One group of individuals is systematically oppressed by another group of individuals. Two witnesses to the oppression are offended and moved to stop the injustice, but for opposite reasons.
The first witness sees the rights of individuals being violated by other individuals.
The second witness sees one group violating the other group’s right to equality.
What is the injustice?
For the first witness, the injustice is focused on the attempt to strip individuals of their status as citizens and to impose a different status upon them. In a liberal democracy only one category matters: citizen.
For the second witness, the offense is focused on the power imbalance between the two groups. Justice demands equality among groups.
When the two witnesses discuss the oppression, they seem to agree.
The first witness sees that the power imbalance between groups is what makes the oppression of individuals possible, and agrees with the second witness that this inequality between groups must end, but (and this is left unsaid) for the sake of the individuals whose rights are violated.
The second witness sees that the rights of individuals are being violated, and that no individual should be subjected to such indignities, but (and this is left unsaid) because no group is inferior to any other group.
Both witnesses agree that the oppressed should unite and stand together to oppose their unjust treatment. Isolated individuals cannot overcome the oppression of another group. Only individuals functioning as a group can effectively resist another group.
In the urgency of stopping the immediate oppression the two witnesses fail to notice that their differences are greater than their commonalities.
When the political conditions shift, the coalition fractures.
The first witness is shocked to discover that the second believes that all members of the oppressing category are responsible for the current crime and the entire history of oppression perpetrated by its category. The justifications are a drawn from the social sciences, but the moral impulses driving those justifications (the “motivated reasoning” as they say) are now far too close to those of the oppressors: individuals are understood as manifestations of a group, and never mind that such justifications are persuasive only to those who share that impulse, the truth is self-evident and everyone whose opinion matters sees this to be true — and now our group has the power to impose these categories.
The second witness is shocked to discover that the first witness wants to defend the rights of individuals to think whatever they want, even to believe in an essential inequality among groups, even to publicly state these opinions, even to state them with the intention of inflicting emotional distress on other groups, or even to try to persuade them of their own essential inferiority! What is not permitted is any effort, whether by an individual or group to violate any other individual’s rights.