Monday, January 15, 2018

Social Justice and its Enemies

On this Martin Luther King Jr day I am thinking (god knows why) of the various people I encounter around the net who are alt-right or just so alienated from the mainstream that they have decided to be on the side opposed to social justice. The mocking term SJW encodes the reality that there is a war going on. They feel attacked and are just fighting back, although what they are fighting for is difficult to pin down.

Perhaps not in the cases of those who are fully given to ethnonationalism or white supremacy. Those types are unreachable and I don՚t care about them. They՚ll always be an enemy, hopefully a contained one.

But there seems to be large amorphous group of people who are somewhere on the alt.right spectrum for other reasons – maybe they are mad at the pious hypocrisies they can detect in liberalism, maybe they feel at a social disadvantage for some reason, maybe they feel that the real injustice is being done to them, that certain groups claim to be oppressed (women, blacks, gays) but really are the oppressor. Maybe they feel that they are smarter than most of those pious liberals, and so resent being told that certain of their behaviors and values are bad by people with no special standing to be superior. Or maybe they detect the Christian roots of the value of universal human equality, and thus hate it for Nietzschean reasons as an insidious form of sklavenmoral. Others take the very real atrocities done in the name of communism and use those to dismiss anything remotely leftist as leading inevitably to the Gulag.

Those are all somewhat valid reasons! But they are reasons to dislike the left, not reasons to be for anything in particular. As a result, these people inevitably drift into alliance with the Nazis, who definitely know what they are for. Or they veer off into pseudo-political ideologies like libertarianism (longing for a pure market that has never existed), or neoreaction (yearning for a monarch that has never existed).

Martin Luther King Jr is our culture՚s archetypal social justice warrior. His legacy is a bit confused because he՚s been raised up to a sort of secular sainthood, which tends to hide the fact that he was a politically engaged activist (you should really read this entire excellent essay):


The King now enshrined in popular sensibilities is not the King who spoke so powerfully and admiringly at Carnegie Hall about Du Bois. Instead, he is a mythic figure of consensus and conciliation, who sacrificed his life to defeat Jim Crow and place the United States on a path toward a “more perfect union.” … King deployed his rhetorical genius in the service of our country’s deepest ideals—the ostensible consensus at the heart of our civic culture—and dramatized how Jim Crow racism violated these commitments. Heroically, through both word and deed, he called us to be true to who we already are: “to live out the true meaning” of our founding creed. No surprise, then, that King is often draped in Christian symbolism redolent of these themes. He is a revered prophet of U.S. progress and redemption, Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, or a Christ who sacrificed his life to redeem our nation from its original sin.

Such poetic renderings lead our political and moral judgment astray. Along with the conservative gaslighting that claims King’s authority for “colorblind” jurisprudence, they obscure King’s persistent attempt to jar the United States out of its complacency and corruption. They ignore his indictment of the United States as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” his critique of a Constitution unjustly inattentive to economic rights and racial redress, and his condemnation of municipal boundaries that foster unfairness in housing and schooling. It is no wonder then that King’s work is rarely on the reading lists of young activists. He has become an icon to quote, not a thinker and public philosopher to engage.

This is a tragedy, for King was a vital political thinker. Unadulterated, his ideas upset convention and pose radical challenges—perhaps especially today, amidst a gathering storm of authoritarianism, racial chauvinism, and nihilism that threatens the future of democracy and the ideal of equality.

I try and take a very abstracted view of politics, when I can – that is, I am interested in the political as a phenomenon, above and beyond my own personal values and loyalties. Somehow, people form themselves into coalitions, these coalitions then contest with each other for power, with an ever-present threat of violence which threatens to emerge if and when peaceful (symbolic) conflict resolution fails. It՚s one of those fascinating things humans do. Economic self-interest, group interests, and abstract morality all play roles in this process.

And as it happens, there has been a long conflict in the US between the forces that King represents and the values he fought for, and their opponents. This is just a fact of political life. Another fact of political life is that one has to choose a side. Neutrality is not really an option for any intellectually engaged adult, sorry. .

