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.

J Cosgrove
1 week 3 days ago

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

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