As yet another indication that the university campus has become “an island of repression in a sea of freedom,” last March a pro-Israel group, Hasbara Fellowships Canada, was barred from participating in a “Social Justice Week” event organized by the Student Association of Durham College and University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT). The stated reason for the exclusion? The student association (which, not coincidentally, had just approved a pro-BDS resolution against Israel) informed the Hasbara group that since the “organization seems closely tied to the state of Israel…it would be against the motion to provide any type of resources to your organization.”
While the term “social justice” has a seemingly benign and positive connation—and certainly to those who so vigorous fight for it—the reality is that, as columnist Jonah Goldberg observed in his book, The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, social justice is actually “an empty vessel to be filled with any and all leftist ideals, and then promptly wielded as a political bludgeon against any and all dissenters . . . .”
That has meant that students, and left-leaning faculty, as well, are urged to advocate for social and economic goals described in decidedly liberal intellectual formulations such as “social and economic justice,” “distributive justice,” and “the global interconnections of oppression,” this latter view ideal for conflating, at least in liberal imaginations, the shared complicity of America and Israel in their long-term oppression of the indigenous people of the fictive nation of Palestine and the alleged “occupation” of their land.
So while social justice warriors on campus are quick to welcome a collection of perceived victim groups into their tent—Muslims, African-Americans, gays, Hispanics, women—they have been decidedly more hostile when dealing with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the result being that pro-Israel groups (such as the Hasbara Fellowships in Ontario) are regularly excluded as being part of the oppressor class responsible for such evils as imperialism, colonialism, racism, and sexism.
What are the defining characteristics of those well-meaning, but often misguided individuals who promiscuously proclaim their commitment to social justice? A number of tactics and behaviors are common to their efforts:
- Social justice warriors are commonly infatuated with their own virtue, which manifests itself in very public “virtue signaling,” a way that self-described activists indicate that they have taken the high moral ground, that they stand for racial equality and the aspirations of the oppressed, and that they single-mindedly fight for the rights of, and make excuses for, the oppressed state in which their victims find themselves.
- Economist Thorsten Veblen identified an emerging social phenomenon in which an increasingly more affluent middle class used spending and material acquisition as a way of signaling their economic—and social—status. Social justice warriors use the same psychological device of announcing to others their self-righteous ideology through what could be called “conspicuous moral consumption,” part and parcel of their virtue signaling.
- The rectitude of students and faculty enthralled by social justice and pushing for condemnations of Israel manifests itself as what has termed “moral narcissism,” the tendency of members of the well-meaning, (although incompletely) educated elite to align with causes and ideological positions which are based, not on the actual viability or worthiness of a cause, but on how the moral narcissist feels about him- or herself by committing to a particular campaign or movement. Like other members of the academic left, who believe their worldview is correct because it seeks to create a world in which social equanimity will be realized by the downtrodden, members of the SJP, Black Lives Matter, LGBT, Occupy, and other victims’ rights grievance groups and movements are content to support such intellectually dishonest campaigns as the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement because it enables them to denounce Israelis as “white,” imperialistic, colonial, racist, militaristic oppressors of wholly innocent “brown” Palestinians dispossessed and victimized by the Jewish state’s very existence. “Moral narcissists,” wrote legal commentator Jay B. Gaskill, “have adopted a camouflage strategy to escape the moral disapproval of others [and] . . . they accomplish this camouflage by cloaking their narcissism in the trappings of ‘social justice positioning.’” The moral narcissist’s reasoning may defective, ahistorical, counter-intuitive, or just wrong, but he still feels good about himself. But in this worldview there can be only one enemy of justice, and Israel is that enemy.
- In debating the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict, social justice activists, of course, demonstrate their hypocrisy be endlessly dwelling on the many evils of Israel without bothering to examine or measure the Palestinians’ own central role in contributing to the many pathologies endemic to their civil society and institutions. Like many Western elites do when choosing sides, social justice warriors infantilize the Palestinian victim and assume he has no agency to ameliorate his own conditions. In reality, pro-Palestinian activists seem to care very little about the actual self-determination and state building of the hapless Palestinians. As is frequently the case when speaking about the Israeli/Arab conflict, the discussion often glosses over the real problems of Palestinian culture, politics, and society (including its cult of death, terrorism, and martyrdom), and targets all criticism on the perceived defects of Israel, Zionism, and Jewish power. All of the blame for the conflict is placed on the so-called occupation, the “apartheid wall,” Jewish racism, the oppression and militarism of the “Zionist regime,” and the brutal humiliation, collective punishment, and even “slow-moving” genocide Israel is said to mete out on a daily basis upon the wholly innocent Palestinians. This is a clear example of another underlying factor in the social justice effort, the soft bigotry of low Palestinian expectations.
- Many academics in the humanities and social sciences, including activists as disparate as Black Lives Matter, Students for Justice in Palestine, and the National Association of Women’s Studies, increasingly find a linkage as they seek to affirm the rights of the victimized and name the villains responsible for this oppression. The more that seemingly unrelated instances of oppression can be conflated, it is thought, the greater the ability to confront these oppressors and dilute the negative effect they have on their specific victims and on society at large. This trend has been called “intersectionality,” and it has meant that someone who is a gender studies professor, or queer theorist, or American studies expert can, with no actual knowledge or expertise about the Middle East, readily pontificate on the many social pathologies of which he or she accuses Israel, based on its perceived role as a racist, imperialist, colonial oppressor of an innocent indigenous population of Arab victims. For social justice warriors, to know one victim group is to know any victim group—with Israel being a tempting and habitual target of their opprobrium. Thus, for instance, supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement have often linked racism and police violence “from Ferguson to Palestine,” as their placards have announced, making Israel somehow complicit in American racism and police brutality, and even recently proclaimed in its recent platform that Israel is practicing “apartheid” and is engaged in “genocide” against the Palestinians. “Intersectionality holds that various forms of oppression,” said David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, “constitute an intersecting system of oppression . . , [and] the BDS movement has successfully injected the anti-Israel cause into these intersecting forms of oppression and itself into the interlocking communities of people who hold by them.”
