Friday, February 21, 2014

Understanding Social Justice Warriors

This is the almost-final-draft of a section from a book about social justice warriors, identitarianism, and mobbing. For more information and links to other chapters, see How to Make a Social Justice Warrior.

• From Social Justice Workers to Social Justice Warriors
• Racism = Power + Privilege, so only White People can be Racist?
• Derrick Bell, the Father of Critical Race Theory
• Kimberlé Crenshaw, the Mother of Intersectionality
• The Problem with Privilege Theory
• Nine Problems with Identitarianism
• Quotes for Identity Traitors
• About this history

• Understanding Social Justice Warriors

“Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking’s a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That’s why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they’re arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane, and self-evident And if you let it get away from you, then you’ve got to dive back into that foggy muddle to wangle yourself out another to take its place.” —Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse

"There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind." —Kurt Vonnegut

I may be the only person who has gotten death threats from racists and anti-racists. In the 1960s, when my parents were part of the civil rights struggle, late-night callers promised the Ku Klux Klan would burn down our home. Though the Klan never came, our fire insurance was cancelled because the insurer thought the risk was too great. In the 1980s, I wrote a comic book about a white man and a black woman who became lovers in a parallel world where the Confederacy won the Civil War. Though many southerners praised it, a Texan sent me a letter about the fate of race traitors.

Until 2009, my credentials as an opponent of racism seemed solid. In my youth, I marched for integration. As an adult, I wrote Dogland, a novel based on my childhood that Ellen Kushner called "A masterwork. A particularly American magic realism that touches the heart of race and childhood in our country." I created Captain Confederacy, the first black female superhero who had her own series from a major comic book company. The Feminist SF Wiki said my work “features strong women characters and people of color”.

Then I entered a flamewar with science fiction and fantasy fans who understand power in terms of social identities—in that case, race—and got my first death threat from an anti-racist. Researching my opponents, I learned that

• Claiming to believe in racial diversity, they mobbed a Cherokee author and editor, prevented him from being a guest of honor at a literary convention, and effectively drove him from the genre he had loved.

• Claiming to believe in supporting women, they mobbed a woman who was a pioneer in two male-dominated fields, science fiction and the military, and prevented her from being a guest of honor at a feminist science fiction convention.

• Claiming to believe in protecting women, they exposed a pseudonymous young woman’s legal identity, left a threatening note in her office, and contacted her employers to try to get her fired.

• Claiming to believe in tolerance, they call for silencing anyone whose approach to justice is different than theirs, even—or especially—when their targets also want to make a world of equality for everyone.

After that flamewar, I forgave everyone in it. The last and hardest to forgive was myself. Like everyone in every flamewar, I chose to fight when I could have stayed on the sidelines. All I can do to make amends is share what I’ve learned about identitarianism, intersectionality, social justice warriors, mobbing, cults, and outrage culture.

• From Social Justice Workers to Social Justice Warriors

The social justice warrior is the internet’s name for outraged people who excuse their behavior by citing social justice. But no one should confuse social justice warriors with social justice workers. In theory and practice, they’re very different:

• Social justice workers work in the world; social justice warriors rant on the web.

• Social justice workers focus on poverty; social justice warriors focus on privilege.

Social justice workers treat everyone with respect; social justice warriors reject civility.

The name and philosophy of “social justice” began in Europe during the 1840s. In a time of revolution when democrats fought to overthrow kings, two Catholic priests, Luigi Taparelli and Antonio Rosmini-Serbati, wanted to support the established order while helping the poor. Social justice updated the feudal concept of noblesse oblige—it called on the rich to treat the poor with respect and charity. Because the goal of social justice was a benevolent economic hierarchy, liberals of other faiths quickly adopted it, and so did liberal atheists.

Social justice flowered in the 20th century with the liberation theologists of South and Central America who criticized the effects of unregulated capitalism and encouraged democracy in countries run by rightwing dictators. My favorite quote by a social justice worker is Dom Hélder Câmara’s “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why are they poor, they call me a Communist.” It contains two truths about social justice workers: they go out to improve the lives of the poor, and they are not socialists. As Kathy McGourty at the U.S. Catholics web site says, "Social justice isn't an economic or political theory, but an outlook that seeks to strengthen the identity of the individual because it sees that human dignity derives its meaning from being made in God's image (Gen. 1:26).”

