Many people wish to trace the ideological source of Social Justice Warriors to Postmodernism, Jordan Peterson most prominent among them. However, I just finished reading Bertrand Russell’s “A History of Western Philosophy,” and stumbled across a rather interesting and poignant analysis that points to an older root. Specifically, it appears that a large part (but not all) of the way of being for the Social Justice Warrior has already been trod by the Romantics.
It is not the psychology of the romantics that is at fault: it is their standard of values. They admire strong passions, of no matter what kind, and whatever may be their social consequences. Romantic love, especially when unfortunate, is strong enough to win their approval, but most of the strongest passions are destructive-hate and resentment and jealousy, remorse and despair, outraged pride and the fury of the unjustly oppressed, martial ardor and contempt for slaves and cowards. Hence the type of man encouraged by romanticism, especially of the Byronic variety, is violent and anti-social, an anarchic rebel or a conquering tyrant.
This outlook makes an appeal for which the reasons lie very deep in human nature and human circumstances. By self-interest Man has become gregarious, but in instinct he has remained to a great extent solitary; hence the need of religion and morality to reinforce self-interest. But the habit of forgoing present satisfactions for the sake of future advantages is irksome, and when passions are roused the prudent restraints of social behavior become difficult to endure. Those who, at such times, throw them off, acquire a new energy and sense of power from the cessation of inner conflict, and, though they may come to disaster in the end, enjoy meanwhile a sense of godlike exaltation which, though known to the great mystics, can never be experienced by a merely pedestrian virtue. The solitary part of their nature reasserts itself, but if the intellect survives the reassertion must clothe itself in myth. The mystic becomes one with God, and in the contemplation of the Infinite feels himself absolved from duty to his neighbor. The anarchic rebel does even better; he feels himself not one with God, but God. Truth and duty, which represent our subjection to matter and to our neighbors, exist no longer for the man who has become God; for others, truth is what he posits, duty what he commands. (Page 681)
Here we see that, to Russell, Romanticism is characterized by placing emotions above all other considerations. This then leads to the “anarchic rebel” or “conquering tyrant.” However, even more telling is how Russell describes the end mental state one acquires from embracing Romanticism, “The anarchic rebel does even better; he feels himself not one with God, but God. Truth and duty, which represent our subjection to matter and to our neighbors, exist no longer for the man who has become God; for others, truth is what he posits, duty what he commands.” In relation to the SJW, these traits seem to be a dead on ringer. The SJW places, as we say, “feels over reals,” and the consequences be damned. Similarly, the SJW believes that “truth” is something which can be commanded and just as Russell contends for the romantics, the SJW has freed himself from the bonds of mortal ethics and become a god. One can see why, if they view themselves as divine, the SJW becomes so angered when confronted by others who disagree. However, there is more to this mental state particularly on how does one justify using feelings as a guiding moral principle:
The later parts of the “The Confession of Faith” are less reminiscent of previous thinkers than the earlier parts. After satisfying himself that there is a God, the Vicar goes on to consider rules of conduct. “I do not deduce these rules,” he says, “from the principles of a high philosophy, but I find them in the depths of my heart, written by Nature in ineffaceable characters.” From this he goes on to develop the view that conscience is in all circumstances an infallible guide to right action. “Thanks be to heaven,” he concludes this part of his argument, “we are thus freed from all this terrifying apparatus of philosophy. We can be men without being learned, dispensed from wasting our life in the study of morals we have at less cost a more assured guide in the immense labyrinth of human opinions.” Our natural feelings he contends lead us to serve the common interest while our reason urges selfishness. We have therefore only to follow feeling rather than reason in order to be virtuous.(Pages 692-693)
Above, we can see the foundation on which feelings rest. To the romantics reason and philosophy are distractions which lead one astray. However, feeling and emotion are pure and will lead one to righteous virtue. When we take feeling to be righteous it is no wonder that this leads men to anarchy and tyranny as it is clear that men’s emotions and feelings will conflict and have historically conflicted. However, because emotions are righteous, there can be no compromise as that would be to sin.
Finally, and perhaps most ironic of all Russell’s analysis we have a dire prediction for what kinds of future horrors Romanticism will spawn:
By its doctrine of the general will it made possible the mystic identification of the leader with his people which has no need of confirmation by so mundane an apparatus as the ballot box. Much of its philosophy could be appropriated by Hegel in his defense of the Prussian autocracy. Its first fruits in practice were the reign of Robespierre; the dictatorships of Russia and Germany (especially the latter) are in part an outcome of Rousseau’s teaching. What further triumphs the future has to offer to his ghost, I do not venture to predict. (Page 693)
Now, Romanticism is not the only thing to blame here and I fully acknowledge that I have long held a grudge against Rousseau for postulating the worst justification myth for society, i.e. the Noble Savage. Postmodernism has clearly influenced the SJW. At the core of the SJW, we have the bloody beating heart of the Romantic, but around that we have a shell of Postmodernism that has given the Romantic even more tools to delve in subjectivism.
Romanticism leads to a feeling of Godhood, but even the Romantics did not undermine the concept of a shared underlying reality. When I say shared underlying reality, I mean the belief in some objective reality that is imperfectly sensed by different individuals. However, Postmodernism grants one the power to debate that fundamental assumption and literally believe that you and I live in different subjective realities. A reality that is not only changed by who views it, but can be changed at whim from moment to moment. This is why the SJW can hold massively contradictory ideas and still act upon them, all the while filled with righteous zeal that they are virtuous and everyone else who does not feel as they do are sinners. This also clearly has a strong influence on why dissenters to the group emotion are prosecuted so vehemently.
As a final though it is also interesting to note that Postmodernism and Romanticism are both reactionary ideologies and Postmodernism was likely influenced strongly by Romanticism. However, I have yet to come across a more clear description of what underlying thought (of feel) process drives the SJW to such extreme righteous behavior. Many people believe they know how to set the world right, but only those who truly feel righteous act on the belief.