There are, at this point, only two options:
- Either all the conservatives and “classical liberals” literally have beans in their ears, or
- Every member of the left truly is so totally incoherent in stating their beliefs that it is literally impossible for conservatives to understand the ideology they claim to oppose.
I am willing to accept the possibility that it is number two. I have moaned quite a bit about the left’s messaging failures, and I know full well we often sound more like a series of noisy slogans than a coherent political movement. But I do have to say, I often suspect that our critics are not trying as hard as they could to grasp the fundamentals. Their ear canals may not literally be stuffed up with butter beans, but they do seem to go peculiarly deaf whenever someone actually tries to explain what “social justice” is.
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker criticizes “social justice warriors” in his latest book, meaning the practitioners of “identity politics,” which “sees society as a struggle for power, also zero-sum, among different sexes, sexual orientations, and races [and] also has a contempt for science.” Jordan Peterson has a similar view, condemning a “collectivist narrative” that sees each person “essentially a member of a group” and “not essentially an individual,” with “the proper way to view the world” being as “a battleground between groups of different power.” These critics often move freely between terms like “social justice warrior,” “politically correct,” “identity politics” and “identitarian left.” But Liberal Fascism author Jonah Goldberg has a video dissecting the term “social justice” specifically, arguing simultaneously that it is vacuous/meaningless and that it means the redistribution of wealth by the state. Social justice, he says, is defined differently by different people and “means anything its champions want it to mean.” It is an “abracadabra phrase” used to stand for “good things no one needs to argue for and no one dare be against.” But beneath it is a “pernicious philosophical claim, namely that freedom must be sacrificed to redistribute income,” that “the state must and can remedy all perceived wrongs,” and that “anybody who disagrees is an enemy.”
Let me, then, explain how I think the term social justice is used, why I think it’s useful, why nobody should dismiss Social Justice Identity Politics Leftism, and how we might have clearer and more useful discussions about the application of justice to social questions.
At the beginning of his video, Goldberg says that if you asked 10 people on the left to define social justice, you would get 10 different answers. He’s right. But that doesn’t prove it’s a meaningless magic word. If I asked 10 people to define love, truth, power, beauty, virtue, or justice itself I might get a variety of responses. But these concepts are still meaningful and important, even though humans have spent thousands of years trying to figure out their definitions. To say one believes in social justice is to say something like the following: I believe the concept of fairness applies not just to interactions between individual people, but to human society as a whole. There are more and less just societies, and I believe ours should be more just than it is. (The word “society” itself has a contested definition, which again doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but for our purposes it can just refer to people in the aggregate rather than as single units.)
What does it actually mean to say that “fairness applies to groups, not just relationships between individuals”? Well, one common conservative way to talk about fairness implies that it’s only a concept that applies in one-on-one interactions. So here are some actions conservatives would agree are unfair: I steal your beignets. I poke you in the eye. I hate you because of your race. If we live in a world in which nobody is doing these things to each other, we live in a fair world. Hence the libertarian “non-aggression principle”: As long as I’m leaving you alone, and you’re leaving me alone, we can do as we please and it is silly to speak of injustice. The social justice perspective says that this is naïve, that everyone could start following the non-aggression principle tomorrow and we would still live in a profoundly unfair world. The social justice perspective also says that there are harms produced in the aggregate, in which it’s difficult to single out a particular individual as morally blameworthy, but the overall situation is clearly unfair.
This often happens because we inherit the world we live in from those who lived before us, and injustices committed in one generation distribute benefits and harms across the members of the next one. (Or, to put it more vividly, “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”) It can also happen, as economist Rob Larson has explained in Current Affairs, because of “aggregated externalities.” I might eat a burger, and you might run a farm, and neither of us might do anything particularly objectionable to any isolated individual, but as part of a system, our innocent-seeming acts could produce catastrophe for people we haven’t met. A core left-wing objection to capitalism is that while, in one-on-one interactions, it may “maximize efficiency,” left to itself, such a process may ultimately devour the Earth and make everyone miserable.
