Drawing a Line Under Social Justice Absurdity
Vacuous Statements Don't Help Anyone
While the subject of this essay relates to a specific topic, the general principle applies to much of the wider dialectic about social justice issues.
Recently, I was sent a plainly absurd Tweet the other day about the Mediterranean diet and "white supremacy", from what appeared to be a trainee dietitian (judging by the ‘rd2be’ hashtag):
Despite the obvious geographic ignorance, the idea that fatuous statements can get a hallpass - or worse, applause - because of a snippet of loosely related reality is a defining feature of the impediments to effective dialogue about important social issues.
In this regard, I find Helen Pluckrose's distinguishing between uppercase 'Social Justice' (denoting the Critical Theory-based family of 'Identity Studies') and. lowercase social justice - the legitimate questions over important issues of race, gender, etc., that remain to be fully realised - instructive.
Pluckrose articulates the dilemma faced by any of us who stand for the latter, but reject the former, in addressing some of the more inane statements one may come across:
...it can be difficult to articulate responses to them, since objections to irrationalism and illiberalism are often misunderstood or misrepresented as opposition to genuine social justice - a legitimate philosophy that advocates a fairer society. This dissuades too many well-intentioned people from even trying. In addition to the danger of being labelled an enemy of social justice that comes with criticising the methods of the Social Justice Movement, there are two other obstacles to effectively addressing them. First, the underlying values of Social Justice are so counterintuitive that they are difficult to understand. Second, few of us have ever had to defend universally liberal ethics, reason, and evidence against those claiming to stand for social justice.
This passage perfectly encapsulates the dilemma. And because the Social Justice movement is - to its core - the most intellectually dishonest movement and school of thought you are likely to ever come across, not only are responses to any particular irrational statements assumed to mean that you are against social justice, but it is taken as proof that you are in fact a malevolent actor harbouring views ending in 'ist' (which differ depending on the particular context we're talking about).
Let's come back to the absurdity of that Tweet that got us here. I don't think I know a single person in nutrition and dietetics who isn't fully aware the field lacks diversity. It didn't take George Floyd or anything last summer to make anyone realise that, either. It is fully accepted, and is entirely uncontroversial to say, that nutrition and dietetics is an overwhelmingly White, middle class, female profession.
And it isn't controversial that, in multiethnic societies, dietary guidelines can often lack subtlety and additional nuance to account for food choice differences in cultural contexts. But this is also known, and something that has been evolving - slowly - but an arc of progress nonetheless. Take the example of vitamin D food fortification and ethnic differences in vitamin D status: this has been an ongoing area of research for a number of years. It didn't need US upheaval to make UK scientists 'wAkE uP' to this issue. The limitations of fortifying foods like milk alone - which may not be consumed to the same extent in different ethnic groups in the UK population - is known. This is why expanding fortification to include, for example, chapati flour, is a consideration for helping to ensure that vitamin D fortification is more effective in the whole population.
Apply Theory-based Social Justice thinking to the foregoing and you easily end up with a narrative that food fortification programs are intently racist, that milk is white and so are dietitians, therefore vitamin D was put in milk first to uphold white supremacy (we could be here all day making up various absurd statements based on the writings and ideas of activists in this area). Apply this dogma and you see nothing but malevolence at every level, whether it exists or not. Whether it is factually accurate is irrelevant: the bald assertions suffice.
And this can have real implications. Take a hypothetical example of a dietitian with a South Asian patient with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), whose diet contains a significant amount of saturated fat from ghee; recommending swapping ghee with olive oil may be deemed culturally insensitive because mustard oil is more authentic unsaturated oil to the subcontinent, but are we really willing to see the oppressive jackboot of white supremacy in such an interaction? Have you ever even heard of mustard oil before this? Because I hadn't until I searched 'common cooking oils in India'. To conflate my prior ignorance with the most egregious far-right ideology is very the definition of intellectually dishonesty.
So is the assumption that such a recommendation could "harm" the individual, and because it is certain that no physiological harm would occur the implication is psychological harm, which is a misguided assumption (stemming from 'vindictive protectiveness', as psychologists Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have articulated in 'The Coddling of the American Mind'). The harm, as Lukianoff & Haidt demonstrate, comes from convincing people that the words and deeds of others are intended to harm them, acting as a sort of reverse cognitive behavioural therapy.
This upper-case Social Justice doctrine reads malice into every interaction in society, and attributes to hate what can be attributed to lack of understanding and a slow arc of progress. And it is often defended - as was the case the other day with the absurd Med diet post - by something known as the 'Motte-and-Bailey Fallacy'. A picture will help explain from whence this fallacy derived its name:
'The Mediterranean diet upholds "white supremacy"'.
'Nutrition and dietetics lacks diversity, and dietary guidelines can be expanded to be more culturally nuanced.'
This fallacy and intellectual dishonesty is evident across the spectrum of Social Justice discourse. To quote Pluckrose again:
In no serious discipline do we so plainly see a drive to be morally right (or righteous) instead of factually correct and theoretically sound. This drive is, perhaps, the most obvious feature of Social Justice scholarship.
She is, of course, being generous with the term 'scholarship', because the standards of academic rigour in the fields of 'grievance studies' are minimal, as she and other colleagues have repeatedly demonstrated by getting fraudulent papers published.
Arguably many who fall into this trance of rhetorical nonsense do come from a place of good intentions. They did "the work" and read a bunch of books (or at the very least bought them and posted them on Instagram). The problem is "the work" itself, the actual content thereof and the rigour of the ideas which underscore this ideology. How any rational, critically thinking individual could read a Robin DiAngelo or a Barbara Applebaum or an Ibram X. Kendi and think there is anything theoretically sound or factually accurate in their circular reasoning gibberish is difficult to comprehend. The only explanation is that many people didn't read any of it with critical intent, but rather swallowed it whole and internalised it as fact to keep pace with the zeitgeist and regurgitate the words that demonstrate "the work" has been done.
Either way, it is becoming more common for people to accept - or at least acquiesce to - the most absurd statements about the Social Justice issues. Which is why it is imperative to call out Social Justice absurdity while standing firm in favour of liberal and progressive social justice. And there will be the 10% who, either wilfully or through their own blind faith in the Truth According to Social Justice, conflate the two. But it should be done, because what blind-faith activists do not realise is how damaging this dialectic is to the causes they purport to speak for. How not only is it ineffective, but may have the opposite effect to that intended, either alienating people who would otherwise support social justice but have no interest in Social Justice, or worse - driving people toward the Right (indeed, there is evidence to this effect).
A key component of the problem is that, as a result of last summer's upheaval, the rest of the world has imported America's dialectic on these issues. Particularly with regard to race issues, other countries - like the UK, Australia, Ireland, etc. - have started to talk about these issues often based on US authors, and ideas and a dialectic particular to the very unique circumstances of racial issues in US society. Many UK authors, for example, have adopted this ideology and rhetoric. This is not to suggest the UK doesn't have its own issues as a former imperial power - it does. Or that France doesn't have its own issues as a former imperial power - it does. Or that Australia doesn't have its own issues as a former settler colony - it does. But they aren't the US. Little is analogous. And talking about these issues by reference to the US isn't a useful prism through which to have effective discourse specific to the given country.
Take terminology. While the term 'white supremacy' does have a longer history in the US in more general terms, going back to Frederick Douglass and W.E.B Du Bois, in Europe the term has primarily been confined to a very specific context: the extreme right-wing racial and eugenic social and political ideology from the mid-19th Century, which culminated in the complete destruction of the continent in the to mid-20th Century.
While there will always be extreme - and, mercifully, minor - sections of society who still harbour this ideology, the sudden ubiquitous and gratuitous application of this term to everyday life, to everything and anyone, is repellent, as it would be to anyone who ever opened a history book in school. A characteristic feature of applied postmodernism is the rendering of language, of the meaning of terms, unstable. This isn't useful (to anyone but the activists, who can move goalposts whenever it suits). That particular term - 'white supremacy' - means something: something that the overwhelming majority of society rejects for the vile ideology that it is.
And that ideology isn't olive oil and hummus.
Accuracy of thought and of language matters if waters like this are to be successfully navigated.
Europe has its own past to deal with it, its own reckoning with racism to confront and navigate. And the last thing that any society here should do to achieve this end, is to use as its basis the activism-masquerading-as-scholarship faecal matter emanating from the sociology and humanities departments of a handful of US universities.