The Cornerstones of Social Justice Dogma

What are the foundational beliefs, upon which everything else is built?

12 min. read Replies open ↓

It’s easy for us to look at someone else’s behavior and label it irrational. “That doesn’t make sense.” Almost as easy as it is for us to not notice that we’re leaving out an important part of that sentence: “…to me.”

“That doesn’t make sense to me,” is what we’re really saying. And that could be true for myriad reasons.

You’re a different person, with a different set of experiences, upbringing, preferences, viewpoints, identities, and – most importantly – system of beliefs. All of that creates a sort of spellchecker for you, that you use to double-check the things you do, think, believe – to see whether or not they make sense.

Running someone else’s actions through your figurative spellchecker is like using a literal spellchecker to process a different language. “Uh oh, there’s a little squiggly under ‘non.’ Oh, it’s the extra “N”. Oops. Not a big mistake. Let me fix that for you.”

Non, your spellchecker is just calibrated for English, and they’re speaking French.

”‘Zdravstvujtye’? Did they fall asleep on their keyboard?” Nyet, but you get the point.

As much as it wouldn’t make sense to check for errors in your Russian writing with an English spellchecker, it doesn’t make sense to say that someone else who is rationalizing within a belief system that’s different from yours doesn’t make sense.

The only way to know for sure, whether or not what they’re doing is rational, is to know the rules they adhere to, the system their beliefs are built upon, and figure out whether or not they’re following them.

Most our belief systems start with a few big first moves. To continue the parallel, these would be like the alphabets, grammar, and phonetics of languages.

“Здравствуте” means “Hello” just as much as “Zdravstvujtye,” because the latter is an acceptable transliteration of the former cyrillic. At least that was true back when I learned Russian, but that could have changed.

Which brings me to another important point: belief systems change.

Like language, they are organic, evolving and transitioning over time, based on new information, reflective of the changing society they exist within (at least healthy ones do!).

Technically, “zdravstvujtye” never meant “hello.” It means something like “be healthy.” But it’s used how English speakers use “Hello,” so we translate it that way. I’ve always loved that. It’s like the Arabic “As-salam alaykom,” which you’d say to say “Hello,” but literally means “Peace be unto you.”

Now I’m over here wondering what “Hello!” actually means. Is it something beautiful like “Be healthy!” or “Peace be unto you!”? Gosh I hope so. I could google it, but it would be ruined for me if it ended up being Ye Olde English for something like “Lo! You over there! Burn in hell!” Then I’d end up ruining a lot of parties by repeatedly introducing this “interesting” factoid.

Now you’re probably wondering, “What the hell does any of this have to do with social justice dogma?”

Okay, “friend.” May peace be also unto you. Oh, and this:

Without the cornerstones, none of the other stuff makes sense.

Over the years, as I’ve talked to people about social justice dogma (SJD), and shared a rule, or tenet, with someone else, there has been a wide range of replies. Even just within the responses when I am talking to other social justice people. The range extends anywhere from a celebratory “Hell yes that’s true!”, to a reverant or solemn “Mmhmmm”, to a confused “But why?”, to a dismissive “That doesn’t make sense.”

I’m introducing this idea of cornerstones of SJD to help us make sense of the things a lot of us notice that make us say “that doesn’t make sense.”

Because it’s not helpful to say “that doesn’t make sense.” Or maybe it is helpful. I suppose we could debate that.

But I think there are more helpful things we can say instead, when we unpack that sentiment. Instead, we can say:

  1. That doesn’t make sense to me;
  2. Because my belief system makes this first move;
  3. But I can see how it makes sense to you;
  4. Because I recognize that your belief system makes this first move, one that’s different from mine.

I’m emphasizing the first move here to refer to the cornerstones, or the foundational beliefs. The initial building blocks that support everything else in the belief system, upon which the rest of the beliefs rely for support.

We can only say the above if we understand the move the other person is making. If we know how they’re making sense of it. If we know the rules they’re following.

