Jonathan Haidt has argued that a university can seek the truth, or it can pursue social justice, but it can’t do both. This is not because the two are never one. As often as not they are. But that means as often as not they’re not. And when they’re not one has to pick a side. For example, that the coloniser introduced slavery to North America in 1619 is false. But to call it out is to undermine Indigenous exceptionalism, and the reconciliation half of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission thinks it needs Indigenous exceptionalism.

Does it? In my opinion no. In fact it’s precisely because it’s so transparently false that the myth of Indigenous exceptionalism has only served to undermine reconciliation. It undermines reconciliation because non-indigenous Canadians resent having to pretend to believe this myth. Just as white Americans resent having to pretend that Africans’ slavery began at the ports where they were shipped rather than at the hands of other Africans several miles inland.

What would the truth do to reconciliation in Canada or BLM in America? I think the acknowledgement that we’ve all taken our turn as slaves, and as slave-owners, is precisely the equality we should be working for. In fact this is the one thing Christianity got right. We’re all sinners in the eyes of God. Taking your turn as the victim of another’s sins doesn’t wash yours away.

But hang on. This is just to beg the question against Haidt’s detractors. The truth about social justice is not the same as social justice. The former is a proposition, the latter a state of affairs. If Indigenous Canadians, and African Americans, are at the shit end of the stick – and they are – that their ancestors once were not is irrelevant. What matters is whether being at the shit end of the stick is an injustice now.

But hang on. Doesn’t that require a theory of justice? No, because a theory is a set of propositions. Propositions are either true or false. So if we’re pursuing the truth about justice we’re doing what Haidt’s detractors think we ought not. We ought to pursue justice without a theory of what we’re pursuing. We know what’s just and unjust just by, well, looking! You can see that Indigenous Canadians are underrepresented in the professoriate, and so you can just know that this is an injustice to be rectified.

So at the core of the dispute between the woke and the unwoke – at least with respect to this issue – is as much cognitive as it is political. Or put another way, at the core of the political dispute is a cognitive one. People who want universities to pursue social justice don’t want to know – in fact they want not to know – any truths about social justice. What they mean by social justice is just whatever it is they happen to be pursuing.

If this is right – and I think it is – then they’re not really pursuing social justice, in any cognitive sense of those words. They’re pursuing power, the pursuit of which is nothing to be ashamed of. Power is a zero-sum game. I’m a white heterosexual male. I like the power I have. I want to protect it. Some people want to take it away from me. Like Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, I respect them. Until they tell me they’re just pursuing social justice. That gets my hackles up. And when my hackles are up, reconciliation is the last thing on my mind.

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy, Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

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