Part 1 – Why study the social justice movement?
Part 2 – What is social justice?
Part 3 – What is ‘critical theory’?
Part 4 – What are the strengths of critical theory?
Part 5 – What are the weaknesses of critical theory?
Good evening everyone. I’m here tonight to talk to you about the ‘social justice movement.’ But why? After all, my PhD is in theoretical chemistry. That doesn’t have anything to do with social justice, the last I checked. So why am I interested in this subject? And why should you be interested in this subject?
Let’s start with that basic question: why should we care? Once I’ve made the case that the social justice movement is a culturally and ideologically important phenomenon, we’ll next ask: what is social justice? Unfathomably, people will argue endlessly about whether social justice is a good idea without ever defining what they mean by ‘social justice.’ Third, I’m going to explain the ideology of ‘critical theory’ which is the set of ideas or the worldview that, I’ll argue, forms the foundation of the modern, secular ‘social justice movement’, or at least large parts of it. Finally, I’ll outline the strengths and weaknesses of this ideology.
Just to clarify, I’m not planning on offering any critique at all of the ‘social justice movement’ or ‘critical theory’ for the first four sections of this talk. In the fourth section, I’ll even point out some very legitimate and helpful aspects of ‘critical theory’ that I think we should all take very seriously. I’m going to try my best to remain as neutral as I can be when I describe these ideas. If you’re expecting me to stand up here screaming like Alex Jones for an hour, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I can scream at you afterwards, if you’d like.
Moreover, I’m not critiquing every organization that claims the mantle of social justice. That would be impossible and undesirable. Many organizations and individuals who are committed to social justice are doing good work. Instead, I’m critiquing the ideology that informs large segments of this movement.
Why Study the Social Justice Movement?
The first and, in my opinion, the least interesting reason to study the social justice movement is its relevance to modern politics. A lot of political figures claim to be committed to ‘social justice.’ For example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who recently won a Democratic primary in New York state, talks a lot about ‘social justice’ as do other candidates on the left side of the political spectrum. On the right side, not so much. Because of its political visibility, if you want to be an informed voter, you need to figure out what ‘social justice’ is and how you feel about it.
But what if you’re like me? I’m not very political. I barely vote. I just do it for the sticker. Maybe you feel the same way. Why should you bother worrying about social justice?
Here’s a second reason: its cultural relevance. Social justice isn’t just a political issue; it’s a cultural issue. Even if you’re completely apolitical, you can’t walk down the street or turn on the television without hearing about social justice. The 2017 Women’s March put ‘social justice’ front and center. ‘Social justice’ is at the heart of the NFL protests. Social justice issues get mentioned at the Oscars. When you walk to class, you may run into protesters raising concerns about ‘social justice.’ So unless you want to be totally lost in our culture (which might not be a bad idea in terms of your mental health, frankly), it’s worth knowing about social justice.
Third, social justice has ideological relevance. As I’m going to show you in a few minutes, there’s an entire set of ideas that form the foundation for the secular ‘social justice movement.’ Once you understand these ideas, the movement makes a lot more sense. For example, here’s a poster for a degree in ‘Social justice studies’ from the City College of San Francisco. Notice the departments on the poster: Ethnic Studies, Women’s Studies, Latin American Studies, Labor Studies, Trans Studies. At first glance, it’s a bit strange that all of these different disciplines are grouped under the same umbrella of ‘social justice’, right? After all, what does sexuality have in common with Latin America or economics?
Imagine a poster advertising a degree in ‘Reality studies’ that included subjects like “Geophysics” and “Astronomy” alongside “French Literature” and “Jazz.” You’d be very confused. If an alien anthropologist from another planet said “I don’t get it. What’s the connection?” you’d probably respond, “yeah, I don’t get it either.” When it comes to social justice, is there some unifying ideology that links these disciplines and ideas? Yes.
I’m going to argue tonight that ‘critical theory’ is the ideology that connects all these topics and explains how they can be united under the single banner of ‘social justice.’ That connection is incredibly helpful, because I think you’ll see why so many people are concerned with ‘social justice’ and why they take precisely the same positions on so many different political and cultural issues. That’s what happened for me. I couldn’t quite understand why people believed what they did until I began to study critical theory and then everything suddenly clicked and made much more sense.
Finally, I think that the issue of ‘social justice’ has religious relevance. I’ll say a little bit about that subject at the very end of the presentation tonight, but if you want to hear more, next week, I’ll be back to talk about social justice and Christianity in particular. So please come back, if you’re interested in this last point.
Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that studying social justice is worthwhile if you want to understand the basic ideologies to which people adhere, the lens through which they see reality, or what is sometimes called their worldview. That worldview will then shape culture which, in turn, will shape politics.