#8 Metamodern Social Justice
new theories to help us grow out of fundamentalism
I’ve been looking forward to writing this post for a while. Usually I just use this newsletter to share my favourite readings and podcasts, but today I want to preface that with more of my own thinking. If you can tolerate me going on a little theory rant, you’ll be rewarded with some exquisite links at the end 🥰
So, the theory rant: I want to talk about this made up idea called “metamodern social justice”. That’s a dense concept so I need to unpack it in stages. So this is a story about me falling in and out of love with social justice, and finally coming back in again.
My relationship with social justice started about a decade ago, participating in various anti-capitalist and anti-patriarchal movements. Learning and organising alongside brilliant anarchists, feminists and socialists gave me a tremendous sense of clarity, meaning and purpose. These folks taught me an essentially postmodern perspective. Where modernism is about meritocracy and the atomised individual, the postmodern perspective generates a systemic analysis in terms of groups. Postmodern social justice understands oppression and liberation in terms of collective identities (including class, gender, race, etc). It has a primarily deconstructive posture (highlighting the illegitimacy & corruption of the status quo). There are a handful of foundational theories which generate this whole landscape of thought & practice, e.g. standpoint theory shows us how your understanding of the world is determined by your position in it.
I embraced these ideological lenses around 2011 because they reveal crucial truths about society. Seeing how systems of oppression work gave me a real sense of mission in the world: I want to put my shoulder to the wheel, bending the arc of history towards justice, liberation and equality.
But over time I developed misgivings. This was catalysed in 2018 when I read The Listening Society, which introduced me to metamodernism, an attempt to describe what comes after postmodernism. My misgivings came to a crescendo the following year, when I wrote about Leaving the Church of Social Justice. At the time I was waking up to the parallels between my traumatic childhood experiences with fundamentalist Christians and my adult experiences with social justice activists. That post was a kind of break point, a way of publicly distancing myself from what I saw as fundamentalist currents in movements for social justice.
By fundamentalist, I mean an attitude that assumes the only reason you will have a different perspective to me is because you are ignorant, guilty, bad, or otherwise inferior (because I am right, educated, good, superior).
To be clear: this isn’t the only thing happening. There are many different overlapped, contradictory, and convergent tendencies within movements; the fundamentalism is only part of the story. But it’s a part of the story that I’m uniquely sensitive to because of my personal history.
Aside from that post, I’ve confined a lot of my criticism of social justice movements to private spaces. Partly that’s about my fear of being “cancelled”, my fear of being marked as a “one of those bad people who doesn’t care enough about sexism and racism” or a “typical straight white man who doesn’t want to think about his privilege”.
But I’ve had a more significant reason to be circumspect. While I do argue with some of the implementation details, at my core I am supportive of the basic aims of social justice: we need to find a way to live without the relentless domination and intense inequalities typical of contemporary society. But in a hyperpolarised social media environment, it feels like any nuanced critique I might produce will immediately get flattened and weaponised in the Us-vs-Them war in the Internet Of Beefs. I don’t want my arguments to feed an oppositional dynamic.
So, without quite saying it out loud, I think what I’ve been seeking is a kind of “metamodern social justice” (most notably in my work with Ronan in the Alter Ego network). I’ve been looking for new peers with new narratives that can help me grow out of my own fundamentalism.
Metamodernism is an attempt to go beyond postmodernism. It’s not a rejection, but a transcendence, a move to include the useful lessons of postmodernism and exceed its limitations. It’s generated from a different set of foundational theories, e.g. the psychology of adult development, which is attentive to the embodied experience of trauma & healing, and the growth of cognitive complexity well into adulthood. It has a primarily constructive posture (articulating a positive vision beyond the status quo). It’s not about individuals or groups, but both: it’s a way of seeing people in terms of their relationships. (FYI: here’s my list of essential “metamodernism 101” books & podcasts.)
So a metamodern social justice would have to embrace the lessons from postmodern social justice and keep steaming onwards towards a different perspective. If you’re committed to the postmodern position, the metamodern take will feel a bit “off” (or very “off”, depending on how much care they have taken to avoid your triggers).
