Now I realize that everyone needs to know about Critical Theory.
Because we are watching Critical Theory on display in our universities, the news media, politics, sports, and on main streets all around this nation…and all around the world.
Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay recently wrote a book explaining and evaluating Critical Theory.
Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity…and Why This Harms Everybody.
Pluckrose and Lindsay are not right-wing ideologues or conservative Christians. They are political and academic liberals who see the growing danger of Critical Theory.
Their book is worth a read.
What Is Critical Theory?
Pluckrose and Lindsay define Critical Theory as “reified postmodernism” or postmodernism taken to its fullest extreme.
“It takes the assumptions of postmodernism to be real, objective truths–the Truth According to Social Justice” (17).
It is an ironic assumption because, at its core, postmodernism denies the existence of absolute truth or any kind of universals. Postmodernism is radical skepticism, seeing everything in society as a form of power that needs to be identified, confronted, disparaged, deconstructed, dismantled, and destroyed.
Yet Critical Theory takes the most extreme skepticism…the most extreme cynicism…and universalizes it.
It denies universal truth…and, at the same time, elevates itself as Universal Truth.
How Does Critical Theory Work?
Since there are no univeral truths, then all of society’s structures, norms, and practices are simply the products of the powerful who have imposed them on the rest of society.
In other words, critical theory sees all of culture as a vast conspiracy theory, perpetuated by the powerful or the “privileged”…often without them even knowing it.
The powerful have, both intentionally and inadvertently, organized society to benefit them and perpetuate their power. …It is the social system and its inherent power dynamics that are seen as the causes of oppression, not necessarily willful individual agents. Thus, a society, social system, or institution can be seen in some way oppressive without any individual involved with it needing to be shown to hold even a single oppressive view. (Cynical Theories, 36)
Critical theory leaves no stone unturned. It questions and attacks everything in society, particularly western society.
Its core premise: Everything in Western culture is the product of white male heteronormative supremacy.
Even the family structure, rational thought, research-based studies, and the scientific method itself are products of “whiteness” and must be dismantled and destroyed.
This is not a joke.
If you are white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered, and/or able-bodied then you are part of the power structure and the “oppressor group” whether you acknowledge it or not.
If you are black, female, homosexual, transgendered, and/or disabled then you are part of an “oppressed group” and have both the authority and the clarity to speak on all issues. And the more “oppressed” boxes you can check, then the greater moral authority you have. This is called “intersectionality.”
Because of its internal complexity and single-minded focus on oppression, intersectionality is riddled with divisions and subcategories, which exist in competition with–or even in unrepentant contradiction to–each other. Some in the U.S. therefore argue that gay white men and nonblack people of color…need to recognize their privilege and antiblackness. This can lead to the insistence that lighter-skinned black people recognize their privilege over darker-skinned black people. Straight black men have been described as the “white people of black people.” It is also not uncommon to hear arguments that trans men, while still oppressed by attitudes towards their trans status, need to recognize that they have ascended to male privilege and amplify the voices of trans women who are seen as doubly oppressed, by being both trans and women. …All this sophistication keeps intersectionalists busy, internally argumentative, and divided, but it is all done in the service of uniting the various Theoretically oppressed groups into a single meta-group, “oppressed” or “other,” under an overarching metanarrative of Social Jusice, which seeks to establish a caste system based on Theorized states of oppression. (128-29)
It is an ingenious Theory.
Only the oppressed can speak.
The oppressors can only listen…and agree.
To question or argue with the oppressed, even using rational arguments, evidence, research, or science (all products of “whiteness”), merely reveals your role as an oppressor.
Ironically, the oppressed become the hegemony.
And to violate any tenet or principle of Social Justice is blasphemy.
You must be excommunicated.
Critical Theory and Racism
Pluckrose and Lindsay cover all the major areas of Critical Theory–postcolonial theory, queer theory, gender studies, and even disability and fat studies. But perhaps their most relevant chapter is on critical race theory.
There is no question that racism exists…that there are individual people with racist beliefs…and that societal structures can reflect the prejudice and injustice that one group has toward another. But critical race theory takes all of this to an absolute extreme.
