Monday, April 6, 2015

On Star Trek and the dark history of "Social Justice"—a post for David Gerrold

David Gerrold wrote a public Facebook post responding to William Lehman's Destroy the myth, destroy the culture. I completely agree with Gerrold when he says,
SF is also about economics, mathematics, chemistery, medicine, history, biology, evolution, anthropology, sociology, ecology, psychology, and even the studies of the technology of consciousness that the human potential movement explores as part of the next evolution of the human species. And if SF is the mythology of the nation, then we have to include music, art, literature, and drama in the above. SF is not a narrow domain, it's a smorgasbord.

And if nothing else, science fiction is about sociology -- because it's not just about the engineering, it's also about who we become when we reinvent our technology. It's about the continuing evolution of the human culture.
But then he says,
Gene Roddenberry was one of the great Social Justice Warriors.
Gerrold must claim that because, like most people, he does not know the history of "social justice" and he's forgotten that in the '60s, few people used the phrase. It was only a religious concept then. Even preachers like Martin Luther King rarely talked about "social justice" because the goal of the civil rights movement was economic justice, not social justice.

And now, casual readers should be asking themselves, "Is there a difference?"


Here's the short, dark history of "social justice":

In the 1840s, as Europe was in turmoil and the groundwork was being laid for the revolutions of 1848 and the writing of the Communist Manifesto, a conservative Catholic priest named Luigi Taparelli promoted "social justice" as a way to preserve the existing social hierarchy. His "social justice" was essentially a broadening of the concept of noblesse oblige: the rich should enjoy the privileges of wealth, but they should treat the poor respectfully and make sure they have the basic needs for survival at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

For decades, "social justice" remained a Catholic concept. Its best practitioners were people like Dorothy Day and the liberation theologists. Its worst may have been Father Charles Coughlin, editor of a magazine called Social Justice. Coughlin accurately described "social justice" when he said:
I have dedicated my life to fight against the heinous rottenness of modern capitalism because it robs the laborer of this world's goods. But blow for blow I shall strike against Communism, because it robs us of the next world's happiness.
Coughlin was a devout anti-communist and anti-semite—his ideological heirs include Anders Breivik and Mel Gibson. His radio show was extremely popular in the 1930s. How much of that was due to his desire to help poor Americans during the worst of the Depression and how much was due to his scapegoating of Jews is impossible to untangle. The Vatican finally silenced him, just as it later silenced the liberation theologists whose ideology had nothing to do with hatred, but went too far in its criticism of capitalism for the Pope's taste.

Coughlin's statement about his "fight" is an accurate summation of social justice: it opposes both capitalism and communism while concerning itself more with "the next world" than this one. (If you think "social justice" is related to "socialism", follow some of the links you can find by googling "social justice is not socialism".)

The idea spread from Catholicism into Protestantism and Judaism. Eventually, wealthy atheists began to accept it, but it wasn't part of the discourse of the '60s. Martin Luther King was a democratic socialist, which is probably why his writings have few mentions of "social justice". Malcolm X's journey from the Nation of Islam to Sunni Islam never exposed him to Christian concepts like "social justice". Both King and X wanted economic and political change, which may be why both took a universalist approach to justice by the ends of their lives. Two examples:
"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." —Martin Luther King, 1967

"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, 1965
The original Star Trek TV show ran from 1966 to 1969. It did not present a social justice future with influential churches and an economic hierarchy in which the poor were treated kindly. It presented a socialist future with no influential organized religion and whose few hierarchies were based on need and ability, not wealth. It was not a vision of what "social justice" was understood to be then.

More importantly, it was not a vision of what "social justice" became. After the initial successes of civil rights workers and second wave feminists, the politics of the left diverged. Some leftists continued down the universalist path. But at schools for the US's economic elite, thinkers like Derrick Bell, Catherine MacKinnon, and Kimberlé Crenshaw developed identitarian approaches like Critical Race Theory, intersectional feminism, and privilege theory, which shaped the internet's "social justice warriors".

Using "social justice" in its broadest sense, socialist David Harvey explained how identitarianism serves contemporary capitalism in A Brief History of Neoliberalism:
Neoliberal rhetoric, with its foundational emphasis upon individual freedoms, has the power to split off libertarianism, identity politics, multi-culturalism, and eventually narcissistic consumerism from the social forces ranged in pursuit of social justice through the conquest of state power. It has long proved extremely difficult within the US left, for example, to forge the collective discipline required for political action to achieve social justice without offending the desire of political actors for individual freedom and for full recognition and expression of particular identities. Neoliberalism did not create these distinctions, but it could easily exploit, if not foment, them.
In the science fiction field, economically privileged fans began to "call out" what they understood as injustice about ten years ago. Examples include The Outing of Zathlazip and the Hounding of William Sanders—social justice workers would have addressed Zathlazip and Sanders with compassion, but social justice warriors tried to hurt them as badly as possible. In Zathlazip's case, their tactics included doxing and death threats.

I don't know who first coined "social justice warrior". Like "Christian warrior", it has been used by zealots who think a violent metaphor is good when applied to their cause and by people who mock those zealots as "warriors" because of their love of attacking others from safe places, usually online and anonymously or pseudonymously. In either use, the name is ironic—so far, the excesses of social justice warriors have gone no further than doxing and threats. But it is understandable why their targets fear that actual violence might come from them. Though they identify as liberals, they subscribe to Barry Goldwater's notion that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Gerrold concludes,
If you're against "the Social Justice Warrior Glittery Hoo Ha crowd" then we to wonder if you're in favor of the denial of civil rights to women, blacks, LGBT, immigrants, and other minorities? 
Because if that's what you stand for -- a return to the days of sexism, racism, misogyny, and discrimination -- then you really shouldn't be pointing to Star Trek as your inspiration. Because that's not what Star Trek was about. Honest. I was there.
I have trouble imagining there are any Star Trek fans who don't know that. The show's conservative fans may fail to see the economic implications of the Star Trek future, but they cannot miss the social ones. Racists can't like Uhura or Sisko or Worf. Sexists can't like Janeway being the captain of a ship. People who believe in conventional marriage can't miss the implications of Worf's marriage to Dax, who he knew had been a man and married as a woman. To be a Star Trek fan, you have to be socially liberal, even if you're politically conservative—it's much easier for social conservatives to like Star Wars.

The opponents of SJWs range from conservatives like Sarah Hoyt, who has written a book with a gay protagonist, to socialists like me (I was marching against segregation in my childhood in the '60s and have been supporting LGBT folks in my fiction since I began to publish in the '80s). The conflict with SJWs may appear to be between conservatives and liberals, but it's actually between authoritarians and libertarians. It's the difference between the Federation and the Borg—in both, there's diversity of appearance, but there's only diversity of thought in one.

ETA: I originally wrote that Worf had known Dax as a man, but in the comments, Jeff Wyonch suggests Worf may not have. Which we both note as sticklers for fact, not because it changes the nature of their marriage. Now I'm tempted to rewatch the wedding episode.

ETA 2: I had used Andrea Dworkin in the text, but I got email from someone whose opinion I respect suggesting that MacKinnon is a much better example of a shallow thinker from a privileged background, so I swapped their names.

ETA 3: A little more data about the history of "social justice" and "social justice warrior": "Social justice" was used at least as early as 1793 by William Godwin in Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness. "Social justice warrior" was used as praise in 2009 in a tweet from Julie Powers that read "Grace Lee Boggs. Social justice warrior. Dame. All around inspiration. #MIPolicySummit"

ETA 4: A beginner's guide to "Social Justice Warriors" in the F&SF community