Over the last year or two, I’ve been doing a deep study of Critical Theory and social justice. Given the near-universal acceptance of Critical Theory today, my view is bound to be very unpopular. But I have come to view Critical Theory as a false gospel in our day. (Strong language, I know. But I’m convicted about this.) Although the term may not be super familiar, the application of Critical Theory is at work all around us: in advertisements, in our universities, our government, even our churches. In recent election cycles, you’ve probably heard a bit about Critical Race Theory (just one application of critical theory in general) as politicians take positions on whether CRT should be taught in our schools. The recent wave of trans-activism is a byproduct of Critical Queer Theory, which is deeply indebted to philosophical postmodernism. If you work in an industry where diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training is mandatory, then you’re familiar with some of the tenets of Critical Theory and the ubiquity of identity politics in the workplace.
At one level, equity and inclusion are noble pursuits. Classic Liberalism is founded on the concepts of individual rights and liberties. So in the most basic sense of the terms, these are ideals to which we should aspire. But in recent years, classic Liberalism has been undermined by the deconstructivism of postmodern philosophy, which contends (quite cynically) that such pursuits are impossible. Postmodernity is incredulous of metanarratives — grand stories of meaning — except for it’s own subjectivist metanarrative. This is how we arrive at a place where it is common to hear things such as, “What’s true for you might not necessarily be true for me.” The only truth claim that is universally accepted is that all truth claims are purely subjective. (Ironic and inconsistent, I know.) This is the street level parlance of what has been called “applied postmodernism.”
Anyway, I know some of that philosophical mumbo-jumbo is off-putting to some, but these ideas have become hugely influential in our culture over the past few decades, so much so that to question their core tenets is to risk alienation or, at worst, the fallout of “cancel culture.” But there are plenty of critiques of the Critical Theory movement, from scholars and theologians to scientists and researchers to economists and activists. Here are a few of the most helpful texts I’ve come across in the last year or two that speak into this topic. I share these here in the event that some of you might have interest in a deeper study of this topic as well.
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.
I read this book in 2020 and I’m already considering going back and re-reading it. Lukianoff (a First Amendment expert) and Haidt (a social psychologist) interview hundreds of college students about an epidemic of anxiety, depression, and suicide resulting from the ideological echo chambering on campus. Rather than existing as a bastion of thought and expression, campus culture is the leading edge of “cancel culture” as speakers are routinely shouted down and student advocacy groups regularly demand “safe space” free from any ideology that might challenge the status quo (which, unsurprisingly, is rooted in liberal politics). Written in 2018, their data is still fresh and insightful.
Lukianoff and Haidt point out three lies that have become woven into the fabric of American education and childhood:
- What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
- Always trust your feelings.
- Life is a battle between good people and evil people.
You can draw a straight line from these theses back to postmodern subjectivism and Critical Theory, which posits that there are only two categories of people: oppressed and oppressors. And yet, these three Untruths (as the authors call them) are firmly entrenched in the minds of many, not least among our youngest generations. A must-read if you have college students or (if you’re like me) you’ll have students going off to school in a few years. They’re likely walking into a thoroughly postmodern culture.
Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why This Harms Everybody by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay
I’m currently reading this one (almost finished) and I highly recommend it as well. Pluckrose and Lindsay helpfully explain Critical Theory’s origins from the philosophical postmodernism of the 1960s to what they term “applied postmodernism” today.
From the Amazon blurb about the book:
Have you heard that language is violence and that science is sexist? Have you read that certain people shouldn’t practice yoga or cook Chinese food? Or been told that being obese is healthy, that there is no such thing as biological sex, or that only white people can be racist? Are you confused by these ideas, and do you wonder how they have managed so quickly to challenge the very logic of Western society?
Maybe you’re familiar with some of these ideas, but I imagine that some of them might be a bit new to you. No matter; these ideas have a full head of steam and continue to entrench themselves as the new ethical impulses for many in our culture today. Pluckrose and Lindsay explain the different branches of the Critical Theory tree, with chapters devoted to Critical Race Theory, Critical Queer Theory, disability and fat studies, to name only a few. But not only do the authors help explain this in terms that are easy to understand, they provide a biting critique of Critical Theory as “a theory based upon a theory” that has now become gospel.
For example, they note the self-defeating impulse of critical race theory, which seeks to overthrow racism by finding racism everywhere. Rather than plotting any substantive path toward meaningful racial reconciliation, CRT maintains that white people alone are guilty of racism by their complicity in white supremacy, a sin for which there is no repentance or forgiveness, only guilt. This is immediately at odds with the Christian view of sin, which is my primary objection to CRT. To cite another example from the book, the authors point out the shift in critical studies toward “research justice,” wherein forms of knowledge such as experience, indigenous tradition, and even superstition are to be favored over rigorous academic disciplines (such as empiricism and peer review), due solely to the presupposition that science and mathematics are inherently social constructs invented by white men to maintain their positions of authority and power over oppressed peoples. And there’s the view that obesity is likewise a social construct, ignoring the plethora of data linking obesity to heart disease and other serious health risks in favor of “body positivity.” In this understanding, a doctor is bound not by the Hippocratic Oath to warn you of the risks of obesity, but rather should never “harm” you by “fat shaming” you, no matter how overweight you might be.
This is, of course, completely asinine. And yet, this is applied postmodernism, the practical application of the dangerous philosophical underpinnings of our culture. I’m indebted to this key text for capably explaining the overarching influence of critical theory today.
Christianity and Wokeness: How the Social Justice Movement is Hijacking the Gospel — and the Way to Stop It by Owen Strachan.
I read this book last year and I think it’s essential reading for my fellow Christians who are serious about understanding a theological interpretation of critical theory and the social justice movement. Overall, I found Strachan’s arguments to be well-informed and theologically grounded. He notes that CRT is an altogether different “gospel” than the one we find revealed in the Scriptures, with different understandings of justice, guilt, repentance, unity, and forgiveness. If you’d like to read an intellectual companion piece to Strachan, I also recommend Engaging Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. You can download a free PDF copy here. (Incidentally, Shenvi is a great Twitter follow on this topic.)
Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam by Vivek Ramaswamy.
As I said, there are many critiques of Critical Theory. Ramaswamy’s critque is economic in nature and I found it to be fascinating. A graduate of Yale Law School and the founder of the biopharmaceutical company Roivant Sciences, Ramaswamy writes against stakeholder capitalism and the dangerous mix of morality with consumerism. Why is this dangerous? From the book’s promotional material: “America’s elites prey on our innermost insecurities about who we really are. They sell us cheap social causes and skin-deep identities to satisfy our hunger for a cause and our search for meaning, at a moment when we as Americans lack both.” What’s worse is that they’re doing so simply as a means of acquiring a greater share of the market. I don’t pretend to be an economist, but Ramaswamy’s book helped simplify some of these economic issues in a way that I could easily understand. A really fascinating book.
I’m sure there are other helpful texts out there but these are the best ones I’ve come across related to this topic.