Over the past few years there has been a lot of chatter, on the internet and social media in particular, about the rise of so-called SJWs or Social Justice Warriors and Political Correctness within particular intellectual and social communities. SJWs are decried by many people for being illiberal and opposed to freedom of expression, while many others see them as people working towards a better society. However, it seems to me that the phenomenon of the so-called SJW is neither merely something that is illiberal, nor something that is simply working towards a better society. Rather, instead the SJW responds to a real problem in our shared world, but offers a solution that lacks humility and for this reason prevents the fullest development of individuals and communities.
While many would think it would be good to be a Social Justice Warrior, the term is used as a derogatory term to refer to people concerned with the marginalization of vulnerable social minorities who display particular attitudes and make use of particular tactics. In particular, SJWs are concerned with the presentation and visibility of social minorities in popular media and positions of authority, cultural appropriation, safe spaces, trigger warnings and microagressions. In this, sense the SJW differs quite a bit from the traditional activist/critic of capitalist liberal democracy. Rather than being focused on issues of social class inequality and the exploitation of workers by capital, their focus tends to be on identity groups, whether, racial, sexual, cultural or otherwise, and the way in which society disadvantages them through misrecognition of their particular identities. The contemporary SJW as a social agent tends to be more outraged by “white-washing” in cinema and TV than global inequality of wealth. For them, respect for the unique identity of each person is the basis of justice, rather than some notion of equality of opportunity, equality of resources or impartial fairness.
It should be noted that when I use the term SJW for the remainder of this piece I do not mean anyone who supports identity politics, but the specific phenomena described above.
This notion of justice as respect for identity seems to require not only respect for a person as an abstract human subject deserving of the same rights and liberties as others, but esteem for their particular identity. This is why while the political right is often vocal in its critique of SJWs, many on the liberal left, like myself are ill at ease with them, as they not only demand that we respect the right of each to be respected as a free and equal human being and citizen, but to be valued by others in their particular identity whether they are a pious Christian or trans man of colour. The difference between being respected, as a human being and citizen, and this more particularized form of respect can be understood if we look at the difference between tolerance and recognition.
The old ideal of tolerance merely demands that we respect each other as free and equal, even if we find another’s beliefs, way of life or sexuality contemptible. I may find the twisted way in which people pursue career ambition contemptible, but in so far as they are not breaking any laws or acting unjustly I need to tolerate them as free and equal members of society, and cannot use the force of the state to prevent them from living as they please. The old adage of live and let live is an adage of tolerance.
Recognition on the other hand demands more. To recognize someone is to re-cognize someone. That is to see them in a certain way. Consequently, to re-cognize a gay person is not simply to tolerate their sexuality even if you find it disordered, but to respect their particularity as a gay person. This implies some sense in which we see their sexuality as a valuable form of individual expression, rather than something that someone might respect them in spite of.
Once we bring in this more particularistic form of recognition there becomes a possibility for misrecognition. Misrecognition occurs when an individual is bombarded with demeaning or degrading images of a part of their own identity. For example, in a culture where homosexuality is legal, but in which the public images of homosexuality are of degrading stereotypes, homosexual people will internalize these images. This internalization in turn damages their self-respect and self-esteem as Charles Taylor points out in his landmark essay “The Politics of Recognition.” The popular sentiments around an aspect of identity then can be damaging to the ability of individuals whose identity is viewed as less than, shameful or barbaric. In this sense, the danger to the full development of individuals is not merely present in overt legal discrimination, but also in much looser elements of culture and mores. I call the phenomena in which a particular identity is broadly demeaned misrecognition because the culture broadly sees a group in a light that is either overtly negative or out of line with how this group sees themselves.
Now, many people are convinced by this account of the damage of misrecognition, but there are also those who are unconvinced by it. We have all heard that people today are too sensitive today, and need to toughen up so that they are not damaged by non-physical affronts to their dignity. We might see this type of view as the adult version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” A defender of this position could say that part of the full development of person’s character involves learning to value yourself rather than being dependent on the impression that the world at large or particular others have of aspects of your identity that you deem central to who you are.
