Deconstructing Critical Theory: Oppressed and Oppressor
When Karl Marx set out to interpret the structures of the societies of the day (the mid- to late-1800's), his philosophical system claimed that structures of a capitalist society inevitably lead to conflict between the ruling class (the bourgeoisie) and the working class (the proletariat). Eventually, the working class, as the more numerous class in society, would unite to overthrow the ruling class and establish a new system, a transition from capitalism to socialism and then from socialism to communism. For Marx, as I often say, there are only two types of people, defined by their economic status and position in a society.
This is important because Marx's system is itself an interpretation of human behavior and society. C. Stephen Evans, a Christian philosopher, in an academic paper called "The Revolt Against Accountability to God: A Global Hermeneutical Perspective on Contemporary Moral Philosophy" in the journal Philosophia Christi, termed views such as Marx's "global hermeneutical perspectives." Global hermeneutical perspectives seek to show that human behavior can be explained in terms of deeper motivating factors that are universal (i.e., global) to mankind and by which human behavior can be understood (i.e., hermeneutic). For Marx, Marxism is the lens through which he interprets human behavior, not a system to be defended by anything approaching evidence. In fact, in my article on this, I argued that critical race theory, as a global hermeneutical perspective, cannot be defended with reference to arguments and evidence because social events, such as the killing of George Floyd, must be seen through the lens of critical race theory in order to be understood as an example of systemic racism. In other words, George Floyd's death is not evidence for systemic racism. His tragic death is simply used as a cudgel by the "trained Marxists" of BLM to get what they want politically.
What's the relevance of my claim that we should understand critical theory (or perhaps cultural Marxism, generally) as a global hermeneutical perspective? In this post, I will discuss the first element of the seven that I listed from Neil Shenvi's article on critical theory:
Individual identity is inseparable from group identity as "oppressed" or "oppressor."
In this post, I want to focus on the fact that this element has a profound impact on how we see others and their sin. If the elements of critical theory contribute to it as a global hermeneutical perspective, then the function of critical theory is to affect how we interpret the world. In other words, critical theory functions as part of a comprehensive worldview. On the basis of this worldview, people who accept critical theory then interpret the world through this particular lens, as opposed to others.
What's important for us as Christians is the answer to this question: does the Bible conceive of the individual as more primary, or groups? If groups are more primary, which groups? How are we to think of distinctions between human beings, if we are to think of them as primarily members of groups, rather than as individuals? Our answers to these questions will have an impact on how we see others and interpret their behavior.
Let's consider an example. On the Facebook profile of a group called Antiracist Education Now, you will find a post called "Racial Gaslighting 101." The name of this post partially explains its purpose. It is meant to educate readers about attempts to rebut claims about systemic racism by categorizing these rebuttals and giving pointers for those rebuttals. By itself, this is not objectionable. When I teach Christian apologetics, I will often list possible objections one could get from unbelievers and answer those objections. On its own, this is a good educational tactic. But this post does not so much categorize rebuttals as it does the people giving them. Each image in the post has a particular heading labeling the type of person who gives this kind of rebuttal, from "The Intellectual" to "The Reverse Racism Logic Troll" to (my favorite) "the Exotic and Rare 'Christian' Pro-life Anti-vaxxer."
Let's consider how this post presents a rebuttal and answers it. Here, I want to focus on two things. First, is the post's presentation of the rebuttal accurate? We want to avoid a common logical fallacy called attacking a straw man. This fallacy is present when one attacks a thinly-veiled caricature of one's argument, instead of one's actual argument, because the caricature is easier to knock down. Second, does the post adequately answer the rebuttal? Does the post present good arguments and evidence in favor of a different position?
Let's consider "The Intellectual." I suppose that I would be in this category. This post was posted on July 5, not long after the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, so there is a context of protests against police brutality that likely motivated this post (it was certainly being shared in that context). Back in July, many people were claiming that George Floyd's killing, heinous as it seemed to be, was racially motivated. Now, this was an interesting claim. Did any of these people know Derek Chauvin (the police officer who killed him) personally? How could they know that the killing was racially motivated? They couldn't just be making this claim because Derek Chauvin is light-skinned and George Floyd is dark-skinned, right?
Well, posing this question, according to the post, makes me "The Intellectual," since the post practically quotes exactly what I said:
"How can we say for sure it was racially motivated?"
Rightly, the post has what it calls a "translation," a helpful piece of text for interpreting the question. This is good. We want to be able to take what people say and boil it down to its most important claims, so that we can address them. What does it say?
"I am not personally affected by police brutality and believe my 'curiosity' is both charming and advancing the conversation."
Wait, what? "That's not at all what I'm saying," one might think, if one were posing this question. In fact, you might think, "It's not really about me. I'm actually asking whether we can know if Derek Chauvin is racist from what he did." You may also think, "It doesn't matter whether I've been personally affected by police brutality. It's still a question that needs to be answered." Notice as well that this "translation" doesn't bring any light to the claims themselves, but apparently the person. The real claim being made here is that this person, The Intellectual, is a bad person. Probably so bad that he's simply covering his racism with intellectual language. In other words, this "translation" is a very prejudicial interpretation of The Intellectual's question and concern. Baked into the translation is the claim that The Intellectual is just a bad person. So how do we respond to bad people? Let's see the post's answer:
"People are literally dying and you are turning that into an opportunity for an intellectual exercise. Hello goodbye don't come back."
Well, I'm convinced. My question has been answered! I'm being facetious, but I'm trying to illustrate that this post, in no way, is intended to answer the rebuttals themselves. It's intended as a convenient way to label racists and what they say. The problem is not that a certain perspective is being challenged and needs to answer these rebuttals. It's that, according to the post, racist people are advancing their racism and need to be ignored or silenced. So the post helps you to identify the type of racist by his claims and shut him down. Notice that, in all of this, the content of the rebuttal is lost because, to the people who made this post, the important thing isn't content. It's what the content signals about the people advancing it.
These categories of people are called "racial gaslighters" in the post. What is gaslighting? According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, gaslighting is a form of "psychological manipulation" in which one person "gradually undermine[s] the victim’s confidence in his own ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or reality from appearance, thereby rendering him pathologically dependent on the gaslighter in his thinking or feelings." Therefore, built into this post is a claim that the person who is skeptical of claims of systemic racism is not just wrong, but evil and manipulative. If that person is allowed to rebut these claims, then he is merely undermining your ability to discern truth.
How are you, if you support those claims, better able to discern truth than the racial gaslighter? You've experienced it because of the color of your skin. Or you are an ally who believes those who have experienced it and their claims. In fact, this post makes explicit reference to the fact that the racial gaslighter denies these claims of systemic racism just because he or she hasn't experienced them. So group membership makes a difference in terms of what the individual knows and is able to know, an epistemology called "standpoint epistemology," which I'll be explaining in a later post.
Finally, this post's response to The Intellectual labels The Intellectual's proposed questions as an "intellectual exercise." This label is pejorative. It is intended to portray intellectual questions as unimportant and irrelevant to the suffering of others, as if one were asking how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. As this series progresses, one hope I have is that you will see that critical theory tends to advance anti-intellectualism. In this case, asking for evidence that Derek Chauvin was racist obscures the interpretive framework of critical race theory, which assumes that he was racist, and therefore obstructs the political agenda of the critical race theorist, which is assumed to be for the good of all people of color. Because of this, posing the question is immoral, since it fails to advance the political agenda of the oppressed group. Therefore, we ought not seek these intellectual questions, since to do so ultimately harms the oppressed group. Pursuing intellectual issues, particularly ones that challenge the narrative of critical theory, is immoral.
Let's summarize what this post assumes, claims, and suggests for people who support BLM and its claims of systemic racism. First, if you are, say, a black person suffering from systemic racism or a woke white person, you will encounter people, who are predominantly white, who disagree that systemic racism is a good term for describing injustice in this country. Second, this post assumes that those people are racist and therefore evil. In fact, their skepticism itself is part of the oppression of systemic racism and must be silenced along with the system. There is no point in answering the rebuttals themselves; just know how to categorize the people advancing these rebuttals and shut them up. And, third, that's the suggestion. Just shut the person up. Nowhere in this post is any evidence or argumentation presented, since doing so cedes ground to The Intellectual and prevents the oppressed class from achieving the political agenda that advances their needs.
I've chosen to pinpoint this post from Antiracist Education Now for two reasons. First, this post was widely shared back in July, and because of this, a lot of people will have seen it. Second, it characterizes very well how critical theorists see other people and the utility of open debate and dialogue. In particular, let me highlight four aspects of group identity that come through very well in this post.
Primarily, there are two groups: oppressor and oppressed. But the individual is either an oppressor or oppressed depending on his or her other group identities.
Group identity is dependent on socially-constructed categories and distinctions, including characteristics with which one is born.
Group identity determines one's moral status.
Group identity determines how one's opinions are to be interpreted.
First, primarily, there are two groups: oppressor and oppressed. But the individual is either an oppressor or oppressed depending on his or her other group identities. This is the direct result of the work of those scholars in the Frankfurt School that I mentioned in the last post. As with Marx, there are only two types of people, but Marx thought that the categories of oppressor and oppressed were based only on economic status. Therefore, the bourgeoisie were oppressors, and the proletariat were oppressed. Critical theory expands these primary categories by including other group identities, such as sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, class, ability, etc. In the post that I've analyzed above, the distinction between oppressor and oppressed is considered with respect to race. In critical race theory, whites are oppressors, and non-whites oppressed. If one considers sex, males are oppressors, and females oppressed. This is why this worldview is often called cultural Marxism, since it retains much of Marx's view of the world and society while adjusting some of its categories. In fact, many who buy into this worldview (including, ironically, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) still object to capitalism as oppressive and unjust, just as Marx did.
Second, group identity is dependent on socially-constructed categories and distinctions, including characteristics with which one is born. What does it mean to say that a category is socially-constructed? For critical theorists, the society and culture are primary in understanding human beings. The society itself in which we grew up forms our perspective of the world, including what we believe to be true. Therefore, much, if not all, of how we conceive of ourselves as human beings is entirely dependent on our society, as opposed to objective truth. Critical theorists will claim that categories such as gender and race are social constructs with norms attached to them. In order to gain a more equitable society, norms must be changed. Existing norms must be problematized and replaced with new norms.
A significant example of this process can be seen in the Supreme Court decision "Obergefell v. Hodges" in 2015. This Supreme Court decision guaranteed a perceived "right to marry" to same-sex couples as well as opposite-sex couples under the 14th Amendment. The merits of the case aside, it is interesting to see that support for same-sex marriage had been increasing rapidly in the years prior to the decision as the LGBTQ community claimed that they were a disadvantaged class who had been denied certain civil rights, such as the right to marry. As homosexuality and same-sex relationships were normalized (possibly as a result of celebrities who had come out, such as Ellen DeGeneres), support for same-sex marriage grew. Now, a firm majority of Americans (about 61%, as of 2019) support same-sex marriage, as opposed to 35% in 2001. To supporters of the LGBTQ community, this is seen as a more just and equitable outcome.
I think that Christians should grant that some categories of and distinctions between human beings are socially-constructed, but not all. This is certainly true of race. As I explained in my post on racism, race is a product of modern philosophy that easily justified injustice against those human beings, bearers of the imago dei, with a darker complexion. We should reject the claim that there is any objective difference between people of any complexion. But gender is not, in its essence, socially-constructed. In fact, God created men and women as different but complementary. Each bears the imago dei, but they are not the same. This is not only true but fundamentally good and beautiful. We deny it at our own peril. Therefore, we should reject the claim that gender is socially-constructed at its core, though there is some truth to the fact that expressions of one's gender are somewhat dependent on culture.
Third, group identity determines one's moral status. This clearly follows from the first point. If there are only two type of people, oppressor and oppressed, then you don't want to fall into the status of oppressor. But, of course, you don't control whether you're born into a rich family or are white or male, all of which are categories of the oppressor class. So, whether you like it or not, you may be immoral because of those group identities.
See, again, the post above. If you are white, according to critical race theory, then you are racist. Racism, as a property of structures, is deeply embedded in your view of the world in ways that can only be revealed by someone who is either black or sufficiently woke. Even your opinions are veiled attempts at advancing systemic racism. You are evil in ways that you don't understand, at the level of your beliefs and claims. Since group identity determines one's moral status, then the individual's character matters less. Even if you don't consider yourself to be a bad person, for critical theory, you are "bad" in virtue of your place in society.
Fourth, group identity determines how one's opinions are to be interpreted. This can very clearly be seen in the post above, and it's perhaps the most obviously sinister aspect of this element of critical theory. For critical theorists, truth claims are less claims to be analyzed and answered than they are indications of the type of person you are. If you object to same-sex marriage or transgenderism (say, because of your views on sexual morality or evidence of the dangers of these lifestyles), then you are homophobic or transphobic, no matter your reasons for believing what you do. If you are skeptical of claims of systemic racism, then you are likely racist.
One would think, then, that wires would quickly get crossed if someone who shares the group identity of the oppressed nonetheless disagreed with the claims of critical theorists. How can the oppressed person deny the claims of victimhood of the oppressed majority? To see how critical theorists respond, simply look at examples such as Candace Owens. She, along with black people who are more conservative politically, are often castigated as "sellouts" or "oreos" (people who are black externally but white internally). When women publicly support a pro-life position, they are often dismissed because, according to critical theorists, they internalize their oppression. It looks like some poor Christian women can't think for themselves. They need a feminist to do it for them. Again, I'm being facetious to highlight how condescending and patronizing this is. But it is fully consistent with this element of critical theory.
What happens when group identity matters more than the individual? The individual's viewpoint, and his or her reasons for supporting that viewpoint, are lost. All of one's beliefs are then interpreted in light of one's group identity, particularly as an oppressor or oppressed. To deny the claims of the oppressed is itself oppression. This has to do with the postmodern core of critical theory, which I'll discuss in more detail later in this series.
With this element of critical theory explained, let's consider what Scripture has to say about it.
What the Bible Has To Say
Remember the questions that I posed above. Does the Bible conceive of the individual as more primary, or groups? If groups are more primary, which groups? How are we to think of distinctions between human beings, if we are to think of them as primarily members of groups, rather than as individuals? If Scripture is sufficient, in that it provides everything that we need with respect to a comprehensive Judeo-Christian worldview, then it is the standard by which Christians see themselves and other human beings.
Consider the categories important to critical theorists. They include race, sex, gender identity, class, sexual orientation, ability, religious beliefs, and ideology. Does Scripture recognize these categories? Scripture obviously recognizes sex (Genesis 1:27) but doesn't seem to recognize gender identity. Scripture obviously has something to say about sexuality (Genesis 1:28; 2:23-24; Leviticus 18; Romans 1:18-32; among many other passages), but it doesn't seem to recognize a category of sexual orientation. In Leviticus 18 and Romans 1:18-32, it is clear that the act of having sex with a member of the same sex is condemned, but nowhere in either passage is the category of "gay" or "straight" recognized. Scripture seems to have nothing to say about race.
With respect to class, there are numerous passages in Scripture condemning the exploitation of the poor by the rich. For some, passages that condemn this exploitation may implicitly support a critique of a capitalist structure. I hope to discuss this in more detail at some other time, but suffice it to say for now that I don't think that this is the case. In fact, the core of the law of the Old Testament seems to be the recognition and protection of private property, which is the core of a market economy.
