This contents of the essay have become more important now that Critical Theory, in the form of Critical Race Theory (CRT), has come to national attention.
Right wing media has begun attacking the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement calling it Marxist, communist and anti-Christian. The simple truth is that those attacking BLM today are simply rehashing the same words their grandparents threw at MLK and those who sought the right to vote, eat and live where they pleased and for their kids to get the same education given to white kids. It is also important that we stand firm for liberal values even while we have the knowledge that the Critical Theory can yield the same kind of authoritarianism as Trump’s neo-fascism promotes. Those on the far right and far left have much more in common with each other than they do with liberals. It has been centuries since liberalism was as unpopular as it is today, yet that is precisely why we must stand firm. Liberalism must survive if the American experiment is to survive.
While I fully support BLM, I abso lutely oppose the ideology of CRT. However I know from experience that very few of those who use CRT rhetoric have any understanding or belief in the underling ideology. The proponents of CRT are simply giving the black community words that describe how they feel. Given the binary of white supremacy on one side and CRT on the other, I understand why many in BLM talk the talk of CRT even if they don’t really embrace it. BLM activist are trying to get America to hear a simple message. The lives of people with dark skins should, but does not, matter as much as those with light colored skin in 21st century America. How could anyone but an avowed white supremacist appose that goal? So to make their evil message palatable, right wing media twists what the activist are saying.
This last week I had to push back on several Face Book memes that directly claimed that BLM is a racist hate group. Such malicious lies must be attacked, but that does not mean I will abandon my liberal Christian ideology.
I wrote this essay when I tried and was rebuffed from engaging with the west-coast polyamory community a decade ago. They showed that they were just as hostile to the kind of polyamory that I preach as was the “Christian” right.
So I offer up this analysis from my very first blog.
It seems I’ve gotten some interest and push back from my post that stated that critical theory and polyamory are mutually exclusive. So I want to clarify.
First, I’ve never pretended that I don’t define polyamory as a philosophy built on universal loving concern for others. I know my approach stands in stark contrast to those who define polyamory as a universal access to love with no attendant corollary of an obligation to give universal love. Thus, to me, the idea of sexual polyamory is only one practical application of a larger belief system with an altruistic core. It is, in fact, very much in concert with a good number of religious and philosophical traditions.
This positioning of polyamory into a larger epistemological system is why I believe all brands of critical theory are antithetical to polyamory (as defined by a life characterized by universal love).
Let me start with a very short overview of critical theory (CT). Critical theory was the invention of a group of German Marxist after WW2 who concluded that Marx’s vision of an uprising of the proletariat was never going to happen since the downtrodden workers of the Victorian era had given way to a broad working middle-class. Max Horkheimer led the group that shifted from the classical Marxian idea of laborers striving to overthrow their shackles and gain the physical fruit of their labor to a more nebulous revolution of throwing off emotional and spiritual shackles to free the masses from the enslavement of wealth and leisure. This was called the New-Left of the 50’s & 60’s. However, beyond the world of academics, few people understood or cared to be free from their nice home and TV and soft life. Central to this new form of Marxism was the premise that science and more specifically the scientific method of inquiry was not to be trusted because it was via the world of hard science that people were becoming enslaved. Horkheimer proposed to reject the whole idea of objective truth as an illusion and adopted the term “Critical Theory” to say one is critical of objective truth and reality itself. This was important because their group had begun incorporating the whimsical ideas of Freud into their outlook. Via Freud’s philosophy everything become a matter of hidden secret meanings that were uncovered not by empirical science, but by the quasi-spiritual work of the learned practitioner (them).
It took a new generation of writers to bring these ideas to the mainstream, most notably Jürgen Habermas. What most Americans see as critical theory dates back to the early 1980’s. The American left began looking for a new direction after the collapse of the 40 years of liberal consensus in the US. The rise of the modern conservative movement across the English speaking world seemed to indicate that liberalism had failed and that a more aggressive approach was needed.
Into the void came the siren call of CT. The proponents envisioned themselves on a crusade to wake the oppressed out of their lethargy and create a new language with which they could confront the emboldened and empowered neo-conservatives. By the middle of the 1990’s the critical theorists had all but erased liberalism from the great human rights movements’ coming out of the 1960’s & 70’s. By the dawn of the 21st century the humanities departments in nearly all US universities had become dominated by CT and students were now taught a revisionist history that painted the struggle for minority rights, women’s rights and sexual rights as CT rather than the historical fact that those were liberal movements. Indeed , while there is a clear Critical Race Theory (CRT) juxtaposed to liberalism, the word Feminism has been entirely coopted to mean CT not liberal feminism. To top it off the CT’s have even created a new type of straw-man they called “neo-liberals” to discredit liberalism to a new generation of idealistic young people.
