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The Dangers of Critical Theory

May 21, 2018     Time: 22:23
The Dangers of Critical Theory

Summary

What is Critical Theory as it relates to today's social justice movement?

KEVIN HARRIS: This is a hot topic that we’re about to delve into Dr. Craig, and this was an article[1] that was sent to you about Critical Theory as it has come to be known. You have some concerns that this view called Critical Theory could even potentially invade Christian schools.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, and not merely potentially but actually is doing so. It underlies the so-called social justice movement. As Christians, all of us are rightly concerned about achieving a just society, but the Critical Theory which underlies the so-called social justice movement affirms values and theses that I think are fundamentally anti-Christian in their orientation. The fear is, I think, that Christian students out of an understandable desire to help create a better world and a more just society are being taken in unawares by this sort of Critical Theory with its emphasis upon identity politics, power, gender identity, and so forth. This movement is sweeping Christian colleges and universities and I think has become very influential even in campus Christian organizations. So this article I thought was an excellent critique of Critical Theory and some of its principal theses.

KEVIN HARRIS: His name is Neil Shenvi. He wrote the article, “A Long Review of Race, Class, and Gender.”

DR. CRAIG: Which is a book. This was a book published in 1992.

KEVIN HARRIS: Which is very telling. By 1992 it was already using some of the language that you hear today in the social justice movements. There’s nothing new under the sun. You can take its roots back. This is a 500-page book. He says one of the good things about it is that if you want to hear what people believe and want to hear what people are all about let them tell their story. One of the negations of that though is that this emphasizes experience over argument.

DR. CRAIG: That was very interesting to me as a philosopher that these advocates of Critical Theory do not really argue for the truth of their positions. They just share their experiences as oppressed minorities and identify themselves with these groups, and these shared experiences are used to justify these radical theses.

KEVIN HARRIS: Terms like “white privilege,” “ableism,” “systemic racism” – all of them are found in this book back in 1992. They’ve made their way into the popular lexicon only just recently. Just a couple of years ago. And he points out how that, I think it was Nietzsche that said, some of the philosophies in the ivory towers trickled down within 50 years and they’re accepted unquestioned. They’re unquestioned dogma just 50 years later. He says, “Perhaps the greatest contribution of this volume was to put the authors’ sentiments in print.” If you really want to know what people believe, like we said, to read it.

Now, the bad (on page 2): “With respect to this volume, saying that Critical Theory emphasizes ‘experience’ over ‘argument’ is a vast understatement.” Immediately, what’s wrong with that? Experience over argument?

DR. CRAIG: It doesn’t get at truth. You need to have good arguments if you’re going to claim your positions are true, and just sharing your experiences doesn’t justify the truth of some of these theses.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says, “In general, these essays did not offer arguments for or against certain beliefs. Instead, they told stories.” That is everywhere today. Now, maybe there’s something legitimate to it, but it’s always, What is your narrative? What is your story? He writes the good, the bad, and the ugly; Critical Theory summarized.[2] Here are some of the fundamental assumptions of Critical Theory, and he provides some quotes from the book to illustrate each point. Things like this:

“Premise 1: human relationships should be fundamentally understood in terms of power dynamics, which differentiates groups into ‘oppressors’ and the ‘oppressed.’”

Do you want to comment on that a little bit? The oppressor mentality?

DR. CRAIG: Sometimes Critical Theory is called neo-Marxist because of this, but it would not be classical Marxism because it’s not an economic division between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but rather it will be between, say, heterosexuals and homosexuals, or males and females, or white persons and non-white persons. But the relationships are viewed in terms of these power dynamics of oppressors and the oppressed.

KEVIN HARRIS: Only two categories of people. And it’s like, Am I an oppressor, or am I the oppressed?

DR. CRAIG: Yes, and the idea is that as a white male you ought to come to see that you are a part of the oppressive group inherently in virtue of your gender and race.

KEVIN HARRIS:

Premise 2: Our identity as individuals is inseparable from our group identity, especially our categorization as ‘oppressor’ or ‘oppressed’ with respect to a particular identity marker.

So I’m a white male, you’re a white male, so we are obviously not very oppressed.

DR. CRAIG: Right, that’s correct. On the contrary, we are privileged, so on this view your identity is constituted by your group membership.

KEVIN HARRIS:

Premise 3: All oppressed groups find their fundamental unity in their common experience of oppression.

So that’s what unifies these various groups.

DR. CRAIG: And so that causes these alliances to exist between, for example, homosexuals, feminists, blacks, and other groups that are oppressed by different classes but find a commonality in their experience of oppression. So it forms these sort of political alliances among these minority groups.

KEVIN HARRIS: And you go to their aid. If they’re being oppressed then you give up your agenda at least momentarily and go and help them. I see that on Facebook a lot, too.

Premise 4: The fundamental human project is liberation from all forms of oppression; consequently, the fundamental virtue is standing in solidarity against the oppressor.

