Ground Zero: Critical Social Justice and Its Discontents

I taught my first university writing class in 1995, and since then, I’ve worked with thousands of students.  Fortunately, the vast majority of my interactions have been both positive and constructive.  Sure, there have been a handful of exceptions, but for the most part, I’ve had very few negative encounters with the members of my classes.  And over time, I’ve quantifiably gotten better at—and happier with— doing my job.  But these days, I am less confident about the disposition and preparation of some of my students.

At one point, I didn’t think twice about what kind of students I might encounter in my classes. The assumption was they were there to learn about writing and would therefore abide by the same rules of decorum and share a commitment to truth-seeking and critical thinking that made learning possible.  But within the last four years or so, I’ve watched in dismay and disbelief as this tacit agreement has been subordinated to the ideology of critical social justice.

(New paragraph) If the only requirement to being a CSJ advocate is having critical consciousness relative to issues related to racial and other injustices, many people would probably consider themselves as such. The problem, according to James Lindsay—co-author of How to Have Impossible Conversations and Cynical Theories, among other works—is that “being woke carries the imperative to become a social activist with regards to these issues and problems on the terms set by critical social justice.” (Emphasis added.)

In the context of CSJ, the realization of the imperative is all that matters; it is the sine qua non of one’s existence. Thus, one’s views must, through a kind of simultaneously dogmatic and indeterminate CSJ-speak, adequately signal a commitment to that imperative, which is often attended by an aura of self-righteous, quasi-religious zeal. It is as unmistakable as it is alarming. Thus, far from being positive, my experience with proponents of CSJ has been just the opposite.

My larger concern, however, is that although militant CSJ students make up only a tiny fraction of the student body, as their numbers grow, their influence may further erode our ability to seek truth and uphold the core values of higher education, which include the centrality of critical thinking, the necessity of considering evidence, and the importance of civil dialog between people who hold opposing perspectives.

The threat to these values promises to become more pronounced as more and more students adopt a CSJ orientation, but the reality is that it only takes one to end everything from class discussions to an instructor’s career.  All faculty, but especially those who don’t frame their subjects through the lens of CSJ, should learn to recognize this ideology. They need to protect themselves from its pitfalls and to prevent their courses from being undermined or even hijacked by well-meaning, but ultimately misguided students.

To date, I have had only three encounters with such students.  That’s not even one student per year, and when compared with how often I encounter students who are, say, upset about their grades (about two a year), they hardly seem worth mentioning.  But while I can’t recall the faces of students who were upset about their grades, nor the circumstances surrounding those disagreements, I vividly remember each of my encounters with those three students as if they happened yesterday.  Far from having no effect on me, they changed how I interact with students, as well as my willingness to discuss social issues.

The difference is that I don’t ever recall feeling like a grade dispute could result in my termination, whereas that is the first thing I think about when conflicts arise between me and CSJ students. But beyond such conflicts’ negative effects on me personally are their implications for students and newer instructors who still believe that the unfettered pursuit of truth is the most important thing we can aspire to in our classrooms. (For more on this chilling effect, see,too%20broad%20or%20too%20vague).

Of course, what this pursuit looks like will vary from class to class. In my intermediate writing classes, for instance, I work with traditional first-year writing students, 98 percent of whom are right out of high school and often cannot write a clear thesis statement, distinguish summary from analysis, or write a well-developed paragraph, among other basic skills. Focusing on critical social justice in those courses when students are struggling to express even basic ideas would, at the very least, be a dereliction of duty. Thus, those courses revolve almost entirely around teaching students about writing and reading—and that the former can be learned without reference to power, privilege, group identity, intersectionality, oppression and other tenets of CSJ.

Ultimately, that’s the only reason I need to justify offering students a writing/reading-centric curriculum, but it’s not the only reason—a fact that I was recently reminded of when working with students in one of the upper-division writing courses I teach. It requires students to engage multiple viewpoints and to account for how those viewpoints affect their understanding and perspective. They are free to explore CSJ perspectives in addition to others and to pursue whatever lines of inquiry they wish.

Recently, we were working on the advocacy section of that course, which requires students to write op ed’s and submit them for publication. Usually the class met in person, but on that day, the COVID infection rate was well over 15 percent so we decided to hold class on Zoom.  After spending a few minutes reminding students of the op ed requirements and sharing a link to an example essay, students took turns reading it.  I then opened the floor for discussion by asking students for their thoughts on how that piece fulfilled the requirements of the assignment.

One student raised her hand, and we had a brief yet insightful interchange. I then scanned the screen looking for hands or other indications that other people wanted to contribute to the discussion. That’s when another student sat up straight in her chair, pulled her computer closer to her face, and let me have it. “Yeah, I just gotta say I find this piece very dehumanizing and inappropriate,” she said angrily. “I find it extremely offensive.”

I listened patiently, nodded, and said “Wow,” “Thank you for your candor,” and a few other things in an attempt to acknowledge her concerns.  In that instant, however, my orientation toward her shifted. Whereas before I had regarded her as a fellow traveler on the road to greater understanding, I now saw her as a bomb that could detonate at any moment.  I wasn’t about to engage her further (how could I when to even question her position may be interpreted as further evidence of my insensitivity?), so when she didn’t respond further, I stole a glance at some of the other students, and they looked exactly as I felt: shocked.  I mustered the presence of mind to ask if anyone else wanted to add anything.  Clearly there was more to say, much more.  But nobody said a word after that.

The fact is that in an environment where feelings are sacrosanct, emotions are valued more than evidence, and all inquiry is interpreted in the context of justice, no one dares to do anything except concur.  No one wants to risk incurring a dressing down by a fellow student or the subsequent rebuke of the faculty members and administrators who encourage such behavior—both by creating the conditions needed for students’ outrage and by pandering to displays of righteous indignation.  And that shuts down one of the most important aspects of any classroom—indeed, of higher education in general: the free and open exploration of ideas.

But CSJ advocates, whether they are students, faculty, or administrators, are not the only ones responsible for the current situation.  In retrospect, I could have done more to prepare students to discuss the essay and thus prevent this unfortunate event from occurring: I could have started by assigning the piece a couple days earlier and then by putting them into breakout rooms, which would have given students further opportunity to share, process and work through their ideas. I could have reminded them of the difference between basing our conclusions on feelings instead of on evidence. I could have emphasized the importance of thinking critically about, rather than merely reacting to, differing or controversial ideas.

Finally, I could have reminded them of why we were there, in a university classroom, and of the responsibilities and expectations of occupying a space where there is no risk not worth taking. And it’s not because the risks are ideologically sanctioned, tailored, or specific, but because they are taken by people who, despite their differences, are united in their pursuit and discovery of truth.

This essay first appeared in Inside Higher Education. 

Maximilian Werner is an Associate Professor (Lecturer) of Writing and Rhetoric Studies at the University of Utah.  His most recent book is Wolves, Grizzlies, and Greenhorns: Death and Coexistence in the American West. Reach him at and @ProfMWerner.