Critical theories have a distinctive aim amongst the methods by which we evaluate our society. They ostensibly wish to unmask the justifications for some form(s) of social or economic oppressions as being ideology and thus contribute to the ending of that oppression. The noble aim of critical theory therefore is to provide enlightenment about social and economic life that leads to emancipation – firstly by giving oppressed people the tools to understand that oppression, and secondly by giving a mechanism for activism to free those people.
As noted on New Discourses, “The term “Critical Theory” commonly causes confusion because it can refer to the Frankfurt School of Marxist critics, including György Lukács, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse (see also, neo-Marxism and New Left), or it can refer to the use of other similar—but distinct—critical social theories, such as those that have their roots in postmodernism, such as postcolonial Theory, queer Theory, critical race Theory, intersectional feminism, disability studies, and fat studies (see also, Theory and post-Marxism). Sometimes this confusion is expressed disingenuously by academics who dislike criticism of critical theories, and sometimes it is expressed sincerely by those whose fields of philosophy have not kept up with the fast development of Social Justice scholarship. The focus on identity, experiences, and activism, rather than an attempt to find truth, leads to conflict with empirical scholars and undermines public confidence in the worth of scholarship that uses this approach. Because critical theories nearly always begin with their conclusion—their own assumptions about power dynamics in society, how those are problematic, and the need for their disruption or dismantling—and then seeks to find ways to read them into various aspects of society (see discourse analysis and close reading), the body of scholarship that has been growing for the last fifty years has become a towering and impressive mountain with very insecure foundations.”
Dr. James Lindsay is an American-born author, mathematician, and political commentator. He has written six books spanning a range of subjects including religion, the philosophy of science and postmodern theory. He is the co-founder of New Discourses and has published essays in The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and Time. His recent books Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody and How to have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide have provided essential guidance to millions on how to navigate this new world of activism and in this exclusive interview, I spoke to James about how critical theories are shaping our world, the consequences, and how we can build a more resilient society.
Q: How did critical theories come to social and cultural prominence?
[James Lindsay]: The civil rights movement in the United States caused a dramatic shift in public consciousness as many white liberals were realizing that white supremacy had come to an end, and that they had been on the side of ‘evil.’ This created a movement of white guilt. Guilt can be manipulated, and critical ideologies are particularly good at picking those rhetorical scabs and cherry-picking history to find convincing narratives that show how the horrors of the past are defining features of history, and that the people who perpetrated those horrors did so cynically, to benefit themselves and their descendants, or their race, or gender, and so on.
Critical narratives are centered on the idea of moral complicity in these evils and use very sophisticated rhetorical ways to get people to feel that guilt and to believe in their complicity. They use very obscure language that involves a lot of double-meaning and multiple-meaning to words so that people it confronts (particularly academics) feel stupid thinking ‘oh wow, I didn’t realise there was a more profound definition of racism that I’d never considered…’ They make you feel like the uninformed one, and that makes you far more open to believing that you might have missed something. Those who are liberal, or more left leaning, are particularly susceptible- they are usually academic, or college educated and the idea therefore that there was some important point that they overlooked, or missed, is actually rhetorically immensely powerful. By keeping people feeling they are on the wrong side of history morally, or on the wrong side of the argument intellectually, and by doing so using rhetorical tricks, they are very effective at keeping people on the defensive and getting them to be more open minded to critical ideas than – perhaps – they should otherwise be.
Liberalism as an overarching societal philosophy, or political philosophy, has tended to be operated by people who are a bit too arrogant, and a bit too slow to be willing to listen. That unwillingness to listen is heard in the rhetoric as people say ‘we don’t feel heard…’ or ‘…our voices have been marginalized’ or ‘we’ve been excluded…’ It isn’t liberalism as an ideology at fault, but rather the guardians of liberalism who have been too arrogant and too sure of things like human rationality. Liberalism also came to adopt its own style of speaking and being, and when you start to look at the intersections of identity and poverty (for example), it’s clear that ‘playing the game’ is much more difficult for certain people. If there is a cultural predilection to speak a certain way, dress a certain way, or project certain things – and you show up and don’t conform to that- you don’t get taken as seriously as you probably deserve.
Q: Who benefits from critical theory?
[James Lindsay]: Critical theories give proposed solutions to legitimate problems that could not possibly be more open to manipulation and grift. The manipulators and grifters have filled the vacuum to the point where they’re only ones who can benefit. You could say, ‘oh well, critical race theory is about trying to help black people…’ but then the second a black person disagrees with the smallest thing? They’re out… they’re cancelled… their voice isn’t ‘authentic’… you’re an ‘uncle tom’….
