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The Psychology of Critical Social Justice

“Adherents of the Woke worldview disallow this more complex approach to social issues (psychologically, an ambivalent position) and, instead, succumb to the simplistic and often pleasurable permission to demonize entire categories of people according to immutable traits.”

Introduction

The increased popularity of Critical Social Justice Theory (CSJT, commonly referred to as Woke ideology) and the different ways in which it manifests in academia, the media, politics, and private life necessitate not only a historical analysis of its evolution but also a psychological formulation thereof, based on adherents’ behavior, affective states, and what they reveal about their interpretation of the world today. The historical development of Critical Social Justice Theory in its current form has been well established thanks to the research by James Lindsey, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian. This developmental map describes the historical moments and philosophical checkpoints that ultimately led to CSJT, as it is applied today. In addition to its purely philosophical roots, there is a psychological structure underlying this worldview that requires certain psychological processes and intrapersonal dynamics on the part of its adherents for the ideology to be maintained, updated, and propagated. This article explores these processes.

Key Features of the Critical Social Justice Worldview

In their 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt categorize social activism into two types of worldviews, namely common-humanity identity politics and common-enemy identity politics. The former describes a type of social religion where the well-being of all humans is prioritized based on shared human values and common goals. It is a “social religion,” where all humans are equally included, and members of society are often referred to in familial terms. Historically, common-humanity identity politics has aimed to unite and harmonize racial, gender, and other strata of American life—and not to destroy, “dismantle,” or “cancel” any cultural artifacts of American heritage. The latter worldview, however, endorses a value system where an ever-growing list of aspects in American society are identified as “problematic” and consequently deserving of destruction. People who live by this worldview are vigilant and alert, ready to identify an enemy: a historical figure, an academic subject, language use, religious doctrine, a specific religion, a tradition, or a demographic based on immutable properties (gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc.).

The common-enemy position has a well-established equivalence in psychology. Dividing people and human artifacts into all-bad or all-good categories is a basic feature of the Woke worldview. By virtue of a person’s immutable features, he is assigned a group-identity and is either classified as belonging to the evil oppressor class, the common enemy that needs to be exposed, humiliated, and cancelled or the virtuous, innocent victim class that deserves emancipation and social justice. To the Woke, the individual gets superseded by the group classification from which he cannot escape. Broadly, the categories carrying historical and current culpability include the categories of male, white, heterosexual, and able-bodied. Alternatively, categories carrying historical and current victimhood and moral innocence include the categories female, black/people of color, LGBTQ+ and disabled. This worldview in which every individual is classed as either all-bad or all-good actualizes a defense called splitting. Splitting is a primitive defence of young infants and in character constellations of some adults according to which people are either seen as purely evil and hostile, or purely innocent and loving. 

Within this split worldview, certain qualities are attributed to the Other, including feelings, intentions, wishes, and character traits. The attribution of such mental and character traits onto someone else can be described as the defence mechanism known as projection. Prejudice of any kind (be that sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, ableism, etc.) may be seen as the result of people projecting hostile aspects to whole groups of people. Once this split worldview has been established, guilt and innocence of the role players within every incident are determined by gender, race, or sexual orientation. Critical Social Justice Theory does not ask whether racism or sexism or homophobia took place; it assumes that it inevitably did:

The question is not ‘did racism take place’? but rather ‘how did racism manifest in that situation?'” 

An appropriate question here may be framed as: “Where do the feelings, intentions, wishes, or character traits projected upon the other originate?”

There is no better a person to answer this question than the author of the Woke text White Fragility herself, Robin DiAngelo:

“I was invited to the retirement party of a white friend. The party was a pot-luck picnic held in a public park. As I walked down the slope toward the picnic shelters, I noticed two parties going on side by side. One gathering was primarily composed of white people, and the other appeared to be all black people. I experienced a sense of disequilibrium as I approached and had to choose which party was my friend’s. I felt a mild sense of anxiety as I considered that I might have to enter the all-black group, then mild relief as I realized that my friend was in the other group. This relief was amplified as I thought that I might have mistakenly walked over to the black party!

Patrick Rosal writes poignantly about the pain of being mistaken for the help at a black-tie event celebrating National Book Award winners…I have made this assumption myself when I have been unable to hide my surprise that the black man is the school principal or when I ask a Latinx woman kneeling in her garden if this is her home.”

