Canada, Education, Politics

“White Women Tears”—Critical Theory on Lindsay Shepherd

Two weeks ago, I analysed an incident at Wilfrid Laurier University, where teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd was reprimanded for playing a video clip from a televised debate on the compelled use of gender pronouns, and I connected it to the influence of Critical Theory in academia. Last week, I defended Jordan B. Peterson—a Canadian psychology professor who was part of the debate Shepherd played and who became a central figure in the Laurier media coverage—against criticism that he’s a far-right ideologue who misunderstands what he’s criticising. In this article, the final one in the series, I examine what I perceive to be two important flaws in Critical Theory, and show that understanding these flaws helps make sense of the seemingly inexplicable reactions to the Laurier incident by some students and faculty.

*    *    *

Karl Marx

As I mentioned in the first article, Critical Theory is a methodology developed by a group of Marxian social scientists during the early-to-mid 20th century, motivated by the belief that traditional scientific methodology—which concerns itself with describing, explaining, and predicting the world—is ineffective at producing societal change. Instead, they defined a purpose for their science: to liberate people from oppression. This idea can be traced back to Karl Marx’s famous statement that “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”.

Initially, the focus of Critical Theory was on the oppressive nature of mass consumerism—which is closely linked to capitalism—but it gradually expanded to cover almost every area of human relations: language, social institutions, family structure, pedagogy, gender, race, and health, to name a few. There is virtually no area that can’t be studied through Critical Theory:

Consequently, distinct subdisciplines have emerged: critical race theory, critical pedagogy, and critical legal studies, for example. It’s not always obvious from the discipline’s name that it’s a branch of Critical Theory, as is the case with cultural studies. (The class Shepherd taught was called Canadian Communication in Context, although her professor referred to it as a ‘critical communications class’ during their meeting. He later stated that his course attempts to teach from a social justice perspective.)

Don’t be misled by the term ‘critical’. In my article defending Peterson, I showed how English professor Ira Wells defined ‘critical’ as the questioning of power hierarchies, which is much narrower than the dictionary definition.

Rambukkana and Pimlott may not have seen the TVOntario debate that Shepherd showed in class. However, they insisted that Shepherd should have been critical in her presentation of it. By that, they don’t mean being critical in the pursuit of truth. They wanted her to question power heirarchies. In their view, Peterson represents a power hierarchy that oppresses transgender people, hence, it’s only Peterson towards whom one must be critical. The labelling of gender pronoun discussion as gender violence is built on this approach towards discourse and inquiry. Granted, Rambukkana and Pimlott were responding to a student’s complaint (although there is some question over whether documentation of the complaint ever existed).

*     *    *

It’s important to note that the liberation methodology (sometimes called the emancipatory methodology) of Critical Theory has also been integrated to various degrees in many other fields. What matters is not the label, but the methodology. Consider a recommendation overview for feminist research by sociology professor Maria Mies. Among the recommendations are:

(3) The contemplative, uninvolved ‘spectator knowledge’ must be replaced by active participation in action, movements, and struggles for women’s emancipation. The motto for this approach could be: ‘If you want to know a thing, you must change it’. (4) [This] further implies that the change of the status quo becomes the starting point for a scientific quest.

Whether or not this type of feminist research explicitly identifies as Critical Theory, it clearly falls within the methodology I’ve outlined, because its purpose is liberation. Consequently, looking only at disciplines that label themselves Critical Theory underestimates the extent to which this methodology has spread through the humanities and social sciences. Consider this statement at the end of a Facebook post by a Laurier communications graduate student criticising Shepherd for playing the televised Peterson debate:

A gender studies course might discuss identity politics with an experienced and knowledgeable leader, but a first-year grammar class taught by a dispassionate Master’s student is a different story.

Notice how professors are referred to as ‘leader’, and how ‘dispassionate’ is a criticism. This is activism masquerading as academia.

In fact, some of the statements by Laurier students are reminiscent of a letter written by three students at Pomona College earlier this year and co-signed by 24 others, in response to a letter by the college president appealing to free speech. The letter, in addition to rejecting free speech, contains the following:

Protest that doesn’t disrupt the status quo is benign and doesn’t function to overthrow systems of oppression, which is the ultimate goal.

*     *     *

It’s easy to see how this follows from Critical Theory methodology. If you start your inquiry with the defined purpose of liberating people from oppression, the next logical step is to construe society as a set of ‘systems of oppression’, from which people can be liberated, and then to personify them. Academics pursuing this methodology are invariably in the social sciences or humanities and are going to attribute causes based on what they know: people. To borrow again from the Pomona letter:

Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity, and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples. The idea that there is a single truth–’the Truth’–is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples.

The natural consequence of all this is the gradual adoption of social constructivism, which provides the strongest possible rationalisation for the view that everything is caused by people striving for power: there is only people, everything else, including nature, is just a construct. Furthermore, one can say that the most powerful people are the ones driving the social construction, thus even the social construction itself becomes a system of oppression. It’s therefore also no surprise that German Idealism, especially the work of G. W. F. Hegel, has been drawn upon repeatedly in Critical Theory environments. Hegel envisioned the world as a giant mind that proceeds over time through an intellectual process towards complete understanding, as contradictions are overcome. This allows for a radical conception of liberation. All limitations can be construed as the product of incomplete understanding. If this sounds remarkably like religious mysticism, it’s no coincidence. Streams of thought like this have existed in both the East and West for thousands of years. (Hegel was inspired by Christian mysticism.)

This produces a view of freedom that is radically different from that of classical liberals, who saw freedom as the creation of a society that prohibited the natural inclinations of people to exert force against each other. Human nature, as well as the natural environment within which human societies reside, set limits on human freedom. Yet for social constructionists, achieving freedom is an intellectual process towards a state of complete understanding, where limiting beliefs have been overcome. Neither human nature nor the natural world are fundamental limits on human freedom, since they ultimately are social constructs as well.

Nicholas Matte

This isn’t to say that everyone who follows a Critical Theory methodology is a full-blown social constructionist, of course. Social constructionism is simply something that can be invoked to the degree necessary to rationalise the rest of the methodology. (For example, when Nicholas Matte claimed there’s no such thing as biological sex in the TVOntario debate with Jordan Peterson, I doubt it’s because he has much genuine interest in biology; it’s a way to rationalise his desire to liberate people from the limitation of gender.)

In short, once someone starts by defining the purpose of scientific inquiry as liberating people from oppression, it naturally follows to construe the world as a set of oppressive systems, since that is the focus. It then follows, especially for those whose field of study is people, to personify these systems as the desires of powerful groups of people. Finally, it follows to appeal to social constructionism as a way to minimise or avoid alternative explanations from nonhuman (i.e., natural) causes. These aren’t strictly necessary links, but it’s easy to see why it would turn out this way in practice.

*      *     *

There are two main problems with this methodology. The first, which I mentioned in my article defending Peterson, is that by construing the world as a set of systems of oppression, one loses sight of the fact that societal structures have functions. This goes back to Karl Marx. For Marx, capitalism was a system of oppression, and society would be better off when it was gone. Yet, in places where communism has been attempted, people have not been better off. Why?

Ludwig von Mises

Economist Ludwig von Mises showed in 1920 that communism couldn’t succeed, because capitalism provides a critical societal function: when large numbers of people participate in markets, they not only trade goods, but also information about their individual needs and preferences, which can change as circumstances change. Without private property there’s no mechanism to achieve this, and production becomes increasingly detached from the needs of the people.

