Review: Can social justice activism go too far?

Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

For many Catholics, social justice is an imperative of their faith. Advancing a social justice agenda is not just something that is in vogue, but a crucial part of church teaching. But there is another social justice—a secular one unmoored from the faith-based tenets that created the concept in the first place. In Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America, Noah Rothman surveys and attempts to deconstruct systematically the social justice movement that he believes has gone awry.

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Unjustby Noah Rothman

Gateway Editions, 256 pages $28.99

Indeed, most of Unjust is a thorough examination of the most egregious examples of the modern social justice movement as Rothman sees it. This examination essentially amounts to a list of activist trends, aggressions and failings. It is also the book’s biggest shortcoming, not because demonstrating absurdity is a bad thing, but because it is used to the detriment of a more insightful analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of the negative trends Rothman identifies.

Rothman states early in the book that “the mixing of identity consciousness with the precepts of social justice” has transformed “an ethos of equality and egalitarianism across lines of class, race, and sex...into a bitter ideology that resents classically liberal policies.”

As Rothman sees it, social justice initially was a way for the Catholic Church to insert its ethics into the Enlightenment understanding of the “liberal and laissez-faire” way society should be ordered. Two Jesuits, Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio and Matteo Liberatore (who helped draft Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical “Rerum Novarum” in 1891), laid the foundation for understanding social justice as “a moral theory of societal and economic development.”

“Identitarians” on both the left and the right, Noah Rothman argues, have consistently abandoned colorblind principles and have supplanted them with concerns central to their narrow identities.

But over the course of the mid-to-late 20th century, notions of social justice went very, very wrong. Rothman attributes their corruption to the rise of identity politics—which gained greater prominence after the 2016 presidential election—and “Identitarianism,” which he defines as “a set of values and beliefs based on the politics of personal identity.”

“Identitarians” on both the left and the right, Rothman argues, have consistently abandoned colorblind principles and have supplanted them with concerns central to their narrow identities. Rothman finds this leads to an emphasis on issues that divide, as well as the creation of a system that incentivizes claims of victimization to achieve preferred policy outcomes.

Ultimately, Unjust falls short of its mission. Its critical lens on the left and right is much needed, but the book fails to achieve the escape velocity needed to be as authoritative as it claims.

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J Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

Advancing justice not social justice. One is moral the other is political.

Robert Klahn
1 month 3 weeks ago

Sophistry?

Social Justice is application of moral principles to the real world to make it better for those on the bottom.

The rest is BS.

Horacio Quezada
1 month 3 weeks ago

Justice is by definition "Social" since this virtue implicates 2 or more persons and their interactions. Justice, in its traditional sense, encompasses a far deeper reality than the purely "social" or political. When we say, for instance, that God is "Just" we are not simply saying 'God cares about the poor and marginalized' (although there is not doubt that he does care about them too); rather, we are alluding to a spiritual and theological affirmation about God vis-a-vis mankind. Justice in a social context is but a tiny instance of the breadth that the virtue of justice entails. Unfortunately todays' Church of Nice has made Social Justice their creed: the only think priests (should) talk about, and the only eschatology worth pursuing. Of course this may cause the loss of any sense of transcendence. To be sure, people advocating for social justice are well-meaning people, but a social justice agenda is, at the end of the day, a materialistic ideology, or, at best, it is simply an incomplete Christian way of life.

When was the last time your parish priest talked about OTHER virtues? When was the last time you heard Church leaders talk about sin, the devil, and hell? When was the last time you got out of that homily and felt a prick of conscience because the priest didn't mince words and was not "nice."

...Just saying.

Robert Klahn
1 month 3 weeks ago

If you would learn to speak English it would be much easier to discuss this. The final destination of your soul is determined by what you do for social justice today, what you do to feed the hungry, care for the sick etc.

Don't do it and you will be directed into the fires prepared for the devil and his angels.

Care for those in need and you will be invited to the kingdom prepared for you.

Jesus said it, and he did not need archaic and pretentious words to say it.

No, eschatology is perhaps the most meaningless staring at yourself in a mirror you can do in life.

When we say, "God is "Just"", we ARE saying 'God cares about the poor and marginalized', and if you don't you will be on the wrong end of God's justice at the end.

Perhaps Social Justice is seen to be the greatest concern of the people because Social Justice is far more endangered, far more ignored, far more violated today than any other relevant point.

Jesus never said you should sit on the ground, stare at the inside of your eyelids or into space, and consider the details of the next world. He most explicitly said, Feed the hungry, house the homeless, etc, or I don't know you, and that door is to your next place of residence, hell.

