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It's Not Suicide, It's Murder: Responding to Nicolas Agostini in Quillette
A reply to the Quillette article "Suicide Foretold: How Social Justice Rhetoric is Turning People off Human Rights"
Quillette recently published an article titled: Suicide Foretold: How Social Justice Rhetoric is Turning People off Human Rights by Nicolas Agostini.
This article shares the same basic thesis as my book Children’s Justice: that human rights is being replaced by social justice based in critical theory. However, Agostini and I draw very different conclusions about what this change means and how those previously involved in human rights activism should respond. Although we have different perspectives, I found his interesting enough that I’ve written a full response to the article below.
A bit about my background for new readers: I directed the feature-length documentary American Circumcision, which explores the modern circumcision debate. The film follows the Intactivist movement, which believes that all human beings have to the right to their own bodies and that all forms of infant genital cutting are a violation of human rights. I also published The Intactivist Guidebook, a guide for activists. I’ve now been working on human rights and children’s issues for the majority of my life.
This past year, I published a book titled Children’s Justice, which looks at what children’s issues would look like if approached using social justice based in critical theory, rather than human rights. Prior to writing this book in 2020, I would probably have been described as “anti-woke” and followed many of the same ideas and public figures that Quillette readers likely do. However, studying theory led to a new perspective, beyond woke and anti-woke, that I’ll let you discover for yourself below:
Critical Social Justice Is Not Human Rights
There is one key difference between how Nicholas Agostini and I view critical social justice: Agostini refers to the change from human rights to social justice as merely “new language” whereas I see it as a completely different ideology.
While this might not seem like a significant difference, critical theory sees language as interwoven with power (what Michel Foucault called “power/knowledge”). From this perspective, a change in language is actually a complete revolution in power, where one ideology is replacing the next.
Most of Agostini criticisms of critical social justice boil down to “this won’t help human rights.” He is correct because they’re not a human rights movement. They are a different movement that is slowly colonizing human rights activism.
To show you what I mean, let me go through a few quotes so you can see this false assumption in action:
But a look at how activists use the expression leaves us to wonder: if “dismantling systemic racism” actually means “fighting racism,” why not say it this way?
Because it doesn’t mean that.
Take the oxymoron "silence is violence." There’s no way it can be a human rights approach to free expression.
They don’t believe in human rights or free expression.
I replied to an activist I was following who used that phrase [“Men are trash.”] in response to an article on domestic violence. I highlighted that such an insult, directed at an entire category of people based on immutable characteristics, was unacceptable (imagine replacing “men” with “women” or “people of color”). Her reply? I was being “fragile.” Where does the human rights movement go from there? If we are unable to convince each other, how are we going to convince the public?
You weren’t talking to another human rights activist.
You see the pattern?
“Why don’t they act like someone on our side?” Because they’re not.
What Is Critical Social Justice Seeking?
The actions of critical social justice activists do not make sense if you assume their goal is universal human rights. However, if you also assume that they aren’t stupid and they see that their actions won’t help universal human rights, yet they continue to pursue the same actions, then the only logical conclusion is that they have a different goal than human rights. What does critical social justice actually want? If critical social justice activists want something different, why are they entering human rights organizations?
Agostini suggests that critical social justice is bad for four reasons, all bolded as headings in the article: 1) it confuses people, 2) it irritates people, 3) it tribalizes people, and 4) it centers US imperialism. I would say that all of these are features, not bugs. If we assume that these are intended outcomes (as critical social justice activists would) how do activists benefit from them?
1) It confuses people. Which people? Critical social justice activists aren’t confused. Only human rights activists who think they are also human rights activists are confused. We could translate this point as “it confuses those outside their movement.”
At a recent human rights workshop, speakers’ ad nauseam use of “equity” led a colleague of mine to ask me whether we were in fact discussing equality. Even human rights folks are lost.
They’re lost because equity and equality are actually different. However, the similarity allows speakers to confuse human rights activists into thinking they’re talking about the same idea (equality) when they are actually talking about a different one (equity).
If Sun Tzu was right when he said in The Art of War that warfare was about deception, this is a great benefit to them. Critical social justice activists can see each other, but you can’t see them. They are effectively spies infiltrating human rights organizations.
2) It irritates people.
Then consider this simple question from a mere tactical standpoint: will critical social justice rhetoric help human rights win hearts and minds?
