Three Theories of Social Justice Activism

My evil twin brother Jasper recently demanded I give him some space on this blog. Normally, I’d refuse, but I forgot his birthday again, so I owe him one.

You shouldn’t read this post. If you do so, you are a bad person. Anyway, here’s Jasper:



A great deal of social justice activism is ridiculous. Why?

1. It’s a false-flag conspiracy. Perhaps far right-wing evildoers are behind it all. The purpose of social justice activism is to undermine public support for genuinely worthwhile social justice causes by making social justice activism appear ridiculous. The silly ideas crowd out the good ones.

Activists: “Some pop star dressed up in traditional Japanese clothing. The Japanese aren’t pissed off by that, but we are!”
Public response: “Prison reform? Meh. That’s just something pushed by those goofballs that get mad when white pop stars wear kimonos.”

2. Moral Princesses. In “The Princess and the Pea,” the prince believes that real princesses are so sensitive that a single pea place under 25 feet of bedding will disrupt their sleep. The general idea is that real princesses are sensitive to irritations that wouldn’t bother crude commoners.

Expanding on this idea, some people wish to signal that they are, for lack of a better phrase, moral princesses. They are so sensitive to moral concerns that they are enraged by things the rest of us crude commoners do not even notice. By frequently expressing their sensitivity, they thereby prove they are better than everyone else. (See this paper on moral grandstanding for more.)

Regular person: “Mmm, chicken tikka masala is delicious.”
Activist: “I can’t eat that, as doing so makes me complicit in the British colonialist legacy.”

3. It’s a Power Grab. Students protest. The university gives in. How? By raising $100 million to fund 25 professorships in the departments where the students learned the ideas behind their protests. Hmmm. Maybe Jay’s department should try to induce a few protests. Sounds lucrative.

Or, consider how a few years back Linda Alcoff pushed a dishonest “pluralist guide” for philosophy programs, in which she accused leading programs of sexism (without evidence) and instead tried to promote her own program and those of her intellectual allies. Alcoff was trying to win power and prestige for herself, her allies, and her philosophical genre.

Or, take the recent Tuvel case. It just so happens that a large number of the signatories are low status people who espouse a low status, heterodox philosophical methodology. But getting their way would help them win power and prestige, or at least help ensure that they maintain a monopoly on a particular topic.




….Or so Jasper says. I can’t believe you read that. You’re a bad person.

  • R. Kevin Hill

    “their way” not “there way” –I’ll delete this once you pick it up.

  • Ben Kennedy

    Joseph Heath’s thoughts on “normative sociology” are more on point IMO:


    Sure, for some people it is about signaling and power, but for the rest of people who say things like “I care about social justice” I don’t think it is

  • King Goat

    This reminds me of articles covering the Libertarian Party convention that focus on the guys dressed like Patrick Henry going on about the evils of fluoridation to conclude, ‘libertarians, what a nutty bunch those guys!’ If you focus on the whackier parts of a philosophy or movement, which is easy to do because the press, especially partisan press, will want to highlight those examples, then, yes, those philosophies and movements will seem…wacky, and inexplicably so perhaps.

    In other words, I’m sure there are ‘sjw’s’ focused on cultural appropriation of Indian food, but the one’s I know are much more animated currently, by, things like taking down publicly maintained Confederate monuments or the travel ban. Of course such examples would have made for less easy pickings for the kind of sport you were intending to make.

    • You’re missing the point. The whackos at the Libertarian Party convention do turn normal people off, exactly as this post indicates happens when liberal extremists go crazy on the social justice activism.

      The fact that you can call to mind a real-world example of this happening to a different political group should make you more likely to agree with this post, not less.

      And note that the name of this website is “Bleeding Heart Libertarians,” which is sort of like saying, “We’re libertarians, but we’re not those kind of libertarians,” and a lot of the old posts on this website more directly address that fact.

      • Sean II

        Funny how quaint it now seems, that old civil war between the Neckbeards and the Nozickians.

        • Well, some of us could have guessed, but alas…

      • King Goat

        Perhaps you missed my point, which was about generalizing about groups by focusing only on outliers within them. An outlier on the other side of the continuum should be even more sensitive to that…

        • Poor goat. Still insisting that other people don’t understand you.

