Buddhist perspectives on society and culture


Buddhist perspectives on
society and culture

The Cancellation of Reason

Posted in: Buddhism, Politics
This article is part of the series Dr Ambedkar and 'Social Justice'. Articles in the series are:

To assume that the various phenomena to which a word is commonly applied are necessarily of the same kind, is a fallacy to which the human mind seems continually prone.1 Such is the case with regard to the words ‘social’ and ‘justice’ when used in combination. The referents of these terms are by no means always akin, and range from ideals to which it is worth dedicating one’s life (or a significant portion of it), to what I have elsewhere described as a kind of moral sickness. Unfortunately, the latter kind of ‘Social Justice’ now predominates in Western culture, and a cure is therefore required. But whilst I, as a Buddhist, believe that the Buddha’s Dharma is ultimately the cure for all sicknesses (at least of the moral kind), the application of that miraculous medicine requires a very specific understanding of the malady by which we are presently afflicted. This is especially the case because what is claimed to be a cure is in fact worsening the disease. The bottle wrongly labelled ‘Social Justice’ (with significant initial capitals and scare quotes) is too often stored not with the poisons, where it belongs, but in the medicine cupboard. Worse, the bottle is of a deliberately misleading design, with the toxicity warning hidden at the back, and the negative effects of ingestion consigned to the small print, where only the most industrious will make the effort required to become familiar with them.

But to distinguish, as I am exhorting, between wholesome and toxic social justice obliges me to offer some criteria to guide us. This I began to do in two previous articles. In ‘A Short History of ‘Social Justice’’, I defined what I mean by ‘Social Justice’ (which, to draw attention to its roots in ‘Critical Theory’, I also refer to as ‘Critical Social Justice’) and gave a rough sketch of its aetiology: its neo-Marxist antecedents, its modifications under the influence of postmodernism, and its infiltration of the education system in order to create a cadre of activists. And in ‘No Comparison: Dr Ambedkar and ‘Social Justice’’ I presented a contrast between the ideas and ideals of contemporary ‘Social Justice’ and those of the titular social reformer and champion of India’s downtrodden; and I demonstrated that, superficial resemblances and uninformed claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the two are in many respects radically opposed. The primary difference that I identified was that of their respective attitudes, in both theory and practice, to the individual: Ambedkar regarded the individual as primary; Critical Social Justice subsumes the individual under his or her group identity. This fundamental difference is reflected in the ideals they respectively espouse: Ambedkar upheld Liberty, Equality and Fraternity as the basis for his political philosophy, regarding them as natural consequences of, and inseparable from, respect for the individual; Critical Social Justice promotes Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity, all of which presuppose and reinforce attachment to group identity.

In this and future articles I will build on this contrast, and identify further differences between Ambedkar and Critical Social Justice. As well as helping us to understand the particular historical phenomena we are investigating, we will also be able identify some general principles whereby to recognise an authentic social justice movement. In particular we will examine four such principles, as follows. A social justice movement should be:

  1. Based on an accurate identification of a social injustice, involving the correct application of reason;
  2. Pursuing morally defensible and effective means towards definable ends;
  3. Under the guidance of strong leadership;
  4. Morally and even spiritually grounded.

I intend to dedicate an article to each of these four. Here we will deal only with the first.

Narrative and Fact

The first condition of an authentic social justice movement must surely be that there is a genuine social injustice to address. A claim of social injustice usually takes the form of a generalisation that one group or collection or groups is oppressing another. Such a claim cannot merely exist in the abstract, but must be justifiable with reference to many individual acts which are in some way of the same kind. A brutal beating, for example, is an injustice; but it is only a social injustice if it expresses widely held prejudices, and reflects a more general pattern of behaviour. Being a generalisation rather than a law in the scientific sense, such agreement between the general statement and the individual facts does not have to be absolute. It is sufficient that it is true on the whole or in the main. To say that Dalits suffer oppression at the hands of caste Hindus is not to say that all Dalits are oppressed by all Hindus, or that oppression is necessarily an all-pervading feature of life even for those who do suffer from it.

In other words, in identifying a social injustice, whether through a general trend or a specific instance, there must be sufficient agreement between narrative and fact. It is only when there is such an agreement that a statement that such and such a class of people is oppressed by so and so is defensible.