Here, Agostini is specifically talking about social justice language. (Ex: Latinx.) In my personal experience, he is correct that normal people don’t like this new language. Yet if that’s the case, we have to ask: If everyone hates this language so much, why does it keep popping up everywhere? Why is everyone required to use it?
Critical social justice has a different apologetic than human rights liberalism. In liberalism, one advocates for their position through debate and persuasion. Critical social justice views politics through the lens of power, not persuasion. They’re not seeking to win “hearts and minds.” They’re seeking power.
Agostini advice to critical social justice activists makes perfect sense from the human rights perspective, and no sense to their perspective:
If activists convince a critical mass of people that the new rhetoric adequately describes reality and helps improve respect for rights, then they might succeed. But then I must tell them: be patient. Explain why you believe the new rhetoric makes sense. Don’t hammer it home and insult those who disagree. Above all: self-reflect and reach out to the public. Remember that you can always leave the tribe. Think critically and value nonconformism.
These are not their values. They are not here to win debates. They are here to win power. Now ask yourself - which strategy is working better? They’re overtaking human rights organizations, while actual human rights activists are writing articles in Quillette saying “hey… stop it.” Who is actually winning here?
This also explains why people who aren’t human rights activists are in human rights organizations. Large human rights NGOs have power. Activists want power, so they’re colonizing you. If they have power, through schools, NGOs, governments, etc. does it really matter if they win “hearts and minds?” In fact, if they can make people do stuff that irritates them, isn’t that a greater display of power?
3) It tribalizes people.
As the human rights discourse gets less clear and less credible, it also gets less universal. Rhetorical shifts reflect the tribalization of the human rights movement.
Human rights are universal. They unite everyone. If critical social justice activists are not human rights activists, then how would they benefit from having their rivals united? If they want to conquer, it helps to first divide.
Any questioning of the second can land you an accusation of racism (it’s happened to me, after 10 years of work in the human rights field).
Every person I know who opposes critical social justice has faced his accusation as well, including those with the most liberal backgrounds and beliefs. This works on two levels: 1) it brands you as an out-group to their tribe, and 2) it divides you from other liberals, since liberals don’t want to associate with racists.
They speak to themselves; they might speak to each other; but they don’t speak (or even attempt to reach out) to the public. As a result of extreme niche activism, human rights end up looking like a catalogue for categories, sub-categories, and sub-sub-categories of people, each emphasizing what differentiates them over what makes them members of the human family—a process that’s at odds with the human rights project. As critical social justice rhetoric moves away from traditional human rights language, fewer people can relate to it. Its main function seems to be reinforcing group cohesion. Its adoption is both a rite of passage and a sign of group belonging.
Yes. It is “at odds with the human rights project” because it’s not human rights. It’s a tribe colonizing human rights. You’re not in it. It’s main function is “reinforcing group cohesion,” because that’s how tribes work. Ruling tribe speaks “to each other,” not to the sublaterns. It matters what caste you are. There are many castes, or “categories, sub-categories, and sub-sub-categories of people.” If you want power, you have to join the ruling tribe. That’s how colonizing works.
4) It centers US imperialism.
They claim to “de-center” the West but end up re-centering it. It’s precisely the kind of power they despise—US cultural imperialism—that’s about to make their rhetoric mainstream.
Strange how a US intellectual movement from US institutions just so happens to benefit US global hegemony. Who could have guessed? Can’t explain this one. By the way, did you know there was a George Floyd mural in Afghanistan?
Resisting the imposition of a US-centered vision of how we should talk about human rights isn’t easy. US-based foundations and donors, including OSF and the Ford Foundation, are among the largest donors to human rights organizations. And they’re massively investing in social justice-inspired programs that are rooted in critical theory and identity activism.
So lots of US money is going to movements that turn human rights organizations, which might be what Agostini calls “tools to check how power is exercised” - like say the global power of the United States - to ensure that these potential opposition organizations are rooted in ideas that support global US hegemony, while - get this - making it look like they’re just supporting social justice. Neat trick.
To recap, there are people joining human rights organizations that 1) conceal their true ideology, appearing like the group they infiltrate, 2) force others to submit to their power through language, 3) ensure their opposition can’t unify by dividing them, and 4) center US imperial power.
