Concern About Critical Theory
Not everyone is thrilled about the presence and work of Critical Theory and specifically Critical Race Theory. And I get it. I have said many times that CRT is not for everyone.
Having said that, it is important to distinguish between two very different groups who are concerned about CRT. The first is people who actually understand Critical Race Theory and have a fundamental or philosophical objection to it. The second group is people who don’t really know what it is, or have not taken the time to look into it, but take exception to its posture or tone on a surface level.
I think that both groups have a legitimate gripe – but they are very different from each other and so I want to look at their actually concerns. I have talked before about The Beauty of Critical Theory, the Upside of Critical Theory, and how it is our salvation from bad religion. Today I want to look at the concerns about Critical Theory.
The first group actually knows what CRT is and is up to and objects to the foundational premise that bases its address in oppression. Critics bemoan that initial division between oppressed and oppressor and say, “Why would begin there? What a terrible place to start. You will divide people up in hurtful ways and you make primary someone’s group identity as a victim when that only feeds their feeling of victimization and marginalization.” It seems to this educated group that you will never build anything healthy or helpful for prioritizing and highlighting someone or a groups disadvantage and alienation. That is not a constructive way to proceed to these critics and they argue that it will never deliver you to a place of empowerment or productivity if you are perpetually deconstructing the very systems or institutions that you feel excluded from or want to participate in. ‘Playing the victim card’ is a bad hand and will never help you win the game.
That is a legitimate concern. Participating in the ‘Oppression Olympics’ is a recipe for continued victim mentality and ongoing marginalization. The mentality behind CRT is feeding yourself on the negative according to these studied critics. If you want a better life, to improve your community, and to have a seat at the table there are better ways to do that than focusing on the deficit and highlighting the deficiencies of the system.
Which brings us to the second group of critics: those who just don’t like the tone and posture. This popular, and growing, concern is with the general mentality or big-picture approach of CRT. This group doesn’t really understand Critical Theory but just doesn’t like its attitude. “Are things perfect? No. But are they getting better? Yes. So let’s focus on that and continue to progress together instead of causing more division and animosity.”
These less-knowledgeable opponents have a core objection to Critical Theory’s obsession with rummaging through the past to find injustice and even atrocities. They see history as “a long arc that bends toward justice”. They love the hallmark version of MLK and fundamentally object to viewing history as a problem and a limitation. We can’t, they argue, “go back and fix the past now – so let’s just move on and make things better now.”
This is a legitimate concern because Critical Theory really does begin with the conviction that something is deeply wrong and a problem to be addressed. It is not fun or cheery or optimistic. It is critical and pessimistic in its tone and posture. One of its founding members, Walter Benjamin, viewed history as an accumulating series of atrocities that piled up at the feet of the Angel of History who was facing backward trying desperately to resist the accumulating pile of these catastrophic events which Critical Theory then sorts through in order to account for, catalogue, and attend to their consequences. This is not a fun way to look at the past and it is not a cheery way to talk about how we got here or where we have arrived at.
Now, having said that, there is an important distinction to be made at this point: those who don’t like Critical Theory also have a pre-existing condition of being generally against Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), liberals in general, poor-me-ism, playing the victim, snowflake culture and ‘every kid gets a participation trophy’ in general. I became very aware of this cynicism in 2015 and 2016 as I got to travel the country and speak with different audiences. There was an across-the-board general sense of disdain for those on ‘the other’ side of the aisle.
So I just wanted to acknowledge that there is an actual disagreement about Critical Theory and Critical Race Theory. It is not just a matter of educating the masses or listening to the other-sides’ perspective. These are fundamental differences about foundational assumptions. Not all of Critical Theory’s critics can articulate what CRT actually wants and may not even be open to hear what its practioners are saying.
They reject the premise outright and object out-of-hand to the presumptions and assumptions that Critical Theory is based on. They refuse to concede the initial point of viewing some groups as oppressed and blaming the oppressors. They take exception to both its goals and its initial starting point and I get that. I always begin by saying that Critical Theory is not for everyone. I don’t think that everyone should do it or that it should be the predominate view.
Here is an computer analogy that might help. Critical Theory is not an operating system that can run the whole machine. It is a diagnostic tool – like a program that looks for viruses and debugs the system. It is not the game it is a referee. it is an internal affairs task-force that is looking for corruption. It is not the business or the bank, it is an auditor. If you are expecting it be the whole thing then you have misunderstood what it is up to. But by the same token, its critics and despisers are like a King who objects to the presence of the Jester in the court. That is the entire point of the Jester – to mock, to point out inconsistencies, to level the playing field, and to expose the ridiculous elephant in the room and to help people see that the King has no clothes on! Is it objectionable? Sure. Is it uncomfortable? Absolutely. Is it needed? Yes.
So when critics object and try to defend the status quo and tell Critical Theorist to back off, get in line, knock it off, and settle down – they are doing exactly what you would expect from people who benefit from the system as it is currently configured and who profit from the as-is nature of the structures and institutions as they currently exist. All they are saying is that, “I don’t like when you name the dysfunction, expose the hidden assumptions, point out the inconsistency of my behaviors, doubt my motives, and call into question my underlying values or priorities. It makes me uncomfortable and even angry.”
That, however, is exactly the point of Critical Theory – to make visible the invisible … or as Critical Theory refers to: ideology. The goal of Critical Theory is 3-fold: to examine, to expose, and to advocate for change. The point of Critical Theory, after all, is not just to explain the world but change it toward a more equitable, just, and beneficial system for those who have been historically marginalized and disadvantaged. It makes total sense why those in the King’s court would object to that. Resisting the agenda of Critical Theory is a no-brainer as they say.
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