 Liberation – you’ll see that a lot. These aren’t just “disconnected beliefs.”

Instead, they form a unified, coherent framework for viewing everything about our lives, from our identity, to our fundamental problem (oppression), to our fundamental moral duty (fighting for liberation), to the basis for unity between individuals (common oppression/solidarity). If we adopt them, they will dramatically influence how we think about many important issues, from poverty to abortion to human sexuality.

This sounds like a worldview.

DR. CRAIG: That’s what this author will claim. This is not just a political movement but this is actually a worldview. I think we’ll see that when we look at his critique of these fundamental assumptions.

KEVIN HARRIS: He gives in his final example kind of the example you gave:

Final example: premises 3 and 4 explain why there is so much overlap between anti-racism groups, feminist groups, and LGBT advocacy groups. The members of these groups are united because they share a common experience of oppression, and are also united against a common enemy . . .

He says,

To be clear, I am not yet offering any criticism of these beliefs. I am simply demonstrating how prevalent they are and how, once we recognize them, they have power to explain otherwise surprising phenomena.

So here are some quotes. Let’s look at some quotes from the book that kind of show this.

“Power is typically equated with domination and control over people or things. Social institutions depend on this version of power to reproduce hierarchies of race, class, and gender.”

What is he saying here?

DR . CRAIG: He is simply reiterating what we’ve already said. He’s just illustrating it with a quotation. These four fundamental theses of Critical Theory.

KEVIN HARRIS: Boy, I can already see the problem. I mean, they’re trying to prevent . . . they’re trying to dominate to prevent domination.

DR. CRAIG: He’ll make that point, but let’s not get ahead of him. Let’s let him make his critique.[3]

KEVIN HARRIS: All right. OK. So he’s offered these four basic tenets of Critical Theory without offering any critique. Now here are some critiques he says, and then in the next post he’ll explain why he thinks Critical Theory is incompatible with Christianity in particular.

First, let’s take a moral principle like “No one should be silenced because of their gender.” Most people would agree with this statement. In fact, most people would recognize that silencing someone because of their gender is a blatant form of sexism. However, critical theory entails that it can be acceptable to silence someone because of gender if his gender is male.

DR. CRAIG: And here you see the sort of inconsistent nature of Critical Theory. If you’re a white male then you can be silenced. Why? Because you’re part of the oppressor class and therefore this moral principle doesn’t apply to you.

KEVIN HARRIS: This is huge. This is so prevalent. You know, it made the rounds on the Internet: Is it okay to punch a Nazi? You’re not supposed to punch anyone, but if you’re a Nazi or a bigot you can. And that’s why some of these kids and college campuses have become downright violent.

DR. CRAIG: Oh, yes, that’s very true.

KEVIN HARRIS:

Second, consider what a consistent application of critical theory would mean for other human relationships, like the parent-child relationship. On the basis of critical theory, we would have to conclude that children are an oppressed class, suffering under the oppression of adults.

DR. CRAIG: Exactly! Because children have less power than their parents, and therefore since power is inherently a relationship of dominance and control it would imply that children are, by their very nature, oppressed and needing to be liberated.

KEVIN HARRIS: I hope that my kids don’t read this.

Or what about the mentally ill? Or criminals? Mentally ill adults and criminals are often held, against their will, in institutions. There is a long history of horrific abuses . . .

Still, this would what? Overturn the criminal justice system because criminals and the mentally ill are in a situation where they are oppressed?

DR. CRAIG: Evidently, because of the power differential.

KEVIN HARRIS:

Finally, Critical Theory is self-refuting because it turns a blind eye to the power dynamics that Critical Theory *itself* creates and perpetuates. Power is context-dependent. A trait that may give you power in one setting can be the basis for your oppression in another setting. For example, in the United States, I plausibly enjoy “Christian privilege.” Drop me in Saudi Arabia, and that privilege turns into a liability. This line of reasoning raises a serious question: if a white person or a male or a conservative or an evangelical Christian finds himself marginalized and excluded by those who embrace Critical Theory, then hasn’t ‘Critical Theory’ become a means of oppression? And isn’t it our duty to liberate people from the oppression of Critical Theory by deconstructing it or silencing those who practice it? Critical Theory devours itself and saws off the very branch it’s sitting on. It wields its principles selectively. As soon as we apply it universally, it undermines its own authority.

I just have to say, that nailed it.

DR. CRAIG: It really does. And it’s not just a sort of fanciful, imaginary scenario. This really does happen where the proponents of Critical Theory become themselves the oppressors of persons who disagree with them. This is what Jordan Peterson has been fighting against in Canada, the kind of thought police and speech police that is so strong on Canadian university campuses.

KEVIN HARRIS: Don’t they realize it?

DR. CRAIG: It seems so obvious, doesn’t it?

