James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian are two of the three people responsible for the Grievance Studies hoax in which they, along with Helen Pluckrose, wrote and submitted a number of absurd papers to social justice journals in order to point out that standards at the journals were lacking. Lindsay and Boghossian have recently published a book they co-authored titled “How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide” which they are promoting through appearances. This week the duo appeared on a YouTube show called “Triggernometry” where they discussed the current trends in social justice ideology for about an hour.
One of the points in the interview which caught my attention was their response to the question ‘Why now?’ James Lindsay made an interesting argument about why SJW ideology, which has existed in academic settings for decades, suddenly went viral among activists in the past few years. This theory, which he attributes to filmmaker Mike Nayma, is that a “crisis of control” on the left, prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement, led to the rapid adoption of SJW ideology, particularly in reaction to the initial (false) stories about the Ferguson shooting. How he gets there is a bit jarring as he seems to presume a deep well of racism on the right which triggered the left’s crisis, but it’s still an interesting theory.
Lindsay began by discussing the “substitution hypothesis” which is the concept that SJW ideology is actually a substitute for religion. He doesn’t dismiss the idea but he does downplay it (a bit too quickly in my opinion). However he then offers his own substitute hypothesis:
“What I ultimately think is at the root of this is people feeling out of control which is a result of our polarization,” Lindsay said. He continued, “Helen [Pluckrose] and I have called this ‘existential polarization.’ We’re so afraid that the other side will get power and misuse it, that it will cause existential threats…that we can’t possible let the other side have any power and that’s a crisis of feeling out of control. And so when we feel a crisis of feeling out of control we want to reassert control.
“Mike Nayna…has this really interesting hypothesis right now that video clips work kind of like miracles in today’s social media economy. So, when did all of this blow up and spread so quickly? It was right after the Black Lives Matter thing blew up. So you have these videos, a minute and a half long or a minute long, 30 seconds long. You don’t really know what happened and then a narrative is attached to it. Turns out later, apparently, that the narrative that was spun widely was not correct. Not at all correct. But this spreads like wildfire.
“So now you have many people who feel like society is out of control. They feel like there’s probably a lot of race issues, especially after coming out of, in the United States, Obama’s presidency. The conservatives in the US like to pretend that they weren’t racist as hell during that…not all of them of course but holy s**t they were burning black effigies. I saw people with bumper stickers driving around where I live that said stuff like ‘It’s called the White House for a reason.’…So there’s a lot of people that are aware there’s still this racist resentment and, that is—that’s racist resentment, there’s nothing else to call it.
“And then all of a sudden you see racist cops. And that’s the narrative that’s spun off the miracle story video. And boom! That crisis of control just goes nuts to everybody. And all of a sudden you have these people, critical race theorists who, since the 1980s, have been writing down exactly the explanation for this: Society has hidden racism. Racism never got better from Jim Crow era. It never got better even from slavery. It just kept putting on a nicer and nicer white mask. They literally call it that. So it’s all still there. All the same resentment. All the same inequality. All the same racism as during slavery, Jim Crows are still there they just present themselves nicer.
“And then all of a sudden you have proof. You have this miracle video that’s proof of that theory and people very rapidly turned to the critical theory, people on the left in particular who are most worried about these issues, to start getting an explanation. And so these critical race theorists and in gender you have the equivalent with queer theory, post-colonial studies and just right across the board, all of these different approaches. They all of sudden had the answers that a panicking left was looking for. And then you had the condition, which was the shooting in Ferguson which was then cast as a racist event.”
Lindsay goes on to say that SJWs suddenly felt they’d discovered the equivalent of the “germ theory of disease but for bigotry” and now they were on a crusade to cure the world. The problem of course is that the cure seems all but certain to make the situation worse. Telling a generation that their race is fundamental to their identity and that racism is present in every encounter between people creates more suspicion and allows for less understanding.
Of course there are things in Lindsay’s explanation that I’d take issue with. His assumption that conservatives were all sporting racist bumper stickers and burning black effigies during the Obama era is wildly overstated. If the study of SJWs should have taught him anything at this point it’s that the far left doesn’t need much encouragement to proclaim a crisis of control. People offering reasoned arguments for a dissenting view is enough to get them shouted down as racists, no burning effigies required. That’s not to say there are no racists on the right, clearly there are some and the left is clearly worried about them, but then as now they remain a small minority. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville attracted 300 people in a nation of 300 million.
I’m also not sure what specific video Lindsay has in mind. There was no video of the Ferguson shooting, only video from the convenience store beforehand and, later, video of Michael Brown’s body in the street. Interviews with Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson were instrumental in spreading some of the false stories about the shooting, but those weren’t videos of the incident in question.
Despite these problems, I think Lindsay is on to something. The SJW impulse really does seem to get started with Black Lives Matter. Suddenly the left was able to present their views on race as an existential crisis for people threatened by racist cops. The left cast Officer Darren Wilson in this role claiming he committed a public execution by shooting an unarmed black man in the back. The fact that none of this was true did come out eventually, but by that point the fake story had dominated headlines for weeks.
Here’s the full interview with Lindsay and Boghossian: