Some activist-scholars, Eszter Kováts writes, have turned social justice into a latter-day religion, with perverse effects.
Much ink has been spilt in recent years over the ‘culture wars’ in western Europe and north America. These have been prosecuted by populist conservatives, weaponising the terms ‘political correctness’, ‘cancel culture’, ‘woke-ness’, ‘cultural Marxism’, ‘gender ideology’ and ‘critical race studies’—suggesting the moral demons they thus conjure up are widely removed from ordinary folk and their supposed values.
In the face of these conservative cudgels, many activists and activist-scholars have sought to dismiss any critique of claims made in the name of social justice as betraying age-old oppressive attitudes and preservation of privilege, or even, when these come from the left, an agreement with the right wing. Yet over the years it has become increasingly clear that those critiques of ‘identity politics’ or ‘intersectionality’ coming from the progressive side—variously from Marxists, liberals, feminists and advocates of gay and lesbian rights—cannot be dismissed so easily.
Indeed, embarrassingly—as I show in comparing the discourses around ‘gender’ of the German far right and the Hungarian illiberal right—the anti-pluralistic right capitalises on the most radical progressive claims in the west to legitimise anti-democratic measures. By the overemphasis on ‘situated knowledges’ and by reducing gender to subjective identity such claims provide a convenient bogey for the authoritarian right—as representing a ‘decadent’ west which has lost its moorings—and they lack the grounding in universal norms to challenge its equally particularistic, ‘traditional values’ and ‘eastern’ or ‘underdog’ counter-position.
‘Freedom of speech’ in the university setting has been at the heart of these arguments. The relationship between academia and politics is genuinely tricky and the two spheres cannot be as easily separated as naïvely ‘value-free’ scientists would have us believe.
Yet the sociologists Sarah Speck and Paula Villa are rightly critical of ‘the conflation of politics and scholarship, however progressive or well-intended these may be’, for example ‘when instructors or students fail to distinguish between a university seminar and an activist training session, with reading lists guided solely by political preference, or when research unhesitatingly adopts questions and categories from an activist agenda’. Research, they say, must ‘remain open and free from considerations of the all‑too‑immediate political utility’.
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This leads to the insight of a number of contributors to a recent debate about ‘cancel culture’ in a German philosophy journal. One can concur that, in a democratic society, no sexist, racist, homophobic or transphobic speech should be tolerated at the university. But precisely what these terms mean today is itself subject to debate, which should not be forclosed in an authoritarian way.
Such insights touch on crucial questions amid the fierce arguments. On which terrains should we fight for ideals dear to us? How much pluralism is possible and even necessary—when injustices (as we understand them) must really stop now? Is a misrepresentation of Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony (as mere domination rather than secured consent), linked to dismissing any strategy based on argument and conviction as giving in to the powerful, really the route to justice for members of hitherto marginalised and oppressed groups?
What happens, moreover, if political demands made by those claiming to represent oppressed groups conflict with one another? And what is the responsible way of dealing with one’s own power—as, say, a university teacher or a leader in public administration or the media?
Views about social justice in certain contexts have become for certain activist-scholars such convictions that they can be compared to religious dogmas. For Magdalena Grzyb the ‘queer version of LGBTQ+’ is such a ‘new secular religion’. Some claims and practices can indeed be compared to zealotry, ‘such as the creation of rituals and acts of faith; confessions; the legitimization of violence against opponents; the sacralization of concepts like the notion of gender identity, which is deceptively similar to the notion of the metaphysic Catholic soul; the exclusion of heretics (ie, gay or transsexual people who express critical opinions … as well as lesbians who oppose the deconstruction of the category of “woman”), and who are deemed worse than open enemies’.
This religious approach can immunise against alternative arguments, while categorising interlocutors as faithful or heretical can be detrimental to academic inquiry and open political debate. As Mark Fisher’s compelling essay of 2013 set out, such moralising replaces leftist politics and the fight for just causes through tiresome political work with the displacement activity of loudly announcing the righteous position on a certain issue and harassing or bullying those who do not comply.
This signalling of allegiance to the ‘right side’ of the culture wars can be exemplified by the usage of gender-inclusive language and pronouns. Writing out ‘his’ or ‘her’ pronouns (in e-mail signatures, online meetings and so on), even if one does not identify as trans or non-binary, aims to lift the stigmatisation of these people as ‘others’. However, this goes beyond a simple courtesy because it also communicates a very specific ideology: my sex/gender cannot be observed when looking at me; a speech act is necessary for others to know.
The former professor of journalism Robert Jensen compares this gesture, which has become widespread in western university and multinational company settings, to starting a meeting with a prayer. Imposing this view upon someone else is a violation of freedom of conscience, and hence a fundamentalist act.
Tempered and reflexive
All this is being exported, to eastern Europe and the global south, via western (and specifically United States and British) academic norm-setting, international donors to non-governmental organisations and company culture. It can be taken up by local elites, to provide ‘the moral capital that will make Western elites accept them’ or—being completely unrooted in the domestic cultural environment and political imaginary—incite backlash and be instrumentalised by not-so-progressive political actors.
Instead of treating these resistances as indicators of backwardness, academics and activists committed to social justice should adopt a more tempered and reflexive approach.
This is a joint publication by Social Europe and IPS-Journal
Eszter Kováts is an assistant professor in the Institute of Political Science at the University of Vienna and a research affiliate of the Central European University. She was formerly responsible for the East-Central-European gender programme of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Budapest.