National Review: The Social Justice Code John Leo says that on the surface "social justice" may sound good but is just one of several terms that has been given in-group meanings by the wordsmiths of the cultural Left. The term is little more than code.
NPR logo National Review: The Social Justice Code

National Review: The Social Justice Code

Radio talk show host Glenn Beck gestures to the crowd at the Rally for America event at Marshall University Stadium. Shaun Heasley/Getty Images hide caption

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Shaun Heasley/Getty Images

Radio talk show host Glenn Beck gestures to the crowd at the Rally for America event at Marshall University Stadium.

Shaun Heasley/Getty Images

When Glenn Beck urged Christians to leave churches that preach social justice, he allowed himself to be tripped up by conventional buzzwords of the campus Left. In plain English, "social justice" is a goal of all churches and refers to helping the poor and seeking equality. As a code word, it refers to a controversial package of goals including political redistribution of wealth, gay marriage, and a campaign against "institutional racism," "classism," "ableism," and "heterosexism." Beck was wildly off base linking "social justice" (of either form) to Communism and Nazism, but he was correct to note that the term is often used as a code.

In the words of Peter Wood, head of the National Association of Scholars, "The campus left learned with its promotion of the concept of 'diversity' the advantages of packaging hard-core ideology in bland, feel-good terminology." "Social justice" is one of several terms — others include "dispositions," "sustainability," and "cultural competence" — that has been given in-group meanings by the wordsmiths of the cultural Left.

In 2002, for example, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) issued new guidelines requiring education departments that listed social justice as a goal to "include some measure of a candidate's commitment to social justice" when evaluating the "dispositions" of their students. As soon became clear, this provided education schools a back-door method of ensuring ideological conformity among their students.

At Brooklyn College, Washington State, and Alaska-Fairbanks — all public institutions covered by the First Amendment — students were punished for voicing opinions that differed from those of the faculty. At Washington State, where the college of education tried to expel a student for his conservative opinions, the dean was asked whether Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia could pass a disposition test at the school. "I'm not sure how to answer that," she replied.

Eventually, NCATE clarified its wording a bit. Sounding very much like Jim Wallis teeing off against Glenn Beck , NCATE protested the attack on the words "social justice," saying, "To most Americans the phrase social justice is positive and connotes values associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition." The problem is that even in its mildest form, the insistence on dedication to social justice puts schools in a position of judging the acceptability of students' political and social opinions.

Other fashionable buzzwords include "secure livelihoods" and "strong economies," which seem to refer to redistribution of wealth, not economic development to create new wealth. (Few of the words are precisely defined, but used in context, they convey the general idea.) "Cultural competence" may sound like it would refer to knowledge of different cultures. But it really means the acceptance of multicultural ideology and cultural relativism.

The most potent of the current buzzwords is "sustainability," which ties traditional environmentalism to the entire left-wing agenda. As Wood says, hundreds of campuses now have sustainability officers, courses that promote the ideology, and most ominously "co-curricular programs run through student life and residence halls to 'educate' students about their mistaken 'worldviews' and bring them aboard this new ideological ark." Kathleen Kerr, who ran an astonishing all-out indoctrination program in the residential halls of the University of Delaware (students were all expected to accuse themselves of racism, for example), admitted in a speech that "the social-justice aspects of sustainability education" included lessons on "environmental racism" "domestic partnerships," and "gender equity." We are far from tree-hugging here.

The apparently harmless lingo of the Left can't be taken at face value. It needs an English translation.