At the New York Observer, frequent Reason contributor Cathy Young takes on the frequently used epithet "social justice warrior" to delve into the ideas that motivate the people who embrace that term. At the core of conceptions of social justice is the idea of "privilege"—specifically, very narrowly defined and tendentious conceptions of privilege that predetermine the outcome of any argument about the topic.
At the core of social justice dogma is fixation on identity and "privilege." Some of this discourse touches on real and clear inequities: for instance, the widespread tendency of police and others to treat African-Americans, especially young and male, as potential lawbreakers. Yet even here, the rhetoric of privilege generates far more heat than light. University of California-Merced sociologist Tanya Bolash-Goza, who accepts the social justice left's view of pervasive structural racism in America, points out that the term "white privilege" turns what should be the norm for all—not being harassed by cops or eyed suspiciously by shop owners—into a special advantage unfairly enjoyed by whites. (Indeed, in its dictionary meaning, "privilege" refers to rights or benefits possessed by the select, not by the majority.) This language speaks not to black betterment but to white guilt. It also erases the fact that the "privilege" extends to many non-white groups, such as Asians.
Privilege rhetoric offers an absurdly simplistic view of complex social dynamics. A widely cited essay by pro-"social justice" sci-fi writer John Scalzi seeks to explain privilege to geeks by arguing that being a straight white male is akin to playing a videogame on "the lowest difficulty setting." Does the white son of a poor single mother have it easier than the daughter of a wealthy black couple? As a minor afterthought, Scalzi mentions that "players" in other groups may be better off if they start with more "points" in areas such as wealth. But generally, the "social justice" left strenuously avoids the issue of socioeconomic background, which, despite upward mobility, is surely the most tangible and entrenched form of actual privilege in modern American society. Rather, the focus is on racial, sexual, and cultural identities.
The outcome of conversations based on this sort of spun version of "privilege" can be bizarre, Young notes. One particularly egregious example involves the charges of "punching down" and bigotry levelled at Charlie Hebdo after its staff were slaughtered in retaliation for publishing cartoons mocking Mohammed.
Read her entire piece here.