Social justice, as a concept, has existed for millennia — at least as long as society has had inequity and inequality and there were individuals enlightened enough to question this. When we study history, we see, as the American Transcendentalist Theodore Parker famously wrote, “the arc [of the moral universe]…bends towards justice.” And this seems relatively evident when one looks at history as a single plot line. Things improve. And, if history is read as a book, the supporters of social justice are typically deemed the heroes, the opponents of it the villains.
And perhaps it’s my liberal heart speaking, the fact that I grew up in a liberal town, learned US history from a capital-S Socialist, and/or went to one of the most liberal universities in the country, but I view this is a good thing. The idea that societal ills should be remedied such that one group is not given an unfair advantage over another is not, to me, a radical idea.
But millennials are grown up now — and they’re angry. As children, they were told that they could be anything, do anything, and that they were special. As adults, they have formed a unique brand of Identity Politics wherein the groups with which one identifies is paramount. With such a strong narrative that focuses on which group one belongs to, there has been an increasing balkanization of identities. In an attempt to be open-minded toward other groups and to address social justice issues through a lens of intersectionality, clear and distinct lines have been drawn between people. One’s words and actions are inextricable from one’s identities. For example: this is not an article, but an article written by a straight, white, middle-class (etc.) male (and for this reason will be discounted by many on account of how my privilege blinds me — more on this later).
And while that’s well and good (that is — pride in oneself and in one’s identity), the resulting sociopolitical culture among millennials and their slightly older political forerunners is corrosive and destructive to progress in social justice. And herein lies the problem — in attempting to solve pressing and important social issues, millennial social justice advocates are violently sabotaging genuine opportunities for progress by infecting a liberal political narrative with, ironically, hate.
Many will understand this term I used — millennial social justice advocates — as a synonym to the pejorative “social justice warriors.” It’s a term driven to weakness through overuse, but it illustrates a key issue here: that, sword drawn and bloodthirsty, millennial social justice advocates have taken to verbal, emotional — and sometimes physical — violence.
In a dazzlingly archetypical display of horseshoe theory, this particular brand of millennial social justice advocates have warped an admirable cause for social, economic, and political equality into a socially authoritarian movement that has divided and dehumanized individuals on the basis of an insular ideology guised as academic theory. The modern social justice movement launched on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Jezebel, Slate, Huffington Post, et al. is far more reminiscent of a Red Scare (pick one) than the Civil Rights Movement.
When George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four (and here some will lambast me for picking a white male author from a historically colonialist power despite the fact that he fought and wrote against this colonialism), he wrote it to warn against the several dangers of extremism on either side of the political spectrum. Orwell’s magnum opus is about authoritarianism on both ends of the political spectrum. If the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, then the arc of the political spectrum bends toward authoritarianism at both ends.
The very fact that I am drawing a connection between the text most referenced when discussing politics-gone-bad is a problem in itself. But it warrants further exploration.
“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy.” — George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
This particular brand of social justice advocacy assaults reason in a particularly frightening way — by outright denying it and utilizing fear-mongering to discourage dissent. There is no gray: only black and white. One must mimic the orthodoxy or be barred forcibly from the chapel and jeered at by the townspeople. To disagree with the millennial social justice orthodoxy is to make a pariah of oneself willingly. Adherence to the narrative is the single litmus test for collegiate (and beyond) social acceptance these days.
Take, for instance, a topical example: the University of Virginia/Rolling Stone rape story debacle. The author of the article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, writes an article accusing several members of the UVa student body of raping a girl named “Jackie.” “Jackie” is Erdely’s only source. In the Rolling Stone’s redaction article, Erdely and the Rolling Stone’s fact-checking is called into question and it is argued that “there were a number of ways that Erdely might have reported further, on her own, to verify what Jackie had told her.” Erdely took Jackie at face value. Why? Because, at the behest of millennial social justice advocates, we are told not to question rape victims. To do so is “victim blaming” and can potentially “re-traumatize” the victim.
In “Fighting Against ‘Rape Culture’ Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry,” author Charles C.W. Cooke expands on the issue of this Rolling Stone debacle. Cooke writes that there was an initial questioning of Jackie and Erdely and he notes that the backlash to this line of inquiry was met with extreme hostility. Cooke writes:
In the Washington Post, Zerlina Maxwell argued that “we should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser [of rape] says,” for “the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist.” This view was seconded by the lawyer and journalist Rachel Sklar, who confirmed for posterity that she considers “women who speak of their own experiences” to be automatically “credible,” and anybody who asks questions to be a rape apologist. On Twitter, meanwhile, Slate’s Amanda Marcotte concluded that anybody who has questions about a given account must by definition be engaged in a dastardly attempt to demonstrate that no rape stories are ever true, while CNN’s Sally Kohn grew angry at Jonah Goldberg when he asked for more evidence. Perhaps the best example of the all-zetetics-are-heretics presumption came from the remarkably ungracious Anna Merlan, who rewarded Reason’s Robby Soave for his investigative work by throwing an epithet at him: “idiot.”
Much of this rhetoric comes from the idea that there is a pervasive rape culture on campuses nationwide that must be stamped out; more systemically, there are socially-endorsed and institutionally-endorsed modes of patriarchy that continually oppress women. The ideas purported in the quote above seek to remedy that under the name of social justice. But in what world are these statements liberal, let alone in accordance with social justice?
In “No matter what Jackie said, we should generally believe rape claims,”author Zerlina Maxwell suggests that we should generally write the equivalent of a blank check to someone who comes forward with a rape accusation. This is not justice and it certainly is not social justice either. It is an illiberal perversion of the justice system. Sir William Blackstone is famous for what is known as the Blackstone formulation: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” This axiom is a foundation of modern justice systems worldwide. It as a formulation that assumes innocence; to condemn on the basis of a certain accusation because of the identity or oppressed status of the accuser is a dangerous road to go down. It erodes the most essential tenet of liberalism: due process.
Due process, or the idea that a governing body must respect all legal rights of an individual, is granted to Americans by the 5th and 14th Amendments. To suggest that there is no recourse for the accused — and to ask for it is actually rape apology — is absurd, reactionary, and further highlights the black-and-white nature of this certain brand of millennial social justice advocates. To speak dissent against— or even question at all — the orthodoxy is to have your words twisted into less positive terms: one does not ask for “due process,” one asks to let rapists go, perpetuates rape culture, and favors rape apology. Why, after all, would someone ask for due process when a woman is accusing a man of rape? The millennial social justice advocate views this as an insidious question that results from sexism against women and is corroborated, they feel, by a statistically insignificant rate of false rape accusations.