Are we hitting peak social justice?

I have a prediction, and it’s this: outraged social norming on the political left is close to a tipping point beyond which the left will begin to collapse under the constraints of its own narrative. 

Do I like this prediction? No, I do not. Do I want it to be true? No. Do I have opinions about it? Yes, of course. But in this post I want to try to talk about what I think I see, rather than what I believe is right. I’m deliberately going to try to resist expressing direct sentiment here about the norming itself, or its moral value, or its targets. And that’s because I believe in a lot of the things that are being pushed for in the public dialog on the internet, but don’t want this post to automatically be about the value of my opinions or anyone else’s. Because that kind of exchange is part of what I see as the problem.

My goal here, instead, is to lay out the observations and reasons that led me to this prediction. If you disagree about the prediction and have evidence of a trend that balances it, I’d like to hear about it and know your reasoning. If you agree, then please feel free to help me figure out what the hell we can do about. And in any case, we’ll be able to watch what happens over the next five years to see if my fears play out.

I first became seriously worried about how the left-leaning dialog on the internet was functioning during the reaction to Patricia Arquette’s Oscars debacle. She made an impassioned speech about gender equality and subsequently made a less than stellar remark in the pressroom which social media seemed to pay far more attention to than her initial remarks. I didn’t understand at the time why commenters on the left would seemingly push so hard to take down a highly visible public figure promoting a progressive agenda, albeit in a flawed way.

I later learned about the internet debate around an essay written by Jonathan Chait, in which he criticized what he saw as a growing culture of political correctness. (I was apparently the last person on the internet to hear about this.) Jon’s concern was that the culture of the left was alienating its own liberal allies.

The number of loud, critical responses that were made to his piece are too numerous to link to here. If you’re interested, just google ‘jon chait pc’ and read what comes back. A lot of it is very interesting.

One particular line of reasoning that I encountered several times while reading through the responses to his piece was this: where is your actual evidence that the current form of social critiquing is doing more harm than good? 

It’s natural to see where this question comes from. A lot of the loudest, and most proactive commentary on the left comes from people who are urgently trying to advance a social good. Nobody wants to hear that their best attempts to improve the world may be counterproductive, even though the scale of their response kind of made Jon’s point for him. However, the consensus seemed to be that Jon Chait had no real data. He had anecdotes, some of which were questionable.

However, this year, we were presented with some very powerful and informative data: the surprise success of the conservative party in the British election. Against expectations, Labor were trounced. I say this as someone hoping they would win.

When British analysts attempted to understand why the polls had provided such wrong predictions of the election outcome, one phrase was extensively employed: ‘shy Tories’. In other words, people who’d decided to vote Conservative, but didn’t want to admit it.

In the wake of the Conservative victory, it wasn’t hard to find articles like this one, decrying the left as founded on a philosophy of exclusion and hate. There were other, more subdued articles such as this in the Guardian, that attempted to understand what had happened. Broadly speaking, it seemed that Britain had become increasingly populated with people whose views had not skewed left even though the dialog around them had.

I am not proposing here that the ‘shy Tory’ phenomenon was exclusively responsible for the Conservative win. It wasn’t. There was far more to the election than that. What I am doing, though, is pointing out that this is a national-level example of a particular social mechanism at work.

People’s opinions can fall out of step with the public narrative that surrounds them. When this happens, they will not necessarily admit it, but they may polarize against the narrative, and then subsequently act to obstruct or destroy it.  

Note that this phenomenon has nothing to do with the social value of the narrative being engaged in or who has the moral high-ground. All that needs to happen for the narrative to fail is that enough people feel that they cannot participate in it.

What is happening in Britain, though, is just one part of a dialog happening throughout the western world. Changes in one country will not necessarily repeat elsewhere. So, in order to make a guess about the future, it’d be useful to have some small, yet relatively globalized microcosm of politics where we could watch the polarization of social dialog play out.

Fortunately we science fiction enthusiasts have one. The tiny, hyperbolic world of fandom may give us a glimpse of the future. And yes, I’m talking about the dreaded Hugos debate again.

What amazes me most at this point about the Hugos fight is that posts are still appearing. The battle continues. The best post I saw recently was this one by Eric Flint, which I think shows both his wisdom and his exhaustion. I found myself wondering how people in the community had the energy to sustain their anger.

I now think I understand what is going on. People are validating on the conflict on both sides. By which I mean that in taking up an entrenched position and defending it, they are experiencing a neurological reward, regardless of how coherent or self-consistent that position is. Consequently, they will probably keep at it until something more distracting comes along.

If this pattern starts repeating itself in mainstream society, I suspect that the current progressive narrative on the internet will split. In the worst case, the consensus may go into reverse. We should not kid ourselves that social progress has enjoyed a smooth linear development.

Specifically, I would propose, a progressive agenda tends to have greater traction during times of collective prosperity, when the constraints on individuals are reduced. When inequality begins to dominate, social constraints tighten. Ironically, people usually become more right-wing as their freedoms shrink, sometimes dramatically so. They look around for someone to blame who they can actually reach and affect, rather than the financial barons that they cannot. Witness the rise of the radical right in Europe happening right now.

There is a lag, though—a period in which freedoms are reducing while the juggernaut of social commentary continues undeterred. I fear that we are in that gap right now. That scares me because only a unified, inclusive, non-judgmental left has any chance against the accelerating might of the world’s oligarchical class.

