The following was first published on Medium on October 30, 2018, and is perfectly descriptive of the sorts of behaviors we are now seeing within cancel culture and “identification of marginalized status.” It is the best way to understand things like the American Humanist Association’s decision to cancel Richard Dawkins over tweets that question woke dogma.
2021 note on terminology: this movement has evolved from “PC” to “Social Justice” to “Woke,” and will assuredly have a new and different label in 2023 and beyond, but it is the same overall thing, just redescribed. Herein we discussed that “thing” in 2018 terminology.
Future historians chronicling the Grand American Culture War of the Twenty Teens will identify three mostly distinct factions. The Blue Tribe, who vies for control so they may push Blue values on others, the Red Tribe, who vies for control to push Red values on others, and the Grey Tribe, who hides in the corner with a bowl of popcorn trying to figure out what the heck is going on. And across the vast theater of this war, the hottest battleground, and the one most deserving of analysis, we might collectively call “Social Justice.”
Under the Social Justice umbrella, we see third wave (but not classical) feminism, queer theory, gender studies, colonial theory, critical race theory, and a vast array of children of cultural postmodernism knitted into a fabric of core values which looks, feels, sounds, smells, and acts exactly like a religion. And its evangelizers and detractors make up a tremendous amount of the angry social media traffic we are forced to wade through on Facebook and Twitter while trying to find the latest cat memes.
We’ve discussed this before, but now let’s unpack it.
In doing so, I think we’ll see that Social Justice isn’t at all what it’s made out to be by either the Blue or the Red tribe. It is neither the path to a better tomorrow (or any tomorrow at all, in fact), nor is it a willful malicious plan to destroy western civilization. It’s just a well-intentioned beta test of a new societal indoctrination method that’s gone off the rails. And like all failed betas, there’s plenty to learn from its failures, which can be used to either clean up the world’s existing religions, or make “new ones” that actually do work, if someone were so inclined. If you find that interesting, read on.
First, we need an analysis toolkit, which we build from biology.
Humans are hunter gatherer apes with overly large brains, into which we install operating software. Some part of our behavior is purely genetic, some part is influenced by genetics, and some part is us acting out conditioned behavior. Hold the door for a lady. Don’t push grandma down the stairs. Form monogamous pair bonds. Tithe to the church/government. Go to war. We don’t think deeply about most of the things we do. Some people don’t think deeply about anything at all. They just run scripts, which were installed in them in their formative years, and reinforced through adulthood. We do this because thinking deeply about stuff is hard, and gets in the way, and makes us less effective worker ants.
“Indoctrination” shall be defined, for our purposes, as the installation of these operating scripts, into the malleable white space that makes up perhaps half of our brain.
This creates a fascinating parallel evolutionary process. Genetic evolution takes a long time, because you only tinker with the genes once per generation, at conception. An indoctrination program can evolve much faster, and can spread into other humans like a virus, overwriting a prior indoctrination program entirely within a generation. A Christian who adopts a Muslim baby can raise that baby to be Christian, and an entirely different indoctrination program can be installed quite easily. Or a capitalist can read Marx, or a communist Adam Smith. And so on.
Because cultures have the ability to wipe other cultures out, Darwinist natural selection mechanics jump into play here as well. The Cult of Yahweh outlives the Cult of Baal because the Yahwehans take baths, and don’t eat shellfish, and have a healthy blend of Eye for and Eye and Golden Rule, and such, until the Abrahamic religions dominate half the planet. And the non-Abrahamic cultures have practical similarities, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have made it this long. The Golden Rule crops up everywhere, because it works way better than the Shoot-Your-Neighbor-to-Steal-His-Beer-Rule. Cultural Darwinism creates the indoctrination soup we have today.