          I’ll try again: Your point, no matter how accurate you think it is, fails to even acknowledge the point Brennan makes here. The fact that they’re outliers from an insider’s perspective has no bearing on what the general public sees from the outside. If you care about perceptions, then you should care about outliers. The authors of this blog have gone out of their way to argue against the outliers on their own side, so your criticism does not actually stick in this case. You missed the point.

          • Sean II

            Not to mention that outliers stop being eligible to be called outliers once they end up in charge of the movement. That’s the situation now, at least on campus. The inliers do not act to curb the outliers, even when they cross what should be the red line into destruction and violence.

            People who live by the creed “no enemies to the left” end up being ruled by their own fringe, and so end up owning its behavior.

          • Theresa Klein

            outliers stop being eligible to be called outliers once they end up in charge of the movement

            See the alt-right, Trump, and the Republican Party.

          • Sean II

            The alt-right is not even close to being in charge of libertarianism.

            That’s how come Jeffrey Tucker chased Richard Spencer away, instead of the other way round.

          • Theresa Klein

            I said the Republican party, not libertarianism.

          • Sean II

            Okay, but same response: the alt-right is not even close to being in charge of the Republican Party.

          • j_m_h

            Why don’t we quit calling them outliers and call them what they are: Extremists. That’s where the world is going and too many of our social institutions not only enable this trend but seem, currently, structured to produce it.

          • King Goat

            There used to be a lot of Southerners, very ‘learned’ and ‘serious’ ones included, who used to seriously and often ask: why do black men want to rape white women so much? It seemed inexplicable to some degree, and theories of bad inclination/motivation attributed to black men generally were put forward.

            The problem was that the idea that most, are largely, or even a significant amount of black men wanted to rape white women was a product of selective observation, faulty generalization and confirmation bias. No general theory of bad motive was needed.

            Likewise, no general theory of bad motives on the part of ‘sjws’ to explain why they want to protest Indian food or articles comparing transracial identity to transgender identity is needed, because most ‘sjws’ are not protesting these things, but rather more defensible things. Ideas to the contrary are largely due to selective focus by media, faulty generalization and confirmation bias.

            You claim ‘but that’s not Brennan’s point, he’s talking about how these outliers make the general group look bad in perceptions!’ Accepting arguendo that, It’s like saying ‘oh, the Southerner was *really* just asking why the few blacks that really did want to rape black women wants to do so, and lamenting how this colored the perception others have on black men generally!’

          • Setting aside the fact that you are basically calling Jason Brennan a racist (which validates his point, btw), I anxiously await your rebuttal to the following:


          • King Goat

            You have trouble with analogies.

          • Again with the “nobody understands me” thing. Is that the only lever you have to pull? You weren’t calling Jason Brennan a racist, you were just comparing his blog post to Jim Crow southern gentlemen. C’mon, Ryan, it’s just an analogy!

          • King Goat

            You really don’t get analogies. If your wife sees you hurriedly cleaning up and says ‘hey, slow down, the race doesn’t always go to the swift’ I guess you reply ‘what, you think I’m not a good runner?’

          • Congratulations on dealing a swift rhetorical blow to an imaginary Ryan’s imaginary behavior in a situation you imagined!

            But wait! It was an analogy!

          • King Goat

            Me: We don’t need a theory to explain why sharks bite people so much, because they don’t bite people much. It’s a result of selective observation, faulty generalization and confirmation bias that people think so.

            Ryan: Are you calling Jason a shark!?!

          • This is good, Goat. You’re on a roll. That’s two imaginary arguments in a row you’ve won. Care to make it a trifecta?

          • King Goat

            Trying to match your quadruple ipse dixit from the other day.

          • Then by all means, keep on trollin’

          • King Goat

            I figured you’d say ‘you accusing me of four ipse dixits here!!??’

          • …3

        • urstoff

          How many outliers does it take to no longer be considered an outlier?

          • King Goat

            Let’s take an example. FIRE, which itself is hardly a disinterested party, undertook a strenuous effort to count student protests of the kind that get focused on around here. They got something like several dozen over a few years iirc. Now think about the hundreds, thousands of campuses, each having many events daily. Given the *search* for incidents finding several dozen just doesn’t seem alarming to me or worth much generalizing. Consider in comparison that last year the FBI counted over a thousand anti gay hate crimes, and ask, what’s the more alarming phenomena, several dozen shouting down of speakers by leftist students or 1,000 personal and property crimes aimed at gays by bigots? I guess I find the highly morally obtuse to be a bit more alarming than the highly morally sensitive..

