Social Justice for Mortals

Social Justice for Mortals

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. – James Madison, Federalist 51

Sam Hammond caught flak in certain social justice communities by daring to defend the controversial Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad on social justice grounds. As it happens I largely agree with the condemnation of the ad, but I found Hammond’s historical analysis of the interplay between social justice and the market to be not only generally right but even inspiring. As someone committed to social justice, I’m curious what led to the interpretive chasm between my fellow social justice warriors (a moniker I use with affection) and I.

David Deluca’s response is concise and representative of the complaints against Hammond. Deluca gives the example of realizing (via the damning evidence of a discarded note) your significant other gets you flowers merely to manipulate you into giving them more foot massages. Likewise corporations deploy social justice-themed marketing merely to sell their wares.

Walter S. Mack Jr. wanted to sell more Pepsi, so he found a new market: black people. Using the image of the normal, happy, middle class black consumer, Walter S. Mack Jr. got what he wanted: he sold more product and made more money. Coke used diversity to sell more Coke. Subaru used “gay vague” marketing to sell more Outbacks. In all of these cases, the corporation saw something people cared about — inclusivity, pride, diversity — and used it to compel consumers to consume more product.

What this suggests is not that social justice movements need capitalism to succeed, but rather that capitalists will use the values and emotions of their target markets to increase profits. They will be on the side of social justice if it means profit. They’ll love diversity. They’ll publicly praise the immigrant who started Budweiser. They will be whoever and whatever you want them to be, provided it means you continue to consume the product. In this way, social justice remains subservient to profit, and if social justice became unprofitable, there is no guarantee corporations would continue to market themselves as its agents.

Corporations are made of people

Deluca decries the instrumental use of social justice rhetoric, its use as a means to capitalist ends. This assumes that capitalists and corporations can only act to maximize profits. Without a doubt the primary legal purpose of corporations is to maximize profits for their shareholders. But corporations do not spring fully formed from the head of the Patriarchy. They are started, often at great risk, by individuals with particular beliefs, passions, and agendas. And these individuals don’t drop these commitments as they take on executive positions with what turns out to be a major corporation. It would be truly cynical to believe, for example, that Soviet refugee Sergey Brin was narrowly concerned about profit when he publicly condemned the anti-immigrant actions of Donald Trump. The early days of a start-up leave a cultural imprint on the company, for good or ill. These are the days when codes of conduct and statements of values are drawn up, and when it is determined how seriously employees (high and low) take these intangibles. Is diversity training internalized by management or does it just occasion snickering and eye-rolling? Anyone who has worked for different companies can attest to the reality of their differences in culture.

Even as we accept that profit is king in the major corporation—again I’m not disputing this—maximizing profits is rarely straightforward. The economic terrain is awash in uncertainty: what consumers want, what consumers can be persuaded to want, what competitors will deliver, the regulatory environment, the weather, etc. This uncertainty, along with the cognitive diversity of one’s fellow decision-makers, leads to multiple viable strategies for maximizing profits. This opens up room for auxiliary motives. A publicly stated commitment to social justice probably won’t override a company’s clear shot at windfall profits. But in many circumstances a prior commitment to social justice can act as a tie-breaker for viable actions. If two candidates seem equally viable, why not advance diversity? If advertising campaigns can be inclusive without compromising other objectives, why not be inclusive?

The timid economics of the left

The market economy is a complex adaptive system, similar in many ways to biological evolution. Evolution abhors wasted resources and loves to fill niches. If a significant (or even not so significant) corner of the market is not being serviced, it creates an opening for entrepreneurs and other corporate risk-takers to find a way to service that niche market. It is this search-and-discover mechanism of the market economy—in addition to the typically positive sum nature of free exchange—that makes it especially well-suited to overcoming widespread bias and bigotry. An under-served niche will likely attract someone with a high enough risk tolerance to go against the tide of social opinion.

The alternatives to an economy based on free exchange among individuals, like communes or centrally planned socialist economies, require significant coordination. This coordination is inherently less exploratory than the distributed decisions of the market. If there is social injustice in the commune or socialist state, then oppressed groups must rely solely on risky political agitation and wait for the central planners to come around. There will be no entrepreneurs to gamble that the marginalized might be worth a buck.