But atheists are mostly moral as well. They’re getting their indoctrinations from a blend of different sources, but the indoctrinations still mostly work, and some of the indoctrinations given by religions don’t seem near as applicable as they used to, given our current level of scientific advancement. And here’s where things start to get wonky, because our brain wiring is built for easy installation of religion, by design. We want it, even need it, because having instructions or scripts to follow makes thinking and living easier. As our culture dropped religion as an indoctrination path, it created a vacuum that something needed to fill. The academics obliged this market demand with Social Justice.
Social Justice as a Religion
Unpacking and fully describing all the ways in which Social Justice is a religion would be a daunting task, one I was wary of undertaking. Thankfully Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay, and a few others, have been working on this problem in some depth, in what we might call (Gender Studies)(Studies), or GS^2. They recently got semi-famous with their attempt to troll academic Social Justice journals with spoofed academic papers about rape culture in dog parks and such, but far more interesting is their work on the exact topic of Social Justice as a Religion:
(Since the release of this article, Lindsay has gone on to articulate all his thoughts in a very long Areo Magazine article, here. It’s about an hour read. It’s not perfect, and may have some flaws particularly in its approach to the “religion” side, but it is much more comprehensive than what is presented here.)
The first hour of that video is the case, the second hour is Q&A, and if you have no time for either, here’s a summary:
Defining religion is tough, because there’s no explicit quality that defines them, but they share a broad range of features which bind them conceptually. They are meaning making structures, which help us make sense of things we find chaotic or don’t understand. Religious communities are organized around adoption and promulgation of certain moral principles. They have scripture, which conveys doctrines and ideology. They focus on moral purity, they focus on the in-group, they demonize the out-group, and they demonize and excommunicate blasphemers. They impart a sense of control, if not actual control, over uncontrollable circumstances.
Social Justice has all this stuff.
There are many important additional parallels. Religions have a tendency to identify everything good with God, so when a religious person hears an atheist say they don’t believe in God, the religious person has a tendency to hear that to mean they don’t believe in Good. Social Justice followers react the same way. When someone questions their equity driven approach to “equality,” that’s “hate speech.”
Religious thinkers invent their own epistemologies, in such a manner that their religious teachings become unfalsifiable. The Social Justice approach to this is called “standpoint epistemology,” and finds its roots in cultural postmodernism. If you and I disagree, then that’s because we come from different standpoints, therefore you cannot falsify my claim because you lack my standpoint. This is the Social Justice adaptation of “God put the dinosaur bones there.”
There are a wide range of almost direct adaptations, which form a kind of a lexicon.
In religion, an idea is heretical if the idea goes contrary to the indoctrinated narrative, or if its promulgation may undermine portions of the narrative even unintentionally. Galileo was convicted of heresy not because he was intending to undermine the Catholic Church with heliocentrism, but purely because that scientific fact created problems for the Church’s narratives. The Social Justice analogy to heretical teachings, are things they find “problematic.”
In religion, blasphemy is the act of speaking against doctrine, and apostates must be shunned or excommunicated. The Social Justice analogue to this is political correctness, which serves precisely the same function. Cancellation is excommunication.
In religion, we have original sin, which is something people are born with, for which they must atone by adopting the indoctrinations of the religion, else be shunted to the outgroup. It acts as an evangelism pressure tactic, a means of drawing ingroup boundaries, and a means of behavioral control through institutional shame. Non-atoners are shunted to the outgroup and attacked. The Social Justice analogue to this is privilege, which again serves the exact same functions.
In religion, we have church, which is a gathering place where heresy and blasphemy is prohibited, for conveyance and discussion of the indoctrinations themselves. In Social Justice, we have safe spaces, which are by function simply censorship zones where certain opinions cannot be expressed.
In religion, we have “born again,” which is an indication that atonement for original sin has been made before peers, and an individual has been officially moved from the outgroup to the ingroup by accepting the indoctrinations. The Social Justice analog to this is “woke.”
In religion, we have an outreach to the downtrodden as an evangelism tactic. “The meek shall inherit the Earth.” The Social Justice analog to this is “the future is intersectional.”
