For quite a while now, readers of SJ have “informed” me that they agreed with my posts about criminal law, but hated my posts that addressed the blight of identity politics and social justice. How could I be so right about one thing and so wrong about . . . wait for it . . . JUSTICE!!!
But it wasn’t just that I was wrong, but needlessly and gratuitously wrong, since none of this had anything to do with the real world. Until it did.
For some time, a fixation on identity politics, a culture of reflexive outrage, and a scorched-earth approach to trivial transgressions have been all hallmarks of student activism and academic radicalism. They are now becoming increasingly evident in American life as a whole. In the name of defending women and ethnic and sexual minorities — all reasonable goals — progressives on and off campus are taking illiberal stances that polarize society, put a chill on free speech, and erode respect for due process.
Not long ago, tropes such as “white privilege” or “rape culture,” which reduce a vast range of social dynamics to racism and misogyny, were seldom heard outside the radical wing of the academy; today, they’ve joined the mainstream.
Who cares about what insanity pervades college campuses and the academy? After all, they’re just a bunch of dumb naive kids and their pointy-headed enablers, right? But as Cathy Young explains, what starts as a noble quest quickly devolves.
Opposing bigotry and injustice are noble goals; but the social justice movement, on and off campus, goes far beyond that. It labels people by identity, creating a hierarchy in which being “marginalized” confers status while being “privileged” brings shame. Moreover, given its focus on changing “wrong” attitudes, is almost by definition hostile to free speech: dissent, even counterargument, becomes “microaggression” or “discursive violence.”
To the simplistic, failure to embrace the dogma in its entirety, and as its tentacles extend in various “intersectional” directions from moment to moment to assuage the sadness that arises from the latest heartfelt anecdote, the questioning of social justice was the antithesis of justice. If one cared about defendants, one had to care about cultural appropriation and microaggressions, because they were all about opposing prejudice.
Except they weren’t.
IS THE DOCTRINAIRE left as dangerous to liberal democracy as the unified rule of the right? Certainly, the Trump-era Republican Party has the potential to do grave damage to democratic institutions and is already damaging liberal norms. But the academic left’s hostility to these norms should not be discounted, and its influence over progressive and Democratic dogma is only growing.
And the reaction only serves to polarize the positions of people who refuse to embrace an untenable and unprincipled ideology, its noble goals notwithstanding.
What’s more, left-wing campus politics also feed and empower the right. Stories of political correctness run amok, gleefully picked up by conservative media (and in some cases overblown), boost the perception of rampant hypersensitivity, speech policing, and anti-male and/or anti-white bias.
Cathy does an exceptional job cataloging the authoritarian self-righteousness, but this has also wormed its way into the mindset of lawyers who believe, and refuse to grasp the significance.
We defend society’s most reprehensible accused, except when we don’t like the offense? Is it a sex offense? Is the defendant a white supremacist? Was the victim gay or transgender? Off with their heads! Due process is only for the accused we like. Punch a nazi. Out a male on social media who didn’t ask “mother may I” for each touch. The presumption of innocence is the hill we would die on, except if it means we don’t believe the victim.
Perhaps the real danger is that “social justice warriors” on the left are propping up Trumpism on the right, and vice versa. With each side spurring the other to action in a feedback loop, there will soon be little room left for anyone else.
Standing firm on the principle of supporting constitutional rights such as free speech and due process, one will invariably be called the nastiest words the SJWs can muster, the worst of which is Trumpkin. After all, that’s what any heretic who fails to confess their sins and succumb to the overwhelming emotions of the progressive scolds must be. It’s infected colleges. From there, society. And that includes the law.
That it was coming has been clear for a few years now. That young lawyers (and their enablers) have adopted it means that they are no longer competent to serve their role of defending against the wave of scolds who would punish for offenses against their feelings upon no more proof than the tears of victims.
The alternative to social justice isn’t bigotry, but liberty. No criminal defense lawyer can forsake constitutional rights to serve an unprincipled cause of elevating their favored identity at the expense of the Constitution. And yet, they believe they are entitled to do so, and proudly reject their duty to their clients in favor of their dedication to their cause.
This is why so much effort has been put into explaining the wrongfulness of unprincipled ideologies that began with the children and wound their way into the courthouse. You hated it as it happened, as it failed to align with your feelings, but you will hate it far more when you can’t find a lawyer willing to defend you because you are too awful for them to tolerate.
And should this happen, don’t say I didn’t warn you.