- Part I – Introduction
- Part II – What is critical theory?
- Part III – Conflicts between critical theory and Christianity?
- Part IV – Logical implications
- Part V – Critical theory in the church
- Part VI – Advice for dialogue
II. What is Critical Theory?
In his book Beyond Critique, Bradley Levinson writes that Karl Marx alone invites consensus as the first ‘true’ critical theorist. Critical theory draws heavily on Marx’s ideas, not necessarily his ideas about economics, but his ideas about how power circulates and functions in society to reproduce inequality and exploitation.
Even though the critical tradition originated with Marx, the term “Critical Theory” was only coined later during the 1930s by a group of sociologists and philosophers known as the Frankfurt School. Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Benjamin, and others, wanted to extend Marx’s analysis beyond economics to understand how domination is produced by things like culture and mass media.
But that was 80 years ago! Critical theory has expanded and evolved tremendously since then. Understood broadly, critical theory encompasses entire disciplines like postcolonialism, critical pedagogy, postmodernism, feminism, black feminism, queer theory, and critical race theory. All of these fields are considered to be part of critical theory.
Here’s an amusing graphic from Sim and Van Loon’s Introducing Critical Theory, which attempts to construct a genealogy of critical theory. You can see Marx and the Frankfurt School, but also included are Antonio Gramsci, the Neo-Marxist thinker, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. One block includes all of 2nd-wave feminism. One block is all of postcolonialism. One block is all of Black Feminism. And there are about 20 blocks or so shown here. That gives you some sense of how sprawling and diverse ‘critical theory’ actually is.
So the term “critical theory” can be used narrowly to refer only to the Frankfurt School and their disciples. When it’s used this way, it’s often capitalized. But it can also be used broadly to refer to all of these critical social theories. Moreover, critical theory resists essentialism, meaning that it’s very hard to specify the “essence” of critical theory. Are you confused yet? Do you see why it’s so difficult to characterize critical theory in general?
However, instead of trying to characterize ‘critical theory’ as a whole, we can take a much more concrete and pragmatic approach. Consider the terms: “intersectionality,” “white privilege,” “white fragility,” “colorblind racism,” “internalized oppression,” “lived experience,” “heteronormativity,” and so forth. These terms are everywhere in our culture, in our politics, on college campuses, on social media. So let’s ask a very concrete question: where do these terms come from?
At a minimum, they come from the set of scholars who either coined or popularized these terms: Kimberle Crenshaw, Peggy McIntosh, Robin DiAngelo, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, and others. Now, undeniably, all of these scholars are doing critical theory. But they’re scattered across a variety of disciplines: critical race theory, gender studies, feminism, queer theory, sociology, etc. and, unfortunately, there’s no single label we have to describe the ideology that underwrites all these terms.
Some people have referred to it as “cultural Marxism,” or “identity politics,” or “critical race theory” or “Neo-Marxism” or “intersectionality.” I don’t think any of those terms is quite right. James Linsday, Peter Boghossian, and Helen Pluckrose coined the humorous phrase “Grievance Studies” to talk about this ideology. But there’s no consensus. I’ve chosen to use the term “contemporary critical theory” because 1) it’s undeniable that all of these authors stand in the broad critical tradition and 2) this is the iteration of critical theory that is having the most influence on our contemporary culture. People are not out there quoting Horkheimer and Benjamin. They’re quoting McIntosh and DiAngelo. But if you really want to use a different label, that’s fine because I want to focus on the ideology itself, not the label we use to describe it. And I’ll probably just refer to this ideology as “critical theory” for convenience, because “contemporary critical theory” is a mouthful.
I’m going to argue that all of these scholars, and many, many others, share an ideology based on four central ideas: the social binary, oppression through ideology, lived experience, and social justice. Let me expound on each of those.
First, contemporary critical theory is based on the idea of the social binary, the idea that society can be divided into dominant, oppressor groups and subordinate, oppressed groups along lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, and a host of other factors. Here are Sensoy and DiAngelo in their book “Is Everyone Really Equal?” “For every social group, there is an opposite group… the primary groups that we name here are: race, class, gender, sexuality, ability status/exceptionality, religion, and nationality.” Consequently, “sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism are specific forms of oppression.”
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here’s a picture. This is figure 5.1 from their book. As you can see, it lists various forms of oppression: racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, anti-Semitism, ableism, nationalism, colonialism. It lists the minoritized group: people of color, the poor, women, LGBTQ+ individuals. And it lists the dominant group: whites, the rich, men, heterosexuals, etc…
Here’s another figure from Adams’ Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice entitled the “Matrix of Oppression.” Again, we have a list of various forms of oppression: Racism, Sexism, Transgender oppression, Heterosexism, etc… A list of targeted groups: people of color, women, LGBTQ+ people, the poor. And a list of privileged groups: whites, men, heterosexuals, the rich, etc…
Now it’s important to add intersectionality to our understanding of the social binary. Intersectionality is the idea that our identities are complex and can’t be understood along a single axis alone. An individual can be part of both an oppressor group and an oppressed group, and that will shape their particular experience. So, for example, below is a sign from the 2017 Women’s March which says “Don’t forget: white women voted for Trump.” Or this sign which says “Feminism without intersectionality is just white supremacy.” What both of these signs are pointing out is that even at an event wholly dedicated to women’s issues, we can’t assume that white women and women of color will share the same agenda because women of color are oppressed in a way that white women are not.
