Deconstructing Critical Theory: Hegemonic Power
As you read through this series, my oft-repeated hope for you is that you're able to connect the ideas presented in this series with the kinds of discussions you're likely to have with family members and coworkers, as well as the types of things that you'll read and see in the media. The term "hegemonic power" does not help me in doing this. This word sounds like the type of thing a family member might go on about after spending a couple of years at community college just to make himself sound smart. It's an awkward word that sounds pretentious in the mouth of basically anyone who uses it.
But, unfortunately, this concept of hegemony is very important in understanding how many people in the United States (and the West as a whole) understand culture and society. Let me explain by sharing a story. Soon after graduating college, I started having conversations with a good friend of mine from high school. She was an atheist, and we'd had several discussions about this before. Our conversations were respectful and enjoyable, so we had them often. I was sharing with her some of my experience doing street evangelism at the local bars with a local college ministry, and she politely shared her concern that what I was doing was practicing colonialism.
Colonialism? You mean, "Christopher-Columbus-sailing-the-ocean-blue" colonialism? To many of you, that may sound bizarre, but after four years at this college, I not only wasn't surprised by this response but expected it. For me, this was a fantastic opportunity to illustrate the difference between critical theory and Christianity, so I brought up this experience intentionally in order to guide the conversation where I wanted it to go.
Why did she interpret my attempts to share Christ with people as colonialism? This question is closely related to the second point in the list of elements of critical theory that I highlighted in the first post of this series, which I got from Neil Shenvi's article on critical theory. That element is:
Oppressor groups subjugate oppressed groups through the exercise of hegemonic power.
In order to explain this, I'll distinguish between two terms that shouldn't be used interchangeably:
These terms are similar but different in subtle ways. The concept of hegemony originates with the 20th-century Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. His work comes later than that of the scholars of the Frankfurt School, but it is influential nonetheless. Hegemony, generally, is a state of dominance that exists either within nations or between nations. In other words, a state of hegemony can be descriptive either of relations between groups within a society or of relations between societies (such as, for example, the United States with the nations of South America). I'll focus on dominance within a nation for this post.
When we think of dominance, Gramsci says, we tend to think in terms of direct and often violent actions taken by one dominant group against one or multiple non-dominant groups. But, he contends, power is often wielded in much more subtle ways. These more subtle ways include the control and manipulation of cultural and social institutions. Instead of wielding the sword against these non-dominant groups, he noticed that it would be much easier to keep the majority non-dominant group quiet if they weren't being killed. Instead, it would be the dominant group's values that would keep these non-dominant groups quiet. This brings us to hegemonic power. Hegemonic power is the means by which the dominant group maintains its state of hegemony. These means include the imposition of values on non-dominant groups. As I pointed out in a recent post, the freedom to proclaim one's values in the public square is a kind of soft power. For Gramsci, this power is guaranteed for the dominant group and kept from the non-dominant groups. Values and claims, then, have a certain function for Gramsci and can be interpreted as a means to maintaining the dominant group's power.
Recall that in the last post, I discussed the claim of cultural Marxists that there are only two types of people: oppressor and oppressed. These two categories are essentially the same as Gramsci's dominant and non-dominant groups (he uses several terms for these groups, as far as I'm aware). The oppressor group maintains its state of hegemony by exercising hegemonic power (i.e., the power of imposing one's values on society) on the oppressed groups. Since the oppressor and oppressed groups are defined in terms of group identity, then we can easily list the characteristics of the oppressor group in the United States:
Along these different group identities, so-called oppressed groups have determined several concepts endemic of the oppressor in maintaining its power. For sex and gender, men maintain their state of hegemony over women by espousing and defending the patriarchy. For race, white people maintain their state of hegemony over non-whites by espousing and defending whiteness. For sexuality, heterosexual people maintain their state of hegemony over the LGBTQ+ community by espousing and defending heteronormativity. And so on.
