Identity Politics

Translating Social Justice Newspeak

March 04, 2021
Headshot of Scott Yenor

Scott Yenor

Opponents of our new social justice dispensation often find themselves at a rhetorical disadvantage. Social justice advocates desire to replace oppressive “cultural, structural, and personal norms” with a new, more “welcoming culture.” Anyone who opposes this transformation is, by definition, unwelcoming. Who wants to be defined as unwelcoming? The rhetorical disadvantage of dissidents is only compounded by the development of new code words for social justice (like diversity or inclusion). Social justice warriors win battles simply through deploying certain terms, since this language cows and confuses their opponents.

Americans, after all, value diversity, inclusion, and equity. Diversity of faculties and talents produces inequalities—and protecting such diversity was, as Madison writes in Federalist 10, “the first purpose of government.” Inclusion reflects the universality of the rights of man, though certain people would enjoy them sooner and others later as enlightenment spread. Equity is a characteristic of impartial laws, derived from English common law, that protects and recognizes all equally before them; it provides predictable rules and doctrines for settling disputes. Diversity, inclusion, and equity produce inequalities that serve the public good: they reward productivity, expand opportunities for individuals, and provide a basis for stable common life under equal laws.

Our regnant social justice ideology redefines these words, taking advantage of their sweet sounding civic bent. This co-option represents a thoroughly new civic education. Social justice advocates have won no small ground in American political debate by seeming to adhere to the words and ideas of the old civic education, while importing a new, pernicious vision. We must re-train our ears to hear what social justice ideology peddles.

Opponents of this movement can best grasp social justice newspeak through an analysis of its public documents. What follows is based on my analysis of the state of Washington’s 2020 Office of Equity Task Force’s Final Proposal. The same word salad is served everywhere critical race theory is taught—in university task forces (like Boise State’s), in corporate trainings, even in K-12 curriculum.

Equity. Social justice ideology starts with equity. Susan Rice, lead of the White House Domestic Policy Council, has made achieving equity the centerpiece of the new administration. Equity means creating equality of outcome among recognized identity groups. This is accomplished through the redistribution of society’s resources and honors as a means to correct real historical injustices (e.g., slavery) and inequalities traceable to what are perceived society’s implicit oppressive infrastructure. As the Washington report has it, “equity achieves procedural and outcome fairness” by distributing and prioritizing “resources to those who have been historically and currently marginalized.” Inequalities that seem to reflect a disadvantage to a protected identity group are ipso facto evidence of the need for remedy. “Outcome fairness” is equal outcomes.

When advocates say “equity,” one must retrain one’s ears to hear the following: all disparities are traceable to discrimination (or institutional racism, etc.) and must be remedied by re-distribution (such as reparations) or other actions (like abolishing meritocratic standards that produce disparities or abolishing the police). As Washington’s Equity Task Force defines it, Equity requires “transformative work to disrupt and dismantle historical systems.” A far cry from English common law indeed, where equity was a basis for a stable execution of the rule of law.

Diversity. The social justice dispensation famously “celebrates diversity.” It considers diversity a strength. Its definitions of diversity are long, meandering, and self-contradictory. Diversity refers to different racial or cultural identities, rooted, perhaps, in physical difference. Different identities are products of power structures that make men and women or blacks and whites different. What sits in front of us are not people with different skin colors or of different sexes but rather products of power structures that pigeonhole aggrieved minorities into this or that different identity. Women are made women by patriarchal control; black men made subordinate through white supremacy; black women victims of both. When the people who are shaped by all these power structures are all present for conversations, the power structures themselves are broken down. White, male social-engineering represents a power structure that excludes and dominates. Debate is not about discovering the truth, but about the representation of power structures.

One must go further. Equity is only a step on the road to diversity. Achieving diversity is about maximizing the presence of aggrieved minorities (e.g., blacks, women), while minimizing the presence of the dominant group (e.g., white, heterosexual men). As David Azerrad relates, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports judges the National Basketball Association the most diverse sports league. Its rosters are 82% people of color, though people of color make up at most 40% of the American population. The representation of historically oppressed groups count for diversity, even when it is not demographically representative. In contrast, baseball has rosters with only 41%. This makes it count as less diverse than the NBA, even though it is more in line with the country as a whole.

When advocates demand diversity, one should hear the following: privileging the supposedly marginalized and marginalizing or punishing the supposedly privileged through intentional practices. The fewer of the privileged group (i.e., white, males, straights, cis-), the better. To where? All the way to zero?

