Ideological Injustice in Social Justice Ideologies

In my last post, I used Kenneth Gergen’s social constructionist theory to try to weave out what I see as being a crucial error so prevalent that even progressive psychologists repeatedly make it. Tom Pepper’s comments on that piece were enormously helpful in clarifying some things for me, and I’m grateful for those comments because I often notice myself missing my own point. The reason is that the error that was being discussed in that post is very subtle, yet fundamental to understanding where we go wrong in understanding how ideology construction works. So this has been a process for me of continually forgetting and grasping the same point, in what seems like a never-ending cycle of temporary understanding, and what Pepper aptly calls “epistemological despair.”

Now, I want to follow up with another example of this error that helped make it even clearer to me, in the hopes that it will do the same to others. I’m hoping that readers will provide feedback as to whether what I am saying makes sense.

I attended a full-day “social justice summit” at my university this weekend. I went there hoping to engage in discussions around resisting capitalism, but instead found that the discussions were centered around getting more people to participate in capitalism, rather than about creating alternative social practices to capitalism. This has made clear to me the limitations of mainstream social justice movements to effectively create any actual resistance.

There was one session there, run by two clinical psychology graduate students, entitled “Reframing Self-Care as an Act of Resiliency: A Workshop for Social Justice Advocates.” I found this workshop extremely disturbing for several reasons. You can imagine the kinds of people who were attending this summit: liberal progressive activists who understand that our social system is unjust and wish to dedicate their life to resisting it. And herein lies the crux of the problem I had with this workshop. Instead of attempting to clarify to the audience how the self is socially constructed through social practices, the presenters merely reinforced the illusion of the transcendent subject under the guise of helping such a subject more effectively resist injustices. The idea behind the workshop was that in order to be a more effective activist, one must learned “self-care.”

In one part of the workshop, participants were given a list of some 50 “values” and asked to write down their top five. The point of this exercise, we were told, was that it was important to understand and commit to our own values, and not the values imposed on us by our parents, or society. We needed to choose the five values that best represented our “inner selves” and not the values that we are told to hold by others. The irony of being given a list of values to choose from notwithstanding, there are some more seriously deeper issues here.

I want to dig into an example or two to illustrate the problem here, which is that not a single person at the workshopmuch less the leaderswere able to see that our “inner values” do not reside deep within the core of our souls but are actually precisely that which construct our self, in the ideologies of our social formations. Some of these values given as options were “authenticity”, “industry”, “trust”, “mindfulness”, “self-development”, etc. I will work from the ones I took notes on during the session, since these are the ones most fresh in my mind. But I would insist that readers apply this kind of critique to all generic “values” found in the psychological literature.

To start, it will be useful to keep this basic question in the back of our minds, which refers to the phrase “self-care” found in the title of the workshop. In a truly Buddhist manner, let us ask: Who is this “self” that needs to be cared for?

So let us now take the first value which is ridden with implicit claims about what it means to be a human being.

Self-development

This was, unsurprisingly, the first “value” that stood out to me. Here is the definition given for self-development:

Self-development: to keep growing, advancing or improving in knowledge, skills, character, or life experience

This seems innocent enough, and a value that seems obvious enough we should strive for. To see the problem, however, let us rephrase the question just posed above: Who is this self that values self-development? I hope you will notice by now that the definition of self-development above is ridden with a load of implicit claims about what our society needs in order to reproduce the ideology of capitalism. Unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of this post to do an analysis of such notions as “growth”, “skills”, or “character” (to pick a few) and show how they contain within them certain expectations of what kinds of practices one must participate in in order to be a good subject of capitalism. I hope that anyone reading this blog is able to see this on their own. What I want to raise here is a more subtle point, one that even once we’ve established that these ideas are constructed within capitalism, is difficult to fully grasp.