Gandhi and Martin Luther King didn’t speak of social justice. Civil rights movements are political, as the name implies—“civil” comes from civis, the Latin word for a citizen. Civil rights supporters believe all citizens deserve equal rights. When the civil rights movements of the 1960s mutated into the social justice movements of the ‘70s, a casual observer would think only the names changed—to most people, civil rights and social justice are two labels for treating everyone fairly. But if you believe words matter, these changes are significant:

• Civil rights workers defined their causes by what they supported: equality, integration, peace. Social justice warriors define their causes by what they oppose: anti-racism, anti-war, anti-imperialism, etc.

Civil rights workers saw humanity as one family. Social justice warriors see humanity divided by social identities like race, sex, and religion.

Two champions in the fight for racial equality rejected the politics of division:

"I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don’t think that it will be based upon the color of the skin." —Malcolm X

“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.” —Martin Luther King

But after King and Malcolm X were murdered, many of their admirers were unable to accept their understanding of injustice. The Black Panthers took one path, and feminist separatists took another. In 1969, feminist Carol Hanisch popularized the slogan that expresses the belief of all identity groups: The personal is political. That moment may have been the birth of identitarianism, the belief that what matters most in politics is social identity,

Identitarians love to quote Audre Lorde’s line, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." They fail to see that identitarianism has been the master’s tool since the modern understanding of race began. Pinpointing the precise moment may be impossible, but we know the first white people appear in North America’s historical record around 1680, soon after Bacon’s Rebellion, when black slaves and white indentured servants fought side-by-side as comrades. Before Bacon’s Rebellion, people in English-occupied North America were referred to by their tribe or place of origin—British, Mohican, African, etc.—and slaves and indentured servants were treated alike by their masters. After Bacon’s Rebellion, laws were passed giving more rights to white servants. It was a simple exercise in the oldest law of conquest, divide and rule.

The next essential date in the history of identitarianism is 1837, when the socialist Charles Fourier coined “feminism”. The name defined the movement by the sex it was intended to help. In 1901, Dora Montefiore saw the problem with the name and hoped it would not be brought from French into English: "It is a lop-sided expression, and leads to lop-sided thinking, just as the term “masculinism” might do, if used in a similar connection. Where education, professions, political rights and public duties are concerned, there is no necessity to emphasise sex; we all meet on the common ground of human beings, having common human interests. In 1897, when speaking at the Women’s Congress in Brussels, I made a similar protest against the word “feminism,” suggesting that we should substitute for it “humanism,” as the advancement of humanity, and not of one sex over another, was the aim and object of the women at that time assembled in conference."

During the struggle for equality for all, small separatist groups could be called early identitarians—Marcus Garvey had his Back To Africa movement, and Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam promoted black nationalism. But they were considered extremists. Charles Fourier was no less a feminist because he was male. William Lloyd Garrison was no less an abolitionist because he was white.

When activists accepted the notion that the personal is political, the politics of the personal became the politics of division.

“Straight women are confused by men, don’t put women first, they betray lesbians and in its deepest form, they betray their own selves. You can’t build a strong movement if your sisters are out there fucking the oppressor.” —Rita Mae Brown, 1975

“I Hate Straights.” —Anonymous, the Queer Nation manifesto, 1990

“Of course all white people are racist.” —Joseph Harker, 2002

“Real women have curves.” —Unknown, popular with female fat activists

“Die Cis Scum.” Char, 2011. (“Cis” is a contraction for “cisgender”, a term for people who are not transgender.)

As identitarianism spread, some leftists rejected it:

“By personalizing power, ‘the personal is the political’ personalizes the enemy: the enemy of the black is the white as the enemy of the woman is the man. And all whites are racist like all men are sexist. Thus racism is the combination of power plus prejudice ... Hence the fight against racism became reduced to a fight against prejudice, the fight against institutions and practices to a fight against individuals and attitudes.” —Ambalavaner Sivanandan, “All That Melts into Air is Solid”

“In 1990 I read Queer Nation’s Manifesto, I Hate Straights, in Outweek and wrote a letter to the editor suggesting that if queers of color followed its political lead we would soon be issuing a statement titled, I Hate Whitey, including white queers of European origin.” —Barbara Smith

“The underlying assumption of identity politics is that only those who actually experience a form of oppression may define it or voice an opinion about how to fight against it. Rather than leading to collaboration, this assumption has often led to bitter divisions among lesbians and gays, frequently within the same organizations. For example, some lesbians and gays have argued that bisexuals are not really oppressed, because they enjoy ‘heterosexual privilege’. Meanwhile, some bisexuals have argued that they are oppressed by ‘both gay and straight communities’.” —Sharon Smith, “Mistaken identity – or can identity politics liberate the oppressed?”

