Steelmanning the Social Justice Movement

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In this article, I’m going to do something that goes against every inclination I have: I’m going to try to steel-man the social justice movement. “Steel-manning” is a term that refers to the opposite of straw-manning. It means articulating the strongest version of your opponent’s argument — and doing so as persuasively as you can — before critiquing it. This makes for better discourse, because it demonstrates to others that you truly understand their views. It means you aren’t shadowboxing some gross caricature, but directly responding to the heart of their beliefs.

The sign of a good steel-man is that those you disagree with no longer seem irrational or crazy, but rationally living out the (mistaken) premises of their worldview. Will I succeed? I don’t know — I’m not a social justice warrior, I don’t speak their vocabulary. And what follows will be written not in their language, but mine; I’ll be using my own examples and my own arguments to try and arrive at their conclusions. My purpose here is to try and articulate the version that is most persuasive to me.

First, there are many versions of the social justice movement. What I describe below is probably not representative of every social justice advocate, but rather a particularly virulent strand of social justice advocacy. Second, we need to differentiate between the social justice movement and conventional democratic policy preferences. Democratic voters can support economic reforms that are aimed towards helping the disadvantaged, and support measures to advance an egalitarian society, etc., without subscribing to the excesses social justice movement.

The central premise of the social justice paradigm is that there are vast, systemic asymmetries of power and wealth, as a consequence of rampant racism or bigotry within our society. This means that individuals who dwell in the intersections of underprivileged communities and identities should be given an outsized, compensatory voice and influence in public policy. This is a simple enough premise, but it’s being made in the shadows of some tremendous philosophical assumptions that are packaged along with it.

Let’s start with the fundamentals.

The Marxist roots of the social justice worldview

Conservatives are accustomed to using the word “Marxism” as a pejorative, but I’m not attacking social justice activism for being Marxist. I’m trying to understand the social justice paradigm, and Marxism helps me to do that.

Classical liberal thought prioritizes individual rights over the concerns of the state, and strives for a balance that favors individual freedom. Classical liberalism views with suspicion any attempt to deprive individuals of due process of law, or to subjugate their legal interests to those of another group. From this viewpoint, we can serve the interests of all demographic groups by maximizing individual rights and freedoms. This is because the political interests of all individuals are largely commensurable. A classical liberal might say that black, gay, and transgender rights are indistinguishable from individual rights generally.

In contrast, Marxist worldviews treat most political conflicts as microcosms of larger power struggles between different groups within society with disparate interests. In conventional Marxist thought, the two primary contenders are the exploited and oppressed (the proletariat) and the ruling class (the bourgeoisie). The power to vote and equal rights under the law are not enough to resolve this ongoing oppression: so long as the ruling class owns the means of production, there is an asymmetry of power that gives the ruling class leverage to perpetuate the exploitation of the proletariat.

Today, the competing interest groups are understood to involve involve race, sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation, as well as economic class. Whereas classical liberalism treats the political rights and interests of individuals as largely commensurable, in a Marxist worldview, the political interests of blacks, whites, gays, whites, transgenders, etc. are at times divergent. This means that the interests of any particular group cannot be wholly represented by those from other classes or groups. This gives birth to what many refer to as “identity politics,” and results in an intense preoccupation about group representation in the ruling class (that is, those with wealth, political power, or social influence).

The postmodern roots of the social justice worldview

This is compounded by postmodernism and its rejection of modernism and its presumptions of objective truth. Postmodern theories are diverse, but one writer, Connor Wood, argues that most postmodernist views share the following assumptions:

  1. “Knowledge and truth are largely socially constructed, not objectively discovered.”
  2. “What we believe to be ‘true’ is in large part a function of social power: who wields it, who’s oppressed by it, how it influences which messages we hear.”
  3. “Power is generally oppressive and self-interested (and implicitly zero-sum).”
  4. “Thus, most claims about supposedly objective truth are actually power plays, or strategies for legitimizing particular social arrangements.”

In short, “truth” is a social construct, and social constructs are negotiated and given authority by whatever groups have the most social and cultural capital. Therefore, one could say that what we take to be the givens of our social and political world are largely handed to us by the most powerful groups (historically speaking). Coupled with Marxist ideas, what we find is not merely a struggle by competing groups for political and social power, but also for who gets to define truth itself.

Here’s a neutral example that helped me glimpse into this worldview. (I’ve used it in libertarian circles to explore how lobbyists shape legal norms.) We take it as a given that if you dart out into a busy street and are hit by a car, you are legally responsible. But it wasn’t always so. Once upon a time, during the age of horse-drawn carriage and the early days of the automobile, the general rule was that “all persons have an equal right in the highway, and that in exercising the right each shall take due care not to injure other users of the way.” This included pedestrians, automobiles, and horse-drawn carriages. Drivers who recklessly endangered others by driving too fast or on the wrong side of the road were referred to as jay drivers.

Powerful automobile-friendly groups and lobbyists started a campaign of ridicule towards pedestrians who walked on the streets (calling them jay walkers), in the hope of clearing the streets for automobile users. This was entirely for the benefit of the industry, to popularize the idea that streets were for cars and not people. Their campaign worked, and now we consider it common sense. It’s part of our truth, a consensus understanding of the world. It’s also a socially constructed truth — there is nothing objective or inherent about it. And it’s a truth that serves the interests of groups with enormous social, political, and material capital (car manufacturers).

From the perspective of social justice activism, this is a microcosm of truth generally. For a long time, it wasn’t considered rape for a husband to force himself upon his wife, and this changed only as women gained more social and political capital. Many argue that our current legal norms surrounding sexual assault (such as the burdens of evidence) unduly privilege accused men. Even our understanding of consent (it is argued) is strongly tilted in ways that privilege male sexual interest. Our understanding of marriage as a conjugal relation, ordered towards child-bearing, serves the interests of the politically-dominant group (heterosexuals).

If even things like the meaning of rape, consent, violence, marriage, and basic human rights are social constructions, then it’s hard to imagine anything that isn’t. In other words, we are not merely engaged in a struggle over whose interests will be served by our norms, policies, and institutions, but also about what we take as the “givens” of our world. Assumptions that were once taken as axiomatic and shared by everyone can be drawn into question as social constructions wielded as truth by privileged groups to maintain power over others.

Everything that was once considered sacrosanct — including basic rights such as due process of law, freedom of speech, and even the principles of civility and kindness themselves — can be revisited in light of what groups those ideas benefit the most. And for this reason, all of our presumptions about what constitutes a just and fair society can and should be interrogated and drawn into question, because they are artifacts of a time where the balance of power was different than it is today.

Understanding systemic racism, sexism, bigotry

There’s one more major piece to the puzzle: we need to understand is meant by the term racism. (Everything we say about racism applies also to sexism and bigotry.) Most conservatives see racism as a kind of enmity, prejudice, or contempt for members of another race. From this racism-as-personal-prejudice view, racism is a moral failing and a characteristic of our personal outlook on others. Most conservatives might acknowledge the possibility of widespread unconscious racism, but will deny the existence of widespread conscious racism. Most people today don’t (willfully) view other races with contempt.

However, this is not the only kind of racism that a social justice worldview is concerned about. Under another view, racism refers to disparities of wealth and power between whites and blacks. In this racism-as-systemic-disparity view, racism is a property of systems. For example, while individuals can be socialists, socialism describes a particular kind of society (one in which the means of production are owned by the state). Similarly, racism describes a kind of society in which the reigns of economic and political power are held inordinately by people of one particular race. As long as such disparities exist, that society is a racist society.

From the racism-as-systemic-disparity view, there does not need to be any ongoing prejudice or contempt for racial minorities for these disparities to perpetuate. Research has shown that one of the greatest predictors of income is parental income, and research has demonstrated that the community a child grows up in has a significant impact on their success in life. If black neighborhoods are disproportionately poor due to prejudices and policies of prior decades, then even if all prejudice is cured today (and that’s a tall claim), it may take generations for the effects of past racism to wash out.

A social justice worldview generally assumes that both kinds of racism are rampant in society. These systemic disparities are seen as more than a product of past prejudice and policy, but also the product of active prejudice and policy today (and — to be clear — they are probably right to some extent on this; see The New Jim Crow, a book that has persuaded even many conservatives of this). Furthermore, a social justice worldview extends both understandings to bigotry towards all underprivileged groups, including gays, lesbians, and transgenders. And to be clear, there is substance to these claims.

For just one example in just one industry, there really are disparities in how men and women are represented in Hollywood (the Bechdel Test being only one of many metrics to illustrate). Hollywood producers are notorious for believing that the most successful action films must include white, male protagonists. And to whatever extent they are right, it may very well reveal unconscious preferences and prejudices among moviegoers. These pervasive biases can influence what movies get funded, what actors are hired, how movies are marketed, and a host of other outcomes — in ways that place the balance of wealth and power in Hollywood in the hands of white males.