Some may wonder why the word “social” needs to be added to the word “justice” at all. In a just world, there would be no injustices, so the addition of the word “social” can often make “social justice” seem to refer to some sinister variation on justice. Personally, I don’t think it’s strictly necessary to add the word “social.” But it does add a certain emphasis on large-scale harms, and sets one apart from those who believe we’d live in a world of perfect justice if only everyone could just leave each other alone. Ultimately, what matters is not the term we use but the idea we’re actually referring to. I don’t know if “social justice” is the most useful term (personally I usually just say I believe in socialism, which I consider synonymous with social justice). It does, however, have the advantages of both (1) showing that one is concerned with the wellbeing of humanity as a whole rather than just the individuals one happens to meet in one’s day to day life and (2) annoying Jordan Peterson.
If social justice means looking beyond the relationships between individual people, what are we looking for? What constitutes social injustice? Goldberg suggests that the term is used to mean “good things,” and “good things” are just “the things progressives want” (wealth redistribution, transgender wedding cakes in bathrooms, destruction of the moral fabric of Western civilization, etc.). It’s certainly true that progressives define “social justice” as the fulfillment of progressive political goals. But that’s not simply because they are using “abracadabra language” to add a sheen of righteousness to their arbitrary preferences. It’s also because they have a sincere and serious argument that when we do apply moral scrutiny to existing social arrangements, we see that these political goals are morally compelled. Goldberg has it backwards: We don’t use “social justice” as a sneaky euphemism for our pre-existing goal of wealth redistribution. We believe in wealth redistribution because, if examined seriously, the existing distribution of wealth cannot be reconciled with basic moral principles.
Why is the left-wing political agenda so hopelessly muddled and varied? Redistributing wealth, eliminating gender roles, protecting the environment, stopping the war, prosecuting Wall Street, opening the borders, saving the Louisiana pancake batfish—why do we just throw all of this different stuff together into the political equivalent of a KFC Famous Bowl® and call it social justice? What is this, other than a series of different ways to signal one’s virtue? But the premise of the question is wrong, because it looks only at the goals that follow from a certain set of basic values and misses the values themselves. It’s understandable that people get confused, because on the left we end up spending far more time talking about what we want than the reasons we want it. It’s still true, however, that there is a coherent (and to me, compelling) philosophy underlying “left-wing social justice politics.” It starts from a belief that other people matter, that we should empathize with the rest of humanity and care about what happens to them as much as we care about what happens to ourselves. It also holds a vision of the good life, a life where people have freedom and equality. But it realizes that those need to be more than empty feel-good words: Freedom means the actual capacity to do things, not the mere absence of physical restraint. So if I’m “free to travel anywhere I like” but the only jobs in town pay 15 cents an hour and a bus ticket costs $100, my freedom is meaningless. (A conservative may cite Isaiah Berlin to suggest that the left’s conception of “positive liberty”—that idea about actual capacity—is terrifying because states like the Soviet Union will increase coercion in the name of increasing capacity. This argument is specious, because brutalizing people doesn’t actually increase their capacity to do anything, and countries that impose on people’s “negative liberty” are not actually serving their “positive liberty.” There is also a popular idea that “equality” is dangerous because it will mean “forced equality.” But while plenty of tyrannical governments have insisted they were creating equality, “forced equality” is self-contradictory, because the person being forced and the person doing the forcing plainly have unequal amounts of power. There is no such thing as “forced equality,” there are just highly unequal societies that lie and pretend they are equal ones. )
The importance of “equality” to the left does not come simply because we resent and despise the rich. (Though there are very good reasons to resent and despise the rich, such as the fact that they are objectively worse people.) It’s also because wealth confers relative power in bidding contests for social outcomes. If you have more wealth than me, you have more power than me, and if you have more power than me, we do not have a democratic society. In a democratic society, people get to participate (to the extent reasonably possible) in decisions that will affect their lives. If power accrues disproportionately to one person or group of people, those left out are going to be subjected to the whims of others rather than being given autonomy.
This is all a bit abstract and philosophical, though. Let’s talk about a few of the social justice concerns and why they’re valid. I’d like to dwell in particular on racial and gender injustice, because these form the core of the “identity politics” that people like Pinker and Peterson are so horrified by, the ones that classifies people as “groups” rather than “individuals.”
