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What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?

December 28, 2019

Below is an article I wrote for the IATEFL Teacher Development SIG’s newsletter, which you can access by following this link. It’s more or less a summary of the plenary talk I gave at the TDSIG’s Pre-Conference Event in Liverpool in April 2019, and it explores the role of social justice in education in general, and ELT more specifically. Comments welcome, as usual.

It used to be the case that the phrase “social justice warrior” was a badge of honour – something that activists and campaigners against various conservative or regressive policies would proudly call themselves. Nowadays it tends to be used by the alt-right (though not only the alt-right) to mock their liberal or leftist opponents, and particularly any tendency they may have towards self-righteousness. If you look up “social justice warrior” in the Urban Dictionary you get this definition:

A person who uses the fight for civil rights as an excuse to be rude, condescending and sometimes violent for the purpose of relieving their frustrations or validating their sense of unwarranted moral superiority (Urban Dictionary 2019).

Somehow the phrase has become co-opted, and is now used to portray anti-conservative activists as insincere, self-serving, judgemental hypocrites who don’t actually have any interest in making the world a better place but have realised that criticising their opponents makes them feel better about themselves.
Is it fair to portray campaigners for social justice in this way? Well, there’s no doubt that believing you hold the moral high ground can lead to a certain degree of smugness, but surely that’s not the issue. What should be important are the actual values and policies that they are campaigning for or defending, and to explore this we first need to understand what social justice is. Finn and Jacobsen describe social justice in this way:

Notions of social justice generally embrace values such as the equal worth of     all citizens, their equal right to meet their basic needs, the need to spread opportunity and life chances as widely as possible, and finally, the requirement that we reduce and, where possible, eliminate unjustified inequalities (Finn and Jacobsen 2017).

Now, to my mind, nothing in this description of social justice appears particularly radical, or even controversial. The idea that every person should be valued equally is central to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations 2019), and it seems reasonable to want everyone to have access to what they need in order to survive. Spreading opportunity and life chances doesn’t mean everyone gets the same things in life; it just means they get the same opportunities to have those things. And if inequalities are unjustified, it stands to reason that we should try to reduce or eliminate them. Yet, somehow, a belief in social justice appears to have become associated with radicalism, unfair demonisation and dangerous left-wing authoritarianism (Young 2016). Why is this? What kind of world are we living in where the desire to have a fairer, more equal and equitable society should be regarded as so abhorrent?

Perhaps it has something to do with the way our society is currently structured – specifically the fact that it is hierarchical, unequal and hegemonic. Hierarchies exist in all walks of life, and what tends to happen is that those people at the top of a hierarchy get more than those at the bottom. It could be argued that they deserve more because they’re doing more important work or they have more responsibility, but the extent of the inequality has become ridiculous; the 8 richest people in the world now have the same wealth as the poorest 50% (Elliott 2017). In addition to ensuring an unequal share of wealth and opportunity, the hegemonic nature of society means we are led to believe that all of this inequality and injustice is normal (Bates 1975). In practice, what this means is that those in power manage to ensure the implementation of political decisions that favour them, ensuring they are able to retain their power and wealth, even if these decisions are damaging to other people – or to the planet. This is why we have pollution from fossil fuels and the waste produced by consumerism, an international arms trade, and child labour. Hegemony also leads us to direct any blame for our own suffering away from the people who are causing it, and towards groups who are suffering even more than us, which is why we have racism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of bigotry. In short, the world is in a pretty awful state right now, and wanting to make it better by promoting a fairer society shouldn’t be a controversial stance. In fact, it should be the default position. But instead, the default position seems to be the promotion of the status quo, despite its very obvious flaws.

When it comes to education, a model that supports the status quo is effectively a form of indoctrination, as it entails giving learners knowledge and skills that allow them to play a role in keeping things as they are – and nothing more. Most teachers prefer not to think of themselves as promoters of hegemony, and tend instead to look at the empowering impact of their work. Through education, individual learners can acquire skills that allow them to be more successful, to reach their full potential in the world; many teachers see this as the main purpose of what they do. However, any success their learners achieve still takes place within the existing structures of society which, as I have said, are inherently unequal. An empowering approach to education does nothing to alter, or even challenge, these structures – it only changes the roles people play within the existing paradigm and, therefore, is also a means of maintaining the status quo (Inglis 1997).