The trainers, the book-writers, the theorists, the activists…. They are earning and benefitting out of the situation at almost everybody’s expense. I don’t want to accuse all of the trainers of being manipulators and grifters of course, but there are enough where it makes the system horrible.
Q: Is there a connection between the growth of critical theory, and the secularization of society?
[James Lindsay]: The diminishment of religious hegemony was inevitable once the enlightenment began. We weren’t going to believe in God for a whole lot longer – and even today you still see these very vigorous bastions of resistance, especially in the United Sates, to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution specifically because evolution throws a monkey wrench firmly into the Augustinian framework under which most of Christianity operates.
There is certainly a vacuum, but it would be wrong to not point out that belief systems like humanism have sort-of filled the vacuum of ‘obedience to God’ while social sciences and psychology have stepped-in to fill that void of what would have been theology, soteriology and all these other aspects within theological thought. We now have religion based not on theology but on sociology. In principle, that’s not a bad thing, but when your sociology has decided that the point of studying society is to change it (which was Marx’s dictem), you’ve got a problem.
You have this very activist sociology rather than a dispassionate or objective sociology informing a broadly humanist framework of caring about flourishing versus suffering. You can see the pathologies around suffering- a perversion of the nurturing mother archetype beneath all of this. You can see how the gap was filled-in, but I think it’s incorrect to put causation (that religion went away, and this came in as a result). It’s pretty clear that religion was going anyway, and then- because sociology is perceived mostly (or partly) as being wholly secular and non-theological, nobody was ready to understand it – and now we have a ‘new’ religion that’s just out of control. I phrased it recently in an essay, that there’s nothing that tames this religion yet, which is what you see happening in theocracies, that they tend to set up things like inquisitions or fatwas depending on how it goes.
Q: How has technology amplified critical narratives, and what are the consequences?
[James Lindsay]: Technology presents a difficulty for our world right now. Everyone is simultaneously an individual who can have a conversation, and a broadcaster. So we’re getting on social media and training ourselves to think in broadcast mode, but then we go out in public and get our wires crossed. People act in broadcast mode, imagining they’re on stage (made worse by cameras). I don’t know how many of these ‘viral’ incidents spiralled out of control because there were cameras present… that’s not to say we need less transparency of course; I think police body cameras (for example) are very helpful to sort out lots of ugly problems that emerge through the gift of authority and the monopoly of power we give police. You need that kind of accountability. When it’s possible to sit down- especially one on one, or in a small group of people to talk through issues, there is a possibility of having productive conversations that can moderate the extreme perspectives we are seeing or give alternate ways of viewing situations.
The internet has a natural pressure to bubble us up and vulcanise society, it makes it less comfortable for us to be around people who think differently, and more comfortable to be around people who think the same as us. The internet is a bit like another planet we’re colonising, setting up countries around similar beliefs. It is similar (in some ways) to the warring states period of China, or Europe pre-WW2. We have to intentionally start to cultivate bubble-popping endeavours that get people together to work out their differences and find common ground. The technologies of the internet and social media are bent towards vulcanisation, and it will require an intentional effort to bring out the opposite.
Perhaps we need some kind of bill or constitution around this. A bill of rights for internet behaviour which could be self-enforced initially but most likely would need to be legislated to give it some enforceability. Just like we’ve seen many other cyber-crimes become illegal, cancel culture and these various other forms of more dangerous activism could be legislated the same way.
Q: How can we prevent critical narratives from overwhelming us?
[James Lindsay]: We have a very parasitic ideology; it operates like a virus. To stop a virus, you have to understand how it attaches to cells… you have to create an immune response via a vaccine… or by having the disease and fighting it.
We have to understand where our weak spots are. What are those receptor sites where critical ideas have the ability to attach to the liberal body politic before perverting and changing the machinery inside such that the institution under attack now produces more critical theorists rather than saying, ‘we know what this is, we’re not going to allow it to attack us…’
We have to work to re-establish moral authority, liberal principles, equality, individualism and meritocracy, hedging us toward objectivity knowing that these concepts are all limited and imperfect. Learning civics is an important part of this; it teaches us how these same rhetorical manipulations, definitional manipulations and techniques have been employed before, and what the consequences are.
We are seeing this play out first-hand in our world with angry twitter mobs- cancel culture (the ultimate form of which is to try and kill people or destroy their business and lives). We know how to empower our law enforcement, but what we don’t do is put moral authority back behind law and order, the net result is that law and order become a scary, fascist, fist. We have to thread this needle extremely carefully, it’s valuable and important.