When Performative Wokeness Misses the Point

There’s one thing SJWs and anti-SJWs broadly agree upon: highly visible corporate attempts to gain social justice points are stupid and counterproductive.

As social justice ideas gain currency in powerful circles, these attempts are getting more frequent — and, in some cases, more stupid. Where once we merely had pinkwashing, greenwashing, tokenism, and queerbaiting, now we have the removal of Elmer Fudd’s gun, the removal of episodes of sitcoms explicitly criticizing blackface, and flooding useful tags with black squares.

It’s almost universally counterproductive:

Hanlon’s Razor suggests that it isn’t some conspiracy to discredit SJ (although it does so by accident) but that most of the media infrastructure actually has exactly as shallow an idea of social justice as the right.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Social justice work, properly implemented, requires thought and flexibility. It doesn’t scale. It’s complicated. Everybody I know who isn’t actually invested on a personal level with social justice circles has a shallow, warped, and universalizing idea of it, because if you don’t have a particular interest, then your idea of it will come from media, and the less interest you have, the shallower the media. What the media will cover is the performative bullshit that can be codified by media-industry legal departments.

Elmer Fudd’s gun isn’t going away because of real outcry, but because one guy in corporate has a vague idea that loud nuts might do a twitter campaign & the only guy in the legal dept who has heard of social justice thinks Jordan Peterson “has some solid points but maybe goes too far”. A lot of these folks are the kind of “good liberal” who think that liberal is as far left as one can go and that communism means state control of the distribution of goods. The type who thinks racism ended in 1968 and is glad.

Maybe eventually the basic thought processes behind SJ will become accessible to most people, in the same way that once-radical philosophical and political ideas like pragmatism & representative democracy did. American adults can generally understand how voting is supposed to work, because they took a civics class in school. They understand balance of powers, in theory. They can quote you a little bit of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Thoreau but cannot tell you who said what. The language that tea partiers and other American right-libertarian-adjacent groups use (full of invocations of “tyranny”) does not come out of serious autodidacticism, but instead out of half-remembered ideas from seventh grade.

The basic idea behind SJ & its mechanics is not all that much more complicated or controversial than “innocent until proven guilty” or any number of similar complex philosophical ideas that schoolchildren are required to show proficiency in as part of their duty as citizens. At the same time, if you don’t have an interest in something & you’re not particularly intellectually curious, it’s very easy to stop learning about it entirely as soon as mandatory schooling is over. Even if you do have interest and motivation, contentious issues tend to have a lot of disinformation around them that makes it easy to get strange misunderstandings.

Robert Anton Wilson was brilliant but he never quite ‘got’ feminism, because there were currents that didn’t want him to recognize that it was basically the same as other emancipatory movements he supported & that his own wife was more representative of feminism than the SCUM manifesto was. He bought the idea that there were a small number of “good”, “reasonable” feminists and a larger movement of “radical man-haters” instead of the other way around because a media complex existed to promote the idea that sex equality was a trojan horse for authoritarian matriarchy — and this media complex still exists (although it is far less powerful than it was thirty years ago).

Scott Alexander is also clearly brilliant but he seems to have had very little direct and in-depth interaction with leftists, which in combination with strange second-hand information, seems to have left him thinking that leftist movements weren’t really worth understanding. (Not even to the level of effort he put into understanding neoreaction, or gematria, or fad diets.)

I’ve still got very intelligent, intellectually curious friends (including online — not naming names, you know who you are) who don’t remotely “get” SJ, despite attempts to explain it. Initial framing is strong, so they have a hard time letting go of the idea that social justice is some blunt and legalistic top-down mechanism (a demand to remove complicated representation) instead of a set of tools for improving interpersonal interactions (ideas about how to better avoid being an asshole). I know they are working in good faith so I keep trying to clarify.

When somebody I know has their heart in the right place comes to me with a misunderstanding of SJ, I try to correct it. That’s hard enough for me to do, & probably much worse for most people.

We don’t really have a great way to communicate this stuff to people outside of our circles. They are getting a mix of intentional and unintentional disinformation through media organs, & real social justice has little to no mainstream media support.

Making it part of school curricula would help, though as an anarchist I’m not terribly comfortable with making decisions about what strangers should be forced to learn. Obviously, talk to your kids, but you’re already doing that right?

What do we do?

One thing is to try to keep the core message really clear: that society is full of power relations that are complex and largely invisible to the people they benefit, & that we’re looking to make things more equitable by understanding and addressing them. Even a small child can understand that kind of statement.

Another thing is to try to separate the tools from the core message: the point of SJ isn’t to make the world into a safe space (since that’d be stupid), but a safe space is sometimes the appropriate band-aid.

Another thing is to use the tools responsibly and talk publicly and clearly about whether or not they are appropriate, in ways that are accessible to outsiders. For instance, no-platforming should be distinguished from “cancelling”, vs boycotting, vs critique.

Something I’ve been trying to do (with A Libertarian Case for Social Justice and other works) is to aim explainers at audiences who aren’t usually part of social-justice-friendly circles, trying to appeal to their own values. I have made some suggestions about how to do this here.

(Adapted from a twitter thread.)

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

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