In this workshop, we are led to believe that we are choosing this value as something that represents our innermost selves. This is a major error. The reality is rather that, in addition to this value being relative to, and constructed by, our current social formation of capitalism, this value is not one which our self holds, but is that which constructs our self. I hope the difference is clear. It is not that we have an unconstrained, transcendent soul that chooses or has the value of self-development. Again, it is rather that in a social formation that has produced this particular concept of self-development in order to reproduce the ideologies which constitute it, a certain kind of subject is produced: namely, a subject who values this particular conception of self-development.

The error that the leaders and participants of this workshop were committing was in imagining that they were looking within their innermost selves to find that which is not socially constructed, but rather represents their true self. But, if we accept that there is not innermost self, no atman that is over and beyond the material conditions in which the human being is embedded, then it becomes clear that what we are “finding” when we look into our self to discover our values are the values of a self that is precisely socially constructed by such values.

Let’s take another example of a value which is supposedly to be found deep within our souls. I hope that this one will make my point event clearer.

Industry

The value “industry” is defined as follows:

to be industrious, hard-working, dedicated

Again, it should be clear that, even though this definition is so vague as to be almost meaningless, we can nonetheless see how the concept of “industrious” or “hard-working” is agreed upon socially by those of us participating in capitalism. If I introspect to find that I deeply value “industry”, have I just discovered something held dear by my innermost self, something that is truly me, and not something given to me by my family or my society? Of course not! What I have done is merely discovered how I have been socially constructed within my social practices, such that what I value is this particular trait that is required for me to be a good subject of capitalism.

The workshop aimed to have us learn to “reclaim for oneself” one’s values from the oppressive social formation so that we can better resist it. Who is the self that is reclaiming a value, from whom is it being reclaimed, and to whom is it being returned? Again, if we try to answer this question without assuming a transcendent self, it becomes obvious that the self that is doing the “reclaiming” is already socially constructed, as is the discourse of reclamation as an act of resistance, and the object being “reclaimed” (which, of course, is not really being reclaimed, but simply acknowledged as being a part of the self that is unknowingly already socially constructed by what is being claimed).

Another part of the workshop was about self-compassion. This part of the session helped me with a new way to understand rhetoric of “self-care” and “self-compassion” as, respectively, a new kind of social practice of caring for (reification) and being compassionate toward (refusal to challenge) the ideologies that construct this “self.” That will require a whole new post as I work it out further. For now, I wanted to offer this analysis as a food-for-thought and, hopefully, as a way for people to see how one might be able to tease out essentialist ideologies in ostensible resistance discourse. I hope that more people will be able to see through some of the rhetoric coming out of social justice movements that do not, either because they are unwilling or unable to, challenge capitalism.

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8 thoughts on “Ideological Injustice in Social Justice Ideologies

  1. Failed Buddhist. Your comments here dovetail perfectly with my current post on practice. The only way I could see making clear the fallacy of assuming an inner self that transcends the social is via robust and sustained dialogue. One complication to what I just said is that it seems like you WERE engaged in dialogue, right? So, now the question is: what elements have to be present for a dialogue, an encounter, to produce breakthroughs, or whatever we are aiming for? I keep getting the feeling that my thinking on practice is leading me to a certain approach to education, like unlearning. Anyway, thanks for the post. I’ll think more about it and get back…

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Glenn.

      I’ve been caught up with commitments that have led me to fall behind in my reading; I will take a look at that post on SNB.The complication you mention is what I didn’t mention here. Dialogue itself might in fact be insufficient, as evidenced by the inability of that group to really comprehend what I was attempting to show here. It was clear to me that they were really attempting to understand what I was saying, but they were just incapable of doing so given their assumption that they were free subjects engaged in a free exchange of ideas.

      We must, then, create new social practices that produce new kinds of subjects who are even capable of engaging in such dialogue. I like the “unlearning” approach, though such an approach could only function as a new social practice rather than mere dialogue. I spent years participating in meditation groups that were framed as “unlearning everything you thought you knew,” but since such practices were always situated well within the practice of capitalism, it did more harm than good, I feel. One cannot unlearn one’s ideologies without a new ideology to replace it, as I’m sure you know.

