Social Brand Management
In my introductory article to this series, I argued that, in the socially saturated context of online media, social justice discourse frequently functions as a means of fashioning and maintaining our public image. Where our words, images, and the broader ideological alignments they betray establish a virtual representation of us, and our concrete practices, relations, and commitments are largely obscured, social justice discourse is in considerable danger of becoming a sort of self-serving brand management, all while masquerading as charity and concern for others.
Writing for The Hedgehog Review, Matthew Crawford explores the concept of ‘privilege’, observing the way that, as it generally functions in contemporary thought, it insinuates the illegitimacy of all advantage and the injustice of all inequality. The notion of ‘privilege’ encourages a ‘fuzzy indignation’, whose stridency is often weakly backed by evidential support. Crawford highlights a crucial irony of the situation: ‘accusations of privilege are most prominent among…well, the privileged.’
How are we to account for this? Crawford suggests that answers can be found in contradictions that lie at the heart of contemporary bourgeois society, not least the tension between the core bourgeois values of the universality and equality of humanity and the deep inequalities that its competitive dynamic produces and sustains. This tension is perhaps most acutely felt in the context of the university, which now serves to mint new members of upper middle class society.
This all provokes a crisis of legitimation, subjectively experienced in a bourgeois guilt and self-hatred. However, where traditional left-wing thought focused closely upon the socio-economic divides of class and emphasized equality, the contemporary left is preoccupied with the value of diversity. Diversity, Crawford suggests, eases the contradiction between bourgeois values and the results of its class dynamics. ‘Diversity’ not only serves as a veneer over widening class divides, but also enables increasingly ‘diverse’ elites to regard themselves as the progressive brokers of a new just social order. Crawford writes:
As Michael Lind has written, “Neoliberalism—the hegemonic ideology of the transatlantic elite—pretends that class has disappeared in societies that are purely meritocratic, with the exception of barriers to individual upward mobility that still exist because of racism, misogyny, and homophobia.” Marking out the corresponding classes of persons for special solicitude is thus key to sustaining the democratic legitimacy of our major institutions. Or, rather, the point is to shift the basis of that legitimacy away from democratic considerations toward “moral” ones. These have the advantage that they can be managed through the control of language, which has become a central feature of institutional life.
It is important to recognize the self-legitimating ends at the heart of much of the elites’ diversity discourse, ends that become easier to recognize when one appreciates just how consistently they draw attention away from the reality of class divides. Diversity has become a shibboleth for progressive elites, Crawford maintains, because it acts as a salve for their guilt and self-hatred. It draws attention away from the deep socio-economic inequities of society, inequities that highlight the awkward fact of their privilege and focuses upon the more cosmetic end of ‘diversity’ within the elite class itself. It delights in the moral thrill of symbolic struggles over issues such as same-sex marriage, transgender inclusion, or representation of increasingly obscure minorities in media, which not only distract from the far less tractable inequities that ground the cultural elites’ own existence, but also present them as the vanguard of moral progress in society. The ideology and practice of diversity can function as a self-legitimating principle for the upper middle class and its institutions, bolstering the very ‘privilege’ that some might naively think it challenges. It is for this reason that this ideology is most pronounced in the contexts of the greatest cultural capital and generally ‘bypasses the middle and working classes because, quite frankly, it has nothing to do with them.’
Optics of Social Justice
In keeping with broader shifts in our public life precipitated by the rise of the Internet, this emphasis on diversity is largely a matter of language and ‘optics’: it privileges ideology, discourse, and the spectacle over concrete and material social change. As Crawford points out, it is one reason why the policing of language has become so pronounced in elite institutional life. The degree to which the diversity discourse is window-dressing for cultural elites is much less easy to perceive in the context of social media, where practically everything is window-dressing and it is difficult to pierce through the spectacle that surrounds us.
All this emphasis upon language, ideology, and institutional window-dressing fits right into the highly performative nature of identity in the social flux of the upper middle classes, where, as Crawford puts it, ‘one has to enact one’s social value anew each day.’ Masterfully playing the increasingly complex speech game of woke discourse has become a means by which aspirants to the upper middle class demonstrate their worth. The minefield of this discourse has also become a way in which the upper middle class can protect its boundaries. One of the prominent uses of the ideology and discourse of social justice, as it currently functions, is that of weeding out gauche and uncultivated persons, who have not mastered fashionable elite norms. And social media, in opening up a vast arena of mutual display in discourse, affords a realm for the cultural elites incessantly and competitively to perform their enlightened identities. It is important for us to consider why social justice discourse is all the rage at places like Harvard, but viewed with hostility in many contexts of poverty and social disadvantage, where people recognize that social justice discourse functions in no small part to pathologize them and to keep them out.
The Irony of Diversity
Yet all this emphasis upon ‘diversity’ is coupled with an aversion to certain forms of actual diversity, those forms of diversity that entail direct contact across more concrete socio-economic and racial divides. As Darel Paul demonstrates in his discussion of the elite support for same-sex marriage, the value of diversity, as it functions in the upper middle classes, greatly privileges certain forms of diversity over others: “‘yes’ to the urban, mobile, networked, new, universal; ‘no’ to the rural or small town, static, self-contained, traditional, national (and especially ethnonational).”
