What Do we Mean by “Critical Social Justice”?

Counterweight, while being consistently opposed to all authoritarian attempts to curtail freedom of belief and expression and/or enforce adherence to any ideology or belief system, is specifically geared towards helping people who are having Critical Social Justice (CSJ) beliefs forced upon them. This is because we operate primarily in the Western world where these ideas are a dominant discourse, a discourse which carries much prestige and power. They are thus difficult to resist by the general population without incurring material or social penalties. Material penalties include disciplinary action in employment while social penalties accrue from being misunderstood to oppose genuine social justice in the form of racial, sexual and LGBT equality. Both of these potential risks deter people from criticising the ideas because they simply cannot afford to lose their job and/or because they abhor bigotries like racism, so being believed to support them is psychologically unendurable.

But what do we mean precisely by “Critical Social Justice?” And is it really a clear and useful term? Some people have criticised our use of it. This can be because they support or are sympathetic to the ideas underlying CSJ and think that to use the term as a kind of shorthand for a variety of theories and activisms acting in the alleged interests of a variety of marginalised groups is overly dismissive of a vast body of thought that merits more careful consideration. For other people, the problem is that while they share our concerns about this scholarship, activism or worldview, they believe the term “Critical Social Justice” to be too unwieldy and potentially daunting to those without an academic background in the theories. They suggest that other terms for the same phenomenon like “Wokeism” are more graspable and immediately recognisable to the average person. In short, our usage of the term “Critical Social Justice” is criticised both for being too simplistic and for being too complicated by differently motivated critics! This essay explains and defends our use of the term.

To those who say we are reducing a vast range of scholarship to a simplistic term in order to dismiss it, we would argue that we are not. We are not criticising all or even most of the scholarship that focuses on issues of social justice. Some of it is very good. Nor are we criticising everything that has been called “critical theory” in the intellectual history of the last century. We are criticising a very specific, current approach to issues of social justice that are referred to as “critical” approaches by people who are using them and defining them in simplistic terms right now. This will be demonstrated below.

To those who say we are using unnecessarily academic language that will alienate non-academics or that simply lacks the needed “punch” to inspire people to oppose it, we would argue that there is value in specificity. The word “woke” is both useful and valid since it originated with activists themselves who use the African-American Vernacular English word to describe being able to see systems of oppression that are invisible to most people but particularly to the privileged. However, it is also ambiguous and applied far too broadly by some of the “anti-Woke.” Despite having criticised these ideas for many years and written a book about it, I myself am frequently accused of being “woke” for doing things like voting Labour, not being a fan of Trump, thinking racism still exists and is still bad and for believing that we can care about protecting women’s spaces and sports and about the social acceptance of trans people at the same time.

Allow me, then, to explain what we mean by “Critical Social Justice” and how this differs from liberal approaches to issues of social justice and why we advocate for the latter. Those of you who only want a brief overview can just read the first part while those who are interested in the more specific usages of terms like “critical”, “Critical Social Justice”, etc. by the scholars who work with them and my discussion of the problems I see with them can read the second part too.

What is Critical Social Justice and How Does it Differ from Liberalism?

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 – note the similarity with “woke”) but 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 legitimised 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 marginalised 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 analyse 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 revolutionised 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 scepticism 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 internalised the oppressive power system.

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. (Please note that the “liberalism” described here is meant in the philosophical sense and not in the political sense often used in the United States as interchangeable with “leftism.”) Philosophical liberals are focused on freedom, individuality and equality of opportunity. They primarily want every individual to be able to pursue their own goals and fulfilment 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 they might disagree about what they are with CSJ adherents. 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. Liberals are more likely to think that while bigoted attitudes certainly still exist and some normative assumptions also exist that need addressing, racism and sexism are widely regarded negatively by society. They may even think that CSJ itself is a dominant narrative with prejudiced assumptions that has significant social influence and needs pushing back.

Liberals usually 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 credited for the cultural changes that have occurred over the last 70 years or so in which cultural 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, they are likely to 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 socialised into the acceptance of certain discourses and therefore language must be closely scrutinised 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.

What does the Critical Social Justice Scholarship say?

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 in terms of 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 teaching method). First, she shows us the ways in which these things are similar, though:

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.” Nicholas C. Burbules and Rupert Berk’s comparison of the traditions provides a useful background for my discussion in the next section. The critical-thinking tradition is concerned primarily with epistemic adequacy.

The term “epistemic” refers to the ways in which we decide what counts as true knowledge, as Bailey goes on to explain:

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 neo-Marxian 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. As explained above, ‘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 endeavour 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 sceptical 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 is The 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 recognise 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 becomehegemonic”. 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 spelt out tenets.

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). I think a look at the section entitled “What Is Critical Social Justice?” should be enough to convince critics that it is not we who are being reductionist about what it is and how it works but the purveyors of it. Sensoy and DiAngelo also 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, they would. This is liberal humanism. However, Critical Social Justice is not about fairness and equality for all people but a very specific political theory. Sensoy and DiAngelo write:

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.

As discussed above, liberal opposition to Critical Social Justice ought 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 socialised 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, inadvertently disempowering the people it seeks to empower. Liberals generally 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.

The authors 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:

“Think critically about knowledge; what we know and how we know it.”

Yes, absolutely. This includes thinking critically 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. Sensoy and DiAngelo conclude that we should:

“Act on all of the above in service of a more socially just society.”

Unfortunately, I think acting on all of the above 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, Editor of Areo and co-author of Cynical Theories. She is a liberal humanist.