Heretical = Problematic
Blasphemy = Not Politically Correct
Excommunicated = Cancelled
Original Sin = Privilege
Church = Safe Space
Born Again = Woke
There are more examples of lexiconic parallels, but these will suffice. Pluckrose and Lindsay’s video goes deeply into “Trojan Horse terms,” where the Social Justice Religion will smuggle its concepts into mainstream dialectic by redefining common words with specific meanings relevant to their program, such as “inclusive” meaning “exclusive of certain views,” the redefinition of racism such that it’s a one way street, and the stealth change of “equality” into “equity.” But our purpose here is not to unpack the entire Social Justice regime, merely to look specifically at the case of it being a religion, which requires special care when it comes to science.
Not Merely Unscientific, Literally Anti-Science
Much has been made about how modern Social Justice has diverged from science when it comes to the scientific falsehoods of blank slate-ism, the low hanging fruit of “gender being a social construct” and such. So much it would be banal and redundant to repeat those here. What’s far more important, is that Social Justice not only champions certain very unscientific doctrines, it pivots to attacking the very foundations of science itself, because standpoint epistemology demands it.
Science is derived from a belief that there is an objective reality, our job is to discover it, and a scientific experiment will yield the same results about the objective world no matter which gender, sex, or culture the experimenter enjoys. This is known as scientific universality, and is essential for the entire body of science. Standpoint theory says the exact opposite. Further, those deeply indoctrinated into the Social Justice Religion state that deferring to science is itself oppressive, because science was created by white male colonialists.
The March for Science 2017 saw this sort of anti-science thinking from within the Social Justice Religion come to a head, as they inserted themselves into the dialog. The following excerpt comes from a very popular piece by Shay Akil McLean, widely circulated as a rebuttal to the idea that science should be apolitical:
Championing science as the objective way forward under a fascist regime while simultaneously claiming to be apolitical is to abandon the most vulnerable among us. This dedication that many have to objectivity rather than ethics, contextual accuracy, and validity is not only wrong but also dangerous. There is no such thing as value-free science; something that the history of science itself reveals. The scientific revolution or European enlightenment began around the 1500s and continued into the 1800s. During that same time that Europe was having a time of scientific discovery and enlightenment they reigned terror upon the rest of the world. The scientific advancement of Europe was financed by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, resource colonialism, and settler colonialism across the globe. The idea of objectivity in western intellectual traditions is problematic for many reasons, but one of the main crumbling pillars is: research will never be free of personal biases or reflect universal truths. And to think there are universal truths perpetuates a particular kind of able bodied white cisgender male logic, a world where everything is measured in comparison to them as the ideal type of human that everyone else aberrates from.
And there we see the core belief structure from cultural postmodernism, in bold type. There is no objective reality, therefore science is racist, sexist, and so on.
This entire drama, and the history behind it, is unpacked very well by Jesse Singal, writing for The Cut, a division of New York Magazine. Go read that article, it’s probably better than this one.
For decades now, some academics within critical studies, postcolonial studies, and various branches of feminist analysis have promoted the argument that there’s nothing unique or particularly important about the scientific method — the system of (in-theory) careful hypothesis-testing and observation and theorizing that underpins good science. In this view, the scientific method is just another way of learning about the world and human experience, and it’s unfair to privilege it over others. Some of these arguments claim that the scientific method may disguise itself as an apolitical ideal, but is really just a tool of Western conquest and white/masculine domination, and should be seen as such. It’s important to realize that this is a very different, bigger argument than “Science has a troubled history, and bias often infects the scientific method.” Rather, the argument here is that the scientific method itself isn’t really worth defending or saving in its own right. It’s just another subjective human invention, after all, and one frequently used to oppress. When McLean attempts to link the idea of “universal truths” with the powerful, that’s a pretty straightforward example of this sort of thinking.
Lest you think McLean is an outlier in arguing that the idea of objective truth doesn’t really matter, you should familiarize yourself with some other research in this general space. Give a read, for example, to a paper published in Progress in Human Geography last year called “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.” It’s a telling example of the deep holes that academics inevitably dig for themselves when they embrace this gobbledygook — and how counterproductive this line of thinking is for those of us who care deeply about making the world a better place.
“Feminist glaciology” is just as abjectly ridiculous as the spoof work recently done by Helen Plulckrose, James Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian, yet the above example is real, and of no more objective scientific value that something that comes from a College of Theology. In fact, some theological programs are even merging the two: Christian theology and Social Justice, which within our overall analysis framework of “indoctrination paths” makes an interesting kind of sense. Because Social Justice is religion reframed.
But This is Okay!
We could easily take this realization that Social Justice is a religion and use it to bludgeon and troll its proponents, who generally proport themselves be anti-religion, but in my opinion that would be sloppy and unconstructive and generally not very nice. I like religious people, even fundamentalist ones, provided they’re not pushy. I have great personal experiences with Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Hindus, Buddhists, and Wiccans. Provided religious folks don’t bludgeon me constantly with evangelism, we tend to get along swimmingly.
Further, we have religious freedom in the United States, where all people can adopt whatever sort of belief structure they like, no matter how unscientific or self-contradictory. In my opinion, much of the entrenched culture war revolving around Social Justice would go away if everyone on both sides would just admit it’s a religion and move on. It might also help the Social Justice crowd tone down the fundamentalist evangelism a bit, which would make interacting with them much more palatable.
It may impact state funding of gender studies programs, which is Social Justice’s primary indoctrination path, but truthfully that path is probably going to dry up in the next decade anyway, as colleges themselves become exposed for being a ridiculous financial burden whose real world value is mostly just in signaling. But it might not even impact funding, since many top public universities already have good, qualified theology programs which do the same sort of thing gender studies is effectively doing now. Gender studies and their offshoots could simply be recast slightly, leaving the rigorous study of human gender and sexuality to the biologists and evolutionary psychologists, who are doing actual science.
First Lesson from the Beta — Crowdsourcing Religion Works
What’s truly interesting about Social Justice, is not the similarities to religion, it’s the differences. The things that make the Social Justice religion unique can be built upon in the 21st Century by anyone who understands how they did it.
Typical religions are built on ancient texts, which have been proven by history to work well as ways to craft society. They are ways to install operational memes into the white space in our brains, and the religions in operation today are proven to work, because they didn’t die out. Social Justice is rooted in social constructionism, which is almost the exact opposite. It uses postmodernism as a seed crystal, adopts complete blank-slatism as a core belief, claims that any society is just a set of arbitrarily adopted views, and turns the academics loose to create whatever sort of new society they’d like to cook up. Postmodernism and standpoint epistemology allow them to diverge as much as they’d like from science, and Critical Theory becomes the tool with which anyone in the academic field can add new text to the canon. It’s not that it has no gurus, but rather that anyone can be a guru by going through the PhD program and writing some papers. It’s egalitarian, and we like egalitarian things.
Its priests and priestesses don’t operate out of brick and mortar buildings, because those are expensive. They operate mostly in social media, which is free, and their flock are counted in numbers of “followers.” (that’s a religious term, let’s not forget) And because social media is networking humans together into a kind of a collective brain, with each Tweeter or Facebooker being a neuron, the nodes in the social network with the highest KPIs have the most influence. These are your televangelists.
These are all fascinating features, which are scalable and adaptable to any legacy religion, or could even be implemented by any new religion that might come along.
Second Lesson from the Beta — Ignoring Stability Fails
Where Social Justice fails as a religion, is in its efficacy. Every religion that’s survived the historical gauntlet of religious Darwinism has done so by promulgating key features which make a society stable. This stability usually includes an order or hierarchy, but not always, as in the case of Buddhism or Wicca. The Golden Rule is a must have, for the in-group. It’s not necessary for the out-group (Burn the Heretic! Kill the Mutant! Purge the Unclean!) but Golden Rule principles within the in-group are not negotiable if a religion is to survive. Golden Rule indoctrination guides people towards good behavior among their peers without the need for a burdensome behavior enforcement apparatus. Social Justice fails on this, because of what we might call the Totem Pole of Oppression.
