Are you a social justice warrior? Not if you can help it, I bet. You are unlikely to find anyone who will self-identify as an “SJW,” an annoyingly popular internet putdown aimed by angry trolls at the earnest slogans of left-leaning people.
In response to such scorn, people have dropped the words “social justice.” Liberal-minded politicians now studiously avoid the phrase. This despite the fact that a large and growing majority of people believe in, well, social justice.
The idea has divorced itself from the words. Social justice, the concept – broad equality and opposition to unfair discrimination – is more popular than ever. But “social justice,” the phrase, has become hotly contested and, to many, off-putting and doctrinaire. It joins such polarizing formulations as “systemic racism” and “Islamophobia” – terms that inspire distaste among big segments of a public who otherwise support the concepts behind those phrases.
And that’s led to a misconception. The long-running fight over language – in which the words and phrases of the ideologically earnest are rejected as “politically correct” – is being mistaken for some larger and more irreconcilable battle over underlying ideas and beliefs.
Those who are truly intolerant and opposed to pluralism – those who think social justice is not just an awkward phrase but a bad idea – are a small and declining group. But that group is manipulating language conflicts to their political advantage.
That has become vividly evident as a new study of political tribalism has inspired a bewildering range of reactions from scholars and journalists. The study, titled Hidden Tribes, examines 8,000 U.S. citizens from a wide range of backgrounds in lengthy surveys and focus-group discussions. The aim of the study (and of the organization behind it, More in Common) is to show how countries have become divided into multiple tribal factions.
But the study doesn’t really end up showing that. For the most part, it shows that there are exactly two factions: a large, increasingly united majority ranging from the left to the centre-right who believe in social justice and its sister concepts, and a small group, making up 25 per cent of Americans on the devout ideological right (certainly smaller in other English-speaking countries) who oppose those ideas completely.
There is, however, another divide visible – one around language. Last month, the political scientist Yascha Mounk analyzed one of the study’s secondary findings in an essay carrying the headline “Americans strongly dislike PC culture.” Indeed, 80 per cent of Americans agree that “political correctness is a problem in our country,” and that includes almost all ages and backgrounds. Only 6 per cent support “PC culture” and that group is mostly wealthy and white.
But the “PC culture” they’re opposing is not really a culture at all; it’s just the language. And it’s a narrow gripe: An even larger majority – 82 per cent – think hate speech is an equally big problem.
Indeed, what jumps out from the study is that the people who are against PC language are also overwhelmingly in favour of the broad ideas behind that language.
A majority of all Americans, and a really big majority who aren’t devoted conservatives, believe that “white people today don’t recognize the real advantages they have” – but most people say they dislike the popular millennial name for this thought, “white privilege.” A similarly substantial majority feel that “many people nowadays don’t take discrimination against Muslims seriously enough” – but most oppose the word “Islamophobia.” Most Americans believe “the police are often more violent toward African Americans than others,” but when you characterize this view as Black Lives Matter, suddenly six in 10 are opposed.
Six in 10 Americans believe that same-sex marriage should be legal, including majorities in most conservative camps. A similar proportion believe that “accepting transgender people is the moral thing to do.” And 69 per cent of Americans believe sexism today is “very serious or somewhat serious.”
That majority might not like the phrases used by gay- and transgender-rights activists and feminists, or even words such as “feminist,” but the underlying ideas have wide support.
However, people tend to vote based not on big ideas but on words – and the 25 per cent who ardently oppose the ideas of equality and pluralism are winning wider election victories, in the United States and elsewhere, by going after the words. The rise of Trumpism was propelled by manufactured outrage about political correctness run amok. This week saw U.S. majorities back ballot measures supporting transgender rights and black enfranchisement; they also voted for plenty of “anti-PC” candidates.
There is no “PC culture," just words that become targets. If we want to win social justice, we might need to lose “social justice.”