Toxic Twins: Social Justice Culture and Christianity

This week, I thought I’d share my thoughts on something that’s been bugging me for a while: social justice culture. Now, social justice was the first worldview I took on after I left Christianity. All my time in college thus far has been spent in social justice activism activities, and near all my friends and classmates believe in social justice too. 

That said, I’ve started to see some frankly terrifying parallels between the Evangelical Christianity I was raised in and the social justice spaces I’m a part of now. I’ve been stewing over it for a long time, but I realized recently that even though many people see the toxicity too, not many say it.

So I thought I’d start a discussion. I hope that readers comment with their thoughts – respectfully – or at least come away with a new perspective. I can’t cover all my thoughts, but I’ll lay out the gist.

Disclaimer: This post is not abut equating social justice to toxic Christianity. I’m talking about how my experiences with toxic Christianity allow me to see how social justice ideology might be toxic in its own ways.

Social justice is toxic because its worldview is drastic

According to Merriam Webster, social justice is

“A state or doctrine of egalitarianism (Egalitarianism defined as 1: a belief in human equality especially with respect to social, political, and economic affairs; 2: a social philosophy advocating the removal of inequalities among people)

SocialJusticeSolutions, born out of the Stony Brook School of Social Welfare, writes that social justice has a flexible definition, and can include working for

“…human rights; dignity; political, economical, social, and other equality; equal distribution of resources; justice; use of policy and laws; removing inequality; societal participation in change; personal responsibility; and creating access to opportunity and chance through action.”

Sounds like a noble goal to me. But the social justice movement is far from just ideas; it’s ideas put into words and actions. It’s a community with a culture. And I think that culture, in ways reminiscent of the Christianity I grew up in, can be toxic.

See, current social justice ideology doesn’t just say that we can create a better world. It says that we MUSTIt sees the entire world in terms of inequalities, and then it says that every person has the duty to right them – or else they’re selfish and ignorant.

Here’s the thing. If your outlook on life sorts the world into a few massive groups of people and then says that they are in severe danger (of hell, or of racist/sexist/classist etc violence)… those beliefs tend to hijack your feelings, and then they encourage you to speak and act in drastic ways.

That’s what Christianity did to me. And that’s what social justice ideology does too.

Once I believed the basic ideas of Christianity (all humans are bad and deserve eternal punishment; the only way to be better/dodge flames is to serve God), I became obligated to do certain things. I read the Bible and prayed regularly; I went to church;  I tried to “share the Gospel” with other people (including complete strangers.)

When I started to see the world from an SJ point of view, I became obligated to do certain things as well. Check my privilege. “Call out” sexism or racism I see in daily life. Use this word, not that one. “Educate” myself.

According to SJ ideology, I knew the truth, and I needed to act on it. If I didn’t, I was selfish and ignorant. What excuse did I have not to act, anyway? This was for the sake of my fellow humans, for mine too. 

That’s exactly how I thought when I was Christian (although in different terms.) Thinking like this puts a huge emotional demand on a person. Leaving the belief community has a big, big emotional and social cost. And I know from experience: that’s not good news. Cults are called “high demand religious groups” for a reason.

Social justice is toxic because its language and conclusions are drastic

The best way I know how to tell if a community is toxic? Look at its language. Look at what members say. For Christianity, it was the Bible, worship songs, and testimonies. For the current millennial social justice movement, it’s how people speak online, and it’s very reflective of the “we not only can, but we must” view that flavors current SJ culture.

Tumblr, which is infamous for its SJ culture, speaks in absolutes. “We/you need to,” “always,” “the fact that,” “if you do x then you are [negative word] / can just die,” “Period.,” “should not,” “as an x person, y people can [hostile word]“, and on and on. It can see the world in sweeping and deeply colored generalizations, and arrives at pretty militant conclusions because of it.

(Note these are examples I randomly peeled off the first few pages of a blog I still follow. I’m not attacking the ideas *or the people* themselves.)

On Facebook, my feed is flooded with posts by classmates from my college who say things like “silence is violence,” “there is no excuse not to educate yourself,” and “unpack your privilege. Be better.”

Social justice has taken on its own language, and those code words have become methods for control. There are some uncanny parallels to Christianese – both in what they mean and how they can be used to control believers. This issue is worthy of a whole post, but for now, consider “get right with God” and “check your privilege.”  

In Christianity, “get right with God” may be used by a believer when another believer has exhibited ungodly behavior or thought. The believer is expected to repent and act in a more Christian way… unless they don’t really love God, that is.