This is by no means to deny the importance of individual accounts of the genuinely oppressed (often spoken of in ‘Social Justice’ circles in terms of the silly pleonasm, ‘lived experience’). They are important because the lives of individuals are inherently important, oppressed or otherwise. But accounts of the experience of oppression have an additional value, because the moral conscience of the broader society can be more easily awakened to sympathy by particular descriptions of suffering than by general ones.

The importance of both the general and the particular in giving an account of the social injustice of caste was recognised by Ambedkar in a short work called ‘Waiting for a Visa’:

The problem is how best to give an idea of the way the untouchables are treated by the caste Hindus. A general description or a record of cases of the treatment accorded to them are the two methods by which this purpose could be achieved.2

In that piece Ambedkar opts for the second method, telling stories from his own life of gross ill-treatment. For example, he recounts an incident from his childhood, in which he and his siblings became lost on a journey and are forced to stay the night under a cart outside the hut of a toll collector, who refused to give them water to drink on account of their being Untouchables.3

At other times Ambedkar spoke in more general terms about the condition of the Untouchables, such as in the following from Annihilation of Caste:

Under the rule of the Peshwas in the Maratha country the untouchable was not allowed to use the public streets if a Hindu was coming along lest he should pollute the Hindu by his shadow. The untouchable was required to have a black thread either on his wrist or in his neck as a sign or a mark to prevent the Hindus from getting themselves polluted by his touch through mistake. In Poona, the capital of the Peshwa, the untouchable was required to carry, strung from his waist, a broom to sweep away from behind the dust he treaded on lest a Hindu walking on the same should be polluted. In Poona, the untouchable was required to carry an earthen pot, hung in his neck wherever he went, for holding his spit lest his spit falling on earth should pollute a Hindu who might unknowingly happen to tread on it.

The same dual approach is employed to powerful effect by Arundhati Roy in The Doctor and the Saint (published as an introduction to Annihilation of Caste, though longer than the work itself). After describing the horrific rape and murder in 2006 of Surekha Bhotmange, a Dalit Buddhist woman, Roy turns to a more general treatment of the theme:

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, a crime is committed against a Dalit by a non-Dalit every sixteen minutes; every day, more than four Untouchable women are raped by Touchables; every week, thirteen Dalits are murdered and six Dalits are kidnapped. In 2012 alone…1,574 Dalit women were raped and 651 Dalits were murdered. That’s just the rape and butchery. Not the stripping and parading naked, the forced shit-eating (literally), the seizing of land, the social boycotts, the restriction of access to drinking water.4

I mention these examples to reinforce my point that in giving an account of a social injustice, both the particular and the general are important. The particular impacts vividly upon the emotions in a way that the general cannot. The general shows the wider scope of a problem than any particular example can convey. But for the two to be used accurately and honestly there must be an agreement between them. Particular examples must be clear instantiations of general trends, which must themselves be particularly applicable to the identified victim-group.

Applying this principle to the subject we are discussing, it is my contention that with regard to the situation of the Dalits of India one can generally find such an agreement between narrative and fact, but that in the case of most causes that are dealt with under the umbrella of ‘Social Justice’ in the modern West, the gap between narrative and fact has become shockingly wide. Whether with regard to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or any of the issues Critical Social Justice addresses with its philosophy of intersectionality, the claims made about the nature or levels of oppression suffered by the various victim groups almost always turn out to be gross exaggerations or simplifications, based on biased presentation of the facts, or in some cases outright misinformation.

Many examples could be given, but two obvious ones will suffice to illustrate the point. First, it has long been trumpeted by feminists that there is a ‘gender pay gap’, by which is meant that women are routinely paid less for doing exactly the same work. In fact, the idea was debunked decades ago. In his book Why Men Earn More, Dr Warren Farrell identifies 25 factors that account for the discrepancy in average earnings between men and women, which have to do not with discrimination but with different lifestyle choices. Men are more likely to work longer hours, to work unsociable hours, to work overtime, to travel long distances to work, to do more specialised jobs, etc. Whether there is a small residue that can be attributed to sexism is a moot point. What is clear is that an intelligent enquiry reveals the matter to be far more complex than we are told, and also that among the advocates of ‘Social Justice’ ideology — at least in its feminist permutation — there is no interest in discussing such complexity.5 Moreover, thanks to the success of such feminist propaganda, there is virtually no space in the public discussion of gender issues for the many ways in which men are discriminated against in our society — under child custody law, for example.

