Social Justice Rites: Sacrificial Politics and Sacred Victims

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues in The Righteous Mind that people of the Left suffer from a psychological deficiency, an anemia in a key dimension of moral sensibility. They don’t experience the same concerns for “sanctity” that people across cultures do, he claims. Let’s call it, “Sanctity Deficiency Disorder.”

Sanctity has to do with the sacred, so the accusation plays into a temptation on the Right to dismiss people on the Left as holding nothing sacred. The SDD diagnosis, I argue, is profoundly wrong—the sacred and the desire for sanctity drive contemporary Left politics. Seeing how will help us understand the “social justice cleavage,” which exists not only between Left and Right, but also within the Left.


The sacred is taken to possess a qualitatively, incomparably higher mode of being. To be sacred is to be set apart, not to be handled like ordinary “profane” things. Sacred things possess a special charge evoking piety and non-negotiable obligation, so recognizing something as sacred justifies sacrifice.

Not all sacrifices are equally pious. At the lowest level, making sacrifices may be done out of fear or flattery, to propitiate or to bribe. One step up, piety expresses a sense of our lowliness. Sacrifice might expiate guilt or cleanse some pollution. Higher levels of piety honor the sacred merely for being sacred. A sacrifice might be done not to influence but to thank, to celebrate, or to commune with the sacred.

All this may seem weird to someone not experienced in traditional sacrificial practices. The logic of sacrifice may become clearer when one grasps how sacredness and suffering are related. The connection runs in both directions: the sacred calls for a willingness to suffer on its behalf, and suffering can “make something sacred” (which is just what “sacrifice” means).

Sacrifice—as giving something up and over to the sacred—requires suffering. The idea occurs across cultures, and with great variety: sacrifices may include money to a temple, food and libations, “spiritual sacrifices”—or animals and people. There’s a lot of variety, but sacrificial victims always carry symbolic significance. One of the ways ritual sacrifice can work is that we use the victim symbolically to reenact and expiate our own guilt. We get clean.

We might wonder, what’s so special about suffering that it should be somehow a path to sacredness? It’s the worst part of being sentient. Then again, a person who has never suffered couldn’t really be an adult. Suffering is wisdom-bestowing, identity-shaping, and sacred-making.

Paradoxically, the deeper our past wounds are, the more we can be grateful for them. I wish more than anything that terrible thing hadn’t happened—while cherishing my experience of it. (Etymologically, the “sacred” means “holy” and “cursed,” just as the “blessed” is “bloodied,” “wounded.”) Experiences of suffering need digestion, but once digested they bestow wisdom, authority. Such experiences can become central to our identities because their lessons shape us so profoundly. They change our convictions and values. We see things differently. We become different. So suffering is transformative. It can change our way of being.

True—sometimes people are just damaged by suffering, picking up an exaggerated distrust that feeds insecurity and anger; they never get through it. But after getting through it, if we do, we may feel we were granted a qualitatively higher mode of being compared to our life before. Simultaneously, we feel humbled in the face of things higher, more important, more powerful than us. Suffering elevates us by humbling us.

That’s all to say, human beings naturally sense that suffering has the power to make sacred and grant wisdom and that the sacred warrants sacrifice and deference from us.

It’s the Categories that are Sacred

The key to understanding contemporary Sacrificial Politics is to recognize what people of the Left hold sacred: victims of oppression. (Etymologically, “victim” refers to a sacrificed animal.) Rather than dismissing this out of hand as “fake religion,” we should recognize that we are dealing here with permanent and powerful human dispositions to recognize something as sacred and to respond piously. Moreover, the system has a logic based in the deep connections between suffering, sacredness, wisdom, identity, and sacrifice.

Here is my claim: Sacrificial Politics operates psychologically through piety for those who have suffered oppression, an oppression taken to be identity-shaping, authority-bestowing, and sacred-making for members of oppressed categories.

This is a system of social constructions. That is, Sacrificial Politics is a system of roles bestowed upon people by those around them, and these roles carry rights, prerogatives, obligations, expectations, and social statuses. For example, with diversity talk we do not just recognize that some people are “different” in the desired way; we do not just include them; and we don’t treat everyone in the room equally. We confer a status on select people as “diverse” and as having the power to bestow “diversity” on the groups they join. Other people get the status of not “diverse.”