      This is what is so difficult about the kind of work we’re doing. It’s quite easy to engage in dialogue; creating entirely new kinds of social practices are another matter. Dialogue is useless is the selves engaging in such dialogue are constructed by practices that make understanding anatman impossible. I will have more to say once I read your post.

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  2. Explaining social construction to doctoral students in clinical psychology would be enormously difficult. I was one once, and in my experience correct understanding of anything is completely incompatible with success in that discipline. Their task is exactly to essentialize the most naive version of the Romantic subject, then to bully people into trying to pretend to be that kind of a subject. Even those who believe they are embracing a social constructionist theory are merely embracing the version you mentioned in your last post, in which the essential and transcendent subject freely construct the social to suit his unconstructed will.

    So how could one respond to such a workshop constructively? My guess is that what they were after was convincing people not to let their most deeply held desires and values become overwhelmed by compromise with the values of “society”, or something like that?

    What if one were to respond by asking, as you do here, why it is that our supposedly “deepest” core values turn out to be exactly the ones demanded of us by the unjust social order itself? Put in their own terms—not “capitalism is bad,” but “we need social justice because right now society is unfair”—they would have more trouble dismissing it.

    Then, perhaps, try to put it in therapeutic terms. Maybe we would be healthier and happier if we realized that what we took as our own core values were those being demanded of us by the social system we object to. Or even, more extremely, maybe we would be happier if we realized that we are taught to hold deeply values which we are supposed to accept cannot be fulfilled. How can one be industrious, if whether you can work or not is not up to you? How can one continue to “develop” (a key term for Romantic ideology) if one is denied education? Is self-development compatible with the demands that we adjust to the demands of the economy? Aren’t these in some way contradictory demands placed on us?

    That is, if it were possible to use the list of values they give out to show that the values we are allowed to adopt as our own are also inherently impossible to fulfill in the “unjust” social order that demand we adopt them. Get them to question why this might be—why might it be a useful strategy to have people adopt as their own most deeply held value something they will be denied the chances to enact?

    I’m not sure if this would work with the grad students, but perhaps it would make sense to some members of the audience? (I assume the audience wasn’t made up of psychology students?)

    Of course, one would have to be a much more charismatic,or at least likable, person than I am to pull off such rhetorical feat. But do you think it might work, or would the audience at such a workshop be impervious to thought at that level?

    My concern is with trying to make clear to more people exactly what you explain in this post. But I have not yet figured out a really successful strategy for doing this.

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    1. Tom,

      I find your speculation as to how one might frame this understanding in therapeutic terms interesting. I suspect that this might be necesary in order to get people interested in the first place. Indeed, this workshop on “self-care” had the most attendees of the entire summit (it was advertised as one of the main events). I’m starting to accept that a psychologist could never understand this point, even (especially!) those who think they are social constructionists. My aim is to find a way to intervene before someone becomes too brainwashed by the field–that is, young psychology majors who are on their way to wielding a superb amount of power over the most vulnerable sects of the population, who need to understand that what the field is teaching them is harmful, and that they will not be able to really help people who are suffering using their psychology training.

      I like the Socratic-esque approach of asking questions to stimulate some kind of actual introspection. My worry, based on the results of virtually every attempt I’ve made at this, is that eventually, even for people who might be more open to re-configuring their thinking, we will come to the point in the conversation where the “terror of the social” obstacle emerges, and at that point it is extremely difficult to proceed. What I mean is that truly realizing that the self is socially constructed, that our supposedly deep values are actually demanded from us by an unjust social system, is going to be an unpleasant experience. The impliction of such a realization must be that one is helpless as an individual, and that the ONLY thing to do now is create new social practices to prticipate in, to become a new kind of subject collectively rather than through some kind of “self-development.”