Perhaps the best example of the dangers of radically destructuring society to overthrow oppression was demonstrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. After seizing power, the Khmer Rouge forcefully relocated millions of Cambodians from the cities to rural areas, where they were to form a classless, agricultural society. Private property was confiscated, money abolished, religion banned, books burned, merchants and intellectuals killed, anyone suspected of subversive activity executed, institutions closed, families broken up, language changed to delete class references, and culture changed to remove traditional signs of deference and to force social activities like eating together at all times.

In attempting to create a classless society, the Khmer Rouge forcefully eliminated all the structure that allowed Cambodian society to function. What might have seemed like systems of oppression to the Khmer Rouge were actually vital societal structures. In the span of four years, more than two million Cambodians died, and another two million were on the verge of death when they were rescued by foreign aid, out of a total population of eight million.

What’s especially telling about Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge is that there was an element of anti-intellectualism and counter-Enlightenment ideology more reminiscent of newer Marxian streams (including Critical Theory) than original Marxism, and which seemingly made the situation even worse. (Many of the Khmer Rouge leaders studied in Paris during the 1950s, and participated in French Marxist groups.) To a large extent this demonstrates that the more extensively one identifies and overthrows ‘systems of oppression’, the more extensively one tears away the structure that makes society function.

*    *    *

In the long run, this is the most serious problem with Critical Theory being the guiding academic methodology. Construing all societal structures as systems of oppression to be overthrown will eventually lead to societal collapse, if not resisted. But there’s a second problem that is more immediate, I think, and has been in full display in the wake of the Laurier incident.

In an interview on the Rubin Report, Shepherd mentioned something interesting. People have criticised her not only for bullying her students, but for bullying professor Nathan Rambukkana, who is her supervisor and the man who did most of the talking during the recorded meeting. Here Shepherd recites the criticism:

I bullied the students, but also I bullied Professor Rambukkana, because he’s a person of colour and I’m white. And so I used my white woman tears to overstep my boundaries and step all over his job, just because he’s a racialised body.

It seems incredible that someone could listen to the recording of the meeting between Shepherd and the three faculty members and come away thinking that she was using ‘her white woman tears’ to bully Rambukkana. It seems far more plausible to me that she’s crying because she’s upset and intimidated by three superiors accusing her of transphobia and gender violence. Presumably, she would have responded similarly if Pimlott, a white man, had done most of the talking. Or for that matter, if she herself had been of colour.

Here are the relevant quotes in an article shared widely on social media that made these claims:

Shepherd seems almost willfully blind to the ways by which speech acts, including the loaded history of white women tears, can indeed, incite physical and verbal violence. […] Others, myself included, who reached out to her to highlight the way in which historically rooted theatrics of white tears were mobilized to ultimately dismiss an untenured professor of colour, she dismissed and lampooned these allegations, questioning the basis of claims that she might be transphobic or racist. […] It’s true that Laurier did a rather poor job of handling all of this, but I do think they threw an untenured professor of colour under the bus to avoid media scrutiny. His only mistake was comparing Jordan Peterson to someone who committed genocide, when in reality, he is better compared to someone who denies genocide ever happened.

Karl Marx based much of his work around a historical narrative, known as historical materialism. Critical Theory seems to rely on the same type of approach, explaining societal phenomena through historical narratives, in this case race and gender. And as with Marx’s narrative, they are far too simplistic to provide a good account. Which leads to articulating the second problem: not only does Critical Theory seem to overemphasise the importance of oppression and power, but it doesn’t even seem to understand these things very well, since it insists on using simplistic historical narratives.

It makes sense to consider power dynamics when considering Shepherd’s Laurier meeting, as part of a broader analysis. Yet, it makes very little sense to do so based on a historical narrative of white women and men of colour. A far more useful analysis would consider the fact that Shepherd was outnumbered three to one, or that Rambukkana is her supervisor, or that a person from the office of Gendered Violence Protection and Support was in the meeting. These things explain the power dynamics in the meeting quite well, it seems to me, while race and gender explain almost nothing. The fact that some of Shepherd’s critics want to invoke a historical narrative of ‘white woman plays the victim-card to get man of colour in trouble’ to explain the meeting suggests a deeper ideological commitment.

This commitment to historical narrative is common. Consider a tweet by Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay:

Despite the fact that many faculties are majority women, reporting on it is considered inappropriate. Why? Because there’s a historical narrative that women are oppressed, and that narrative is tightly protected, even against nuance. This type of approach has nothing to do with science, of course, where models are updated to fit the evidence. In fact, it’s far more reminiscent of Marxists refusing to give up their historical narrative in the face of counter-evidence. (The philosopher Karl Popper criticised Marxism for precisely this reason.)

The danger of this is that students indoctrinated with these views are increasingly populating mid-level administrative positions outside academia. Do we really want a society where administrative positions are populated by people who analyse workplace situations through historical narratives of oppression? Do we want companies making workplace decisions based on preconceived ideas of white men being tyrants, white women being wolves in sheep’s clothing, and everyone else being victims? Do we really want twenty-something employees being admonished by their bosses for ‘white fragility’ and ‘white tears’?


Uri Harris is a freelance writer with a MSc in Business and Economics. He can be followed on Twitter @safeortrue

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  1. Maurice says

    Critical Theory seems to be dressed up insanity, with academic sounding words thrown in to make it sound legitimate.

    • Uri Harris says

      There are actually some decent insights about mass consumerism, communication, and conformity hidden in there. If the field was just a small number of people making insightful critiques, that would be quite useful. The problem is that it has evolved into this huge quasi-religious indoctrination vehicle where large numbers of students are taught mindlessly to label everything ‘oppression’ by activist professors. At least that’s my take.

      • Lee Moore says

        “There are actually some decent insights about mass consumerism, communication, and conformity hidden in there. ”

        Like what ?

        • Stuart says

          We wait with baited breath. My favorite is the ‘discovery’ that ‘evidence based medicine’ is a system of oppression. What ever critical theory’s benefits are they are comprehensively obliterated by the detriments.

          There is no need to dignify dickheads who say ‘whiteness so fragile’ with the assumption they have some theoretical tradition (which is deserving of something beyond outright scorn) backing them.

          they are racist. Occam’s razor takes care of the rest.

          • Lee Moore says

            “We wait with baited breath. ”

            Well to be fair, Uri has presumably read some of this stuff (saving us the trouble of doing so – thanks Uri) and hey maybe there is indeed some sliver of insight in there. A sliver rising above the banality of a conversation in the pub with a group of undergraduates, let’s hope.

            “they are racist”

            Actually the vision I get is more of religious indoctrination. There was a good scene in Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston was being tried and was unable to deal with the questions because they (a) assumed knowledge of Simian scripture, which he didn’t have and (b) required him to explain why man was a contemptible creature. Not whether.

            Presumably the scene was intended as a dig at human religions esp Christianity. But if you start with certain unquestioned doctrinal axioms – eg the reality and wickedness of the patriarchy – then everything else, not excluding arithmetic, must submit to them. That’s a religion.

            I have to say, en passant, that I agree with Uri that it’s very difficult to see one lil 22 year old white girl being browbeaten by her supervisor and other folk with power over her, as the oppressor, while the browbeater is the oppressed on account of being non white. (Though presumably one or more of the other two may have been white. And one of them, God forbid, may even have been a white male !)

            And even more difficult seeing as she was summoned by them for the oppression session. Wouldn’t a proper oppressor be the summoner rather than the summonee ?

          • Stuart says

            “Actually the vision I get is more of religious indoctrination.”

            No need to over think it in my book. It’s not a slight on Uri, I’ve read a lot of the critical theory nonsense.

            However I feel there is an urge to frame arguments in an unnecessarily intellectual light which I find irritating.

            The person laughing at Lindsay’s white tears is a racist. If that is a result of an educational indoctrination process well so be it, but I remember reading an epitaph once.

            I think it was in Dune. it reads (roughly):

            “its not that power corrupts, but rather that power is a magnet for the corruptible”.

            I find it no small coincidence that a ideological school which allows for overt racism under the guise of ‘oppressed people can’t be racist’ has a great many loud overt racists. Now I could go the easy road and talk about Richard Spenser, but if he was attracted to identity politics on what basis would you assume that someone spouting obviously racist shit against white people isn’t racist.

            This rhetorical nonsense of offering a charitable interpretation to people who have repeatedly demonstrated they are exactly as bad as they appear is exasperating.

        • Russ Erickson says

          Marxism, Hegelian Dialectics and Critical Theory are at least a whetstone to hone the edge off lazy intellectualism. Convince a Marxist that the labor theory of value is insufficient. So too, are we caught between acknowledging that oppression has occured, yet Patriarchy does not describe the scaffolding of economic systems or social order. If we look at demographic facts, more women excel in academia. For those that pursue positions, in getting placed. For those persisting, in being promoted. We are in a crisis of disaffected fragile youth who see no reason to leave the cloister of the parents basement. It is hard to remain as the stodgy old professor who defends the status quo, but it is important to acknowledge that like the library of Alexandria, our common accomplishments are built upon each other and really are progressive. It would be just as easy for this lot of anti-intellectuals to burn it all again.

          • Right or wrong, Marx was a philosopher, such as all classical thinkers. He was not a Messiah, however. Critical theorists, on the contrary, are pseudophilosophers who misinterpret society according to a simplistic theory and reduce everything to their own standpoint. There is a difference.

        • anton says

          Planned obsolescence, conspicuous consumption, pollution, limits to growth, diminishing returns, hidden persuaders, money as debt, virtual wealth, Taylorism, human beings seen primarily as consumers or valued based primarily on their ability to do work, and so on.

          • Lee Moore says

            I’m assuming that anton’s list :

            “Planned obsolescence, conspicuous consumption, pollution, limits to growth, diminishing returns, hidden persuaders, money as debt, virtual wealth, Taylorism, human beings seen primarily as consumers or valued based primarily on their ability to do work, and so on.”

            is an answer to my request for a few non banal examples of Uri’s claim that Critical Theory had provided some

            “decent insights about mass consumerism, communication, and conformity hidden in there”

            I wouldn’t say that all of anton’s list descends to the level of undergraduate banality, but a lot of it is pretty basic microeconomics. Humans as factors of production for example is such a basic economic concept that even Marx spotted it. He didn’t spot the slightly more sophisticated idea of humans as consumers but hey most economists have heard of demand curves. But humans primarily as economic agents ? Depends entirely on context. In other contexts humans are primarily disease vectors, or potential soldiers, or social interaction opportunities. Sounds to me like critical theory may be a bit of a one trick pony.

            Conspicuous consumption has been with us since woad. Pollution ? That’s news provided by critical theorists ? Diminishing returns ? They’re claiming that ?

            Planned obsolescence obviously wasn’t invented by critical theorists – it was invented by the wicked capitalists planning obsolescence. But it falls within a general category of people looking out for their own interests in commercial situations (a sub category of people looking out for their own interests generally.) Planned obsolescence is simply another illustration of Adam Smith’s ancient point that we don’t get our dinner as a result of the butcher’s benevolence. It’s a trade. If people as consumers wanted things that last forever, they’d buy long lasting stuff from suppliers who sold that stuff. Turns out that for a lot of products people don’t care about obsolescence because they’ve worked out that something better will be a long soon. All part of the humans as consumers oppression – humans sit around being oppressed by being able to get more and better stuff for less money year after year. The scale of this oppression can be measured by watching the huge flow of working class Westerners flocking to live in Africa to escape the heartbreaking consumerism of the West.

      • Your secret wish is that you want everyone to agree with you and be happy to agree with you. And then implement changes willingly.

        The take away from CT + PoMo isn’t its contribution to social sciences, it is its structured approach to implementing real change.

        Every single social sciences department should be sued for systemic employment discrimination. That’s what ought to happen, but you fall far short from even hinting at it.

        Either they are hot bed of radical left, or they are not. If they are, it’s because they hired people who thought like them. If they did, then it’s illegal.

        If they are not, then your essay has little merit, and blows an isolated incident way out of proportions.

        So what is it? In the big scheme of change, why should anyone pay attention to what you wrote?

        • Ideally we should have a radical pluralism which does away with ‘convergence politics’, and involves a real plurality of voices – from socialism and even anarchism on the Left – all the way across to big ‘L’ Liberalism, ‘libertarianism’ and Conservatism on the Right. But on most of the mass media ‘convergence politics’ remains. That is ‘convergence’ on a RELATIVE centre – which upon a broader (long view) historical consideration is actually quite right-wing. And if radical (Left) perspectives prevail in certain Social Sciences Departments – they are isolated, for instance, in Economics Departments and in the mass media. We need a rethink across politics just what kind of democracy we want ; that is – meaningful democracy must mean real choice. And if we want real choice and pluralism we need to strive for that across the board. You cannot expect Leftists to give up a cultural foothold where they are systemically excluded elsewhere. Either we try and negotiate a genuine pluralism – or as Marx put it: we just “fight it out”.

      • purge187 says

        You’re spot-on here. And, of course, it’s us no-good, evil cis White men who get blamed for all that oppression.

      • Todd W. Clark says

        Yes, and why is this the case? I’ve wondered for quite sometime how the aspects of Critical Theory that are relevant to that actual critiquing of society (the constructive aspects, essentially) got so feverishly undermined by the power dynamic aspects. Is it from some need to fulfill narcissistic tendencies? Seems odd to me. Maybe Academia just became overrun with pseudo intellectual & idiots?

      • T. W. Clark says

        Quasi? You would know more than I…but I’m under the impression that orthodoxy is the norm pertaining to fields where critical theory is involved. J Haidts Heterodox Academy seems to be a good academic counter to this, and it avoids the ‘doxxing’ issue JBP ran into.

  2. Grumpy Liberal says

    All this SJW stuff has made me learn a lot about modern history, such as the Cultural Revolution in China. Now reading about the Khmer Rouge. I don’t think this will be a nice story…

    • Classical Liberal says

      The Khmer Rouge is one on the worst stories in the world and even today, if you go to Cambodia, which is a lovely place, you can see the imbalances in the age groups where third of the population was slaughtered. Killing Fields is en par, or worse, to Auschwitz.

      • Gilded says

        It sure is terrible how the U.S. backed the Khmer Rouge and gave them supplies

      • But again (as many people have noted) the Khmer Rouge regime was facilitated by US bombing ; so what do we conclude from that? Or from the Indonesian massacres in 1965-66, and the Guatemalan genocide? Evil is always possible – regardless of whether there is a façade of capitalism, ‘Communism’, whatever. One reason we’ve never ended up with the kind of communism Marx would have wanted is exactly because of foreign intervention, isolation, civil war etc. This drives the likes of Lenin or Trotsky into greater and greater extremes re: authoritarianism, repression and centralisation ; which in turn sets the scene for the emergence of Stalinism and the like. Lenin made mistakes and will be held historically accountable for that. Despite the external pressures Lenin may have done better to listen to Rosa Luxemburg, say. Arguably Lenin made promises he could not keep. (because World War I was replaced with Civil War) But let’s hold other regimes accountable by the same standards. After all Stalinism would not have arisen were it not for World War I ; which Lenin described “an Imperialist bloodbath” ; at the time the worst conflict in human history.