The above admissions of her own prejudice assumed to be universal experience of all white people demonstrates the projection defenses CSJT adherents employ in their categorization of perceived oppression in each encounter. It is the contention of this piece that the feelings, intentions, wishes, or character traits projected to the Other originate with the person himself. These can be devaluing projections or idealizing projections (concordant with the primitive split into all-good and all-bad objects). With devaluing projections, aspects of the person they find internally intolerable, repudiating, or immoral within themselves get projected onto the bad object. Engaging the devalued Other with projected parts of themselves gives such individuals a greater sense of control over the otherwise intolerable aspects present yet denied within themselves. Often, those who employ this defensive splitting and projecting of bad aspects of themselves to the devalued Other, oftentimes manifest the exact type of projected characteristics themselves.

In contrast with devaluation and dehumanization of the Oppressor, the victimized Other is necessarily endowed with the opposite: all-good status of innocence, virtue, moral privilege, heroism, and essential purity. What is noteworthy is that some of the most passionate and devoted adherents of CSJT are also the most privileged elite of society. It seems that a vast number of these adherents belong to the category of white, often male, and heterosexual, frequently occupying prominent corporate, teaching, celebrity, or political positions, and belonging to middle- to upper-class households, having graduated from privileged schools and colleges, with concomitant great social influence, thus corresponding to CSJT’s definition of unearned privilege thanks to a most unjust, racist, and oppressive system. It is, therefore, logical to conclude that guilt about their shared perpetration of oppression may be too intolerable to bear. This anguish is solved in two ways: 

  1. By projecting the guilt onto non-adhering members of the same devalued category, pointing out the racism in others, resorting to call-out and cancellation campaigns, and terrorizing individuals suspected of non-adherence (which is tantamount to endorsing racism) online, in the media, and especially before the suspected perpetrator’s employer. 
  2. By employing a defense called identification with the victimthey act as allies to victimized minorities, describing themselves in self-deprecating terms, confessing their own racism and oppression, and vowing to commit to the Woke cause of dismantling systemically oppressive racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic systems. This allyship may, in fact, be described as a conscious or subconscious strategy to rid oneself of one’s own sense of complicity in the believed perpetration of oppression, by demonizing the devalued Other and, thus, camouflaging oneself through self-debasement and virtue-signaling behavior.  

A further appeal for such passionate endorsement of the CSJT comes from the social incentives. In the media, in centers of higher education, as the ethos of many corporations, at museums, in demonstrations by sports stars, at social events, and in the public statements by celebrities and artists, CSJT is framed as the moral goal of society—a new social religion. Not only is this worldview presented as morally superior to currently competing alternatives, but there is also a sense of prestige attached to it by virtue of the status associated with society’s trailblazers of trends—a Thorstein Veblen Theory of trendy morality. Through narrative saturation in the media, the appearance of consensus, fear of ostracization, and association with what is prestigious, classy, and trendy, a moral ideal is created: A mass movement has been formed consisting of individuals of apparently one mind, striving toward the same indisputable and prestigious ideal. In his 1921 volume, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Sigmund Freud expounded on the idea that everyone identifies with a parent, teacher, or other admired figure, according to which certain personal goals for the future are set. In committing to these goals, the individual makes certain sacrifices, while feeling motivated by the imaginary pleasure he would enjoy from attaining these goals. In addition to identifying with the victim as an object of sympathy, the subject is also seduced into identifying with the idealized object (admired celebrities, artists, athletes, etc.) endorsing a worldview portrayed as morally prestigious. In doing so, the adherent to the CSJT enjoys the comfort of moral bliss, a sense of triumph, and the enhancement of self-esteem.

This state can only be maintained for as long as the all-good versus all-bad split is maintained. Psychologically, this is a much simpler maneuver compared to a more difficult alternative: namely, to tolerate ambivalence. It may be more bearable to condemn whole demographics, whole cultures, and whole histories as all-evil on the grounds of the despised aspects of such persons and their artifacts (also called part-object representation) than to deal with the complexities of appreciating that people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, histories, and cultures consist of both positive and negative aspects to various degrees (i.e., whole object representation). 

CSJT ensures the maintenance of the psychic split in various ways. The assigning of privilege and perpetration, on the one hand, and disadvantage and moral purity, on the other, is not based on alterable factors but on static, immutable characteristics framed in totally offensive terms. One  does not and might never hear of authoritative-parenthood privilege; addiction-free household privilege; disease-free childhood privilege; or early-trauma-free privilege; nuclear family privilege. These categories (whose correlations with improved development into adulthood have been confirmed) would weaken the split between unchangeable categories and turn it into a more workable framework in which those concerned with social justice could work. Adherents of the Woke worldview disallow this more complex approach to social issues (psychologically, an ambivalent position) and, instead, succumb to the simplistic and often pleasurable permission to demonize entire categories of people according to immutable traits.