But identitarianism shrugged off its critics with ease as its ideology grew more complex.

• Racism = Power + Privilege, so only White People can be Racist?

“A racist is one who is both privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. The term applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture, or sexuality. By this definition, people of color cannot be racists.” —Shakti Butler

In 1970, Pat Bidol redefined racism when she wrote in Developing New Perspectives on Race that “racism = prejudice + power”. Judith H. Katz popularized the equation in White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training. The theory is that everyone is prejudiced, but only white people can be racist because racism requires prejudice plus power, and people of color do not have power in a racist society.

The problem with the theory is people like Condoleeza Rice, Oprah Winfrey, and Kimberlé Crenshaw have far more power than most people of any hue in the USA. In discussions online, Greyorm suggested, “The equation should rightly read: “privilege = prejudice + power” (which actually makes sense).” Ron Kozar noted that by this definition, “American Nazis aren’t racists, since they have no power.” An anonymous commenter at a conservative site said, “I thought a racist was any conservative who was winning an argument with a liberal.”

In “An Examination of Anti-Racist and Anti-Oppressive Theory and Practice in Social Work Education”, Marie Macey and Eileen Moxon wrote:

…an edifice of theory and action has been constructed on the simplistic ‘explanation’ of racism as being the outcome of power plus prejudice. Not only does this inaccurately assume a single cause and type of racism but it dangerously implies that there is a single solution to the phenomenon (Gilroy 1990; Husband, 1987; Miles, 1989).

The view that racism is an attribute of the monolithic category of people termed ‘white’ who hold all the power in society is equally confused and confusing. At one level of abstraction, it is true that a certain sector of the (white, male) population holds much of the economic and decision-making power in British society. It is also true that some members of this group are statistically likely to be racially prejudiced. However, though this knowledge should inform social work education, it has limited utility at the operational level of social work or, often, in the everyday lives of black and white service workers.

Furthermore, if a Pakistani Muslim male refuses to have an African-Caribbean or Indian Hindu female social worker for reasons which, if articulated by a white Christian would be condemned as racist, one has to ask what the point is of denying that this refusal stems from racist (or sexist or sectarian) motivations? Similarly, if one compares the structural position of a white, working class, homeless male with that of a black barrister, would the statement that ‘only whites have power’ make sense or be acceptable to either of them?

…the approaches [of anti-racism theory] are theoretical and thus closed to the canons of scientific evaluation and because the discourse itself prohibits the open, rigorous and critical interrogation which is essential to theoretical, professional and personal development.”

Contemporary anti-racism is a commercial movement promoted by graduates of the US’s most expensive private schools. Many of them, like Pat Bidol, are white people who make their living promoting anti-racism theory:

Judith Katz is the Executive Vice President of the Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, a business specializing in diversity training.

Peggy McIntosh, author of “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, is the associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.

Tim Wise, a graduate of Tulane, lectures at “over 400 college campuses, including Harvard, Stanford, and the Law Schools at Yale, Columbia, and Vanderbilt.” In one of his youtube videos, he claimed he was doing what black speakers could not, but black speakers have been popular at universities for decades. The idea that black speakers could not speak about race today is as silly as the title of one of his books, Speaking Treason Fluently. When polls show the great majority of Americans support racial diversity, a better title would be Speaking Truisms Profitably.

People like Wise, Katz, and McIntosh mean well, but they content themselves with a superficial understanding of injustice. My favorite Upton Sinclair quote applies: “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

The idea that only white people could be racist made some sense during the age of Jim Crow. Does it today? Carol Swain, a professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University, suggests, “We need to rethink what is racist and who can legitimately call whom racist. With a black president, a black attorney general, and blacks holding various power positions around the country, now might be a time when we can concede that anyone can express attitudes and actions that others can justifiably characterize as racist.”

• Derrick Bell, the Father of Critical Race Theory

“Racism is an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of this society.” Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well

“Critical race theorists often write not in traditional, lawyerly terms, but with parables, and stories, and dialogues.” —Elena Kagan

“CRT [Critical Race Theory] recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color.” — The UCLA School of Public Affairs’ web site, “What is Critical Race Theory?”

One of Derrick Bell’s black critics, Winkfield F. Twyman, Jr., wrote, “Bell had come out of the litigation struggle during the 1960s. Rightly concerned with the “snail pace” of racial progress, he began writing arguments critical of traditional civil rights law. He continued his provocative work after his appointment to the Harvard Law School faculty in 1969 and tenure in 1971. ... Because he taught at the premier law school in the country, Bell’s thoughts had a disproportionate impact on the best and the brightest black law students. Bell became more of a fiction writer than a scholar of constitutional doctrine. He devised more and more imaginary narratives that infused the law with the experience of racism. He wrote about space ships that came to take blacks away. He wrote about imaginary civil rights lawyers, to keep it real. And the bright ones took their lead from Bell’s troubled sojourn into irrelevance. Kimberlé Crenshaw graduated from Harvard Law in 1984 and began to expand upon the mysticism that became loosely coined ‘Critical Race Theory’.”

Bell’s story about space ships is “The Space Traders.” Charlie Jane Anders says it’s “one of the most disturbing thought experiments in science fiction, which later became an HBO TV special. In "The Space Traders," aliens arrive and offer the United States "enough gold to retire the national debt, a magic chemical that will cleanse America's polluted skies and waters, and a limitless source of safe energy to replace our dwindling reserves." The U.S. just has to give the aliens one thing in return: all of our black people. (Guess what white Americans decide?)”

Bell’s assumptions about white people can be seen in this paragraph from the narrative: “But whites, long conditioned to discounting any statements of blacks unconfirmed by other whites, chose now, of course, to follow their own perceptions. "Will the blacks never be free of their silly superstitions?" whites asked one another with condescending smiles. "Here, in this truly historic moment, when America has been selected as the site for this planet's first contact with people from another world, the blacks just revert to their primitive fear and foolishness." Thus, the blacks' outrage was discounted in this crisis; they had, as usual, no credibility.”

Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in the New York Times, “Consider the ''Space Traders'' story. How does one have a meaningful dialogue with Derrick Bell? Because his thesis is utterly untestable, one quickly reaches a dead end after either accepting or rejecting his assertion that white Americans would cheerfully sell all blacks to the aliens. The story is also a poke in the eye of American Jews, particularly those who risked life and limb by actively participating in the civil rights protests of the 1960's. Bell clearly implies that this was done out of tawdry self-interest. Perhaps most galling is Bell's insensitivity in making the symbol of Jewish hypocrisy the little girl who perished in the Holocaust—as close to a saint as Jews have. A Jewish professor who invoked the name of Rosa Parks so derisively would be bitterly condemned—and rightly so.”

Bell’s defenders note that his story mentions a rabbi who wants to protect blacks, but they ignore Bell’s conclusion: “The Jews who opposed the Trade were intimidated into silence and inaction.” Whether Bell meant that intimidation to exonerate Jews or damn them for accepting silence is unclear, but Jewish readers had reasons to be concerned about Bell. In 1994, he said, “We should really appreciate the Louis Farrakhans and the Khalid Muhammads while we’ve got them.” At the time, Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, was famous for calling Jews “bloodsuckers”. Only a year before, Khalid Muhammad, Farrakhan’s National Assistant, had made a speech about South Africa, saying, “If they are white, kill ‘em all. Why kill the women? Why kill the babies? They are just innocent blue-eyed babies? Because god dammit they are going to grow up one day to rule your babies. Kill them now. Why kill the women in South Africa? I say kill the women because the women are the military manufacturing center. And every nine months they lay down on their backs and reinforcement rolls out from between their legs, so shut down the military manufacturing center by killing the white woman.”

Bell wrote, “Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those Herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than ‘temporary peaks of progress,’ short lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance ... white self-interest will prevail over black rights.” He originally called his theory “Racial Realism”, the same name former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke uses for his beliefs. In both cases, “racial realism” was an attempt to duck the charge of racism.

Critical Race Theorists say their realism explains why the wealth gap between whites and blacks changed very little after the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King had one answer—in 1967, he wrote, “In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.” King was very aware that limited class mobility explained both white and black poverty. His solution to poverty was “to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

But Derrick Bell was not a follower of King, and unlike Malcolm X, Bell had no interest in socialism. Late in his life, he said, “I think there must be value in Marxist and other writings, but I did not really read them in college and have had little time since.” Because his heroes included black socialists like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, his indifference to socialism may seem surprising until you remember that many middle class black people celebrate King and Malcolm X as champions of racial equality rather than opponents of economic inequality.

Henry Louis Gates described people like Bell when he said, “The most ironic outcome of the black Civil Rights movement has been the creation of a new black middle class which is increasingly separate from the black underclass.” That divide is so great that a Pew poll in 2007 found “African Americans see a widening gulf between the values of middle class and poor blacks, and nearly four-in-ten say that because of the diversity within their community, blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race.” But that’s a fact you won’t hear from black identitarians, who think they are the voice of black America.

Talking about Barack Obama, Adolph Reed Jr. said, "I’d refrained from saying that he, as well as his various running dogs, haunt me as illustrations of the modal type of Ivy League POC students I’ve been teaching for the last 30 years. That same mastery of performance of a cultivated, yet at the same time empty and pro forma, intellectuality, that conviction that one’s career advancement literally embodies the victory of the civil rights movement, and that awe that Bromwich notes of the rich and powerful."

Because identitarians believe dark-skinned people are best-qualified to discuss racism, here are some critics of color from the left and right who reject the anti-racism that grew from Critical Race Theory:

“[Anti-racists] make an erroneous assumption about the nature and structure of power in America…The privilege that, according to the anti-racists, comes with membership in white America, actually belongs to a tiny elite.” —Rev. Thandeka, “Why Anti-Racism Will Fail”

“The contemporary discourse of “antiracism” is focused much more on taxonomy than politics. It emphasizes the name by which we should call some strains of inequality—whether they should be broadly recognized as evidence of “racism”—over specifying the mechanisms that produce them or even the steps that can be taken to combat them.” —Adolph Reed Jr., “The limits of anti-racism”

“Anti-racist politics has become a facile “representation” game that involves appeasing the fragile sensitivities of a vocal few claiming to represent the whole community. It is about harassing artists and writers, demanding that they conform to “right” ways of representing the community.” —Priyamvada Gopal, “Anti-racism has to go beyond a facile representation game”

“Our best and brightest … should not be spending their energies planning the next hot Critical Race Theory workshop where the irrelevant write for one another. ... For all intents and purposes, Critical Race Theory is a non-issue in the real world.” —Winkfield F. Twyman, “The Lightness of Critical Race Theory”

• Kimberlé Crenshaw, the Mother of Intersectionality

Derrick Bell’s protégé, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, gave his racial realism a more convincing name, Critical Race Theory, and, in 1989, fused liberal feminism and Critical Race Theory with a concept that’s loved by identitarians, “intersectionality.”

Crenshaw had noticed that black women sometimes fell between legal categories—the most famous example being DeGraffenreid v General Motors. The company had not hired black women before 1964, and during a seniority-based layoff, all of the black women hired after 1970 were fired. Five black women sued for discrimination, but the suit failed. The court found black women were not “a special class to be protected from discrimination”. GM had met the letter of the law by retaining black men and white women.

Crenshaw wrote: “Among the most troubling political consequences of the failure of anti-racist and feminist discourses to address the intersections of race and gender is the fact that, to the extent they can forward the interests of “people of color” and “women,” respectively, one analysis often implicitly denies the validity of the other. The failure of feminism to interrogate race means that the resistance strategies of feminism will often replicate and reinforce the subordination of people of color, and the failure of antiracism to interrogate patriarchy means that antiracism will frequently reproduce the subordination of women.”

Because intersectionality assumes each form of oppression is unique, and they only intersect when people live at an intersection, Crenshaw solved one problem—how to get middle class feminists to think about race—and created another. She disconnected race and class, and fragmented the political left.

For socialists, applying intersectionality to class and gender is easy. In The Origin of the Family, Frederick Engels wrote, “The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.” There may be something in the nature of hierarchy that leads to both sexual and class oppression, but no one believes sexism created the class system or the class system led to sexism.

But separating class and race is impossible for people who study the history of racism. Trinidadan historian Eric Williams noted that “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” In “The Whiting of Euro-Americans: A Divide and Conquer Strategy”, Rev. Thandeka wrote, “We must not forget that white racism was from the start a vehicle for classism; its primary goal was not to elevate a race but to denigrate a class. White racism was thus a means to an end, and the end was the defense of Virginia’s class structure and the further subjugation of the poor of all "racial" colors.”

While the idea of intersectionality was resisted by socialists, it met a need in identitarian communities. It was quickly adopted by people who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer, then by people with disabilities, and finally by people who think of class as a social identity rather than a relationship to economic power. When some people from those communities became socialists, they brought Crenshaw’s concept with them, so socialists, like liberals, can be divided between identitarians and universalists.

• The Problem with Privilege Theory

Early in the 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about white skin privilege in The Souls of Black Folk, but Du Bois, a socialist, saw that privilege as a symptom of a greater problem. In the preface to that book’s 50th anniversary edition, he wrote, “I still think today as yesterday that the color line is a great problem of this century. But today I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and color, lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance, and disease of the majority of their fellowmen; that to maintain this privilege men have waged war until today war tends to become universal and continuous, and the excuse for this war continues largely to be color and race.”