Leftist perfectionism

This is unromantic and unjust. The oppressed shouldn’t have to wait either for politicians to perceive them as a potential voting bloc, for capitalists to exploit them as a “niche market,” or for corporations to attend to their concerns when there isn’t too much profit at stake. Their rights and dignity and welfare should be respected just by virtue of their humanity. Even if Hammond’s and my arguments are correct, and the free market can and does advance social justice, the justice achieved is hollow and fragile. What happens if and when the vicissitudes of the market swing away from the marginalized? Deluca again, emphasis his:

Social justice does not need capitalism; in fact, it cannot need capitalism. If social justice needs capitalism, then capitalism has enslaved social justice and rendered it impotent. I would go so far as to say that a world where social justice needs capitalism is inherently unjust; for, in those manifold instances where capitalism conflicts with social justice, there is no way for social justice to hold capitalism accountable. When social justice threatens capitalism, capitalism quietly retracts its powerful hand and lets social justice fall screaming into the pit.

Or as one commentator summarized Hammond:

If y’all would just get to bootlickin’, bourgies might bestow more kindness in the form of advertising that includes marginalized communities. Read: Not because they care about them, but because they care about their products being purchased.

Social justice must be done for the right reasons if it is to be social justice at all. If I make it more advantageous to you to support social justice causes, then we have both cheapened social justice. There is a kernel of truth to this: cynical, purely self-interested support for any principle is not true support. But this ignores both that social justice must be learned and that social scaffolding for any kind of virtue is one of the best social technologies we have for inculcating and proliferating that virtue.

Learning social justice

Social justice is not at all obvious. Indeed this is why we study feminism and critical theory in the first place. We live within social contexts that we inevitably take for granted. It was not active, purposeful misogyny (though this has also always existed) that has limited the freedom and dignity of women. It has instead been our understandings of the “nature” of women and their appropriate social roles, and our ignorance of the fact that these understandings are mostly socially constructed. If you had grown up in 19th century America and saw women work only in domestic labor and child rearing, never saw women educated past high school, and always saw women defer to men as heads of household, it would require an exceptional imagination to believe any other arrangement were possible. This would have been the historical norm, and the social understandings of the past cast a long shadow.

With all due respect to the (true) notion that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the privileged about social justice, it nonetheless remains true that teaching and learning needs to happen. It should also be noted that while the oppressed are better situated to understand their own oppression, even they must learn, explore, and even invent. Sexual harassment, for example, is difficult even for the harassed to understand—and thus protest—if the only extant concepts describing the behaviors are things like “flirting” or “just fooling around.”

Social justice for mortals

We are not only ignorant by nature but weak-willed. Even when we know the right thing to do, we find reasons to avoid doing it if it’s in anyway inconvenient. We procrastinate, take shortcuts, conveniently forget annoying details, etc. We use “social scaffolding” to help us make better decisions; that is, we offload some of the necessary will power to our social environment to lessen the amount we have to muster ourselves. We work with colleagues (instead of alone) and set deadlines to hold ourselves accountable, for instance. Or, in the aim of getting to bed on time, in many places bars and entertainment venues close at a certain time, not too late (note some scaffolding is unchosen).

Social justice can be difficult in various ways. The existence of oppression and disadvantage is psychologically taxing for the privileged person, who would prefer a world where their advantages didn’t come at a cost to others, or even better, a world where their advantages were all earned. We are all susceptible to just world bias, the tendency to believe that bad things don’t happen to good people. Or to bring this back around to capitalism, upholding social justice may come at the expense of profits.

The insistence that corporations can only have cynical motives sabotages our ability to use social scaffolding for the ends of social justice. So what if entrepreneurs target minority markets initially purely for the sake of profit? If this strategy better meets the needs of those minorities while simultaneously broadcasting their humanity and equal moral worth to the broader public, then it is a powerful example of emergent social scaffolding. It lowers the hurdles for everyone to get on the right side of social justice.

These fair weather commitments can deepen over time. It was never just to condemn women to lives of domestic drudgery, nor to restrict their sexual autonomy. These are now truly deep moral commitments among liberals. Yet it can hardly be doubted that inventions like the washing machine and the pill made it easier to embrace these beliefs. We shouldn’t doubt the sincerity of our feminism just because of this historical contingency. And we should rejoice at the recent evidence that diversity improves problem solving (thus giving firms selfish economic reasons to encourage diversity), rather than feel that such developments cheapen social justice.

Leftist critics are right to worry about what happens when social justice suddenly becomes inconvenient for capitalism. But the answer is not to disparage the serendipitous alignment of social justice and capitalism when it does happen. The wiser approach is to make it a moral priority to foster social perceptions whereby markets and social justice do work with one another. This means at minimum not condemning corporations and other market actors when they advance social justice. But if, as Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman argues in The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, economic growth itself primes us for inclusive thinking, then advancing the cause of liberal markets itself must become a social justice priority. To paraphrase Madison, if we were angels, social justice wouldn’t be necessary. If we had angels to guide us, we wouldn’t need to learn social justice or erect scaffolds to support it. We are left to do social justice the hard way.

Featured image is “Scaffolding” by Peter Griffin.