Let's return to the story of my discussion with my atheist friend. Why did she interpret my experience of street evangelism as an exercise in colonialism? For critical theorists, the United States is to be understood, in part, as being dominated by Judeo-Christian values. (These values, they claim, also maintain whiteness, heteronormativity, and the patriarchy, so Christians tend to be busy oppressors.) In other words, Christians have a position of hegemony in American culture. Therefore, my attempting to share the gospel with someone is an attempt to maintain my state of power over non-Christians. Therefore, to this friend, it is reasonable to compare my imposition of Christian values with the Europeans' attempt to evangelize the New World and other regions, which often led to acts of injustice against these indigenous peoples. What's the result? By obeying the Great Commission, I am actually doing something profoundly evil.
When one buys into the idea that a dominant group seeks to exercise its dominance over non-dominant group through the imposition of power, what is the result? There are three major consequences of this view that are worth discussing:
Since the search for truth is now construed as attempts to maintain power, truth claims are now to be understood, in relation with the group identities of the speaker, as an attempt to gain and maintain power.
This view radically shifts the ethics of discourse in the public square. On this view, making certain kinds of claims is itself immoral.
This view entails that the only way for non-dominant groups to escape oppression is to use their truth claims to take and maintain a new state of hegemony.
First, since the search for truth is now construed as attempts to maintain power, truth claims are now to be understood, in relation with the group identities of the speaker, as an attempt to gain and maintain power. In past posts, I discussed the philosophy of postmodernism. This philosophy, broad as it is, generally construed truth claims as something other than relating to, or corresponding to, reality. Since there are no meta-narratives, different disparate groups tend to vouch for their own visions of reality, even if these visions conflict with one another. I'll highlight two consequences of this, one interpretive and the other political.
The interpretive consequence is that truth claims will not be interpreted as related to truth but, rather, as related to the dominant group. Examples of this consequence abound in our culture today. For example, if a man espouses a pro-life view, he is often castigated as trying to control women's bodies. His claims (i.e., that the unborn child is a human person and is therefore morally valuable and worthy of protection) are interpreted merely as an attempt to maintain the dominant power of the patriarchy. Another example can be found in discourse today concerning interpretations of Scripture. It will often be claimed that certain interpretations of Scripture are wrong because they serve to preserve the dominance of whiteness. Yet another example can be found in the claim that homosexual behavior is sinful, according to Scripture. This claim is often understood in terms of an attempt to preserve the dominant culture of "heteronormativity," the kind of system that thinks of heterosexual expressions of sexuality as normative and good. Other examples can be drawn, but this gets at the basic point.
There are a considerable number of examples of this in the culture today. For example, in July, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which is a part of the Smithsonian Institute, released a chart called "Aspects and Assumptions of Whiteness and White Culture in the United States." They've since taken down the chart because of the criticism that they received for it, but it is nonetheless an accurate representation of what critical theorists think about truth claims. In fact, I read papers in college in which scholars made claims like this, so I wasn't surprised all that much by the chart. Here it is:
One thing that makes this chart so helpful as an illustration is that it claims that we live in a "white dominant culture," or a culture in which whiteness dominates over non-white groups. This is a state of hegemony, and the tools of maintaining hegemony, in this case, are certain values espoused in a white dominant culture. What are those values? From the chart, we can make out a few puzzling "white" values, from an emphasis on hard work to punctuality to, even, monotheistic belief itself. Other white values include a focus on the protection of property in the American justice system, a focus on competition in business, decision-making, planning for the future and delayed gratification, and respect for authority. This is a broad list of values. It also seems like there are plenty of people of color who uphold values such as these. It's okay, though; the chart has an answer for that in that even people of color have internalized aspects of white culture.
From this list of values, let's consider two claims. First, the claim, "Christianity is true." Second, the claim, "there is only one God." According to the NMAAHC, both of these claims, since they espouse Christianity as the norm, are actually expressions of whiteness. Since the dominant white culture maintains a state of hegemony, and therefore oppression, over non-white groups, then these claims serve to maintain the oppressive state of society. Notice, in this analysis, that the question isn't whether either of these claims is true. Truth itself is nothing but bids for power. This is the interpretive consequence. The search for truth is simply lost to warring social groups vying for power.