King has come to stand for certain social values: inclusion, equality, freedom, justice, empathy, non-violence. So, dear alt.righters – do you really want to be on the side that is opposed to those? Do all the things you hate about the left really outweigh these ideals?

Of course politics, and King՚s legacy, isn՚t that simple – but you know, on some level, it is that simple. One of the few consolations to living in the era of Trump is that moral/political questions become very stark, and it becomes pretty damn obvious what the sides are and where decency lies.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think I should like for people to be considered as individuals.

A key part of the social justice movement seems to be that people are a manifestation of the groups they can claim membership in. That if I am a man, or a woman, or of a particular race, then my personal identify flows from those groups.

And so because people are merely manifestations of their group memberships, equality and justice are properly determined by equal sharing of power and agency between groups.

If a group has less power because its past members have historically been excluded from high positions, it is good and right that its current members be favored for such positions. Perhaps merely to reach balance, or perhaps even in penance of other members' past exclusion.

Perhaps in a collectivist society, where individual identity is subsumed and responsibility to the group is paramount, this might make sense.

We are not such a society.

We celebrate personal, individual freedoms. We celebrate self-determination. We celebrate individual free choice, and rage at impositions against it.

We take this sometimes to excess, as can be seen in our farce of a criminal justice system.

We could perhaps stand to consider personal circumstances -- including those affected by group membership and the treatment of those groups -- a good bit more than we do.

But to deliberately, explicitly favor or disfavor individuals on only the basis of group membership is anathema. We fought and won that battle with the civil rights movement.

If a group is disadvantaged? Seek to remove the disadvantages. Do not separately give them a different advantage, or others a disadvantage, in hopes of a "just" outcome. Advantage is not fungible.

If a group is less present in the halls of power? Seek out what impediments keep members of that group out, and remove those impediments. Not only for them, but for everyone.

If a group is uniquely advantaged? Do not try to strip that advantage from members of the group, but seek to spread it to everyone.

Anonymous said...

^ src ?

Dain said...

Choose a side? That's precisely what intellectuals aren't good at - including you! - but it is what partisan morons and Twitter folk are good at. And what are the "sides," anyway, pray tell? Do you really subscribe to the notion that if you're not with us, you're against us? Was Bush correct after all?

There's so much to unpack in this post it's tough to know where to begin. But I'll say that the people critical of SJWs at say Quillette, Areo Magazine et al. - and figures like Sam Harris and Steven Pinker - are somehow in alliance with Nazis is pretty outrageous. It comes close to the defunct Marxist notion of those not on board with Bolshevism as being "objectively" capitalist. That's a sign of a seriously emaciated political imagination.


mtraven said...

Politics is definitionally about choosing and forming sides. No getting away from that. So is its close cousin, war.

One goal of these posts on politics is understanding this process in an abstract sense. Coalition forming is one of those fascinating things humans do.

But, being human as well as an observer of humans, I find myself also drawn into the conflict rather than a mere observer of it.

We are not yet at a point where there are only two sides to the conflict and one must choose one or the other. But it wasn't so long ago that we were. WWII was a struggle to the death between rival ideologies, except apparently we didn't kill the Nazis enough since they are coming back.

Dain said...

"Politics is definitionally about choosing and forming sides."

But political philosophy precedes that and is about determining what the sides even are. The idea for instance that it's not about Communist and Nazi but about Liberal vs. Extremist. And one way to avoid an actual Communist vs. Nazi scenario is by not painting people who present ambiguous or complicated arguments as actually members of the other side in disguise. This post of yours seems to flirt with that. Remember, that same ambiguity or complexity allows members of the alt-right to claim just as persuasively that some big-brained liberal is really an SJW in disguise.

"We are not yet at a point where there are only two sides to the conflict and one must choose one or the other. But it wasn't so long ago that we were. WWII was a struggle to the death between rival ideologies, except apparently we didn't kill the Nazis enough since they are coming back."

