‘Social justice’ is an awkward term for an immensely important project, perhaps the most important project, which is to make the world a more equitable, fair, and compassionate place. But the project for social justice has been captured by an elite strata of post-collegiate, digitally-enabled children of privilege, who do not pursue that project as an end, but rather use it as a means with which to compete, socially and professionally, with each other. In that use, they value not speech or actions that actually result in a better world, but rather those that result in greater social reward, which in the digital world is obvious and explicit. That means that they prefer engagement that creates a) outrage and b) jokes, rather than engagement that leads to positive change. In this disregard for actual political success, they reveal their own privilege, as it’s only the privileged who could ever have so little regard for actual, material progress. As long as they are allowed to co-opt the movement for social justice for their own personal aggrandizement, the world will not improve, not for women, people of color, gay and transgender people, or the poor.

I like and admire Freddie, and when I disagree with him it’s usually because I think he’s over-confident in judging other people’s motives, which I think he’s doing here. I don’t know whether the people he’s talking about care about social justice any less than he does — I can’t read minds and hearts — but I do think he has pointed to a significant and widespread problem.

I would put that problem in somewhat different terms. I would say that people who habitually traffic in symbolic manipulation — which includes pretty much everyone who spends a great deal of time, vocationally or avocationally, on the internet — tend to overestimate quite dramatically the power of symbolic manipulation. These people are so scrupulously attentive to how symbols (images and words, above all) are being handled in their corner of the online world that they can scarcely be brought to think about the quite concrete suffering and injustice that happen away from their (and everyone else’s) screens. And Freddie is right in saying that this digital myopia limits the possibility of achieving a more just society, especially for people who are too poor to be online all the time.