The only approach to education that can be regarded as progressive in the sense that it seeks to address the structural imbalances that create inequality and injustice is an emancipatory one. Inglis distinguishes between empowerment and emancipation in this way:
 …empowerment involves people developing capacities to act successfully nwithin the existing system and structures of power, while emancipation  concerns critically analysing, resisting and challenging structures of power.  (Inglis 1997: 4).

This distinction is significant as it highlights the fact that the only way to promote social justice in education is to encourage learners to explore and expose power imbalances, and to look for alternatives. For this, we must turn to critical pedagogy, which Giroux describes as being ‘…rooted in a project that is tied to the creation of an informed, critical citizenry capable of participating and governing in a democratic society’ (Giroux 2011: 7). Again, an approach to education that seeks to give people the knowledge and skills to make the world a fairer, more equitable place is – or should be – far from controversial. In fact, it seems entirely logical, particularly when you consider the impact that power imbalances are having on the world right now.

However, instead of this highly sensible approach to education, we appear instead to be stuck with an approach that not only maintains, but reinforces the status quo. This is evident in the use of two-tier or multi-tier education systems to ensure the privileged get the best opportunities, while the most vulnerable members of society often get excluded from education altogether. Education is often conceptualised as something you do in order to prepare you for the world of work, which effectively means that educational content is dictated by corporate need – we’re trained to do the things that global corporations need us to do. We’re also encouraged to regard current social structures as normative, i.e. the way things are (unequal, hierarchical, heteronormative, patriarchal) is the way things should be, and the only way to improve your position in life is to aspire to be more like those who are in privileged positions. This can be done by being more competitive, more individualistic, more aggressive. This is what neoliberal hegemony encourages us to be like (Blacker 2013), and education plays its role in promoting this hegemony (see for example Gillies 2011).

Of the various types of education that exist, ELT is arguably one of the worst offenders in promoting neoliberalism. Learning English tends to be promoted as a key to economic success, by unlocking access to high-status education and jobs. This gatekeeping role serves to promote inequality by excluding people who are unable to access English programmes from the more privileged positions, or even from gaining access to key information about the world. Elitism in ELT is, of course, further promoted through its huge private sector, and the prioritisation of employability as the principal reason for learning English implies the application of Human Capital Theory, a neoliberal approach to education that values individuals for their economic potential, and nothing else (Coffield 1999). As for the learning content in ELT, materials tend to under-represent minorities and marginalised or vulnerable groups such as LGBTQIA and single parents, and avoid topics that might encourage learners to query or challenge social structures: topics like politics, religion, racism or imperialism (Gray 2002). Instead, learners are encouraged to aspire towards materialistic lifestyles through endless units on shopping and money. Native speakerism defines learners as inferior members of the global English-speaking community whose best hope for success is to try to imitate the privileged minority (Holliday 2006). All those reading activities that present multi-billionaires as role models, or equate happiness with material wealth, serve a similar purpose. They aren’t just representing the dominant worldview, they’re complicit in its construction. As Copley puts it, ‘not only has neoliberalism helped to shape the landscape in which global ELT operates, it has, in turn, become an integral part [of] the project itself. Commercial ELT, through its materials and branding, is therefore not merely reflecting a neoliberal zeitgeist, but in many respects is strategically positioned within it’ (Copley 2018: 59).

An important point to consider in all of this is that many English language teachers don’t see themselves as promoters of neoliberal hegemony, preferring instead to believe that, by avoiding critical engagement with social justice issues, they are somehow maintaining a position of neutrality. This is, however, a myth. Failure to address social justice issues in the classroom is a tacit acceptance of the systemic injustices inherent in our current social structures. Anyone who thinks otherwise either doesn’t understand hegemony, is prepared to accept these injustices, or places ELT within a very narrow definition of coaching – not really education at all.