The value of this more cosmetic diversity, as both Paul and Crawford appreciate, is also encouraged by and legitimating for an increasingly managerial culture. Once again, it enables managerial elites to dissemble the nature of their socio-economic power under their progressive support for diversity. It fractionates the workforce into mutually suspicious identity groupings, while positioning managerial and technocratic elites as the benevolent patrons of vulnerable minorities, rather than as their economic and political masters. It encourages dependence upon their ‘empowerment’ of us and discourages and opposes independence of agency.
I began my first article by quoting René Girard’s warnings about the rise of ‘victimology’ among the elites of the West. As Girard recognizes, the rise of this victimology has not involved a rejection of the scapegoat mechanism, but effects a perverse parody of Christianity that mobilizes the Satanic dynamic of the scapegoat mechanism against all of its norms.
It is also important to recognize the way in which, as Crawford points out: “Under this dispensation, the figure of the “straight white male” (abstracted from class distinctions) has been made to do a lot of symbolic work, the heavy lifting of legitimation (in his own hapless way, as sacrificial goat).” The bulk of this heavy lifting, however, is not borne by upper middle class white men (who will generally perform, even if half-heartedly, the minimal wokeness expected of them, thereby legitimating their cultural power and prominence), but by pathologized regressive men of the working and middle classes. As I remarked in my first article, our terminology has become freighted with partisan connotations. When people—perhaps especially upper middle class white people—use the word ‘white’, for instance, it is generally code for members of the ‘Red Tribe’, for the sort of white person who does not belong to the cultural elite. The Trumpian backlash to this sort of politics should surprise no one.
We will explore many further aspects of social justice ideology in further articles. Hopefully, it is already becoming clear that to navigate the world of social justice ideology we will need the shrewdness of serpents. It names a considerably more complicated and contradictory set of phenomena than many assume and to take it at its face value is to be dangerously naïve. Its foregrounding of the value of diversity is not innocent of perversely self-serving intent, despite genuinely positive ends that it might serve along the way. It functions to veil many social inequities that call for responsible engagement and directly exacerbates various others. While we should recognize points where its concerns are good, Christians should be exceedingly wary of tethering themselves to such a cause.
Social Justice & The Sermon on the Mount
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned his disciples not to do their good deeds to be seen by men, also warning against praying to attract the attention and praise of others. In the democratized panopticon of social media, where social status is highly contingent upon mutual display in speech, especially for the upper middle classes, such a temptation is ubiquitous. It is intensified by the fact that we increasingly inhabit a realm of hollow speech, divorced from action. If nothing else, Christians who participate in social media should do so relatively sparingly and be distinguished by a peculiar circumspection and wariness of the dangers that attend them.
We should practice forms of speech that maintain an appropriate degree of indifference to the opinions of others, resisting the pursuit of mere appearances. This is especially important for the practice of true charity. True charity, which is not concerned with parading our righteousness before men, will often require that we forfeit the plaudits of men. In a world fixated upon spectacle and shallow appearances (see my discussion of these dynamics in the context of President Trump’s executive order on immigration here), true charity may require greater self-denial and effacement than it ever has before. Valuing concrete concern and action over symbolic and ideological performance may call us away from the bright social spectacle into the neglected shadows of forgotten realities.
Finally, a Christian social ethic must be a great deal more sensitive to socio-economic division and wary of any social ethic than dampens our awareness of it or largely functions to legitimate it. Wrestling with the inescapable tensions between the rich and the poor, in all their moral complexity, and the forging of bonds across the deepest divides in society is integral to Christian social ethics. The shallow cosmetics of ‘diversity’ within an individualistic upper middle class identity politics will never be sufficient, especially as they can so easily both inure us to the deeper charge of justice and serve as legitimating structures for a self-righteous church, rather than as a grace-driven practice of love.
When our speech about justice starts to function more as a means of competitively performing our upper middle class values and legitimating and validating our status, rather than self-forgetfully turning our faces towards our neighbours in need, something has gone seriously wrong. In Philippians 2, Paul tells of Christ’s making himself of no reputation, forgoing privilege and honour for our sake, calling for us to follow in his steps. In the succeeding chapter, Paul recounts his own experience, the way in which he abandoned the religious and moral status that marked him out among men, counting them as nothing for the sake of Christ. Paul’s religious identity, leavened with a spiritual pride (note how much of Paul’s righteousness involves marking himself over against others, excluding others to secure his own moral privilege), functioned as a form of self-legitimation and validation, granting him an elevated status over others.
Paul discarded the privilege of his religious status, which enabled him to moralize and validate his own superiority over others, as worthless trash at the foot of the cross. True righteousness involved not only self-forgetfulness, but a new posture of radical dependence upon Christ’s grace and abandonment of all moral claim. Even the immense benefits that Paul enjoyed from his religious heritage functioned as obstacles when appropriate as a self-legitimating system of exclusionary self-righteousness.
As we live in a culture with an increasingly powerful and exclusionary moral discourse of legitimation and privilege, we ought to follow Paul’s example. For the sake of the ‘social justice’ we may have perversely appealed to as a means of galvanizing our standing over others, we must forfeit our standing, becoming social outcasts, mere mendicants of God’s manifold mercies, in order to discover it in its true and glorious form.
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.