          • urstoff

            That’s a complete non-answer. Unless your answer is that we should only be concerned about one thing at a time.

          • King Goat

            An answer to ‘what’s wrong with group Y today, doing X?’ of ‘well, most don’t’ is certainly an answer.

          • urstoff

            Not to the question I was asking. Also, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/20/40-of-millennials-ok-with-limiting-speech-offensive-to-minorities/

            I would guess that you’d find at least as much support for “no platforming”.

          • King Goat

            That’s one poll on a pretty general question and ‘Millenials’ doesn’t equate to ‘sjws.’

          • urstoff

            “Millienials” is a much broader group than “sjw’s”, whomever they may be, and the question, however general it may be, seems quite relevant to the views and behaviors of the “outliers”.

            But okay, let’s not count polling a larger group (for some reason). I ask again, at what number to the outliers stop being outliers and start being an actual characteristic of the group (which, I guess is “sjw’s”, although I’m not sure how to define that; I thought “millenials” or “college students” would be better, but you seem to have rejected that, so define “sjw’s” if you please)?

          • King Goat

            Brennan’s post was about ‘A great deal of social justice activism.’ My point is that actually a relatively small amount is, much more focus on things like travel bans and Confederate memorialization than cultural appropriation of Indian food.

          • urstoff

            Okay, but again, not really my question. You brought up outliers, and I’m still asking at what point to outliers become to numerous to no longer be dismissed as “merely outliers”.

          • King Goat

            You want a mathematical answer?


          I suggest that a visit to a competent medical professional may be in order. Perhaps you (unfortunately) suffer from some physiological condition that impacts cognition. A few possibilities come to mind…

        • Les Kyle Nearhood

          After reading this entire thread I have come to the conclusion that King Goat is just an obtuse ass.

          • King Goat

            It’s a very important thing for some people to have the caricatures of their ideological opponents not called into question. ‘SJWs’ are a cherished piñata for so many.

  • Sean II

    1) Seems upside down.

    In the mouths of most who make them, anti cultural appropriation arguments are usually better thought-out than arguments for prison reform.

    “Let’s not wear sombreros” is considerably less off-putting to median voters than “Attica! Attica!”

  • dfjdejulio

    I find that I’m not in a position to evaluate whether “a great deal of” social justice activism really does have the properties you describe.

    We certainly *hear* about that kind of thing a lot these days, but I don’t have a way to test how much of *actual* social justice activism is like that, or whether it instead reflects some bias in reporting or something.

    • Sean II

      If there was an SJW mainstream off bathing in relative sanity somewhere, it could easily make itself known.

      Academia is not a flood stricken trailer park where the TV news crew can make everyone look bad by intentionally turning a camera on the most inarticulate, toothless rube around.

      We’re talking about smart people with access to the full range of communication tools, new and old.

      If moderate voices existed, we’d hear them.

      • Theresa Klein

        For the same reasons that libertarians are often reluctant to call out racists, SJWs may be reluctant to call out the ridiculous among themselves.

        • Sean II

          Libertarians are quite eager to denounce racism. Often so eager they end up acting in carelessness and haste, denouncing as racist things which properly aren’t.

          I should know.

          • Theresa Klein

            Well, maybe not on THIS website. But there are plenty of “libertarian” sites out there where racists are tolerated. There’s a significant group of people calling themselves libertarian who think it’s all about owning guns, the freedom to discriminate against black people, and confederate flags. And there’s a reason why Ron Paul had racist material in his old newsletters and why Rand Paul once had a neo-confederate sympathizer working for him.

          • Sean II

            Name the sites.

          • Peter from Oz

            Spiked is a British left-libertarian site that has seen an infestation of anti-semites of recent times in the comments sections under articles. But I can’t say that the Spiked writers or other commenters have embraced the anti-semites.


          • Sean II

            I’ve never read Spiked, but give me a chance to check it out and I’ll swing back for a reply.

          • Sean II

            It’s been seven days. You still haven’t named any sites where libertarians embrace racism.

            If you can, please do.

            If you can’t, please retract.

