Universities used to be fonts of knowledge, charged with disseminating the known and seeking new knowledge. But progressives have brought great progress to the university: progressives know all the answers, and that the problem is not to understand the world, but to change it.
Welcome to the "social justice" university. Its orientation is expressed by the School of Social Work, at Ryerson University in Toronto:
School of Social Work is a leader in critical education, research and practice with culturally and socially diverse students and communities in the advancement of anti-oppression/anti-racism, anti-Black racism, anti- colonialism/ decolonization, Aboriginal reconciliation, feminism, anti-capitalism, queer and trans liberation struggles, issues in disability and Madness, among other social justice struggles.
Many universities are not as candid as Ryerson, but often their positions are much the same. Many have established "equity and inclusiveness" committees to oversee "just practice," to disseminate "correct" views through literature, posters, and re-education workshops, in some cases mandatory. They also sanction faculty members who express unacceptable views. Schools of education ensure that their graduates will be inculcating their school pupils in the principles of "social justice," and in identifying the deplorable "multiphobes" in their families and communities. American schoolchildren have been taught by teachers determined to discredit America, that slavery was an American invention and existed exclusively in America -- a staggeringly counter-factual account.
What do progressives intend under the label of "social justice"? What theories and policies have they made the central task of the university to advance?
The first goal to be advanced is equality, by which they mean equality of result, as opposed to equality of opportunity -- which is often inadequate and needs to be addressed. Thus, to advance economic equality, progressives advocate redistribution of wealth, taking money from those who have it and giving it to preferred others. ("The problem with socialism," as the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pointed out, "is that sooner or later you run out of other people's money.")
Progressives also recognize that equality of result contradicts individual freedom, and that individual freedom will have to be suppressed supposedly for the collective good. Coercion is necessary to enforce social justice goals. A social justice friend recently argued that cars should be replaced by public transport, and that people should live in central cities rather than suburbs. When it was pointed out that housing and transport choices indicated North Americans seem to have a strong preference for suburbs, and that they prefer driving cars to taking public transport, he replied that they will have to be forced to live in cities and use public transport. This is an actual the plan of the United Nations, known as Agenda 21.
Given the necessity of coercion to get people to do the "right" thing, progressives favour a strong central government to direct citizens' -- or subjects' -- lives.
Second, equality among individuals is "insufficient," and must be complemented by collective rights based on "category membership". Each category -- of gender, sexual preference, national origin, culture, race, religion, and so on must be considered equal and receive equal benefits. All societal roles should therefore have an equal number of each category, either at the same time or in rotation. Equality of result also mandates that members of each category must have the same position and same benefits as all others: an equal number of men and women in government offices and in business administration. So too with members of different races, religions, sexual preferences, and so on. To balance ethnic representation in professions, Jews who want to become dentists must be forced to become police officers, while Irish men and women who wish to become police officers, must be forced to become dentists. Diversity becomes a moral end in itself.
If all variations of human beings are not present at an event or in an organization, it is seen as prejudiced and discriminating. But this does not apply to members of the majority, who are increasingly not welcome; only "diverse" members of minorities are now welcome. This applies even to history. The University of Pennsylvania English Department removed a portrait of Shakespeare, on the grounds that Shakespeare is not sufficiently diverse, and replaced it with a portrait of the black lesbian poet, Audre Lorde.
Third, all victims of inequality must unite under the principle of "intersectionality," to oppose their oppressors. Since capitalism is recognized as a cause of inequality, and thus oppression, it must be opposed and replaced. These days, progressives do not usually specify what capitalism is to be replaced by, but presumably they are impressed with [irony alert] the great benefits socialism brought to the people of the USSR, Mao's China, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, North Korea, and Cuba. Not only are these outstanding examples of "social justice" actually versions of "state-capitalism" where the leaders were "more equal than others," but for the "others", they succeeded in avoiding the corrupting prosperity of capitalism, the selfish freedom for individuals, and the anti-social inequality of differences. And [irony alert] abolishing capitalism would be pain-free; supposedly no one was "hurt" in the socialist states of the 20th century. Or at the very least, everyone, except for the dear leaders, were hurt equally, which presumably made being hurt all right.
So, too, must imperialism and colonialism be abolished, which are recognized by progressives as unique to the West -- never, of course, to the conquests by Islamic empires, for example, of Turkey, Greece, North Africa, Eastern Europe, as well as parts of Portugal and Spain. Under the label of "postcolonialism," Western imperialism is blamed for all of the ills in the world, a world which, prior to Western intrusion, was ostensibly characterized by peace, prosperity and brotherhood. Thus, the imperialist West is evil, and the victimized rest, the South, the People of Colour, are "Good".
No notice is also taken by progressives of empires of the past -- Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Arab, Mongol, Turkish, Russian, to name a few -- or of the present, among them, the Chinese, Iranian and Turkish empires, all of which have shaped our world beyond the relatively short-lived British, French, Dutch, Belgian, German, and Italian empires. No, social justice warriors can imagine only an uninformed, simplistic good and evil. Evidently, no one teaches history anymore, so everyone, such as UNESCO, can now make it up to suit his view.