      Again, such a conclusion is very unpleasant and scary, and the temptation to resist it is almost impossible to overcome. One must be willing to give up the myth of self-made infinite plentitude and be ready to get to work on the social–which is real hard work that is not condusive to participating gleefully in a capitalist society. That’s a tough attachment to give up. It’s much easier to convince oneself that one will succeed if I just “follow my dreams” and “work hard” as, ironically, I am told I must do. Nobody wants to be in a position where they are dependent on the social and not sef-made transcendent subjects.

      This is where, for me, all of this presents itself as a hard sell. I have a close friend whom I tried to get to think about this. They asked me if investigating how the self is socially constructed will lead to a state of bliss and calm, like meditation does. I said no, in fact it will make you notice just how much suffering is required for you to be the kind of subject you are required to be to participate gleefully in capitalism. You will not be able to go to the supermarket, to use your smartphone, without being aware of the suffering needed for such an activity to be possible… of the blood that is dripping from your device, which was manufactured through the mining of metals that has fueled a civil war in Congo… of the fact that when you are at work you are prostituting your body as a member of the working class… of the fact that when you go to the movies you are watching propaganda… etc etc etc.

      The answer I got was, of course, “Why would anyone want to do that?”

      So being able to frame this in an appealing way, without offering delusions of infinte bliss and enlightenment, is very difficult. That’s the challenge, how do we get people to understand that it is necessary to change our social practices? It’s a tough sell, as I’m sure you know. I will keep experimenting, as exhausting as it is.

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  3. Yes, it is enormously difficult. Fear of sociality, as I call it, borrowing Pinkard’s term, makes no logical sense, really. We all want to believe we are unique individuals whose worth depends upon our special and inalienable qualities, etc. But given what we find when we look hard at ourselves, it doesn’t make much sense that we want those qualities to be immutable, or even to be our own. it seems it would be a relief to find that my pettiness and hostility and selfishness are the product of my sociality,

    But that aside, my approach is to avoid trying to convert someone like the clinical psychologists, who do, as you say, have a disturbing amount of power over those who are most vulnerable. They have too much invested in their delusions, and they do get a sense of calm, of pride, even of bliss from these beliefs—at the very least, they make good money off of them.

    The better approach, it seems to me, is to locate those who are not benefiting so much from the existing state of the world. And that seems to be a lot of people, given the skyrocketing rates of mental illness and suicide. Maybe they would be prepared to listen to an alternative? The kinds of answer they are given right now come from dolts like Jordan Peterson or Oprah. My puzzle is, where is that audience, and how can they be reached? They do seem to exist. More college students than ever before suffer from depression and anxiety, and an alarming percentage are medicated. College years used to be a time of relative fun and freedom, with far less stress and misery than “adulthood.” Maybe these are the people who could hear what you are trying to explain? Because they aren’t getting any bliss out of the common understanding fo things.

    Your friend is probably very fortunate, and like most fortunate people doesn’t want to think about the suffering of others that enable this good fortune. Most of the people I know are in the same position—relatively affluent, with little to really worry about. But there are foreclosed houses all over my town. The people I have to address are those who’ve lost everything in this endless recession—but I really don’t know where they’ve gone and how communicate these things to them.

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    1. I agree with you that fear of sociality is logically senseless. Indeed, I found it to be a huge relief to come to understand that I am socially constructed and thus can be socially re-constructed into a different kind of subject. The social realm is precisely what is required in order to be free in any meaningful way; otherwise, there can never be any hope to change my fundamentally broken and isolated atman. So yes, once one manages to cross a certain threshold it becomes clear that the social is an opportunity—the only opportunity, in fact—for any real agency, or any chance at actually reducing human suffering. But crossing such a threshold requires one to give up certain fantasies and delusions, and may result in one becoming unable to participate in one’s old social practices without them being intolerable or causing obvious suffering. People are quite alright being attached to their instagram and their mind-numbing entertainment, thank you very much, because they are so seduced into thinking that a notification that someone “liked” their photo is what it feels like to fulfill one’s essential social needs.