Adherents of the CSJT also have a conspicuous relationship with world history. Central to their worldview, historical research, as recounted by the oppressor (heterosexual white male), cannot be trusted and merely perpetuates oppression and hate. In response, the Woke engage in a process of historical revisionism, applying the principles of postmodernism (evidence has no objective value, only subjective benefit) and cultural Marxism (oppressor-victim dichotomy along racial, gender, sexual orientation, and other categories) as their methodology to arrive at preferred, predetermined conclusions. Therefore, the white heterosexual male is an evil oppressor, and the minority class is the tragic hero. Historical empathy, or the ability to appreciate the complex reality of history, is no longer applied. Instead, history is used to remind one of the oppressor class’ inherent evil. Whatever can be said of the historical white male may also be claimed of the white heterosexual male today: He is greedy, oppressive, violent, unjust, and immoral. Since the past is also present in the CSJT worldview, historical culpability is also present culpability. To the Woke, history does not exist as history; history is current, and representatives of history are to be judged according to today’s moral values (also called, presentism).

A fundamental flaw in the CSJT worldview of history is that it cannot adequately account for the historical record when white nations have been the victims of defeat and oppression. These include the enslavement of Europeans by North African and Middle Eastern nations as well as by other European nations. Similarly, the Woke switch strategy is applied when presented with well-documented history involving the imperialism, warfare, genocide, and enslavement of Native American and African tribes by other Native American and African tribes. Shaka Zulu, the warrior king of the Zulus in the 19th century, displaced Jele, AmaHlubi, Swati, Matebele, and Makololo people who settled in other regions in Southern Africa, or were assimilated into other tribes. Similarly, the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade involved non-European tribal warlords like Tippu Tip of East Africa and others who participated in the oppressionof other non-European subjects. Whole kingdoms like the Hausa and Igbo Empires of Nigeria flourished during the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade and virtually collapsed when Napoleon brought it to an end. History reflects the complexity of human society in which moral judgments can hardly be made in black-and-white (or all-good versus all-bad) fashion. Current research has not found an application of CSJ doctrine implicating non-European nations in a social matrix of oppressor and oppressed demographics. 

Tangential to the CSJT worldview is the strategy employed when current social affairs are reported. Politicians, Big Tech companies, university lecturers, and legacy media resort to narrative selection and narrative saturation by creating a perception of today’s world that closely resembles the CSJT “reality.” The aim appears to be the manipulation of the listener’s perception of social reality, heightened selective awareness of incidents, and perceptual blindness to aspects of reality which do not fit into this precise narrative. This narrative follows the same split in which members of all-bad object-categories are pre-emptively devalued and rendered culpable as the oppressor, and members of the all-good object-categories are overvalued as innocent and unfairly oppressed. Thus, Eric Kaufman explains:

“At the extreme, minorities are viewed as hyper-fragile children than must be protected from all harms, however microscopic or imaginary. The majority is hated and feared as a vicious predator against whom one must constantly stand on guard, and which should be attacked remorselessly.”

But contrary to the totalizing narrative, the latest evidence shows a significantly more complex picture in terms of: 

According to Kaufman, this selective maneuvering by CSJT adherents in dealing with historical and social information reveals a concerted effort to perpetuate a social narrative in which the evil white male-dominated West is in toto responsible for the oppression and suffering of the innocent, noble, morally pure victim classes—not only historically, but also presently.

What follows from this? CSJT adherents are clear: Through a process called problematizing, every aspect of European/Western society is to be combed to make visible its inherent oppressiveness. CSJT provides the doctrinal blueprint for how evil Western society is, and every single aspect of society should be interpreted accordingly to confirm its inherent evil. In this process of dismantling all traces of “whiteness” or of the “hegemony of heteronormativity” from Western society, nothing escapes the devaluing gaze of the CSJT activist. Dismantling is a euphemism for destruction, and the moral rationale for this is due to Western society’s inherent badness. DiAngelo herself writes:

There are many approaches to antiracist work; one of them is to try to develop a positive white identity. Those who promote this approach often suggest we develop this positive identity by reclaiming the cultural heritage that was lost during assimilation into whiteness for European ethnics. However, a positive white identity is an impossible goal. White identity is inherently racist; white people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy…Rather, I strive to be ‘less white.’”

