Activism, Culture Wars, Diversity Debate, Social Science, Spotlight

Meet Critical Theorists’ Latest Target: Critical Theorists

Ole Wæver, a professor of International Relations at the University of Copenhagen, would seem like an unlikely subject of academic controversy. He’s written extensively on Conflict Studies, and served as a member of the Danish Government’s Commission on Security and Disarmament Affairs, as well as the Danish Institute of International Affairs. He also is widely recognized as the co-founder of a discipline known as Securitization Theory, along with British international-relations professor Barry Buzan. “Securitisation theory shows us that national security policy is not a natural given, but carefully designated by politicians and decision-makers,” reads one introductory online text. “According to securitisation theory, political issues are constituted as extreme security issues to be dealt with urgently when they have been labelled as ‘dangerous,’ ‘menacing,’ ‘threatening,’ ‘alarming’, and so on by a ‘securitising actor’ who has the social and institutional power to move the issue ‘beyond politics.’ So, security issues are not simply ‘out there,’ but rather must be articulated as problems by securitising actors. Calling immigration a ‘threat to national security,’ for instance, shifts immigration from a low priority political concern to a high priority issue that requires action, such as securing borders.”

Wæver’s theories about the machinations of those in power are situated within the larger “critical theory” movement, an outgrowth of modish late-20th century literary theory, whose adherents seek to strip away outward symbols and challenge society’s power structures. It is a mainstream movement among progressive scholars. And Wæver himself is the furthest thing from an alt-right ideologue. Indeed, his entire oeuvre (which often is described as being part of the “Copenhagen School”) may today be seen as a rebuke to the demagoguery of bellicose populists. And so it is ironic that the scholar now has been accused of exploiting “power structures” within his own academic circles.

This sort of internecine dust-up has become common in academic, activist, artistic, and literary subcultures, of course, especially insofar as it manifests as an ideological purity spiral. And it is not a new phenomenon. More than two centuries ago, Jacques Mallet du Pan described the same pattern in his own era with the quip, A l’exemple de Saturne, la révolution dévore ses enfants” (“Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.”). But critical theory and its myriad offshoots (of which “Critical Race Theory,” itself a sub-branch of “Critical Legal Studies,” is perhaps the most widely known and influential variant) is especially vulnerable to such squabbles. That’s because, by its own explicitly espoused doctrines, critical theory purports to offer a totalizing moral critique of all power structures—including, as it turns out, the power structure within the critical-theory academic pantheon itself. It is one thing for Saturn’s lettered grievance hunters to metaphorically feast on children in hypocritical defiance of their own social-justice mantras. It is quite another when those same mantras not only formally excuse, but actually demand, such scenes of gluttony.

Like similar controversies, the furore surrounding Wæver emerged from sub-cultural obscurity. In August 2019, Security Dialogue, a peer-reviewed academic journal owned by the Norwegian Peace Research Institute Oslo, published an article co-authored by two young academics entitled Is Securitization Theory Racist? Civilizationism, Methodological Whiteness and Antiblack thought in the Copenhagen School. Given that Security Dialogue typically publishes articles with headlines such as Ontological insecurity in asymmetric conflicts: Reflections on agonistic peace in Turkey’s Kurdish issue, it should surprise no one that Is Securitization Theory Racist? quickly became a sensation within this narrow academic silo. This is owed in part to the authors’ dramatic claim that securitization theory is not only flawed, but so irredeemably racist as to be beyond salvation. To quote the abstract: 

This article provides the first excavation of the foundational role of racist thought in securitization theory. We demonstrate that Copenhagen School securitization theory is structured not only by Eurocentrism but also by civilizationism [the belief that civilizations, especially in the West, are threatened by other civilizations], methodological whiteness [a vague term signifying the claim that white individuals presume their own aesthetics and experience as constituting an analytical baseline for wider thought], and antiblack racism. Classic securitization theory advances a conceptualization of ‘normal politics’ as reasoned, civilized dialogue, and securitization as a potential regression into a racially coded uncivilized ‘state of nature.’ It justifies this through a civilizationist history of the world that privileges Europe as the apex of civilized ‘desecuritization,’ sanitizing its violent (settler-) colonial projects and the racial violence of normal liberal politics. It then constructs a methodologically and normatively white framework that uses speech act theory [a critical practice that seeks to unmask the “normative structure implicit in linguistic practice”] to locate ‘progress’ towards normal politics and desecuritization in Europe, making becoming like Europe a moral imperative… We conclude by discussing whether the theory, or even just the concept of securitization, can be recuperated from these racist foundations.