Belief systems are like a game of Jenga. The blocks at the bottom are the most important, because if you take them away, everything else crumbles.

But they’re often more like a game of Jenga where all the pieces have been Gorilla-glued togehter, and the rules are “no touching!”

(These analogies brought to you by my sponsors at Corporate Overlords®. Corporate Overlords®: Infesting Your Brain, Whether You Want Us There or Not™)

What Are the Cornerstones of Social Justice Dogma?

I’m not sure, but I have some candidates. They are the front-runners I’ve been talking through with countless people for a several years now, and that I shared in my “Social Justice, Minus Dogma” Course – and they haven’t been kneecapped yet – so I’m feeling pretty good about them, but I’m not sure.

Here’s what I need you to promise me before you read further:

You will not take what I’m about to share with you as gospel.

Promise me you will offer pushback if you disagree (in exchange, I promise I will welcome and react positively to it). Or that you’ll create room in your circles, if you share these ideas, for people to offer their own pushback.

I’ll even help you tell me I’m wrong. For something to be a true Cornerstone of SJD, it would require a “Yes” to all three of the following questions:

  1. Is this something you’ve noticed supporting dogmatic SJD activism (even if, or especially if, it’s in the background, or only gets read “between the lines”)?
  2. Does this make sense as a foundational belief upon which other aspects of SJD can be built?
  3. Does accepting this as True make the rest of SJD easier to follow? That is, if you believe this, does it make it easier to believe the other stuff?

If any of my suggestions don’t evoke a clear “Yes!” to all three, they ain’t it. Ditto goes for any other candidate that might surface.

Beyond just telling me mine are wrong, I’d love it if you have alternatives candidates, things you think are really at the bottom of the dogma in progressive activist spaces, or social justice specifically. Or if you’ve identified another one, something else that stands up to the above criteria.

Just promise me that, at the very least, you won’t share these with someone and say “Sam said these are true and you’re wrong and bad if you disagree.”

Pink swear? No crossies! Okay, we’re good.

Three Considerations for Cornerstone Candidacy

You’ve been patient. You let me speak Russian to you. We pinky swore. And we’ve paid homage to our Corporate Overlords. I’ll start with the second one.

The Seconded Law

The Second Law of Thermodynamics, as you might know, “states that the total entropy of an isolated system can never decrease over time.”

The “Seconded Law” of social justice dogma (dynamics?) is similar: the total amount of named oppression can’t decrease over time. Like entropy, it can only increase.

The way this works is one person can name something as “oppressive” (e.g., a movie, an idea, a policy, a custom). Often this naming is in response to that person’s felt experience, but people also name oppression as a result of deconstructing an idea or system, or by noticing someone else’s (or the potential for someone else’s) felt experience of oppression.

Then others are only allowed to second that claim. That is, you can agree, for example by contributing your own examples of feeling that, or other ways you’ve noticed it that show up. Or you can be silent. But someone else cannot rebut the claim, or name away oppression, or they risk being named oppressive themselves.

In this way, over time, the amount of “oppressive” things we’ve recognized only increases. More words, ideas, stances, actions, inactions, art, and ways of being are added to the bucket of “bad.”

And whenever someone tries to pull something out of that bucket, “Hey y’all! I don’t think this belongs here any more, because –” Plop! Now they’re in the bucket.

Shoot the Messenger

Where the Seconded Law was all about the things we’re noticing, and how we are allowed (or not) to see them – the What. This one is about the Who.

(Not the band. They’re great, and I think they’re safe. Although, now that I think about it, “Pinball Wizard” would probably land them in the bucket… Oh no – did I just put The Who in the bucket?)

Shoot the Messenger is all about how we view the people who are sharing ideas, perspectives, or criticisms. Within an SJD context:

  1. When someone says or does something, we hold who they are to be as important as what they are saying or doing (or more important!); and
  2. We punish the person for the message they’re carrying, the thing they said, what they believe.

Point 1 enables us to hear the same thing from two different people (different because of their stances, identities, etc.) and make two completely different meanings from it (generally explained within the umbrella of “positionality”).