My second example is the claim that blacks in America are disproportionately killed by the police. This has already been addressed in Apramada, in Subhamati‘s article ‘A Racial Reckoning’, and I refer the reader to it for a detailed treatment of this topic. Here I shall make only one salient point, which is that probably the most exhaustive academic study on the subject is by Roland Fryer, a brilliant economist who was the youngest African American ever to get tenure at Harvard.6 In what he described as ‘the most surprising result of my career’, he found no bias when it came to lethal force against unarmed blacks. In fact, whites are slightly more likely to be killed in similar circumstances. While it is true that Fryer’s results have been questioned and his methodology criticized (as anyone concerned to maintain academic standards would wish), the fact remains that his is a contender for the most substantial treatment of the subject to date, and yet in the popular presentation of the issue by Black Lives Matter activists there is no attempt to address his work or show any awareness of the complexities involved.

At this point I must address two possible challenges. Firstly, I am not asserting that there are no social injustices left to address in the modern West. In fact I think that the causes favoured by Critical Social Justice ideology are in large part a distraction from some genuine social problems, which its advocates show little interest in sorting out. Indeed, one of my many reasons for objecting to the simplistic claims perpetuated in the name of ‘Social Justice’ is that such claims harm the very people on whose behalf they are made.7 Nor am I denying that the narratives I have questioned here once had a factual basis. The problem is that facts can change, but narratives don’t always keep up. 

Secondly, the reader may be forgiven for wondering on what grounds I support the claims made by one side of an argument over the other. My answer is that the examples I have given, from two different spheres of ‘Social Justice’ activism, have obvious similarities that point us towards a useful hermeneutic principle. On the one side we have a nuanced, multi-factor analysis of a complex issue, and a willingness to debate on the basis of evidence; on the other a simplistic claim, dogmatically asserted, with generally not only an unwillingness to engage with evidence, but an attempt to silence those who try to do so. I take it as obvious which of these two approaches is more likely to lead in the direction of truth.

The Place of Reason

How did this uncoupling of narrative and fact occur? Peddling of simplistic narratives is of course common in political rhetoric from all sides. Reasoned investigation is difficult, whereas the rehearsing of slogans is easy. A balanced understanding of a complex issue requires cognitive effort, which most people are not willing to make. But in the case of Critical Social Justice ideology a further factor may be found. As I claimed in my ‘Short History…’, ‘Social Justice’ has become a new ‘quasi-religion’ of the elites. As such its claims of social injustice are not invitations to empirical enquiry (let alone results of it), but articles of faith. And as so often with religion, these articles of faith do not always sit comfortably alongside the exercise of reason.

Critical Social Justice has employed a range of methods to protect its sacred dogmas from reasoned examination, including hiding them in obscure pseudo-academic jargon in order to disguise their real nature, and, especially more recently, ‘cancelling’ anyone who questions them. But it also uses another method which is in some ways even more alarming: it hides from reason by denying its validity. More or less explicit in the language games of the postmodernists is a radical epistemological scepticism, which in Critical Social Justice ideology has hardened into a rejection of the very notion that reason can be used objectively to arrive at approximations to the truth.  

For example, Robin DiAngelo, whose book White Fragility has probably done more than any other to take Critical Social Justice to the masses, claims that individualism (the idea ‘that we are each unique and stand apart from others’), and objectivity ‘(the idea ‘that it is possible to be free from all bias’) are ‘ideologies’.8 It is of course extremely difficult to free oneself from bias, but the honest exercise of reason holds out the possibility of doing so, and thus the denial of objectivity is tantamount to a denial of reason.