  3. I’m having difficulty figuring out how 3 proffessors so confudently reject logic and reason?

    Do I have blind spots as large as theirs? Is this common? I really can’t wrap my head around it.

    I have higher standards for middle schoolers, and at least they are open to new ideas.

    • noman2 says

      There was a joke that the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell used to make. “There are some theories, which are so stupid, they can only be believed by very intelligent people.”

      His point being about Monadism from Leibniz, but it applies to any worldview where very intelligent people go about explaining things away by constantly using their intellect to remove inconsistencies, instead of admitting that the theory itself is complete bunk. It’s why outsiders are very quick to notice the emperor has no clothes.

      That’s why so many academics call themselves Marxists, even though there’s never been a theory that has so resoundingly failed in practice. They just keep inventing more theories to explain away the problems rather than admit the rot at the core.

      “are populated by people who analyse workplace situations through historical narratives of oppression?”

      We actually had that, it happened in China during the Great Leap Forward. Since “class” became hereditary, people spent all their time trying to out Mao each other. What’s 100 million dead amongst friends?

      Even assuming a social observation is accurate, it is not infinitely accurate. Asians were once a heavily oppressed group in America, now they are one of the most dominant groups in everything from academics to business. Continuing to view 21st century Asians in America with the ideology from 19th century Asian Americans is a recipe for disaster.

  4. In a world where theistic religiosity is being displaced critical theory, feminism and post modernism will evolve to be the new state religion in place of theism. The parallels are many, giving answers which must never be questioned, inquisitions, demon exorcism, public confession, unfalsifiable narratives, witch hunts and sinners and apostates.

    • DiscoveredJoys says

      But it’s not yet fashionable to be an ‘Acritical Theoryist’. Perhaps that is the harshest criticism of Critical Theory – without an endogenous alternative as a governor Critical Theory just spins faster and faster until (one day) it will fly apart. I expect on that day Critical Theory (Race) will treat Critical Theory (Gender) as its deepest and most reviled opponent, and vice versa.

      • Lee Moore says

        “Critical Theory just spins faster and faster until (one day) it will fly apart”

        Presumably you mean “fly apart” as a power structure within academia rather than fly apart as a semi-coherent system of thought ? Cos that second ship clearly sailed long ago. Assuming, generously, that anything about it ever floated in the first place.

  5. Joscha Bach says

    I think what we are seeing is much more than a faddish threat to the integrity of the humanities as which we experienced the phenomenon of politically motivated social constructionism a few years ago. This is a movement that is directed against rationalist pluralism as an organizing principle for society. Part of why we are so helpless against ideological totalitarianism is that schools and media have taught that government is an embodiment of moral principles, that problems in society are caused by moral failings of individuals, social groups or people in power, and that the improvement of government works through improving its moral leanings. It seems almost impossible to see it otherwise!
    Yet government is better understood as set of rules that structure the negotiation of the conditions for human survival, a way of structuring and incentivizing the interaction of people acting on what they consider to be their own best interest, for every possible individual idea of what that interest might be. A nonviolent negotiation is only possible in liberal pluralism, and will require a commitment to truth and freedom of speech, and the alternative is totalitarianism, which will have to be enforced with a constant degree of violence or even terror.

    Liberalism seems to have failed large parts of society. If the application of rational norms cannot result in economic success and social status, it may be rational to reject these norms. Why should it matter if some argument is correct, if the result of that logic is that I won’t make enough money to feed my children? It is very tempting to summarily reject the souls lost to identity politics and antiscientific delusions, but they won’t go away, and they will not return to liberal pluralism if they don’t think it is in their best interest. Just as there is no intrinsic sacredness in safe spaces, there is no intrinsic sacredness in truth. Both are tools in the support of whatever interests and values human beings might hope to achieve.

    If enlightened liberalism does not have to offer a perspective for too many people, or if we cannot return the hordes of social constructionist totalitarians back to the fold, we risk the foundations of our societies, and might be headed for a collapse of the social order. I don’t see that the critical theorists have an empirical theory for implementing sustainable rules for running society, and they don’t even seem to see that they cannot replace it with moral certainties. That should scare us.

    By the way, I find Hegelianism to be a beautiful metaphor for a growing rationalist mind formed over many generations of thinkers (and some day perhaps AI). However to see the Weltgeist as a causal foundation of human society instead of its side effect is seriously mistaken.

    • You lost me at “there is no intrinsic sacredness in truth”. That is the very danger that this article correctly warns against. Which mathematical ‘truth’ is the most socially progressive for you? Shall we make Pi equal 3, as that might make arithmetic easier for oppressed, non-white people?

      • Lee Moore says

        I think “there is no intrinsic sacredness in truth” was poorly expressed, but I discerned an underlying thought with which I have more sympathy. Which is “if the truth is that, then I want a different truth.”

        And the search for a different truth isn’t necessarily a signal for postmodernist rejection of the concept of truth. It can be a denial that a particular truth is the most relevant, and that a different truth is more relevant. Or merely that you intend to change the facts on the ground until “the truth” changes to your satisfaction.

        eg “free trade expands the pie = true”

        “I don’t care, if my slice gets smaller = also true”

        … and perhaps more relevant to someone who is faced with the argument that it’s OK if his slice shrinks for the greater good.

    • Matthew Kent says

      Well said! Thanks for articulating these aspects so clearly. I think it’s especially pertinent to contemplate your point that people don’t care about ‘truth’ if it doesn’t actually meet our needs. One of the challenges, it seems, is to provide clearer reasoning and evidence that ‘social constructionist totalitarianism’ does not actually lead to the outcomes that many hope and trust that it would. This necessitates free and open discourse to consider and question together.

      But I also think that there’s a deeper issue, that being unquestioning obedience to any ideology, no matter how good or right we think it is. So much is lost when we lose our humility. Or perhaps more accurately, so much is lost when we’re unable to reintegrate in a more mature and nuanced way the humility and curiosity we had as children. I never considered the irony of this before but embracing an ideology focused on eliminating differences of power is actually, itself, a source of oppressive power when it is enforced unquestionably and upheld absolutely.

  6. Andrija Stupar says

    I am amused that these critical “revolutionaries” seek tenured positions in academia, which is about as establishment power hierarchy as you can get these days. In other words, they have zero skin in their own (declared) game. No wonder their ideas have little currency among the truly downtrodden in society.

  7. DiscoveredJoys says

    Thinking of the Khmer Rouge made me wonder about the costs of Critical Theory (i.e. ‘liberation’) taken to the extreme. If you consider that ‘hierarchy’ is bad and evil – and critically have no idea how to replicate the productivity of hierarchical societies – then a world of hunter-gatherers is the most liberated outcome.

    Unfortunately it is estimated that the world carrying capacity for a population of hunter-gatherers is around 100 million. So, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the ‘cost’ of Critical Theory is around 7,500,000,000 people. On the bright side there would be no universities and no Humanities courses expounding Critical Theory.

  8. Maurice says

    My own un-academic take is Critical Theorists are like pissed off ex-girlfriends who obsessively dwell on the past, and will never get over it.

  9. Another great piece by the prolific Uri Harris, who’s been on an awesome roll of late.

    So, let’s cut to the chase. To a concise outline for concrete action very much driven by Uri’s analysis and that of various others in the general orbit of this publication.

    There’s nothing wrong with activism. Even by professional academics. And let a thousand flowers bloom. We just need to discourage the practice of using an institutional affiliation (classrooms, institutional name) by paid academic employees as a platform for activism as opposed to scholarship.

    To accomplish this, peer review should change in like-minded institutions to become a dual internal and external process. Internal credit for published works (e.g. for tenure consideration) needs to depend on a specialized internal quality review process that evaluates works in any discipline ostensibly concerned with empirical phenomena (not Creative Dance) for their consistency with standard (enlightenment) epistemology and core institutional values, to include dispassionate analysis; clear and transparent reasoning that steers clear of evident fallacies, in the most accessible language consistent with brevity; careful consideration of competing hypotheses, premises and values; the statement of findings that, in principle, are falsifiable and replicable, etc. Negative points should be awarded for publications linked to an institutional affiliation that fall short of these principles (or, for that matter, turns out to include severe statistical errors, unethical methodologies, faked data, etc.).

    To protect the compelling public interest in competitive, open debate, a major exception can be made for moderated forums in which advocates are assigned sides of a proposition such that alternative hypotheses and treatments of the data are assured to be conveyed under the same print binding, event, or virtual publication.

    Structured student assessment of profs also needs to change in like manner to include and given considerable weight to mandatory items that reflect the same concerns.

    Tenure should be pulled back somewhat to provide for separating from profs who are severely failing in their research and/or teaching obligations in this light.

    Because this vision is so different from the status quo for the vast majority of universities in the English speaking world, we need a movement that mobilizes a constituency for change that includes the following:
    – university boards of governors;
    – philanthropists;
    – public sources of funding; and,
    – prospective students and their parents.

    A first step would be to develop a pro-enlightenment set of concrete principles similar in form but complementary to the Chicago Principles, focussed instead on objectives/values, methodologies, and underlying epistemology that could be set out in minutes flat by any decent scholar of the enlightenment or history of science. Then, a movement of coalitions needs to recruit universities to change their constitutions and mission statements to include the aspiration to conform to this doctrine where applicable. With momentum, it can be refined and formalized as a sort of ISO Standard for Empirically Oriented Higher Learning. Universities seeking to develop supportive cultures should be reorganized into faculties that are expected to conform and those that not so expected (see again Creative Dance). Degree titles in such institutions should be aligned with these new groups (ending the Bachelor of Arts). Public analysis of the success of failure of graduates in making positive contributions to society will eventually provide the feedback loop that will encourage appropriate resource allocation across these fundamental groups in the university.

    (What should never be contemplated is the preparation or dissemination of a blacklist, which is an extraordinarily illiberal and misguided proposal down in the weeds that someone well-known to this publication recently proposed in what was presumably a mildly delusional moment.)

    • While I generally do agree with Uri’s article(s) and your suggestion, I think that one correction is necessary.

      I don’t think that blacklists were suggested. Backlists assume that certain activity or persons are essentially banned. This is definitely wrong as it indeed infringes freedoms of expressions and academic freedoms.

      Instead the proposed resource was supposed to deliver disclosure regarding nature of courses and teaching methods of professors, so the students and their parents could make a reasonable decision whether to enroll or not. It won’t be that much different from the existing sites like ‘rate my prof’ where students are leaving positive and critical reviews for their teachers.

      We are all for full disclosure when it comes to consumer protection – in retail, financial and insurance, etc – because we have a right to know the details of the product that is being offered to the public. Why university courses would be any different?

      Maybe an acceptable compromise would be a mandatory self-disclosure by universities, when for each course it would be necessary to indicate whether the course is based on Scientific Method or Critical Theory and whether the prof is practicing teaching methods that are giving preferences to certain groups (like Progressive Stack, where “powerful majority is being dealt with only when necessary”). In this case such description could essentially become a contract, that would allow holding the teachers accountable. I don’t think it would violate the freedom of expression or academic freedom because it is up to the profs to outline the course descriptions.

      • You could do it at the level of the course and that would be a productive interim initiative. Ultimately, though, students select majors and further to your concept of consumer protection it would be preferable for whole departments to be certified, and then for those departments to be aggregated in newly organized faculties that are/are not certified.

        I have only limited reservations concerning ratings schemes for individual professionals (lawyers, dentists) by consumers or third parties. My opposition arises when ratings become a shunning targeting list, marking out one or more individuals for ostracization or worse. My mind goes to the #MeToo context (summary justice by lynch mob); enemies of the state lists under various historical authoritarian regimes/moments; and the naming and shaming tactics used by various bad actors on the far left.

        Individuals are products/services, yes, but they are also physically vulnerable creatures, subject to intimidation, and conscious beings who are ideally contemplating alternative futures/positions/values.

        With respect to the latter concerns, J.S Mill put it well when he argued, “protection … against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.” (Mill, 1859)

        Emphasis on “impose”. Without making a specific analytical case, I think that lists of targeted academics (or ideological/religious adherents) cross a line deep into the territory of “imposition.”

  10. Susan says

    That was the best thing I’ve read in a long time–thank you! Makes me want to read more and understand more. One question though: if we accuse SJWs of using history to blame white men and women of oppression, does that mean that history can’t be used to show that Marxism has historically lead to oppression and death? I think it all has to do with nuance, but it’s tricky.

    • Inanna says

      The difference is really crystal clear if you look at it like this: to blame people for what they did not themselves do is unjust. Blaming people for actions their ancestors (or not even that, those which the same skin color!) took is the great evil of collective guilt, which the nazis took to its logical conclusion. In their minds the Jews were guilty by group association. It was more than mere racism, it was collective guilt and punishment and ultimately a “redemption” and a “purification” of their inherence. Looking for people to oppress and harm and control over their ancestors is not about “not looking at history”.

      On the other hand, using history to point our past systems and experiements that were tried and failed is merely learning from observation. It is a completely different thing. We aren’t going around finding the great-grandchildren of Marxists to take away their civil rights. We are merely studying history objectively to hopefully not have that bloody experiment again.

  11. Bill in SoCal says

    “Do we really want a society where administrative positions are populated by people who analyse workplace situations through historical narratives of oppression? Do we want companies making workplace decisions based on preconceived ideas of white men being tyrants, white women being wolves in sheep’s clothing, and everyone else being victims?”

    Sounds like Googol and the James Damore situation.

  12. Peter D says

    Dropping more bombs on Cambodia, per unit area, than anywhere else ever, as the USA did during the Vietnam war, surely can’t have been a positive influence on the mindset of the Cambodian survivors of said bombing. I rank this factor highly when contemplating the driving forces behind the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

    • KJGex says

      You have a long way to go if you want to get to self-annihilation of a magnitude on par with the Khmer Rouge. Tread carefully when you emphasize too much blame on outside forces, and effectively remove the moral agency of those otherwise eager to justify the means to an end.

  13. ccscientist says

    When everything is about oppression, then you cannot explain many things about the world. Why are Persian and Indian and Nigerian immigrants so successful? Why have Jews in America prospered in spite of overt exclusion from Ivy League colleges for 100 years?
    But worse, the only way to have oppression is to have oppressors and then the only way to prove your virtue is to attack and hate these oppressors who all turn out to be white. It is an easy path for lazy academics but it leads to nothing but hatred and destruction. The kneejerk reaction to hate capitalism is likewise crazy–many of the flaws of capitalism they hate are actually cronyism, not capitalism. They also hate about capitalism the “exploitation” of workers–but workers are not slaves. If you can only find a job on a garbage truck, you are not being exploited you are being saved from being homeless. Sure, it is “unfair” that we all have to work–get over it! Few of the people spouting this nonsense have ever worked a manual job, invented something, or started or run a business. They live in a world of words and words alone.

  14. Gilded says

    Capitalism good, Communism bad. As an example, let me talk about the Khmer Rouge who was backed by the most famous communist country in history. the U.S.A. See? Capitalism good

    • Your comment is typical marxist twisted logic.

      The US have backed many undemocratic gouvernements over the years (Chile, etc.). Fortunately, none of them had a death record that came near the Khmer Rouge’s one.

      This is a sincere application of communists theories by Khmer Rouge, based upon the obvious failure of earlier tentatives (Russia, China), not the US backing, which leaded to such a massive death toll, like it or not.

      • Lee Moore says

        The US have backed many undemocratic gouvernements over the years (Chile, etc.). Fortunately, none of them had a death record that came near the Khmer Rouge’s one.

        The US ally with the highest body count was undoubtedly the Soviet Union. And the reason for the alliance was exactly the same as the reason for the alliance with the Khmer Rouge – an alliance of convenience in a war with somebody else. Not an ideological fellowship.

  15. Critical Theory is more diverse than represented here ; Some critical theorists preach activism – others preach relative academic detachment. Personally I see no problem with ‘activist intellectuals’. Though I do hold on to standards of truth – however difficult that can be to discern sometimes. If there is a problem it is with specific vulgarised interpretations – for instance of intersectionality. (But there are complex and nuanced variations as well!) But again – critical theory is a pluralistic academic movement. Habermas for instance was very much in the Enlightenment tradition – and was a Critical Theorist and effectively a Marxist.

    Also Marx certainly did not hold that nature was a ‘social construction’ ; I cannot think of any specific critical theorist who has argued otherwise. Though my knowledge on Horkheimer, Adorno etc is admittedly limited. re: ‘Communism’ , though; thinkers like Mises carry with them a whole serious of Austrian school Ideological assumptions that reject anything less than a neo-liberal Ideological Utopia – with no mixed economy, no welfare state, no minimum wage and so on. Mises is not a ‘moderate’ ; he is an uncompromising Ideologue.

    On the Khmer Rouge and so on – Marx believed that full capitalist development, a mature working class, abundance – were necessary prerequisites for communism. That would exclude the Khmer Rouge ; It would even exclude the Bolshevist revolution – which effectively had more-radically-voluntarist premises than what had been entertained by previous Marxists. There’s a problem that the author really doesn’t seem to be on top of Marxism ; That said I’m not ‘on top of Austrian economics’ either – except for having read Eric Aarons’s excellent book ‘Hayek versus Marx – and Today’s Challenges’ – which I was very impressed by and wrote about at length…. see here:

    Acknowledging the diverse and pluralist nature of Critical Theory and Marxism more broadly is a good place to start.

    • Thank you Tristan for reminding us that Marx was also wrong on this : despite what he thought, social revolution would not occur in societies where capitalism had gone its full course, but in societies where it hadn’t not. The reason for that mistake is simple : Marx had not foresighted the development of the middle class through the development of capitalism.

      • Thanks Mar ; it was Bernstein and other Marxist Revisionists who pointed out the resilience of the middle classes ; and their continual reappearance in new forms. It was something that was not foreseen by Marx. But a couple of important points. Many of the Revisionists (eg: Bernstein) held on to much from Marx ; Marx’s writings are not ‘holy writ’ – but they remain useful and insightful in a great many instances. As do other writings in the Marxist tradition.

        But also: *attempted* revolutions occurred in under-developed countries. But they did not succeed. (the USSR built up its economy ultimately and became a superpower – but at a terrible human cost ; which discredited socialism in the eyes of many for generations; and arguably its protractedly authoritarian nature contributed to its collapse) People like Martov, Kautsky, Abramovitch – pointed out that forcing a Marxist revolution prematurely could end in disaster. So in a sense Marx *was* right ; Not that a premature revolution could not be *attempted* – but the odds would be greatly stacked against it for such a revolution to succeed.

        That said I’m not a crude determinist. The odds were stacked against the Russian revolutionaries. But what if the Constituent Assembly had been maintained under conditions of dual power? What if the Bolsheviks had not over-centralised? What if they had had the foresight not to go with War Communism? Strategy plays a role here too. But the conditions of 1917 were unique – and Leftists today should not be attempting to replicate the Russian Revolution.

        For me I think a challenge is to retrieve the valid insights of the Marxist traditions for today’s democratic and pluralist Left. The Marxist emphasis on class struggle and the economy is in contrast with much of today’s Left ; re-emphasis on class is necessary to build a broad enough political base – what Gramsci may have called a ‘counter-hegemonic historic bloc’.

  16. Some good points can be found in this article but some misconceptions also: Marx was anything but a “social constructivist”. In fact, Marx was a determinist. On the contrary, Critical Theory reproduces a particular political context in order to construct an approach; the trauma of the Second World War. They saw all western powerstructures as a machinery that lead into genocides, such as the Holocaust. Whilst there are several Critical Theorists who have produced decent works, like Zygmunt Bauman, for example, most of them (especially Foucault and the French School) have attempted to reduce everything to the idea of “oppressive systems” existing in all Western powerstructures. Hence, everyone who does not want to abolish genders, nations and all existing norms is treated as an “apologist of brutality”. All women are rape-victims, all immigrants are denied human rights (no matter if some immigrants are doing better than natives), all minorities are excluded (well… some are! But in most Western metropoles minorities are performing even better than ‘whites’), all homosexuals are targeted and the list goes on…

    Pity, classical political philosophy has been ignored by academics, and many times is vilified as “oppressive” and “eurocentric”. But one can become more critical by relying on classical thought than on the so called “Critical” Theory, which simply reproduces an obsession that everything we see is fascism pure and simple. At least, there is no point to see neoliberals (such as von Misses) as an alternative to this postmodern perversion. One could acknowledge Christopher Lasch, whose perspectives are more convincing to me than both schools (neoliberals or social constructivists). Lasch, Goodwyn and his Populist alternative, are much more relevant than the false dilemma between capitalism vs socialism.

    Some students in the UK have argued against classical philosophy, considering it racist, canonical, oppressive, etc well… Although this claim is another exaggeration (the results of postmodernism) I say yes, let’s include also non-Western thinkers. Let’s add Confucius, Sun Tzu, Gustavo Gutiérrez et al, and instead of we can remove from the curriculum all references to postmodernism: Foucault, Butler, Derrida, Delueze, Lacan, Adorno et al… will the snowflakes like it? I bet no! Hence, their point is not to remove western philosophy but to use non-western philosophy as a Trojan horse for pushing forward a particular political ideology!

    • Carl Grover says

      Ahh. Like is is fascism or Hitlerism. Even the US adored fascist leaders at points.

  17. Adorno wrote before anyone had conceived of ‘postmodernism’ ; but I digress ; Socialism versus Capitalism are real choices – even if there are ‘shades of grey’ in between over the interim ; A ‘Hybrid’ Economy (or ‘democratic mixed economy’) can mitigate many capitalist contradictions in the here and now – though Marxism can at least partially inform such a ‘hybrid’ economic agenda… Capitalism drives innovation and market responsiveness ; It can also be incredibly wasteful ; drive extreme inequality of wealth and power ; and result in economic instability and crisis.

