certainly argue that there is and always will be value in political and intellectual diversity and in living within a pluralistic liberal culture that positively encourages the free exchange of ideas and maintains an expectation that they will be presented with reasoned argument and evidence. 

Unfortunately, the most recent incarnation of this critical tradition is not open to dialectic or the marketplace of ideas. Nor does it have much confidence in individuals' ability to evaluate and reject or accept ideas. It has rapidly become a dogma with clearly spelled out tenets.

Disempowering “Empowerment”

The best example of this is to be found in the section of Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo's Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education (2017). Sensoy and DiAngelo make it very clear that Critical Social Justice is something very different from what most people understand as social justice, which remains mostly liberal. It is particularly important for liberals to understand this distinction. Sensoy and DiAngelo write:

While some scholars and activists prefer to use the term social justice in order to reclaim its true commitments, in this book we prefer the term critical social justice. We do so in order to distinguish our standpoint on social justice from mainstream standpoints.

They define the mainstream standpoint on social justice in this way:

Most people have a working definition of social justice; it is commonly understood as the principles of "fairness" and "equality" for all people and respect for their basic human rights. Most people would say that they value these principles.

Indeed, we would. This is liberal humanism. However, Critical Social Justice is not about fairness and equality for all people but a very specific political theory.

A critical approach to social justice refers to specific theoretical perspectives that recognize that society is stratified (i.e., divided and unequal) in significant and far-reaching ways along social group lines that include race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Critical social justice recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e., as structural), and actively seeks to change this.

That is, Critical Social Justice is not just an acceptance that bigoted attitudes and inequalities continue to exist, and that society still has work to do to overcome that, but a firm belief that systems of oppressive power are deeply embedded in the very fabric of society in ways that can only be revealed by "critical" and not liberal approaches to social justice.

Liberal opposition to Critical Social Justice need not to be equated with the wholesale rejection of social justice scholarship. Much of this scholarship includes sound empirical sociological research and consistently liberal ethics. Instead, it is the particular "critical" approach that is antithetical to liberalism. Sensoy and DiAngelo state this "critical" approach explicitly and then detail its principles:

The definition we apply is rooted in a critical theoretical approach. While this approach refers to a broad range of fields, there are some important shared principles:

  • All people are individuals, but they are also members of social groups.

  • These social groups are valued unequally in society.

  • Social groups that are valued more highly have greater access to the resources of a society.

  • Social injustice is real, exists today, and results in unequal access to resources between groups of people.

  • Those who claim to be for social justice must be engaged in self-reflection about their own socialization into these groups (their "positionality") and must strategically act from that awareness in ways that challenge social injustice.

From this, we see that Sensoy and DiAngelo are referring to identity groups when they speak of "social groups." They posit a simplistic model of society in which people are divided by their race, sex, class, sexuality, and ability and then ranked and allocated certain resources depending on their identity. This goes against empirical evidence which paints a much more complex picture of society than a straightforward white supremacist, patriarchal, homophobic, ableist system in which people can plot their "positionality" by their identity and expect consistent results from it. We know, for example, that the most successful demographics in society are not white but that this does not mean racism has disappeared and never impacts people's life outcomes. Believing that such a simple framework can be used to understand society and to further social justice is unlikely to be successful.

Further, by assuming that all people are socialized into certain beliefs due to their identity, they end up placing more social significance on immutable characteristics rather than less. Thus, Critical Theory contributes to the creation of the very social structures it claims to seek to challenge, disempowering the people it seeks to empower.

Liberals reject this reductionist worldview and seek to overcome racism, sexism, and homophobia by consistently objecting to anybody's worth being evaluated by their race, sex, or sexuality and seeking empirical evidence of discrimination and effective ways to overcome it.

Sensoy and DiAngelo go on to say that, based on these principles, a person engaged in critical social justice practice must be able to "Recognize that relations of unequal social power are constantly being enacted at both the micro (individual) and macro (structural) levels." Are they, though? Is there reason to believe that identity-based power dynamics are constantly in play in consistent ways in every interaction and every system in society? Isn't reality a bit more complicated than this? Is it possible that many if not most people actually go about their lives seeing others as individuals rather than as identity-based pawns positioned on a power grid?

Sensoy and DiAngelo also state that we must "Understand our own positions within these relations of unequal power." There is an unwarranted certainty in the claim that there are identity-based relations of unequal power that needs to be "understood"—that is, accepted to be true. Must I "understand" that every time I interact with a man, he has more power than me and is exercising it against me and that every time I interact with a non-white person, I have more power than them and am exercising it against them? Is it that most people fail to "understand" this, or is it that most humans who regularly interact with a variety of other humans don't find it to be true?

Another of their suggestions is to "Think critically about knowledge; what we know and how we know it." Yes, absolutely. This includes critical thinking in its original sense: thinking about the knowledge the critical theorists claim to have and how they claim to know it and being able to disagree with it. Unfortunately, according to DiAngelo, disagreeing with this conception of the world (as well as staying quiet or going away) cannot be a legitimate alternative viewpoint about how society works but a symptom of "white fragility." White fragility occurs whenever white people disagree with and object to the claim that they are inherently racist. 

Liberalism is not just an ideology but is also a conflict resolution mechanism. Liberalism views the wide variety of human beliefs on almost every subject imaginable as a strength. It encourages civil, reasoned debate for the purposes of advancing knowledge, finding common ground, and making reasonable accommodations for differing opinions. Liberalism is not the solution to disagreements, but a system that allows us to disagree without turning to violence or authoritarianism. I believe that principled people from across the political spectrum have a vested interest in protecting the foundations of liberal society—including and even particularly advocates of social justice.

Acting in the service of a more socially just society requires acting against Critical Social Justice and in the service of liberal social justice.

It is only within a liberal framework that multiple viewpoints on social justice can exist and be argued for. It is only within the liberal marketplace of ideas that people's arguments can be separated from their identities, allowing anybody to subscribe to any viewpoint and challenge any viewpoint and not be confined to the one presumptuously deemed to be appropriate for their race, sex, or sexuality.

It was liberalism that convinced society that women and racial and sexual minorities were individuals with their own minds and voices and in possession of exactly the same moral right to access everything society had to offer—including the full range of ideas.

It is this liberal concept of social justice, with its extraordinary record of achievement, that we must defend and further.

Helen Pluckrose is the founder of Counterweight and co-author of Cynical Theories. She is a liberal humanist.

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