In critical race theory, all white people are racist by default…along with all societal structures and systems. Furthermore, any apparent “progress” in race relations is vehemently critiqued and denied.
The beliefs that the decline in racist attitudes has largely been a mirage and that white people only allow people of color rights and opportunities when it is in their interest to do so can produce profound paranoia and hostility.
…Critical race Theory’s hallmark paranoid mindset, which assumes racism is everywhere, always, just waiting to be found, is extremely unlikely to be helpful or healthy for those who adopt it. Always believing that one will be or is being discriminated against, and trying to find out how, is unlikely to improve the outcome of any situation. It can also be self-defeating.
…The core problems with critical race Theory are that it puts social significance back into racial categories and inflames racism, tends to be purely Theoretical, uses the postmodern knowledge and political principles, is profoundly aggressive, asserts its relevance to all aspects of Social Justice, and–not least–begins from the assumption that racism is both ordinary and permanent, everywhere and always.
Consequently, every interaction between a person with a dominant racial identity and one with a marginalized one must be characterized by a power imbalance.
…Everything the marginalized individual interprets as racism is considered racism by default–an episteme that encourages confirmation bias and leaves wide open the door to the unscrupulous.
…Adherents actively search for hidden and overt racial offenses until they find them, and they allow of no alternative or mitigating explanations–racism is not only permanent everywhere and latent in systems; it is also utterly unforgivable. This can lead to mob outrage and public shamings and it tends to focus all our attention on racial politics. (132-34)
In critical race Theory, the universal nature of humanity is denied and the differences in skin color are amplified. In fact, it is all about the color of one’s skin, which runs exactly counter to the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. who longed for the day when his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Racism is a problem…but critical race Theory is not the solution.
Indeed, it belies a solution…since it actually depends on the existence of racism to exist in itself. It actually depends on victimhood to maintain its moral authority. It has to be “oppressed” to hold onto the power of the oppressed.
What Is the Solution?
As liberal scholars, Pluckrose and Lindsay look to liberal principles for the solution to societal problems such as prejudice, racism, sexism, and injustice.
Liberalism values the individual and universal human values; Theory rejects both in favor of group identity and identity politics. Liberalism across the board centers human dignity; Theory focuses on victimhood. Liberalism encourages disagreement and debate as a means to getting at the truth; Theory rejects these as ways of reinforcing dominant discourses that suppress certain perspectives and insists that we cannot get to “the” truth, but only to “our” truths, which are rooted in our values. Liberalism accepts the correspondence theory of truth–that a statement is true if it accurately describes reality; Theory promotes the idea that truth is a “language game” and that words, ultimately, only point to other words and can never correspond concretely to reality–unless those words describe oppression. Liberalism accepts criticism, even of itself, and is therefore self-correcting; Theory cannot be criticized. Liberalism believes in progress; Theory is radically cynical about the possibility of progress. (237-38)
The liberal principles that Pluckrose and Lindsay espouse are core principles in Western society (and are also a reflection of Judeo-Christian principles, by the way). To seek to destroy all Western structures and values based on societal problems that have actually been exposed by these liberal principles is short-sighted, dangerous, and downright scary. That is why Pluckrose and Lindsay wrote their book. The road we are on in academia, politics, and everyday life does not lead to some postmodern utopia but to a destructive civil war where everyone loses.
As a Christian, I also see the inherent dangers in Critical Theory. Because Critical Theory is based on postmodernism, it denies truth. Because it is rooted in a cultural Marxist mindset, it denies grace.
It forces us to put people into a category rather than see their common humanity.
It produces fear and paranoia rather than humility and trust.
It leads to separation rather than to reconciliation.
It inflames anger rather than encourages love.
Wherever we are on the political spectrum…whatever we may believe…however we may see these issues in our culture…we cannot blindly accept the tenets of Critical Theory without subjecting its theory to our own criticism.
We cannot make everyone who disagrees with us an “enemy.”
We cannot cancel healthy debate and disagreement because it makes us uncomfortable.
We cannot keep destroying one another and not expect to be destroyed.
As Scripture reminds us:
For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:14-15)