Well, to start with, nobody in the world actually wants social justice.
There. I said it.
Okay, lots of people sincerely believe they want social justice; the people who say they want it aren’t lying, exactly. It’s way more complicated than that, and a lot happens between “I’d like to live in a just world” and “I am going to work to make a just world happen.”
Buckle up, this answer is gonna get loooooong.
Let’s start here: The real world is complicated. Really, really complicated. You might think getting your scanner/printer to work with Windows is complicated, but that’s peanuts compared to socioeconomic and geopolitical reality.
And people, even smart people, handle complexity poorly.
Topical case in point: What’s happening in Israel and Gaza right now.
Image: Mohammed Ibrahim
If you want to understand what’s happening, you need to know quite a lot of history from the 1940s on. There’s a lot of “there” there: the Israeli offer, turned down by the Arabic population; the reasons Egypt and Jordan closed their borders to the Palestinians; the history of Hamas, which is both a terrorist organization and also a government (and before that, the Muslim Brotherhood); the way Egypt has deliberately played the Gaza refugees as political pawns…it’s complicated and ugly and no side has totally clean hands, but even understanding where the balance lies requires a pretty thorough history lesson…
…and oh God that’s, like, sooooooo complicated, whyyyyyyy can’t someone just tell me who the good guys are and who the bad guys are?
That’s the thing: a lot of people want to treat actual, real-world political situations like football matches or WWF wrestling, with a clearly defined good guy and a clearly defined bad guy, so they know who they’re supposed to root for.
Even people who start out genuinely, sincerely interested in social justice can easily get bogged down.
That’s the heartbreaking thing about, you know, empathy and compassion. When you sincerely want to leave the world in better shape than you found it, you soon find yourself fighting an uphill battle. Injustice doesn’t exist because someone woke up one day and said “Hey! You know what? I think I’ll be a dick to other people today!”
Injustice exists because entrenched economic, social, and political systems with roots thousands of years deep have entrenched ways of doing things because the people atop those systems benefit from doing things that way.
Fighting against that is hard. It grinds you down. However energetic and idealistic you were when you started, it pulverizes you.
Nobody has infinite time. Nobody has infinite energy.
Which is fine, except that most people want to believe themselves to be one of the good guys, on the side of Truth and Righteousness and Justice, even when we don’t want to—or can’t!—do the work of getting there. It’s not enough to say “You know what? I’m not informed enough about this to have a reasonable opinion.” Oh, no, no, we want to take sides but we don’t want to invest the time or labor in making sure we pick the right side.
We just want to know who to blame.
Knowing who the bad guy is helps define us as the good guy. If we’re against the bad guy, that makes us good, right? Right?
So what do we do?
We develop heuristics. Cognitive shortcuts. Quick and dirty rules of thumb to simplify complex situations and help guide us toward the ‘right’ team to root for. These fast and easy heuristics, at least in theory, cut through all the tedious drek of having to learn all that history and become informed of the goals and grievances of all the players and untangle a knotty and nuanced tangle that’s been all balled up for decades.
But here’s the thing:
Heuristics are not subtle. They’re fast intuitive guidelines that substitute for actual understanding. They feel right, but that doesn’t mean they are right.
Those heuristics—“believe women,” “always side with the most historically oppressed,” whatever they are—gradually become rules, then social tribal markers, then symbols of moral purity. Heuristics become adopted by tribes as ways to tell the in-group from the out-group. If you see a hashtag like #believewomen, you can probably make a pretty good guess about the politics of the person who subscribes to it.
Before long, it actually becomes morally wrong not to obey the heuristics.
Enforcing moral purity becomes a way to feel powerful, to feel like you’re accomplishing something, in the face of the overwhelming hopelessness and despair that comes from fighting an entrenched system day after day and ending each day with nothing to show for it.
What it feels like to care about justice
Say your crusade is animal welfare, for example. You’ve fought for years and what do you have to show for it? There are even more factory farms now than when you started. Consumption of animals is up, not down.
But then let’s say Bob, your staunch and stalwart ally, your comrade in arms, reveals that he’s not a vegan…he thinks it’s okay to eat fish. And…and…and eggs. And he wears leather belts.
You can’t end factory farming, you can’t stop the senseless slaughter of animals…but hey, you can rally the troops against Bob, because he betrayed the cause! You can destroyed his reputation and cast him out! Look! Look! You accomplished something!
This is inevitably what happens in social justice circles. We end up here because:
- People want a morality simple enough to fit in a hashtag; and
- Any morality simple enough to fit in a hashtag cannot capture reality, and therefore is rather limited as a tool to change reality.
People tend to think of “social justice” as a left thing, but this process knows no political bounds. Those on the right do it just as often—they simply don’t call it “social justice.”
But the same things still apply: they have a way they want the world to be; changing the world requires tremendous amounts of effort and work; people don’t have limitless resources; they fall back on simple rules to tell them who the good guys and bad guys are; those simple rules become tribal markers; before long, it becomes morally unacceptable even to question those simple rules.
We see the world not at it is but as we are. We invent narratives to describe the world, and to tell us who the good guys are, and who we should be in order to think of ourselves as good. Anyone who can co-opt those narratives can control the lines between Us and Them, the boundaries that define our tribes.
So here we are. We’re terrible at nuance, we don’t have tome to get informed, so we let the hashtag mentality do the work for us.