Editor's note: This column was co-authored by Jim McCoy.
The rhetorician Quintilian warned in his "On the Causes of Corrupted Eloquence," that speakers holding forth, devoid of talent, will offer no more profit from their work than barren soil from a treatise on agriculture. Social justice is just such a corruption, the etymological equivalent of “wet water.” We argue that in becoming the hallmark of the progressive left, social justice costs plenty, but offers America nothing.
Luigi Taparelli is credited with first using social justice in 1840 reflecting the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. Its meaning has morphed into today’s nonsensicality. In the seven Democrat debates for 2020, the term justice (racial, environmental, health, obstruction of, gender and injustice) was used 186 times by candidates.
Ironically, Democrat Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase “defining deviancy down,” believing American society had been re-defining deviancy from previously stigmatized conduct to be “normal” behavior. This process of “defining down" appears full throttle for today’s social justice warriors (SJWs).
Thomas Sowell has cautioned that social justice is redundant to the point of vacuity--by definition, all justice is social. Yet “social justice” has become an ever-present part of the American lexicon, promoted by Democrats, academics, the media and young people. Being an SJW earns one the approbation of being woke.
One of us recently taught an undergraduate senior seminar, “Influencing Public Opinion.” As a thought experiment, students were asked whether they believed in social justice. The entire class responded affirmatively. He then asked each student to define the term as precisely as possible. Ninety-six percent could only define it in the negative--not promoting racism, inequality, oppression, sexism, homophobia, income inequality, misogyny--social injustice.
Terms defined in the negative are poor word choices according to grammarians. Aspiring attorneys are taught in law school that you can’t prove a negative. Social policy shouldn’t encompass it either, yet Obama-appointed Federal Judge Allison Burroughs ruled it was more socially just to admit to Harvard an upper middle class black student with a 1250 SAT score and an A- GPA over a low income Asian student with an A+ GPA and perfect SAT score.
Sowell cautioned that the quest for cosmic justice by the judiciary as an agent of change “quietly repeals one of the foundations of the American revolution…reduces a free people to a subject people, subject now to the edicts of unelected judges enforcing ‘evolving standards’.”
Social Justice as Inequity
Arguments of inequity are the foundation of social justice, based on disparity--unequal results across society. Steve Salerno recounts the horribly negative impacts social justice-motivated programs of the National Education Association and The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), saying that “they had to de-emphasize excellence in order to achieve the self-esteem benefits that would drive excellence. They regarded this incoherence as just a ‘temporary ‘concession to a paramount goal’…which has resulted in a wholesale celebration of mediocrity.”
Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro states that politics is widely subverting our use of basic language, and this is one of the key factors in tearing our country apart. There is an assumed meaning of social justice to those leaning left, but precious little precision. The assumption is that if you can end unjust things, you will have attained social justice. Ironically, attempting to terminate social injustice more often causes a panoply of new injustices.
The Answer Is Always More Government
The answer to how social injustice could be ended is always through more government intervention into nearly every aspect of our personal lives. One must analyze critically this progressive shibboleth rather than take it for face value as do politicians, academics and the mainstream media. Such terms can metastasize into a bitter new reality, always bigger and more intrusive government.
The Endurance of Social Justice
Thomas Sowell argues in The Quest for Cosmic Justice that all justice is inherently social because it is a human construct, requiring rigorous definition which is never given by its advocates. Progressives no longer advocate for a level playing field of opportunity but mandate a complete leveling of societal outcomes and conveniently use results of social inequity as prima facia evidence of social injustice.
Back in 1980, Milton and Rose Friedman put social justice into a necessary economic perspective, ignored by today’s SJWs: “A society that puts equality—in the sense of equality of outcome—ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.”
Social Justice and Individuality
In his most recent book, Discrimination and Disparities, Sowell states that the fallacy of uneven distributions of income, employment and other social outcomes prove neither discrimination nor genetic deficiencies. Social justice can’t delegitimize luck or human difference as reasons for inequalities in outcome, especially among all classes of people defined by race, gender and sexual preference, nor eliminate deliberate personal choices made, like choosing working for less money for more time off—a choice of many Millennials, Gens X and Gen Zers.
SJWs hope for the elimination of intentional and sanctioned discrimination through government control. But federal mandates like President Obama’s gender-neutral bathrooms have already resulted in women having to traverse urinated floors caused by male carelessness, a social injustice for the sake of social justice.
Sowell cautions that neither logic nor empirical evidence provide a compelling reason for expecting equal outcomes among individuals, groups, institutions or nations. We are all endowed with different genes, backgrounds, experiences, drive and luck.
Author and political philosopher John Gray believes history has no lessons for the ‘woke’. Accepting that revolution multiplies injustice would destroy the meaning of their lives. Woke insouciance to their social divisiveness mirrors Lenin’s before the Russian revolution. So what should we expect from more government control of social justice? Professor Peter Boghossian and researcher James Lindsay argue the chief attribute of SJWs is ignoring opposing views. If you disagree with them “Chances are, you’ll be insulted and accused of moral failures—participation in systems of oppression, racism or sexism—and the conversation will go nowhere.”
True justice requires that we look at each individual in his/her social milieu, more than the boxes ticked on the SJW preference scale. While America has never guaranteed its citizens equal outcomes, it remains the world’s paragon for equality of opportunity. It demands judging the individual and her/his actions, not by race, class, gender or sexual preference, because social justice can often become a form of social injustice no matter what progressives say. Removing all inequality in a society is impossible and efforts to do so promise more injustice than progressives claim already exists.
Loyd Pettegrew is a professor Emeritus at the University of South Florida and Jim McCoy is an Associate Professor Emeritus at Southern Utah University.