So Scripture doesn't seem to have much to say concerning many of the categories on which critical theory leans. But does Scripture recognize other categories? The answer is yes. In the New Testament, the biblical authors make clear that there are only two types of people, but these two categories are not divided by economic status or differences in power. They are divided by their response to Jesus. There are several different biblical terms distinguishing them: those in the world vs. those in God's Kingdom; those who are fleshly vs. those who are spiritual; those led by the Spirit vs. those led by the flesh; those in Christ vs. those not in Christ. It is clear in the New Testament that, in light of the revelation of the Son of God, the only distinction that truly matters is the distinction between those who have trusted in Jesus as Messiah and those who have not. These are two groups of people whose identity is to be thought of, at least partially, in corporate terms. The global body of believers in Christ are referred to as the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, and the Church, and Christians are exhorted to serve within the body to contribute to the well-being of the whole body. Scripture does often consider groups of people, but it doesn't think of groups in the same way. We are all sinners deserving of condemnation. The only difference between being condemned and not being condemned is Jesus, and whether we have Him as our Savior.
But Scripture has a lot to say about the individual as well, since it is the individual to whom the appeal of the gospel is given. It is an individual's response to the gospel that either saves or condemns him or her. In fact, from Romans 5, we know that the consequence of Adam's sin is universal. In particular, Romans 5:12 says (NASB):
"Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all mankind, because all sinned..."
The universal consequence of sin is death, since all people have individually sinned. As I have argued before, the biblical perspective is that sin is primarily individual. Romans 3:23 says (NASB):
"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
Does that entail that there aren't at times situations in which one with greater power exploits those with less power? Of course not. In fact, the doctrine of original sin (alluded to above from Romans 5) entails that these situations will come up. But the Scriptures are very clear about the solution. That person, that oppressor, must come to trust in Jesus Christ, His person and work, and repent of his or her sin. As the gospel has gone out in history, injustices have been reformed, not by enforcing systemic change from above, but from changing the human heart. This will culminate in the final judgement day, when Jesus will return to rule on the throne of David for eternity and when there will be no sin or suffering. By then, as I've said before, sin will have been dealt with in one of two ways: transformation of the sinner, or quarantine of the sinner in hell. Systemic change always requires individual change.
Therefore, this element of critical theory is critically mistaken in at least three ways. First, it conceives of categories that are unbiblical. Second, it places the corporate above the individual in a way that is unbiblical. Third, the solution that it provides to the problem of human sinfulness is unbiblical, since the solution places greater emphasis on the group and not the individual. For Christians, it is true that there are only two types of people, but membership in either group is based on an individual's free choice. Therefore, greater emphasis is on the individual. And, importantly, both groups are composed entirely of sinners. In biblical terms, no one is ultimately innocent with respect to sin. Sins simply take different forms, as we can see in examples of gross injustices like the persecution of the Uighurs as well as sins of carnality such as sexual immorality. So, the forms of sin include injustice against those with less power by those with more, but injustice like this is not all that encapsulates sin.
Because of this, Christians are uniquely stationed to reject unbiblical categories of group identity while affirming the fact that injustices occur. Grounded in Scripture, we can also bring the proper interpretation to events in the world and the proper solution: Christ. We'll have to do this on a case-by-case basis, but the key, with respect to this element of critical theory, is that we conceive of the individual and groups in biblical ways. Critical theory provides an alternative interpretive framework that, in many ways, is unbiblical.
As this series continues, my hope is that you are interested in my attempts to explicate the intellectual core of these ideas. Very often, people only see the surface-level claims and actions of people without seeing the philosophical ideas that motivate them. My hope for you is that this series has been illuminating so far. As I explain each element of critical theory, you will see that these concepts build on each other progressively, as I've already teased in this post. My encouragement for you is to read these posts with a Bible in hand, ready to test the claims of critical theory and my claims about Scripture and the Christian worldview. Unless Christians, whether they affirm critical theory or not, are willing to discuss these things seriously, we will be hindered in our pursuit of truth. And to love and pursue truth is to love and pursue God. Will you join me in that task? I hope and pray that you will.
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