What is religion, but a system of beliefs with codified standards for enforcing the norms of their practical application? Not every religion is sacred. Political activism risks taking the shape of religion, as overzealous adherents establish formulas for regulating and enforcing ethics, based on dogmatic belief. As it currently stands, the Western Social Justice Movement contains the requisite ingredients for transformation from a revolutionary tool of resistance to an oppressive secular religion, in its own rite. This is unfortunate, as the aims of the movement are just: freedom, liberty, and equality; however, any method rooted in fundamentalism yields, not the former ideals, but tyranny and retribution.
While the dogma of the Social Justice Movement has taken root in liberal spaces across the United States, it has generated political opposition on the right. Among its critics is James Lindsay, co-author of the book Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity –and Why This Harms Everybody. In the first chapter, Lindsay and co-author Helen Pluckrose outline the evolution of postmodern thought, which they posit, served as a catalyst for the current political climate. They credit Michel Foulcault as a forbearer of fundamentalist social activism, claiming that his exploration of “the relationship between language, or, more specifically, discourse (ways of talking about things), the production of knowledge, and power,” led to a “radical skepticism” regarding objectivity and thought, akin to conspiracy theory (33, 36).
Lindsay and Pluckrose contend “Foulcault didn’t deny that a reality exists, but he doubted the ability of humans to transcend our cultural biases enough to get at it” (34).
While I agree with Lindsay and Pluckrose that militant Social Justice activism is both toxic and counterproductive, I disagree that the theory of Michel Foulcault was in any way instrumental in the birth of the dogma responsible for the toxicity presently brewing within and poisoning social advocacy spaces. On the contrary, I believe that Foulcault’s theory, applied to fundamentalist Social Justice communities, actually reveals the hostility undergirding the impetus for accountability (and its derivative: cancel culture).
Foulcault, himself, asserts in his paper “What is Enlightenment?” that it is not his goal to discover “the universal structures of all knowledge or all possible moral action, but…to treat the instances of discourse that articulate what we think, say and do as so many historical events,” and “to separate out, from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do, or think.” When Foulcault investigates discourse, he does so with the goal of learning how power uses it to shape the thoughts and action of its subjects. He investigates the power source of discourse for the purpose of the subjective assertion of autonomy. Foulcault’s own language disproves the assertion of Lindsay and Pluckrose that “he doubted the ability of humans to transcend our cultural biases.
I believe that Lindsay finds suspect the attempt by leading activists of the Social Justice Movement to universalize a system of beliefs and behavior regulating all social justice activism. On this point, I stand in solidarity with Lindsay, as I completely agree that any attempt to eradicate human diversity and impose absolute conformity is totalitarian and oppressive. There can be no one prescribed way to bring about social justice. The attempt to codify Social Justice and regulate advocacy undermines the overarching goals of the movement.
Yet Foulcault never intended his ideas to take the shape of universal ideals. He states, “The historical ontology of ourselves must turn away from all projects that claim to be global or radical. In fact we know from experience that the claim to escape from the system of contemporary reality so as to produce the overall programs of another society, of another way of thinking, another culture, another vision of the world, has led only to the return of the most dangerous traditions.”
I find it disconcerting that Lindsay places the onus for the devolution of Social Justice activism on Postmodernism because postmodern theory could actually prove helpful in dismantling the oppressive structure of dogmatic activist discourse. I chose that word, discourse, carefully, because Social Justice has developed a discourse, and its leaders (particularly those with large social media platforms) have amassed power over the minds and hearts of many liberal subjects. In many liberal social communities (particularly online spaces), the dynamics of oppression have inverted, and this can be attributed to the power–psychological and emotional–influencers hold over their followers.
The problem with militant Social Justice activism is not that it is derivative of postmodern theory. The problem is that the most powerful social influencers have effectively transformed analytical tools (theory) into prescriptive rules of thought and behavior (dogma).
Foulcault would not approve.
Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity –and Why This Harms Everybody, Lindsay and Pluckrose
“What is Enlightenment?” Michel Foulcault