It can be difficult to know just where to start here, because there is just so much social scientific research being ignored by those who dismiss leftist arguments about race and gender inequality. Usually I begin with the black-white wealth gap. This is separate from the black-white earnings gap, the racial difference in annual income (which is both growing wider and “cannot be fully explained by differences in age, education, job type, or location,” according to economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco). The wealth gap refers to differences in total assets, and it’s much, much larger than the income gap. The median white family has a net worth at least 10 times higher than the median black family, and according to the Institute for Policy Studies, if “average Black family wealth continues to grow at the same pace it has over the past three decades, it would take Black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth White families have today.” That’s assuming that white wealth won’t continue to grow; in reality, absent significant change, black wealth is never going to catch up to white wealth.
I want to note two points about the wealth gap. First, even though progressives talk about it constantly, hardly anybody actually understands quite how severe it is. When researchers at Yale asked people how many dollars they thought each black family had for every $100 a white family had, on average people said something around $85. The reality is closer to $5. Now, approximately 70 percent of white people say that the country does not need to pay more attention to race issues (about 40 percent say we already pay too much attention). And yet they are oblivious to a fundamental difference between the average advantages white people have starting out versus the ones black people have. The second point here is that the wealth gap matters a lot because it cannot be separated from slavery. Wealth is passed down intergenerationally, and slavery was very, very recent (there are people still alive today who once met former slaves). The black-white wealth gap is not something that emerged over time after both races started out with equal resources. It has existed continuously since Emancipation, when black people were sent out into the “free” world with no compensation for their two centuries of stolen labor, their disrupted family structures, their state-enforced illiteracy, and the destruction of their cultural knowledge. A colossal wrong was done and never righted. In civil law, when one party causes harm to another, the state intervenes to try to make the person whole again, but in the case of American slavery (which was a half-second ago in the lifetime of the human species), the American public is simply oblivious to the lasting effects on intergenerational wealth.
This would be bad enough even if racism had evaporated at the moment of emancipation, and full political and social equality had been granted despite drastic economic inequality. Instead, however, after an abortive Reconstruction period in which black people were actually represented by black legislators, total white dominance of the government was re-established through disenfranchisement efforts supported by paramilitary terror and violence directed at black people. States passed Black Codes to limit black property rights and enforce a subordinate relationship between white property-owners and black laborers. Jim Crow segregation is, of course, well-known, but too many Americans think it was a matter of “separate schools” and “the back of the bus.” In fact, in many places we’re talking about literal re-enslavement through the establishment of a convict leasing system that unfairly imprisoned black men and then lent their free labor out to private businesses. We are also talking about government policies that systematically denied black people access to the same opportunities to accumulate wealth that white people had.
That system stretches into the lifetimes of people who are still alive. It structured all of the opportunities available to today’s older African American population. Even after the disappearance of lynching and the reluctant granting of voting rights, however, there are still large-scale efforts by white families to keep the next generation of black children from accessing equal opportunities, from the establishment of “segregation academies” in the South to the Northern liberals’ fierce resistance to any educational policy that would place wealthy white children on the same level as poor black and Hispanic ones. The black-white wealth gap means, of course, differential access to high-quality private schools, but there are plenty of other factors altering opportunities from residential segregation to differences in healthcare access. (To give an example from healthcare, black mothers die in childbirth at rates three times higher than white mothers, which holds true across socioeconomic classes, and infant and maternal mortality in black America is around the same level as that of high-poverty countries like Mexico and Libya.)
I haven’t even touched on outright discrimination. Conservatives go to great lengths to try to prove that the police aren’t racist, but doing so necessarily involves arguing that the majority of black people are delusional. Pew polling on confidence in police shows that while around ¾ of white people are confident that the police in their community treat people of different races equally, only around ⅓ of black people share this confidence and the majority of black people report personal or family experiences with police mistreatment. Black views of police generally are very negative compared to the views of whites, not surprising given that from slavery to the present day, police have consistently been used as a weapon of social control against blacks, whether they are taking a nap in the wrong common room or barbecuing in the wrong part of the park. From differences in search rates to drug arrest rates to differences in sentencing to differences in application of the death penalty, the criminal justice system has deep racial biases far beyond that which could be explained by variations in crime rates. (Furthermore, even differences in crime rates do not prove the absence of racial injustice: It’s certainly true that black rates of using crack cocaine were higher than white rates, but it didn’t justify the 100-1 sentencing difference, and even the social factors causing crime are tied to historic injustices.)