If we return to the term “social justice warrior”, then, I contend that a fundamental purpose of education is – or should be – to give people the skills to make the world a better place. For educators, then, the promotion of social justice should be embedded in everything we do. Teachers who bring social justice into the classroom are not warriors – they’re teachers. That’s what education is all about. However, the dominant view in ELT is that an emancipatory approach to education is radical, or subversive, or even indoctrinatory. The Orwellian doublethink required to regard the emancipation of learners as a form of oppression demonstrates just how powerful these hegemonic forces are – and what we’re up against.

Bates, T.R. (1975), ‘Gramsci and the Theory of Hegemony’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 36:2, pp. 351-366.Blacker, D.J. (2013), ‘The Failling Rate of Profit and the Neoliberal End Game, Washington D.C: Zero Books.
Coffield, F. (1999), ‘Breaking the Consensus: Lifelong Learning as Social Control’, British Educational Research Journal, 25:4, pp. 479-499.
Elliott, L. (2017), ‘World’s Eight Richest People Have Same Wealth as Poorest 50%’, Guardian, published online 16/01/2017, available from: [accessed 14 April 2019].
Finn, J. and Jacobsen, M. (2017), ‘What is Social Justice?’, OUP Blog, available from: [accessed 23 March 2019].
Gillies, D. (2011), ‘Agile Bodies: A New Imperative in Neoliberal Governance’, Journal of Education Policy, 26:2, pp. 207-223.
Giroux, H. (2011), On Critical Pedagogy, London: Bloomsbury.
Gray, J. (2002), ‘The Global Coursebook in English Language Teaching’, in D. Block and D. Cameron (eds.), Globalization and Language Teaching, pp. 151-167, London: Routledge.
Holliday, A. (2006), ‘Native-speakerism’, ELT Journal 60:4, pp. 385-387.
Inglis, T. (1997), ‘Empowerment and Emancipation’, Adult Education Quarterly, 48:1, pp. 3-17.
United Nations (2019), Universal Declaration of Human Rights, available from: [accessed 12 April 2019].
Urban Dictionary (2019), Social Justice Warrior, available from: [accessed 14 April 2019].
Young, C. (2016), ‘The Totalitarian Doctrine of Social Justice Warriors’, The Observer, published online 02/02/2016, available from: [accessed 14 April 2019].


  1. Thank you for the insightful article, Steve.
    Theodor Adorno said “Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen” (quoting the original to shake up English hegemony a bit :)) – can we create a just society within the framework of global capitalism, which is by definition exploitative and unjust? Are you implicitly proposing we need a (real) Green New Deal, i.e. heavy-ish regulations on capitalism as is? Or do we need to radically reconfigure our global economy which provides the architecture for our unequal societies and the reckless destruction of the environment?
    Zizek would say that the way you live your life is your ideology. Whatever you “believe”, your life-style is much more indicative of the belief-system you actually espouse and, by your actions, defend than the ideas you value but according to which you do not really live. So indeed, as a BELF (Business English as a lingua franca) trainer, I am upholding global capitalism as you have described it. Scheiße. Guilty as charged.
    However, I think there is also a crisis among progressives, who are still wobbling from the reverberations of the post-modern onslaught on ideology and idea-systems: the loss of a utopian vision for what human beings and the communities they constitute could be. This is the sad truth of our post-post-modern world: we have become too timorous to propose a vision we could and should rally around. The way, e.g., Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. did. – I am aware that this is also the cornerstone of totalitarian programming, but I think we can avoid those pitfalls if we concentrate.
    Thanks to the great Greta T., the young are mobilizing. My generation – the 40ish – are generally pretty complacent. I do believe we all need to shake things up and start agitating for a better world. But I also think we have to develop a coherent and inspiring blue-print of what and how that could be.

    • John Scroggins permalink

      Greta Thunberg, the girl supported by the UN, big business, countless politicians and major celebrities?

      Truly a revolutionary!

