POST-MODERNISM, CRITICAL THEORY AND SOCIAL JUSTICE By Pierre Beemans (Article)
Our reading group chose this most interesting and challenging topic for discussion this month. Interesting because of its prominence and relevance in our world today, and challenging because of its abstract and obscure theory and its specialized vocabulary and epistemology.
It might be helpful to begin by unpacking some terms in common usage:
Postmodernism (PM): a philosophical current that originated largely in 1960s France (esp. with Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard) which holds that our knowledge of the world and the language we use are conditional/dependent upon the assumptions of the social group we belong to. Dominant groups construct broad, coherent explanations (‘meta-narratives’) to control/exploit their societies, so that ‘objective’ knowledge and ‘objective language’ become impossible, including in science, philosophy/logic and ethics/morality. These ‘constructed’ meta-narratives - indeed, all language as used by dominant groups - need to be ‘de-constructed’. PM rejects the legitimacy of the assumptions behind the cultural, political, ideological, scientific, ethical and religious foundations and institutions of Western society today, indeed of ‘modernity’ itself, - hence postmodernism.
Critical Theory (CT): a social theory which originated with the Frankfurt School in the 1930s, building on Marxian economic/political analysis, and which has been adapted by PM. CT aims - by ‘deconstructing’ societal structures and cultural assumptions (language, values and behaviour) - to reveal the hidden biases and assumptions of dominant groups (power structures) and how to confront/redress them, as well as the inequalities/inequities of non-dominant/marginalized (thus, ‘oppressed’) groups. As a social theory oriented toward both critiquing and changing society as a whole, CT differs from traditional social theory, which focuses only on understanding or explaining society.
Social Justice (SJ): a loose movement based on CT that emerged in the 1970s/80s and actively seeks to address and redress real or perceived societal inequalities and injustices and to change the social/political/intellectual systems that sustain them. SJ (upper case) is not to be confused with ‘lower-case’ social justice, whether the centuries-old moral imperative of Christian charity (”do unto others ....”) or the secular post-Enlightenment affirmation of basic human rights. SJ addresses the situations or grievances of marginalized groups, attributes them to injustice and oppression by the dominant group in society, and seeks to change/‘overthrow’ the nature and structure of society (especially capitalism, the ‘economic tool’ of the power structure). The injustices and grievances themselves are often quite real; SJ is distinguished by the way in which it asses and addresses them.
Wokeness: the state of mind of SJ activists - being ‘awoken’ to the true nature of societal injustice by having the proper ‘critical’ approach to recognizing, understanding and addressing it.
Political correctness (PC): avoidance and elimination (‘cancelling’) of language, policies, institutions, persons or measures that are seen as excluding, marginalizing, or insulting to groups of people disadvantaged or discriminated against, particularly groups defined by ethnicity, race, sex, or gender. The term originated in Marxist-Leninist vocabulary after the Russian Revolution to designate proper alignment with the prevailing ideological/political orthodoxy (the ‘party line’).
Core Principles and Themes of PM
Pluckrose and Lindsay, in ‘Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender and Identity’, provide a thorough, if somewhat dense, introduction to PM and CT. Part of the problem in grasping the subtleties is the way PM and CT re-define and use words and concepts for their own purposes, even when the words are familiar. The book identifies two core principles of PM:
* the PM Knowledge Principle, that all knowledge is socially constructed, i.e., a radical skepticism about the possibility of objective truth and knowledge.
* the PM Political Principle, that society is formed and dominated by hierarchical power structures which determine what can be known and how, i.e., by legitimizing forms of meaning and discourse and de-legitimizing others.
From these principles flow four major, recurrent and interconnected themes in Postmodernism:
1. Blurring boundaries: There are no accepted boundaries between objective/subjective, true/false, human/non/human, male/female, etc. Thus, no universal objective truths, no ‘natural or moral laws’ derived from a common human nature; they are all relative. Consequently, no culture, science, moral or political system, religion, etc. can claim to be superior or correct vis-à-vis another, and CT can re-define them as it sees fit or useful.
2. The Power of Language: Language shapes the way we think, which in turn shapes the way we understand reality and respond to it. Knowledge, objectivity, truth (‘discourse’) are simply constructs of language. Thus, the ‘dominant group’ or power structure which controls language also controls how marginalized/oppressed groups think, speak and behave. Liberation/freedom from oppression requires ‘de-constructing’ language and situations in order to understand reality and overcome oppression. Whence the obsession with words: they reveal our inner judgments (our ‘pre-judices’ or biases) about the world and others in it. Thus, problematic or ‘incorrect’ language/gestures/behaviour must be called out and prohibited (‘political correctness’). ‘Epistemological activism’ leads to political activism.
3. Cultural Relativism: As there are no universal truth or values, no culture can claim to be superior or inferior to another - except, of course if it is the product of an oppressive, unjust power structure. Western civilization is based on such power structures which are patriarchal, white supremacist, heterosexual, and which exclude those that are not. The ethical imperative in challenging and redressing this injustice is to de-construct the meta-narratives that perpetuate the dominant system and prioritize the language, narratives and knowledge of marginalized groups. The point is not ‘factual truth’ but ‘strategic utility’. Moreover, because Western culture is limited by its own discourse, only criticism from ‘marginalized perspectives’ can legitimately understand and challenge it.
4. Loss of the Individual and the Universal: the individual is not autonomous - one’s identity is the product of the discourse of one’s group, dominant or marginalized (and one may even have various identities, depending on the group one belongs to). There can be no claims about universally valid truths, laws, rights or categories (biological, legal, ethical or metaphysical). ‘Humanity’ itself is an abstraction defined by the dominant discourse. ‘Reality’ is what the discourse of your group makes it.
Pluckrose and Lindsay also discern two phases of PM:
* the ‘deconstruction phase’, 1960s-late 70s, focused on critiques of Western modernity, values, institutions, etc.. The over-analysis and problematizing in this stage offered no direction forward and ultimately led many PM thinkers to a radical skepticism or nihilistic despair.
* the ‘applied PM’ phase’, post 1980s, when PM blended with CT and evolved into goal-oriented, politically actionable theory - from deconstructing the world to re-constructing it on the basis of a new discourse/ideology called Social Justice (upper-case). In this phase, PM and CT have accepted that some stable and objective truths and discourses/meta-narratives are possible: i.e., their own.
Origins and Evolution of PM & CT
In the aftermath of WWI &WWII, many European intellectual circles experienced a crisis - especially in France. The Great Depression and WWII seemed to show the failure of established liberal political and economic systems. Science, which had seemed so optimistic, revealed its destructive and inhuman side - notably with the atom bomb. As economies recovered and consumerism boomed, modern life seemed superficial and (horrors) American. Intellectual elites had long since rejected any place for God or religion, and after Hungary in 1956 even communism (though not Marxism) lost much of its appeal. There was a loss of faith in the ‘Enlightenment optimism’ that science, reason and progress (‘modernity’) could provide meaning and authenticity. The ‘postmodern condition’ was characterized by skepticism, cynicism and resentment against prevailing systems: liberal democracy, capitalism, religion - in brief, established Western civilization.
American intellectuals were not immune to these assumptions and many among the post-war generation were disillusioned by the affluence and apparent superficiality of the 1950s. The Frankfurt School, the Marxian centre of social theory where CT originated, moved to the United States in 1935 after Hitler rose to power and its influence spread gradually through leading universities. Its leading thinkers (Horkheimer, Adorno, Fromm, Marcuse, Habermas) asserted that a critical theory must: account for society within a historical context, offer a robust and holistic critique by incorporating insights from all social sciences, and lead to practical normative measures.
CT was inspired by Marx's theoretical formulation of the relationship between economic base and ideological superstructure, focusing on how power and domination operate in society, and on the social forces that prevent people from understanding how power affects their lives. CT claims to explain the social problems that exist and offer practical solutions for how to respond to them. Idealistic students in Europe and the USA, opposed to the Vietnam war, racism and the comfortable complacency of middle-class (‘bourgeois’) consumerism, eagerly embraced the appeals of CT theorists like Marcuse to challenge ‘power structures’ and change the world (ref. Paris & Columbia university, 1968).
By the 1970s, PM itself had remained largely at the theoretical level, and many of its thinkers found in CT a way to move forward to practical activism. What the two schools had in common was a focus on ‘power’ as the point of departure for the critique of society (and for PM, of the human condition itself). Power relations are zero-sum equations: “you either have power over others or they have power over you” (Andrew Sullivan).
Moreover, because the power group(s) determine the ‘narrative’ of society, they determine the way language about society (‘discourse’) and language itself are understood. For CT, reality cannot be expressed objectively (i.e., ‘true-ly’) because the language and concepts used to express it are subjective, i.e., controlled by the power structure. “Truth is always and only a function of power” (Sullivan).
