"Social Justice" and Its Postmodern Parentage

Michael Rectenwald

Editor’s Note: Although not a self-described political conservative, New York University professor Michael Rectenwald found himself the object of a barrage of vicious verbal attacks in 2016 when he took to Twitter and Facebook to object to such recent campus developments as the banning of speakers, the mandate to construct classroom discussions as “safe spaces,” “bias reporting hotlines” to which students can anonymously report any deviations from political correctness by their professors, and the absurdity of the pronoun wars. Fearing for his safety, the NYU administration offered him a paid leave of absence from his non-tenured position, which he took. He wrote in the November 3, 2016, Washington Post about his experience, “There was no attempt at constructive dialogue, offering of rational counterargument or even acknowledgment of the possibility of the existence of a legitimate point of view outside of progressive orthodoxy. It showed that this debate isn’t about promoting an environment of inclusivity and diversity, but about punishing transgressors.”1 The following are excerpts from Rectenwald’s forthcoming book, Springtime for Snowflakes: “Social Justice” and Its Postmodern Parentage (New England Press Review, fall 2018). He discusses the roots of the current irrationalism and so illustrates the challenges to reason on the contemporary campus. The excerpts are two discreet parts of the book; the first his preface, the second a later chapter on transgender theory.

At the moment postmodern theory lay dying in the academy, it bore a child, namely, “social justice.” Social justice gestated within the university as postmodern theory ruled the roost. It was nursed during the Occupy movement and the Obama era. The financial crisis left its hapless followers in search of empowerment. It took root on the internet on social media. But because its parent had taught it that the object world is not real, or else that the world at large was beyond one’s purview, the child of postmodern theory could only change itself, as well as, so it imagined, those who bore signs of its oppressors.

The phrase “social justice” recalls movements of the recent past that used the same political terminology. The civil rights movement and the student rebellions of the 1960s come to mind. But it would be a mistake to equate the contemporary social justice movement with these or other forerunners. Contemporary social justice embodies postmodern theoretical notions as well as the latter’s adoption of Maoist and Stalinist disciplinary methods. And today’s social justice creed is marked by preoccupations with new identities and their politics. It entails a broad palette of beliefs and practices, represented by new concerns and shibboleths, including “privilege,” “privilege-checking,” “self-criticism” or “autocritique,” “cultural appropriation,” “discursive violence,” “rape culture,” “microaggressions,” “mansplaining,” and many others. The terms proliferate almost as rapidly as gender identities.

Self-criticism and privilege-checking are the vestiges of “autocritique” and “struggle sessions,” purification methods of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). In the late 1960s, as word from the communist revival spread to the West through the student and feminist movements of Europe, especially France, the birthplace of postmodern theory, they became part of the Western Left’s vocabulary and toolkit. In struggle sessions, the guilty party—accused of selfishness, ignorance, and the embrace of bourgeois ideology—was pilloried with verbal and often physical assaults by his comrades, until he broke down and confessed his characterological and ideological flaws. Today, the confessions involve privilege, or the unearned advantage enjoyed by members of a dominant group based on appearance. Usually on demand, checking one’s privilege means to acknowledge unearned advantage and to atone for it publicly. Meanwhile, in the Cultural Revolution, autocritique began with the guilty party, who subjected himself to brutal verbal self-inspection and denigration before the jury of his comrades. Autocritique and struggle sessions could lead to imprisonment or death as the comrade was often found to be insufficiently pure. Soft forms of autocritique and struggle sessions became prevalent on the internet sometime after 2009. They then infiltrated universities and other social spaces.

“Cultural appropriation” is the social justice version of the trespassing condemned in the Ten Commandments. The term refers to the adoption of elements of a subordinate culture by members of another, usually dominant culture. Accusations of cultural appropriation are legion. Several recent cases involve chefs and restaurant owners accused of wrongfully appropriating cuisine and restaurant themes. A notable instance involved the white Pittsburgh restaurateur, Adam Kucenic. Kucenic announced plans to open a “90s hip-hop themed fried chicken” restaurant—“The Coop”—in the predominantly black and gentrifying neighborhood of East Liberty.2 After the inevitable backlash, the entrepreneur turned to “The Good People’s Group,” a company that specializes in social justice self-awareness for white business owners. “The Good People” apparently kick up social justice dust for such new business prospects—until they turn to “The Good People” for social justice consciousness-raising or “wokeness.” Social justice is thus a new industry and a new business model.

On college campuses, social justice is evident with the prevalence of “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” “bias reporting hotlines,” and the “no-platforming” of speakers—to say nothing of speech codes, the use of which in public institutions arguably abridges First Amendment rights.