Fourth, each culture must be viewed through the lens of cultural, ethical, and total relativism between opinion and fact. Each culture must therefore be considered as valuable as any other, ostensibly including ISIS and Boko Haram, and therefore have equal representation in every society. This "just" multiculturalism accepts all customs and practices, and installs all languages as official languages. Although Canada has been lauded as an exemplar of multiculturalism, which has been adopted as an official policy of the Federal Government, Canada in fact falls seriously short of ideal "cultural justice." One reason is that Canadian multiculturalism exists within a bilingual state, with only French and English having official status. The other reason is that Canadian French and English culture make up the cultural mainstream, and a large majority of Canadians want immigrants and citizens with other cultural backgrounds to adapt to the Canadian mainstream.
Canadian cultural relativism would have to be seen by cultural justice warriors as weak and flawed.
Multiculturalism, further, requires respect for other cultures, shown, for example, by not imitating another culture in any way, and by not borrowing from it. Unauthorized imitation, such as wearing a Halloween costume representing another culture, such as an American wearing a sombrero, or participating in activities, such as Indian yoga or Asian martial arts, is called "cultural appropriation," and is banned by social justice warriors. This piece of social engineering apparently exists because the feelings of people of other cultures might be hurt, or they might feel ridiculed or demeaned.
Hurt feelings are the social justice criteria for what is and what is not allowed. You may not say anything that would hurt someone's feelings, and, if you do, you must be punished. Here is an illustration, reported by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail, from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario:
At Queen's, a good-natured off-campus costume party blew up into a crisis over racism. Queen's principal Daniel Woolf denounced the event on his blog as "the unacceptable misappropriation and stereotyping of numerous cultures," and solemnly vowed yet again to improve diversity and inclusion on campus. In other news from Queen's, the head of a student theatre group was forced to grovel after announcing a plan to cast a white female as the lead in Othello. "There is absolutely no excuse for making a casting decision that was oppressive and caused people of colour to feel as though they were invalid," she apologized. The production was cancelled.
A further corollary of multiculturalism is that borders, blocking the inflow of worthy immigrants, should be abolished, and a full open-borders policy should be established. All immigrants are seen as benign, and the possibility that some might be threats to the receiving population and its society is dismissed out of hand. Opposition to such humanitarian uprightness could only exist if its critics were supposedly xenophobes and racists.
Finally, diversity of opinion in the social justice university is forbidden: opposition to social justice is never a reasonable opinion, but evil. Disagreement with the principles of social justice identifies such critics as sexist, racist, homo-lesbo-transphobes, xenophobes, and fascists.
In our universities, social justice is reproduced through a variety of techniques. One is special oversight committees, usually called "Equity and Inclusiveness Committees", which police the socialization and speech of new students, and the speech and actions of academic and other staff.
A second technique is that university administrators, no less than the cutting-edge justice-warrior professors of the social sciences and humanities, aim to improve, implement and defend social justice policies. Dissidents will find no refuge or sanctuary in university administrations; quite the contrary.
A third techniques is in classes, where students are indoctrinated with "Social Justice Truth," and those who resist are penalized by low grades. Social justice professors must punish students who refuse to learn the Social Justice Truth. On the other hand, students of "victim categories" must be "encouraged" with good grades. I have had the unpleasant experience of being pressured by colleagues to give a good grade to a weak minority student.
A fourth technique is the well-known preference for admitting weaker students of victim categories and turning away more capable students of other categories. Thus, in the University of California system, applicants of Hispanic background with weak records are admitted, and applicants of Asian ethnicity with strong academic records are rejected -- "category equality" and preferential treatment with a vengeance.
The fifth technique is "Social Justice Reproduction": hiring academic staff under close scrutiny to guarantee that they have the correct social justice orientation. Heavens, would you want to put students and thus the future into the hands of "multiphobes" and fascists?! Selection for social justice is the only just path.
The illiberal social justice movement strikes at several important liberal values: First, it undermines individual autonomy and freedom by reducing individuals to being a member of one or another ethnic, racial, gender, sexual, national, or religious "category." Second, it strives to undermine individual autonomy and freedom by restricting outcomes of activity through imposing arbitrary criteria of equality of result. Third, it undermines basic human rights, such as freedom of speech, by forbidding any speech that "offends" anyone. Fourth, it undermines the right to assemble peaceably, because social justice warriors try to shut down any assembly where incorrect views might be expressed. Fifth, it undermines understanding by reducing all people to victims and oppressors, good versus bad, a gross oversimplification of the complexities of history and human life.
For progressives, the social justice movement is progress on the move; to others, it seems increasingly a movement of intolerant authoritarianism. Its main victim, so far, is the idea of the open-minded, inquiring, liberal university.
Philip Carl Salzman is Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Canada.