You might think of this system of social constructions as a game with four positions and rules for what each position is supposed to do. (i) The Sacred, who are members of an oppressed category, are supposed to represent their category by believing and advocating certain things. (ii) The Pious are the members of the privileged category (e.g., white, male, straight, or cis) who recognize, honor, protect, and avenge the Sacred. (iii) The Profane are the members of the privileged category who are not pious (“profane” just means “outside the temple”). (iv) The Blasphemers commit acts of desecration against the Sacred (sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose) and are marked henceforth as perpetrators of injustice.

The sacred status carries special authority based on the unjust suffering of the demographic category. For example, when we start a sentence with “As a woman,” “As an African American,” or “As a gay person,” we take up the status conferred on us as symbols of our category and invoke the authority the status carries for the Pious. (This works only with the Pious, who listen deferentially. The Profane fall awkwardly silent. The Blasphemers roll their eyes.) When in some context the Sacred Victim status is bestowed on an individual, the person is also handed a script and is surrounded by sanctions, where even allies are afraid to speak and benevolent disagreement remains silent.

Not all victims of suffering carry political sacredness. It must be a politically relevant type of suffering. Members of the sacred groups have suffered unjustly merely for being part of a demographic category. Their suffering was a sociopolitical event; the victims are sociopolitically sacred. They possess an elevated authority to speak about their category.

Sacrificial Politics recognizes such victim categories as sacred and sets their representatives apart. They are not to be handled like other people. There is something disrespectful about criticizing what they say. They are elevated above argument. Safe spaces (“sacristies”) are for sacred things. Those who treat sacred things as though they were normal things are sacrilegious: some mixture of ignorant and evil. They are Profane, or worse—Blasphemers. (It is difficult, in any sacred system, to make room for benevolent and intelligent people who simply disagree.)

Here are three possible pieces of counterevidence to my claim: First, many sufferers aren’t treated as sacred (e.g., male victims of rape or domestic violence, adult victims of child abuse). Second, many people who have not suffered for being part of the demographic category are still held sacred (e.g., a collegiate lesbian from a wealthy Pious family). Third, some people who have suffered for being a part of the category are not held sacred (for example, black, gay, female, or trans conservatives).

Here is the explanation of these facts: it’s the demographic categories (not the individuals) that are sacred. This is the quintessence of Sacrificial Politics, which is symbolic all the way down: the individuals playing the game (the Sacred, the Pious, the Profane, the Blasphemers) symbolize their demographic categories when they interact. This also explains why a person can invoke his or her sacred status by narrating the injustices other people in the category have suffered.

Thus, there is no sacred category for male rape victims because they don’t represent a targeted demographic category. And group members who may not have suffered personally for being in the category are still sacred by representing the category. Finally, a person in the category who does not believe what members are supposed to believe defects. Defectors lose their sacredness because they no longer properly symbolize the group.

We could think of Defectors as a fifth position, except that they don’t have a part to play in the game. By rejecting the script, by not properly representing their categories, their individual personhood stands outs too much. That undermines the mindset that puts categories before people. Their presence is awkward, their existence disruptive for the sacred system.

Making Sacrifices

The initial sufferings grounding a category’s sacred status weren’t technically sacrifices. The primal perpetrators—e.g., slaver traders, slaveholders, lynch mobs, racists, rapists, wifebeaters, people writing anti-buggery and anti-crossdressing laws, gay bashers—were not trying to do something holy. They were just a bunch of jerks enabled by an approving or complacent society.

But Sacrificial Politics is a Christian-influenced sacred system. Christianity has prepared us to view all unjust social suffering as sharing in the crucifixion. Recall, e.g., the symbolic role lepers and the poor play in the Gospel. The idea is that sufferers of social mistreatment are sacrificial victims of a general human sinfulness for which we must all atone.

The crucifixion itself was an injustice understood only after the fact as a sacrifice. Martyrdom is parallel: it’s sacralizing, without a sacrificer. The injustices repeatedly recounted in our Sacrificial Politics are “sacred-making” sacrifices on this ex post facto crucifixion model.

The sacrificial core of the movement comes out most clearly when a Blasphemer gets publicly excoriated. These humiliating spectacles do not merely punish or correct individuals. They are public sacrifices seeking communal atonement (and policing communal unity). Otherwise, it’s hard to account for how disproportionate the response may seem. Within the sacred system, the response seems totally justified.