In social justice, “check your privilege” is used by a SJ advocate when a less oppressed person has stepped on their ideological toes. If the person doesn’t want to be seen as ignorant or arrogant, they’re expected to apologize and agree with the advocate.

Both these phrases use implied threats to bring a wayward person back in line – but surprisingly, social justice is way less subtle.

If a person is “called out” and they dispute the person confronting them, they run a huge risk of making it worse. For being “problematic,” people have been reprimanded at best and harshly put down, bullied, threatened, shunned, publicly humiliated, and fired at worst. I’ve seen this reaction online and on-campus. I think we all have at this point.

Some people call this absolute language and  political correctness. Others call it censorship. I know it as thought control. It’s militant, it’s virulent, it crushes nuance and discussion, and it makes people (including me) afraid to share our opinions, even if we agree with the general concept of social justice. 

And I know what that does to a person. It creates an echo chamber that suffocates individual opinions. It makes you think you’re always right. It emphasizes doctrine over conversation. And none of that shit is good shit.

I could say more, but I think I’ve gone on enough now, and I’m want to hear what you think! Do you see any toxic parallels between social justice culture and another culture? Any experiences you wanna share? Do you agree with my diagnosis? Let me know below!

[ Photo credit: Don’t Believe Everything You Think by MintHouse on Etsy ]

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4 thoughts on “Toxic Twins: Social Justice Culture and Christianity

  1. C Oakdown July 18, 2016 / 10:18 am

    Honestly I think that there’s a difference between thought control and not being an asshole. I mean obviously it’s not very compassionate to throw around racist slurs under the guise of “free speech,” or to joke about sexual assault to get a laugh. These are the kind of things that social justice, if done right, is trying to “control”– words and actions that infringe on someone else’s right to a peaceful existence.
    I am a queer disabled individual who follows an alternative spiritual path. If someone is saying, for instance, that my gender and orientation is disgusting or unnatural, or that everyone with my disability should be wiped from the face of the earth, or that my spiritual beliefs are silly and childish (or worse, a one-way ticket to hell) that’s more than just stepping on my ideological toes. It’s a reminder to me that existing as I do means that I will never be safe in this world.
    Yeah, I understand that the current iteration of SJ culture is toxic as fuck. Done right, social justice allows mistakes from people who are still learning. The self-flagellation in Tumblr’s SJ culture, the constant “YOU CAN’T LIKE THIS THING BECAUSE X ACTOR SAID Y AND IT’S PROBLEMATIC FOR THESE REASONS SO YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO HAVE FUN” is fucked up for several reasons, I could go on and on. But true social justice seeks to eliminate oppression, not to perpetuate it. True social justice isn’t about identity politics and discourse, it’s about doing what you can, where you can, to make the world a little brighter.
    I am for social justice. I genuinely believe in fighting oppression in a way that transcends gender, orientation, race, class, disability, age, and creed. But you can’t fight for social justice if you, yourself, are unjust. And that’s something the community on Tumblr doesn’t understand.
    I’m really sorry if this got long and a little all over the place. It’s the wee hours of the morning here and words tend to not work at this time of day. Anyway, this was a good read, and I appreciate hearing your perspective on this issue in greater detail.

    Like

    • maxgoesgodless July 18, 2016 / 9:12 pm

      Hey there C!

      I definitely agree that there’s often a very good reason why people object to what someone else has said and ask them to take a second look. That’s basically what a “call out” is. “Calling someone out” for saying something straight-up hateful (like your examples) is completely justified.

      On the other hand, Tumblr call outs overwhelmingly tend to have this militant, self-important, disgusted tone to them. My red flags pop up when a call-out-er calls the call-out-ee (? I’ll run with it) names and belittles them for saying what they did. Ya know, attacking instead of communicating. Even the word “educating” feels off to me – a little too self-righteous for my tastes.

      Thanks for your thoughts! I’m glad to have provided the read, interested to hear what you think in greater detail too. 🙂

      Like

      • C Oakdown July 20, 2016 / 4:53 am

        I always try to call in rather than calling out. Calling in is attempting to open a respectful, private conversation rather than having a huge dirty argument out in the open.

        Like

      • maxgoesgodless July 21, 2016 / 8:22 pm

        Haven’t heard of that phrase before but I’m all for it! Part of the reason why “call outs” feel so off to me is because they’re public – it seems like a public display or performance. Calling in is so much more conversational (and mature.)

        Like

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