The Tyranny of Clichés
What does ‘social justice’ mean?

(Roman Genn)


In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell says that a writer can avoid the heavy lifting of making an original or insightful argument by simply turning his pen on autopilot and fueling it with “ready made” clichés. “They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself,” writes Orwell. “It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.” More than a half century later, liberalism (and too much of conservatism) has switched to autopilot. For reasons I will discuss below, liberalism imposes itself not through sustained argument, but through a shabby tyranny of clichés, which hides its ideological underpinnings behind a façade of trite phrases and homespun truisms.

Let us start with the example of “social justice.”

In the Oscar-robbed movie Caddyshack, Danny — the protagonist — desperately wants to win the annual Bushwood Country Club scholarship, which is set aside for impressive young caddies. He meets with Judge Smails, who is in charge of awarding the scholarship. The encounter is awkward, because Danny was recently caught in flagrante delicto with the judge’s niece.

Eager to show how fair he is, Smails explains his thinking:

You know, despite what happened, I’m still convinced that you have many fine qualities. I think you can still become a gentleman someday if you understand and abide by the rules of decent society. There’s a lot of . . . well, badness in the world today. I see it in court every day. I’ve sentenced boys younger than you to the gas chamber. I didn’t want to do it — I felt I owed it to them. The most important decision you can make right now is what you stand for — goodness . . . or badness.

I hate to spoil the plot for you, but Danny, eager to please, chooses goodness.

Danny’s vague but earnest answer captures the essence of what most people mean when they invoke social justice. A cry for social justice is usually little more than a call for goodness; “progressive” has become a substitute for “all good things.” But sometimes the word is too vague. So if you press a self-declared progressive to say what it means, he’ll respond, eventually, with something like, “It means fighting for social justice.” If you ask, “What does ‘social justice’ mean?” you are likely to get an exasperated eye roll, because you just don’t get it.

Social justice is goodness, and if you can’t see that, man, you’re either unintentionally “part of the problem” or you’re for badness.

“Social justice” is one of those phrases that no mission statement — at least no mission statement of a certain type — can do without. You simply cannot be in the do-goodery business without proclaiming that you’re fighting for social justice. Here’s the AFL-CIO: “The mission of the AFL-CIO is to improve the lives of working families — to bring economic justice to the work-place and social justice to our nation.” The 2 million–strong Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — which serves as the political shock troops for President Obama (former SEIU president Andrew Stern was the most frequent visitor to the White House during the first six months of the Obama presidency, which no doubt is why his presidency got off to such a great start) — asserts: “We believe we have a special mission to bring economic and social justice to those most exploited in our community — especially to women and workers of color.”

A recent editorial in the Harvard Crimson explains that readers should give the college money because “it largely succeeds as a mechanism for social justice.” Well, okay then, where’s my checkbook? The Ford Foundation gave the Newseum a grant “for a Web site incorporating videos, interactive games and primary resources in a curriculum-based structure for classroom use and to organize a forum on journalism and social justice.” In 2010 the Smithsonian held a conference on “A Deeper Diversity, the Nation’s Health: Renewing Social Justice and Human Well-Being in Our Time.” The Muslim American Society, an organization founded by the Muslim Brotherhood, and through which the Brotherhood has operated in the United States, declares on its website that it “hopes to contribute to the promotion of peace and social justice.” Even the American Nazi Party, not wanting to be left out of the fun, identifies “social justice for White Working Class people throughout our land” as one of its two main tenets (the other being “Aryan Racial survival”).


May 14, 2012    |     Volume LXIV, No. 9

Books, Arts & Manners
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .