Thursday, September 02, 2021

I Read the JILV's Anti-"Critical Social Justice" White Paper So You Don't Have To

The so-called "Jewish Institute for Liberal Values" has released a white paper on the subject of "Critical Social Justice" and how it relates to antisemitism. Several folks I know have been interested in its contents, though none of us wanted to volunteer our email address to JILV and access the paper. Somehow, I drew the short straw on this and got a copy myself.

I believe in leading with a strong thesis statement, so I won't hide the ball. It's bad. It's really bad. It is haphazardly sourced, scarcely engages with any significant thinker who might characterize themselves as engaging in "critical social justice", fails utterly to explain how its examples are manifestations of or even link back to "critical social justice," and indeed, does not give even the slightest indication of what "critical social justice" is. It is a paper that very nearly defies critique because it doesn't actually say anything -- a series of anecdotes purportly united by an undefined theme. It is a sterling example of why I wanted to circulate a letter on the essential need for open, rigorous, and generous inquiry. This white paper is close-minded, analytically slipshod, and crabby in spirit. It is a sign of a deep and frankly dangerous rot in portions of the Jewish community, which have simply lost the ability to think critically on these subjects -- and it is putting the fight against antisemitism at risk.

Perhaps the most infuriating thing about the white paper's structure is the way it does "citations". I put the word in quotes because, while the article does have footnotes and hyperlinks, as often as not the linked source has tangential if any relationship to the claim it purports to support. For example, in the introduction the authors tell us that "While there are differing perspectives within CSJ, the more radical and anti-Jewish ideas are not being held in check and there is evidence that the more extreme versions are gaining ground and influencing public discourse." This is an important claim -- both that the allegedly "radical and anti-Jewish ideas" are ascendant within the broader CSJ movement and that these ideas are penetrating the real world. But the hyperlink goes to ... a list of state rules purporting to regulate or ban Critical Race Theory. That has absolutely nothing to do with the claim asserted -- if anything, it shows how the preeminent threat to liberal inquiry in American public life right now is the anti-CRT movement JILV proudly counts itself a part of.

Other citations are similarly thin, irrelevant, or simply wrongheaded. Claiming that CSJ has a "binary nature ... which holds that those who are presumed to be powerful are the cause of suffering of those who are presumed to be powerless," the white paper links to an article by Daniel Ian Rubin, presumably chosen because it has the word "binary" in the title. But Rubin's "binary" isn't one where everyone either simply is powerful/powerless, oppressed/oppressor. The "black/white binary" he speaks of is one where issues of racism are thought of only by reference to African-Americans and White people -- a binary which overlooks groups which clearly stand outside that binary (e.g., Native Americans) or ones who are situated uneasily within it (e.g., Latinos or, for that matter, Jews). Critiquing this binary has been a common theme in many "crit" projects, leading to the emergence of LatCrit, AsianCrit, and others. Rubin himself has called for the development of what he calls "HebCrit" to incorporate the Jewish case. So, on top of the fact that their source has nothing to do with the argument asserted, their citation of someone allegedly pointing out the crits' implacably antisemitic character is a Jewish crit himself!

It doesn't get better. The hyperlink supporting the claim that CSJ's allegedly anti-Enlightenment character "serves to stifle debate, and curtail academic freedom" goes to a catalog entry for a 363-page book on antisemitism comprising over 30 essays on subjects ranging from "Antisemitism and Anti-Capitalism in the Current Economic Crisis" to "A Brief History of Iberian Antisemitism", with no indication of where one might find support for the position stated (a particular problem since none of the essays in the volume appear primarily directed at issues of academic freedom). An example of a "critically informed social work curriculum" points to grainy cell phone images of an unidentified slideshow, making the incontestably accurate point that Jews in the mid-20th century benefited from being able to access various federal programs that other minorities were excluded from. There is virtually no engagement with primary source texts by persons promoting "critical social justice". One could go on.

But the biggest problem with the white paper is that it lacks a clear articulation of what critical social justice even is, making it impossible to tell whether its various anecdotes are in any way related to the concept. Incredibly, nowhere does the white paper actually purport to give a definition of its key term. 

What we get instead is a solitary link to an essay by Helen Pluckrose -- best known for her collaboration with James Lindsay on the "new Sokal hoax", though she's begun to distance herself from Lindsay as the latter has become increasingly open in his antisemitic and White supremacist orientation -- which purports to begin by explaining "What do we Mean by Critical Social Justice". Unfortunately, Pluckrose's essay actually doesn't give a clear account of what "Critical Social Justice" means either. The closest we get a to a concise definition is the following passage:
CSJ holds that knowledge is not objective but is culturally constructed to maintain oppressive power systems. This is believed to be achieved primarily by certain kinds of knowledge being legitimised by powerful forces in society, then being accepted by everyone and perpetuated by ways of talking about things – discourses.

While the manner in which Pluckrose differentiates this outlook from "liberalism" is tendentious at best (it boils down to "liberalism accepts anything that could be considered a reasonable CSJ insight, plus autonomy"), this is specific enough so we can at least track how the JILV's examples do or do not qualify as manifestations of CSJ (that is, flow from the notion that power systems are preserved via the legitimation of certain types of "knowledge" which are broadly accepted and built into the basic way we talk about things).

And applying that definition to JILV's examples, there is virtually no connection between the two whatsoever. The white paper gives seven examples of how CSJ allegedly fuels antisemitism. Start with the first: "the canard of Jewish privilege". Put aside the fact that their illustration of this practice -- the infamous flyers stating "ending White privilege starts with ending Jewish privilege" -- almost certainly emanated from the far-right, and was roundly repudiated by the very left-wing actors the white paper seeks to blame. The bigger question is: what on earth does this have to do with a belief that powerful actors successfully legitimate certain types of "knowledge" in order to prop up oppressive power systems, which is what Pluckrose says CSJ is? There's no attempt to posit a link here.

Go down the list, and the problem repeats. "Erasure of Jewish identity"? "Intersectionality and Antisemitism"? "Marginalizing Jews in Politics"? None of these clearly derive from, or even are claimed to derive from, a belief that power systems are preserved via the elevation and mainstreaming of certain forms of knowledge which become woven into the basic way we think about the world. At root, the JILV paper is most reminiscent of a conspiracy theory -- where others pin all the world's evils on "the Jews" or "the immigrants" or "the communists", for the JILV, anything bad it sees in the world, it attributes to "the crits." It is the explanation of first, middle, and last resort. There isn't need to actually establish that "critical social justice" is responsible for any of the ailments they bring up, because it's viewed as self-evident -- of course it's the Jews' the immigrants' the reds' the crits' fault.

This speaks to a broader decay in the critical thinking abilities (and here I very much mean "critical thinking" in what Pluckrose would describe as its salutary, liberal form -- "looking for flaws of reasoning or unevidenced claims or unwarranted assumptions being made due to an ideologically biased interpretation of a situation") of certain segments of the Jewish community when the topic is "critical social justice", "intersectionality", "critical race theory", or any of the related bugaboos. While I know of no direct study measuring whether "critical social justice" ideologies generate antisemitism, the evidence we do have vis-a-vis the college campus environment strongly militates against the hypothesis. If there was such an effect, we'd expect college majors in areas more likely to have significant "CSJ" material to exhibit more antisemitism than majors which do not. Or alternatively, if our view is that CSJ ideology has completely suffused the collegiate experience, then we'd expect a growth in antisemitic attitudes from when students enter college to when they leave. As per Shenhav-Goldberg & Kopstein's outstanding 2020 paper, neither of these is the case. It is hard to square the theory that CSJ creates antisemites with the reality that heightened exposure to CSJ -- in precisely the forums where critics claim CSJ's power is at its apex -- doesn't seem to have any effect on antisemitism.

Nonetheless, has become an article of faith that CSJ and its cousins simply must contribute to antisemitism. Anyone who denies it is willfully blind, or beholden to ideological blinkers, and is in any event has placed themselves in opposition to "the fight against antisemitism" (because, again, it is simply a truism for this crowd that "the fight against antisemitism" is the fight against "critical social justice"). It is dogma -- the hypothesis cannot be falsified.

