Critical theory beyond postmodernism
Christianity is the revelation of the truth. Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and He gave a good confession before Pontius Pilate: “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Everyone that is of the truth heareth my voice” (John 18:37). Our society is increasingly hostile to truth, not only to the truth of God’s Word, but also to the very idea of truth.
The modern assault on truth was concentrated for a while in postmodernism. Although many people view postmodernism as a philosophical theory with little practical value, our society has adopted it. If your unbelieving neighbour says, “That is true for you, but not true for me,” or “You have your truth, while I have my truth,” he is, whether he knows it or not, a postmodernist. If you hear someone say, “She spoke her truth” or “He spoke his truth,” you have heard the parroting of postmodernist principles. If you try to reason with someone by appealing to facts and data, and he responds with an appeal to his “lived experience,” you are dealing with a postmodernist. A postmodernist echoes Pilate’s scornful response to Jesus in John 18:38: “What is truth?” He goes further: he denies the very possibility and knowability of truth.
One book that I have found helpful in trying to understand the world “all around us” is Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay.1 The authors of this book are not Christians—they are traditional liberals— but their analysis is very useful. Their thesis is this: postmodernism has morphed into critical theory. Postmodernism is critical theory’s abstract grandfather, while critical theory is postmodernism’s feisty granddaughter, full of youthful idealism, and itching to transform the world. Postmodernism was a quiet scholar, content to identify and lament unjust power structures and oppressive social constructs, while critical theory, by energizing the youth, now demands the deconstruction of society, which it views as fundamentally unjust. The readers of the Standard Bearer would do well to understand critical theory, too, because it is aggressively promoted at secular (and even Christian) universities to the youth, it is the philosophical foundation of much political activism, and it is extremely hostile to Christianity.
Pluckrose and Lindsay explain postmodernism as “radical scepticism to the very possibility of obtaining objective knowledge” (22). Since there is no reality or no truth, language, that is, the way in which we talk about things, is determinative. Critical theory has morphed the “language is power” idea into the mantra “language is violence.” Language is supposedly violence because the powerful control how words and expressions are used. The result, it is said, is that the privileged in society marginalize “minorities,” even when they are unaware of it. Pluckrose and Lindsay explain:
If knowledge is a construct of power, which functions through ways of talking about things, knowledge can be changed and power structures toppled by changing the way we talk about things. Thus, applied postmodernism focuses on controlling discourses, especially by problematizing language and imagery it deems…harmful (61).
Examples of critical theory
Pluckrose and Lindsay examine various critical theories to demonstrate how critical theory has now become the “Truth,” which may not be questioned, with the result that prejudice is assumed and must be identified, while those who question the narrative are driven out of society or “canceled.”
The authors offer a helpful comparison between different mindsets, which can be applied to the different critical theories. On the one hand, the traditional liberal says, “All humans have the capacity to be rational and scientific, but individuals will vary widely. Therefore, all humans must have all opportunities and freedoms.” (The Christian would not disagree with that). On the other hand, the advocate of critical theory says,
The West has constructed the idea that rationality and science are good in order to perpetuate its own power and marginalize nonrational, nonscientific forms of knowledge production from elsewhere. Therefore, we must now devalue white, Western ways of knowing for belonging to white Westerners and promote Eastern ones in order to equalize the power imbalance (76).
In short, Western society has developed in the belief that certain dominant characteristics (white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, etc.) are good, while other characteristics (black, female, homosexual, transgender) are bad. Therefore, we must now devalue whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, cisgenderism, etc., in order to empower oppressed “victim groups.” The Christian objects to this premise, for there is mixing of categories here: race and gender are morally insignificant, while sexuality and gender identity are morally significant, for Christianity is more concerned about behavior than immutable character traits. Critical theory views moral judgments about homosexuality, for example, in the same category as racism.