It sounds like you're in Emergency Mode, like the libertarians I used to know who went around with an 11th hour mentality. It's not conducive to grokking reality, unfortunately. Don't be stuck in 1941, which contrary to what you say was in fact a long time ago. Update yourself :)

mtraven said...

Political philosophy does not precede actual politics, whose roots are older than man.

“And one way to avoid an actual Communist vs. Nazi scenario is by not painting people who present ambiguous or complicated arguments as actually members of the other side in disguise. This post of yours seems to flirt with that. “

If there՚s going to be a “Communist vs. Nazi scenario” it՚s not going to be prevented, or caused, by my blog posts, or a particular rhetorical style.

Yes I am in Emergency Mode, as is practically everybody who is paying attention. Contrary to what you say, I find the current situation quite congenial to “grokking reality”. as it forces into the open the real interests behind people՚s cleverly complex nuanced opinions.

IOW I could not care less about the subtle complexities of (eg) the different varieties of libertarianism, if the concrete interests being served are hostile to my own and those of people I care about.

Dain said...

"Political philosophy does not precede actual politics, whose roots are older than man."

That's playing loose with the word politics, putting it at chimpanzee-level. They have "politics" too, yes. But modern politics is hugely informed by political philosophy, for you as much as me and anyone reading this. That's how you even know to compare to Nazis to Communists. You can do better than Bronze Age man.


"It՚s not going to be prevented, or caused, by my blog posts, or a particular rhetorical style..."

Emergency mode is not conducive to deep thinking. And no, we're not in it. 2018 America isn't even close, lol. There exist extremist groups all in different KINDS of emergency mode right now; for some on the left it involves a paranoid view of white-on-black relations; for some on the right, the machinations of The Fed. Whatever it is, these people are in entirely different epistemic universes and have little hope of speaking to one another. Non-extremists aren't in such a dire predicament, thankfully.

Dain said...

"IOW I could not care less about the subtle complexities of (eg) the different varieties of libertarianism, if the concrete interests being served are hostile to my own and those of people I care about."

This is a problem. If you don't care to learn about a given political perspective, you can't know whether it's actually "serving" the interests of this or that group. (The US e.g talks a lot about democracy, so does that make liberal democratic values responsible for imperialism?)

It's also indicative of the problem of different factions of Emergency Mode (mentioned in above comment) being unable to talk to one another but certain - in a righteously ignorant kind of way - that some other group's worldview is what's responsible for everything going to hell.

mtraven said...

"That's playing loose with the word politics, "

My blog, dude, and I'm trying to articulate and develop my personal theories of politics and related phenomena.

If you want to get realistic about it, political philosophies and ideologies and political groupings have a complex and interactive relationship. Marxism (whatever your opinion of it) has a pretty elaborate theory and vocabulary for talking about this process (class consciousness and class interests).

"This is a problem. If you don't care to learn about a given political perspective, you can't know whether it's actually "serving" the interests of this or that group. ("

Oh it's pretty clear what interests all varieties of libertarianism are serving. I've observed it for decades. And its devolution into neoreaction and white supremacy confirms my past opinions. (Not all libertarians -- but a very significant fraction).

"(The US e.g talks a lot about democracy, so does that make liberal democratic values responsible for imperialism?) "

I don't understand this remark, but the tensions between US democratic rhetoric and imperialist actions are not exactly news. They've fueled the hard left for the past 50 years at least, and explains some of their refusal of liberal democratic values. Obama was very deft at sidestepping the contradictions.






Josh W said...

I've observed a very simple dynamic that I think explains almost all the behaviour of the anti-social-justice scene.

They are fighting back in the battle of feeling bad.

The roots of this phenomenon fundamentally are in the gamergate wars of about 4 years ago:

Specifically, people created an apolitical political movement fighting against the injection of politics into their entertainment, specifically, the inclusion of non-aesthetic models of judgement that could render things "bad" in some universal sense, perhaps even dangerous, that were otherwise being enthusiastically enjoyed.