“Safe spaces” are areas set aside for victims of unpleasant speech acts or “discursive violence.” Safe spaces were especially prominent after the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. As college and university administrators went into crisis mode, they sought to provide students with spaces to relieve their post-electoral anxiety and distress. Safe spaces have been supplied with coloring books, crayons, therapy pets, and even pacifiers. They have come to most resemble hospital pediatric units.

Originating in feminist social media sites and blogs, the trigger warning (TW) migrated to the academy, where it became expected on syllabi for alerting students about course content that may be distressful, or “triggering” of negative emotions. Not only do trigger warnings curtail expression, they represent a slippery slope. As in the case at the University of London involving the first erotic novel written in English, Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, the trend can lead to the removal of offensive texts from the curriculum entirely.

Bias reporting hotlines are means for students and others to contact bias administrators or “bias response teams” (BRTs) when they experience or witness a “bias incident,” “bias infraction,” or “microaggression.” A bias incident, bias infraction, or microaggression is an event that results from biases toward members of marginalized groups, including races, sexual orientations, genders, or “non-gendered” people, and so on. Microaggressions or bias infractions may be reported to BRTs, which generally act behind closed doors without transparency. On the website of my university (NYU) at least, I have been unable to find definitions of “bias incident,” “microaggression,” or even “bias.” Yet the bias hotline is advertised and promoted widely on campus and online. Although the University of Chicago does not abide safe spaces or trigger warnings, like over 230 other colleges and universities nationwide, it has a bias reporting hotline.

Finally, no-platforming is the blocking of “dangerous” speakers from speaking on campuses, especially those expected to commit “discursive violence.” The Alt-Right necessarily commits discursive violence. But many other speakers do, too. Well-known a priori perpetrators include Milo Yiannopoulos, “alt-lite” provocateur and former technology editor at Breitbart News; Charles Murray, the political scientist and co-author of the controversial The Bell Curve (1994); conservative speaker Ben Shapiro, a YouTube personality who challenges transgenderism and other sacred cows of the Left; and Dave Rubin, a classical John Stuart Mill liberal and host of popular YouTube talk show “The Rubin Report.” Even classical liberals and idiosyncratic feminists such as Christina Hoff Sommers and Camille Paglia are treated as discursive criminals.

The liberal response to objectionable speech traditionally had been to counter it with “more” and “better” speech. But the social justice Left does not accept common notions of speech or expression. The contemporary social justice creed is based on an epistemological notion known as “social and linguistic constructivism,” a theoretical premise drawn from postmodern theory holding that language constitutes social (and often all) reality, rather than merely attempting to represent it. Under social and linguistic constructivism, language is considered a material agent—its uses, as tantamount to physical acts. This belief explains the term “discursive violence.” For the social justice believer, language can enact discursive violence by itself, without any other attendant actions. Social and linguistic constructivism makes sense of the demands for no-platforming, trigger warnings, bias reporting hotlines, and safe spaces. As I will discuss below, this postmodern epistemology is also the basis of transgender theory.

The U.S. Constitution protects distasteful speech, and at least thus far, the Supreme Court hasn’t recognized the category of “hate speech.” Yet social justice activists—including Antifa, the extracurricular social justice infantry—claim the role of de facto arbiters of speech and assembly. They make no bones about exercising their authority as such. As they see it, the First Amendment is flawed. They aim to fix the inadequacy. Social justice leftists apparently entertain no doubts about their qualifications for official arbiters of speech and other expression. One gets the feeling that they would sooner cut an opponent’s tongue out than allow him to utter a single syllable with which they disagree. And given Antifa’s credo, “by whatever means necessary,” the feeling is not unreasonable. Social justice ideologues are authoritarian and anti-intellectual.

Intolerance and anti-intellectualism have become so commonplace on college campuses—with speakers routinely subjected to social justice sloganeering and chanting—that it came as little surprise to learn that Stanford University, placed fifth among national universities by U.S. News & World Report in its 2018 rankings, accepted undergraduate applicant, Ziad Ahmed. In response to an admissions essay prompt—“What matters to you, and why?”—Ahmed wrote “#BlackLivesMatter” one hundred times. Ahmed’s acceptance, despite or because of his slogan-loaded “essay,” is all the more remarkable because it came in 2017, a year in which Stanford accepted the fewest applicants in its history. Stanford culled its smallest-ever class from an applicant pool that university spokesman E.J. Miranda described as unusually rich with “intellectual strength and incredible diversity.”3 In accepting Ahmed, Stanford essentially acknowledged—perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not—that the recitation of slogans plays an important role on college campuses today. Simply put, Stanford confessed that colleges and universities want singers in a social justice choir, students who demonstrate a willingness to swear allegiance to social justice, ad nauseam.