  2. Thank you very much for this comment – you’ve raised a number of issues that I’m also grappling with at the moment. I agree that for many people over 40, especially those who have managed to achieve some success within the current (capitalist) model, it’s easy to see the problem but much harder to accept that we are part of the problem, and harder still to cede power or make lifestyle changes that are probably necessary. Your reference to Zizek’s point about actions being more important than declared beliefs is therefore very relevant and worth bearing in mind. I think a lot of people find it hard to accept that they are part of the problem because they see themselves as kind, caring, compassionate people, and they probably are – but as long as they are living and working within (and therefore for) the system, they have to recognise that they’re still complicit in the promotion of inequality and injustice (I include myself in this). Those of us who work in English Language Teaching need to come to terms with the fact that we are part of a profession/industry which is largely controlled by global corporations, and which facilitates neoliberal globalisation.
    I think that many people in ELT are reluctant to accept this fact because they got into teaching in order to help people, and they regard the English language as a source of empowerment for their learners – which it is. The problem is that it empowers individuals to achieve success WITHIN the current system; there’s very little ELT going on that actually seeks to transform sociopolitical structures. Of course, that doesn’t mean that ELT can’t have a positive impact. Rather than giving our students skills to make them more employable, competitive and entrepreneurial, we could be giving them the skills to critically engage with current structures, to explore locations of power, to identify injustices, and to campaign for change. But in order to do this, we need to apply the same skills to our own practice and profession by calling out neoliberal hegemony when we see it.
    You asked me what kind of solution I envisage – whether we should try to achieve social justice within a capitalist framework or whether we need a complete overhaul. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what needs to happen. But I also feel that it’s not really my place to call for any particular type of change. I’m a moderately successful white bloke from a rich country and, while I sympathise with the 95% (or whatever) of people who are less fortunate than me, and while I recognise that massive injustices are taking place all over the world, I don’t expect people to look to me (or people like me) for answers.
    In ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ Freire envisioned education as a multidirectional practice:
    ‘The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach.’ (Freire 1996: 61).
    Education isn’t all about providing answers, it’s also about asking questions – problem-posing rather than problem-solving – and then allowing learners to critically engage with the issues so they can come up with their own solutions. ELT, and education in general, is currently structured in a way that doesn’t allow enough of this.

    Thanks again for your comment, and best wishes for the new year.


    Freire, P. (1996), ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, London: Penguin

    • Steve, I only saw this comment now. Happy New Year to you too, and thank you for widening the scope of this topic.

      I would like to address Freire’s view about multi-directional teaching. I love the dialogical aspect of teaching and believe it’s key to encouraging confidence in students and empowering them to think for themselves. On the other hand, the teacher of a class is like the captain of the ship, and to maintain coherence, s/he has to assert some authority. This is especially, although not exclusively, true if the teacher is female.

      That being said, I believe deep in my bones that a teacher’s role is to bring out the best in her students, while ensuring a democratic and respectful atmosphere. Can not a balance be struck between the ideal of empowerment and the practicality of running a coherent classroom?

      I still think one of the major problems of our times is that we don’t have a greater vision for our society to rally around and struggle towards. So we progressives continue to express ourselves in the negative – don’t do this, don’t do that – are you woke or aren’t you? – rather than uniting everyone to a cause greater than the special focus groups of identity politics. And while it’s not every progressive’s role to be a visionary, I do think we need to make space in our discourse for the possibility of such a unifying vision.

  3. Perhaps the reason that the term “social justice warrior” has lost some of its power/impact is what Mark Manson terms “victimhood chic” a situation in which social media/ or other media forms has allowed some people to feel perpetually victimised which in turn amasses them sympathy and attention in a grotesque pseudo-masochistic cycle. These ‘victims’ become “addicted to feeling offended all the time because it gives them a high; being self-righteous and morally superior feels good” (p.112). Kreider remarks that “as with all vices, vast and lucrative industries are ready to supply the necessary material.” He labels the type of media catering to this false victimhood as “outrage porn, selected specifically to pander to our impulses to judge and punish and get us all riled up with righteous indignation” (n.p.).
    With all this false victimhood it draws attention away from genuine causes and genuine victims and in some cases has led people to be wary, combative and opposed to “social justice warriors”.