KEVIN HARRIS: Don’t they see that if I can shut you down then you can shut me down? I mean, the next tribe that comes along that may be a little stronger than yours can shut you down. Once you start this, it’s all might makes right. It’s all whoever has the biggest club; whoever can get the advantage.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, and yet that’s precisely the view they condemn. But then they don’t apply it to themselves when Critical Theorists, or those in power that hold to it, themselves become oppressive of people who disagree with them.

KEVIN HARRIS: “Celebrate diversity” means everybody but you.[4] OK, “Critical Theory in Christianity.”

DR. CRAIG: This is an important section, I think, because one might think that these previous criticisms, though valid, are nevertheless simply social or political in nature. But here I think he argues pretty convincingly that Critical Theory and Christianity are fundamentally different in their worldviews.

KEVIN HARRIS: Do you want to go down this list?

DR. CRAIG: Sure. He says,

The first conflict between Critical Theory and Christianity relates to the issue of identity. [Where do you find your identity?] . . . from a Christian perspective, there are three far more fundamental categories of identity which Critical Theory ignores . . . we cannot simply tack Christianity on to Critical Theory. . . . One will have to be rejected.

This, I think, is the error of so many Christian students who become enmeshed in the social justice movement – thinking that Christianity and Critical Theory can be married. He lists three categories of identity which are fundamentally different in Christianity and Critical Theory. The first is human beings created in the image of God. Second, human beings as sinners. Thirdly, human beings as united in Christ.

With regard to the first point – human beings in the image of God – he says,

The doctrine underpinning all of Christian ethics is the imago Dei [image of God], the belief that all human beings, whether male or female, black or white, young or old, are made in the image of God and therefore possess equal value and dignity.

Already you see a difference with Critical Theory which assigns unequal value in dignity to people based on their class, whereas the Christian view is that all persons are equal in value and dignity in virtual of being in the image of God.

With regard to the second one, identity and sin, he says:

The second core piece of Christian anthropology is even harder to fit into Critical Theory: the doctrine of sin. According to the Bible, human beings are united in their rebellion against God. The doctrine of sin causes two problems for Critical Theory. First, it undercuts the idea that there is a fundamental moral asymmetry between oppressed groups and oppressor groups.

On the doctrine of sin, both of these groups are comprised of sinful people who need God’s forgiveness and cleansing. One cannot say that he is better than the other. Second, he says,

from God’s perspective, all human beings are morally corrupt. One consequence of this doctrine is that all human beings share a ‘solidary in sin’ just as we share a solidarity in the imago Dei.

That notion of human solidarity is just antithetical to Critical Theory which wants to divide people along class lines or group lines rather than see them as unified in the image of God and in sin.

Finally, the third point, concerning identity and Christ he says,

Christians are committed to a view of identity that is antithetical to the idea that our fundamental unity is found in the experience of oppression. The Bible says that for Christians, the divisions between male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free are all broken down. [That’s quoting Paul virtually from the book of Galatians.] These differences are not erased, but they are demoted in importance. All Christians share equal access to God and equal standing before God.

So this is really a huge difference in that insofar as I find my fundamental identity in Christ I do not find it in my maleness or my Caucasian racial makeup or my sexual orientation. My identity is to be found primarily in Christ, and that is true with others who differ from me in significant ways.

That’s the first fundamental criticism that he sees, namely the conflict between Critical Theory and Christian identity – the way in which the Christian worldview understands identity.

The second critique, he says, that comes “into fundamental conflict with Christianity [is] over the nature of power.” This one, I think, is just fundamental.[5]

The difference between Critical Theory and the Bible is that the former (Critical Theory) sees power as necessarily oppressive while the latter (Christianity) sees the abuse of power as oppressive. In the Bible, not all human relationships are defined by power dynamics and not all power differentials lead to oppression.

Surely the prime example of that is God’s relationship to us. God has infinite power compared to us as creatures and therefore on Critical Theory is inherently an oppressor who is to be resisted. We are to be liberated from God, not to be united with him in harmony. So this analysis of power is fundamentally antithetical with a Christian view of what power is.

The third point is worldview and liberation; this is related to that.

Critical Theory’s commitment to ‘liberation’ as the ultimate good conflicts with the idea that God’s moral commandments are universally binding on all human beings.

Our moral duties are determined by God’s commandments, and it is not liberation from oppression that is the determinant of what is ultimately right and wrong or good and evil.

I thought this was an excellent article by Neil Shenvi that helped me to understand more clearly that this movement which is sweeping Christian colleges and university campuses is not a kind of neutral social or political philosophy that can be married to the Christian faith. It’s really fundamentally antithetical to the Christian faith in terms of its views of identity, power, and liberation.[6]

 

[2]          5:00

[3]          10:03

[4]          15:04

[5]          20:00

[6]          Total Running Time: 22:23 (Copyright © 2018 William Lane Craig)