    • King Goat

      The conservative press has every interest in bringing the smallest, silliest campus voices into the spotlight, as they see academe as the enemy. And they’re good at getting stories ‘on the map.’ Add to that that even outside of conservative circles non-academics think of academe as a weird ‘ivory tower’ and it’s easy to see why such stories are run with. People like to have their stereotypes confirmed. ‘Polite, insistent group effort changes academic policy in reasonable way’ isn’t red meat for anyone, so no one’s hurrying to serve that.

      • Theresa Klein

        Yes, just as the liberal press is eager to highlight the racist and backward on the right, in order to tar everyone, including libertarians with the same brush.

        Can’t talk about economics? Change the subject to social issues. Want to discredit a libertarian? Just bring up public accomodation laws.

        • King Goat

          I agree, in fact that’s what my original comment was about. Libertarians as a whole often get dismissed by pointing to the handful that fit the caricature their ideological foes have of them, so it’s interesting to see them buying into something similar here.

  • jhertzli

    Strange… I’ve been wondering if the Trump presidency is a false-flag operation…

    • Theresa Klein

      Part of me thinks that Hillary Clinton rigged the Republican primary to make sure Trump was her opponent and then had it backfire on her because enough people realized that it was a ruse so they voted for Trump just to give her the finger.

      • Wikileaks basically validated that conjecture as being the literal truth.

        • Theresa Klein

          Really? Got any links? I wouldn’t be surprised, but I’ve never seen any evidence for it.

          • Sean II

            Hilarious they used the term Pied Piper, given the result.

          • Theresa Klein

            Well, I wouldn’t say that means that she “rigged” the primary.
            She didn’t make people go to the polls and vote for Donald Trump in the primary. I do think that significant numbers of Democrats crossed the aisle and voted in the R primary but not because they were acting as HRC footsoldiers. They did it because they are white working class labor types who liked Trump’s trade stance.

            To me it still looks like the Republican base owns Trump, regardless of whatever media manipulation the Clinton campaign engaged in. People are responsible for their own votes and nobody made them vote for Trump.

          • I mean, this was just one of the Podesta emails. You can search the database for the whole story. I offer it only as evidence for what you were wondering about.

          • King Goat

            There’s substantial space between Clinton ‘wanting the nominee to be Trump’ which is all you provide evidence for and actually ‘rigg[ing] the Republican primary to make sure Trump was her opponent.’

  • Bill Othon

    “If moderate voices had any interest in being heard, we’d hear them.”

    Ah, now we are getting somewhere. How can a moderate combat the issues addressed in the (excellent) article? If Fox and NYT represent the extremes, who represents the moderates?

    I find that those who try to develop a middle ground, or even try to identify the core issues without resorting to ad hominem attack, are quickly overwhelmed. Is it a lack of “energy” in the moderate position? Does the “moderate cause” not engender people to rise up and march?

    It’s difficult to truly engage the debate when there are so few indications of moderation in the press or marketplace. Appreciate BHL

    • CJColucci

      If Fox and NYT represent the extremes, who represents the moderates?

      The New York Times. Or, as Bill Clinton once said, “we’re the Eisenhower Republicans.”

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      Certainly this is true in the current climate. Far more on the left than on the right. I can still occasionally Troll a site like Redstate and only stir up a moderate ant’s nest. But you are quickly denounced and deleted on any lefty site.

      • King Goat

        Proud of trolling, eh. Looks like you do know from obtuse asses…

  • Theresa Klein

    #3 isn’t so bad. “Qui bono?” is always a worthwhile line of thought on any topic.

    • King Goat

      I’m sure that goes on, but a lot of ‘sjw’ activity that gets focused on* involves white, middle to upper class people pushing narratives advocating deference to people unlike themselves. I guess you could say that it’s part of a complicated ploy where they end up getting power, but that’s a heck of an indirect ideology at work!

      * because most focus is on such people generally

      • Jeff R.

        Coalitional politics, dude.

        • King Goat

          Coaltional politics rarely works like “hey, me and my group are terrible and we really should defer more to you and yours.”

          • Jeff R.

            Isn’t it obvious to you that white middle class liberals see themselves as part of a different group than the terrible people? Hillary wasn’t talking about herself when she used the word “Deplorables!”

          • King Goat

            No doubt, but the idea is still that middle class white people like her need to ‘sit down and shut up’ more deferring to people of color and such. That strikes me as an odd way for those middle class whites to seek more power for themselves…

  • obloodyhell