No credit is given to Western society as the locus of the Enlightenment, and the same standard of blanket disqualification is not consistently applied to other cultural groupings. CSJT adherents have demonstrated their disgust for the West, problematizing everything from Shakespeare and Beethoven to mathematics and science. The above excerpt is a clear admission that ambivalence cannot be endured; that there can only be one approach to dealing with Western society, and that is to dismantle it. Anything softer than that would be accommodation (also referred to as maintaining the status quo). Just as splitting into immutable categories ensures that the split is immutably secured, stating that non-racism can never be achieved ensures that dismantling is an endless process: There will always be something more to destroy. To those familiar with psychodynamic theory, this final defense of actively engaging in violating and spoiling even cherished (socially idealized) aspects of Western society is a defensive constellation called pathological envy.

In 1957, the British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein published her ultimate work Envy and Gratitude, in which she meticulously maps out the infant dynamics of greed (or appetite for pleasure), envy, and jealousy. She describes the conditions under which these dynamics result in pathological envy in adulthood and, conversely, how resolution results in gratitude and creativity. In this paper, she describes primal envy as “the angry feeling that another person possesses and enjoys something desirable—the envious impulse being to take it away or to spoil it.” Due to the frustration of not getting their desires satisfied, the subject projects destructive impulses into the Other, who is perceived to be withholding what the subject desires. Excessive envy is accompanied by excessively destructive and spoiling impulses. Once the admired/idealized Other has been devalued (even irrevocably destroyed), it is difficult for the subject to regard this spoiled object as valuable and obtainable again. The ultimate loss of the once-idealized Other leads to gratitude impairment.

Persons who have character constellations dominated by envy come across as bitter, demanding, entitled, insatiably dissatisfied, critical, nonreceptive to compliments, pessimistic, and aggressive. Since relief from frustration is obtained from destroying the envied object, the satisfaction of gratitude is not achieved. Instead, the pleasure from devaluation and sadistic spoiling of coveted resources (to the Woke: privilege, power, and normativity) becomes irresistible. The subject also enjoys the bliss of self-idealization as it is no longer subjected to the limitations, criticism, and judgment of the now-devalued Other. Granting the devalued Other even the slightest bit of accommodation could result in unbearable ambivalence. Such ambivalence would threaten the narcissistic perfection of the subject and would expose him to unbearable guilt. Instead, the person resorts to splitting and devaluation, as ambivalence would remind him of the once-enjoyed valued object of which he is currently deprived due to his own destructive violation of that object. 

From the CSJT perspective, what is the coveted “something” that the Other possesses and withholds that justifies the envious destruction of the Other? It is, according to Douglas Murray, among other things, power:

“[E]verything is viewed solely through the prism of ‘power.’ Of course power exists as a force in the world, but so do charity, forgiveness and love. If you were to ask most people what matters in their lives very few would say ‘power.’ Nevertheless for a certain type of person who is intent on finding blame rather than forgiveness in the world…absolutely everything in life is a political choice and a political act.”

At a collective level, adherents of CSJT and their obsession with power manifests this psychoanalytic formulation of envy observably. Every individual is capable of disgust and bitterness due to his own privately-experienced frustrations and defeats. Crowded together around a socio-political cause like CSJ and fueled by narrative-creation and saturation from legacy media outlets, such individuals can easily align their grievances and demand the utter dismantling, destruction, and violation of an imperfect yet evolving system consisting of categories of people deemed unfairly advantaged, oppressively powerful, and protective of their privilege.

The aggressive utterances by CSJT activists and their destructive behaviour toward dissidents online, on university campuses, and at places of employment, belie their self-justifying claims that they repudiate hate, intolerance, and oppression. Such behavior betrays more a burning hatred toward those perceived to be privileged than concern for those perceived to be disenfranchised.

The Future of CSJT

As explained above, CSJT is a radical worldview under which more destructive trends can be expected. From a psychodynamic perspective, the CSJT worldview drives individuals to desire a particular resource: “systemic power.” CSJT has provided for the perpetual devaluation of the Other by formulating its utter intolerance of negotiation and accommodation of anything less than a commitment to destroy (or dismantle) Western civilization. Its totalizing nature drives it to ensure that not a single aspect of society is left untouched by its dismantling commitment. The outcome will be a three-fold experience: first, the enjoyment of brute primal pleasure from destroying the envied Other, primal narcissistic bliss of moral self-idealization, and, third, unbridled access to resources (“systemic power”) on CSJT terms with severely limited reflective ability. 

