In today's Tower of Babel, can we even agree on what social justice means? (#103)

author's headshotauthor's headshotauthor's headshot
Jean Latting
May 23, 2023
apple podcast logotunein podcast logospotify logoamazon podcast logogoogle podcast logo
Subscribe to
spotify logoapple podcast logotunein podcast logogoogle podcast logoamazon podcast logo

The polarization in this country has grown so vast that words we use in common do not mean the same things. Is there any hope for bridging the divide?

The blog post that wrote itself

I had originally intended this blog post to be on self-discipline. Then we posted an ad about our Pathfinders program on the Leading Consciously Facebook page and I was thrown into another world I had only heard about. In this world, familiar concepts (to me) – such as social justice, race, and the meaning of racial consciousness – were upended. (Note the irony that I wanted to post on self-discipline and ended up being distracted by something more compelling.)

So far the ad has generated over 100 comments, most of them opposing the very concept of social justice. From their pictures, most commenters appeared to be White men with a sprinkling of White women. Some had no pictures and a few were probably bots; their comments were immediately deleted. This post is about the comments I kept and what I learned from them. I’m only including commenters who were actual people.

Here is the Facebook post:

Facebook post re Pathfinders program

Below is a summary of some of the discussion. Even though commenters did post on a public forum, pseudonyms are used to protect their privacy, as this post is about their ideas and words, not their personhood.

At some point, I may write a blog analyzing all the comments; in this blog post, however, I will provide mainly an overview of what I learned.

What did the readers have to say?

In general, there were three groups of commenters:

  • Those who showed up as trolls, giving only brief (and sometimes vulgar) putdowns. Their comments were deleted.
  • Those who were more sophisticated in their putdowns, showing some level of awareness. Most of their comments I kept.
  • Those who vehemently disagreed with the topic of the ad, but still wanted to engage. These were the ones I spent the most time with on the page.

The trolling putdowns and how I explained their deletions

The disparaging, insulting putdowns were what you might expect. The high number of people who equated social justice with Marxism or communism, though, caught me by surprise.


Marxist or fascists [sic] take your pick!

After deleting about 10 comments, interspersed with those I kept and responded to, I decided to explain to everyone the guidelines for engagement:

This ad is intended to promote our Pathfinders program. To our surprise, it has generated a lot of comments from people who have a very different perspective on social justice than we do. We are leaving all thoughtful comments on this page. Rude, insulting comments that offer no unique perspective and are intended to put down rather than advance discussion will be deleted.

I sent private messages to people whose comments I deleted, explaining why. A few cursed me out or accused me of being anti-free speech. Some responded saying that they understood and ended up engaging in extended private conversations with me. With the latter group, I was amazed at the difference between their initial attacks and the openness they later displayed as we began to talk.

The clever or thoughtful putdowns

And then there were the more sophisticated putdowns. These people distinguished themselves because they showed awareness of the issues and the power of social media to sway opinions. They just had a different viewpoint than mine.

“At its heart, wokeness is divisive, exclusionary, and hateful. It basically gives mean people a reason – it gives them a shield to be mean and cruel armoured in false virtue.” — Musk

My superpower is to see thru the social justice advocates promotions.

People who wanted to debate or engage

Mainly what fascinated me was those who wanted to engage in a discussion on the page, rather than privately. They wanted to debate the meaning of social justice, to explain how the term had grown to become so pejorative to them that they were convinced it meant unfairness, not fairness.

Social justice? In other words: arrest less Blacks and more Whites

Social Justice = preferential treatment for a few

Social justice will always lead to injustice

How I explained our program

I looked for every opening I could find to explain Pathfinders as an opportunity to discuss the concerns they were expressing and to ask questions to better understand where they were coming from. In response to the comment, “Social justice will always lead to injustice,” I said this:

Interesting comment. There are certainly plenty of examples where misguided attempts at social justice result in social injustice. That's why we are offering our program – so that people learn how to get results that improve things, not make it worse. But perhaps we don't mean the same thing by the term "social justice." What do you mean by the term? And what examples do you have where social justice resulted in injustice? I'm curious.