The political consequence follows from the interpretive. Simply put, if I, a light-skinned Christian male, attempt to make claims such as "Christianity is true" in the public square, the response is more likely to be censure. Why? Because that claim is no longer taken as neutral. Instead, I am attempting to maintain my state of dominance over other people in making that claim. If you want to know why we've lost the ability to have respectful debate in the public square, here it is.
Second, this view radically shifts the ethics of discourse in the public square. On this view, making certain kinds of claims is itself immoral. Consider, again, the chart from above. If claims related to the norms in the chart are to be taken as attempts to maintain an oppressive power structure, then making those claims publicly can be nothing more than evil. Indeed, this is how critical theorists understand the act of making these claims. If wonder why people on the Left tend to react with such volatility to claims of the Right (taken generally), here you go. They believe that the act of making those claims is evil.
The effect of this is that there is no longer any distinction made between the claims one believes is true and the moral status of the person. This has had a very destructive impact on politics in the United States. If the act of making certain claims is immoral, then the response of those who oppose that act will be censure. In other words, people who lean Right will be slandered as evil, white supremacist Christian nationalists whose only concern is the continued subjugation of every other group. In this context, anyone who agrees with those claims is lumped into the same evil camp, since they agree with those views.
But that's the consequence politically. Personally, if one buys into this way of thinking about truth, one simply will not make claims because one thinks that they are true. Support for things such as equity, tolerance, and the like become obligatory. Either fall in line or face cultural censure. Just think for a bit about whether this is how we interact publicly in American society today, and you'll see that what I'm saying is true.
Third, this view entails that the only way for non-dominant groups to escape oppression is to use their truth claims to take and maintain a new state of hegemony. This is, in my view, the most dangerous of the three consequences I listed above. Because espousing norms such as punctuality and decision-making are now, apparently, racist, there is a tremendous cultural pressure not to make these sorts of claims, or else you will face cultural censure. If that cultural pressure is broad enough to cause any dissenters to fear speaking up, then it will seem as if the only perspective in town is that of the Left.
I have said this for a few years now. One of the most dangerous things about critical theory is that it leaves no room open for a shared pursuit of truth, since truth is merely competing bids for power. If that postmodern understanding is right, then it applies both ways. The so-called oppressed group cannot advocate for its perspective without simply gaining power, since advocating for its perspective is an attempt to gain power. Therefore, the only way for the oppressed group to escape its oppression is to beat the oppressors at their own game. In other words, the only remedy to a state of hegemony is a new state of hegemony.
Again, 2020 has shown us exactly that. During the BLM protests and riots, I repeatedly heard supporters of BLM chastise people who opposed the organization by asking them whether they thought black lives mattered. The tactic here is subtle but very powerful. By calling the organization "Black Lives Matter," which is an obviously true statement that the vast majority of people agree is true, the organization could pass, under the banner of that obviously true statement, all of its divisive political agenda. Now, as we see conservatism, and platforms open to it, actively kicked out of the digital public square, we're rapidly reaching this point where dissenters are silenced. The terrifying thing about Gramsci's claims about hegemony is that they justify hegemony, particularly if the dissenting view (now, increasingly, conservative views) is immoral.
Now that we've covered hegemony in detail, let's discuss what Scripture has to say about hegemony.
What the Bible Has To Say
What does the Bible have to say about states of hegemony? This is a question that is difficult to answer. It's hard to find examples in Scripture where one could point to domination (which certainly exists in Scripture) that comes from the imposition of a dominant group's values on non-dominant groups. Cases of dominance in Scripture, such as Pharaoh's domination over the Israelites, seem to be more typical uses of direct force. In other cases in Scripture, it does seem like war against an enemy nation entails war against that nation's values. This has to do with ancient Near-Eastern religious perspective that a war against nations is a war against gods. In short, it's difficult to find examples that could be used in an argument either for or against this philosophy in a direct sense.
