Social Justice Warriors: a cult by any other name

“It was the darkest chapter of my life… I’ve pinned down four core features that make it so disturbing: dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality, and anti-intellectualism… Every minor heresy inches you further away from the group. People are reluctant to say that anything is too radical for fear of being seen as un-radical. Conversely, showing your devotion to the cause earns you respect… I was dogmatic, I fell prey to groupthink, and I had a crusader mentality, but I was never completely anti-intellectual… And that was the crack through which the light came in… I took time off… It had been a long while since I had the time and the freedom to just think. At first, I pulled on a few threads, and then with that eventually the whole thing unravelled… The aftermath was wonderful. A world that seemed grey and hopeless filled with colour… I became a happier person. I also believe that I became a better person.”i

These may sound like the words of someone lucky enough to escape a religious cult. They are in fact the words of a former political ideologue, a member of a group known variously as progressives, radical leftists, or ‘Social Justice Warriors’. Noble-sounding labels indeed, but they describe the followers of a uniquely strange ideology: a semi-coherent soup made of third-wave feminism, queer theory, gender studies, postmodernism, a greater or lesser degree of political anarchism, a strong aversion to free speech, and a highly conservative attitude to race. These Social Justice Warriors like to think of themselves as a vital anti-racist and anti-sexist force liberating us from the bad old days, and perhaps they’ve convinced you of this too. However the truth is rather different. The writer BJ Campbell says that the ideology “looks, feels, sounds, smells, and acts exactly like a religion,”ii but I would say more precisely that it looks, feels, sounds, smells, and acts exactly like a cult. The anecdote that opened this essay was not an isolated example. We have plenty of similar reports from former students who were lucky enough to escape the cult. Unfortunately this cult has been incubating for several years now in universities across the Western world, and its influence is spreading.

Cult members are easily identified, because they share identical opinions on almost every issue you can think of – veganism (a moral necessity), gender (a social construct), Islam (completely above criticism), Donald Trump (Satan), the police (irreversibly racist), society itself (a permanent battleground of homogenous groups fighting for dominance), and so on. The ex-radical Trent Eady remembers that “everyone was on exactly the same page about a suspiciously large range of issues.”iii The closest they come to internal disagreement would be their version of the medieval scholastic debates over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Conor Barnes, another ex-radical, recalls some of these: “Are cops human? If we pay attention to the few white nationalists in town, will that stir them up? Is polyamory queer, or privileged?”iv

The cult spends much of its time obsessing over issues of sin and confession. If you refuse to acknowledge that you are guilty of a particular sin (racism/sexism/transphobia, etc.) then this is automatically taken as evidence that you must be guilty. To be accused is to be guilty, somewhat like the infamous witch trials of the early modern period. This approach has also been described as ‘Kafkatrapping’ – a term coined by the writer Eric Raymond. He sees an uncanny resemblance to the nightmares depicted in the work of Franz Kafka. The protagonist of The Trial, for instance, never understands exactly what it is that the authorities are accusing him of, and in the end his only means of escape is to go along with his own destruction.v This is how the radicals or Social Justice Warriors work. As Conor Barnes explains, “any action or statement can be shown with sufficient effort to hide privilege, a microaggression, or unconscious bias.” There is “infinite guilt, a kind of Christianity without salvation.”vi

In particular, the linguist John McWhorter has noted a parallel between the social justice notion of ‘White Privilege’ and the Biblical doctrine of ‘Original Sin’. The enlightened white person is required to regularly – McWhorter suggests ritually – acknowledge that they are guilty of White Privilege. It is a guilt that they carry with them from birth, whether they realise it or not, and no action on their part can absolve them. Their descent from the various colonial powers condemns them, as mankind is condemned because Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. All that white people can do is repent in dust and ashes, like Job in the Old Testament. Cult members are not swayed by the sight of white-skinned homeless drug addicts on every street corner in every city centre in Britain. All of these addicts are enjoying White Privilege, apparently, even if we can’t see it and even if it has made no difference to their lives. It’s still there, just like sin. Have faith! McWhorter observes that “classes, seminars, teach-ins are devoted to making whites understand the need for this… many embrace the idea of inculcating white kids with their responsibility to acknowledge Privilege from as early an age as possible, in sessions starting as early as elementary school.”vii