The authors, professors Alison Howell and Melanie Richter-Montpetit, included a line to the effect that “the argument presented here is not a personal indictment of any particular author,” a caveat presented as a corollary to the general principle that “epistemic racism is intrinsic to Western knowledge structures, and not merely a failure of individual scholarship.” The (largely semantic) conceit here is that the movement’s creators and stewards, i.e. Wæver and Buzan, should not be regarded as morally culpable in and of themselves. Rather, they are merely to be regarded as ignorant conduits of institutionally racist subcurrents buried so deep in the foundations of the Western intellectual tradition as to be invisible to all but an ultra-enlightened vanguard (into whose ranks Howell and Richter-Montpetit naturally place themselves).

I have exchanged emails with Wæver, who was forced to walk a line between defending his scholarship and exposing himself to further accusations. In our correspondence, he seemed exasperated and fatalistic, because it had become clear that good-faith debate was impossible. This is because a key precept of anti-racism studies is that the very act of defending oneself from charges of racism may itself be interpreted as an act of harm or even “violence.”

In an interview with the Danish university magazine Uniavisen, Wæver described how painful it was to see his life’s work being attacked in this way. He also called out the editors of Security Dialogue, who, he says, undermined his and Buzan’s right of reply, insisting on delaying publication for months as they combed through the text for any word that might be seen as offensive. “Personally, this has been a real low point,” he said. “I’ve never felt so bad about my job, my career and my life as an academic. I’ve really never felt so alienated. What the hell am I doing here? Why have I spent my life on this?”

In their published reply, Wæver and Buzan dispensed immediately with the claim that this was anything but a personal attack. “We are the main architects behind securitization theory, and thus we must be responsible for placing this allegedly racist thought at the theory’s foundations,” they wrote. “[The] target is ‘classic’ securitization theory, sourced uniformly to our texts, so we obviously stand accused of a racist deed, their disclaimer notwithstanding.”

Wæver and Buzan also criticized the bombastic tone of the article, which often lapsed into almost comically broad claims, such as: “Securitization theory overlooks the power politics of social security and cannot see how Western welfare state social security systems support white (settler) heteropatriarchal forms of life, such as the nuclear family.” In a May 15th tweet, following Security Dialogue’s decision to finally publish Wæver and Buzan’s reply, he described his critics’ methodology as follows: “Strange combination of extreme conclusions & aggressive allegations with very weak textual analysis: the article miscites, misunderstands, makes things up, demonstrably misrepresents, use guilt by association: You cite Durkheim? Arendt? You’re racist!” In his thread, he also echoed others who’ve criticized the ideological overreach of Critical Race Theory insofar as it devalues real racism by defining the term in such a diluted way so as to swallow up every imaginable strand of Western thought.

“What’s most problematic is that there are more and more people on all sides who feel more and more frightened,” Wæver told me in a phone conversation. “It is harmful that both people on the Right, and also people on the Left—to simplify the map a bit—operate simplistic categories that deny legitimacy to whole fields of research. That goes for concepts like ‘identity politics’ and ‘grievance studies’ as well as using the term ‘racist’ on everything that is not organized around anti-racism as a key concept.”

Despite all his concerns, Wæver said he still supports the larger ideas behind critical theory, and pronounced Critical Race Studies, in particular, to be “a legitimate and important field of study for uncovering forms of power too long left unchecked within and beyond international relations.” Perhaps anticipating the manner by which any third-party criticism of Howell and Richter-Montpetit would be weaponized in a way that portrayed him as a bully, or even a misogynist, Wæver pre-emptively sought to “call upon all those who have supported my criticism of the paper to abstain not only from direct acts that make wider circles of critical scholars feel unsafe, but from rhetoric that facilitates such acts.” As described below, this effort was in vain.