This is in stark contrast to Ambedkar, who was, as he himself claimed, a rationalist. His Annihilation of Caste (arguably his most important published work) begins with an epigraph: ‘He who will not reason, is a bigot; he who cannot, is a fool; and he who dares not, is a slave.’9 He goes on to state in the work itself that ‘Reason and morality are the two most powerful weapons in the armoury of a reformer. To deprive him of the use of these weapons is to disable him for action.’ Above all, one of the reasons Ambedkar gave for his choice of Buddhism for him and his people was that it was in accordance with science, which he said (not entirely accurately) was another name for reason.10

This raises very interesting philosophical issues about the nature of reason, which we can do little more than touch upon. So highly did Ambedkar prize reason that he even went so far as to describe the Buddha himself as a rationalist. Whether this is accurate depends entirely upon how far the definition of the term can be stretched, but it is probably more helpful to say that reason in Buddhism is not negated, but transcended, and that it performs a necessary but subsidiary role. This does not mean that it can be abandoned prematurely: it can only be transcended when it has been rigorously applied. 

But in order for reason to have even a limited and circumscribed jurisdiction, it must have something to which it may be applied. Reason considered merely as a method of examining formal relations between abstract categories is a purely self-referential system, of no use outside the disciplines of logic and mathematics. To be useful, reason must be applicable, and herein lies the rub. For to what can it be applied? Only to a world which, leaving aside complex questions of ontology, we cannot but think of as in some sense objectively real. The application of reason to an objectively real world yields us the notion of objective truth. From this it follows that a loss of the notion of a shared access to an objective world entails the breakdown of the notion of objective truth.

The Abandonment of Objective Truth

Such a breakdown was something that Sangharakshita was deeply concerned about, and wrote about in his essay ‘Buddhism, World Peace and Nuclear War’. When a breakdown in the notion of objective truth occurs, he says,

‘Truth’ is whatever happens to be in accordance with the interests of a particular class, sovereign nation-state, or ideology. Since there are many classes, sovereign nation-states, and ideologies, and therefore many different, even conflicting, interests, there will be not one truth but many truths. Thus there is not only a breakdown of the notion of objective truth but also a substitution of the notion of objective truth by the notion of subjective truth. Subjective truth in effect becomes, for a particular group, objective truth, and since there can be only one objective truth the objective truth of all other groups — including what might be termed objectively objective truth — necessarily becomes untruth. Under these circumstances communication is impossible. Words no longer have the same meaning for everybody, and what one group regards as facts another regards as non-facts. There is a ‘failure’ of communication. Indeed, those whose views and attitudes are not in accordance with the interests of a particular group are treated as non-individuals in the same way that facts that are not in accordance with these same interests are regarded as non-facts. Such an individual is not so much wrong as, in theory, non-existent, and since he is non-existent in theory it is only natural that he should very quickly become non-existent in practice too. Thus we arrive at a state of affairs such as is characteristic of the nightmare totalitarian world of George Orwell’s 1984, where the three slogans of the Party are ‘War is Peace,’ ‘Freedom is Slavery,’ and ‘Ignorance is Strength,’ where Newspeak is fast replacing Oldspeak, where history is being continually rewritten, and where a word from Big Brother can turn a person into an unperson overnight.11 

Sangharakshita is addressing a different problem, but anyone acquainted with the effect of Critical Social Justice on our culture will recognise the relevance of this passage. Under the influence of postmodern epistemological scepticism, there has been a gradual loss of the notion that truth is objective — the notion, in Sangharakshita’s words, ‘that truth is truth regardless of our subjective feelings about it and regardless of the way in which it affects our personal interests’ — and a concomitant retreat into subjectivity. There is no longer truth; there is my truth.   

Nor is this all. I outlined in ‘A Short History of ‘Social Justice’’ how, as Critical Social Justice scholarship developed over the decades since postmodernism’s heyday, a neo-Marxian activist strand re-inserted itself into the nihilistic void left by postmodern deconstruction, and harnessed epistemological scepticism for its own purpose, which was a blanket denunciation of Western culture. The notions of objective truth, reason, and scientific method — which, despite their limitations, are among the proudest achievements of the European Enlightenment, and have benefitted humanity so greatly — are viewed as guard dogs of an oppressive system.12 Gone is the Enlightenment ideal of reason as a universal faculty that unites humanity. Gone too is the idea of language as a medium through which rational beings can communicate. Instead, all language is encoded with signifiers of dominance and oppression. ‘My truth’ is merely an assertion of my position in the intersectional hierarchy of privilege.