Is there a more useful term?

But they weren’t having it. Their collective agreement equating social justice with preferential treatment was stunning. I tried to find out their source, but didn’t get far. In response to that same statement “social justice will always lead to injustice,” another person wrote:

Daniel Morris

I'm not sure that "social justice" will always lead to injustice. For example, promoting increased voluntary firearms ownership and training among women and minority groups with the goal of achieving parity with other groups might be worthwhile. (It would help remedy historical infringements on freedoms, empower more citizens for self-defense, and provide valuable skills and disciplines, for starters).

On the other hand, most "social justice" efforts have been so politicized, and have had such a poor track record overall, that the term should probably no longer be used. For many of us, and for many reasons, "social justice" has come to sound a lot like the term "people's republic," a term that we now recognize as a deceptive attempt to impose a harmful political agenda. In short, while SJ might not "always" lead to injustice, that's certainly the way to bet.

To be fair, the idea of "offering our program – so that people learn how to get results that improve things, not make it worse" might have been effective twenty years ago, or thereabouts, before the very term "social justice" had become tainted by repeated abuse and pervasive incompetence (examples available on request).

But now, after struggling with the sheer incompetence and abuses of [the Affordable Care Act] (falsely advertised as "social justice"); dealing with the inefficiency and false promises of "privacy" legislated by HIPAA, enduring the abuses of COVID advocates (many of whom never seemed to have met an insult or a put-down that they wouldn't wield against those who questioned their "communitarian" and "social justice" agenda); and observing years of false allegations of racism and other "-isms" blithely directed by so-called "social justice warriors" against dissenters, many of us aren't inclined to extend any more trust toward the "social justice" movement. It's become a tainted brand, and a bad bet.

Perhaps we'll see the kinds of repentance and reform in the SJ movement that might warrant further interest. But I suspect that will be a long time coming, if it ever does.

Social justice as “a tainted brand and a bad bet”??? Has it really come to this??? I stared at his comment and admonished myself not to succumb to a knee-jerk NO! and instead give serious consideration to what he was saying.

I have lived through enough terminology changes that I am willing to consider another term if it would work better. Two examples I have witnessed in my lifetime: from Negro to Black to African American; and from crippled to disabled to differently abled. In both cases, descriptive terms became toxic and were replaced. Has the time come for “social justice” as a concept?

With that in mind, I responded:

Daniel Morris, I get the strong sense you know what we mean by the term “social justice,” yet you are telling us that in your world, the term has become contaminated. What other term would be more useful to you?

He didn’t answer, unfortunately.

An appeal to you, the reader: Is there a better term? If the term social justice turns off a huge segment of people, I would love to know alternatives. If you can offer one, please put it in the comments.

Some were willing to engage, but wanted to test how far apart we were

One person wrote what was now commonplace in the comments: social justice means preferential treatment to the undeserving in his mind.

Mark Freeman

Social justice – AKA distribution of wealth from those who earn it to those who won't work for it but want it GIVEN to them.

I responded:

Mark Freeman What I am learning from all these comments is that a lot of people have come to equate social justice with what you are saying here. All I can say is that in my world, I know NO one who wants to take from earners rather than work. I'm not saying those people don't exist. I remember decades ago meeting a woman who was so fed up with not being able to find work that she just decided to not work as a way of engaging in her private protest. But that's one person. In our program, we're looking for solutions that benefit all of us – not teaching people how to become takers.

And then came this stunning reply…

Jay Matthews

Let me say I appreciate you being honest.

In order for there to be meaningful discussion, I think we need to get some show stoppers out of the way.

Do we agree that our Constitutional Republic, with Free Markets through the lens of neoliberal incrementalism, as in we see a problem and we fix it, but the whole remains intact, is our system moving forward?

And that we stop demonizing the people that are paid to protect us, by throwing a blanket of cynicism on top of them?