The quest for symmetry of power

Now, we can put the pieces of social justice activism together: First, there are systemic asymmetries of power, in which some groups (white males) have substantially more political and material wealth and capital than others (women, racial minorities, and LGBTQs). Second, social and political conflict are seen as power struggles between different classes or groups within society. Third, because the interests of the competing groups are not commensurable, the interests of any particular group cannot be truly represented by someone who is not a member of that community.

This all leads to the utopian vision of social justice activism: a society in which asymmetries of power have been replaced with power symmetries. This is not the same thing as egalitarianism. Egalitarianism is an ideal of classical liberalism, which assumes that each individual should have equal voice and opportunity under the law and within our cultural institutions, and that the rights of all individuals and groups are commensurate. But equal voice implies that if an interest group constitutes only 5% of the population, they will still be a small minority in the echelons of the ruling class. And this means that that the truths of society will continue to be written by larger and thus more powerful groups.

Consider an example that is familiar to conservatives. We often argue (rightly) that pure majoritarianism will blithely ignore the interests and rights of minority populations. We are instead a republic in which individuals have basic rights that cannot be voted away, and we have a system of law that is largely insulated from majoritarian action. This is preferrable, we argue, because this system of law protects minorities by affording everyone the same basic rights. But what if we also believed (as many social justice advocates do) that the legal interests of various minority groups were not commensurable, and that what we consider “basic human rights” are a social construct that serves only the interests of the majority?

For this reason, proportionality and equal representation are not the goal. Symmetry is the goal. And that means something very different from egalitarianism: it means giving an outsized voice to those who represent under-privileged groups. This means that the voices of transgender, gay, lesbian, women, and black activists and thinkers should be prioritized over the voices of white males (the historically privileged group). The cultural and political influence of white males needs to be disproportionately reduced until symmetry is achieved.

And this is why many social justice activists argue that there is no such thing as reverse racism. It’s because they don’t see racism merely as personal prejudice (if they did, they’d admit that of course prejudice can be directed towards anyone). They see racism as asymmetry of cultural power and influence, and so long as that asymmetry exists, then the sorts of things conservatives call “reverse racism” merely helps bring about symmetry. Personal prejudice towards whites or males is forgiven precisely because it helps cure the asymmetry.

This is what is meant by social justice for the extremists in the movement. Social justice refers not to a society in which all individuals stand on equal ground before the law or are valued equally by the community, but to one in which underprivileged groups have found a balanced, symmetry of power and influence. This means taking compensatory measures for these underprivileged groups, and remaking our society in ways that serve their interests over and against historically privileged groups.

Remaking societal norms and public policy

This utopian vision involves a radical remaking of society. For time out of memory, social norms and public policy have served the interests of historically advantaged groups (white males, and Christians), and so those policies and norms must be unmade and replaced with policies that serve the interests of historical underprivileged groups instead. For reasons stated above, it does not matter if the new policies and norms inconvenience far more people than the old ones did; it only matters that they help cure historical asymmetries of power.

Let’s use one example to illustrate this: more and more frequently (especially in academia, but also in government and corporate settings), people are including their pronouns in their bios, name badges, and email signatures. This new social norm and expectation is intended to help reinforce the idea that gender identity is fluid, and also to make things easier for transgender individuals whose chosen gender identity is not obvious from mere appearances. If transgenders are the only ones announcing their gender preference, it merely reinforces cisgender norms, and so it helps if everyone else announces their preferences as well.

This norm, however, seems silly for the rest of us who use conventional gender pronouns, and who are content to let people make presumptions based on our physical appearance. But that’s precisely the issue at stake: those who use conventional pronouns are a historically privileged group, and so prior social norms served their interests to the exclusion of the interests of transgenders. “Not caring” about this issue is a luxury afforded by privilege. And because cisgender people are part of the privileged group, their opinions and perspectives should count less than the opinions and preferences of transgenders.

In short, changing these norms — and creating an expectation for everyone to announce their pronoun preferences — serves the interests of an underprivileged group, and this is one step towards curing a vast asymmetry of cultural power between the two groups. It may seem silly to the rest of us, but only because we are looking from the vantage point of privilege. As members of the privileged group, we cannot properly understand or advocate for the interests of underprivileged groups. So we must defer to those who represent their interests.