The anti-intellectualism and ideological straight-jacketing involved appears lost on administrators. And, it apparently poses no cause for concern for the vast majority of faculty. After all, since the social justice ideology is indubitably “correct,” why not admit or even aggressively recruit perfervid social justice believers? Why not go further yet? Why not offer such promising disciples paying jobs as “Social Justice Peer Educators” (Washington State University), “Social Justice Advocates” (Texas Tech), or “Diversity Peer Educators” (Harvard)?4 What could possibly go wrong?

Since I first took to Twitter as the @antipcnyuprof to issue jeremiads about and criticisms of social justice ideology, the absurdities and conflicts have only escalated. Tensions on campuses across the country have since involved social justice-motivated protests, no-platforming, violence, and rioting. The newsworthy events at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, NYU, Middlebury, Evergreen State College, and elsewhere have proven that my earliest public pronouncements were not exaggerated, even though I intentionally employed the dramatic ruses of satire to emphasize the “problematic” issues.

By officially adopting and promoting the contemporary social justice creed, preferentially recruiting social justice novitiates and paying them to play active roles as part of an extended and extensive social justice administration, the institutions of North American higher education have taken a hairpin turn, and a wrong turn at that. They have surrendered moral and political authority to some of the most virulent, self-righteous, and authoritarian activists among the contemporary Left. These activists have rallied other true believers, coaxed and cowed administrators, and corralled other, mostly quailing faculty, prompting them to applaud or quietly consent as the intellectual, cultural, and social cargo of millennia is jettisoned so that its freight can be driven “safely” through narrowing “tunnels of oppression.” Having gone so far as to adopt officially a particularly censorious subset of contemporary leftist ideology, colleges and universities have tragically abdicated their roles as politically impartial and intellectually independent institutions for the advancement and transmission of knowledge and wisdom.

Academic freedom was sought by American faculty not so that they could endorse and justify received notions and dominant ideologies, but rather so that they and their students would be free to analyze and evaluate received notions and dominant ideologies against alternatives. As the American Association of University Professors stated in their 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure: “Genuine boldness and thoroughness of inquiry, and freedom of speech, are scarcely reconcilable with the prescribed inculcation of a particular opinion upon a controverted question.”5 Academic freedom means freedom from enforced adherence to a prescribed ideology. In mandating social justice ideology, universities have abandoned this legacy of open and free inquiry.

The derailment of academic institutions harms not only students but it also threatens the broader society, not only by undermining faith in knowledge claims but also by prejudicing the institutions supposed to cultivate the well-versed, thinking, and reasonable people required in a democratic society—people capable of open inquiry, debate, disagreement, and conflict resolution, without recourse to masks and knives.

“His Majesty”: Pronoun as Tipping Point

In the fall of 2016, the University of Michigan instituted a policy whereby students were offered a carte blanche pronoun preference opportunity. Students were encouraged to choose existing pronouns or create pronouns of their choice, without limitation. Upon inputting their preferred pronouns into the Wolverine student access portal, they could then demand to be called by these pronouns inside the classroom. No matter what pronouns a student chose, the university promised to honor their choices.

One clever student entered “His Majesty” as his chosen pronoun, and his blasphemous pronoun choice made the news.6 The satirical trope hilariously underscored the absurdity of gender and pronoun proliferation, and the institutional lunacy that has attempted to keep pace with it. It was a sendup of the university administrators who enacted such a policy, but also underscored the absurdity that the social justice movement had managed to have codified within institutions of higher education. I posted a link to an article about the spoof on Facebook, without comment.I then proceeded to teach for the rest of the afternoon. By the time I noticed the pandemonium, it was too late to manage it. A sustained, billowing, vitriolic, and histrionic reaction had ensued. Hundreds upon hundreds of condemnatory threads and sub-threads multiplied beneath the link. Dozens and dozens of Facebook friends had sent private messages, demanding explanations and retractions. I was accused of betrayal, discursive violence, and transphobia. Many people unfriended and blocked me. This was my social justice tipping point. I decided “never again.” I would no longer accede to the demands of social justice ideologues, or restrain my words, actions, or thoughts according to demands stemming from the social justice creed. That very night I created the Twitter account—the notorious DeplorableNYUProf, with the @antipcnyuprof handle. I began to inveigh against the insidious coercion and control that the social justice creed had imposed on me and many others for far too long.

Meanwhile, I am a critic of transgenderism, in particular of the epistemological premises that underwrite it. But criticism of transgender theory no more makes me a transphobe than criticizing Scientology makes one a hater of individual Scientologists.

