Justice Discourse in the Internet Age, Pt. I: Introduction



Writing almost two decades ago, René Girard—who devoted most of his life to exploring the issues of social contagion, scapegoating, victims, and the cults that surround them—warned against the rise of what he termed a ‘victimology’ movement:

The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition. The media themselves notice this and make fun of “victimology,” which doesn’t keep them from exploiting it. The fact that our world has become solidly anti-Christian, at least among its elites, does not prevent the concern for victims from flourishing—just the opposite.

The majestic inauguration of the ‘post-Christian era’ is a joke. We are living through a caricatural ‘ultra-Christianity’ that tries to escape from the Judeo-Christian orbit by ‘radicalizing’ the concern for victims in an anti-Christian manner.

This radical concern for victims, which Girard declares to be a ‘new totalitarianism,’ seeks to ‘outflank’ Christianity on its left wing, seeing little but persecution and oppression in Christian history. Yet its intent is ultimately perverse and destructive:

The Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance that Christianity promised but has failed to deliver. Actually, what the radicalization of contemporary victimology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games galore but without real victims, etc.

Neo-paganism would like to turn the Ten Commandments and all of Judeo-Christian morality into some alleged intolerable violence, and indeed its primary objective is their complete abolition. Faithful observance of the moral law is perceived as complicity with the forces of persecution that are essentially religious. Since the Christian denominations have become only tardily aware of their failings in charity, their connivance with established political orders in the past and present world that are always “sacrificial,” they are particularly vulnerable to the ongoing blackmail of contemporary neo-paganism.

Neo-paganism locates happiness in the unlimited satisfaction of desires, which means the suppression of all prohibitions.

In these and similarly arresting statements, Girard identified a rising quasi-religious movement that championed radical autonomy, presented traditional moral and social norms as forms of violent repression, and acted to enervate, emasculate, and ultimately discredit Christianity and other forces of traditional morality and social order through its pressing of their historic—and often all too real—guilt.

The movement Girard described is one that will be readily identified by many observers of contemporary society as a form of the ‘social justice’ movement, even if somewhat caricatured. This movement has risen to enjoy immense moral authority in the West, not just in wider society, but also in Christian circles.

Girard’s description of this movement is surprising, not least because the social justice movement seemingly exemplifies the focus on victims that is at the heart of Girard’s own work. It is also alarming, suggesting the possibility of a malign ideology masquerading as an angel of light. Perhaps most importantly, though, in casting the social justice movement as a quasi-religious movement, Girard summons us to a more searching reflection upon the movement than it has hitherto typically enjoyed.

Within this and the posts that follow, I will be examining and highlighting various significant sociological, ideological, and contextual features of the social justice movement. Through this reflection, I hope to disclose some of the quasi-religious commitments and convictions that lie at its heart, enabling Christians to act in a more discerning manner in relation to it. I further hope to highlight many of the contextual factors that, even while propelling the ‘social justice’ movement into the mainstream of society’s consciousness, can compromise its pursuit of justice.

As such, I want to explore the phenomenon of the social justice movement, examining such things as its driving principles, its forms of practice, its preferred methods, its ideological associations, the social and technological conditions that have shaped it, and its cultural effects. Though such examination, I hope to demonstrate that the ‘social justice’ movement is more complicated and compromised than it might at first appear and that, if we are driven by a genuine Christian commitment to justice, we have good reason for care in relation to it. In such reflection, however, my intent is not so much to provoke mere rejection of the movement, but rather discriminating and critical engagement, not foreclosing critical reception of its genuine insights.

The polarizing controversy provoked by the recent release of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel is but one manifestation of a growing divide in conservative Christian circles over the developing cultural phenomenon of the ‘social justice’ movement. Fiercely opposed by some as a ‘cultural Marxist’ and postmodern movement, while loudly championed by others as essential to faithful Christian social action in our current time, the movement is one that calls for more careful examination than it is typically given.

A common though naïve response to the Statement insists that ‘social justice’ is obviously a prominent biblical concern, thereby rendering opposition to it illegitimate. While others might be less evangelistic in their fervour for ‘social justice’, they regard the terminology as quite innocuous—what decent person would want to oppose ‘social justice’? Yet, more often than not, ‘social justice’ as it functions in our cultural conversations mentally needs to be placed in inverted commas or even scare quotes: in our culture, it is terminology that is weighed down with a great deal of controversial cargo.

In The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, Steven Smith observes the way that our societal discourse has been hollowed out by secularism, leaving us incapable of having deep and substantive public conversations about reality, truth, and justice. In such a situation, instead of searching conversation, we can smuggle our convictions into the conversation in the guise of ‘hurrah words’, seemingly positive terms that are freighted with weighty yet deeply tendentious assumptions.

Terminology like ‘marriage equality’ or ‘social justice’ may initially seem innocuous, yet it frequently functions as a question-begging strategy. In a public square where substantive and probing debates about the meaning of such terms are largely foreclosed, such terms themselves can be strategically co-opted for partisan purposes, and employed to advance agendas. Our political and social landscape teems with freighted terminology, terminology whose use can subtly connote certain tribal allegiances, agendas, and value systems over others—‘free speech’, ‘choice’, ‘white’, ‘law and order’, ‘security’, ‘diversity’, ‘equality’, etc., etc. Rather than have a genuine debate about what ‘equality’ with reference to marriage means or what ‘justice’ actually entails, if a movement can effectively capture and brand itself with such terminology, it can often successfully advance its cause without truly having to make its case.

Such terms may retain their ostensive definitions, but their partisan connotations are far more significant. Once a particular term or expression has been co-opted or been treated as part of the branding of a particular tribe, it is difficult to recover and often it will just be ceded to the other side. This is also related to the phenomenon of ‘dog-whistle politics’, where seemingly neutral language is used to express coded and plausibly deniable support for a (typically unsavoury) set of political viewpoints to others. As philosophically probing political discourse—never the most reliable feature of our political life—has become even thinner on the ground of the public square, ever more political communication has been reduced to competitions for and weaponization of our political lexicon and to branding over substance.

‘Social justice’ typically functions as a ‘hurrah’ term or tribal branding, one whose meaning is largely determined by certain quarters of the contemporary left. As such, it can function in a manner that is not firmly tethered to sustained engagement with philosophical discourses of established traditions of ethics, politics, and jurisprudence and the deliberative processes of their associated institutions. The meaning of ‘justice’ as it functions in this vocabulary is all too often lightly assumed, rather than rigorously argued. In a society that cannot easily sustain substantive discourse about first principles, although the ‘social justice’ movement clearly has convictions about the nature of justice, the weaknesses of our public square generally shields those convictions from direct and sustained scrutiny. I intend to engage in such scrutiny in the posts that follow this one.

To understand the social justice movement, it will also be necessary to consider the reasons why it has become so influential, especially in the contexts of contemporary social media.

As we become increasingly absorbed in the virtual and abstract world of social media, our discourse can be compared to a two-way mirror. A two-way mirror works by a very thin layer of metal applied to a pane of glass between two rooms, one room very dark and the other very light. Much of the light of the bright room is reflected back, but much passes through, enabling those on the other side to see into it. However, as there is so little light on the dark side of the two-way mirror, those in the bright room only see their reflections. As the light of concrete reality is dimmed and the lights of a virtual social realm are turned up, as our attention becomes focused upon its spectacle, conversations that once provided a window onto reality now increasingly function as a mirror in which we self-consciously observe and even preen ourselves.

This is related to what some—typically on the right—clumsily identify as ‘virtue-signaling’. However, it is a much more general and less intentional practice: no party has a monopoly on this practice. It is what naturally happens to discourse when our speech acts occur in the increasingly self-referential realm of an abstract yet dense social environment in which every pronouncement is almost unavoidably an illocutionary act of self-branding and self-alignment. The reflexivity of our discourse is radically heightened, as our social discourse becomes a spectacle in which we regard ourselves. Our concern when speaking can increasingly—even if only subconsciously—be less about the proper relationship between our speech and a wider external reality than with the image of ourselves that we will be projecting within the social spectacle by speaking.

In the continual process of brand positioning, every action or apparent lack of action can be imbued with significance, pushing us in the direction of paranoia. If you don’t speak up on some issue, you risk people thinking that you don’t care about it or take it seriously. If you do speak up, you risk giving some people the impression that you are doing so to align yourself with some greater cause or fit in with some crowd. And, since that is increasingly something that we are doing in our pronouncements, these suspicions aren’t ungrounded. The treadmill of opinionating online is largely driven by our need to position ourselves on so many live issues and cases, on most of which we have no right to an opinion.

The prevailing ‘social justice’ discourse is deeply entangled in these (im)material conditions, in ways that should complicate our responses to it. These conditions can often create a situation in which social justice discourse functions largely as a form of ideological marker and means of class policing for cultural elites and only quite secondarily as a commitment to the difficult and unglamorous labour of justice and charity in society. In a realm where speech and appearance are almost everything, vocally holding woke opinions can be a cheaply-won virtue. The spectacle of social media, with its focus on optics, image, branding, and the symbolic can all too easily function as a scrupulously maintained façade over a crumbling edifice.

On social media, whether we like it or not, we are all incessantly cultivating and managing our personal brands and maintaining our political and social alignments. On social media we are little more than image, little besides a representation, persona, or avatar.[1] We are defined far more by what we say than by a reputation established through deeper patterns of behaviour and belonging in physical contexts and communities. Furthermore, in such a socially-saturated and charged context, the explicit content of what we say often matters considerably less than what our statements implicitly say about our personal brands and alignments. Online, image can be far weightier than substance, words weightier than actions.

The notion and practice of justice will take a novel form when its ‘social’ character comes to be expressed and accented in such ways. Once again, this calls for a problematization of a concept that is widely assumed. It is to such problematization and investigation that the posts that follow this will be devoted.


Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) is a Teaching Fellow for the Davenant Institute. He writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.

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Notes

[1] My point here is not straightforwardly to oppose self-representations to a supposed unrepresented ‘true’ self, but to highlight the reduction of the self to representation that occurs online. The true self is related to and partially constituted by the symbols and images of itself that it inhabits or creates, so self-representation is not unimportant.