    But Marxism needs to be understood in the context of its full plurality. Consider ‘the relative Centre ground’ following the split on the Left with the commencement of World War One. Often this is posed as a dilemma between Bolshevism and Social Democracy. But also consider that Luxemburg critiqued Bolshevism from the Left. Kautksy, Martov and Abramovitch critiqued Bolshevism from ‘the traditional Marxist Centre’. Practically they were followed for a time by the USPD in Germany ; and later with some success by the Austro-Marxists. Eurocommunism was also significant in the 70s and 80s ; and we will never know what may have happened had Gorbachev been able to realise his full reform agenda.

    The problem with ‘the cultural turn’ and ‘the linguistic turn’ was that it saw the marginalisation of alternative political economy… That’s not to say insights cannot be gleaned from the study of language and culture. But in practice many self-identifying radicals have abandoned any clear alternative economic project ; and the neglect of class has left an opening for Trump and his ilk to appeal to a disillusioned ‘white working class.’ Some of the discourse here is really self-defeating for the Left ; that is: it can allow for narratives on so-called ‘political correctness’ – which in the more extreme instances are used to ‘divide and conquer’ potentially progressive constituencies.

    The aim perhaps should be what Chantal Mouffe considers the articulation of ‘a movement of movements’ against subordination and domination. But this necessitates a more nuanced approach than what we are seeing from some quarters.

    • It’s interesting that neither Marxist nor critical theorists subject their own theories to critical analysis. There are at least two problematic assumptions behind both Marxist theory and critical theorists: 1) there is an epistemology in which it makes sense to say sociological theory can be true or false and 2) critical theory or Marxism is the true explanation of society.

      That is, both Marxism and critical theory presuppose epistemological realism – but also attack the “Western, eurocentric, gendered” tradition of foundationalist epistemology upon which it is based (following Nietzsche & Wittgenstein). “All knowledge if conditional” etc. And if one is an epistemological nihilist, then, a fortiori, one is an axiological nihilist.

      So we have a contradiction at the heart of the project: if there are only systems of power (and only epistemological nihilism) then there would be no moral reason to trust the positions espoused by rich elite Marxists or critical theorists in academia, since we have no moral theory in which to evaluate claims of moral truth or falsehood. It can plausibly be argued that Marxist academics and critical theorists are just advancing their own narrow self-interest in setting up a new priestly caste, funded by state loans and largess of the capitalists. So why prefer them over anyone else? How are we to know that Marxists and critical theorists are advancing the cause of “working class” or the “oppressed” when we don’t have the theoretical basis to do so? They don’t have the epistemological basis for their claim of moral authority, contrary to their constant claims of virtue.

      During all my time in academia, I could not get a straight answer to these questions. I’m beginning to think Marxists and critical theorists are hiding something from us.

      • M ; One response may be to turn to Neo-Kantian or ‘Marburg School’ Marxism. Which admittedly was rejected by the mainstream Marxists of the time. But in choosing ‘a Marxism for today’ we may want to provide an ethical foundation to explain WHY it is that we would want to fight for democratic socialism. And at the same time have some kind of ethical framework re: HOW we go about doing that.

        • Nietzsche destroyed Kantian epistemology for all time in “The Will to Power”; he demonstrated that Kant wasn’t entitled to “the thing in itself” – the distinction between noumena & phenomena collapsed. (That’s the “god is dead” stuff he’s always on about.) The upshot is, there is no returning to Marxism, because there is no suitable epistemology or metaphysics upon which to base it. The post-modernist have the better argument here.

          The contradiction I noted, above, remains, however, for every social justice warrior or identity politics theorist: their theories rely on a type of moral realism (or “ethical foundation”, as you call it) which previous philosophical schools have dispatched. Hence the contradiction: you can’t both negate and posit moral realism. So when liberal academics say they’re “fighting for the oppressed”, they’re not entitled to claim this statement has moral value. We can simply point out that – according to their own theoretical parentage) they’re advancing their own narrative and self-interest. So too with Marxists preaching “democratic socialism”.

          Their at best, idiots, and, at worst, liars. Take your pick.

          • *They’re.

            I should add that if people want to make a positive change, they might make local, small, simple, incremental changes that affect people in their communities. Acts of kindness, etc. Otherwise I think we can be rightly suspicious of grand narratives calling for “democratic socialism” or “social justice”, because these narratives just conceal the self-interest of elites (in this case, academic elites).

  18. Debbie says

    Does any of what they preach/preaches make sense outside of the USA, Canada, Australia and Europe? Have any of these scholars applied their tools to India, Japan, or the D.R. Congo?

  19. Keith Johnston says

    Uri, excellent article. You may find this book: Beyond All Reason The Radical Assault on Truth in American Law By DANIEL A. FARBER and SUZANNA SHERRY interesting. It critiques Critical Race Theory and makes conclusions startlingly similar to those of Dr Jordan Peterson, but in 1997!


    “We can now summarize the fundamental tenets of the new radical multiculturalism. If the modern era begins with the European Enlightenment, the postmodern era that captivates the radical multiculturalists begins with its rejection.

    According to the new radicals, the Enlightenment-inspired ideas that have previously structured our world, especially the legal and academic parts of it, are a fraud perpetrated and perpetuated by white males to consolidate their own power.

    Those who disagree are not only blind but bigoted. The Enlightenment’s goal of an objective and reasoned basis for knowledge, merit, truth, justice, and the like is an impossibility: “objectivity,” in the sense of standards of judgment that transcend individual perspectives, does not exist. Reason is just another code word for the views of the privileged. The Enlightenment itself merely replaced one socially constructed view of reality with another, mistaking power for knowledge. There is naught but power.”

    Unsurprisingly the authors were criticised, not by attacking their argumentation, but by attacking them personally and on the basis that they were: “simply among those who are fighting back on behalf of white supremacy, power, and privilege…” See

  20. sooo this historical narrative bit. This means to say those SJW’s see the world or their world as a system of relations (men in charge, then white women, then POC then trees and kittens)
    which are relations with regard to production(s) ie: stuff, money and development of science. Productions are using resources and “they” claim that the opressed are giving resources (emotional labour) but not getting stuff in return (leadership, fame, adoration) like men do. Correct?

    if so i can see why that would be a simplified world view. People have personality traits, IQ, locations where they live etc. One could aim to democratize that but if certain goals are subseqeuntly removed (without a better one takign its plac) simply because somebody said it was a man’s goal… well we’re fucked then.

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  22. John Gilmore says

    This is an excellent piece; and with anything that is good, you tend to find faults where it could be better.

    in particular, the section where you point out: “There are two main problems with this methodology.”…

    …and which ends with, “the more extensively one identifies and overthrows ‘systems of oppression’, the more extensively one tears away the structure that makes society function.”…

    …simply needs more time and examination. Maybe the piece is long/too long as it is; but i feel like there’s so much more there to be demonstrated. It is really the heart of the matter, but most of the piece seems to focus on throat-clearing preamble and context-establishing (not your fault: its the nature of these things).

    Regardless, this is well done, and you deserve congratulations.

    • Lee Moore says

      “the more extensively one identifies and overthrows ‘systems of oppression’, the more extensively one tears away the structure that makes society function.”……simply needs more time and examination

      I’m sure this could be explored at greater length as you say but I think that sentence captures an important point very clearly and briefly. Society does require some coercive structures to function (both the force of the state and social pressures not backed by force.) After all “liberty” as a philosophical concept is not the same as ‘anarchy” – liberty actually requires that force be applied to prevent individuals from infringing each other’s freedom. To be free to do something means that everybody else has an enforceable duty to refrain from stopping you.