      I think you are right, we need to somehow reach those who are not benefiting from the current social formations and get them to understand why that is the case. It’s enormuosly difficult when the ideological competition is so seductive. I’ve tried so hard to have these conversations with people who I know that are on multiple anti-depressants, in and out of the psychatric ward, unable to keep a steady job, etc etc, and they are all so bought into this propoganda that they just need to get themselves all fixed up with a bit of therapy, get into debt for another degree, or work 15 hours shifts for minimum wage for 30 years and they will eventually get to a point where they can be fulfilled human beings. It definitely doesn’t help that you have morons like Peterson telling these kids that if they make their bed or whatever his “21 rules for life” are that they will be the ones to make it against the millions who won’t, and that if they fail it’s because of postmodernism or “cultural marxism” taking over universities or some such nonsense (have you ever met an actual Marxist in academia? I haven’t).

      It really boils down to the infestation of anti-intellectualism which is eating away at the core of American society. People follow Peterson and Oprah because reading an actual book is too difficult and time consuming when one has to work 10 hours a day in order to survive, after which they are simply too exhausted to deal with anything and it’s easier to simply switch on Netflix or watch the ideological crapshoot that is cable news. The result is that people’s capacity to think declines, and so many the tools for thinking that are out there are simply inaccessible to the average person. I’m attempting to work out a systematic way to present some concepts and thinking tools from Althusser and others in a way that a college sophmore would be able to digest, but this is difficult to do and requires some degree of sympathy to be there already, which is already a rare find.

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  4. Actually, I have met a three actual marxists in academia (other than myself). But that is over the course of thirty years, at eight different schools. On the other hand, I have met well over a hundred neoliberal conservatives. In psychology and English departments, you are much more likely to run into a Jordan Peterson than a Fredrick Jameson. I suspect that the illusion of marxist hegemony in academia results from the fact that the most interesting work in many disciplines over the last half century has been done by marxists. While you will almost never meet a marxist English professors, many people would agree that Jameson is one of the great literary scholars of the 20th century.

    Or perhaps it is just the tendency to label as “postmodern” or “marxist” anything that happens to contradict one’s own theoretical position? Particularly when that position is weak or self-contradictory.

    On your final point, I would agree that those working a sixty-hour week to get by have little energy left for critical thought. I did this for years between high school and college, and it was enormously depressing. After working 60, and sometimes 70, hours in six days, on Sunday I would literally be so depressed and exhausted I would find myself weeping for no particular reason. I used alcohol to cope, and I never had the mental energy to read, despite having been a bit reader when I was young.

    Probably the target has to be elsewhere. Those who are college educated, but cannot find jobs, for instance. Or those members of the precariat who have the mental energy to do things like pursue mindfulness or read Sam Harris books. Yes, it is a hard sell. Harris, and mindfulness, are popular because they feed the narcissism so common among even poorly interpellated capitalist subjects. Serious consideration of social construction wouldn’t feed narcissism. That’s why I was wondering if pitching it in a therapeutic way might work, might appeal to these people. It surely wouldn’t convince the clinical psychology grad students you mention, but it might give pause to their potential victims. But I don’t really know that it would work.

    Anti-intellectualism is one of the most powerful tools of capitalist ideology. But I’ve begun to think that perhaps the ideas of atomistic individualism, confused and incoherent as they are, do even more of the work. Even those who fancy themselves intellectuals are often captured by the Lockean picture of the mind, and the Romantic cult of depth and emotions and individual creativity. The idea that we have a deep, true self that is not socially produced and that must be expressed freely is probably worse than anti-intellectualism. Most people wind up thinking that any demand placed on them by culture, thought, social practices, etc. are an evil form of oppression. So they end up hopelessly working to “resist’ the oppressive power of the only things that can possibly give them any kind of agency at all.

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