A key fixture of Social Justice thinking, particularly once Intersectionality is added to the mix, is that all people within or without the religion are assigned a subgroup based on their skin color, gender, and sexuality, and their virtue within the group is prioritized based on how “marginalized” they are, based on a kind of a virtual oppression credit system. A black gay female has more oppression credits than a white gay male, even though they both might be considered more oppressed than a straight white male. A hierarchy (or “matrix”) of oppression is explicitly stated within the doctrines of intersectionality, although the problems it creates with in-group fighting are obvious, and sometimes fought against within the Social Justice sphere. It looks like this. Straight white males are at the top of a virtual totem pole of power, straight white females one rung below them, and so on, until somewhere at the bottom we have gay trans disabled old poor black Muslims, or similar. The rules of the totem pole state that you can punch up the pole however much you like, but not down. Racial prejudice against white people is not “racism,” because white people are higher on the pole, for example. “Shut up and Listen.” This erodes the Golden Rule within the in-group, leading to things like its adherents attacking “White Feminism.” When you assign every individual a place on the totem pole, and make it your goal to chop the top off the totem pole, you’re left with a shorter totem pole, with someone else at the top who needs to be chopped off. This is already rampant, and characterized within the blogosphere as “The Liberals Eating Their Own.” This characterization is poor, because it’s not “the liberals” doing it, it is specifically the Social Justice Religion sub-factions, as they follow their religious edicts to their natural conclusions.
This sort of erosion should be no surprise to anyone who’s objectively assessed the history of Marxism, which runs into a lot of very similar problems, for similar reasons. Eventually you throw your farmers in the Gulag for refusing to plant orange groves in the tundra. And as this thing erodes, it will cause them tremendous problems evangelizing. They are probably near peak membership already, especially considering how the impending fall of higher education is going to impact their indoctrination program.
What Comes Next?
The Social Justice Religion is not a path to a new tomorrow, nor to any tomorrow at all, because it is inherently unstable, and will collapse. The questions are not if but when, and how much general societal damage will be left in its wake. It may be salvageable long term as a legitimate religion if they are willing to acknowledge up front that it’s a belief system, and that certain nonscientific precepts (such as blank slate theory) are purely objects of faith. But the beta has shown that the crowdsourcing method works wonderfully well for concocting indoctrination parameters from whole cloth. That part worked great.
As the 21st Century unfolds, any “old world” religions who figure this out could be at a tremendous advantage in altering and proliferating their indoctrinations. Until very recently, religious indoctrinations were primarily spread geographically. If you’re born in a nonfictional equivalent of Lake Wobegon Minnesota you’re likely to be a Lutheran, because your parents were Lutheran, because your town was settled by Lutherans. Only very rarely did people switch religions. With globalization, the internet, and western standards of religious freedom, we all now have access to a veritable Barnes and Noble of religious options, and choose the religion that best fits our views, or choose none. The biggest problem the legacy religions have in the marketplace of belief, quite honestly, is none of them have been recently updated to match modern scientific dogma. The update mechanics are very poor, or nonexistent. It’s not every day someone nails ninety-five theses to a wall.
Belief is a choice, and we can choose to believe Joseph Smith or postmodernist blankslateism or Muhammad or the Buddha. Even choosing “science” alone requires adopting a core belief — the belief that there is in fact an objective reality, and we can learn about this reality with microscopes and telescopes and technology. If, in their quest to adopt this new crowdsourcing mode, one of the legacy religions also updates itself to better marry with our understanding of objective reality, it stands to reap huge rewards.
There’s also the possibility that a new beta emerges from the failed beta of Social Justice. One based on modernism instead of postmodernism, and which might have updates built in.
And that, friends and congregationalists, might have real legs.