James Lindsay is a mathematician and academic gadfly who has made his name outside of academic circles as a harsh and witty critic of “critical social justice” theory, and of its progressive crusaders. Along with colleagues Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian, Lindsay pranked “grievance studies” journals by submitting fake papers that made absurd — but politically correct — claims, and were accepted for publication. More recently, Lindsay is the founder of New Discourses, a website that aims to be “a home for the politically homeless, especially for those who feel like they’ve been displaced from their political homes because of the movement sometimes called “Critical Social Justice” and the myriad negative effects it has had on our political environments, both on the left and on the right.”
Lindsay is a man of the political left, and an atheist. He is also one of the smartest analysts of what Critical Social Justice means for our society. His 2018 Areo essay explaining why critical social justice is a religion is a fundamental text for understanding this phenomenon. I wrote Lindsay the other day and put a series of questions to him about the future of critical social justice in a time of pandemic. Dare we hope that the hard material realities of plague and economic collapse will shove these loonies permanently to the margins? Here’s our interview:
RD: On my more hopeful days, I consider the possibility that this pandemic crisis (including economic collapse) will finally put the SJWs, critical theorists, and the rest, out to pasture. But when I realize how deeply embedded they are within institutions (governmental, corporate, media, academic, etc), I realize that they are going to find a way to use this crisis to their advantage when it is over. What do you think?
JL: The “Critical Social Justice” Theorists, as I have come to refer to them, are activists, first and foremost. You have to understand that. Their primary occupation isn’t being an academic, an administrator, a legislator, an HR director, an educator, or any other such profession you might find them in; it’s being an activist and making their professional role about doing their activism. Once you realize this, your question kind of answers itself, doesn’t it? Of course they’re going to find ways to use this crisis to their advantage. They go around inventing problems or dramatically exaggerating or misinterpreting small problems to push their agenda; why wouldn’t they do the same in a situation where there’s so much chaos and thus so much going wrong. My experience so far is that people are really underestimating how much of this there will be and how much of it will be institutionalized while we’re busy doing other things like tending to the sick and dying and trying not to lose our livelihoods and/or join them ourselves.
It’s very important to understand that “Critical Social Justice” isn’t just activism and some academic theories about things. It’s a way of thinking about the world, and that way is rooted in critical theory as it has been applied mostly to identity groups and identity politics. Thus, not only do they think about almost nothing except ways that “systemic power” and “dominant groups” are creating all the problems around us, they’ve more or less forgotten how to think about problems in any other way. The underlying assumption of their Theory–and that’s intentionally capitalized because it means a very specific thing–is that the very fabric of society is built out of unjust systemic power dynamics, and it is their job (as “critical theorists”) to find those, “make them visible,” and then to move on to doing it with the next thing, ideally while teaching other people to do it too. This crisis will be full of opportunities to do that, and they will do it relentlessly. So, it’s not so much a matter of them “finding a way” to use this crisis to their advantage as it is that they don’t really do anything else.
We have seen over the past two decades “social justice” ideology finding acceptance within institutions — especially schools — on grounds that they make the institutions safer and healthier for the marginalized. After this crisis passes, do you foresee SJWs appealing to health and safety to advance their ideology within institutions?
Appeals to safety are pretty much the main tool that they use when not outright calling people highly morally charged names (like “racist”), so definitely. They will make hay out of every possible instance of a preventable death of a member of a minority group and, more importantly, every single disparate outcome by identity groups, whether there are other explanations for this or not (like poverty, trust or lack thereof for the medical establishment, language barriers, etc.). Some of this kind of watchdog behavior needs to be happening, of course, and helps us improve our systems, but the critical approach we see in Critical Social Justice will be overwhelming, tendentious, and often downright exaggerated, misinterpreted, underinformed, or ginned-up.
I strongly suspect and will go on a limb to predict that the term “health equity” is very likely to become a key idea in our national conversations and beyond as this crisis develops and eventually passes, and it will be considered a top priority to bring the idea of “social equity” (which is what “equity” really refers to) to healthcare, public health, and policy. It will definitely be rooted in the need for safety for the most vulnerable, as they define them, but it will also rest heavily in the idea of “equity” itself, which means “adjusting shares so that citizens are made equal,” that is, enforced equality of outcomes. In the health arena, this can be done more or less responsibly, up to the application of applying a “progressive stack” to providing medical care, which means prioritizing who gets care according to how underprivileged intersectional Theory says they are.
A lot of people on both the left and the right see one major effect of this crisis will be to leave us with a much more powerful state. If the left takes power, in what ways do you foresee the social justice/critical theory advocates using state power to advance their ideology?
I think it’s important to recognize that in this crisis, we will see a necessary expansion of state power and will therefore need to be vigilant on the far side to make sure that it isn’t abused, as has happened in previous calamities. Because Critical Social Justice is ultimately a kind of bureaucratic takeover, that is, it’s fundamentally an institutional effort, it will certainly seek to use any expansions in state (and other institutional) power to its advantage. It will do this by bending the will of these institutions to their vision.
Take the Equity Task Force that just got approved by the state legislature and Governor Inslee in the state of Washington. This is an entity that exists to bring more equity to the state of Washington, and members of the task force said–on camera, mind you–that their definition of equity is to “disrupt and dismantle” the current system in favor of their own and that their intention was to make sure the administrative offices created by and around it last at least fifty years. This was pushed through before the Covid-19 pandemic became significant–and very significant in Washington–and now we have to wonder exactly what kinds of agendas with “health equity” it is likely to try to enforce on that state. We’ll see repeated experiments of this kind in other states as well as on the federal level, for certain.
It also seems clear that the government will adopt Chinese-style monitoring of citizens through smartphones, initially as a health measure — which makes perfect sense, actually. But once they have that power, how can we be sure the state won’t use it to monitor ideological dissidents?
It’s not really within my expertise to talk about how to prevent the state from misusing power like this, which is probably necessary in the short term, as you observe. I will say that it would be important to make sure that any legislation and policy that is enacted in this regard has time limits put upon it. To kind of relate back to the Washington Equity Task Force, remember that they wanted to make sure their administrative power lasts at least fifty years–they said so explicitly. They also explained why: people might think they’ve accomplished their mission at some point and want to end their programs, and they don’t want to see that happen. There will need to be calls, then, that curb this power-grabbing impulse and seek to put deadlines on these expansions of power.
And if you think Lindsay might be laying it on too thick, look at this provision on the Democratic coronavirus bailout bill: