On Critical Theory, Cancel Culture, and Being Woke
Updated: Mar 6, 2021
A compelling movement with a rich intellectual heritage is sweeping the West. As a world view, it brings with it ideas, terminology, perspectives, and aims that are nothing short of revolutionary. Words are given new meanings, governments are given new goals, and right and wrong are seen through a new lens.
It plays the immensely important role of giving voice to the marginalized and providing valuable insights into problems with our institutions. Tragically, however, it is itself divisive, oppressive, and authoritarian. It seeks to replace the moral, political, economic, and social structures of the West, believing they are inherently defective and unsalvageable. In its origins, ideology, and methods, we can see the ingredients of past reigns of terror surfacing once again.
In 1867, Karl Marx published his monumental work, Das Kapital, in which he provided a blistering and insightful critique of capitalism. He perceived the world as a continuous power struggle that produced inequality and exploitation. He focused on the economic inequality between the proletariat, or working-class, and bourgeoise, or owners of the means of production.
His diagnosis was penetrating and perceptive. His prescription though, however well-intentioned, "produced the greatest ideological carnage in human history, killing more than a hundred million people in the last century" (Bovard, 2018) and should serve as a warning to us all. Identifying problems is one thing. Constructing successful solutions is very much another.
Marx' failed prognosis however, doesn't necessarily invalidate his oppressor/oppressed dichotomy. Seeing egregious inequality throughout history and society, subsequent intellectuals continued working on the problem.
During the 1930's, the Frankfurt School established 'Critical Theory' which was "conceived within the crucible of Marxism ...[and] not only contested establishmentarianism view of history, but projected a radical alternative. European radicals applied its ideas to reconfiguring the family, sexuality, and education” (Bronner, pp. 2, 7). Critical theory hones in on the imperfect aspects of a society, using them to calli into question and even discredit the beneficial and self-correcting parts of a culture.
Over the course of the next sixty years, other intellectuals and scholars further explored these ideas, focusing on cultural oppression, rather than economic, under the disparate branches of cultural studies, post-colonialism, critical pedagogy, feminism, black feminism, postmodernism, queer theory, critical race theory, and others.
Though these disciplines cover broad cultural and intellectual territory, they share an underlying philosophy and for simplicity's sake I'll refer to them all under the blanket term 'critical theory'. In this post, I'll summarize its belief system and explore its implications, strengths, and weaknesses.
The Four Tenets of Critical Theory
Dr. Neil Shenvi distilled critical theory into these four key principles (Shenvi, 2020):
Social binary: society is divided into oppressed and oppressor groups
Oppression: ideology is enforced through hegemonic power
Lived experience: gives oppressed groups privileged access to truth
Social justice: demands the liberation of oppressed groups
As with Marxism, under critical theory society is divided into oppressed and oppressor groups. Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo, authors of the bestseller, Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, explain:
“For every social group, there is an opposite group… the primary groups that we name here are: race, class, gender, sexuality, ability status/exceptionality, religion, and nationality.
“Oppression describes a set of policies, practices, traditions, norm, definitions, and explanations (discourses), which function to systematically exploit one social group to the benefit of another social group. The group that benefits from this exploitation is termed the dominant (or agent) group, and the group that is exploited is termed the minoritized (or target) group…. Sexism, racism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism are specific forms of oppression” (Sensoy & DiAngelo, pp. 44, 61)
The Oppressor class enforces their ideology on the oppressed through hegemonic power, often without the oppressed even knowing because it is the water they swim in. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx said:
"The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class." (Marx, 1959)
Building on Marx's observation, Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, developed the idea of hegemony into "one of the most significant contributions to twentieth-century Marxist thought" (Bates, 1975). Of his work, Thomas R. Bates wrote:
"The basic premise of the theory of hegemony is one with which few would disagree: that man is not ruled by force alone, but also by ideas.
"...Not that ideas were powerful enough to eliminate class struggle, but they were obviously capable of muting it sufficiently to allow class societies to function."
"...Hegemony...[is] political leadership based on the consent of the led, a consent which is secured by the diffusion and popularization of the world view of the ruling class." (Bates, emphasis added)
Under this theory, even members of the oppressed class who "side" with the oppressors are discredited and ignored because they are afflicted with what is now called "white adjacency." They cannot see their oppression.
Black economist Thomas Sowell is a prime example of this phenomenon. Born in 1930 and raised in Harlem, NY, a veteran of both Jim Crow and the Korean War and a prolific author of over 50 books on economic and political ideology, race and ethnicity, education, and child development, Sowell is largely ignored by pro-critical theory intellectuals and media figures even though he speaks deeply to the causes of the issues they care about. They don't need to listen to him. He and others like him can be dismissed out of hand because of their a priori knowledge that his views must be tainted.
Similarly, the case of Bret Weinstein, the self-described "deeply progressive" professor of Biology at Evergreen State College, who found himself at odds with critical theory in 2017 when students turned on him for suggesting that it was illiberal or racist to prevent people from speaking on the basis of their race or gender. You can read his Wall Street Journal opinion piece here. You can watch videos of his interactions with students here.
Sensoy and DiAngelo provide the justification for such behavior by explaining how hegemony and privilege are the purview of the dominant group which must be opposed:
“Hegemony refers to the control of the ideology of society. The dominant group maintains power by imposing their ideology on everyone. ...From a critical social justice perspective, privilege is defined as systemically conferred dominance and the institutional processes by which the beliefs and values of the dominant group are ‘made normal’ and universal.” (Sensoy & DiAngelo, pp. 73, 80, emphasis added)
American socialist feminist and Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, Iris Marion Young, explained how the meaning of the word 'oppression' has changed under critical theory:
“Oppression... traditionally carries a strong connotation of conquest and colonial domination… New left social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, however, shifted the meaning of the concept of oppression. In its new usage, oppression designates the disadvantage and injustice some people suffer not because a tyrannical power coerces them, but because of the everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society… Oppression in this sense is structural, rather than the result of a few people’s choices or policies. Its causes are embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols.” (Iris Young in Adams et al., p. 36, emphasis added)
In their definitive work, Critical Race Theory, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic described the insidious nature of the oppressors' views:
“Ideology – the received wisdom – makes current social arrangements seem fair and natural. Those in power sleep well at night; their conduct does not seem to them like oppression.” (Delgado, Stefancic, & Harris, pp. 71-72)
Duke University professor of Sociology, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, explained in Racism without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America
how these systems of oppression persist over time:
“This new ideology [of color-blind racism] has become a formidable political tool for the maintenance of the racial order… the beauty of this new ideology is that it aids in the maintenance of white privilege without fanfare, without naming those who it subjects and those who it rewards.” (Bonilla-Silva, pp. 3-4)
Thus, under critical theory, both oppressor and oppressed are blind to the true nature of things. Only the very learned or those who have become awakened to their oppression, or "woke", can see reality as it really is. Which brings us to the third tenet of this world view.
In the view of critical theory, ‘Lived experience’ gives oppressed groups privileged access to truth and supersedes other methods of inquiry, like empirical research and data.
José Medina, professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University, reiterates the notion that those in the oppressor class are unable to see society's problems clearly. He understandably observes that the experiences of the oppressed give them insights the oppressed do not have:
“Oppressed groups do have a distinctive set of experiences and … are better positioned and better equipped for a particular kind of epistemic subversion… As Mills puts it, ‘Hegemonic [dominant] groups characteristically have experiences that foster illusory perceptions about society’s functioning, whereas subordinate groups characteristically have experiences that (at least potentially) give rise to more adequate conceptualizations’” (Medina, p. 46, emphasis added)
Professor Charles R. Lawrence III wrote that the feelings and experiences of oppressed classes must override claims of objective truth and universal principles, effectively removing the basis for any shared cultural or ideological ideas upon which to form bridges of mutual understanding:
“[We] must learn to privilege [our] own perspectives and those of other outsiders, understanding that the dominant legal discourse is premised upon the claim to knowledge of objective truths and the existence of neutral principles. We must free ourselves from the mystification produced by this ideology. We must learn to trust our own senses, feelings, and experiences, and to give them authority, even (or especially) in the face of dominant accounts of social reality that claim universality.” (Charles R. Lawrence III, “The Word and The River: Pedagogy as Scholarship as Struggle,” in Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller, & Thomas, p. 338, emphasis added)
Margaret Andersen, professor of Sociology at the University of Delaware, further claimed that reason itself is a tool of the oppressor class, paving the way for the preeminence of lived experience over logic:
“The idea that objectivity is best reached only through rational thought is a specifically Western and masculine way of thinking" (Andersen & Collins, pp. 4-5)
Few would disagree that anecdotal, even widespread, experiences are invaluable and must be sought out and understood. What is less certain is whether such experience should in all cases trump other methods of inquiry.
The existence of oppression leads us to the fourth tenet. Action.
Social justice demands the liberation of oppressed groups and is our primary moral duty.