So anyway… all of that is a very long way to explain why I got excited when I read this article by Amiel Handeslman: Supplementing White Fragility. It’s not perfect, but this article is an excellent example of a metamodern perspective on social justice. It’s a supplement to Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility”, which is one of the most visible texts in the latest surge of antiracist activism. The author shows what is valuable about DiAngelo’s view, while addressing some of the limitations with constructive suggestions from a trauma/growth-informed perspective. It’s not an outright rejection, but it is clearly charting a different path from the postmodern line.
Then over the New Years holiday, I went spelunking down a tunnel of exquisite podcasts and discovered that (of course) there are plenty of other people out there developing a kind of social justice theory and practice that isn’t fundamentalist or oppositional, that isn’t particularly committed to postmodern theory. They probably wouldn’t call themselves “metamodern” per se, but to me it’s clear they’re standing in a “next paradigm” perspective.
Brian Stout’s excellent newsletter sent me to Prentis Hemphill’s podcast Finding Our Way. This is maybe the most electrifying series I’ve ever listened to, especially the episodes with Sonya Renee Taylor, adrienne marie brown, and Alexis Pauline Gumbs which put my hair on end. They inhabit a kind of Black feminism powered by fierce love and unmetered compassion. The conversations are incredibly tender and occasionally transcendent. I’m a conversation snob and these are the best of the best 🥂
They go well with a few other dishes I’ve been enjoying lately:
Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò uses an epistemic analysis to explain why the postmodern theories underpinning identity politics lead to fresh domination/deference hierarchies in practice.
Sherri Mitchell (Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset) and Tyson Yunkaporta talk with Rob Hopkins about applying Indigenous wisdom to the crises of civilisation (this is another “hair on end” conversation).
All these thinkers would be welcome in social justice organising spaces. None of them are likely to be branded “alt-right” or “neofascist” or “reactionary”. They’re all modelling a way of thinking which embraces the core values of political progressives and radical leftists. But they’re also pointing to a way of thinking and doing that is fundamentally different from what we see play out in the most visible currents of social justice activism. That makes me very optimistic.
One of the defining characteristics of metamodernism is a commitment to multiperspectival thinking. If metamodernism is a game, the objective is “who collects the most perspectives wins”. This is the antidote to the fundamentalism I described earlier. To move towards a more just and liberated world, we need to cultivate multi-perspectival thinking. We need to understand why people believe what they do, not as a step on the way to converting them to our perspective, but to be enriched by the mutual exchange of knowledge and to find the “hybrid vigour” that emerges when ideas have sex.
My metamodernism is about queering polarities, revealing the spectrum between any binary pair, and noticing the other spectra entangled with it in orthogonal dimensions. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that nearly everyone I’ve linked in this post has queerness in their identity, poets and prophets walking between genders and races, weaving transcontinental & transdisciplinary narratives that are simultaneously ancient and futuristic.
Other updates from RDB
Besides the philosophising, I’ve been busy:
Nati and I are packing up our apartment, nearly ready to move to the unbelievably charming little city of Lucca. If you have friends in the area please introduce us 😁
At the moment our big focus is the guided Patterns for Decentralised Organising course, a facilitated 6-week program starting March 11. This is a comprehensive course sharing tools and practices to address the challenges you’re most likely to encounter in self-managing teams. The small group format means tickets will sell out so take a look and register soon if you don’t want to miss it.
I’ve done a couple of public talks lately too:
I was on The Stoa with Nora Bateson, Jordan Hall, Greg Thomas and Chris Mastropietro, talking about how social change can be playful and almost effortless, like the way jazz was invented.
And the folks from Apart of Me invited me to a conversation about how we design communities that help young people transform grief into compassion.
The Present of Work collective is a microsolidarity group in the US. They’re exploring shared livelihoods while practicing communication/relationship skills. I was delighted to see them share one of their practice sessions, using a methodology called T-Group and asking “Who am I?”. This video is an intimate demonstration of what it’s like to try communicating with a different set of norms.
If you’re doing microsolidarity stuff and you want to share it here, please let me know 🥰
Okay! Time to hit publish and see what comes back. If you have more perspectives to add to my stack, I will love to hear them 🙏