It is, however, true in many cases that references from Scripture either directly confirm or contradict certain ideas. When Christians were asking how they ought to vote in the 2020 election, they didn't quote Scripture to directly support either candidate. Instead, Scripture is often used in one of two ways. First, it is used to support or reject values consistent with a particular claim or idea. This is true in the case of deciding who to vote for. Joe Biden supports abortion-on-demand, and abortion is sinful according to Scripture. Therefore, Christians shouldn't vote for Joe Biden (as one of these arguments go). Second, Scripture is said to logically entail certain other claims that either support or reject values consistent with a particular claim or idea. An example of this can be found in debates between Christians about whether the soul exists. People who believe that the soul exists won't usually point to Scripture that directly states that the soul exists (since there is no verse that says that), but they will argue that certain passages entail that the soul exists.
In analyzing hegemony from a Christian perspective, I aim to use a mix of these two tactics to show that hegemony, as a whole, is inconsistent with Scripture. I will focus on multiple claims in order to do this:
The best way to think about truth, from a Christian perspective, is that "all truth is God's truth." Therefore, truth is objective and is to be analyzed according to its correspondence with reality, not in terms of the group identity of the speaker.
Though, at times, claims can be used to oppress people (and this has obviously happened in the past), this is not what truth is.
The best way to oppose false claims, especially if used to justify oppression, is to espouse true claims.
Espousing the truth is inherently good.
From a Christian perspective, the widespread acceptance of truth is a good state of affairs.
First, the best way to think about truth, from a Christian perspective, is that "all truth is God's truth." Therefore, truth is objective and is to be analyzed according to its correspondence with reality, not in terms of the group identity of the speaker. To say that a claim is objectively true is to say that its truth is person-independent. That is, no matter what someone thinks, objectively true claims are true. In order to explain this, let's consider this question: do unicorns exist? Let's assume for the sake of convention that the question is meant to ask whether unicorns exist today, not whether they existed at one time and then went extinct. Let's say that the answer is yes; unicorns exist. Now let's say that you were having a discussion about this with a friend, and you both agreed that unicorns didn't exist because there is no evidence of their existence today. If it is, in fact, the case that unicorns exist, then you and your friend would both be incorrect in thinking that they do not exist, whether or not you believe that they exist. The truth of the claim, "unicorns exist," is person-independent; if true (or false), that claim is true (or false), whether or not anyone believes that it is true. If unicorns in fact exist, and everyone in the world believes that they do not exist, then that doesn't change the fact that they exist.
Genesis 1:1 begins the Bible with a claim: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Is this claim true? Whether or not this claim is true, its truth value (i.e., its having the property of either of "true" or "false") is not dependent on what any person thinks. If it is true, then it is still true, even if every person in the world is an atheist. If it is false, then it is false, even if every person in the world is a theist. This is related to what is called the correspondence theory of truth in philosophy. The correspondence theory of truth holds that a proposition (e.g., "unicorns exist.") is true if and only if it corresponds to the way things actually are. In other words, unicorns exist if and only if unicorns actually exist. This seems like the best way to understand how Scripture views truth (aside from this, it is also the most intuitive theory of truth). If the correspondence theory is the most consistent with Scripture, then it is easy to see how claims such as that in Genesis 1:1 are either objectively true or objectively false.
This is what I mean when I say that "all truth is God's truth." This phrase, common among apologists, is intended to show that truth is of God, grounded in something external to us.
This has two important implications with respect to analyzing hegemony. First, though truth claims can reflect the ideology or group identity of the speaker, they are to be analyzed principally with respect to their correspondence to reality. What do I mean by this? For instance, it is quite obvious that if someone approaches me and starts claiming that there is nothing morally wrong with homosexuality, this may imply some things about the person making that claim. Perhaps this person is a member of the LGBTQ community. Perhaps he or she is merely an ally to that community. Perhaps this person is a so-called progressive Christian, as opposed to a more evangelical Christian. By placing this claim beside other beliefs that I know this person to hold, I can put together a good idea of how this person sees him- or herself. In other words, it is true that truth claims help us to place people in categories. If someone says that God does not exist, then that person, by definition, is an atheist.
