Issues of social justice: why #ZumaMustFall is the bane of white allies
By now the political movement known as #ZumaMustFall (ZMF) is well known to most South Africans. In truth, its story is very simple: groups of South Africans across the country, disgruntled by the policies and actions of our president, have called for the president’s replacement. Nothing about the movement warrants particularly deep inquiry. Rather, it is the response to ZMF that has been more complex and so fascinating to observe – more specifically, the response of white South Africans not aligned with the movement. Like teenagers embarrassed by their parents in the presence of their friends, some whites have shied away from the movement, calling for its dissolution whilst trying to minimise the attention given to it. It is interesting to consider why this is the case, but first, some context is needed.
Context: social justice in 2015
Last year was in many ways the Year of the Social Justice Warrior. Particularly on university campuses at home and abroad, but also on many online publications, the agitation around issues of social justice has escalated to levels previously unseen. These ideas and their proponents have enjoyed much success in this regard.
On the surface, social justice has to do with the ‘distribution’ of income, wealth, opportunities and privileges in a given society. Social justice differs significantly from justice, though. As Dennis Prager, Ben Shapiro and Thomas Sowell – all brilliant commentators in their own right – note, whenever an important value-based noun such as ‘justice’ is qualified or modified through the addition of an adjective, it completely loses its original meaning. This is true of the ‘distributive justice’ outlined by John Rawls in his work A Theory of Justice, as well as the ‘political justice’ described by William Godwin in the late eighteenth century. Interestingly enough, all of these modifications of ‘justice’ point to the same central idea.
Social justice and its synonyms have nothing to do with acts – right or wrong – carried out by individuals, though; instead, justice in these conceptions is based on membership in particular groups, and the interactions between those groups. To express this in the Critical Theory terminology that saturates university campuses and online commentary: social justice is about oppressed- and oppressor groups. In essence, social justice is a collectivistic philosophy.
One of the logical implications of the social justice philosophy, therefore, is that if one or a few members of a given group commit a wrongful act, the entire group is complicit. This explains why, today, all white people are held responsible for slavery and colonialism in the distant past, and why young whites are held responsible for the Apartheid regime that preceded them.
Fast forward: white allies and the ugly face of white racism
One of the successes of the social justice philosophy has been how provocatively it has been communicated. To stand on the side of social justice has been framed as taking the moral high ground, with the converse true of those who reject the philosophy. As such, self-interest compels most people who are confronted with these ideas to take a definitive position – often in favour of social justice.
In South Africa, where collectivism and social justice are rooted most firmly in race, the result has been the emergence of white ‘allies’: whites who publicly acknowledge their ‘white privilege’ and commit (at least verbally) to supporting the cause of social justice; often this virtue signalling is all that is necessary to demonstrate sufficient commitment to the cause. That those who march under the social justice banner and form part of ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘oppressed’ groups (to use the Critical Theory terminology) would allow white allies to have both membership and prominence in their movements, without offering anything substantial, is incredibly generous. On the other hand, intentions and apparent sincerity are given far more weight by proponents of social justice than are actual outcomes.
Nonetheless, as proponents of social justice, white allies are ipso facto collectivists – to their own detriment. When white individuals engage in any form of unacceptable behaviour – and particularly when racism or ‘racist undertones’ are involved – and where this is widely reported, we are reminded that once again the ugly face of white racism has emerged. The collectivistic nature of the social justice philosophy implies that the characteristics of a given group can be extrapolated from one observed individual, and so the incident in question serves to remind us that all whites are racist.
Stories such as that of Penny Sparrow thus form an obstacle to white allies, because such stories bring their sincerity and moral position into question. After all, what credibility do racists have in social justice circles, and to what extent does their presence undermine social justice movements?
Consider, therefore, just how much of a liability a movement like ZMF is to these individuals.
Since its inception, ZMF has been labeled a racist movement. The reasoning is fairly simple, albeit fallacious, and is based on one significant assumption: that the participants view the world through the same collectivistic lenses that their detractors do. If protestors gather to express their discontent, and point to the president as the source of their frustrations, then it follows that the ZMF movement is not just antagonistic towards the president, but also towards the broader ‘group’ of black South Africans he ‘represents’.
If the movement is racist, the participants are racist, and if the participants are reported as or perceived to be mostly white, then this too unmasks that ugly face of white racism. If a single racist individual is enough to undermine – even slightly – the credibility of white allies in the eyes of those whom they seek to ‘help’, then large groups of supposed racists are enough to seriously indict any and all whites, including the so-called ‘allies’. This is why white allies want such protests to be quietly brushed under the carpet.
Are some of those involved with ZMF racist? Probably. The problem is that collectivism merges individual traits – thoughts, attitudes, and values – with arbitrary groupings like race or sex. Racism is thus not an attitude one person has towards another; instead, racism is what white people exhibit towards those of other races. Nicholas Woode-Smith has outlined the social ramifications that this type of collectivistic thinking can have. Indeed, it can be devastating.
The principle task of this article, though, was to make sense of the response to ZMF.
In contemporary feminism, there is a concept called ‘fragile masculinity’; a parallel concept could be called ‘fragile allyship’. As incidents of white racism (real or otherwise) are exposed, the act of maintaining a moral equilibrium – balancing the ‘harm’ of being white with the merit of being ‘socially conscious’ – becomes increasingly difficult and precarious. Put simply: being a white ally is not without its challenges, even if such difficulties are primarily self-inflicted.
By embracing collectivistic thinking, white allies have inextricably tied themselves to the actions of other whites. The teenager being embarrassed by their parents is thus a fitting analogy: like the disgruntled teenager wanting to be spared shame and embarrassment, white allies just want movements like ZMF to go away.