    Manson, M. (2016) The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. Harper Collins: London

    Kreider, T. (2009) Isn’t It Outrageous? Available:

    • Hi Nick,
      That’s an interesting take, and I can see how it plays out on social media. The importance of feeling self-righteous and morally superior is definitely apparent amongst a lot of social justice warriors, and it isn’t a particularly good look. But no doubt it makes them feel good.

      What I find particularly interesting though is the way that conservatives have also found ways to take the (perceived) moral high ground, and this is perhaps what has motivated the derision of social justice warriors in the first place and contributed to the rise of the alt-right. If anything, the “outrage porn” you speak of is more prevalent among right-wing, conservative-minded media than it is among those who advocate social justice – see for example pretty much any copy of the Daily Mail. The problem is, many of these stories designed to provoke outrage are simply untrue, or at least the outrageous bit is either based on a false premise or requires you to make a connection that you’d only make if you really wanted to believe the story so you could be outraged by it – i.e. it’s a dog-whistle.

      You could say the same about stories designed to outrage those of us on the left of course – we’re all being fed lies. This is why the ability to think critically and engage critically with all kinds of literature is increasingly important.
      Thanks for your comment,


  4. John Scroggins permalink

    Indeed, those at the top of the hierarchy push policies which favour them – yet the author of this piece seems resolute in their determination to not reflect upon this.

    Every single major corporation favours immigration, LGBT rights and social justice. And those wealthiest people in the world are uncompromising in their funding of organisations which likewise push these policies – against the will of the vast majority of the population.

    Far from these hegemonies supporting racism as a divide and conquer technique, they decry it at every possible opportunity. In Britain, the structures of power deliberately concealed the industrial-scale rape of thousands of working-class white girls, in order not to inflame ‘community tensions’.

    The total lack of understanding in this piece is laughable. You do not understand how SJWs have become so demonised, though it is not difficult to see whatsoever. You do not understand the rise of the Alt-Right, though its causes were easily observed for a decade. You do not understand that you are part of the hated hierarchy which, among other things, the Trump election and Brexit were a reaction against.

    You do not understand, and will understand far too late.

    You are not an opponent of Neoliberalism nor Capitalism – you are an agent of it. And you are despised. And rightly so.

    • I think you’re confusing (or conflating) neoliberalism and classical liberalism. Yes, transnational migration is used by neoliberal corporations as a means of ensuring they can deploy a flexible, precarious and easily-exploitable workforce, but that doesn’t mean that the principle of free movement is, in and of itself, a bad thing. Yes, identify politics has been co-opted by neoliberal governments and used to divide us and promote individualism and factionalism (as well as hate and outrage), but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong not to be racist – nor does it mean that it’s wrong to stand up for the rights of oppressed minorities.
      The problems that you seem to identify are not neoliberal ideologies, but classical liberal ones. Neoliberals have retained and supported things like transnational migration and anti-discrimination legislation as a distraction, to make them seem well-meaning and to appease those on the centre-left (classical liberals), while at the same time pushing an economic agenda that relies entirely on market forces and therefore promotes increased wealth inequality; Blair did it, Obama did it, Macron and Trudeau are doing it right now. The things you (mistakenly) hate about neoliberalism allow you to ignore what is really damaging about neoliberalism, what is really causing suffering. Because you seem to be ignoring the marketisation of everything, which is in fact the key tenet of neoliberalism, and are instead obsessed with the liberalisation of society (which you think is a bad thing) you end up supporting a form of anti-liberal, oppressive neoliberalism – Henry Giroux has described this as neoliberal fascism. It’s just neoliberalism with the mask taken off, without the fluffy pretence of niceness.
      It’s strange that you are so critical of my lack of understanding when you seem to fail to understand what I’ve written here. I’m well aware that I am an agent of neoliberal capitalism inasmuch as I live and function within the system. It’s hard not to be. But I’m certainly not comfortable with it. In fact, calling out the neoliberal features of my profession and raising awareness to the damaging impact it’s having on education is a key point in my article here, and is pretty much my whole schtick. So, you can despise me if you like, but I do understand what neoliberalism is and I oppose it. You seem to oppose classical liberal values but think you’re opposing neoliberalism. You’re not.