But there are all sorts of other, subtle ways in which racial discrimination is quite real. Not only will having a black name earn you suspicion from a potential employer, but your race and gender will affect customers’ assessment of your competence. It will affect the kinds of prices you get offered and the quality of financial advice you are given. And while the term “microaggressions” is a bit of a frustrating conceptual mess, the underlying reality it attempts to describe is quite real, with people of color consistently reporting high levels of experienced discrimination.
Instead of actually trying to seriously and dispassionately figure out how race works and what its effects are, the response of social justice critics is usually to suggest that all of this is ideological nonsense and irrational identity politics that divides people up into “groups.” Ben Shapiro, for example, responds to evidence of historically-grounded racial inequality with remarks like: “I wasn’t an adult when Jim Crow was in place… and I would bet you money that the people in this room haven’t acted in a racist manner, that they haven’t held slaves, or voted for Jim Crow.” Plenty of people alive today grew up under Jim Crow, though, or had parents who did, and their ability to pass advantages onto their children was impacted accordingly. Or look at the way Jordan Peterson responds to the heap of evidence that being black tends to come with a set of particular disadvantages:
The idea of white privilege is absolutely reprehensible. And it’s not because white people aren’t privileged. We have all sorts of privileges, and most people have privileges of all sorts, and you should be grateful for your privileges and work to deserve them. But the idea that you can target an ethnic group with a collective crime, regardless of the specific innocence or guilt of the constituent elements of that group – there is absolutely nothing that’s more racist than that. It’s absolutely abhorrent. If you really want to know more about that sort of thing, you should read about the Kulaks in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. They were farmers who were very productive. They were the most productive element of the agricultural strata in Russia. And they were virtually all killed, raped, and robbed by the collectivists who insisted that because they showed signs of wealth, they were criminals and robbers.
I hope you can see how bizarre this is. The concept is “reprehensible,” even though he admits that white people are privileged (though it’s not clear what he means, since he says that “most people have privileges,” although most people in this country are also white). Then he just starts talking about how the concept of collective crime was used to massacre kulaks. In doing so, he evades the the point: Because of things that have been done to black people, as a group, they are on average at a disadvantage compared to white people. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t individual black people with greater privileges than individual white people (the Obama children have a far better chance at success than the children of homeless opiate addicts in western Pennsylvania). But some disadvantages have been specifically racial, their effects exist to this day, and refusing to talk about them because of a fear of talking about “groups” involves being wilfully ignorant to the way people’s treatment as groups has historically worked. This is the funny thing about a lot of criticisms of “identity politics”: The people who are criticized for identifying as members of groups had their group membership thrust upon them by force. Black people did not invent the idea of being black, that was done by those who called them by the n-word instead of their names. If race had never been invented, and the history of racist ideas from slavery to the Redeemers to Jim Crow to “superpredators” had never occurred, we wouldn’t have had to have “identity politics.” But it did occur, and so we’re stuck with it until we can create a world in which race genuinely doesn’t matter rather than one in which we simply pretend it doesn’t.
A more sophisticated critique of left racial politics comes from Glenn Loury, who considers himself part of the “black contingent” of the “Intellectual Dark Web.” Loury, responding to the race-centric view of America offered by Ta-Nehisi Coates, said that emphasis on “structural factors” ignores black responsibility and agency:
I do deny the causal social-historical connection between the fact of slavery and Jim Crow on the one hand and the plight of contemporary African-American communities on the other…Observers like Coates note racial disparities in wealth. Look, wealth is obviously important because of intergenerational transfers and its capacity to empower people to invest in their own children. I want to say, what about African-American entrepreneurship? Wealth doesn’t fall from the sky. Wealth is created and re-created. I want to say, let’s look at the economic trajectory of people who come to this country with nothing and succeed. What about initiative? Is it all about history and white people? So Coates’s historical account is a lie. It tells only one part of the story. It erases the responsibility that African Americans have for our own condition. I refuse to accept that we don’t have responsibility for our condition. I refuse to accept that we’re not free-acting agents able to determine our own future. Then it becomes a practical question whether single-parent families, in which 70 percent of African-American children live, is rightly thought of as a social phenomenon over which we have control if it’s thought of as the inheritance of Jim Crow slavery and American racism. Are the structures of African-American social life the derivative consequences of the political and economic history of African Americans, or are they subject to being reshaped and reformed and remade in an image that we will for ourselves and our progeny? The latter is the stance I’m taking. The alternative is a bleak moral landscape for me.