A worldview so voracious for power, with no capacity for self-reflection, is a recipe for totalitarianism. CSJT’s failure to usher in a worldwide “anti-racist” utopia will not disillusion its adherents. Instead, hunger for power and the pleasure of envious destruction will greatly weaken restraint. Maintaining a de facto conviction that their own position is above all scrutiny, adherents of CSJT will scapegoat yet another devalued and oppressive Other as the reason for society’s disintegration, and the reason for Theory’s “failure” will be sought elsewhere. Theory will be elevated to scriptural status, and, as a result, it will be immune from criticism. 

One extreme response to the failure of CSJT to turn the West into an “anti-racist” utopia will likely be a defensive maneuver familiar in psychoanalysis. Following Sigmund Freud’s observations in Group Psychology, devotees of radical religious and political movements identify with an external idealized individual or cause. The psychological investment into the idealized Other can be so extreme that, should the Other or their cause disappoint, devotees will much rather resort to masochism than to bear failure. It would, therefore, be no surprise if, even after the failure of CSJT to transform society into an “anti-racist” utopia, the most extreme adherents still seek a kind of heroic martyrdom in service of Theory.

Since CSJT is essentially hostile, envious, and ultimately necrophilic (destruction-oriented), what does the  alternative look like from a psychodynamic perspective?

The Burden of a Complex Reality

One of the greatest psychological milestones an infant achieves is to integrate good and bad within the Other and eventually the good and bad within the self. Prior to such an achievement, it perceives the Other entirely represented by its parts: the Other as the all-good breast, or the all-good hand, or the all-bad face, and so on. Healthy psychological development involves progressing from experiencing the world within this defensive split (and projectively engaging the world within this split) to gradually realizing that the same Other contains aspects that are both good and bad.

Developmental progress is, therefore, the infant’s ability more fully to perceive and respond to reality with all its complexity. This, undoubtedly, leads to greater restraint in instinctive responses. Within the more primitive split, the infant perceives and responds instinctively with destructive aggression, or with spoiling envy, or with engulfing adoration, etc., of the Other. More developed psychological representation of complex reality as a mixture of both good and bad aspects curtails such unbridled responses and leads to a more moderated affective response: 

When the primitive split representation of the Other is not adequately resolved, instinctive responses to reality will be the default mode of response. When any collective (family system, community, subculture, or society as a whole) fosters and rewards such regressive representations of the world, it will be increasingly difficult for individuals, especially those growing up under such poorly-structured systems of representation, to advance to a worldview that more adequately takes into account the full spectrum of complexities. A worldview consistent with a primitive psychological system of representation would be one of in- and out-group arrangements, highly tribalized interactions, stereotypes, and gross generalizations.

Conclusion

According to psychodynamic theory, when the early, more primitive position of crude splits and projections have been adequately resolved, the individual will appreciate more naturally that every person is an imperfect mix of both good and bad traits. This reality is true not only of the Other but also of the self and of  society, as it is made up of such “blended” individuals.

Such a worldview would likely fall within the category of a common-humanity social justice, as opposed to the common-enemy worldview of CSJT. A common-humanity worldview recognizes the failures—even dismally so—in tribes’ and nations’ histories, but it also appreciates their successes and accomplishments. It celebrates these triumphs, while acknowledging and committing to learn from the failures. A common-humanity worldview appreciates that while past eras may have consisted of social structures where a specific gender or certain religions or races were more dominant than others, their failures cannot be ascribed to such categories, nor can specific categories be essentially evil or essentially good.

Contrary to the common-enemy worldview, the common-humanity worldview is hesitant to resort to simplistic categories of saints and monsters. It appreciates the complexity of humanity, of society, of communities and of individuals, and reflects this in interactions and expressions. The common-enemy approach in CSJT (and the accompanying wholesale designation of culpability and characterization attributed to certain races, a genders, sexual orientations, and cultures) is a regressive response to social challenges. A more adaptable and psychologically mature approach is a common-humanity worldview, positioned to improving developmental and social factors such as family dynamics, parenting styles, adequate basic education, and living environments.

Jaco van Zyl is a clinical psychologist in South Africa.

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