Moreover, since the only thing left standing after postmodernism’s deconstruction of society is the power/oppression axis, an individual’s position on that axis becomes the sole criterion whereby the worth of his or her point of view is judged. Thus, a claim to victimhood by someone in a category judged as oppressed must be accepted at face value, whereas any questioning of the narrative by someone in a ‘privileged’ identity group can be dismissed out of hand. From here it is a short step to seeing the latter as a ‘non-individual’, to be treated as non-existent (also known as ‘cancelled’), whether in theory or in fact. Indeed, due to the influence of Critical Social Justice, many of the characteristics of Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare described by Sangharakshita above are advancing on us with alarming rapidity.

To reverse this trend, we must retain our freedom to reason critically, which has been so eroded in our culture under the influence of Critical Social Justice. Nor is this freedom likely to be conceded by the ‘Social Justice’ advocates themselves. They don’t believe in objective truth, so they don’t believe that there can be communication across the gulf of socially constructed subjectivity. Since the power/oppression axis is the only objective truth they will recognise, and they are already in possession of it, they don’t believe that through engaging in a free exchange of ideas they might expand their view of the world or understand something they previously had not. Nor, in addition, do they tend to be much good at debate, since this requires such procedures as the formulation of argument and the marshalling of evidence, which form little part of their intellectual training. Unsurprisingly, the votaries of an ideology at whose philosophical foundation is a rejection of reason are generally ill-equipped for its effective exercise. This does not stop such people reasoning, since such a thing is hardly possible, but it does nothing to guard against its misuse, such as the reduction of complex phenomena to single causes, or of moral issues to simplistic binaries of right and wrong, good and bad. In any case, entering into the free exchange of ideas requires cognitive effort, and it is much easier to assume the possession of the moral high ground, from which vantage point any challenges to their ideology can be fended off through smears, histrionics and ‘cancellation’, rather than engaged with on the level ground of rational discussion, on which they are at a distinct disadvantage.

Mention of an assumed moral high ground raises the question of what a genuine moral foundation of engagement with social justice issues might be, and brings to mind the quote from Ambedkar, that ‘Reason and morality are the two most powerful weapons in the armoury of a reformer.’ It seems that he, at least, regarded them as connected. I am sure he would have agreed that the willingness to reason is a moral quality, from which it follows that an unwillingness to reason is a moral failing. The extent to which ‘Social Justice’ activism displays such unwillingness, and that its narratives have in consequence become so decoupled from facts, is a sign of how morally corrupted it has become.


  1. John Dewey warned of the ‘fallacy of assuming that when we have a single unified word that there is a corresponding unified fact.’ Karl Popper referred to the same as the ‘essentialist fallacy’.
  2. Ambedkar, ‘Waiting for a Visa’, Writings and Speeches, Vol 12, p663
  3. Ibid, p670
  4. Roy, The Doctor and the Saint, p21
  5. To such absurd lengths is this taken that the fact of professional sportswomen being paid less than men is seriously asserted as proof of sexism, rather than of the fact women’s sports are simply not played at the same level of ability, with the consequence that fewer people want to pay to watch it.
  6. Fryer, ‘An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force’, 2016.
  7. In the case of the ‘gender pay gap’, I believe that women are disempowered by being told they are victims when they are not. In the case of police brutality in America, there are far more harmful and serious issues facing black people, such as violent neighbourhoods, poor schools, and fatherless homes, many of which are themselves a result of misguided government policy.
  8. Robin Diangelo, White Fragility.
  9. From the philosopher William Drummond.
  10. Ambedkar, ‘The Buddha and the Future of His Religion’.
  11. Sangharakshita, ‘Buddhism, World Peace and Nuclear War’, The Priceless Jewel, p125-6
  12. This can lead to absurd, darkly humorous outcomes, such as of students giving presentations about how Western science is a colonial imposition – on their ipads (artefacts of Western science, if anything is).

Vidyaruchi has been a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order since 2009, from which time until 2013 he was personal assistant to its founder, Urgyen Sangharakshita. Since then he has been a freelance Buddhist. When not engaged in teaching or travelling he mainly lives in a shed in his parents' garden.

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