The word “privilege” rarely occurs in the documents of the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1960s, we saw a three-tiered world: the majority had rights, the rich had privileges, and minorities were oppressed. We wanted to end oppression and privilege so everyone would have the same rights. A privilege was a special treatment for a tiny minority, rich people and contest winners. Which makes sense—”privilege” comes from the Latin for “private law”. The privileged play by different rules than the public.

But the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois’s “Checking Your Privilege 101” defines privilege as “an unearned advantage that a dominant group has over marginalized groups.” Their examples range from race and gender to “able-bodied privilege” (the “privilege” of not being disabled) and “life on the outside privilege” (the “privilege” of not being behind bars). To Privilege Theorists, a dominant group is a large social group—usually, the majority. Examples of US dominant groups include white people (77.9% of the population), men (49.2%), straight people (95%), people who are not obese (73.5%), and people who are not behind bars (99%).

Under Privilege Theory, there are no rights. Everyone’s privileged or oppressed. Rev. Thandeka points out the flaw in that logic in “Why Anti-Racism Will Fail”: “Imagine that business and government leaders decreed that all left-handed people must have their left hand amputated. Special police forces and armies are established to find such persons and oversee the procedure. University professors and theologians begin to write tracts to justify this new policy. Soon right-handed persons begin to think of themselves as having right-hand privilege. The actual content of this privilege, of course, is negative: it’s the privilege of not having one’s left hand cut off. The privilege, in short, is the avoidance of being tortured by the ruling elite. To speak of such a privilege—if we must call it that—is not to speak of power but rather of powerlessness in the midst of a pervasive system of abuse—and to admit that the best we can do in the face of injustice is duck and thus avoid being a target.”

Privilege Theory follows the binary logic of identitarianism: women vs. men, people of color vs. white people, GLBTQ people vs. straight people, Muslims vs. Christians. The model for privilege theory is fundamentally racial, because it centers on groups that cannot change for biological reasons or do not wish to change for cultural reasons. Though Privilege Theorists try to fit class into their model, they miss how awkwardly class fits:

1. The class divide is not binary. Both feudalism and capitalism have middle classes whose allegiance is usually with the ruling class but sometimes aligns with the working class’s.

2. Class in capitalism is tribal, not racial: gain capital and you join the capitalists; lose capital and you join the working class.

3. Poor people do not want to preserve their social identity; they want to escape it.

Privilege Theorists complain that the “privileged” do not notice their privilege. The flaw is not with the “privileged” but with the theory. Where white people are a majority, they don’t notice white privilege for the same reason Thais don’t notice Thai privilege in Thailand. Being part of the status quo is not a privilege. Being treated better than the status quo is a privilege.

In the US’s most recent social struggle, the fight for gender rights, no one argues that serving in the military or getting married are privileges. We argue that they are human rights which every human deserves—and that continues to be the winning argument.

• Nine Problems with Identitarianism

Identitarians claim to be the true representatives of their social identity.

Black identitarians talk as if there’s a single black identity, but Pew Research found that nearly 40% of African Americans think it’s no longer right to speak of a single black race. Feminist identitarians talk as if there’s a single female identity, but women and men are about equally divided on women’s issues—an ABC News survey found in 2013 that 56% of men and 55% of women support legal abortion, and a survey for the Paycheck Fairness Act Coalition found in 2010 that 87% of women and 81% of men support new laws to guarantee women get equal pay.

2. Identitarianism imposes identities on people who do not want them.

Matt Bruenig noted, “The fundamental problem with cramming poor people into the identitarian framework is that, unlike every other identity treated in that framework, justice for poor people requires their elimination. The appropriate remedy to racial oppression is not to make everyone white, nor is the appropriate remedy to gender oppression to make everyone male. But the appropriate remedy to the “oppression of the poor” (as identitarians describe it) is to make them no longer poor. Poorness is not an identity to be celebrated or lifted up; it is an identity to be done away with altogether. The oppression of poor people is that they are poor people. The same cannot be said for any other marginalized group.”