Although these developments initially attracted attention among academic specialists, little of it gained wider international attention. It was only in mid-May, when a group of more than 200 feminist and Critical Race Theory scholars signed a letter denouncing Wæver’s attempt to defend himself, that the issue went viral on social media. Unfortunately for the signatories, most of those learning about the issue had little knowledge of (or interest in) the complex backstory. They were simply bemused by the strange mash-up of academic jargon and inexplicable patois employed by Swati Parashar, the Gothenburg University professor who helped lead the effort to publicize the manifesto.

The signatories accused Wæver and Buzan of not only conducting an “orchestrated assault” against Howell and Richter-Montpetit, but also of conspiring to more generally “silence women, persons of colour, queers, feminists, anti-racist scholars and other critical voices.” The Wæver-Buzan critique of Howell and Richter-Montpetit’s methodology, the signatories contended, was simply a ruse aimed at allowing the two men to “evade accountability or authentic engagement.” As Howell and Richter-Montpetit had done implicitly, Parashar and her co-signatories sought to present the creators of securitization theory as not only misguided, but morally contaminated, or even malevolent. Their manifesto ended by explicitly accusing the two men of perpetrating “a form of violence.”

Despite Wæver’s own public pleas to confine critiques of Howell and Richter-Montpetit to “specific problems [with] this article,” the social-media response to Parashar’s overwrought text was precisely what one might expect. “The right is having a field day,” lamented Wæver. “Exactly as we warned about, the original article is feeding a backlash.”

This in turn precipitated yet more counterclaims. “No, Ole,” tweeted Lisa Tilley, a lecturer in politics and Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. “The abusive hard right backlash was generated by your multiple coordinated public interventions.” As with most fights of this nature, both sides came off the worse for the exchange.


Writing in the Guardian earlier this year, University of Exeter lecturer James Muldoon lamented that efforts to “decolonize” academia are still facing “scepticism and resistance.” He admonished such sceptics to “realise that the campaign is not a witch hunt, but a legitimate concern about addressing how the forces of racism and colonialism have shaped our past and present… This is a campaign that all academics should be actively promoting in their departments—as many already do.”

Putting aside the often arcane debate about just how much “racism and colonialism” is embedded in school curricula, the saga of Wæver and Buzan helps illustrate why even many liberals now greet such seemingly well-intentioned “decolonization” campaigns with “scepticism and resistance.” Few would object to the proposition that including voices from all corners of the world is important. But the impulse to read hidden forms of bigotry and power abuse into every imaginable text inevitably has caused critical-theory-inspired movements to overshoot their mark, and even to turn in on themselves. Many progressives cheered when heterodox thinkers such as Noah Carl and Bo Winegard were academically deplatformed. But Wæver’s theories aren’t even at odds with standard critical-theory dogma in regard to international security—at least, not until two scholars suddenly denounced his legacy as racist.

If men such as Wæver and Buzan, widely-feted leftists and giants of their field, are subject to academic lettres de cachet, then no one is safe from arbitrary denunciation. Yes, the enterprise of academic inquiry has always relied on the necessarily corrosive cycle by which one generation of scholars challenges the presumptions of its precursors through a steady accumulation of new research and theoretical understandings. But that is not what happened here. What played out in Security Dialogue was character assassination dressed up in semi-coherent academic argumentation. And when the targets complained about it, they simply got more of the same.

Wæver has dedicated his career to the idea that some of the most consequential forms of political activity and statecraft should be viewed through the lens of unspoken societal power hierarchies. And like critical theory more generally, his theory contains a grain of truth, and may even be useful as an analytical tool in some contexts. Unfortunately, critical theory and its offshoots often are invoked not as mere analytical tools, but as totalizing creeds, complete with the attendant schisms and inquisitions.

Wæver himself now has been denounced as a heretic, and his professional prognosis remains uncertain. My last email to him got a bounce-back reply, indicating that he was away on sick leave. Given the state of his field, one might ask why he’d ever choose to come back.

 

 

Kathrine Jebsen Moore grew up in Norway. She now lives with her husband and four children in Edinburgh. Follow her on Twitter at @jebsenmoore.

 

Comments

  1. I propose a drinking game where we all take a drink every time a Critical Theorist says something that is true.

    Mitt Romney has a head start on us; he’s been playing the game his entire life.

  2. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again. One cannot treat deranged, lunatic people as if they are reasonable, well meaning people. The stress is liable to damage one’s own software, and make it buggy. Don’t do it. It’s the same with the news cartels: don’t consume that stuff. Treat your mind with some respect. Really.

    There is no need for arguing and carrying on. Listen politely. Let the midwit finish blurting whatever it is. Then resume normal discourse. That’s all there is to it.

  3. This is because a key precept of anti-racism studies is that the very act of defending oneself from charges of racism may itself be interpreted as an act of harm or even “violence.”

    This is known as kafkatrapping: the idea that opposition to the radical viewpoint proves the radical viewpoint. Minorities who question it have internalized their oppression, and privileged individuals who question it prove their guilt.

    It was defined by Eric S. Raymond in his essay that I recommend you all read and share: http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=2122

    It is also worthwhile to re-read a Quillette piece from 2018, https://quillette.com/2018/12/11/sad-radicals/ wherein a former Anarchist describes life inside the Far Left as cult-like and sad.

    What played out in Security Dialogue was character assassination dressed up in semi-coherent academic argumentation.

    This is a carbon copy of a Maoist denunciation and struggle session. Someone really needs to do a retrospective on the Cultural Revolution and connect the dots to today’s western culture, because there are a ton of similarities. History rhymes.

  4. the Norwegian Peace Research Institute Oslo

    Not to be confused with the Oslo Research Institute for Peace Norway.

    Sad but inevitable story. Academia has become barren and toxic (and a minefield). The only solution is to let it lie fallow for 100 years.

  5. Given how easy it is to lob a rhetorical hand grenade and how common it has become in society, I am surprised we see articles like this. We passed the point long ago when everything was declared racist. Why should it be any different in academia? In fact, isn’t that where it all started?

  6. " using the term ‘racist’ on everything that is not organized around anti-racism as a key concept.”
    That pretty well sums it up, and it is precisely where we are today. Open up those re-education camps! Oh, that’s right, they are already open and are politely called ‘universities’ and ‘colleges.’
    All this polysyllabic gibberish produced by chronic brain flatulence is just the same old, overwrought communistic wine in different bottles. But it is fun to see them devour each other. Perhaps with any luck we will not have to suffer the indigestion.

  7. In our correspondence, [Wæver] seemed exasperated and fatalistic, because it had become clear that good-faith debate was impossible.

    No soot, Sherlock. Two no-name women academics decided to make (or at least try to) a name for themselves by tearing down you, (one of) the Founding Male of the field. And you can’t even accuse them of this, as that would constitute retaliation by the rules of the game.

  8. Not being an academic, I have never heard of “securitization theory”. But if the author’s explanation is anything to go by, it sounds that many academics have discovered that politicians often overstate the “threat” posed by whatever they oppose, often wrapping it in terms of national security. And they do it for personal/political gain.

    Well, duhhh!

    It sounds like 'securitization theory" is worse than racist or sexiest or civilizationist. It is trivial.

  9. They argued. The right- their bogeyman- got out popcorn and said “This is awesome.” Each is now pointing at the other screaming “you’re making our side look ridiculous!”

  10. Despite all his concerns, Wæver said he still supports the larger ideas behind critical theory, and pronounced Critical Race Studies, in particular, to be “a legitimate and important field of study for uncovering forms of power too long left unchecked within and beyond international relations.”

    Which is why I have exactly zero sympathy for Waever. He’s not really complaining about the pernicious influence of critical theory on the academy and how it’s used to target people, just like he has done; he’s complaining because he, one of the good guys, has been mistakenly targeted. Live by the sword, Professor Waever, die by it.