The alt-right accuse feminists of wanting to destroy their lives in gulags, but their real crime is against a more fiercely defended quality, their self-respect.

The natural reason to embrace Nazis is out of a reaction to the explosion of new ways to be problematic, against an intentional campaign of unsteadying the background symbolic architecture of contemporary vocation-light masculinity; games, porn, weights, lack of seriousness.

For example, Gamergate at its core refused to believe that attitudes in the gaming industry were changing by a process of learning, by people becoming aware of criticisms, finding solutions, internalising them in their work and producing new things, and instead attempted to track the social network of relationships to give an epidemiological model of it instead, specifically about women infecting a space with their own influence through personal relationships and transforming it to serve their interests at the expense of men.

The mechanisms through which this is done tend to relate vaguely to sex or relationships, with a classic assumption being that people who take the criticisms from feminists seriously cannot have found ways to accommodate them with an altered view of their own identity that has a sense of pride, and must instead have descended into self-hate in order to deal with their sexual needs, or otherwise been brainwashed or controlled by the various secret techniques that "redpills" worry about.

This is specifically why they react with things designed to offend and distract, and why they are comfortable with trolling and forcing people off services with abuse being a core part of their strategy, if not its main core. Because they receive emotional wounds in the sense of attacks on the core stereotypes around which they structure their identities, and reply with classic armaments from the ancient stores of bigotry.

In that context, alliance with Trump and the Neo-nazis makes sense; these are people who have been able to embrace vilification for years while maintaining an insulated perspective of self-respect, while also being accomplished at throwing back conspiracy theories, caricatures, and gestures designed to infuriate and demean, claiming public space.

The alliance is primarily methodological, and based on a shared target of liberal tears.

The slow drift has resulted in some wonderful paradoxes; those who are in favour of free speech and suspicious of the motives of internet companies supporting a president who is in favour of licensing the press, (or at least of relinquishing licenses) and removing the protections associated with net neutrality. Or an anti-anti-facist group so determined to overcome female dominance of culture that they refuse to orgasm except with a woman's permission. Surreal stuff.

I've actually hit a word count here, so I'll conclude in the next comment.

Josh W said...

The conclusion is short. They've moved quite far away from each other, but what they still have in common even now is an opposition to the methodologies of left wing thought that could be construed as filtering them out.

Affirmative action, no-platforming, censorship, people loosing jobs due to PR campaigns, removal of historical figures, these form the core of alt-right fear because they see a shared pattern of denigrating 20th century white male american identity norms, and then seeking to bypass them entirely with people from minority groups, or of more complex and varying gender identities. Add that to the numerical decline of the white male population as a percentage of those able to vote, and you get a strongly developed persecution complex, which is not without foundation, as their attempts to troll and to break through the spam filters that people set up naturally encourage people to remove them from their facebook, block them, push them further out.

The fundamental problem however is in believing that the ostracism they are receiving is due inherently to their race or sex, rather than to their behaviours, opinions and the problems associated with the norms they embrace. Perfectly normal conversations with feminists are excluded by their aggressive methodology, and in its place, at best, antagonistic debates, hungrily picked over for OWNage, or more commonly, apocalyptic models based on the most outrageous twitter ranters, carefully picked out by the youtubers and blog journalists who help maintain their morale, reinforcing their conception that they are uniquely rational, and the fortunate few not infected by the irrational influence of the feminine.

Those seem to the basic rules of the machine, as I see it. Ideologically opposed to finding out what those who are most intelligently articulating it actually mean by privilege, in case it would result in a less easily ignored form of criticism, they instead rest in whatever models are incompatible with it's frameworks, whether they be totally incompatible conceptions of technocratic universally-instrumentalised global capitalism, communitarian blood and soil nationalism, hyper-pacifistic libertarian tidiness-conservativism, and even still more-bush-than-bush expansionist anti-islam militarism. These are unified only by being not-liberal, and by being compatible with the shared program of provocation.