3. Identitarianism limits possibilities for everyone in an identity.

“Identity is a concept of our age that should be used very carefully. All types of identities, ethnic, national, religious, sexual or whatever else, can become your prison after a while. The identity that you stand up for can enslave you and close you to the rest of the world.” —Murathan Mungan

“Demanding respect for people as blacks and gays can go along with notably rigid strictures as to how one is to be an African American or a person with same-sex desires.” —Kwame Anthony Appiah

“To view humans as culture-bearing is to view them as social beings, and hence as transformative beings. It suggests that humans have the capacity for change, for progress, and for the creation of universal moral and political forms through reason and dialogue. To view humans as having to bear specific cultures is, on the contrary, to deny such a capacity for transformation. It suggests that every human being is so shaped by a particular culture that to change or undermine that culture would be to undermine the very dignity of that individual. It suggests that the biological fact of, say, Jewish or Bangladeshi ancestry somehow make a human being incapable of living well except as a participant of Jewish or Bangladeshi culture. This would only make sense if Jews or Bangladeshis were biologically distinct—in other words if cultural identity was really about racial difference.” —Kenan Malik

4. Identitarianism divides people.

"Identity politics enabled many formerly silenced and displaced groups to emerge from the margins of power and dominant culture to reassert and reclaim suppressed identities and experiences; but in doing so, they often substituted one master narrative for another, invoked a politics of separatism, and suppressed differences within their own 'liberatory' narratives." - Henry Giroux, "Living Dangerously: Identity Politics and The New Cultural Racism”

5. Identitarianism focuses on proportionality, which obscures the nature and extent of economic injustice.

“In 1969, the top quintile of American wage-earners made 43 per cent of all the money earned in the US; the bottom quintile made 4.1 per cent. In 2007, the top quintile made 49.7 per cent; the bottom quintile 3.4. And while this inequality is both raced and gendered, it’s less so than you might think. White people, for example, make up about 70 per cent of the US population, and 62 per cent of those in the bottom quintile. Progress in fighting racism hasn’t done them any good; it hasn’t even been designed to do them any good. More generally, even if we succeeded completely in eliminating the effects of racism and sexism, we would not thereby have made any progress towards economic equality. A society in which white people were proportionately represented in the bottom quintile (and black people proportionately represented in the top quintile) would not be more equal; it would be exactly as unequal. It would not be more just; it would be proportionately unjust.” —Walter Benn Michaels

6. Identitarianism’s love of subjectivity obscures objective truths.

“The problem with some versions of intersectional identity politics is that, in elevating subjective experience above objective knowledge, they dissolve the possibility of making coherent, meaningful claims of injustice or oppression at all. On this logic all complaints are reduced to an expression of one’s personal preference or feelings, with no way to distinguish genuine injustice from mere dislike. If we want to hold on to the concepts of injustice and oppression, and if we want them to have real political weight and to signify actions and practices that need to be altered, then we have to understand them as having objective criteria that are defined independently of how any individual experiences them. The intersectionalist demand to attend to people’s narratives and to learn from people’s experiences can, at its best, shed a great deal of light on difficult concepts like oppression and injustice, and help us to understand the forms they take and the remedies they require. But at its worst, it descends into solipsism and narcissism, where we mollify oppressed people with the consolation that they are being listened to, but where we and they ultimately lack any resources with which to end their oppression.” —Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, “The Objectivity of Oppression”

7. Identitarianism treats all social identities as equal.

Identitarians often advise each other “Don’t play oppression olympics”—meaning, don’t suggest one person’s oppression is greater than another’s. This conflicts with intersectionality theory, which adds oppressions together. By intersectionality theory, a homeless white man has two privileges and one oppression, and Herman Cain’s daughter has two oppressions and one privilege; so Melanie Cain-Jackson is twice as oppressed as a homeless white man. However, the advice against oppression olympics means it’s bad form to admit this, so Ms. Cain-Jackson and a homeless white man are considered equally oppressed, and the identitarian solution to their problems is to treat them both with respect.

8. Identitarianism offers no practical solutions.

In the early years of identitarianism, identitarians offered solutions. They wanted reparations for slavery in the form of money paid to all black Americans. Whenever a white man competed for a job with someone who was not white and male, they wanted the white man to be passed over until racial and gender equality had been achieved at all levels of society.

But eventually, most identitarians saw these solutions could never work. Do you pay reparations to the descendants of black slaveowners? If you pay black people who have suffered from generational poverty, why shouldn’t you pay white people who suffered from the same problem? If it’s wrong to disqualify people based on race or gender, how do you defend disqualifying white men?

So identitarians stopped offering solutions. They simply teach an ideology that, they believe, will lead to a better world. In this, they are no different and no more effective than any religion. 

9. Identitarianism is ineffective and may be counter-productive.

“A 2007 study of 829 companies that use diversity training suggested that the sessions make virtually no difference in the number of minorities hired or promoted into management positions. (Employing a manager of diversity or a diversity task force produces far better results.) There are also troubling anecdotes, like the Texaco executives who were taped referring to employees as “black jelly beans” who were “glued to the bottom of the bag” after seeing jelly beans used in a diversity training session.” —Brian Palmer, “What Happens in Racial Sensitivity Training?”