In reality, almost all of us are on the same side, because we will rise or fall together. Everyone who can remember how many houses they own on a given day is on our side. Everyone who struggles with the payments on their second yacht is on our side. Everyone who owns a plane but not their own jet is on our side. I say this because all of these people will suffer in the power-lockout that is evolving, even if they cannot see it yet.

And everyone who makes copious mistakes in their vision of social inclusion, but is nevertheless ready to stand up and act to defend inclusion, is on our side. To argue otherwise, I’d propose, is to participate in the death of progressivism, rather than to lead it.

(My first novel, Roboteer, comes out from Gollancz in July of this year.)

7 thoughts on “Are we hitting peak social justice?”

  1. You know, this sort of polarization, resulting in groups validating on the conflict itself, is kind of what Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland is about.

  2. I don’t think the left is going to collapse as a result of its own actions. There are plenty of people who agree with a progressive agenda. Some segment of the population is predisposed to it or hard wired for it just as some are hard wired to be conservatives. I think there is a range of economic hardship that puts progressive agendas on the back burner. We tend not to worry about equality in society while we have worries at home. The problem of the ruling class is to maintain the right level of hardship. If too many people are too rich they will start to advocate for equality, if they get too poor they will advocate for themselves. Advocating for the poor when you too are poor is still a progressive agenda.
    The Gini coefficient (a measure of wealth distribution) in the United Kingdom is 40 while in the US it is 45. For reference Denmark and Norway are about 25 while South Africa is 65. Right now 40% of Americans hold just 0.2% of the total wealth. They are too poor. They have started advocating for themselves. If you combine with that the fact that most of our infrastructure was built 60 years ago out of reinforced concrete, which has a life expectancy of 50 years, we have an ever increasingly poor underclass with crumbling infrastructure. As overpasses and bridges fall and the super wealthy complain about the corporate tax rate who will this group of nearly 200 million people blame? It would take quite a work of propaganda to get them to blame themselves.
    This is possibly an even more bleak future than one in which progressives find they just don’t have the support they thought they had. As members of a shrinking middle class we must advocate for greater social justice even if we suspect it won’t be popular enough.

    1. Hi Ray,
      Re: Advocating for social justice even if we think it won’t be popular.
      Hell yes. I absolutely agree. What I’m concerned about is the consequences of the form of the current dialog, not the quantity of it. And what I’d propose is a careful recrafting of that form to maximize effectiveness. But yes, if anything we must try harder and be more vocal because the stakes are only going up.

      Re: People advocating for themselves.
      One concern I have is that the dialog is not being shaped by the poor at this point, but by middle class intellectuals who are at least as interested in validating on their own moral value as they are in results. Another concern that I have is that how people respond to poverty is weird. People do not reliably rise up and correctly target those individuals who have made them poor. Very often they become angry with people much closer to home. Look at the current rise of the far right in Greece, for instance. Look at Germany in the 1930s. Part of the problem, I’d argue is that under conditions of scarcity, rationality becomes strained and organized resistance becomes less reliable.

      Re: People blaming themselves.
      I agree with you that this is unlikely. But what I think is much more likely is that they’ll blame each other. One reason I wanted to write this post is that I think the people who are most likely to suffer under increasing wealth inequality are exactly those groups who we are most actively advocating for right now. If support for social justice goes into reverse, middle-class white people will suffer, but they will not be first. Far from it.

      Re: GINI coefficients.
      It was research into GINI coefficients that got me so freaked out about this subject, so thank you for raising them. While at Princeton, I spent a bunch of time modeling wealth inequality. In *every* model that I built, I found the same pattern that is described by Piketty in his book. (I had not read his book at that point, so I didn’t have a name for it.) Once an economic system starts sliding out of equilibrium, the symmetry-breaking accelerates. And the results are grim. Police states punctuated by disease or war seem to be the end states. I think war is the likely outcome this time. Global, asymmetrical, inter-ethnic war against a backdrop of mass migration and climate change.

      In short:
      I completely agree with you that we must continue to advocate for justice. But we must cooperate when we do it. Every action must count. I fear that we are running out of time, and opportunity. I’m a science fiction writer, so I may be looking too bleakly and projecting too far. But it looks to me like we need to get our fricking skates on.

      1. How do you feel about Bernie Sanders and his agenda? I don’t think I have ever seen a politician that I so wholeheartedly agree with. What do you think about John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight”? Personally I think everyone should watch every episode. Would you craft the message differently?

        By the way, I like the get your skates on idiom. I had not heard that one before.

      2. For my sins, I haven’t researched Bernie’s position extensively yet, but I’ve liked what I’ve heard a lot. And as for John Oliver, I think that he, and people like him, are indispensable. Wit is a massively important social tool. It’s so much more powerful than exclusionary shouting. Don’t know if you saw this, but here was my most recent babbling on that topic.

  3. Great post. Speaking personally, I think we’re struggling to find a sense of what might pass as the social morays through which we can all peacefully co-exist when the world is so uncertain, joined-up and scary.

    I just wrote this. Sharing in case you find it of interest. As digital humans, how might we develop social justice as part of a collective awareness?
    Emergent Code 1.10 – About signals, steam and class systems

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