Critical Social Justice

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Steven J. Lawrence:

"In the fall of 2020, Helen Pluckrose and Dr. James A. Lindsay released a book that addresses the underlying ideas that are fueling the current social and political climate. The book is aptly titled Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody. It explores the world view and theoretical foundations of a very specific ideological framework called Critical Social Justice (CSJ). In their book, Pluckrose and Lindsay refer to Critical Social Justice as simply “Social Justice” (note the capitalization) to distinguish CSJ from the general aims of what some call social justice and others call civil rights—movements dedicated to human rights, fairness and a just society in which all people have the potential to thrive free from bigotry, oppression, tyranny and unfair treatment.

In 1848, the term social justice was coined by Sicilian Jesuit scholar Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, who was greatly influenced by the teachings of Thomas Aquinas. Over the years the originally Catholic term was adopted by various secular movements related to human rights, climate change, anti-war efforts, racial and gender equality and economic justice. Since, the middle of the 20th century, and especially during the first decades of the 21st century, the term social justice has come to be defined by the specific set of doctrines of Critical Social Justice (CSJ), which has specific ideas about the world, the nature of humanity, and even the nature of knowledge itself (the study of which is sometimes referred to as epistemology).

At the core of the CSJ ideology is an approach to analyzing and responding to reality that is called “Critical Theory”, which has been broken down into several sub-theories or “studies” such as queer theory, fat studies, critical race theory, intersectionality, and other critical theories. The authors of Cynical Theories group these theories/studies together throughout the book and apply to them the simple label of “Theory”." (


Social Justice vs. Critical Social Justice: An Important Distinction

Steven J. Lawrence:

“There is something wrong about contemporary social justice. And that is the thrust of Cynical Theories and one of the overarching themes of the three-part series of essays I am calling One We Are. It’s important to make useful distinctions and to be clear about what we mean when we use the phrase “social justice”. In philosophy and law, this is the practice of defining our terms, so I will do so now.

A variety of phrases and labels are used to describe the framework and practices analyzed in Cynical Theories. For the purposes of this essay and in alignment with the language used in the book, I will use the term “Critical Social Justice” (CSJ) that has been used by many of CSJ’s own adherents. Sometimes, I may also use the term “Theory” as the authors do, which is shorthand for Critical Theory, the underlying ideology that informs the practices of CSJ.

It will help to briefly mention alternative phrases and labels to help orient the reader.

When describing what we are calling Critical Social Justice, journalist Wesley Yang uses the term Successor Ideology. Yang and others consider this ideology to be the successor to—though not a child of—the civil rights era liberalism that enjoyed wide appeal in the United States and western Europe for the past sixty years.

When journalist Matt Taibbi refers to The New Puritanism, he is naming the same ideology, which he has described as having the same flavor of aggressive purity politics and punishment orientation as the religious Right.

Ayishat Akanbi calls it “”wokeness”.

Andrew Sullivan has referred to it as both “wokeness” and as “The New Orthodoxy”.

Jesse Singal has named it “Left Identitarianism”.

Other names are out there, too, such as neo-Marxist Postmodernism, Political Correctness, and Cultural Marxism, which is a term favored more by conservatives than people of other political persuasions.

And, there is the term, identity politics, which needs a moment of thoughtful attention. I want to note here something positive that I learned about the original meaning of the term identity politics from Dr. Erec Smith, a professor of rhetoric and composition at York College and a scholar of political ideology. In his book, A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment, Smith speaks about the originally positive and empowering term identity politics that was coined by Black Feminists in the “1977 Combahee River Collective Statement”.

In the same way that Dr. Erec Smith has chosen to do in this book and in his general advocacy work, I am choosing not to use the term “identity politics” in a negative sense because I support its original meaning—the necessity and the right for people to organize and to engage in collective advocacy for their demographic group, especially if that group has experienced oppression in its history or continues to experience oppression in the present by unjust systems and policies.

So, I won’t be using the term “identity politics”. When I want to speak critically of the extreme preoccupation with our socio-cultural identities and the emerging culture of closing our hearts and minds to people from “outside” groups based on our extreme identification with that identity (e.g. race, gender identity, sexual orientation, political affiliation, etc.), I will use other terms.

It’s never been more important to draw clear boundaries and to make clear and unambiguous distinctions when we are discussing human rights and social justice ideas that people have embraced in their efforts to create a just and benevolent world. And, in the current era in which inaccurate and stigmatizing labels can cause economic and reputational ruin; clarity of purpose, meaning, and belief is absolutely essential.” (