Critical theory, and why you care.

I love someone with the ability to synthesize a wide variety of phenomena and opinions to produce a comprehensive explanation of the underlying cause. Neil Shenvy calls himself a “homeschooling theoretical chemist.” Here he takes on Critical Theory, the theoretical foundation of most of the ideas I regularly mock. My comments are in italics, and will be serious rather than mocking.

Critical Theory has four main premises and two secondary premises. If you really want to understand how it is possible for so many apparently illogical and unsupported ideas have flooded into our culture, academia and media, you must understand Critical Theory.

Main Premise 1: “Our individual identity, who we are as individuals, is inseparable from our group identity.” In particular, our individual identity depends on whether we are part of a dominant, oppressor group or a subordinate, oppressed group with respect to a given identity marker like race, class, gender, physical ability, or age. Everyone is segregated into those two groups, oppressed and oppressor. You are either one or the other.

Main Premise 2: “Oppressor groups subjugate oppressed groups through the exercise of hegemonic power.” Hegemonic power is the ability to impose your group’s values, expectations, and norms on the rest of society. In this way, hegemonic power is distinguished from money, or influence, or mere numbers. Dominant groups set the norms by which the minority group is judged.” This is rarely conscious on anyone’s part, but is a result of the marketplace of ideas, in books, arts, entertainment and education.

Main Premise 3: “Our fundamental moral duty is freeing groups from oppression.” Liberation requires a struggle against discrimination based on race, class, gender, sexual identity, ableism and age. Says who? By what standard? The very idea that there is a fundamental moral duty has to come from somewhere. The idea of a fundamental moral duty is contradicted by the next premise.

Main Premise 4: ‘Lived experience’ is more important than objective evidence in understanding oppression.” The idea that objectivity is best reached only through rational thought is a specifically Western and masculine way of thinking. What do they propose to supplement rational thought? Story. Narrative. Personal testimony. Lived experience. Furthermore, because ‘lived experience’ outweighs evidence, people from oppressed groups have special insight into truth that is fundamentally unavailable to people from oppressor groups. If you are not a member of an oppressed group, you are expected to listen and learn from oppressed people; you are not permitted to challenge their claims. If personal testimony outweighs objective standards, then there is no such thing as fundamental moral duty.

Secondary Premise 1: “Oppressor groups hide their oppression under the guise of objectivity.” The claim being made is that there are no completely neutral observers who present us with totally objective ‘facts.’ Instead, oppressor groups ‘claim’ that their observations are neutral, but this claim is only a strategy to cloak their will to dominate. Such a contention requires serious mind reading skills.

Secondary Premise 2: “Individuals at the intersection of different oppressed groups experience oppression in a unique way.” Imagine a black woman [who may be] a single working mother… She experiences, potentially, not only multiple forms of oppression but ones unique to her and to others like her. The authors here are expressing the concept of intersectionality: the idea that our identities interact in complicated ways. Individual characteristics and circumstances are reduced to an “intersection”. If individuals don’t matter except as fodder for your theory, then how does it matter whether or not any individual is “oppressed”?

CHRISTIANITY AND CRITICAL THEORY ARE IRRECONCILABLE WORLDVIEWS. 1. Christianity tells one comprehensive, overarching narrative about reality in four basic acts: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Who are we? We are the creatures of a holy, good, and loving Creator God. What is our fundamental problem as human beings? We have rebelled against God. What is the solution to our problem? God sent Jesus to bear the penalty of our rebellion and rescue us. What is our primary moral duty? To love God. What is our purpose in life? To glorify God. This is the basic story that Christianity tells us and is the grid through which we ought to interpret everything else.