This is catastrophically dangerous to the fight against antisemitism. If you care about antisemitism, it is tremendously important to understand accurately what causes antisemitism -- not what you assume causes it, not what it would be politically convenient to believe causes it, but what actually causes it. If we devote huge chunks of our communal energy toward fighting "critical social justice", and it turns out "critical social justice" has little to do with rising antisemitism, then we've just wasted a ton of time and effort! To be sure, if what one actually cares about is not fighting antisemitism but fighting critical social justice, then it's not a waste at all -- it's mission accomplished. But then it's that campaign that's your actual mission. And the decision to continue to prioritize it as mission #1 necessarily means the fight against antisemitism goes on the backburner.

One final irony has to be mentioned. The JILV white paper is, as I've said, mostly reminiscent of a conspiracy. It sees "crits" behind every rock, branch, and tree, with little to no effort to explain why the parade of horribles it identifies is connected to the "critical social justice" theory it deplores. However, to the extent the JILV white paper has any cohesive methodology behind it at all that isn't just a conspiracy theory, that methodology is ... critical social justice.

Now, let's be clear: by and large, the JILV paper is nothing more than the latest instantiation of a longstanding trend, where reactionaries define the lefty term of the day ("intersectionality", "critical race theory", now "critical social justice") as "anything bad from a vaguely left-of-center orientation that has some sort of identity politics kick to it." There's really nothing more that ties it all together than that.

But if we were to try to do so, the JILV claim can be reconstructed as something like the following: there is a widespread ideology, which has become dominant if not taken-for-granted in many segments of our society, whose precepts are largely insulated from interrogation but act to exclude, marginalize, or otherwise injure Jews. So, for example, the idea of "Jewish Whiteness" is asserted to be simply taken as a given in many circles, and in doing so that idea naturalizes a bunch of presumptions about Jewish power and privilege and control that are both untrue and prejudicial. And precisely because these views are so embedded into the conventional wisdom, they're largely immune from challenge -- trying to critique them renders one a complaining gadfly at best, a pariah figure at worst. So we can see how this set of assumptions in how we talk about the world (about Jews, Whiteness, power, whatever) acts to significantly curtail Jewish equality and discourage Jewish political participation even without any official actor ever issuing some sort of formal decree effectuating a de jure antisemitic exclusion.

Which fits, to a T, what Pluckrose says critical social justice is.

Most of the JILV's complaints fit this model. They are alleging that some way of speaking about Jews (as privileged, as White, as powerful) has become so effectively hegemonic that it squeezes out Jewish counter-narratives and so perpetuates antisemitic oppression. Or, put differently, "certain kinds of knowledge about Jews (or power, or Whiteness), is legitimised by powerful forces in society, then accepted by everyone and further perpetuated by ways of talking about things," which acts to maintain an "oppressive antisemitic power system." 

Overwhelmingly, Jewish "critics" of critical race theory, or critical social justice, or what have you, actually seem to want "critical race theory, but for Jews". That's not a bad thing to want, if the people who wanted it weren't so infuriatingly blind to what their methodology actually is. They are pointing to a mechanisms of antisemitic marginalization that do not make sense under a classical liberal vantage.

 Nobody is legally forbidding Jews from advocating for their peoplehood or contesting their Whiteness or anything of the sort -- that sort of legal censorship right now is very much the domain of anti-CRT forces. The claim is that a way of speaking about Jews functionally silences Jews in public deliberation -- we're "marginalized", "ostracized", "ignored", accused of "oversensitivity" or "bad faith" (the liberal would call all of this "losing in the marketplace of ideas"). And the claim that the remedy (or a goodly part of it, anyway), is committing to take Jewish testimony seriously on the subject of antisemitism -- to credit what we say about ourselves over what others are saying about us -- likewise owes far more to "critical social justice" than it does to classical liberal models (Pluckrose indicts what she labels "positionality", the view that knowledge is "tied to identity and one’s perceived position in society in relation to power").

Sometimes I think these claims about Jewish marginalization and its proper remedy are off target, sometimes I think they're pointing to very real concerns -- but let's be clear about what they are. They are not complaints that can be made sense of within a classical liberal frame. They are a Jewish iteration of "critical social justice". And if one thinks that any of these claims have legs -- and I do -- then there is no way to resolve them except by developing a robust, vibrant, and rigorous CRT-style language that can account for the Jewish case. The JILV white paper doesn't understand that -- but then, it doesn't understand a lot of things.

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