The Social Justice Blind Spot: Part 1, Moral Problems

As someone deeply invested in social justice in recent years I've come to see a blind spot in how social justice is talked about, conceptualized and pursued.

To be sure, we all have many blind spots, and so do social justice warriors. These posts are devoted to just one particular blind spot that I've noticed and have been thinking about a lot. Consequently, these posts would be more properly titled "a social justice blind spot" rather than "the social justice blind spot."

Let me state the issue quickly. By and large, when we talk about social justice we are told, over and over, that injustice and oppression are systemic rather than moral problems. And given that these are systemic issues, calling on people to be "better," morally speaking, does little to change these systemic issues.

We can appreciate some of the motivation behind this moral/systemic divide. The logic has been that, by and large, people tend to see themselves as good people. For example, we don't see ourselves as racists. No doubt we are, but that's not something we readily admit. So, the call for social justice shifts the rhetoric, and you see examples of this all the time: Fine, you're not racist, but the system is racist. So let's change the system.

Now, when you step back and look at that move, you can appreciate both its rhetorical genius and its foolishness. The genius is that, by shifting away from moral indictment and asking us to own our own racism, we can shelve that hard issue to focus on systemic issues. That shift makes us less defensive and allows the conversation about racism to continue. That's a neat and effective rhetorical move.

And yet, it's also foolish. And I hope you can see that. The move shifts the conversation toward racist systems while leaving the issue of racism to the side, as if these have nothing to do with each other. For how can you expect to change racist systems if you leave racism wholly intact and unaddressed? The whole "it's not a moral problem, it's a systemic problem" is pure folly.

Now it might be argued that social justice warriors know this is folly, that they are using the "it's a systemic problem" frame purely as a rhetorical strategy, simply to get the conversation about race started. "It's a systemic problem" is just a foot in the door strategy. It gets us talking about race because we're talking about "the system" rather than ourselves, which is a much harder conversation to have.

The trouble is, I think the vast majority of social justice warriors actually do believe that the problems are wholly systemic. You see examples of this all the time.

Consider the reactions to the movie The Green Book, the Oscar-winner for Best Picture. Social justice critics decried the film for being out of step with the times. And why? Because The Green Book told the (real life) moral story about Frank Vallelonga coming to face his racism as he drove Dr. Don Shirley to his concerts through the South. According to the critics of the movie, this intimate moral story missed the point that racism in American isn't going to be solved by white people (like Frank Vallelonga) being taught lessons about racism by indulgent black teachers (like Dr. Don Shirley). More, friendships between blacks and whites are going to do little to affect or change...wait for it...the systemic forces of racism in American society.

To be clear, I'm not denying the huge role systemic forces play in oppression, nor am I suggesting that black folks must assume the responsibility of educating white folks. What I am pointing to is how many social justice warrior frequently dismiss and decry any focus on the moral rot the fuels and energizes the system. And yet, as should be obvious, the two are inseparable. It's foolish to think you can change a racist system while never addressing racism at the personal and moral level.

This, then, is what I want to point out in these posts. One of the huge blind spots of social justice activism is how it dismisses, and even sneers at, the moral aspects of the problems facing us to proclaim that the issues are wholly "systemic" in nature.

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