Inclusion. Diversity policy requires “inclusive” practices. All identities must be “respected” or nurtured in “a safe, positive environment” or a “welcoming environment,” which must after all be created, maintained, and policed.

As the Washington Task Force defines it, “inclusion refers to how groups show that people are valued as respected members of the group, team, organization, or community. Inclusion is often created through progressive, consistent, actions to expand, include, and share.” Inclusion includes! What does this mean? Creating a welcoming environment for supposedly marginalized groups entails singling them out for “welcoming” treatment and protecting them from what they consider unwelcoming. The dominant culture is already “welcomed.” On university campuses it begins with establishing safe spaces like an LGTQ+ Center or a Women’s Center, where the special needs of supposedly disfavored groups can be provided (whether counselling or meals). In health care, it requires special outreach for aggrieved minorities (singling them out for getting a vaccine, perhaps).

Inclusion demands more. What does not affirm their identity as a member of the marginalized group also compromises a welcoming environment. Even the presence of the dominant culture and its symbols can be unwelcoming. Some of this agenda deserves universal support, like stigmatizing racial epithets. But inclusivity policies can also proscribe criticism and allow the supposedly marginalized group to define what makes for an “unwelcome” environment. SAT, unwelcoming. Grades, unwelcoming. A thin blue line flag? Exclusive! Black power fist. Inclusive!

Hate speech codes arrive, when they do, in the name of inclusion. Anyone wearing a MAGA hat violates the dictates of “inclusivity,” while a BLM shirt affirms and confirms the status of marginalized groups. Ideas of meritocracy and even kind words on behalf of traditional marriage are, on this definition, violations of inclusion.

The infamous incident at Evergreen State, where whites were ordered off campus for a “Day of Absence”, was done in the name of inclusivity. Black-only spaces on campus or Rainbow graduations are safe, affirming, inclusive spaces where the marginalized will be affirmed, though these practices appear exclusive on the old definition. A white, male graduation space would be exclusive and prohibited. Orwell called this blackwhite in 1984, since who is saying the thing determines its truth and justice, not the actual content of the saying.

When advocates demand inclusivity, one should hear: the virtue of purportedly marginalized groups as well as their victim status must be affirmed and cannot be questioned, while privileged groups must confess both their privilege and their guilt. It may not start there, but it goes there.

Instead of recovering these words they must be ruthlessly attacked. This involves retraining our ears and lips.

Together these new words—diversity, equity, and inclusion—point toward the formation of tyranny. The idea that people freely associate or can rise and fall based on their own merits is considered dangerous and false. One’s place must be determined and allocated; one’s environment constructed to match this ideology. This new ideology never imagines individuals apart from their identity group, nor identity groups apart from power structures. It empowers the state and elite institutions to un-make invisible structures of supposed oppression and to re-make an environment that is supposedly welcoming.

The question of strategy is whether the old idea of civic education can be re-vitalized on its own terms. Should analysts spend their time trying to win back the old understanding of these words from the clutches of our new ideologues? This is the path that the well-meaning classical liberals of New Discourses seem to take. All honor to them. Their writing attempts to distinguish between the good equity and the bad or good diversity and bad. They see this new ideology for what it is: a threat to the rule of law and an invitation for tyranny.

But this strategy, no matter how honorable, is not going to yield sufficient results. Very few people, much less busy state legislators or national legislators, will understand this social justice ideology in its full depth. They may know in their good old American bones that this change of language is legerdemain, but only writers like James Lindsay have the time and energy to know all of these things. The ideology of the new diversity, inclusion, and equity infiltrated our language and put opponents of this revolution at a rhetorical disadvantage. It is probably necessary to stigmatize and jettison these corrupted words, because their double-meaning paralyzes those who would oppose social justice ideology.

This is unsubtle, of course. So instead of recovering these words they must be ruthlessly attacked. This involves retraining our ears and lips. For our ears, I recommend the following: Equity now means equality of result; Diversity now means “anti-white” and “anti-male”; and Inclusion now means social engineering to favor aggrieved minorities. When Americans hear Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, they should hear tyranny.

In the face of this rhetoric, we need to find new ways for our lips to speak old truths. This hard teaching should not send opponents of social justice ideology to extremes. It must point to a revival, a new appreciation of the old civic education. The old concept of diversity is valuable—and we should call it pluralism, whether it is a pluralism of talents or opinions. The old inclusion is valuable—and we should call it the protection of individual rights. The old equity is valuable—and we should call it the rule of law.

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Originally published by Law & Liberty.

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