      A coercive structure can obviously be seen as a “system of oppression” – whether you see it as such depends on whether you think the coercive structure is justified or not. So if you take a polity which is thick with coercive structures the likelihood is that you can identify and overthrow quite a lot of them before you get to the ones that are actually essential for actually essential for propping up the structure that makes society function. But the “more extensively” you identify and overthrow “systems of oppression” the more likely it is that you’ll knock away an essential support.

      And having written that, it’s not obvious to me that I’ve added any clarity to the sentence we first started with, which confirms my view that it’s a pretty good sentence 🙂

  23. Mike Danger says

    Sorry but Critical Theory is not about liberation it is about oppression. Various groups seek to dissolve the mainstream culture and establish themselves as the new oppressor and impose their agenda on the unwilling majority.

    As such it represents the rejection and abandonment of the teachings and solutions of Dr. King. Dr. King’s solution was integration: combining separate components into “one” component. Dr. King wanted us to join together into one American culture. Monoculturalism not multiculturalism.

    Individuals are free to live outside societal norms but they must accept the consequences for doing so. It is far more adaptive to find a role/function within the mainstream culture. The concepts of “white privilege”, “cultural appropriation”, “non-binary gender” roles, etc. only serve to “segregate” people from each other. Those who choose to segregate themselves must accept responsibility for the inevitable negative consequences. The alternative, of course, is Dr. King’s solution of integration.

    Darwin introduced us to the concept of evolution and the survival of the species. Adapt or perish…

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  25. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.“

    A long way from the radical idealism you characterize as social constructivism.

    Also, in the paragraph about social constructivism you talk about the “natural consequence”.

    Do you mean logical?

  26. Caligula says

    “Planned obsolescence, conspicuous consumption, pollution, limits to growth, diminishing returns, hidden persuaders, money as debt, virtual wealth, Taylorism, human beings seen primarily as consumers or valued based primarily on their ability to do work, and so on.”

    A list of ills, except most are not even that.

    The first, “planned obsolescence,” doesn’t mean what most people seem to think it means. It does not refer to making something wear out quickly (because any company that tried that in a competitive market would fail) but to using styling and other cues to make one dissatisfied with what one has (even if it still works well) and thus consider replacing it with something new. Perhaps that’s evil, yet the final choice remains with the consumer: if you’re old car/computer/TV/phone work well enough to suit you, no one’s forcing you to replace it.

    Although it’s often not so wasteful to do so, as this creates a market for affordable and functional used goods. Which benefits those can’t afford (or don’t wish to) pay for new ones, yet still want something useful. Such as a car to get to work.

    Conspicuous consumption is similarly a choice, not a demand. Humans remain a status-seeking species, but you remain free to seek status in other ways (or to abjure status-seeking altogether). It’s not as if some evil organization is imposing it on you. Or even as if pre-industrial societies din’t have their own versions of this (potlach, anyone?).

    Pollution is not purely evil, for if you want electricity or medical care or many other things some amount of pollution will inevitably be created in producing these for you. Excess pollution, however, represents a market market failure in that it fails to correctly price externalities. And, umm, perhaps you’ve noticed that socialist countries tend to produce a lot more of it?

    As for being seen “valued based primarily on their ability to do work,” well, yes, in any economic system some will value me for this ability or that rather than for the totality of my being. So? Such “valueing” is how things get done, and so long as there are many things in the world that you can’t produce yourself you’re likely to find that you’re more likely to get these things if you can compensate for them than if you rely on others’ charity to give them to you.

    In short, there’s really not much in this list that’s intrinsically evil or oppressive. Because, the question will always be, “Compared with what?” For if you compare what exists with some impossibly romantic utopian ideal, the actually existing will always come up short. BUT if your idea of paradise is to tear down all existing structures and means by which we obtain what we need, you’re likely to end up starving and freezing in the dark.

  27. Dan Goorevitch says

    It isn’t necessary for all systems of knowledge to lean toward or away from subjective or objective standards. My profession, for example, art, takes the subjective standard of judgment naturally since the object is to objectify the subjective. That’s what a painting is. It would be ludicrous to use any means of measuring and judging but the subjective. But science is a completely different matter. It seeks to order the things of experience, not the human content of them.

    • I’m not entirely convinced by the idea that art is judged only by subjective standards. Certain aspects of it, sure. But there remains the objective question of competence. A painter may have a dazzling and creative conception but may lack the competence to turn it into a painting. Or at least a well executed painting. People at art schools don’t spend their whole time taking drugs and muttering about oppression – they actually learn some of the techniques that are required to turn conceptions into artistic objects.

      Likewise engineering. An engineering solution is never objectively correct (though it can be objectively wrong – if the bridge falls down) – because an engineering problem requires a balancing of competing objectives that requires the use of a subjective value system to reconcile.

      It’s true that an engineered object will probably be easier to judge using mostly objective standards than an artistic object, but I submit that both subjective and objective judgements are used in both fields.

  28. Px Fragonard says

    “Do we really want a society where administrative positions are populated by people who analyse workplace situations through historical narratives of oppression? ”

    This happening already. The NFL has a rule. Players have to be on the field (not in the tunnel, not in the locker room) standing for the national anthem, helmet in left hand, without speaking. The penalty is as high as the loss of a draft pick for the team in question *even for a first offence.* Yet that rule was not enforced precisely because the NFL commissioner analyzed a workplace situation through an historical narrative of oppression. Now there are empty seats and the league will face an enormous problem meeting their payroll obligations.

  29. Paula says

    “I hate you. Accept me!” Yeah, that’s gonna work real well.

  30. Annie Holmquist from Intellectual Takeout did a very fine and interesting interpretation of Uri Harris’s article on Critical Theory (the last of his 3-part series). It was published with the title: The Historical Origins of ‘Critical Thinking’ Theory, Dec 13, 2017. It ran for a short time, enough time to garner 5 comments. Then it was pulled, with anyone trying to read it getting the message: Access denied – You are not authorized to access this page.

    I wanted to read the comments and participate, at least to praise Annie for the insight she passes on to parents. I am a parent and now grandparent and have been really troubled by what seems to transpire as “critical thinking” in school curriculum but which can become an opportunity for encouraging social justice topics and discussions of “oppression”. You can imagine my gratitude to see someone articulate this so well. Here are some excerpts: “ . . . critical theory appears to do away with solid, factual evidence, and instead exerts itself as a feelings-oriented agenda . . . the average individual believes that instruction in critical thinking is a good thing . . . But given the above definition of “critical,” is it possible that the average parent has been misled about the topic? Instead of teaching children to thoughtfully and logically evaluate objective facts, has instruction in critical thinking been teaching them to abandon objective truth and instead follow after activist ideas?”

    In a list of topics for the day, Intellectual Takeout had this descriptor for this article by Annie Holmquist: America has a love affair with critical thinking… but is critical thinking based on rational thought, or an activist agenda?

    Yes, I think parents and public are being misled when they are told “critical thinking” is a big emphasis in schools today. I think much of that activist slant on the topic comes from professional development and the tons of books on the topic, books that have the word “critical” in the title. I think even teachers may be misled as they might reach for a book with critical in the title and it turns out to be Critical Literacy in the Early Childhood Classroom: Unpacking histories, unlearning privilege, C R Kuby, 2013, Teachers College Press.

    There are a lot of books of that nature for teachers. I’m glad I was able to read Annie’s article before it disappeared. This insight is indeed significant. Plus she provided links, one of which led to this series of articles by Uri Harris — very illuminating plus the comments are enlightening as well. If this insight gets out to parents they will be more skeptical about all this hype regarding “critical thinking” in the schools!

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