Loury questions the link between historical crimes and present-day social reality:
I doubt the credibility of the claim that blacks get longer sentences for the same crimes, but that’s a deeper argument. On the other things, if you say acts of discrimination in the past (like preventing people from acquiring housing) can have present-day consequences, and if that’s what you mean by structural racism, fine. I find that to be an odd way of using the language, but I get what you’re saying…How can we have this conversation in a way that doesn’t distort a muddy reality for the sake of conceptual, or ideological, clarity? The answer is here really all of the above, and I understand that’s not very satisfying. How much of a present-day disparity is the result of previous discrimination is hard to say. How much of the disparity in the incidents of incarceration can be attributed to those historical influences and to contemporary racist influences, and how much of it is that black people have to get their act together? Well, if you ask a hundred people, you’ll get a hundred different responses. Clearly, both of those factors are involved. I think, ultimately, that we have to get out of the blame game and start getting practical about what interventions will change the facts on the ground. We can talk about housing policy. We can talk about education policy. We can talk about what kind of social safety nets we want in this country. There are big arguments to be had about those things. If we get concrete and specific about the interventions that we’re going to get behind that would remedy some of these problems, that seems to me a productive conversation.
This is about the strongest conservative criticism you will find of social justice arguments, and Loury is often thoughtful and responsible. But I think we should note, here, that while he asks a lot of questions he doesn’t give a lot of evidence. Loury says he questions the statistics showing that blacks receive longer sentences for the same crime, but doesn’t say what his reasoning is. He notes, correctly, that it’s impossible to say “how much” of present-day reality is a product of history and how much is because “black people have to get their act together.” But he also “den[ies] the causal social-historical connection between the fact of slavery and Jim Crow on the one hand and the plight of contemporary African-American communities.” This is partly peculiar because there is a direct connection, insofar as the wealth gap was present at the beginning and has been passed down continuously for the short period of time since slavery ended. But even if we assume that at some point, there stopped being a “causal socio-historical connection” and the gap switched to being the fault of black people themselves, we still have important evidence of the socio-historical connection between slavery and the contemporary situation of African Americans from none other than… Glenn Loury, whose book The Anatomy of Racial Inequality argues:
An awareness of the racial “otherness” of blacks is embedded in the social consciousness of the American nation owing to the historical fact of slavery and its aftermath. This inherited stigma even today exerts an inhibiting effect on the extent to which African Americans can realize their full human potential.
In fact, Loury treats this “ingrained racial stigma” as an “axiom” and shows how self-confirming stereotypes serve to perpetuate racial inequality. He isn’t arguing that outright racial animus is responsible, but he’s certainly making the case that there is a “socio-historical connection” between our racial past and the present-day “plight” of African Americans.
I think I see what is going on here, though. Loury is struggling with the inherent tensions between “social structure” and “human agency,” and he may vacillate between emphasizing one or the other. Loury recognizes, in his social scientific scholarship, that it’s impossible to deny the reality of the effects of history on the present. But he also recognizes, as a human being, that this is difficult to reconcile with a sense of self-determination and a hope for improving one’s circumstances. He’s right that if structure is all-determining, we are in a “bleak moral landscape” in which everyone is simply the prisoner of history without any responsibility for anything. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ idea of a kind of all-consuming, all-determinative white supremacy is too depressing to accept, and Loury’s case against it is not so much that it is empirically false as that it is a recipe for permanent resignation. “I refuse to accept,” Loury says, and it’s understandable why he refuses, because he doesn’t want to be treated as the helpless victim of white agency.