Without objective truth, feelings become the actual reality and to question a person’s feelings of oppression is itself a manifestation of oppression, a form of ‘linguistic violence’. The onus in social discourse is not to seek some objective truth, it is to identify the authority which is making the claim to truth and either to challenge it if it is ‘power’ or to support it if it is ‘oppressed’.
The way out of this for oppressed/marginalized groups is to break free and take control of language so as to articulate their own subjective experiences (‘speak their own truths’) and formulate their own solutions. (And since their ‘truths’ are derived from their identity, they cannot be challenged from the outside.) Being aware of these truths and solutions (being ‘woke’), and acting upon them is the only way to achieve genuine progress and Social Justice.
The obsession of PM and CT thinkers with power and the imperative “to achieve a social order without domination” contain the seeds of “a new kind of domination more sinister by far than the one deposed” (Roger Scruton).
This new blend of PM and CT is not monolithic. Since the new existential axiom seems to be: “I am defined by the oppression I experience as a member of an oppressed group”, PM/CT scholarship lost no time in identifying oppressed groups, and new fields of study emerged: post-colonialism, cultural theory, gender studies (from radical feminism to LGBTQ sub-topics), media theory, ‘ableism’, ‘fatism’ and eventually other permutations and combinations under the rubric of ‘intersectionality’. (Oppressed identity groups can constitute (in Sullivan’s words) a zero-sum “system of interlocking oppressions” in which “individuals only exist at all as a place where these group identities intersect.”). The most prominent school today, however, is undoubtedly Critical Race Theory.
Critical Race Theory (CRT)
One doesn’t hear much about PM today, outside of arcane academic circles, but CT has staked out a prominent position in the public square. In the United States, its major manifestation is Critical Race Theory - primarily concerned with racism as experienced by/directed at blacks, but with corollaries that deal with Asians and Latinos. In Canada, perhaps because of the notoriety of the Jordan Peterson/Lindsay Shepherd controversies, one tends to hear more about what might be called (and perhaps is, among those in the know) Critical Gender Theory.
CRT originated in the mid-70s with legal scholars (Derrick Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw, etc.) using CT to look at race issues within the American legal system. By the 1980s it had become a prominent academic movement examining race, law and social/political power. Its leading voices today are academics like Ibrahim X. Kendi and Robin Di Angelo (who has developed a whole new sub-field within CRT of ‘whiteness’ and ‘white fragility’).
In the words of Christopher Rufo, CRT has become “America’s new institutional orthodoxy” in government agencies, public school curricula, universities, and in the staffing policies and diversity training programs of large corporations. It has morphed from a legitimate (albeit questionable) academic school of thought into a full-blown ideology. Like all ideologies, it is manipulative: claiming truth in exclusive and categorical terms, tolerating no dissent or criticism, and directing social behaviour - generally towards some utopian future state. The examples of CRT in action as indoctrination and sanction in schools, universities and corporations are numerous and frightening.
The Marxian dialectic of social revolution by an oppressed economic class (the proletariat) against the oppressor class (bourgeois capitalists) has been replaced in CRT by that of oppressed races (black, indigenous, ‘Latinx’, etc.) against the oppressor ‘supremacist’ white race. Given that the latter is sustained in power by capitalism, the corollary of CRT must necessarily be the struggle to overthrow capitalism - which is ironic, given the way in which it has been espoused by many ‘woke’ leaders in the upper echelons of the private sector.
Dealing with PM/CT/SJ can be a frustrating business for the newcomer or the non-believer. At first glance, one might assume that Critical Theory is the basis for the critical thinking, the logically and objective approach to issues that we like to believe is the way we look at public policies, professional work and personal challenges (rather than doing so through the lens of an ideology that denies the legitimacy of logic and objectivity).
Another frustration is the assumptions in CT and SJ that the justice we should strive for in our society is not a social justice based on our judeo-christian religious and moral heritage or on the principles of a universal secular ethic enshrined in our legal codes, but rather Social Justice based on the tendentious reasoning of CT.