If yes, then I believe we can have constructive dialogue.

If not, then I'm not sure our conversation will be productive.

I understood the test and respected him for it:

Jay Matthews, I was just getting ready to stop future comments until I saw this. You’re using words that I’m not sure we have the same meaning of, so I will rephrase my way and tell me if I’m on track.

Yes, I believe in the free market system, but I do not believe in an unfettered free market system. if you want to understand why, look up the term “success to the successful.”

We have to have restraints on the free market system or otherwise we’re all playing a giant monopoly game where only a few will win and everybody else loses.

Second, I don’t believe in demonizing anybody. I’m human, and I have laughed at demonizing jokes and satire, but for public discourse, no demonizing.

And that was it. He didn’t respond, so I assume I passed the test. To explain: in various roles, people have tested me – and I have seen others tested. When people pass the test, no one says so out loud. Rather, they either go about their business or they change the subject. When people fail the test, the testers normally offer a final parting, ridiculing shot.

What I learned from these exchanges:

  • It’s important to distinguish between those who trolled for its own sake and those who actually wanted to discuss the concept of social justice. Research on trolling indicates that trollers tend to be calloused persons who enjoy causing harm to others and are motivated to cause social mayhem.1 Certainly we had our share of those. Comments that seemed obviously designed to upset rather than inform were deleted and are not the subject of this post. What’s striking to me is that many people initially started off with attacking, dismissive comments, yet ended up responding to genuine inquiry. Distinguishing malevolent trollers from people who initially pop off with a negative comment yet were willing to engage is not as easy as it might appear.
  • I can’t emphasize enough that the commenters and I were not speaking the same language. The term “social justice” does not mean the same thing to the commenters as it does to myself, friends, and colleagues who view themselves as progressive.
  • No more will I generalize about *all* conservatives, or *all* Trump supporters. The main thing the commenters had in common was how deep-rooted was their belief that social justice is essentially anti-democratic. They were not all shut down and unwilling to listen as many progressives claim. But I had to get past their initial disparaging comments to find the thoughtfulness underneath.

As far as I can tell, their initial negativity comes from feeling repeatedly put down – by social justice advocates.

  • Their comments came from a position of defense not offense. They did not view themselves as the attackers. They viewed “wokeness” and social justice advocates as people who are in opposition to them. I can’t emphasize enough that they view us as the attackers and the hateful people. In fact, one of the persons whose comments I deleted had this to say in a private message:

I find it troubling how many of you are targeting White people and being discriminatory in your stances.

Delete away. Have your echo chamber of racism. Social justice is just a covert way of saying "anti-White." All the people I have experienced that use that term are hate filled, anti-White, pro-abortion, tyrants and wannabe dictators.

I have no respect for people who label themselves in such a way.

  • The term “woke” is equally pejorative to them because many of them have witnessed conservative speakers being shut down on liberal campuses by students. Since many commenters expressed belief in individualism and free will, the stifling of opinions on college campuses was deeply disturbing to them. They then generalized this behavior to all of us who believe in social justice, much as we generalize all conservatives as anti-democracy.
  • Some are choosing to stay entrenched in their viewpoints and others are willing to engage in constructive dialogue. For example, one of the people whose comments I deleted ended up in a meaningful conversation with me. Turns out he’s familiar with Paolo Freire (blog #19: How to go high when you really want to go low) and spiral dynamics (blog #39, How do humans grow and evolve?). He classified himself as a liberal who was “driven off by the woke people.” The question for me is how to foster engagement with people like him and if Leading Consciously could or should play a role in this.
  • I ended up liking those who wanted to engage – their probing questions, their eagerness to explain how beleaguered they felt by the “woke people” and social justice advocates. They believe what they believe as fervently as I believe what I believe. They believe I have been fed false information just as I believe they have been fed false information. I hesitate to classify them all as conservatives, since some consider themselves liberals turned off by wokeness, or political correctness.