It may call itself radical and progressive, but in reality the social justice cult is the most conservative of movements. When it comes to sex, for instance, campus rules are now puritanical rather than liberal. Emily Yoffe has explained how universities are adopting “the lowest possible burden of proof” when investigating sexual assault claims: “a ‘preponderance of evidence’ – often described as just over a 50 percent likelihood of guilt.” The accused is now prevented from questioning the account of the accuser, creating a situation ripe for abuse. Sexual harassment has been given the hopelessly vague definition “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” and universities have been instructed to “investigate any reports of possible sexual misconduct, including those that came from a third party and those in which the alleged victim refused to cooperate.”viii It isn’t hard to imagine the atmosphere of fear created by such regulations, and as a result students are having less sex. This is the age, apparently, of the ‘Millennial Sex Drought’.ix The new cult puritanism looks a lot like the old religious puritanism, and perhaps this means that in the end the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s only lasted for half a century. Now we’ve returned to the old days. Once again, sex is a sin.

The Social Justice Warriors have also shown their true colours (pun intended) when it comes to race. They are not interested in Martin Luther King’s vision of a colourblind society – instead they want to reaffirm ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’ at every opportunity. Science may have shown us that black and white skin are completely trivial distinctions, but for the Social Justice Warriors these differences are profound. They go deeper than skin; they describe essence. And the imagined essence is not biological: in 2017 transgender model Munroe Bergdorf announced that white people owe their existence as a ‘race’ to the “blood and death of people of colour.”x This view of race is pseudo-spiritual, and it is also retrogressive and conservative. It belongs to the dark old days of Jim Crow and the Atlantic Slave Trade, ironically enough, but today we can see it resurrected in all its horror. The Social Justice Warriors have called it forth from the grave.

Another feature shared with religious cults is the movement’s crusader mentality. The Social Justice Warriors are forever proselytising to the ‘pagans’ – as Barnes recalls, the unsaved are “converted through zines and wheatpasted posters rather than by Bible and baptism.”xi Once saved they are described as ‘woke’, the equivalent of ‘born again’.xii This mentality turns the world into a battleground: ‘us’ and them’; ‘good’ versus ‘evil’. It legitimises the most abhorrent behaviour, because if people really need to be saved, then is there anything at all that you wouldn’t do to save them? Trent Eady recalls “the desperately needed work we were doing… the people we were trying to help.”xiii When souls are at stake, then anything goes.

We saw this in May 2017, when white students and faculty members at Evergreen State College near Seattle were ‘invited’ to leave campus for a day. This not-so-friendly invitation was a misguided comment on diversity, and so biology professor Bret Weinstein emailed the faculty to explain why it was really not a good idea: as he put it, “one’s right to speak – or to be – must never be based on skin colour.” As a result of this email he was cornered outside his classroom by a furious mob of students. They subjected him to verbal abuse and demanded his resignation, and the police had to be called in. College president George Bridges arranged a meeting with staff and students to discuss the escalating situation, but he was harangued by Social Justice Warriors throughout his address – they attacked him for smiling and for gesticulating as he spoke, because they considered his expressive hand movements to be an act of aggression. “Put your hands down!” they shrieked. The students complained that they needed to “decolonise the space” after all those aggressive hand movements. Incredibly, the president complied with every single one of their demands.

After this meeting the resident Social Justice Warriors knew that there was no limit to their power, and over the next few weeks they began patrolling the campus in gangs armed with baseball bats and tasers, assaulting any students suspected of ‘white supremacy’.xiv This label, incidentally, has been stretched so far and wide by the cult that it has become essentially meaningless. Many of the radicals who make the accusation of ‘white supremacy’ are white as snow themselves, and many of the people they accuse of ‘white supremacy’ have black skin.xv In the aftermath of the violence Professor Weinstein and his wife both resigned their positions, but George Bridges said that he was “grateful” for the “passion and courage” of the student mob. They did “exactly what we’ve taught them,” said another of the college’s media studies professors.xvi