Suzanne Pharr, an American organizer, political strategist, and author, expressed that oppression often takes the form of discrimination on the basis of group identity:
“These political times call for renewed dialogue about and commitment to the politics of liberation…Liberation requires a struggle against discrimination based on race, class, gender, sexual identity, ableism and age” – Suzanne Pharr, “Reflections on Liberation,” in Adams, p. 450)
Mary E. McClintock echoed these sentiments:
“Prior to celebrating diversity, we must first eliminate intolerance. No matter what form it takes or who does it, we must all take action to stop intolerance when it happens. Working towards a celebration of diversity implies working for social justice – the elimination of all forms of social oppression… Social injustice takes many forms. It can be injustice based on a person’s gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, or economic class.” (Mary McClintock, “How to Interrupt Oppressive Behavior,” in Adams, p. 483)
In the writings of Patricia Hill Collins, professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, we see the echo of Marx as capitalism is identified as a system of "domination" and "exploitation":
“Gender, race, ethnicity, nation, sexuality, ability, and age… reference important knowledge traditions among subordinated peoples who oppose the social inequalities and social injustices that they experience. Such projects aim to address the deep-seated concerns of people who are subordinated within domestic and global expressions or racism, sexism, capitalism, colonialism, and similar systems of political domination and economic exploitation. Whatever the form of oppression they experience –race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, ethnicity, and nation– subordinated groups have a vested interest in resisting it.” (Collins, p. 10)
In the writings of American author, professor, and social activist, Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name, "bell hooks", we again see the Marxian claim that capitalism is not primarily an economic system based on private property, property rights, and voluntary exchange, but rather is oppressive, white supremacist, and patriarchal in nature, not to be corrected or amended, but overthrown:
“Movements for social justice that hold on to outmoded ways of thinking and acting tend to fail. The roots of visionary feminism extend back to the early sixties [when] women’s liberation movement visionary thinkers were dreaming about a radical/revolutionary political movement that would… grant women civil rights within the existing white supremacist capitalist patriarchal system while simultaneously working to undermine and overthrow the system” (hooks, p. 110)
Following the 2016 mass-shooting in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Black Lives Matter issued the following statement, using the oppressor/oppressed language described earlier to overthrow societal institutions:
“The enemy is now and has always been the four threats of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and militarism. These forces and not Islam create terrorism. These forces, and not queerness, create homophobia. These forces unleash destruction primarily on those who are Trans, and queer, and brown and Black, and we are the first to experience its’ violence. These forces create the conditions for our dehumanization and our death, and we will hold them to account, no matter whose face they may wear.” (Black Lives Matter statement following the 2016 mass-shooting in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Richardson, 2016)
Just two weeks ago, Lilith Sinclair, an "Afro-indiginous non-binary local [Portland] organizer" called for the "abolition of the United States as we know it." In an interview with Portland Mercury in June Sinclair argued that "Americans have to deconstruct the 'colonialized thought' that white oppressors...foisted upon racial minorities" through "genocide", "Christianity", and "enforce[ment of] the gender binary." (O'Neil, 2020)
In critical theory, your efforts only matter if they follow the orthodoxy and your voice only matters if you are part of the appropriate victim class. One white, female journalist wrote a lengthy apology after misappropriating the word "woke" in the title of an article she wrote promoting parenting according to the tenets of critical theory. She was on their side, but not sufficiently high on the victim hierarchy to use that word.
"Impact matters more than intent. ...For white people or people with any other privilege granted by societal systems of oppression and supremacy (male privilege, abled privilege, cishetero privilege, citizenship status privilege, and so on), we act like intent is what matters most. We're wrong." (Shannon Dingle, managing editor at SKEW, in Hester, 2018)
In this final tenet we see that justice under critical theory is not simply kindness, righting past wrongs, or equal treatment under the law, but the upending of current social norms and structures.
This movement is compelling because of three strengths (Shenvi, 2020):
Recognition that oppression is evil incites compassion
Laws and institutions can promote oppression
Hegemonic power exists and can have an insidious effect on our norms and values
Critical theory provides insightful tools for social self-examination, our motives, and our treatment of people from all walks of life. It draws attention to real pain and suffering that may be otherwise overlooked or swept under the cultural rug. The emotional draw of these stories is deep and real. While critical theory is not the only world view to condemn oppression, oppression is its central theme and the drum it incessantly beats. The majority of human beings, compassionate by nature, are deeply moved and outraged by oppression and exploitation.
Critical theory also reveals how injustice can be codified into law, which can then shape other human institutions and behavior. Slavery, Jim Crow, apartheid, and redlining are examples of how oppression enshrined into law bleeds into other aspects of a society's culture with terrible and tragic results.