FRAN ABBOTT
1 month 3 weeks ago

I am confused by the statement “If you would learn to speak English it would be much easier to discuss this”. I did not read anything that was not in English or was unintelligible. I do not see how this comment advances the discussion.

Horacio Quezada
1 month 3 weeks ago

Dear Robert Klahn,

Please pardon me because I may have made a couple of mistakes when writing my piece. I should have re-read it first. in any case, I think we are are agreeing more than we are disagreeing.

With regards your statement: "[1] The final destination of your soul is determined by what you do [2] for social justice today, what you do to feed the hungry, care for the sick etc.," I have to say the following:

I am thoroughly on board with you when you say that [1] the destination of my soul (heaven or hell) depends on what I do (not abandoning God's grace of course, for it would otherwise be Pelagianism, the heresy). So, I AGREE with your first clause. HOWEVER, I DO NOT AGREE that what "you do" is solely circumscribed by the so-called "social justice." Let me make it clear: Justice as it translates into helping those in need (physical AND spiritual AND emotional) is of course an important facet of a Christian's life. But my objection to the so-called "social justice is two fold: (1) that Justice has acquired a very narrow definition—being now almost entirely social and, arguably, political—and (2) that conversation about social justice occurs almost always at the expense of the rest of the virtues (fortitude, temperance, prudence, etc,). In short, while "feeding the hungry and caring for the poor and the sick" is important as you say, the salvation of one's soul does not depend only on that.

Now, if I were talking to you face to face I would ask you "what do you mean by 'Care for those in need and you will be invited to the kingdom prepared for you'?" if by "caring for those in need" you ALSO mean, for example, caring for your family and kids as well, caring for one's marital stability in all aspects of life, assuming responsibility and being a good parental figure and a good sibling, and a good child and living, teaching, and learning the teachings of the church, and falling in love more and more with the Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady, and living a devout life of prayer...then by all means I am on board with you. Unfortunately (and this is the crux of the matter), the way the so-called "social justice" is talked about in common parlance today (especially in the socio-political context) is in a very narrow, purely socio-political way. This is what I mean when I suggested that social justice is divesting Catholicism—and justice itself—of its transcendence: that while the true faith begins from within and spreads outwards, social justice begins outside and it stays outside. This is why many priests (and other church leaders) advocating for social justice rarely talk about the importance of marriage, the family life, sin, the necessity of confession and the rest of the sacraments, etc. In fact, many so-called "activists" for social justice causes, are often also against certain church teachings (i.e. women's ordination, homosexual marriage, etc.) precisely because their justice more often than not comes from an external activism not from a devout life that starts from the I-thou relationship with God. Sooner or later, and after you probe enough times, the social justice seamless garment will come out.

Now, when you say "eschatology is perhaps the most meaningless if staring at yourself in a mirror is what you can do in life" you are perhaps implying that I don't care about caring about others or that I am only advocating for a life of prayer without works. I assure you, that is not true. What I am saying is that anything you do, starting with oneself, then your family, then the world, should organically come out of your devout life rooted in the sacraments and prayer. How you treat others depends on the relationship you have with God. I doubt that people who defend the immigrant, the poor but ALSO homosexual marriage and women's ordination have a genuinely fruitful relationship with God.

Furthermore, your statement "When we say, "God is "Just"", we ARE saying 'God cares about the poor and marginalized', and if you don't you will be on the wrong end of God's justice at the end" is a bandwagon fallacy. You suggest that your definition of God's justice is the true Christian way and therefore all should subscribe to it—evidenced by your last sentence, "if you don't, you will..." I can still be a good Christian (with the help of God) and not subscribing to your definition of Justice.

Now, to your next point: "Perhaps Social Justice is seen to be the greatest concern of the people because Social Justice is far more endangered, far more ignored, far more violated today than any other relevant point." This is a case in point of what I said earlier: that today's rhetoric is almost always at the expense of any other "relevant point." This is exactly what I mean when I said in my first post that "the Church of Nice has made social justice its creed." You just said that social justice is "the greatest concern." Well, I don't share that opinion; I believe you're wrong.

As for your very last paragraph, you obviously misunderstood what I had to say about transcendence. It is a fallacy on your part to "straw-man" me as they say. Any fairly conservative, traditional catholic defending the transcendence of the Church would not do away with helping the poor, etc.

I hope this helps.

Robert Klahn
1 month 3 weeks ago

"Can social justice activism go too far?"

No. Not as long as you focus on reality.

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