The Anti-Racism “Social Justice” movement needs saving from itself, or it risks utter failure in their cause.
In his work The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell discusses working class culture in Britain in the 1930’s, and attempts to discern why Socialism and socialist-inspired policies were so viscerally unpopular amongst those whom they would most benefit. Two criticisms Orwell cites were the use of heavy handed language peppered with Marxist vocabulary (often using words only one familiar with theoretical Marxism would understand), and a charge of personal eccentricities which made many active Far-Leftists unpopular in conventional society. These included vegetarianism, odd dress and nudists, as these habits were alienating to the general populace.
Self-proclaimed activists, grandly describing themselves as the “social justice movement,” have emerged largely on the internet and university campuses across North America and Europe. They are predominantly middle class and white, and purport to speak for those who oppose “racism”, “sexism”, “Islamophobia”, “Anti-semitism”, and any other “ism” they can point to. These words have been used so often that they no longer refer to specific personality traits, opinions, or historical incidents of prejudicial race-based systems. Rather, they have come to mean little more than “bad.” It is like a process akin to labeling someone a “Nazi” today, even though one cannot be a Nazi unless (s)he was alive in Germany during the 1930’s and ’40’s. A person expressing such views today should be called a “Neo-Nazi.” Certain internet buzzes have transpired which have often ended in embarrassment for all involved, and the Political Right are the only people who stand to benefit from the so-called “Social Justice Movement”.
A recent article by a fellow named Tal Fortgang and a war launched on Stephen Colbert by an activist named Suey Park illustrate issues with this contemporary online movement. Tal Fortgang is a Princeton Young Conservative who wrote an ironically self-defeating article about why he’s not privileged for being a white male. Suey Park is the 23 year old who began the “CancelColbert” hashtag over a joke made by the comedian criticizing the Washington Redskins football team’s name. Nevertheless, the Suey Parks of the world make the job of the Tal Fortgangs of the world incredibly simple.
Many of those who support Ms. Park in her endeavor look exactly like the stereotypical Leftists Orwell was criticizing in 1937. I must say that, yes, actually you DO have the right to wear whatever you so choose, however, one lacks the right not to be judged for it. The “right to wear whatever you want” isn’t really a right unless it’s a religious obligation. This comes across as incredibly simplistic and materialistic to an outside observer. This is in stark contrast to traditional Leftism, which would contend that the manner one procured their clothing (and all goods for that matter), whether through non-corporate and more environmentally friendly methods such as vintage stores or hand-me-down clothing, versus from a corporate chain store, was of greater import than the clothing itself. This isn’t a social revolution – it’s a mere question of aesthetics. “Check your privilege” comes across as extremely disingenuous and hypocritical if suffixed by “Sent from iPhone”.
Many of the “issues” the “Social Justice” activists point to are more often than not simply famous or wealthy people saying bigoted things. Rarely do they discuss greater issues, such as the high proportion of Black men imprisoned in the United States, as described in the recent book The New Jim Crow. Much of it is simply shrieking at white people. This makes it very easy for them to be dismissed by Fox News. The fact that most of these people are also extremely young does not help, either. Many of the non-white supporters of these organizations are still reeling from elementary school bullying, rather than true early twentieth and nineteenth century style racism, which is what most white people think of when they hear the term “racism”. This usually backfires, as many white people walk away thinking “if I just feel guilty and am super sensitive about what I say then everything will be hunky dory.” This is also why people like Tal Fortgang “don’t want to apologize.”
Additionally, emphasis on politically correct terminology merely leads to the creation of new, underhanded ways to pander to prejudice. Tactics include opposition to welfare, drug laws, and being “tough on crime.” Furthermore, many of their white supporters begin to simply like feeling guilty for any and all things, since it makes them feel like they’ve accomplished something. They’re not just boring, middle class suburban North Americans who dress funny and like complaining on the internet. Now, they’re marching forward to a more equal tomorrow! Donald Sterling’s comments aren’t the revealing lingering effects of past prejudices. If there is a sports-related revealer of racial inequality in the United States today, it’s the sad reality the most Black American dominated sport, basketball, is also the least expensive to play, while a half-Black golf player and a pair of Black tennis-playing sisters made the world astonished.
Many “social justice” advocates come across as extremely classist at times, albeit unintentionally. This alienates people who might otherwise agree with them on many issues. In truth, one important facet of privilege often ignored by “social justice” activists IS class. Looking through their writings, one can spend hours without seeing the word “capitalism”, despite their contention that they belong to the political Left. Additionally, their aggressive use of politically correct language isolates those without access to education from the political discussion. For all their emphasis on words and their origins, the term “redneck” was originally a slur for a manual labourer, as outdoor work caused the back of their necks to burn. It should be said that few people who identify with the “social justice movement” are truly Leftists. They care little for nuts and bolts issues such as tariffs, social housing, or “tough on crime” legislation, which has racial and classist implications.
These activists’ platforms often ignore the important fact of how race has been used to achieve political goals in the United States. Historically and today, prejudices were often stoked as a means to prevent anti-poverty legislation. This has been a central facet of racial hierarchy in the United States, differentiating it from prejudice in Europe. The 19th century ideology that came to be referred to as “racism” evolved in Europe out of misunderstandings of Darwin’s Origin of Species by a man named Francis Galton, who founded the eugenics movement. Before, in Europe, most prejudices were religiously based, and the term “race” had a meaning similar to “ethnic group”, ie “the English race.” Using blanket terms such as “racism” to describe all incidents and systems of racial hierarchy throughout history, as well as mere gutter bigotry, is merely simplistic. While this may seem like nitpicking, if one is to discuss and perhaps combat a system, one should understand its details and nuances. American systems of racial prejudice grew out of unique situations in North America, and developed much earlier than those in Europe.
In pre-Revolutionary America there existed a system of labour known as indentured servitude. This was a form of contract slavery, where one would sign a contract with a large planter specifying the number of years the signee’s servitude would last. After the designated number of years ended, the indentured individual would receive the title for his own land. These people lived and worked amongst the slaves, and in some ways life was far worse for the indentured servants. They were often worked to death by the planter, so they would be there to receive the land at the end of the contract. In 1676 the indentured servants and the slaves led an insurrection against the planter class, and Governor Berkeley in particular; this was known as Bacon’s Rebellion. Following the failure of the rebellion, the planters gradually began to abandon indentured servitude, and purchased more slaves directly from Africa. This tactic prevented a degree of fraternization due to linguistic barriers. The social position of Africans was lowered to give the poor whites a section of society below them in the hierarchy, while maintaining the plantation system. After the end of slavery, the Three Fifths Clause was used as a means to drive down the price of unskilled labour.
Most Southern whites lived in abject poverty until the Great Society anti-poverty programmes under Lyndon Baines Johnson, which were legislated in conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement. Rather than simply shrieking at white people, a better approach to discuss racism and prejudice is to highlight the important aspects of the racial system used to keep white people poor as well. This is the important distinction between Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty’s comments, which were directly out of the classic playbook of using racial prejudice as a means to attack anti-poverty efforts, and Donald Sterling’s, which were simple bigotry, like a snarling Klansman. Ironically, contrary to his persona, Robertson displayed greater nuance, more like a Jim Crow era politician.
Why do I contend that anti-racial activists may bring about the failure of their own cause? Political and public isolation. No one wants to be around people who are always complaining about “micro-aggressions.” By looking like a group of petulant teenagers, anyone who criticizes race-based hierarchies and their contemporary implications are lumped in with Twitter and Tumblr “activists.” Legitimate criticisms of police brutality, redlining, or the prison system are seen in the same light as people who hate hipsters for wearing faux Plains Indian-style war bonnets, or Avril Lavigne for making a music video with some superficial Japanese motifs. This isn’t a social revolution, it’s consumer democracy.
Furthermore, the Donald Sterling escapade was little more than the modern equivalent of putting someone in the stocks and throwing tomatoes at them for two days. Pillorying these people becomes little more than a social catharsis for actual latent problems. Rather than changing anyone’s perspective, some efforts conducted by “social justice advocates” cause the groups whose beliefs they oppose to dig their heels in deeper, such as those who like Confederate flags. The opposition to the Confederate flag causes those who like Confederate flags to feel that they are under attack. This adds to the rebellious connotations it holds for supporters, giving the flag a new meaningful status in the twenty-first century. Furthermore, the “social justice” advocates often display a backhanded middle class snobbery, as well as visceral aversion to anything perceived as below their station; “redneck” symbols and culture if you will. The danger is that these people are becoming many a millennial’s frame of reference for the political Left, despite the fact many are not economically Leftist. This leads to political dissatisfaction among many young people. These “New Leftists”- they are a consumer revolution, demanding everyone dress funny and speak in politically charged language, all the time, every time, lest you be a “redneck.”
Patrick Langille graduated in 2014 from the University of Toronto with a degree in history. His blog can be found here.