Frustrating, too, because CT and SJ address real problems and contain obvious truths in their foundational principles. I.e., of course language and knowledge reflect the influence of their social context; of course hierarchical power structures exist in and influence most societies. But it defies history and logic to build upon these truisms an ideological edifice that denies objective truth and reality, questions even the verities of natural science and human nature, and ignores the imperfect but considerable progress painfully achieved over 2500 years of Western civilization - particularly in the last 250. And of course racism exists and is found at the individual and institutional level in many parts of every society, but racist behaviour in a system is not synonymous with ‘systemic racism’ or incontrovertible proof of such.
It would be tempting, but illusory, to hope that the convoluted, conspiratorial and contradictory ideas of PM and CT could be confined to a cabal of privileged academics resentful of the perceived injustices and inequalities of contemporary society. However, there are real injustices and inequalities in our liberal democracies (as in all societies) and most citizens believe that they should be addressed and overcome - in fact, the whole history of the development of liberal democracy is the process of doing just that. So the critiques/attacks by articulate academics, self-identifying as defenders of the discriminated/oppressed, readily find sympathetic ears among well-intentioned, genuinely concerned people.
For many of these, especially college youth with a stunted background in logic, ethics and history, society’s real problems may seem impossibly intractable. Intellectual frameworks that are easily understood, emotionally satisfying and offer a way to address historically and socially complex matters of inequality and injustice can be quite appealing (even if they are fundamentally superficial). CT provides just such an answer. After all, who could not be for justice and against injustice, for equality and against inequality?
Interestingly, Sullivan sees a religious component in ‘wokeness’, a way of filling the spiritual hole left among so many moderns by the loss of the sense of transcendence, ultimate meaning and community that comes from belief in God and engagement in organized religion. Instead of struggling against spiritual and moral evil/sin and striving to be on the right side of God, one can get some of the same sense of purpose and fulfilment by being on ‘the right side of history’ in the the secular ‘woke’ struggle to overcome inequity, oppression, racism and all the other ‘-isms’ against which Social Justice (upper case) is arrayed. McWhorter goes even further with the religion analogy, discerning dogma, scripture, original sin, priesthood, ritual and inquisition in CRT.
PM and CT adherents are vocal in calling out what they see as injustices and inequalities/inequities; sometimes they have reason and often they do not. To challenge them, however, is to be portrayed as accepting - indeed, espousing - those inequities and, not infrequently, to risk one’s reputation and career. It is a rare public figure these days, especially from the media, academic or political spheres, who would care to have that kind of opprobrium directed at him/her. Courageous, too, is the university professor or student who is willing to voice or write views, or even words, that will draw down censure and even academic or social reprisal.
And so, we have the now commonplace phenomena of self-censoring political correctness and ‘cancelling’, in which refusal to accept the judgments and opprobrium is portrayed as evidence of one’s guilt (ref. Peterson, Shepherd, et al.). The corollary is ‘virtue-signalling’, the proactive proclamation of one’s political correctness and denouncing of the villains identified by the ‘woke’ which has become a kind of litmus test for acceptance by the progressive intellectual elite.
What to Do?
It is encouraging to see emerging a heterogenous mix of public intellectuals, liberal and conservative, black and white, pushing back against the excesses of CRT. Some of the most outspoken and insightful are John McWhorter, Bari Weiss, Glen Loury, Andrew Sullivan, Jordan Peterson, Kmele Foster, Heather McDonald and Jason Riley. One would hope to see these and others receive wider recognition and support, and to hear more such voices raised in Canada about Critical Theory (Gilles Paquet and Mark Milke are the only ones I have come across so far). It is already through the doors of the institutions in which our children and grandchildren are being educated.
And what options exist for ordinary citizens like the members of our reading group? Unfortunately, regardless of where one lies along the political spectrum, dissent from or critique of CT/SJ risks being dismissed as ‘right-wing’ or ‘conservative’ and as such “beyond the pale of argument; your views are irrelevant, your character discredited .... you are not an opponent to be argued with but a disease to be shunned” (Roger Scruton).
Braving this, one might consider objecting to newspapers, radio/TV stations, school boards or universities, political leaders when one sees them laying out CT positions as unquestioned truths in their reporting, curricula, pronouncements and party platforms. Or re-naming public facilities and demanding public apologies because of long-past actions or statements, or resorting to facile CT code-words like ‘systemic racism’, ‘white supremacy’, ‘power structure’, etc. Not all of our political leaders, academics and media elite number themselves among the ‘woke’, so a wide enough pushback may elicit a positive response.
Wisdom, fortitude, hope, patience. Good virtues all, for these interesting times.
April 28, 2021