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Why the facts of the matter aren't all that does matter
My interest piqued for a few reasons when this article about millennial social justice authoritarianism (a term coined by the pseudonymous author) popped into my newsfeed: 1) Any article generalizing about my generation is very interesting because it is almost certainly false to a degree. Generalizations are definitively flawed. 2) I have been a victim of the thought police too. It is a real thing and it can be oppressive. When we don't fall in line to prescribed notions of justice, when we challenge what the prevailing radical order articulates, we can sometimes feel the heat.
The author is an NYU graduate, who says his mother was a capital-S Socialist, and he articulates his personal experiences being bullied, ideologically and not factually, by social justice advocates. I jived with much of what he said about the thought police, less because I have problems with individual social justice activists (in fact I respect them quite a bit, and I consider them to be allies in the Christian project for world redemption), but because of the Identity Politics rooted at the center of the movement which can be constraining. Here’s my favorite graph:
But millennials are grown up now — and they’re angry. As children, they were told that they could be anything, do anything, and that they were special. As adults, they have formed a unique brand of Identity Politics wherein the groups with which one identifies is paramount. With such a strong narrative that focuses on which group one belongs to, there has been an increasing balkanization of identities. In an attempt to be open-minded toward other groups and to address social justice issues through a lens of intersectionality, clear and distinct lines have been drawn between people. One’s words and actions are inextricable from one’s identities. For example: this is not an article, but an article written by a straight, white, middle-class (etc.) male (and for this reason will be discounted by many on account of how my privilege blinds me — more on this later).
The author articulates a point about identity that I haven’t heard articulated regularly, especially in the circles that I run in. His point, put another way, is that people’s individual experiences and perceptions mark who they are. That is classicly postmodern. With that said, taking a page out of the modernism of the 18th Century, those individual experiences have been organized, codified, and formalized (by the state and its law, namely), and so now we all fit ourselves into categories. The myth of individual freedom and individual social construction is undergirded by the predetermined categories that one must place themselves.
I think that is a raw deal for people. I think we have a more full identity, one that transcends those categories, in Christ. But that isn’t the point that the author makes. The point he is making is one of the problems I had with the article. He rests on moderation and the “facts,” as a counter to social justice bullying, while he rips faith as well as ideological movements (which he stereotypes too):
To the social justice advocate of our time, conclusions are not contingent on facts; rather, facts are contingent on conclusions. In a global example of confirmation bias, the truth is malleable. The malleable truth is molded around the theoretical viewpoints of social justice. In order to uphold the sanctity of this viewpoint, adherents ostracize dissension. It’s nothing new — it’s a tactic as old as religion itself. Instead of holy texts, though, the millennial social justice advocate bows at the altar of the currently-in-vogue ideological Trinity: Marxism, Feminism, and Post-Colonialism.
I realize his response is really toward the left-of-center, but he leaves capitalism, militarism, and classical liberalism
out of the bunch. Is it a coincidence that so-called moderates, and those in power, still espouse those philosophies and are threatened by the aforementioned three (and are especially offended by faith, which they are endlessly placating)? Perhaps, but I think social justice advocates are responsible for their share of thought policing. I have experienced it in the history department of Temple University!
More than his generalized jabs at those en vogue philosophies (his timeline for fashion must be hundreds of years old, by the way) is another philosophy that he is buying into. When he makes the statement that conclusions, and truth, must be based on facts, he is doing us a disservice. In the era of big data, consumers of such data must sort through it and make a truth of their own. The facts don’t tell the narrative, and even if there is a definitive one connected to the facts, he assumes that the narrative of truth is implied in the facts. He argues that social justice architects (like believers before them) are the creators of the narrative, and I think he’s right to a degree, but I think that more often than not people are given facts and they have to sort through them on their own.
Clearly, the author’s own interpretation of the facts guide his narrative. More specifically, the facts he chooses to highlight. He lists the often cited study that one-in-five women are sexually assaulted on campus in the U.S. as well as the study that articulates the income gap between men and women. He deconstructs those studies, and then defends himself by saying that, “who I am does not (or should not) have any bearing on facts.”
That may be the case, but it does have a bearing on the facts we choose to articulate. And the facts themselves are not generators of truth, reality, or identity. His story means something, and though we don’t know what it is, I can be sure that his personal experiences (being bullied by social justice advocates at his university perhaps) shaped why and how he wrote this. He didn’t just start with the facts. His own conclusions led him to frame the facts this way. He’s not immune from what I think of the human condition.
I think that’s a good thing. And I think that is why Jesus came to us. Because our experience matters. The reality of Jesus saving us was made known to us not just through a series of facts that we had to sort through, but by a real experience with the Living God. This real experience does not just transcend identity. It transforms our own.
The author deconstructs social justice movements, and the thought police connected to them, which is a brave endeavor in today’s new media landscape, but he leaves us with little to find hope in, other than the inevitability of progress. But I’m not so sure progress is inevitable. It seems to me that mass incarceration still happens (even if the President is finally talking about it), that drone warfare still rages, and that income inequality still rages. Not sure the tide is turning. The author admits that social justice, making the world better through our education, is a good thing. But in my opinion it won’t just happen. I don’t have faith in moderation or in radical politics to save me. That brings me to my own philosophical point. Jesus Christ is who saves me. He, as he is embodied in us today through His Spirit, is the one that generates transformative power, truth, and reality.