  11. It’s good to see Quillette still defending academics against the mob, but Critical Race Theory has escaped from the asylum and is rampaging through the rest of Western society like Frankenstein. Every night for a week,. a large mob has marched past my window. I sympathise with their distaste for the constabulary, but why do they have to make it all about race? Many of them not only say that disagreeing with them is a crime, but even remaining silent is ‘violence’ - if you’re white! Whilst there is obvious evidence that cops murdered George Floyd, there’s no evidence that it’s because he was black.

  12. I can simplify and broaden the moral of the above article.

    According to the Politically Correct cult: Anything made by white males is wrong because they are white and men. It is our duty to rage hysterically against civilization and progress because being self-righteous is fun and emotionally rewarding. Reason, proof, objectivity and functionality are not important to our theories… FEELINGS are. How we feel is all the evidence we need that our ambiguous and absurd world views are completely correct. Anything you say in opposition to out theories will result in you being branded by a new derogatory made up term (Islamaphobic, Homophobic, Climate Denier, Incel etc…). We use agreed upon personal attacks and derogatory terms as opposed to arguments. This way all of the cult can be included in our hyena-like mob actions.

  13. I couldn’t get over the the assertion that “epistemic racism is intrinsic to Western knowledge structures, and not merely a failure of individual scholarship.” Presumably this assertion is based upon the belief that arguing on the basis of empirical evidence, rather than cumulative anecdote, is inherently ‘White’ and thus not to be trusted. Such a shame the Intersectional Left is so hamstrung by the objective facts on the ground, in attempting to ‘prove’ their deranged theories… and so much for the scientific method.

    A while back, I watched a talk from Australia in which the person introducing the speaker joked that one could no longer preface ones thoughts with “As you know, …”, because it constituted a micro-aggression against those who know nothing.

    Astute observation. Really.

  14. Wow. I am really torn about this story - thank you @ Kathrine for sharing this little jem. One the one hand, it would appear from afar that Waever is a victim of what I (hopefully correctly) assume to be a baseless attack by critical theory feminists. And having read about countless men whose careers were torn to shreds (and livelihoods threatened) as a result of baseless accusations of sexism, misogyny, oppression and the like, especially in a post MeToo world, part of me wishes to give Waever the space to defend himself (and of course I encourage him to do so). This instinct is particularly strong given the nature of his accusers and in particular the field (critical theory) that they stem from. I have some some due diligence, and after having invested 45 minutes - trying to maintain an open mind - to listen to a torturous tortuous and lunatic interview with Sophie Lewis (author of Full Surrogacy Now) who argues that the fetus is imposing “gestational labour” on the pregnant surrogate (effectively a pregnant woman), which is the most absurd thought that I have ever come across, and reprehensible beyond belief. Simply deranged. And after the grievances studies affair, I am all too aware of how insane the so called rhetoric can be, and if Howell and Richter-Montpetit are cut from the same cloth (which I am fairly confident that they are), then my automatic instinct is to be sympathetic to Waever.

    But then I stop myself and realise, what am I doing? I just spent a few minutes articulating a rational position and defense in respect of a man who is the architect of what appears to be a largely bogus “academic” discipline (which may have a very narrow use case of usefulness if one is minded to be charitable) which appears to be rooted in post-modernism. To sum up Securitization Theory, this field uses a lens of power to describe which national security issues a leader or government decides to focus on, and how it is that the governments go about doing that (and what language they use to do it), and what impact policy decisions have on different actors, and how polices can become a tool to cause insecurity in some groups. That’s it! You don’t need Foucault or Securitization theory to do any of this. Just common sense and logic (oh but wait, both of those are tools of the oppressive patriarchy. My bad) and the type of topic that used to be covered by “poli sciences”.

    But before leaping to conclusions, I perused some of the links provided by @Kathrine, including the following.

    Even this particular page cites the following quote:
    Whether one agrees with the wideners or the narrowers, the end of the Cold War indicated that security was an essentially contested concept – ‘a concept that generates debates that cannot be resolved by reference to empirical evidence because the concept contains a clear ideological or moral element and defies precise, generally accepted definition’ (Fierke 2015, 35).