Shifting the burdens

Consider: we have already undergone costly societal changes and revised sweeping norms for the sake of disadvantaged groups. After the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we dramatically changed social norms, remade regulation, and significantly added to the costs of building and running a business, in order to make life easier for a very small but historically disadvantaged group. It has made life tremendously less convenient for small businesses, but we have largely swallowed those costs and burdens in the name of basic fairness and equity.

One could say that social justice is merely trying to extend the same sort of courtesy to additional underprivileged groups. To serve the interests of gays and lesbians, we remake marriage laws, popularize surrogacy, and ban discrimination. (We might believe that surrogacy is morally troubling and turns children and women into commodities — but that belief is, again, a luxury of privilege, which just demonstrates why we shouldn’t be the ones calling the shots.)

To serve the interests of transgenders, we eliminate gendered restrooms and remake dating norms. To serve the interests of blacks, we institute reparations for slavery. To serve the interests of women, we redefine consent, shift legal burdens of proof for sexual assault, and liberalize abortion laws. In all these cases, the presumption is that we are remaking norms and policies that once served only the interests of privileged groups (whites, males, and Christians).

And it isn’t important if privileged groups are burdened by these sweeping changes. The goal is not individual freedom, or even egalitarian fairness, but symmetry of power. For example, Christian florists and bakers might be burdened by non-discrimination laws that criminalize behavior that used to be uncontroversial. But in the prior arrangement, same-sex couples faced widespread discrimination and contempt in the marketplace, so <shrug>. We’ve only shifted the burdens from one group (gays) to another (Christians), whose turn has come.

Men might be innocently accused and punished for sexual assaults they did not commit, or for sexual encounters they thought were consensual. But in the prior arrangement, women were often assaulted and harassed with little legal or social recourse. So we’ve only shifted the burdens from one group (women) to another (men), whose turn has come. Christians and males are historically powerful groups, so from a social justice point of view, we have little sympathy for those among them who are hurt along the way to an improved, more balanced society.

And if we accept the Marxist, postmodern roots of the movement, this makes sense.


In conclusion, I don’t think social justice warriors are (usually) crazy. They are just living out the implications of a set of premises they’ve taken as true. And to be honest, some of those premises have merit. There are indeed a number of truths we accept as “givens” that are nothing of the sort, and which are social constructs that serve historically powerful groups. There are indeed widespread disparities of wealth and power when it comes to race, gender, and other demographic groups. The social justice movement has power because much of what they assume about the world is true (or at least partially so).

I disagree with their conclusions because I am a classical liberal who believes that the fundamental rights of all individuals are commensurate, no matter what group we identify with — and there’s a host of implications that stem from that, which lead me to different conclusions.

Here’s one example: When a woman is sexually assaulted and has no recourse, and when an innocent man is wrongly accused of sexual assault but has no recourse, I tend to think that both are horrible crimes — but I cannot see a way to eliminate the first injustice without institutionalizing the second injustice. And if I have to choose, I tend to see the former as preferable to the latter. This is because I’m a classical liberal, I tend to believe that it is better for some bad men to walk free than it is for an innocent person to be jailed. Classical liberalism views political conflicts through the lens of an ongoing conflict of power between the individual vs. the state, and so we tend to see injustices committed by the state (jailing innocent people) as less tolerable than seeing victims of injustice left without recourse. We would rather that 10 guilty men walk free than one innocent person jailed.

(And for a classical liberal, gender is immaterial to the question. We simply believe that, in a contest of power between the individual and the state, the balance should lean towards individual freedom and due process of law. The burden of evidence should be on the state, and the presumption of innocence should prevail.)

But consider the exact same scenario from the perspective of the social justice movement above, where everything is viewed through the lens of an ongoing conflict between different groups with disparate interests. If we remove “the state” from the equation, we might ask, why is one horrible injustice preferable to another horrible injustice? What a social justice advocate hears: “It is more tolerable that innocent women be raped without recourse than innocent men be jailed without recourse.” They hear sexism. They hear men advocating for the interests of their clan to the detriment of others — and in this way, classical liberalism serves the interests of men to the exclusion of the the interests of women. It is thus an instrument of oppression, a sexist ideology.

(Not because the men who advocate for classical liberalism hold women in contempt or treat them with disdain, but simply because the ideology tends to allow women suffer injustice at the hands of men more often than it allows men to suffer comparable injustices at the hands of women — and because it prevailed in our jurisprudence at a time when men held the reigns of cultural and political power.)

I’ll talk more about my issues with the social justice movement in the next post, where I’ll compare and contrast the social justice movement with the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, and argue that the social justice movement is becoming a competing religious belief system. Stay tuned!

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