This is a valid point in that it is surely indicative of a more developed person that they are not entirely dependent for their self-esteem on being valued by others. But this misses the point that an individual’s self-esteem has at its starting point the broader values and norms in which the individual is immersed, so an individual’s self-esteem cannot be independent of their social context. Our image of what is admirable and contemptuous begins with the broad mores of the society we develop in and it is only from this starting point that we can reflect on these mores, and work out the contradictions or tensions within them to develop our own understanding of what is worthwhile. In this sense to imagine a being with no dependency for its self-worth on social norms is to imagine an omnipotent god, rather than a human being, as an omnipotent god is self-sufficient and has no society. So the risk of misrecognition cannot be simply be dismissed by telling people to toughen up and have a thicker skin.
An example of the way in which misrecognition constitutes itself can be seen if we consider an example where I am a person of aboriginal ancestry and I grow up within a society in which the standard image of an aboriginal person is a negative one in which the aboriginal is a drunk and a mooch. As a result of these images and mores my perception of what is means to be an aboriginal will carry with it the idea that my aboriginalness is merely a burden and something I need to overcome, rather than something that could be a mark of pride. Frantz Fanon made this point quite rightly when he pointed out how colonized groups internalize the norms of their colonizers and begin to see traits associated with their group as lesser, and traits associated with the colonizer as positive and admirable. This damages the self-esteem of members of colonized groups in that a core aspect of their identity becomes a source of shame. This is a clear example of the phenomena of misrecognition that was discussed earlier, and we can see how this would threaten the full development of persons. Seeing a core aspect of your identity as a source of shame is paralyzing and makes projects of self development seem even more difficult and less worth doing. If I am just a worthless X than why should I try to develop myself, as I will always just be a worthless X.
The challenge is that law is not the most effective or appropriate mechanism to deal with the threat of misrecognition. Certainly, overt forms of discrimination against particular identity groups contribute to misrecognition of these groups, but even if discrimination on the basis of a particular identity is made illegal, there is still a possibility that misrecognition of particular groups will constitute itself. This is evidently the case as misrecognition does not simply constitute itself via individual acts of discrimination, but wider norms and values that are constituted by the rhetoric, arts and images of the society. In Canada, for example, First Nations do have legal equality, but the rhetoric, norms and artistic representations that relate to First Nations typically paint them in a demeaning light. Being First Nations in Canada carries with it the certainty of being broadly seen in a particular way which will inevitably put at risk your capacity for individual development. But to try to use the force of law to prevent the rhetoric and artistic representations around this group from reinforcing misrecognition seems somewhat authoritarian, as this would involve the government dictating what people’s views need to be. While Canadian law allows for government acts to outlaw hate speech and other forms of speech that put others at risk of violence, it cannot simply dictate the values and artistic images presented because of the rights of freedom of expression that each Canadian possess. An example of a form of speech that may reinforce misrecognition, but at the same time does not put groups at risk of disproportionate rates of violence would be a citizen writing an editorial about the fact that the way of life of a particular First Nations group was less civilized and less fully developed than an industrial or post-industrial one. This obviously implies that a specific First Nations’ culture may be less than modern occidental culture and so reinforces the view of the aboriginal as less than the colonizing European, but it would be quite a stretch to say this is an infringement on the dignity or rights of First Nations’ peoples.
The reason I say this is a stretch is that every society and person possesses a sense of what is more admirable and valuable and less admirable or valuable; this sense is basic to the way that the individual or society experiences reality. When I see someone so wrapped up in career ambition that they do not make time for their family or friends I do not experience them first as a person who puts a lot of value on their career, and then separately judge them as being shallow or ignorant in some respect. My experience of them as a person who will sacrifice their family or friends for career prospects is itself deeply normative, and reflects my authentic view of how people ought to live.