The violence was even worse at the University of California’s Berkeley campus earlier in the year. The provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos had been booked to give a talk, attracting the attention of Antifa (the anarchist group that now seems to operate as the unofficial militant wing of the Social Justice Warriors). Free speech campaigner Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt have recorded what happened next: Antifa protesters were responsible for “knocking down a light generator; shooting commercial-grade fireworks into buildings and at police officers; smashing ATMs; setting fires; dismantling barricades and using them (as well as bats) to break windows; throwing rocks at police officers; and even hurling Molotov cocktails.” Worse were the attacks on innocent bystanders. “Masked Antifa protesters clad in black used flagpoles to batter a woman and her husband as they were pinned against metal barriers, unable to get away. The woman, Katrina Redelsheimer, was clubbed on the head, and her husband, John Jennings, was struck in the temple and began to bleed. Immediately afterward, other protesters blinded the couple and three of their friends by spraying them in the eyes with mace. As the friends cried for help, protesters punched them and hit them in the head with sticks, until onlookers pulled the victims over the barricades. Meanwhile, five or six protesters dragged Jennings a few feet away, where they kicked and beat him until bystanders pulled the attackers off him as he lost consciousness.” The university has not disciplined any of the students involved in this violence, not even those who publicly boasted of their participation.xvii

Evergreen and Berkeley bring to mind the ‘Cultural Revolution’ that swept Chinese society in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Cultural Revolution was one of the darkest moments in the whole of the twentieth century; a vision of mob justice taken to hellish extremes. An ailing and mentally deranged Mao Zedong had mobilised the country’s youth for what he described as “permanent revolution,” dubbing them ‘Red Guards’ and encouraging them to rise up against their parents and teachers in an attempt to crush counter-revolutionaries, capitalists, and bourgeois revisionists. Elderly members of society were tortured, forced to eat nails and faeces, and beaten to death with iron bars. Millions were killed, and when the Revolution reached its shrillest pitch of hysteria some students actually cooked and ate the bodies of their teachers.xviii

The Red Guards were a secular cult; brainwashed and completely single-minded. Like the Social Justice Warriors, they were obsessed with rooting out heretics and practising the purest possible version of their ideology. Like the Social Justice Warriors, they had their pet heresies; accusations that they flung about like confetti (for ‘racist’ and ‘alt-right’, read ‘bourgeois’ and ‘counter-revolutionary’). Like the Social Justice Warriors and their campaigns to remove old statues,xix the Red Guards denounced tradition and attempted to rewrite history. They followed Mao’s instructions to “smash up the four olds… old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits” by destroying museums, palaces, temples, ancient tombs, statues, pagodas, and city walls. In her memoir Wild Swans, the writer Jung Chang recalls that “books were burning all across China. The country lost most of its written heritage.”

Finally, just like the Social Justice Warriors, the Red Guards’ revolutionary exterior masked a deeply conservative worldview, especially when it came to relationships. Chang was a child at the time of the Revolution, and she remembers that one of her teachers was targeted for the crime of marrying a man she had originally met on a bus. To fall in love as the result of a chance meeting was considered ‘decadent’ and ‘bourgeois’. Chang saw her teacher “being kicked around, rolling in agony on the floor, her hair askew.” For a second, she says, “I met her eyes through her knotted hair. In them, I saw agony, desperation, and emptiness. She was gasping for breath, and her face was ashen grey.”xx The attacks on so-called ‘white supremacists’ at Berkeley and Evergreen have shown us that the spirit of the Red Guards is alive and well today. Certain cultural and societal norms have kept this spirit at bay so far, limiting it to brief outbreaks – brief possessions – but how long will this continue?

I think we should be careful not to dismiss all of the secular sins identified by the Social Justice Warriors. For instance, they talk a great deal about ‘toxic masculinity’. I would say that this is a real phenomenon with real-world impact, unlike the fairy-tale fantasy of ‘White Privilege’. We can see it manifest in gang culture, for instance, and we should probably applaud efforts that are being made to combat it. Unfortunately the Social Justice Warriors have never clearly distinguished between ‘toxic masculinity’ and masculinity per se, and so it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that they believe all masculinity is toxic. Nevertheless the term remains useful, and gives us a good starting point for future debate. We should also be careful not to dismiss everyone who allies themselves with the Social Justice Warriors. The cult represents one extreme end of the political spectrum, and there are plenty of ordinary people who hold vaguely and non-religiously to the same beliefs, or to some of these beliefs and not others. In the same way that most Christian Baptists are not the same as the hateful bigots of the Westboro Baptist Church, most people on the far left are not Social Justice Warriors. The bigots are just the ones making all the noise and commandeering the headlines. This might lead you to think that the social justice cult can be laughed off like the Phelps family, and filed under ‘lunatic fringe’. However, there is a difference: these cultic beliefs are no longer confined to the universities.