Second, we have the idea of oppression through hegemonic power. What is “hegemonic power”? Here are Sensoy and DiAngelo again: “Hegemony refers to the control of the ideology of society. The dominant group maintains power by imposing their ideology on everyone.” This is crucial. Traditionally, ‘oppression’ is understood to refer to acts of cruelty, injustice, violence, and coercion. But critical theorists expand this definition to include ways in which the dominant social group, imposes its norms, values, and ideas on society to justify its own interests. Iris Young writes: “In its new usage, oppression designates the disadvantage and injustice some people suffer not because a tyrannical power coerces them, but because of the everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society… Its causes are embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols.” I’ll skip the comments by Langman, Delgado, and Bonilla-Silva, but they say the same thing, and I’ll post the slides online later if you’d like to go back and look at them.
If you understand that dominance and oppression are produced not by numerical size, but by hegemonic power, you’ll understand why ‘old white men’ are the canonical oppressor group. Demographically, only about 15% of the U.S. is ‘old white men.’ So they’re actually a minority. But they are a dominant group because they have the power to impose their old white male values on society. We all accept these values as natural, objective, and common sense when actually, they serve old white male interests.
Third: lived experience. Contemporary critical theory argues that ‘lived experience’ gives oppressed people special access to truths about their oppression. Philosopher Jose Medina writes: “[dominant] groups characteristically have experiences that foster illusory perceptions about society’s functioning, whereas subordinate groups characteristically have experiences that (at least potentially) give rise to more adequate conceptualizations.”
Here’s Charles R. Lawrence in his essay on critical pedagogy: “[We] must learn to privilege [our] own perspectives and those of other outsiders…We must learn to trust our own senses, feelings, and experiences, and to give them authority, even (or especially) in the face of dominant accounts of social reality that claim universality.”
Here’s a quote from Anderson and Collins that my wife found especially funny and annoying: “The idea that objectivity is best reached only through rational thought is a specifically Western and masculine way of thinking – one that we will challenge throughout this book.”
To put it simply, privileged groups tend to be blinded by their privilege. They have both conscious and subconscious reasons to avoid or ignore the reality of oppression. In contrast, by virtue of their ‘social location,’ oppressed people have the possibility of ‘seeing through’ the hegemonic discourse imposed on them by the ruling class. They can recognize that dominant social norms are really attempts to justify oppression and can thereby achieve what’s called a “liberatory consciousness.” Colloquially, they can ‘get woke.’
But that’s not automatic. Because we’re all socialized into the dominant group’s ideology, these oppressive ideas appear to be ‘natural’ and ‘common sense.’ So even oppressed people can experience ‘internalized oppression’ when they embrace the ideology of the dominant group, failing to see it for what it is: a bid for power.
Finally, contemporary critical theory is fundamentally concerned with ‘social justice,’ which it defines as “the elimination of all forms of social oppression” whether it’s based on “gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, or economic class.”
Here’s feminist Suzanne Pharr: “These political times call for renewed dialogue about and commitment to the politics of liberation…Liberation requires a struggle against discrimination based on race, class, gender, sexual identity, ableism and age.” She’s writing that in 1996, by the way, in the middle of the Clinton presidency. Unsurprisingly, these sentiments were amplified just a little by Trump’s election.
I’ll skip the quotes from Collins and hooks, but you can see the slides online.
So what are the implications of this commitment? For critical theorists, ‘liberating groups from oppression’ is our primary moral duty. This focus on group liberation can have serious implications. One example of ‘liberation’ displacing all other moral concerns can be seen in groups like Antifa. Three years ago, a member of Antifa hit a Trump supporter in the head with a bike lock, not because he was doing anything violent – he was just talking- but because he was a Trump supporter. Amazingly, the man who committed the assault had taught ethics at a local university. Here, even moral imperatives like “you shouldn’t hit people with bike locks” are considered to be less important than abstract goals like “resisting oppression.” Obviously, Antifa is an extreme example, but it shows this principle at work in practice.
I hope I’ve convinced you that critical theory helps to explain many phenomena. If we understand it, we can understand a lot of what’s happening in the secular social justice movement, in academia, in our culture, and in our politics.
Before I talk about the conflicts between critical theory and Christianity, I want to highlight some of its strengths.
First, the greatest strength of critical theory is its recognition that oppression is evil. The Bible is emphatic in its condemnation of oppression in both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus himself is described as ‘oppressed and afflicted’; God identifies with suffering people and commands his followers to seek justice on their behalf. Now, keep in mind that the Bible and the dictionary define ‘oppression’ very differently than critical theorists. Nonetheless, when those in authority are using their power to crush and abuse the powerless, Christians should absolutely be defending the rights of the powerless.
Second, critical theory’s focus on groups rather than on individuals provides insight into how laws and institutions can promote sin. Take chattel slavery in the U.S. or the Holocaust or apartheid in South Africa. Clearly, these horrors shouldn’t be exclusively understood as individual acts of immorality. In all of these examples, immorality was codified and written into law. The law then informed and shaped human moral intuitions, as it always does. Human beings were individually morally responsible for their actions, but laws and institutions and systems dramatically amplified and encouraged human wickedness.
Finally, hegemonic power does exist and it can have an insidious effect on our norms and values. Here’s an example that will resonate with conservatives: think about how Hollywood and Madison Avenue define standards of beauty and sexuality. Think about how hard we have to work as Christian parents to teach our children that women are not sex objects and that real beauty is internal, not merely external. The way in which the entertainment and advertising industries shape how we understand human value is an example of hegemonic power with respect to beauty.
Previous: Part I – Introduction