1a. Critical theory also functions as a worldview, but it tells a alternate comprehensive, overarching story about reality. The story of critical theory begins not with creation, but with oppression. The omission of a creation element is very important because it changes our answer to the question: “who are we?” There is no transcendent Creator who has a purpose and a design for our lives and our identities. We don’t primarily exist in relation to God, but in relation to other people and to other groups.  Our identity is not defined primarily in terms of who we are as God’s creatures. Instead, we define ourselves in terms of race, class, sexuality, and gender identity. Oppression, not sin, is our fundamental problem. What is the solution? Activism. Changing structures. Raising awareness. We work to overthrow and dismantle hegemonic power. That is our primary moral duty. What is our purpose in life? To work for the liberation of all oppressed groups so that we can achieve a state of equality.

2. Critical theory encourages an alternate approach to truth claims that is very popular but is logically invalid. “Oppressor groups hide their oppression under the guise–the pretense-of objectivity.” Because of this premise, when someone makes a truth claim, the first question asked by critical theory is not “is this claim true?” but “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 and privilege?” Such an assertion applies even more to proponents of CT, with its rejection of objective truth. If the supposed goal of a “privileged person” is to preserve his power and privilege, how much more is the goal of the “oppressed person” to attain to the power and benefits of the privileged? If they have not done so on their own, with all the opportunities and programs on their side, isn’t their motive to get the power structure to take from those who have in order to further “equality”?

3. Critical theory assumes an adversarial relationship between individuals that is profoundly antithetical to Christianity. Critical theory depends crucially on differentiating identity groups into ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed.’ Conversely, if all human beings shared some fundamental identity marker, that fact would severely undermine the dichotomy between oppressor and oppressed and would call into question the foundations of critical theory. Yet Christianity offers not just one but three of these fundamental identity markers, which are shared by human beings across lines of race, class, and gender: we share a fundamental identity first in creation, then in sin, and then –for Christians- in redemption. Why would anyone want to claim an identity marker “oppressed”? See my last sentence of the preceding paragraph. Even worse, claiming such an identity marker makes it harder to succeed on your efforts; claiming to be a victim keeps you one.

4. Critical theory is built on the rejection of hegemonic power. It sees singular narratives and a singular set of values and norms as inherently oppressive. Unfortunately, the Bible is nothing but one giant, colossal hegemonic discourse from start to finish. God has all the power in the universe. Not a problem for critical theorists. Their conception of god is a being to do their bidding.

5. The designation of some individuals as oppressed and other as oppressors leads critical theorists to insist on a moral asymmetry between these groups. What is immoral behavior for an individual from an oppressor group can be moral for an individual in an oppressed group.

Here’s my “meta-analysis”: If it’s true that the moral assymetry exists, what exactly gives the oppressed more “moral capital” than the “oppressors”? If there are no objective truths, what’s wrong with oppressing groups to maintain your own power? Isn’t that what human beings have always done, everywhere? Look at the great historical empires: Rome, Babylon, Greece, Assyria, Persia, the Caliphate, the Mongols. Look at present day oppression in Iran, Turkey, N Korea and so forth. Oppression appears to be a pervasive result of power asymmetry, but what authority says that’s bad? If you want to promote C.T., go ahead but by denying God who alone gives value to human life and bestows rights and upholds the “fatherless and the widow”, you have no authority to appeal to except the power of the government. You’ve been complaining about power and privilege all along, but by appealing to government power to equalize outcome by taking from those who have achieved, you are indeed validating the principle of oppression for the sake of gain. Equality, per se, has no inherent value. Demanding equality by hiding behind a theory of dubious, to put it mildly, merit, is really monetizing grievance.

How should past grievances be handled? Take the lesson from Rwanda. The Rwandan genocide, also known as the genocide against the Tutsi, was a mass slaughter of Tutsi in Rwanda during the Rwandan Civil War, directed by members of the Hutu majority government between 7 April and 15 July 1994. An estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed, about 70% of the Tutsi population. Neighbors killed each other. Yet today, they are working side by side as brothers and sisters. They demonstrate the power of forgiveness. Critical Theory exists because forgiveness can’t be monetized, grievance can be.