For example, if a White doctor says, “I thought Black people really did have higher tolerances of pain,” versus a Black doctor saying the same thing (verbatim), we’ll hear and react to those words differently.

Point 2 moves our focus away from situations and systems – ignoring the societal forces at work – and onto the individual person being affected by them, the byproduct of those forces.

In the example above, we would blame the doctor for holding this prejudicial belief, not their medical school or textbooks for training them to believe that.

(If you’re stuck on that example, feel free to substitute infinite other examples in your mind. Or you can look it up! It’s a thing. Look at us multitasking, learning about oppressive tropes as well as social justice dogma. We might call that feeding two birds with one scone.)

Quick checkin: If either of the above points feels paradoxical to the goals of social justice, or these cornerstones in general do, like we’re rubbing against other important values, or getting in our own way – keep feeling that. I’m not saying we “should” believe these things, just that a lot of us do, or feel like we should.

Oppressive to the Core

The third cornerstone that I’ve identified through my conversations about SJD focuses on the histories of systems and institutions.

This one says that if an institution was created by oppressors (e.g., people holding dominant group identities), or was once oppressive (or complicit in oppression) it can never be reformed. The only way to move toward equity is to abolish this institution.

For example, here are some ways we might use this cornerstone might frame our thinking:

  • If a system was founded by White people, it’s White supremacist to its core.
  • If an institution was once exclusive to men, it’s sexist to its core.
  • If an organization was created to serve a purpose that was complicit in oppression, it’s oppressive to the core.

Even if things have changed. Even if that system, institution, or organization, no longer stands for those things, embodies those things, or creates those barriers, etc. The change over time doesn’t matter; what matters is its origin. How, by whom, or to what end it was created.

And, more importantly, once you recognize this truth of the historical oppression, there’s only one path forward for that system or institution.

Within SJD, no amount of reform or incremental change will never be enough. Here are the steps we have to take, if we want to achieve social justice in this regard:

  1. Blow it up.

End of list.

What systems and institutions might we be talking about?

We’ve seen this cornerstone applied to everything from individual universities to higher education as a whole. From corporations to non-profits. To religions and branches of religions. Government branches, policy platforms, and even to big ideas like “democracy itself.”

Whoa there, Nelly!

I feel like this wagon might run off its wheels if I continue, so I’m going to pause here – for now.

All three of these cornerstones could be expanded upon. I could explain more of the ins and outs of them, show you different ways they relate to other big trends in social justice, or dogmatic activism more generally. And I could share with you a veritable wagon-load of links to examples. I’ll resist all three urges.

Instead, I want to leave you with those cornerstones, and the questions above to consider. Do you think these three (or two of them, or one) meet those criteria? Have you seen ripples (or tsunamis) caused by these ideas in the social justice spaces, online and in-person, you’ve occupied?

Or let me ask you something else:

If you believed in The Seconded Law, or Shoot the Messenger, or Oppressive to the Core – if these truisms were at the bottom of your Jenga tower – what’s something that would suddenly make sense to you, but doesn’t now?

Not that you “agree” with it. Or that it’s “right,” or “correct,” or “helpful,” or something that you believe will help us move closer to living social justice. Just something that would “make sense,” if your belief system was built on those cornerstones.

Even tougher, I’ll leave you with this question:

What’s a position you’ve seen someone else argue for, or something you’ve witnessed someone believe, say, or do, that before had you saying, “What are you thinking?!” and now has you saying “Oh, that. That’s what you were thinking. Of course you feel that way.”

👋 Hey! This is part of a book that I (publicly!) wrote all throughout January about Social Justice, Minus Dogma. Do you want to join the list to get an email when it's coming out?

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Bonus: You'll get a .PDF of select chapters (over 100 pages 👀) of the work-in-progress book as soon as you sign up 📩

What do you think? 🤔

I opened up replies on this post because I'd love to hear your thoughts. I'm @Killermann on Twitter if you'd rather talk there.