Here in the US we have a polarized view of the political spectrum because of the two party system. For most of the 20th century, both parties were more or less liberal. The Republican shift from capitalist-liberalism to the duel disasters of lassie-fare capitalism and theocratic conservatism opened the door for the widespread rebirth of Marxian CT ideology in the US. Like the first round of Marxism in early 20th century Europe, the logic is put forth that since conservatism is bad the only alternative is Marxism. This bi-polar approach simply wishes away liberalism. In the UK they have three major parties: Conservative, Liberal and Labor (neo-Marxist) , but currently in the US there is no party standing for liberalism. It has been said that the last liberal president of the US was Richard Nixon.
All too often my CT friends present the false proposition that arch conservatism is the only alternative to CT. Just yesterday one writer objecting to my posted critique, suggested that CT is good because the alternative is the KKK. CT is just one of many philosophical approaches; however, just like fundamentalist religions, they argue that it is the only good and right approach. Even more common is the assertion that the mere existence of oppression justifies the CT solution.
One writer said that Oh, yes. Queer people just have it so good. If only queer theory didn’t convince them that they were oppressed and victimized, maybe they could just stop complaining and turn that frown upside down. Maybe if they just loved everyone, homophobia would go away! What nonsense. What is this, polyamory-as-Care-Bear-Stare? Talk to me again when violence against queer people isn’t rampant. (Also, polyamory means I have to love everyone? I thought it just meant I could love anyone.)” I have news for all of you, queer Americans do have it good, very good in comparison to 99% of the humans who have ever lived on this planet. And yes, queer theory does promote this mentality that we who are not “strait” are mightily oppressed. Unintentionally, this person’s attack simply supported my point. The fact this person is convinced violence is “rampant” because people oppress queers reflects the prime attitude about violent and oppressive behaviors. CT teaches that the violence is because of group identity of the victim rather than by more random factors. By definition there is an oppressor group and an oppressed. Implicit in this is that if the oppressed were empowered they could rise-up and demand the oppression stop.
Sadly this whole premise is a fantasy supported only by the CT epistemology of personal truth. In CT, my own truth is as valid as your truth and there is no objective truth at all. So if I think something you say or do is “code” for oppressing me because of my group identity then that is so. It makes no difference what the intent of your words were, my feelings of offence means you are indeed a racist, sexist, homophobe or whatever. Even if I believe you did not intend the words or actions to be oppressive, my feelings not your intent, are what matter. A denial of being oppressive only says you are either a liar or that you are so very oppressive that don’t even see your oppressive behavior. This is quite convenient for the advocates of CT because they are able to, in good faith, tell people they are being oppressed by someone else because they are gay, or black or disabled. There needs to be no evidence to support the assertion of guilt projected by the CT advocate. This is where we get concepts like “the male gaze” that justifies condemnation of others entirely based on the opinions of a third party.
Now, really, what kind of justice allows the accuser to project their biases on others as proof of guilt? Of course we need not simply imagine what a society run by such a philosophy would look like. Millions were punished in China during the Cultural Revolutions based on this nearly universal Marxian approach to justice based on group identity and projected guilt. Orwell gave this approach a name in the classic novel 1984: thought crimes. Why do you think that repressive speech codes have found a home in universities that embrace CT? Why do you think that the idea of collective “white guilt” has been embraced? Liberals recoil at both ideas based on the fact they are inherently bigoted and deny justice based on an individual’s actual actions, and replace them with “justice” based on group membership.
This is not just abstract. If you have ever read the writings of Critical Legal Theory or Critical Political Theory, you will see the writers wholly reject the whole concept of the US Bill of Rights and the rule of law applied equally to all. Rather, they seek to make the law flexible to give fair outcomes to groups, and explicitly state that guarantees of individual rights, such as free speech are a hindrance to that goal. I’ve had more than one debate with fellow college professors on this very issue. Just this week I read an article advocating the replacing of local representative democracy based on location and/or population with one that represents different groups. The advocates say that will ensure all the groups, especially those without a voice get representation. This sounds good, except in this proposal there has been implicitly given to some vague entity the power to define how many groups and who has the right to represent that group. In practice, when we play group identity politics the ordinary person ends up with no voice at all because the self-appointed elites cease and hold the right to represent the group. Persons who do not feel represented by the elites within a group simply are shut out. Look at any organization with a name that invokes group identity and see if there is any effort to find and express the will of everyone in that group. What you will find is a small elite who claim to know what is best for everyone who shares that group characteristic and there is no room for dissenting opinions. This of course brings us back to the Marxian nature of CT.
I make this societal application of CT, to illustrate how CT rather than promoting equality and diversity as their rhetoric would appear; CT promotes the centralizing of authority and limiting of diversity. We see this in CRT and Critical Feminism that systemically and viciously attacks any deviation from the “official” group policy of internal conformity by group members who disagree with what the leadership believes is the right political stance. Amusingly, in groups that are defined by their CT philosophy, like the “official” LGBT community, there is a predictable pattern of rebellion and creation of splinter groups, with the core of each splinter group complaint being they are oppressed by the larger group. Hence we have LGBTQA……..
To all this the CT answer I have heard over and over again is “But we are oppressed! How can you deny our pain by rejecting CT?” The fact an individual is oppressed is taken as prima facia evidence that the root cause is socially constructed bigotry against their group and that alone justifies the acceptance of the entire CT epistemology and political philosophy.
There is only one problem with that narrative. It is not true.
That is like saying “I am stressed out! How can you reject my pain by saying I should not take Oxycodone to relieve the stress?” The existence of a problem does not necessitate the acceptance of a particular cause or use of particular remedy, especially if that solution will only make the problem worse. When I reject CT I do not deny human oppression, I only reject a remedy that will make things worse for the oppressed people. We can see what happens when a small elite decide they and they alone can see beyond the empirical evidence and can identify unseen forces that shape our existence. These elites expect others, by faith, to believe they alone have the solution. I say “by faith” because both religious believers and CT believers begin with an explicit rejection of empirical evidence of reality in favor of a reality based on their own wishful thinking. By definition, non-empiricist propose a solution based on faith in their unique insight as to the problem that defies verifiable evidence. Remember the very term critical theory was coined to reject the notion of objective evidence. Just like the religious utopias; the Marxian utopias rapidly become every bit as repressive as the social systems they replaced (and more often than not they are worse).
The empirical evidence would suggest that the root cause of oppression is not to be found in dark skin color or in the fact that people have sex with people with the same genitals; people oppress because currently those features give them an excuse to justify their own desire for control and to put down those who are vulnerable. The empirical evidence is that the root cause of oppression and violence is not racial or sexual differences, or even economic models, but in the nature of humanity itself. Even in racially homogenous countries (like Japan) or sexually free societies (like Rome) there was an elite who oppressed the others. It is not the skin color that brings oppression; it is the humans who live inside the skin.
The empirical evidence is that until the advent of liberalism in the 1600’s, the entire notion that common people, by right of their humanity, had as much right to justice as the elites, had never seriously been considered. Liberalism proposed that one’s humanity not one’s group affiliation is the basis for rights and respect. This distinction is very important. Liberalism posits that people should be treated with dignity and respect because they are people. The whole concept of universal human rights is predicated on that fact. But CT, does not recognize universal human rights, but rather group rights that trump individual rights. And, even more important, CT (like all Marxist philosophies) is utilitarian in ethical outlook. Thus, as long as I can justify in my own imagination that my planned end result will exceed the harm I inflect, then any action or policy I undertake is ethical. Liberalism is Kantian in ethics with firm moral imperatives that demand that both the action and the motive be for the good of the individual.
I know I’ve gone longer than usual. So, let me close with my original thesis. Critical Theory is incompatible with a philosophy of universal love. It lives up to its Marxian roots in that the goal is eternal conflict between groups and promotes an “us versus them mentality”. The way I approach polyamory, it is not compatible with the basic tenants of CT.
One last note. My experience is that like the followers of fundamentalist Christianity, few professed followers of CT actually understand the underpinnings of the philosophy they profess. Instead they endlessly recite the words they have been taught in order to avoid serious consideration of what they claim to believe. Ignorance of CT’s underpinnings is not the sole domain of undergraduate students but is quite common among doctoral students and professors. I have only known a few “true believers” in CT, the rest embrace CT because it promises social justice but they take it on the authority of others that it is capable of delivering on that promise. That is why a do not normally attack CT advocates, but rather reach out to help them consider if they really believe what they are saying. More often than not, I find they are actually liberals who simply are spouting CT language because it is the most popular among their crowd.