Agostini… I think you’re being infiltrated by spies. They might not be literal United States intelligence assets, but they’re doing the empire’s work. They’re doing regime change, but in NGOs, by removing a governing ideology that threatens them and replacing it with one more favorable. By the end, human rights organizations will be controlled opposition.
Agostini summarizes his perspective at the end of the article:
As a discursive strategy, subsuming human rights under critical social justice rhetoric might prove to be more than a mistake. It could be a suicide.
It’s not suicide. It’s a murder.
Will Human Rights Survive?
If human rights organizations are being colonized by a rival ideology that will ensure they can’t do human rights anymore, then the next question is: Can human rights survive?
To survive, human rights organizations will have to recognize what is happening and take the right action. Based on the fact that even longtime human rights activists Agostini do not recognize critical social justice activists as a separate movement, but frequently include them when saying “we” or “us,” it’s clear most activists don’t even know what is happening.
This isn’t to say that Agostini’s analysis is wrong. His observations are mostly correct. He is just using the wrong filter. If we were both looking at a tiger, and he called it a cat, and I called it a predator, we would both be correct, but only one of us would be using a filter useful for survival. One would lead to questions like, “if this is a cat, why wouldn’t he let me pet him?” and the other to thoughts like, “I just have run faster than that guy who thinks this is a cat.”
But let’s see if human rights ideology is up to the task of repelling an invasion:
By setting goals human rights cannot meet and assigning ambitions they cannot match, critical social justice rhetoric ends up diluting human rights. If we claim there is a human rights-based approach to every social problem, we pave the way for failure: if human rights are everywhere, they end up being nowhere.
On this, I agree wholeheartedly agree. Certain things are human rights. Others are not. If human rights activists are willing to hold the line and clearly define what is not a human right as strongly as they define what is, they might be able to protect the concept.
This dilution of the concept would benefit someone who wants to get away with human rights violations in some contexts (like say, US imperialism). If you can bend the rules to make things that are not human rights become human rights issues, then you can also bend them to exclude certain human rights issues that might be inconvenient to talk about. One could even do this implicitly by just filling human rights conversations with noise about unrelated issues. (For example, by flooding all police brutality discussions with comments about racism, so that police officers beating people of the same race goes unnoticed.)
Human rights aren’t a frozen monolith either. As tools to check how power is exercised, formulate grievances, and uphold dignity, human rights are open to change.
On this, I disagree. If human rights are real, they must be immutable. Human rights discourse only holds moral weight if rights already exist in reality waiting to be discovered by human consciousness. If rights are created as a “tool to check how power is exercised” then power can wield that tool however it wants, ensuring that human rights are always “open to change” in a way that benefits power.
This is the central critique of Foucltdian philosopher Giorgio Agamben who suggests in his work that if there is an exception to human rights, say due to a global pandemic or war on terror, the state will use that exception to achieve all the power they would if the rule did not exist in the first place. (Human rights activists might know that if they read theory.)
The quote above suggests to me that human rights activists will not hold the line or maintain principles, but allow critical social justice activists enough exceptions to accomplish whatever they want.
Human rights language was designed for legal purposes and to avoid doing politics in the tribal sense of the word. If we replace it with critical social justice rhetoric, we reenter politics. Doing so, we provide ammunition to those seeking to delegitimize human rights activists as mere politicians… and we could end up giving an assist to the Right.
Agostini is correct here. If terms like “racist” become tribalized so much they merely mean “outgroup,” then accusations of “racism” will merely mean “that person is not a member of our group.” Many on the right already perceive such accusations this way.
However, critical social justice activists also perceive liberals as not a member of their group. If both liberals and the right are “outgroup” then people moving from one outgroup to another makes no difference to them. In fact, moving from “outgroup” to “more visible and obvious outgroup” might make things easier for them.
Conclusion: At present, I don’t think human rights are going to make it. Human rights activists assume too much good faith. The liberal strategy of “win the debate” is too baked into the ideology. If human rights activists wanted to resist, they would need to see their opposition for what it is and engage on the level of power. They aren’t and don’t even see the problem. Knowing this, what is to be done?
Yes, I’m cliffhangering you with this ending. But look at the problem, we’ve set up: Human rights are being colonized and will likely lose. Would the solution to that fit into the last few hundred words of an article? I’m not just doing this because I want you to read the book (though to be clear, I do want you to read the book), but because the solution will require a deeper explanation than I can do justice here. But hey, subscribe. Maybe I’ll answer further in a future article.