      • You are an agent of it as you support both the mass immigration of people and the “identity politics” of the System (never co-opted, by the way, but supported by the centres of power from the start). You will never oppose them as they accord with your values, instead you will attribute the failings of social policy (which you support) onto the failings of economic policies (which you don’t support).

        Please tell me how the ‘marketisation of everything’ was the cause of the government coverup of the mass sexual enslavement of white working class girls?

        I oppose the social values of liberalism, and of neoliberalism, and the economic values of the free market and of capitalism. Indeed, one necessarily leads to the other – the economic liberalisation of Ireland during the 90s led inevitably to its social liberalisation today.

        You support the latter, and oppose the former. But the former leads to the latter, and the latter reinforces the former. Unions do not exist where diversity is forced.

        Your entire Weltanschauung is wrong – or rather the wrong way round. You suppose that the centre-left is so supported and popular that “transnational migration and anti-discrimination legislation” are only maintained as a concession – one that neoliberals would much rather be without. But this is entirely false. They are an integral plank of the neoliberal programme – bitter pill though that is to swallow for you – corporations lead social changes such as gay marriage, trans rights and diversity – causes that were, and some remain, intensely unpopular, particularly among the working class.

        It is in this way you are a stooge of the System, in that you push for its social ideals – opposed by the working class – and put up a fake fight on the economic ideals. And if it comes down to a fight between gays and the working class, or immigrants and the working class – you will side every time with those “oppressed” groups that have institutional support, instead of the racist, sexist and homophobic working class.

        You and your type are despised by the working class for this reason.

  5. Hello again John,
    It’s been a while since we last engaged with this discussion – I don’t know what’s motivated you to send another comment now, but OK…
    Your arguments are very personal, if you don’t mind me saying. You seem to be particularly critical of who I am, what I represent (or, rather, what you understand me to represent), and how I am perceived by others. You’re telling me what I believe and why I’m wrong, rather than focusing on things I have actually said, and this means that some of what you’ve said is inaccurate. For example, I wouldn’t say I support mass immigration – I’m against the demonisation of immigrants (for being immigrants – the demonisation of paedophiles is a whole other thing) because I don’t think it’s fair to blame them for a situation created by governments who facilitate inward migration. Rather, I think that if transnational migration is taking place, host nations need to manage this more effectively by facilitating the inclusion of immigrants into their new society. I’m also a lot less of a supporter of “identity politics” than you seem to think.
    I find the way you conceptualise “the working class” a bit strange as well. You position the working class as being in opposition to gay people and immigrants – as if there are no working-class gay people or working-class immigrants. Do you really just mean working-class people who agree with you?
    Having said that, you are right about a few things. I understand that there are working-class people who despise “me and my type” – if by this you mean academics. Is that what you mean? Governments use academics and their research findings all the time to support their agendas and justify their actions, so it’s easy to see us as representing the interests of the status quo. Or maybe you mean that my “lefty-liberal” leanings are despised by the working class, which I also understand. It’s all very well to call for changes to the system, but when you’re doing it from a position of relative comfort and you’re calling for changes that are likely to affect others a lot more than yourself, I can see this going down badly with people for whom these changes would have a direct impact. If I was to defend myself against your allegations I’d probably argue that a lot of the hatred towards academics or the left-leaning middle classes more generally is misdirected, based on misconceptions and inaccurate assumptions – but I do accept a fair amount of what you’re saying.
    More importantly though, your comment raises questions about your own Weltanschauung (to use your term). You say you are against the social values of both liberalism and neoliberalism (so am I), and you oppose free market, capitalist economics (so do I). Your comments also imply though that you are against the promotion of social justice and equality through the re-distribution of power, and yet you seem to be very concerned about class struggle. Clearly we agree on quite a lot of things – opposition to capitalism probably being the most obvious one – and I’m curious to know more about your own worldview to see how much common ground there is between us. You’ve said a bit about what you oppose, but what are you in favour of? If you oppose capitalism, does this mean you’re a socialist? If you don’t like liberal social values or neoliberal social values, what kinds of social values do you like? Perhaps, if we were to focus on where we agree rather than where we disagree, this discussion would be less unpleasant.

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