Queer theory attacks the idea of normality as a social construct, especially with respect to sex, gender, and sexuality. Therefore, it rejects biology as a source of reliable knowledge and regards the very existence of categories traditionally determined by biology such as male and female to be “oppressive” (89). Queer theorists see “the binary” (the choice between two—male and female, heterosexual and homosexual) as deeply problematic; instead, they view sex, gender, and sexuality as existing on a spectrum. Queer theory seeks to “disrupt any expectations that people should fit into a binary position with regard to sex or gender, and to undermine any assumptions that sex or gender are related to or dictate sexuality,” while “queering” (yes—it is a verb) “is about unmaking any sense of the normal, in order to liberate people from the expectations that norms carry” (94). Thus we have increasing numbers of “non-binary” people, who must be accommodated through a change in the law.
Pluckrose and Lindsay’s critique of queer theory is insightful:
Queer Theory…tends to render itself baffling and irrelevant if not positively alienating to most members of the society it wishes to change. Queer activists reliant on queer Theory tend to act with surprising entitlement and aggression—attitudes which most people find objectionable—not least by ridiculing normative sexualities and genders and depicting those who recognize them as backwards and boorish. People generally do not appreciate being told that their sex, gender, and sexuality are not real, or are wrong or bad—something one would think queer Theorists might appreciate better than anyone (109-110).
Queer theory is directly contrary to the words of Jesus Christ: “Have ye not read, that he that made them at the beginning made them male and female?” (Matt. 19:4). Paul rejects queer theory, which, of course, had not yet emerged from the corrupt mind of man, in Romans 1:27: “The men [literally, “males”], leaving the natural use of the woman [literally, “female”], burned in their lust one toward another; men with men [literally, “males with males”] working that which is unseemly [literally, “the shameful thing”].” In queer theory there is no such thing as “male” and “female.”
Critical race theory and intersectionality explain how society is racist, even systemically and irredeemably racist, so that everyone is racist, without actually behaving in a racist manner. Formerly, a racist was a vile individual who mistreated others because of their skin color or nationality. Racism has no place among Christians because we must love our neighbor regardless of race, nationality, or creed. Racism is a wicked assault on the unity and catholicity of the church, for Christians are brethren, confess one gospel, and eat a common bread at the Lord’s Table: “There is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision or uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).
Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Modern critical race theory goes beyond King, or contradicts him: if you belong to the privileged class (the cultural hegemony, that is, if you are white), you are racist regardless of the content of your character. The issue in critical race theory is the application of the accepted “Truth” of society’s systemic racism.
Critical race Theory sounds rather racist itself, in ascribing profound failures of morals and character to white people (as consequences of being white in a white-dominant society). We are told that racism is embedded in culture and that we cannot escape it. We hear that white people are inherently racist. We are told that racism is “prejudice plus power;” therefore, only white people can be racist. We are informed that only people of color can talk about racism, that white people need to just listen, and that they don’t have the “racial stamina” to engage it. We hear that not seeing people in terms of their race (being color-blind) is, in fact, racist and an attempt to ignore the pervasive racism that dominates society and perpetuates white privilege. We can hear these mantras in many spheres of life, but they are particularly prevalent on college campuses (121). Critical race Theory’s hallmark paranoid mind-set, which assumes racism is everywhere, always just waiting to be found, is extremely unlikely to be helpful or healthy for those who adopt it…. If we train young people to read insult, hostility, and prejudice into every interaction, they may increasingly see the world as hostile to them and fail to thrive in it…. It is bad psychology to tell people who do not believe that they are racist—who may even actively despise racism—that there is nothing they can do to stop themselves from being racist—and then ask them to help you. It is even less helpful to tell them that even their good intentions are proof of their latent racism. Worst of all is to set up double-blinds, like telling them [that] if they notice race it is because they are racist, but if they don’t notice race it’s because their privilege affords them the luxury of not noticing race, which is racist (132, 134).