It’s not easy to resolve “agency” questions, because they take us into deeper and irresolvable inquiries about the nature of free will itself. When it comes to race, though, I think Loury’s dismissive approach to racial injustice might be useful as a moral exhortation but is limited as social science. If I were a parent or a preacher, I would certainly want to encourage people not to see themselves as victims, and tell them to take charge of their destinies and “refuse,” as Loury does, to be kept down. But as a social scientist, I (and Loury, when he is at his most rigorous) must be honest about the evidence. It won’t do to say “Wealth is created, what about initiative?” We have to look at how wealth is created, who has access to capital, how information and knowledge are dispersed, what barriers people face and how realistic it is for them to overcome them. “Responsibility” also varies by circumstance, and even if people are the authors of their destinies, it’s not clear how much blame we should place upon the child of a single mother in Gary, Indiana for failing to climb out of poverty. (Another point on single mothers: Loury suggests that single motherhood is evidence of black dysfunction. I have always found this to be strange. To me, the fact that single mothers end up poor is not an indictment of their choices, but of a country that does not adequately support women who raise children alone. In my ideal society, if 70 percent of women were single mothers, this would not in itself reflect poorly on anyone.)
I want to touch on gender as well, though much more briefly. I know there are plenty of women, like Christina Hoff Sommers and Camille Paglia, who are critics of contemporary feminism. And the validity of an empirical argument doesn’t depend on the identity of the speaker. I think there is something telling, though, in the fact that vast majority of the “intellectual dark web” are white men. I think these men are not very good at empathizing with and trying to sympathetically understand what feminists are saying. There seems to be a tendency, as captured in Shapiro and Peterson’s YouTube clips, to try to “destroy” and “smash” the social justice warriors and their silly ideas, without trying to treat those ideas as seriously as possible. Steven Pinker, a highly-credentialed Harvard psychology professor, argues in books like Enlightenment Now and The Blank Slate against a version of social justice feminism to which hardly any of the left feminists I know subscribe.
Equity feminism is a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology. Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive—power—and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups—in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.
Perhaps there are some who would defend all three of these claims. But I think it is largely a bogeyman. I’ve recently finished three years in a sociology graduate program, a place that should be the epicenter of this kind of thinking, and yet I don’t think I’ve met anyone who would say these things. If this is a position that is held, it is held only by a very small number of academics. Generally, people say not that power is the only social motive held by human beings, but that it’s an important social motive. They don’t say that people can only interact as groups, but that people often treat each other as members of groups. And while they do claim that the differences between “men” and “women” are “socially constructed,” this is not a claim about whether humans have biological variations in their reproductive anatomy and other features, but a claim about how we construct and act on conceptual categories. (Interestingly, Pinker references an anonymous female colleague who says she gets angry every time anyone mentions biological gender differences. Pinker uses this to support his contention that feminism involves an irrational denial of biological reality. I see it differently. I think feminists would be perfectly open to discussing biology were it not for the fact that most of the time the phrase “biological gender differences” is hauled out, it’s by someone like Peterson trying to prove that there are “natural hierarchies of competence” that result in male-female social differences. In other words, I don’t think this is because feminists fear science, I think it’s because they don’t like how science is used as an excuse to avoid having to empathize with or listen to women. See, e.g., “Google memo guy” James Damore, who explicitly criticized “feeling others’ pain” on the grounds it was irrational, which kept him from understanding why women didn’t appreciate his company-wide memo on the science of gender differences).
One can argue with the claims that are made, but in order to do so one needs to actually understand them rather than offering a cartoon. What people like Pinker and Sam Harris tend to do is say that certain feminists (whom they rarely if ever name) believe some ridiculous thing, like “biology isn’t real” or “there is nothing to the social world beyond a quest for dominance among groups,” and then they proceed to prove that biology is real and that the social world is complicated. They can only do this because they carefully avoid interacting with the people they are criticizing, or asking them whether they in fact believe the absurd extreme positions that are being attributed to them. (Similarly, the word “postmodern” is often tossed around without any engagement with the actual thinkers deemed postmodern.)