Transgender theory can be traced to postmodern theoretical ancestors. Again, social and linguistic constructivism is its basis. According to transgender theory, gender—or even, as the story currently goes, “sexual difference” itself—is determined not by chromosomes, anatomy, hormones, or physiology. Such words can only be used ironically or with derision in a gender studies or women’s studies classroom. Instead, gender is determined by beliefs about sometimes inconveniently “non-conforming” phenomena, and ultimately, by language, by names. Within transgender theory, sex difference or sex has become insignificant and “problematic” at one and the same time. Sexual characteristics may represent an obstinate yet potentially irrelevant set of features—to be overwritten by a gender identity of choice. Gender identities exist along a spectrum, and, with or without the alteration of secondary sexual characteristics, may metamorphose, sliding between the distant poles of “cis” and trans. According to the office of BGLTQ Student Life at Harvard, gender can “change from day to day,” and the institution must recognize a student’s gender du jour.7 Gender is thus the new ghost in the machine and the gendered mind occupies and operates an increasingly wrong-sexed body. Transgender theory is a remnant of the philosophical idealism that runs through postmodern theory. It would be inconceivable without its postmodern precursors.

Social justice treats the fields of biology, genetics, evolutionary biology, and evolutionary psychology as anathema, and bars them from its discourse circles using safe spaces and no-platforming. Any reference to these fields has become verboten in social justice milieus. Under social justice ideology, belief claims (TW) trump empirical evidence. Scientific evidence itself is deemed white supremacist, sexist, and patriarchal. While biology is generally rendered mute (or nonconforming) under transgenderism, it may be recuperated and compelled to speak at the behest of transgender theorists and activists, who rely on the so-called “sexed brain” as a safe harbor for an otherwise impermissible biological determinism. Transgender theorists are allowed to assert the utterly essentialist and fabulous notion of the “female brain” as an explanation for their chosen genders.8 But James Damore, who Google dispatched from its employment and premises without the slightest consideration of his argument or employment rights, could not argue that sexual difference exists at all.9 In referring to sex difference as a reality, Damore fell victim to yet another contradiction within leftist social justice identity politics and ideology. Unless transgender activists and ideologues conveniently say otherwise, gender has nothing to do with biology.

For another salient example of the proliferation, reach, and dominance of transgender theory beyond the academy, consider the website of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The agency devotes several pages to gender issues, baldly declaring: “Most kids begin to identify strongly with a gender around age 3. That includes transgender and gender-nonconforming people, who also have a sense of their gender identity at this stage.”10 We are led to believe that three-year-olds not only grasp the complex concept of gender but also gender-nonconforming and transgender three-year-olds know that their own gender identities differ fundamentally from those of gender conformists. Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood is virtually mum about gender-non-transgressive toddlers, except to admonish new parents to be wary of reinforcing the gender identities and stereotypes that these children represent.

If gender pluralism can be regarded as a religious creed analogous to Christianity, then “cisgender” persons, or those who accept the genders they were “assigned at birth,” are the “left behind” after the Rapture. Such nondescript reprobates toddle into bleak gender-generic futures, and continue to reproduce. This state of affairs requires that Parent Parenthood administer rapid transfusions of the current lexicon and parental protocols—before such vulgate-speakers commit child abuse by inducing the trauma of the misgendered child.

Gender is supposedly transparent to young children, yet Planned Parenthood finds it necessary to explain gender and gender identity to adults, the parents and prospective parents of the rising gender-malleable breed. Even as gender-savvy toddlers supposedly recognize their gender identities, their parents and other adults are far from a consensus about gender and gender identities, even in terms of how many identities exist. Since the rise of transgender theory in the late 1990s, the female-male binary has been buffeted by a tidal wave of proliferating gender identities and pronouns. As new gender identities debut, the ratio of genders to sexes continues to rise. While Oregon and California have implemented a third gender choice on driver’s licenses and other forms of identification, in social justice social spaces, genders and their pronouns far outstrip such legislation.11

The social and linguistic constructivist claims of social justice ideologues amount to a form of philosophical and social idealism that is enforced with a moral absolutism. Once beliefs are unconstrained by the object world and people can believe anything they like with impunity, the possibility for assuming a pretense of infallibility becomes almost irresistible, especially when the requisite power is available to support such idealism. In fact, given its willy-nilly determination of truth and reality on the basis of beliefs alone, philosophical and social idealism necessarily becomes dogmatic, authoritarian, anti-rational, and effectively religious. Since it sanctions no pushback from the object world and regards it with indifference or disdain, it necessarily encounters pushback from the object world, and must double down. Because it usually contains so much nonsense, the social and philosophical idealism of the social justice creed must be established by force, or the threat of force.

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