The fruit of critical theory
Critical theory empowers “social justice,” for if inequality is presupposed, then injustice is everywhere, whether it is proved or not, and it must be eliminated. Why is person “A” less successful than person “B”? If person “A” belongs to a minority or marginalized group, while person “B” does not, then the answer is clear: “Disparate outcomes can have one, and only one, explanation, and it is prejudicial bigotry. The question is just identifying how it manifests in the given situation” (128). Critical theory, warn Pluckrose and Lindsay, “refuses to submit its ideas to rigorous scrutiny, rejects that kind of examination on principle, and asserts that any attempts to subject it to thoughtful criticism are immoral, insincere, and proof of its thesis” (199). One scholar of critical theory (and she is by no means alone) “advocates shutting down [student disagreement in the classroom]”: “It is dangerous to allow students to express disagreement…. Disagreement would allow dominant discourses to be reasserted, voiced, and heard…it is essential to control what may and may not be said” (200-201). Robin DiAngelo in her bestselling book, White Privilege: Why It Is So Hard to Talk to White People About Race (2018), argues in a similar fashion:
White people are complicit beneficiaries of racism and white supremacy. This is the Truth According to Social Justice—disagreement is not allowed. DiAngelo is quite explicit about this. If disagreeing, remaining silent, and going away are all evidence of [white] fragility—mere “defensive moves”—the only way to avoid being “fragile” is to remain put, show no negative emotions, and agree with the Truth—after which one must actively participate in discovering The Truth, that is, learning how to deconstruct whiteness and white privilege, which is billed as the necessary work of “antiracism” (205-206)
Since critical theory allows no dissent, and since the work of its scholars is to “scrutinize texts, events…and every other conceivable cultural artefact for hidden bigotry, then expose it and purge it and its sources from society—or at least access to the means of cultural production” (222), it ought not be surprising that the fruit of critical theory and social justice is “cancel culture.” If social justice activism is offended, the only solution is to “cancel” the offender, which means that if a person has ever said something that is judged by social justice activists to be wrong—racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc.—he and his work must be purged from society. Such a person will lose his position, have his career destroyed, his reputation ruined, and his books “burned.” If they are not cast into actual flames, social justice warriors will insist on a technological purge: he and his works will be expunged from Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms. Sometimes a person can be spared (for now) if he issues a sufficiently abject apology and promises to educate himself about his “privilege,” but the mob is not known for forgiveness. Pluckrose and Lindsay warn:
Humans are capable of great empathy and of horrifying callousness and violence…. By seeking to expand our circle of empathy ever wider, liberal humanism has achieved unprecedented human equality…. By seeking to divide humans into marginalized identity groups and their oppressors, Social Justice risks fueling our worst tendencies—our tribalism and vengefulness. This cannot work out well for women, or for minority groups, or for society as a whole (258).
The new Administration under U.S. President Joe Biden supports social justice activism, although, as with all politicians, one wonders how much of this is conviction and how much is political expediency. As soon as Biden entered the White House, he signed “Executive Order on Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation” (January 20, 2021), which allows people in U.S. federal buildings, including public schools, to use the facilities pertaining to their gender identity and expression. President Biden and Vice-president Kamala Harris also support “The Equality Act,” which the U.S. House of Representatives just passed for the second time and which now heads to a deeply divided Senate.2 Biden has also appointed radical leftists to Cabinet positions. One historic nomination is Richard “Rachel” Levine, a biological male identifying as, and dressing as, a woman, to the position of Assistant Secretary of Health. Levine, a pediatrician, believes that gender- confused children should be allowed to “transition” to their preferred gender with puberty-blocking drugs and sex-realignment surgery.
If you are bewildered about how you suddenly woke up in a world where there are hundreds of genders, where “misgendering” is offensive and even a crime, where everything from your childhood seems to be “racist” and must either be cancelled or have warnings about “potential offensive content” attached to it, now you know— it is not that people have suddenly become hypersensitive, but that critical theory, once confined to academia, has become mainstream and radicalized. In such a world the church is called to live, to such a world the church is called to witness, and such a world will sooner rather than later seek to “cancel” the church. “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you…. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 15:18-19; 16:33).
1 Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity— and How This Harms Everyone (UK: Swift Press, 2020). The authors consistently write “Theory” in “critical Theory” with an upper case T. I will not follow that example.
2 See “The Equality Act” in Standard Bearer (vol. 95, no. 19, August 1, 2019), https://sb.rfpa.org/the-equality-act.