A lot of contemporary criticisms of feminism seem to center on proving that the gender pay gap is a “myth.” Or, rather, they want to prove that it is not the result of outright gender discrimination on the job, which is not actually the same thing as proving it is a myth. The argument, as Matt Bruenig points out, generally goes like this: Feminists will point out that women earn, on average, 20 percent less than what men make. Then a critic will point out that the gap narrows if you look at people doing the same jobs. Then feminists will respond that “the fact that men and women have different labor market characteristics is itself gendered and that this gendered sorting is still a problem [and] a labor market that sorts men into higher-paying jobs and women into lower-paying jobs is still sexist, just in a different way.” Then critics will try to prove that there is something natural or choice-based about women having lower-paying jobs, that they somehow “deserve” to have their labor undervalued. But Bruenig adds another dimension: Actually, if you look at women as a whole, rather than just full-time workers, you find “that the median woman between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-four earned $25,000 in 2016. For men, it was $41,000,” which means that women earn 39 percent less than men, not 20 percent. Bruenig says this means the wage gap is actually under-estimated. A conservative critic would find this ridiculous, because it involves assuming that women should be paid even if they aren’t employed. But a key point made by feminists is that women perform large amounts of completely uncompensated labor outside the workplace in the form of child-rearing and care work. For left feminists, it is not a persuasive argument to say that men earn more because they do more “valuable” work, since the entire feminist point is that the useful activities performed by women are unfairly devalued and undercompensated. The reason Jordan Peterson is earning $80,000 a month on Patreon, and single mothers are living on food stamps, is that there are a large number of young men willing to pay Peterson to blather, but not willing to subsidize the work of young mothers. Feminists say people, especially men, should have different values and apportion resources differently. We should have paid parental leave and subsidized child care, and make sure that motherhood is adequately supported.
There are plenty of other important contemporary feminist arguments, and one need only read the recent New York Times interview with the Arrested Development cast, in which the male castmembers ignored, second-guessed, and undermined a crying female colleague while she talked about the hideous mistreatment she had received on set, to see how contemporary gender dynamics frequently operate. Feminism is very much a fundamental human rights issue around the world, of course, where women lack access to reproductive health services and are routinely abused and exploited. But even here (where women are still abused and exploited, but we have made some progress towards social equality), women are still objectified, underrepresented, and dismissed. The MeToo movement has showed just how much abuse can lurk under the surface. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a top public crusader for women’s rights, turned out to be brutally beating women behind closed doors. Note, too, that these were powerful career women, and yet even they could be terrified into silence, so great was the power differential.
I’ve only just begin to touch on the various issues that social justice leftists care about, and why I think they’re valid and important. I haven’t even begun to talk about the unique difficulties faced by transgender people, the disabled, the elderly, and immigrants. While every injustice varies in its effects from individual to individual, it’s important to look at “groups” because one’s status as the member of a group increases one’s probability of having a certain life experience. It doesn’t assure it, of course. But it makes it more likely.
I’ve tried to make a basic case for why I think social justice is important, and why those who trivialize it are mistaken. But the point I’d actually like to emphasize most of all is the one about empathetic criticism. Critics of social justice almost all have the same tendency: They want to tear it apart rather than to generously understand it. They like to go on about just how absurd it is, how the people who advocate it are such fools who are ignorant of data. But they don’t ever try to listen. And so I’d ask people to have the urge to instantly argue with anything said by a “social justice warrior” to take a moment to pay attention and consider the possibility that you might be the one with something to learn. I’m sure there’s plenty of stuff I’ve said here that can be argued with, and I expect to get the usual long emails explaining why I’m dumb along with a bullet-pointed list of my contradictions and mistakes. But I wish that instead of instantly following their urge to be argumentative, to talk rather than to listen (to “mansplain,” if you will), they would just quiet down for a minute and do a bit of reading, trying to understand why “identity politics” has developed, why its practitioners are so upset, and what they are actually trying to say, even when they may not be saying it as well as they could. I think a good deal of the anger and “irrationalism” of the “social justice left” comes from feeling as if they are being arrogantly explained to without being listened to. And if people like Shapiro and Pinker and Peterson would pull the beans out of their ears, and start to care about something more than proving everybody else wrong, to try to have conversations rather than arguments, they might find that the left aren’t quite the bunch of lunatics they take us for.