Hegemonic power is power or influence so overwhelming and pervasive that it becomes the water we swim in, creating an environment that a society accepts as "the way things are." As an example of hegemonic power, Dr. Shenvi suggests that how Americans and much of the West perceive beauty and sexuality is derived from Hollywood and Madison Avenue which emphasize external beauty over internal virtue or character. We give it little thought until we observe other cultures with very different views.
Critical theory appears to suffer from several significant weaknesses:
It seeks to function as a world view but is fatally incomplete
Its approach to truth-seeking is fallacious and tyrannical
It creates adversarial relationships, alienating the individual and elevating the group
It creates oppression, rather than equality
It is profoundly absolutist and ungrateful
It rejects all hegemonic power, except its own
It rejects the foundations of western civilization, including capitalism and Enlightenment rationalism,
It is characterized by profound ingratitude and a myopic view of history
It embraces moral relativism
It embraces envy, guilt, and shame, and rejects repentance, reconciliation, forgiveness, and grace
Critical theory focuses on liberating the oppressed to the exclusion of all else. There is no mention of character, humility, frugality, honesty, work ethic, kindness, charity, temperance, or overcoming any of the myriad of negative traits that are a part of human nature. Critical theory lets its adherents off the hook of personal development and personal responsibility. In fact, it characterizes these virtues as tools of western hegemony. One's only duty is to insist that others change.
Just this month, the excellent Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., which features powerful and moving exhibits, produced a graphic that "ascribed traits such as 'hard work, 'self-reliance', 'delayed-gratification', being on time," objective, rational, linear thinking, quantitative emphasis, work before play, rugged individualism, the nuclear family, and politeness to "white culture," despite the fact that these virtues have been the bedrock of non-violent progress for millennia. The chart has since been taken down. (Richardson, 2020; Watts, 2020)
Critical theory places no limits on sexuality other than it being consensual, even though social science has a great deal to say about pre-marital abstinence (Wilcox, 2008) and the benefits of committed two-parent homes in the lives of children (Rowe, Murray, Petrilli, & Maddock, 2020). It says little about the roles of fathers and mothers or the self-sacrifice entailed in parenting. It says little of the role of churches, charities, businesses, community, or the arts in developing individuals, societies, and taking care of those in need - or of the role of men and women everywhere to participate in these institutions as a part of bettering themselves and offering something to society. The sole virtue is "resisting oppression."
Critical theory regards lived experience as the highest form of truth. So long as those experiences support the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy they cannot be contradicted by reason, empirical studies, scripture, an appeal to history, or any other form of argument. It creates an echo chamber by looking only within itself for truth and closes itself off to any other potential source. One cannot reason with it, plead with it, or argue against it. One can only be subdued, silenced, and overthrown.
Critical theory claims to defy intolerance but changes the definition of the word to mean that anyone voicing an opposing opinion are the intolerant ones. Everyone must be tolerant of critical theory voices, but its adherents are intolerant of outside voices, particularly those in an oppressor group whose speech is deemed a form of violence, called "microaggressions."
This is particularly visible on college campuses where students protest, pull fire alarms, shout down visiting speakers, and cause injury and damage - rather than engage in a conversation of ideas. As a sampling, you can read about the experience of Charles Murray at Middlebury College in 2016, here, UC Berkeley's cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos' planned appearance after violence and $100,000 in damage by student protestors in 2017 here, University of Oregon President, Michael Schill in 2017, here, Duke students protesting university president, Vince Price in 2018, here, Williams College claiming "free speech harms" and faculty were trying to "kill" students in 2019, here, thousands protesting Ann Coulter's 2019 UC Berkley appearance calling her a "Nazi" and assaulting attendees (incidentally, the university spent $800,000 on security for a 2017 appearance by Coulter that was cancelled at the last minute), multiple instances documented by the American Bar association here, agitation against appearances by conservative Jewish author and commentator Ben Shapiro at Gonzaga University, USC, UCF, CSULA, GCU, Berkley, University of Wisconsin, Boston University, Stanford, University of Utah, St. Olaf, University of Pittsburgh, and the list goes on.
The professors and philosophers who define critical theory become the priests and priestesses of a religion where they are the sole arbiters of right and wrong, who is oppressed, and who is doing the oppressing. They are the court of last resort. There is no recourse or appeal after their judgment. If you are labeled a member of the oppressor class your voice and opinion are to be ignored and there is nothing you can do about it. In spite of its professed rejection of hegemonic power, the logical end is to simply replace one hegemony and world view with their own. Objective morality is suspect or rejected entirely.
