The term “wokeness” can be traced back to 30s America. And as far as I know, that term gave way to present-day critical social justice theory. In recent years, the theory has extended its reach – from academia to journalism, and even to business.
The ideology, which claims to challenge systemic forms of oppression, has been celebrated as a revolutionary step towards fairness and equity. But, as we are witnessing, its tenets are punitive and obtuse.
One of the issues with critical social justice theory is its emphasis on identity and intersectionality. While it’s true that our identities and experiences shape the way we view the world, this theory takes it to a ridiculous level – creating a division between individuals based on their perceived oppressions and privileges. This leads to a contrived victimhood culture. Take the case of the J.K. Rowling controversy. Despite her decades-long activism on behalf of marginalised communities, Rowling was vilified by those who perceived her comments on social media as harmful and bigoted. This starkly illustrates how critical social justice theory can breed a perilous form of intellectual homogenisation, where divergent views are suppressed in the name of “progress”.
Another malignant dynamic within critical social justice theory is its reliance on cancel culture and deplatforming. This tactic – which is often used to silence those deemed “problematic” – stifles free speech and open discourse, fomenting a culture of fear where individuals are afraid to speak their minds lest they are cancelled. In 2020, amid escalating political tensions, a petition was launched to cancel the long-running American television show Cops. Despite its popularity, it was deemed unacceptable due to its negative portrayal of law enforcement, resulting in the loss of hundreds of jobs and a beloved form of entertainment.
Critical social justice theory cultivates a preoccupation with past and present forms of oppression, rather than fostering resilience and a growth mindset. By fixating on the negative aspects of society, critical social justice theory can lead to feelings of helplessness, anxiety and depression, with serious consequences for our mental well-being.
In stark contrast to this toxic ideology, resilience is a crucial component in promoting positive mental health and well-being. When individuals are resilient, they are better equipped to sustain their well-being, even in the face of challenges.
In a chapter in Cynical Therapies, I explained how resilience can be an effective approach to encourage people to focus on their strengths and recognise the resources and skills they can bring to the table. This can help build confidence and help individuals feel empowered to take control of their lives and tackle challenges with a sense of agency.
As its editor, Dr Val Thomas, puts it, Cynical Therapies is written in response to a growing need to “push back against an ideology which threatens to turn the clinical space into a site for the moral re-education of vulnerable clients.”
Another crucial step in addressing the impact of critical social justice theory is to promote open and honest dialogue. By encouraging individuals to engage in conversations with those who have different perspectives and experiences, it’s possible to build bridges and develop a shared understanding of the challenges facing society. This can foster resilience, as individuals feel connected to others and are better equipped to handle adversity.
When we put fairness and cooperation at the forefront, individuals are more likely to feel secure – which can lead to greater resilience and well-being.
But it’s also important to remember that positive mental health is a complex experience that’s influenced by a constellation of factors. That’s why evidence-based solutions should be given priority: looking at research can help us to develop a more nuanced understanding of society’s issues and come up with practical solutions. This will not only encourage positive change but also instil individuals with the confidence to face their own problems head-on and find creative solutions.
Examples of this in action can be seen in various societies around the world. In Denmark, “hygge” (finding cosiness in life’s simple pleasures) has been shown to increase resilience and mental well-being. The same is true for Japan’s practice of “ikigai” (discovering one’s purpose) which has also been shown to improve mental health and resilience.
And this is the key point: resilience can be developed. It’s not just those who have been exposed to natural disasters and traumatic experiences who can muster it; everyone can surround themselves with its protective armour. Experts say adults are just as adept at learning the skills needed to be emotionally resilient, no matter how late in life they start.
Perhaps by engaging in these resilience-enhancing practices and reassessing our approach, we can start taking steps towards creating an equitable world that works for us all.
Social justice rhetoric, and its popular modes of enforcement, have far-reaching negative consequences – both for individuals and for society as a whole. Rather than fixating on what we perceive to be limits and oppressions, let’s use our creativity and resilience to create a more positive future that works for everyone.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.