    Of course this is the case, if any of this cannot be tested empirically, then whatever you argue become nothing more than a collection of crazy rhetorical questions, armchair theories and pure ideology that does not deserve a place in the Academy. This is what is it called “Feminist Theory”, “Securitisation Theory”, “Critical Race Theory”, because they are all **THEORIES by academic losers who would not know how to spell “Null Hypothesis” to save their souls. The fact that post-modernist fields are considered academic disciplines is embarrassing beyond belief and makes the curriculum of Madrassas look rock solid in comparison.

    But I am guilty of tarring everyone with the same brush? I invite you to look for yourself, and if you go and take 6 minutes of your time (which admittedly you will never get back) to listen to the two accusers on video, here, you will here the lunacy of their proposition. Their article should be renamed “In defense of chaos” which would be more appropriate and fitting. I mean the kitchen sink is thrown in by these authors, "Foundational racism, black racism, colonialism, Euro-centricity to name a few, and my favourite “…echo her idea and argue that white security is parasitical”. Wow, you could not make this stuff up. Even the social justice manual of the radical left doesn’t yet appear to have been updated to this latest edition of lunacy.

    These departments need to be de-funded urgently (to the extent they are in any way publicly funded). This is all Foucault post-modernism which is really a cancer which is responsible for a lot of the ills in academia, the media and ultimately society. And to think that your daughter (or son) could end up in such a program, it’s like joining a cult where suddenly all you see is power and oppression at every turn - true ideological possession. To the extent that a fetus is capable of exerting power on a mother. This is a cancer. Sick to the core.

    If you are feeling disdain on my part, you are absolutely right. Waever, I wish you luck defending yourself as you are probably a decent person (at the very least I am willing to agnostically grant you the courtesy of presuming your innocence), but at the same time I struggle to muster any pity for you as you appear to be just another perpetrator of this gargantuan mess of a so-called “discipline” which is spilling over into other adjacent disciplines as a consequence of people having been too polite and libertarian to have denounced these fields earlier. Destroy order through post-modernism, and you get chaos - are you are surprised about your predicament? Well, you created a Frankenstein here and brought it upon yourself.

    If you do a deal with the devil and argue that logic, reason and science are mere tools on an oppressive hierarchy and that nothing can have a canonical interpretation, then you cannot prove anything. And if you cannot prove or disprove anything through empirical testing (or in rare instances, pure reason as was the case for Kant’s attempt at explaining the architecture of metaphysics), it needs to remain as a theory. Well, it turns out that Howell and Richter-Montpetit have a theory about your work being racist. So how are you going to prove your way out of that one if there is no canonical interpretation?

    I think I heard someone from the back of the audience yell “believe all women”.

  15. Incidentally, about academia and affirmative action. Suppose that for whatever reason you’re not academically good enough to be good lawyer, but would make an excellent plumber. You would be much happier in life doing excellent plumbing work than losing case after case as a lawyer.

    (A few years ago the ABA estimated that about half of American lawyers are not just - by definition - in the lower half of legal ability, but literally incompetent. This caused great distress through the land, how-did-we-ever-reach-this lamentation. But wouldn’t this be what you would guess, as a ballpark figure?)

    But for the people who love affirmative action, it is not really a question of whether someone will be a good lawyer, or a happy one. They strongly believe that only the life of the yuppie, the young urban professional, is truly worth living. Anybody who isn’t in that class is part of the undifferentiated mass of the lumpenproletariat, those who exist to fix things in the yuppie’s house or make sure the yuppie has food and gas as he does his important work.

    One’s college major, therefore, is for these people the equivalent of the Christian judgment after death, of going to heaven or hell. No wonder they are mortified if one of their own children becomes a heretic and goes to hell - I.e., doesn’t particularly want to be a lawyer or accountant or professor (what else can anybody be?).

    This is why they insist on affirmative action; it’s missionary work. Those from the dark continent should also have at least some chance of being saved.

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