While that aspect of truth claims is helpful, however, it is not the most important thing in analyzing the claim itself. For instance, I have been accused of supporting a culture of heteronormativity in saying that homosexual activity is sinful. My response is: maybe, but the key is whether my claims (or yours) are true. It could be the case, objectively, that homosexual activity is sinful, whether or not you'd like it to be morally permissible. By understanding that the foundation of truth is outside ourselves, we realize that we must refer outside ourselves to objective truth, that is, God's truth.
Second, the exercise of seeking truth is an exercise of pursuing something outside yourself. From a Christian perspective, I continually say that to love truth is to love God. This implication carries over to our analysis of hegemony as well. Recall that I said that for critical theorists, competing truth claims reflect warring social groups. Again, there is some truth to this at times. Often, two groups battle over competing views of reality. But for Christians, the key is not which group should or should not be in power. Rather, the key is which view of reality is itself the right one, or the one that most corresponds to reality. This will require us to consider how it is that we come to know truth and to give preference to things such as good argumentation and evidence. Politically, an alignment toward seeking truth means that we can have open and free dialogue without censure. I would contend, then, that Scripture implies that we should have an alignment toward objective truth and seek it as an act of worship to God. Hegemony, in its postmodern claims about truth, contradicts this alignment.
Second, though, at times, claims can be used to oppress people (and this has obviously happened in the past), this is not what truth is. This seems quite obvious to me. As evidence, I'll direct you to the second part of my post on racism. In that post, I defined what I call "classical race theory," which classified people's inherent qualities and abilities based on their physical characteristics, such as skin color. Black people were commonly described as lazy, dawdling, and submissive by nature. Because of this twisted philosophy, Europeans saw themselves as justified in enslaving Africans, in particular, for centuries on the basis that they were slaves by nature. Other examples can be drawn that show that people's warped view of reality leads to injustice. Christians, if we know our history, know this very well, since the earliest Christians were slaughtered by the Romans on the basis that they were atheists, since they didn't worship Caesar as lord. We should, then, have no problem agreeing with the critical theorist that one's claims can lead to and justify injustice.
The key here, however, is that while truth claims can be used as bids for power, that is not what they are. Truth claims simply state some supposed proposition as true or false. And, as I've already said, that claim is true or false independently of what any of us believes. This entails that, if claims are being used to oppress others, the best way to oppose those claims is to show that they are false, which leads to my third point.
Third, the best way to oppose false claims, especially if used to justify oppression, is to espouse true claims. Not only is this the best way to oppose false claims, but it is the way people have done it in the past. If you read slave narratives and accounts, those written by former slaves in the United States, they often argued for the end of slavery on two grounds. First, the institution of slavery contradicts the values of the United States, particularly the contention in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." Second, they argued that claims about black people, which were based on classical race theory, were false, that black people were not lazy, dawdling, stupid, or submissive by nature. By holding America to account for its inconsistency with its own principles and undermining the philosophy justifying their oppression as an enslaved group, they achieved abolition. Over time, more people became convinced of these claims, such that today, the vast majority of people reject classical race theory. This is incredibly significant. The abolitionist movement (spearheaded primarily by Christians) succeeded by espousing the truth and opposing error. Of course, the whole story is more complex than that (and always is), but this aspect should not be ignored.
This, however, directly contradicts critical theory in its claims about hegemony. By denying objective truth (particularly, as we saw above, as supporting a culture of "whiteness") critical theorists have removed any standard by which the truth can be discovered and defended. This allows them to simply label opposing views as evil and silence those who hold them. The ironic thing about all of this is that critical theory's own claims seem to justify injustice, in particular, in their opposition to freedoms of speech and religion. The goal can't be to convince people, for what are you convincing them of? The goal, then, is to be the loudest voice and label dissenters as evil and unworthy to be listened to. Again, 2020 has made obvious these tactics by those who support critical theory.
Fourth, espousing the truth is inherently good. In short, in its support for hegemony, critical theory calls evil good and good evil (see Isa. 5:20). Since spreading Christianity maintains the power of a dominant Christian culture, evangelism is immoral ("colonial," as my friend called it). Therefore, to share the gospel is immoral and oppressive. My answer to this is no. Sharing the gospel is not only good, but I must do it in order to be obedient to my God.
Let's consider this possibility: homosexual activity is objectively immoral. Let's say that God has created human sexuality for His purposes and defines its boundaries and has defined that having sex with a member of the same sex is against His will in creation. Should we, as Christians, espouse this view about human sexuality? Is espousing it the right thing to do? If you are a critical theorists, the answer seems to be no, since this claim maintains the dominance of the heteronormative culture. But, if you are a Christian, it seems right to espouse the truth, even if others don't like it. In fact, to tell someone in the LGBTQ community that God is fine with their homosexual behavior is not only false; it is lying to that person for the sake of his or her feelings. This is profoundly important for us as we learn how to navigate these issues in our culture. As Christians, we need to be aware that, since all truth is God's truth, telling the truth is inherently good, no matter the censure we face. Don't let someone who isn't in Christ tell you how to follow Him.
Finally, from a Christian perspective, the widespread acceptance of truth is a good state of affairs. Sometimes, Christians get asked what I think is a bizarre question. They are asked, "Would you prefer if everyone was a Christian?" The question seems to be politically motivated as a trap. If the Christian's answer is yes, then he apparently wants a theocracy, which allows the media to malign him and dismiss his views. If the Christian's answer is no, then it means that he should prefer a full separation of church and state that, defined as it is today, excludes his religious views from the public square. The rhetorical trap aside, the answer, it seems to me, is obviously yes, if by "Christian," you're talking about a genuine follower of Christ. Obviously, if I believe that salvation is possible only through faith in Christ, then for the sake of loving others, I must desire for others to be saved. That is a no-brainer.
For critical theorists, however, this desire is nothing more than a desire for cultural dominance (and the power that comes with cultural dominance). The achievement of the Great Commission, which is the ultimate goal of spreading the gospel globally, is nothing more than a form of colonialism. If you want evidence of this sentiment, see this article on Slate about John Allen Chau, a missionary who was killed in Ecuador in 2018 by a tribe he was trying to reach with the gospel. As the article points out, all over mainstream media, he was accused of "cultural imperialism" and called things like a "failed colonizer" and "American dickhead."
But, for Christians, all truth is God's truth. This means that the widespread acceptance of truth is a good state of affairs. It is also inevitable, as we know from Philippians 2:8-11 (NASB; emphasis is my own):
"And being found in appearance as a man, [Jesus] humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death: death on a cross. For this reason also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
Either way, all will one day know the truth. Will they be Christ's when His glory is revealed? We ought not fear when people oppose our obedience to Christ. Simply keep obeying and trusting in Him.
Again, don't let people who are not in Christ tell you how to follow Him. Critical theory calls evil good and good evil, and we should absolutely follow Scripture, particularly when it comes to fulfilling the Great Commission. One of the aims that I have in this series is to show that critical theory and the Christian worldview provide alternative and conflicting frameworks for the world. Christians need to be clear about how they conflict and prefer the framework of the Christian worldview. I've focused so much on evangelism in this post for this reason.
That's it for another lengthy post! Though these posts are long, I hope that they've been informative and edifying so far. Next time, I'll be discussing how critical theorists find solidarity in a common experienced of perceived oppression. Stay tuned for that post in the coming weeks! If you have questions or would like to reach out to me to discuss these things, feel free to comment here or to send me an email or message on Facebook. If this blog has been helpful and interesting for you, feel free to subscribe to be notified of any new posts. Finally, if this post would benefit anyone else, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks for reading!