Critical theory is absolutist and profoundly ungrateful. We see this in its adherents' rejection of historical figures like Christopher Columbus or the U.S. founding fathers. They find it unacceptable that our forebearers didn't solve every single problem ever faced by humankind before handing the world over to us. It doesn't matter that slavery was a practice pervasive across and integral to human civilization for thousands of years, yet America and the West outlawed and abolished it within a single lifetime. Moreover, historical figures are viewed through a contemporary lens, largely ignoring the zeitgeist or cultural context of their day.
Critical theory commits a species of the genetic fallacy which C.S. Lewis called "Bulverism". Truth claims are "dismiss[ed] as false because of the assumed motives of the person making the claim ...bypass[ing] the question of whether the claim is true and focuses the discussion on the claimant's group identity." Operating under the belief that "truth claims are really veiled bids for power" adherents of critical theory, rather than examining the validity of the claim on its merits ask, "what incentives does this person have to make this claim? What social or political agenda motivates this statement? How does this statement function to preserve his power or privilege?" (Shenvi, 2020)
Critical theory requires adversarial relationships at the outset, breeds resentment and victimhood, and sees all of existence as a great war. Individuals are known not for their own behavior but by their place in the intersectional victim hierarchy or oppressed class. You are judged not by the content of your character, but by your skin color, your gender, your sexual orientation, your economic class, and the sins of past peoples who looked like you.
True to its Marxist origins, critical theory spurns capitalism, even though the latter is responsible for taking the proportion of the world's population living in extreme poverty from 94% in 1820 to 9.6% in 2015, increasing life expectancy from 31 years in 1900 to 71 year today, vastly reducing hunger and length of the average workweek, and improving the environment. There is simply no contest between the benefits engendered by capitalism and the horrors created by Marxist-based philosophies. (Zitelmann, 2020)
Critical theory also rejects the foundations of western civilization. According to pro-critical theory authors, Delgado and Stefanicic, "critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism and neutral principles of constitutional law." (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017 p. 3)
Critical theory, rather than seeking equality of opportunity, seeks equity, or equality of outcome, a superficially desirable end that has been sought before, resulting in the misery and death of millions. It seeks to invert the power hierarchy, rather than justice for all. It is inherently oppressive. It determines who can speak, whose opinions are valid, and assigns virtue and guilt based on one's group identity. Justice is simply a reversal of the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy. It reduces no misery. It only exchanges one miserable creature for another.
Critical theory is designed so that the oppressed live an existence of envy and rage, ever discontent with their circumstances even though they are in every way better off than the vast majority of humans who have ever lived. All ambition is focused on tearing others down instead of building oneself up through self-mastery, hard work, and delayed gratification.
Critical theory insists that the privileged admit to being oppressors and uses shame and guilt to subdue and silence them. If injustice exists in the world and you are unaware of it you are as guilty as those actually perpetuating it.
As opposed to other world views, critical theory provides for no redemption, only cancelation. There is no grace, no repentance, no penance, and no forgiveness. At present in the West, this means the loss of one's livelihood and reputation. In past incarnations of the same ideology, this meant incarceration, torture, and death.
Racism, oppression, injustice, inequality, and hegemony all exist. Critical theory is compelling because it calls attention to such issues, but fails because its prescription is divisive, dangerous, and authoritarian.
But it isn't enough to simply discredit a philosophy. We must identify the Culture Stack - the moral, political, economic, and social framework - that properly defines and maximizes human well-being. And whatever framework that is, it must include the benefits of critical theory, namely giving voice to the marginalized and shedding light on laws, institutions, and cultural norms that promote oppression.
Perhaps that is the key to understanding critical theory's recent rise to prominence - the competing world views currently in play in society do not sufficiently hear those stories, give that voice, or expose and correct the structures that are causing so much pain.
What do you think of critical theory? Its strengths? Its weaknesses, if any?
How have you seen critical theory employed? In media? In politics? In education?
What are the real-world consequences of critical theory, now and going forward?
What is your Culture Stack?
In theory, how does it hear, protect, and enable the dispossessed?
In practice, how well do you adhere to and act out those ideals?
In practice, how well do those of your tribe, who share your world view, generally adhere to and act them out? In other words, to what degree does your tribe's Stack actually practice its principles?
If there is a gap, is the flaw in the people or the design of the Stack?
What changes would you recommend for yourself and your tribe to close any gap between your Stack's ideals and actual practice?
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