Blasphemy is a crime against the sacred category as sacred, suggesting it’s not sacred, implicitly denying the suffering that made it so. And that’s offensive. Within Sacrificial Politics, saying the wrong thing implies a cruel disrespect for the suffering of the oppressed. Because that seems to repeat the oppression, the Blasphemer easily symbolizes the perpetrators. In fact, part of the Sacrificial system is a denial of the real distinction between the Blasphemers and the perpetrators of injustice. (Thus, dissenting speech is considered offensive and classified as a form of violence.)

In other times and places, people might tear their cloaks in outrage at blasphemy, or might banish, fine, flog, or stone the violator. A blasphemer might be required to fast or to perform humiliating public penance. Our Sacrificial Politics looks unexceptional by comparison. Our Blasphemers—publicly shamed, deplatformed, ostracized, often slandered and fired—are symbolic substitutes made to bear the punishment of the social structure and the individual injustices enabled by it. That’s a lot to bear, and that’s what justifies, psychologically, for activists and social media mobs, their unmeasured response. As a symbolic punishment on a substitute, the act is impotent. It cannot repair or revenge. The sacrifice must be repeated again and again.

There are no rites of forgiveness. There is no statute of limitations. Sacrificial victims are selected, sometimes with more, sometimes with less justice, but respecting no distinctions between immaturity, accidental Blasphemy, benevolent dissent, and actual perpetration of harm. Accusation is often as good as a conviction. The process recognizes no individual’s right to learn, to grow out of prior assumptions slowly and imperfectly. Its justice is blind to the mercy-evoking fact that human beings are developmental learners, acquiring wisdom step-wise (or not at all).

Pious people feel the guilt of others in their categories. This isn’t actual guilt for their actual sins. It’s an inherited ontological state like original sin. By joining in to the public sacrifices, we seek atonement and also flag our allegiance, taking our position in the game as one of the Pious. That is to say, the Pious maintain their own status—looking clean and innocent to the Sacred and most of all to themselves—by participating in regular punishment of Blasphemers. But the deference and sacrifices are all symbolic, designed to alleviate Pious people’s awkward feeling toward the Sacred. It’s a feeling that mixes shame with a deep conviction of their own purity. Their show of group guilt displays their personal blamelessness.

In general, Profane people try to stay out of it. They may or may not feel group guilt or feel insecure about it. At bottom, many defend their innocence by appealing to individual rather than collective responsibility. “I had nothing to do with it,” they tend to think, quietly fearing that may not be completely true. They fear blaspheming, so don’t object to the sacrifices. Joining the Pious is an insurance policy. As in all sacred systems, there’s going to be a lot of insincere piety going around.

In general, the more “left” someone is, the more he or she feels symbolic guilt and seeks expiation for his or her category. The more “classical liberal” or “conservative” or “fusionist” someone is, the more he or she thinks about individual accountability and asserts exculpation.

The Sacred Status Hierarchy

“Intersectionality” names the overlapping of sacred categories. It is a valid and useful concept for analysis. The plain truth is, it’s tougher to be a black gay guy. The effective truth of intersectionality, as used in Sacrificial Politics, is that being a member of several categories increases sacredness, and thus authority.

Let’s model this, mathematically (and playfully), with the “Sacred Victim Voice Multiplier.” Pretend for a moment that all sacred groups were equally sacred. BJ is a straight white guy. His sacred victim status is 0. He has merely his own voice and experience to appeal to. Let the value of his political voice be BJ1. He’s just himself. CJ—a non-straight, non-white, non-male—has a sacred victim status of +3. In addition to being herself, she symbolizes three oppressed classes. Her political voice is CJ4. MJ is a straight woke white woman in a feminist group with CJ. Intersectionality is used to remind MJ that misogyny affects CJ in ways it hasn’t affected her. BJ1 < MJ2 < CJ4, so MJ can speak authoritatively to BJ, but should be humble before CJ. Intersectionality names the calculus by which the speaker’s voice is elevated more and more beyond criticism, argument, and other offensive and profane treatment. The speaker is more set apart. The speaker not only carries authority, but exists somehow beyond questions of credibility for people of a lower rank.