- Social justice warriors are intent on using “weaponized intolerance,” the willingness to abridge speech and human rights of opposing groups in the campaign to seek social justice for the victim. Moreover, so sure are they of their moral uprightness in denouncing white-privilege and conservative thought, that the social justice warriors will not even deign to collaborate, negotiate, or even tolerate the views of those groups and individuals they have decided are essentially unworthy of having their options heard. The New York City Students for Justice in Palestine, for example, announced proudly that, “We reject any and all collaboration, dialogue and coalition work with Zionist organizations through a strict policy of anti-normalization (anti-engagement) and encourage our comrades in other organizations to do the same.” Similarly, a leaked memorandum from the Binghamton University Students for Justice in Palestine chapter revealed that members would never be required to even engage in dialogue with pro-Israel groups on their campus, they would be prohibited from “engaging in any form of official collaboration, cooperation, or event co-sponsorship with [pro-Israel] student organizations and groups,” and members “shall in no manner engage in any form of official collaboration with any student group which actively opposes the cause of Palestinian liberation nor with groups which have aided and abetted Zionist student organizations,” meaning, of course, that the so-called intellectual debate that universities purport to promote in exactly this type of discussion will never take place when SJP is involved. That type of behavior violates the concepts of academic freedom and academic free speech—rights that campus radicals prefer to exploit themselves while denying the same freedoms to others and deeming speech with which they disagree “hate speech.” Spirited debate between people with opposing views, of course, is acceptable and desirable; shutting down or preventing the speech of one side of the argument, and not permitting those views to be aired in the marketplace of ideas, is not.
- Proponents of social justice apologize for and enable grievance-based violence by abandoning moral precepts and applying a double standard by which they support murder, violence, “resistance,” and terror in the name of self-determination—but only that perpetrated by the favored victim. Anti-Israel campus events regularly include protesters ghoulishly chanting “long live the Intifada” and “’resistance’ is justified when people are occupied,” in other words, extolling the ongoing homicidal rampage in Israel in which psychopathic terrorists have used knives, guns, stones, and vehicles to randomly murder Jewish civilians. In fact, the use of the word “Intifada” is a grotesque and murderous reference to the Second Intifada that began in 2000, during which Arab terrorists murdered some 1000 Israelis and wounded more than 14,000 others. That pro-Palestinian student activists, those who purport to be motivated by a desire to bring “justice” to the Middle East and who, presumably, care about all human lives, could publicly call for the renewed slaughter of Jews in the name of Palestinian self-determination demonstrates quite clearly how ideologically debased the human rights movement has become. Activists on university campuses in the United States and Europe, who demand “trigger warnings” from professors to protect their sensibilities prior to reading such innocuous literary works as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, are quick to denounce Israel’s very real existential threats and the necessity of the Jewish state to take counter measures to thwart homicidal terrorism against its civilian population.
- Those purportedly seeking social justice for the Palestinians regularly exhibit a willful blindness to the quest for social justice for actual Middle East victims of egregious oppression, while obsessing, to the exclusion of all other examples, over the perceived perfidy of Israel. For example, this year the National Association of Women’s Studies (NWSA) voted to approve an academic boycott against Israeli scholars. It had evidently escaped the notice of the NWSA experts on gender and sexuality issues that if one wanted to punish any Middle Eastern country for its subjugation and abuse of women, Israel would probably not be the first nation to come under reasonable or justifiable scrutiny for a group dedicated “to principles of human rights, justice and freedom for all, including academic freedom.” Totalitarian and despotic regimes throughout the region have created an oppressive group of social pathologies that negatively affect women, including genital mutilation, stoning of adulteresses, “honor” killings by fathers and brothers who have been shamed, cultures of gender apartheid in which women are seen as property with no emotional or physical autonomy, ubiquitous sexual assault, and a general subjugation of women, complete with regulations governing behavior, movement, speech, and even requirements that women be covered by burqa or hijab. Like other members of the academic Left, who believe their worldview is correct and virtuous because it seeks to create a world in which social equanimity will be realized by the downtrodden, members of the NWSA, similar to their fellow travelers in other academic associations and student groups, are content to support such intellectually dishonest campaigns as academic boycotts because doing so enables them to denounce Israel as an imperialistic, racist, militaristic oppressor of innocent victims.
This nearly total rejection by those seeking justice for the oppressed of any recognition of goodness on the part of Western countries (and particularly Israel), favoring without hard judgments severely flawed societies of the Third World is, according to commentator Melanie Phillips, symptomatic of activists’ belief in their own moral superiority, a feature which, at least in their own minds, gives them a more genuine, principled, and valuable worldview. “In the grip of a group-think that causes them to genuflect to victim-culture and the deconstruction of western morality and the concept of truth,” Phillips wrote, “a dismaying number of our supposedly finest minds have been transformed from people who spread enlightenment to those who cast darkness before them.”
And we should be careful that, despite their own claims to a moral uprightness, the truth is not being lost in the intellectual darkness created by these self-appointed purveyors of social justice.