Houskeeper: The problems with Northwestern’s social justice warriors

Sam Houskeeper, Guest Columnist

Northwestern does not have a large activist community, but it is a place where attempts at dialogue always seem to end up being particularly unproductive. Inability to discuss serious issues could be the result of the lack of diverse activism here or could itself perpetuate the apolitical nature of our campus. Both are probably true. This year’s struggle over divestment from companies involved in human rights violations in Palestine comes to mind as an example of NU’s infantile handle on controversy. Political Union organized a formal panel discussion between the two sides, though it was a titanic struggle getting them to speak to each other in the same room. In my opinion, little listening was done at the event or during the campus discussion in general. The main problem was that both sides saw themselves as fighting against a group that hated them. Although there were whiffs of bigotry on both sides, the average student in each group was not motivated by hate, at least not initially. Of course, it becomes much easier to hate someone if you convince yourself that they hate you. Overall, neither side was very impressive and campus ended up more bigoted than before the debate. Numerous students have told me (separately) that they never experienced so much anti-Arab prejudice or anti-Semitism until after the divestment circus.

Most campus activism at NU is spearheaded by those I call social justice warriors, a loose collection of self-proclaimed progressive students whose dedication to equality is admirable. However, their methods of eliminating prejudice have created a culture where any kind of dissenters are shamed and cowed into silence. Make no mistake, this essay is filled with generalizations about the subjects of my indictment. But the opinion I express is shaped by four years of futile attempts to engage campus activists. Further, innumerable conversations I’ve had with my peers can attest to the sentiment of my argument. If campus activists desire broader support, they must understand this is the impression they leave.

The implicit assumption in the social justice community is that there is a higher burden of proof on determining that something is not offensive than on proving that it is. In other words, social justice communities believe if someone is offended by something — anything at all — then they have every right and reason to be. I believe the opposite. Deciding something is unacceptable should be backed by argument rather than mindlessly labeling it “ignorant,” or worse, “violent.” And I don’t mean slurs. It’s hard to think of any normative statement that would not offend someone in the world, so debating the validity of a claim of offensiveness is necessary. Yet social justice warriors rarely engage in that debate. The faux academic nature of social justice warriors is revealed when, despite wrapping arguments in thick quotes from ethnic or gender studies papers, they seem to disregard any ideas different from their own, and too often favor appeals to emotion over appeals to logic. While frequently writing off their opponents as ignorant, their own analysis of complex issues relies on so much simplification and outright falsification that they undermine their own credibility. Classmates have earnestly told me that the United States currently suffers greater religious intolerance than ever before. In another instance, a professor told me North Korea is prosperous and free compared to South Korea suffering American imperialism. Academics and experts all over the political spectrum would consider these claims to be, for lack of a better description, unbelievably ignorant.

The tendency of social justice warriors to oversimplify complex problems is also harmful to their theoretical arguments. Many social justice warriors seem to believe all systems of oppression are the same. This stands the concept of intersectionality on its head by arguing forms of oppression do not just overlap but connect at the root. Rather than allowing the experiences of black women or gay Latinos to illuminate how systemic injustices can interact with and compound one another, the social justice warrior oversimplifies these experiences in an attempt to demonstrate the unity of oppression, that there is some sort of monolithic racist-sexist-cisgendered-heteronormative-capitalist-imperialist-hegemony. This idea of a singular oppressive structure turns the nuances of history into a simple and dramatic narrative about oppression, generally in anachronistic terms. Because they see all forms of oppression as interchangeable, social justice warriors are frequently unable to delineate between different degrees or different types of injustice.

In the vein of unequivocal dispositions, social justice warriors rarely seem to acknowledge bigotry is a spectrum. The uncomfortable truth is that good people have bigoted opinions. Prejudice seeps into our thoughts because it’s easy. Our psyches tend to simplify the overwhelming flow of data they receive every day, to find patterns, to form judgments, to process information selectively. Not being prejudiced or becoming bigoted is a constant intellectual chore, and one that is extremely important. That is why I fear that the single-minded crusading of social justice warriors blinds them to their own mental foibles — their own bigotry. As long as they reject the right bundle of bigoted beliefs, they can feel they are resisting the “racist-sexist-cisgendered-heteronormative-capitalist-imperialist-hegemony.” But the NU social justice community all too often produces close-minded and hateful comments of its own. These include writing off entire academic departments as “racist” or “purely ideological” or hurling personal insults at individuals who have ever made the costly mistake of expressing disagreement.

The intoxication of moral superiority, or at least its appearance, shuts out reason. Doubts and alternative perspectives are lost in red-hot rage and self-righteousness. NU social justice warriors treat certain experiences and identities as sacred and incontrovertible; this undermines their ability to approach the problems relevant to those experiences and identities in an intellectual manner. All the while, social justice warriors regularly dismiss and attack any divergent experience or identity, alienating the people they should try to teach. Take the opponents of gay marriage, for instance. Those who grew up steeped in anti-gay sentiment are told by social justice warriors their parents, their communities, their religious leaders and everyone they learned to trust in childhood are evil and that they themselves are evil or, at best, know nothing and have no legitimate experience to weigh against those of the social justice community. How would you expect people to react to that? By writing off the general population as bigoted or just plain ignorant, social justice warriors are ending conversations that could educate people.

It is not an exaggeration to say that I will lose friends because of this piece. That is unfortunate, because ultimately NU’s social justice warriors share numerous goals with students who have learned to avoid them. To be honest, I wouldn’t feel comfortable publishing this column if I weren’t graduating so soon; such is the level of vitriol on campus. Does this make me a coward, to be openly critical of the discourse on campus only after I have one foot out the door? I think it does. But I hope that despite my late entry, this piece can catalyze a deeper conversation. I urge those at whom this essay was directed — accurately or not — to respond to me in writing, or to engage me when they see me. The only way for our society or indeed our campus to have productive, educational conversations about social ills is to resist polarization and be open to all voices.

Sam Houskeeper is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].