Recall the luckless engineer James Damore, fired from Google for daring to voice the banal universal truth that men and women differ, on average, when it comes to their general interests.xxi It may be a universal truth but it also happens to be one of the social justice heresies, and the Google top brass is now swarming with true believers. The heretic had to be excommunicated. Or witness Hollywood actress Anne Hathaway giving her speech at a recent Human Rights Campaign event.xxii This was essentially a sermon, delivered with all the wide-eyed zeal of a new convert. Our belief that “transgender orbits around cisgender” is “a myth that is with us from birth,” she blathered. In order to counter this myth, we must “centralise love.” Confused? “I know I am speaking in abstractions and there is privilege embedded in my ability to do so,” she explained, unhelpfully. Then her speech took a sinister turn: “The old world will shatter and the pieces that no longer serve will melt.” The image of a demonic Anne Hathaway melting people with her heat rays will probably not keep you up at night, but there is real danger in her zealotry. Her speech was greeted not with the embarrassed silence that it deserved, but with loud applause. You will never, as long as you live, find Google executives or Hollywood actors adopting the frenzied rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist Church, and this is why the social justice cult is not something that can be laughed off in the same way. It may have been created in ‘safe spaces’ on Western university campuses, but it got out.

This does not bode well. Like many religious groups, the social justice cult has made an enemy of science – research just keeps getting in the way of the gospel, with studies repeatedly showing, for instance, that gender is not a social construct.xxiii In fact, the scientific project itself is so inconvenient for the Social Justice Warriors that they have suggested “doing away with it entirely.”xxiv They have equated it, fallaciously, with ‘white supremacy’ and ‘the patriarchy’. As I argued in my previous essay, the truth is that science has improved our lives immeasurably over the past 400 years, eradicating lethal diseases, extending lifespans, reducing child mortality, etc. “Doing away” with science is not a conversation that we ever want to be having. Unfortunately the religious fanatics who started this conversation have already begun worming their way into positions of political power. We now have UK politicians calling for Winston Churchill to be re-evaluated as a “white supremacist mass murderer.”xxv The brainwashing of Anne Hathaway is one thing; the brainwashing of people who actually wield or may soon wield political power is quite another. If science is already being condemned as ‘white supremacist’ in the universities, then how long before the same thing is being said in parliament?

The spread of the ideology is also likely to have a disastrous effect on public mental health. Conor Barnes recalls that when he joined the cult, he was “a depressed and anxious teenager, in search of answers.” But “radicalism explained that these were not manageable issues with biological and lifestyle factors, they were the result of living in capitalist alienation.” Barnes learned that the “whole world is based on fucking misery,” and as a result this depressed and anxious teenager “became an even less happy and less strong person over the years.” It’s not just capitalism that makes the Social Justice Warriors miserable. They are also burdened by the belief that systemic racism is literally everywhere they turn – hidden in government policy, lurking behind friends’ innocuous comments, and even crouching like a demon behind their own thought processes (if they’re unlucky enough to be white-skinned). Unsurprisingly, as Barnes puts it, “the paradigm of suspicion leaves the radical exhausted and misanthropic.”xxvi We can see this exhausted misanthropy quite clearly in documentary footage of the Evergreen scandal.xxvii Faculty members in particular look almost comically miserable, although it seems less amusing when we think of the long-term psychological impact of the worldview they’ve adopted.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have pointed out that campus administrators are now “modelling cognitive distortions for students,” giving them the impression that they are in constant danger and in need of protection – from free speech, from ‘microaggressions’, from ‘cultural appropriation’, from any opinion at all that differs from the Holy Gospel of the Social Justice Warriors. As a result, we’ve seen a rise in depressive episodes and various forms of mental illness among students, and also a rise in suicide rates.xxviii It may be that the responsibility for this epidemic lies with faculty members, or, as Lukianoff and Haidt argue, it may be that the faculty members are simply responding to attitudes that the students themselves have brought with them to college. Either way, the problem is the ideology – the bad ideas of the Social Justice Warriors – and it seems to me that the solution to this problem is to correctly diagnose the ideology. We need to call it what it is. The Social Justice Warriors are an extremist cult, belonging ultimately to the same category as Heaven’s Gate, the Westboro Baptist Church, the Branch Davidians, and the murderous Red Guards. The sooner we can understand this the sooner we can tackle the problem, help people to escape, and ultimately dismantle the cult.