Sure, some of them may hate what I stand for. And some may also conclude they hate me personally. But I repeat, I see more clearly now that they are coming from defense, not offense. And I do believe that some of them would rescue me from a burning building or take me to the hospital if it were an emergency. Behind all their attacks and assertions and questions, I saw human beings.

Questions I am left with

How do we in Leading Consciously reach our original target audience, people who want what Pathfinders has to offer and who believe in social justice? If an ad brings out the vociferous detractors, what is the right combination of terms to reach our intended audience and keep the detractors away?

But what if the detractors *are* one of our audiences, only we haven’t recognized it before now? I sensed a hunger in some of them to learn and discuss, even as they were arguing against what I was saying. If we want to reach everyone, how do we invite them to the party? And should we even try?

Words matter. We’re getting into too many arguments about what various phrases mean. If our words don’t convey our intent to a vast group of people, how useful are they? What terms could we use instead of words that have become lightning rods, such as social justice, White privilege, defunding the police? And if we come up with better words, will that make a difference?

The last few days were a foray into the Tower of Babel. In Biblical literature, the Tower was originally intended to explain the existence of different human languages that prevent people in different lands from understanding one another.

Here on the Leading Consciously Facebook page, we all spoke the English language, but were as much apart as if we lived in different lands speaking different languages.2 Can we learn to speak the same language? The task seems now more daunting than I had ever imagined. Yet, some of the commenters did want to engage, discuss, and learn. In them, I saw the possibility of hope.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. Are you able to see where some of our most cherished terms could be off-putting to others? What are some alternatives that – at least for the moment – are less incendiary?
  2. Can you move past your anger at the “other side” to hear what they have to say, even when it disagrees with your own views?

Conscious Change skills
covered in this blog post:

  • Test negative assumptions
    • Look for multiple points of view
    • Consciously test your negative assumptions
  • Clear emotions
    • Identify with your values, not your emotions
    • Build your positive emotions
  • Bridge differences
    • Check for stereotyping tendencies, unconscious biases, and blind spots in your behavior, especially as a dominant group member
    • Sustain chronic unease toward exclusionary behaviors

#TowerofBabel   #AcrossTheDivide     #WhatDidYouMean      #BridgingDifferences

Leading Consciously

We are a leadership development firm that helps people and organizations create resilient, sustainable, multicultural, and inclusive settings. The ability to lead consciously can help you gain true awareness and earn the respect and trust of others.    

It’s the assumptions we have about people’s lives that are the biggest obstacles to growth, awareness, and success. We help you understand how those assumptions are preventing you from becoming the best you can be as an organization, an inclusive leader, and a person.

  • See our website and join our mailing list
  • Read our blogs
  • Ask us about our leadership development programs:
  • Pathfinders: Leadership for Inclusion and Equity is our online membership program designed to develop leadership and change-making principles and skills in multicultural organizations. You'll discover how to recognize racism, promote inclusion, and join in insightful, respectful exchanges of views and opinions tackling a variety of concepts.
  • ChangeMakers Online is our intensive, skill-based program. You will learn how to respond more flexibly to rapid change (leadership agility) and different others (cultural agility), recoup after challenges (resilience), and form strong and collaborative relationships (connection). With these advanced skills, you are better able to lead yourself and others toward higher levels of success.
Let’s start a conversation. Email us at

1 March, E. (2019). "Psychopathy, sadism, empathy, and the motivation to cause harm: New evidence confirms malevolent nature of the Internet Troll." Personality and individual differences 141: 133-137.

2Tower of Babel, in biblical literature, structure built in the land of Shinar (Babylonia) sometime after the Deluge. The story of its construction, given in Genesis 11:1–9, appears to be an attempt to explain the existence of diverse human languages. According to Genesis, the Babylonians wanted to make a name for themselves by building a mighty city and tower “with its top in the heavens.” God disrupted the work by so confusing the language of the workers that they could no longer understand one another. The city was never completed, and the people were dispersed over the face of the earth.
Quoted directly from Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2022, August 17). Tower of Babel. Encyclopedia Britannica.