“In 1997 the Council of Europe coordinated a year of anti-racism campaigns and activities throughout Europe. A survey at the end of the year, conducted in European Union countries by the polling organisation Eurobarometer, found that rather than a decline in racism, it had been marked by a growing willingness on the part of Europeans to openly declare themselves as racist. Twenty-two per cent of those surveyed in December 1997 in Belgium, 16 per cent in France, and 8 per cent in Britain declared themselves to be 'very racist'. Thirty-four per cent of those surveyed in Germany, 30 per cent in Italy, and 24 per cent in Britain admitted they were 'quite racist'. As the primary goal of the Year's activities was, presumably, to reduce racist attitudes, rather than to encourage honesty and self disclosure, the campaigns run in European countries in 1997 would appear to have failed, if not backfired.” —Adrienne Millbank, “An Anti-Racism Campaign: Who Needs It?”

“Cross-classified multilevel regression analyses show that the level of xenophobia is lower when pupils evaluate their inter-ethnic contacts as positive, and higher when they perceive these contacts as negative. However, the impact of positive inter-ethnic contact in class disappears or even reverses when multiculturalism is more emphasized during lessons.” —Hidde Bekhuis, Stijn Ruiter and Marcel Coenders, “Xenophobia among Youngsters: The Effect of Inter-Ethnic Contact”

• Quotes for Identity Traitors

on gender

“I think it is funny that we were freer about sexuality in the 4th century B.C. It is a little disconcerting.” —Angelina Jolie

“In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.” —Simone de Beauvoir 

on class

"I understand that it may not be considered good form to suggest that class issues are as important as issues of race, gender or sexuality, despite the fact that from my own perspective they seem perhaps even more fundamental and crucially relevant. After all, while in the West after many years of arduous struggle we are now allowed to elect women, non-white people and even, surely at least in theory, people of openly alternative sexualities, I am relatively certain that we will never be allowed to elect a man or woman of any race or persuasion who is poor." —Alan Moore

“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” ―Warren Buffett

on equality

“In all things, there is neither male nor female.” —Buddha, The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti

“Thou art woman, Thou art man, Thou art youth and maiden… it is Thou alone who, when born, assumes diverse forms.” —the Hindu Svetasvatara Upanishad

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one.” —St. Paul, Galatians

“By nature men are pretty much alike; it is learning and practice that set them apart.” —Confucius

“For the white to lord it over the black, the Arab over the non-Arab, the rich over the poor, the strong over the weak or men over women is out of place and wrong.” —Muhammad, the Hadith of Ibn Majah

“The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.” —Chief Joseph

My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.” ― Thomas Paine

“I am human, so nothing human is strange to me.” —Terence

• About this history

This is a personal history with all the limitations that implies. It’s honest in the sense that I believe everything in it is true, but humans make mistakes. If you see something you think needs correcting, email me: If I agree, I’ll release a revised edition—I love ebooks because important corrections can be made quickly.

This book is organized roughly in the way I learned about social justice warriors. The first section is about the skirmishes that led up to the great Racefail flamewar. The second is about the things I learned trying to understand what had happened there. The third is about the “fails” that followed Racefail as the warriors found new targets for their fury. All histories must end somewhere, so I picked an event that amused me—I know the age of the social justice warrior will not end soon.

The main battleground for social justice warriors is the internet, so I’m using the names that were used online, with one exception: Whether Micole/Mely Coffeeandink intended to be pseudonymous during the years she shared her full legal name in public posts on her LiveJournal, only she knows, but it’s kinder to assume incompetence than malice, so I’m not including her legal last name. I am using her first name because it’s the handle she continued to use on her LJ for several weeks after she claimed to have been outed and is relevant to the question of whether she was outed.

I am not using Zathlazip’s legal name because she never linked her pseudonym with her legal name in a public post before she was outed by many warriors, including Coffeeandink. In neither case is a legal name necessary to talk about what happened.

Everything I quote comes from posts and comments that were on public sites at the time I quoted them.

I’m including a little biographical material about a few warriors. During Racefail, after they speculated wildly about my life, I googled what they had said about their own. If that’s “cyberstalking”, I only have the excuse that national leaders and small children love: they did it first.

If you wonder why most of the people I mention are women, it’s because the most prominent social justice warriors are female. The men rarely add anything original to a conversation, perhaps because they don’t dare say anything that might jeopardize their male ally status.