Notes

i Trent Eady – “Everything is problematic,” The McGill Daily, 24 November 2014 https://www.mcgilldaily.com/2014/11/everything-problematic/

ii BJ Campbell – “Social justice is a crowdsourced religion,” Medium, 30 October 2018

iii Eady, op. cit.

iv Conor Barnes – “Sad radicals,” Quillette, 11 December 2018 https://quillette.com/2018/12/11/sad-radicals/

v Eric Raymond – “Kafkatrapping,” Armed and Dangerous, 18 July 2010 http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=2122

vi Barnes, op. cit.

vii John McWhorter – “Antiracism, our flawed new religion,” The Daily Beast, 27 July 2015 https://www.thedailybeast.com/antiracism-our-flawed-new-religion

viii Emily Yoffe – “The uncomfortable truth about campus rape policy,” The Atlantic, 6 September 2017 https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/09/the-uncomfortable-truth-about-campus-rape-policy/538974/?utm_source=twb

ix Debra W. Soh – “Is there a connection between the campus crisis and the millennial sex drought?,” Playboy, 11 December 2018 https://www.playboy.com/read/on-college-campuses-and-the-millennial-sex-drought

x “Munroe Bergdorf: trans model becomes Labour’s LGBT adviser,” BBC News, 28 February 2018 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-43211136

xi Barnes, op. cit.

xii Campbell, op. cit.

xiii Eady, op. cit.

xiv Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt – The Coddling of The American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (Allen Lane, London, 2018), pp. 114-8

xv “Black conservative Candance Owens attacked by Antifa mob,” RT, 6 August 2018 https://www.rt.com/usa/435252-candace-owens-harassed-antifa/

xvi Lukianoff & Haidt, op. cit., pp. 119, 117

xvii Ibid., pp. 81-3

xviii James David Banker – “The children of the revolution,” Quillette, 18 December 2018 https://quillette.com/2018/12/18/the-children-of-the-revolution/. Banker cites Youqin Wang – “Student attacks against teachers: the revolution of 1966,” Chinese Holocaust Memorial http://hum.uchicago.edu/faculty/ywang/history/1966teacher.htm; Nicholas D. Kristof – “A tale of Red Guards and cannibals,” The New York Times, 6 January 1993 https://www.nytimes.com/1993/01/06/world/a-tale-of-red-guards-and-cannibals.html

xix Tyler Stiem – “Statue wars: what should we do with troublesome monuments?,” The Guardian, 26 September 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/sep/26/statue-wars-what-should-we-do-with-troublesome-monuments

xx Jung Chang – Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (HarperPress, London, 2012 edition, orig. 1991), pp. 350-1, 361-2, 363-4

xxi James Damore – “Google’s ideological echo chamber: how bias clouds our thinking about diversity and inclusion,” July 2017 https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/3914586/Googles-Ideological-Echo-Chamber.pdf

xxii https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeLNRMrAEUA

xxiii Brenda K. Todd, Rico A. Fischer, Steven Di Costa, Amanda Roestorf, Kate Harbour, Paul Hardiman, & John A. Barry – “Sex differences in children’s toy preferences: a systematic review, meta-regression, and meta-analysis,” Infant and Child Development volume 27 issue 2, March/April 2018

xxiv https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=249&v=ZUPsGDFZzVM

xxv https://twitter.com/Ross_Greer/status/1088871720382091264?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1088871720382091264&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.co.uk%2Fnews%2Fuk-scotland-scotland-politics-47028246

xxvi Barnes, op. cit.

xxvii Mike Nayna – “The Evergreen scandal, part one: Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying, & the Evergreen Equity Council,” 17 January 2019 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FH2WeWgcSMk

xxviii Lukianoff & Haidt, op. cit., pp. 145-61

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