As a result of the proceeding as long as individuals and societies disagree about what is most admirable, there is a risk that groups will experience misrecognition. To explain, misrecognition constitutes itself through demeaning, or negative images, and other representations of particular groups. Furthermore, these images and representations develop as a result of the association of particular traits or values with a particular minority group; for example the idea that women are emotional, or gay men are effeminate. For example, if I happen to live in a society where religious faith is viewed as a symptom of disorder of the mind and I am a faithful Christian I am at risk of being misrecognized as my identity as a faithful believer will likely be broadly seen as a lower form of human development than more avowedly non-religious or secular identities because of the negative view the society holds about faith. Consequently, all that is required for minorities to be at risk of misrecognition is that society at large has a negative view about some value or belief that a minority group holds, and the society associates with a particular group. As a result as long as there is genuine diversity about the proper way to live is, there will be a risk of misrecognition. As a result, only a society that is utterly homogeneous with regard to the question of how it is best to live will be free from the risk of misrecognition be possible. And while misrecognition is certainly an evil, it is quite simply absurd to try to wish for this diversity to be eliminated as much of the richness of life emerges from the fact that we live among people whose understanding of what is most valuable is very different from ours.
Now that we have elaborated the concept of misrecognition itself, and the conditions of possibility of its existence and elimination, we can return to the our initial discussion of SJWs. SJWs in their desire for a more just, egalitarian society take action to eliminate or cast shame on worldviews they view as toxic because of the way in which these views put marginalized groups at risk of misrecognition. For example, trying to eliminate the view of men as unable to constrain their sexual desire, and women as mere agency-less objects of desire for the male gaze. In this sense, the SJW is responding to a genuine evil and should not be criticized for being critical of a particular worldview.
However, the problem occurs with the tendency among the SJW community to fail to engage with those who disagree with them. SJWs have formed concepts like safe spaces, and trigger warnings to explain their opposition to the expression of particular kind of views or topics in particular contexts. While these concepts differ, they, and the phenomena of the SJW share the common feature that they do not want particular worldviews to be discussed or engaged with. In this sense, the perspective of the SJW is a reified ideology that is used to bludgeon their opponents into silence, rather than as a critical perspective on what they see as a dangerous, problematic perspective. The view that monogamy may be more worthwhile than polyamory for the SJW is not a belief about the best way to live, but just a tactic to shame those who are not meant for monogamy that needs to be eliminated. We do not need to engage with this perspective; it is clearly just a form of oppression of the marginalized.
But, what is wrong with this bludgeoning? SJWs generally do not encourage the use of state power to enforce a particular culture, but rely on legal acts of expression within the public sphere. Isn’t this the same kind of action that any activist would take to get their point across?
It is true that SJWs merely act in the way that other activists do by using legal acts of free expression to support their goals. However, the problem with that, and forms of activism that follow the same model is that they display a lack of humility, which does not allow us to fully develop ourselves as individuals and a community. The lack of humility exists in that they are so confident that they have something figured out that they refuse to engage the other side, as it is impossible that someone who disagrees with them on this issue, could have any insight that they have missed.
Furthermore, this lack of humility harms the political community as we are strongest when we are willing and open to learn from others. When we are willing to fully engage with those we disagree with and hear them out, the community as a whole and the individuals who make it up are able to develop themselves by integrating the insights of others they are engaging with into their own lives.
Relatedly, when people actually engage with the other side rather than trying to bludgeon it into submission, it provides more of a genuine opportunity to change the minds of those you disagree with. If we disagree and I try to prevent your perspective from being given a hearing because it is linked to risks of misrecognition to vulnerable groups, all I am doing is preventing that other from speaking up. I do not attempt to change their mind or heart, and have done little to change the mind of those who contribute to the risk of misrecognition in this particular case. But if we engage with this other than we fully open ourselves to be changed by insights that the other has and we give ourselves fully to trying to convince the others of what we see as wrong with their perspective. This is superior as it opens us to improving our own perspective, and improving the perspective of the other.
As a result, SJWs represent an attempt to respond to the real social problem of misrecognition that is present in any society where the members disagree about how best to live. This attempt while noble in orientation is not the appropriate response to the presence of perspectives, values and images that threaten some with the risk of misrecognition. Instead, we must make the attempt to change the minds of the other and in turn open ourselves up to hearing what the other side has to say.