Intersectionality sometimes creates solidarity across sacred groups. But it can also be divisive, and sacred authorities sometimes conflict. For example, some (not all) gynophilic trans women—“mtf,” born boys, transitioned to woman, attracted to females—require being counted and treated as gay and as women for all purposes, in all contexts. Some (not all) feminists and lesbians (called “TERFS”) view this as appropriation of their identities and encroachment on their group spaces. The hierarchy saves the system from internal inconsistency. According to the calculus, women are just women (+1), but trans women are both trans and women (+2) and probably also lesbians (+3). In addition, sacred groups are not all equally sacred, and trans is trending. The effect is that we are to “#believeallwomen” when a woman speaks about misdeeds by cismen, but we are to deplatform the same woman if she speaks about how cis women and trans women are—for some purposes, in some contexts—significantly different. (Remarkably, this puts us back into a position in which select males now define what it means to be or feel like a woman, and mere females lack standing to object.)

Straight white cis men, the leftovers, without sacred status, can be criticized but cannot criticize. Their voices alone are unelevated. They are set apart as not set apart. The intersectionality calculus thus gives BJ—a straight white guy—not merely a sacred victim status of 0 and a political authority of BJ1. Rather, as a member of four oppressor sets, he has a sacred victim status of -4. Attainted because of his ancestry, sex, gender, and orientation, BJ is punished for a guilt he possesses by demographic association. Such excluded groups, by the very logic of Sacrificial Politics, would increasingly be justified to claim sacred status.

This fact portends some dangerous instability in the system, as some seek to assert status as white or as men—it’s a very small minority of whites and men, but this is still a development we should all lament and seek to avoid. This is in part a reassertion of the perennial human tendencies toward tribalism and male dominance. But it’s more than that. It adds to those forces with the logic of the sacred system itself and is the consequence of how Sacrificial Politics retrenches the categories it purports to undermine.

Sanctity Deficiency Disorder?

Do you hold nothing sacred? It seems likely to me you do, whether you know it or not. Sacredness and sacrifice aren’t anthropological oddities of exotic or primitive peoples, nor are they the sole provenance of “traditional religions.” If you think you don’t, you’re probably underestimating your own capacity for symbolic thought and for sanctimonious grandstanding. The question becomes, what shall we hold sacred?

And were someone to answer, “I hold sufferers of injustice sacred,” this seems to me a morally respectable answer. But note well, it is not sufferers of injustice held sacred in our Sacrificial Politics. Rather, it’s select demographic categories. It is by contemplating this gap between the concrete human person and the demographic category he or she is taken to represent that, it seems to me, we can best evaluate what’s good and bad in this system.

The non-liberal Left prioritizes demographic categories where liberalism prioritizes people. This gap explains a fissure developing on the Left about whether old liberal principles still hold for sacred victim issues—principles like free speech, open inquiry, presumption of innocence, rights to defend oneself and face one’s accuser, religious freedom and toleration, and racial non-discrimination. These are primarily legal rules, but they are also principles of a heterogeneous culture and something like individual virtues. The non-liberal Left is too willing to issue exemptions from them for the sake of the sacred. Something sacred, after all, demands not being treated like normal a thing. That means sacred issues resist the procedural self-limitations essential to a liberal constitutional order. Left liberals still care about these principles. They tend to like diversity and care about marginalized people, but may feel embarrassed at the hyperbole on their own side and fear making a misstep. Moreover, they feel queasy at the public sacrifices as unfair to individuals.

It seems to me this queasiness is right, but not enough. It isn’t just that Sacrificial Politics mistreats stray Profane individuals. It mistreats Sacred individuals, too, precisely by fetishizing them as sacred, and especially by doing so because of suffering.

Most deeply, the system emphasizes suffering too much. Despite its power, suffering is not some singular site of meaning in life. It is not the primary driver of identity or sole source of wisdom. Joy, in fact, goes deeper. Sacrificial politics defines people by their categories and defines their categories by suffering—glorifying it, gluing them to it. The key thing about suffering, though, is to get through it to something better. In the case of personal trauma and tragedy, that “getting through it” happens as the soul gradually reopens itself to mundane opportunities for joy face to face with other people. A political community also needs that. Its health requires that the people enjoy living together, in everyday interactions, across the categories that distinguish them.

By feeding distrust, insecurity, and anger, by occluding joy and enjoyment of others, an exclusive focus on suffering can distort a person’s identity and can hinder his or her passage through problems. Sacrificial politics may be doing the same to our civic identities.