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Rachel Dolezal, Caitlyn Jenner, and the Limits of Social Justice

06/15/2015 02:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016
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Public opinion on the left has come down swift and harsh against Rachel Dolezal. More thoughtful voices have begun to emerge, but the dominant themes remain mockery, derision, and indeed, anger. Much of the public outcry, to be sure, is deserved: Dolezal appears to have lied about her family background and, more troublingly, lied about being the victim of a hate crime. But amidst all the condemnation, a critic might wonder: whither the respect for Rachel Dolezal's autonomy and self-identity? Why is it that Bruce Jenner can become Caitlyn Jenner -- to public applause, in fact -- but Rachel Dolezal cannot become black?

Many on the right have seized upon l'affaire Dolezal to accuse the left of hypocrisy. Within the narrow context of the immediate controversy, it is not difficult to think of good rebuttal arguments. But the debate over Dolezal's identity is a good opportunity for American liberals to consider our modern politics of social justice more broadly, and in a critical light. The lesson of the Dolezal affair is that tolerance, diversity, and autonomy are not always a positive-sum game. Three sites of contested meaning over these values demonstrate amply that, as one piece in the New Yorker put it, "the politics of tolerance, diversity, and autonomy are distributive politics, with winners and losers."

Consider the internecine dispute within the feminist community over the status of trans women. Most feminists, it is probably safe to say, concur in the trans movement's philosophy that Caitlyn Jenner was always a woman, and merely trapped -- while she was Bruce -- in a man's body. As Caitlyn, she is living as her authentic self, and she is therefore entitled to all the claims on society and social justice that a "woman-born" woman is permitted to make. But a small contingent of self-identified radical feminists, pejoratively called trans-exclusionary radical feminists or TERFs, deny the validity of such claims. Granting trans women all the rights and benefits accorded to "real" women, they argue, diminishes the value of those goods for all women.

At times, it's hard to deny that the radical feminists have a point. Admitting trans women into female-only safe spaces, for example, might well make those spaces less safe -- especially considering that the trans movement seeks to accord full female status to any individual who identifies as one, whether or not she has undergone gender-reassignment surgery. That sharp surgical boundary might point the way toward a crude compromise, but the fact remains that choices have to be made over whose autonomy, self-identification, and dignity to prioritize. And whenever such a choice must be made, there will be winners and losers.

Another site of contestation opened up this spring, when the battle over state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Acts highlighted competing claims to autonomy and respect from gay couples and evangelical Christians. Against the backdrop of the gay-marriage fight, liberals condemned RFRA statutes as creating a license to discriminate -- but claims to individual religious exemptions invoke fundamentally liberal values of pluralism and autonomy. Indeed, just this Term at the Supreme Court, a Muslim prisoner used the federal RFRA to challenge prison regulations that prohibited him from growing a beard. He won, 9-0, to much approbation from the left. Nor is that case an outlier -- most of the time, individual religious exemptions primarily protect practitioners of minority religions. Those in the majority don't need an exemption, because they write the law.

There is no doubt, of course, that LGBT couples' claims to equal dignity and respect are also fundamentally liberal. The question is merely this: If religious freedom and LGBT equality both sound in liberal values, which should win when they conflict? That question does not, despite the apparent liberal consensus against the religious-liberty claims, answer itself. Utah has enacted what seems to be a workable compromise -- affirmatively banning discrimination in employment and housing, while affirmatively protecting religious institutions that object to homosexuality -- but a compromise is necessarily distributive, not principled. Some LGBTs and some Christians will consider themselves losers.

Which brings us, finally, back to the conundrum presented by Ms. Dolezal. On the one hand, she has as much right to buck her biology and define her own identity as did Caitlyn, née Bruce, Jenner. On the other hand, to some black people -- including her adoptive brother -- her claim to black identity is a highly offensive farce, recalling the age-old bigotry of blackface and minstrelsy. To many, Dolezal's autonomy is incompatible with black dignity.

There are no easy answers to these conundrums. The modern politics of identity demands equal and full respect for everyone's self-definition -- but respect is a limited resource. One principled response is to prioritize those subject to historical and ongoing oppression -- to privilege the claims of the underprivileged. But comparing relative oppressedness may be a cure worse than the disease. Consider, once more, the contested space between radical feminists and trans women. The consensus in social-justice circles is that the trans movement has the better of the argument and that the TERFs are misguided or worse. And the radical feminists, for their part, can credibly claim that they continue to be oppressed -- to suffer injustice in the name of social justice.

The upshot is that there is no single maximally socially just world. Sometimes, social justice will be a zero-sum game, a choice in which justice for one group necessarily means injustice for another. Sometimes, the most just outcome will be a triumph of practicality over principle -- a compromise. Sometimes, social justice must mean rough justice.