Social justice and ethical nuance

There is a hierarchy of ‘badness’ in the world – there’s no question in my mind that various ethical lapses can be categorised as trivial or profound, even if there might be many cases that don’t admit to easy categorisation. Shoplifting is far less wrong than murder, and shoplifting to feed your starving family less wrong than shoplifting the latest Rihanna CD.

But when discussing some of the hot-button issues of the day – often, these days, social justice or related issues like racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia, it sometimes seems that there’s less room for nuance than there should be. You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “I’m not a racist, but…” many times, and that phrase is often a sign that the person speaking is in fact a racist. This doesn’t mean that our endorsements of an overall message can’t ever come with a ‘but’, though.

Emily Yoffe has had to do a lot of explaining of this point in recent days, on the same topic (risk-mitigation versus victim-blaming with regard to rape) where I’ve experienced similar outrage for making the suggestion that any method for decreasing the incidence of rape should be a possible subject for discussion, no matter how unfair it is that some groups (women, mostly) bear a disproportionate burden in this regard. We need to fix that unfairness, yes, but while we do so, we can (and should) simultaneously acknowledge how it might play out in terms of practical solutions for reducing rape.

In the past week, I’ve also been told (in response to this piece, identifying the plagiarism in a blog post on white privilege) that it matters not whether there is plagiarism in the piece in question, because that issue detracts from the main issue, which is white privilege. And, a few racist South Africans have found glee in the columnist in question being caught out, then somehow thought me an ally despite all the public evidence to the contrary.

And such is the intellectually vacuous nature of the blogosphere and social media that people take both of those positions seriously, despite the fact that they are both obviously flawed. This is what treating a particular cause – no matter how just – as gospel does to debate: it dumbs it down to headlines and hyperbole, where the long-term goal of getting everyone to think about what they believe, and why, is done a tremendous disservice.

Yoffe shouldn’t have had to explain her position (even though she did so very well, in the end), and the explanation might not help in any event, because the sorts of misreadings we’re talking about are incredibly motivated, and typically unfalsifiable (conversations about them are a textbook example of goalpost-shifting, ad hominem argumentation and the like).

There is a danger in groupthink (in that it is an obstacle to thinking), and one can agree on a position in a way that doesn’t involve groupthink. Especially when the stakes are highest, and the potential harms the greatest, we should remind ourselves of this. And, allow ourselves to be reminded of it.