It’s strange. For something that is becoming so ubiquitous, it’s remarkably hard to find clear descriptions and analyses of this thing that is called Critical Theory. As I wrote in a previous post, I’m starting to think that understanding CT is vital to understanding our culture and to understanding many of the influential ideas circulating in education.
There are so many neologisms people are writing and speaking that are based in critical theory — “systemic racism,” “lived experience,” “intersectionality,” and on and on. Suddenly everyone’s talking this way, it all comes out of this thing called CT, and yet nobody’s really explaining or analyzing CT — where it comes from, what its goals are, and whether it is a good approach to use.
Well, it’s not true that no one is analyzing it, but the people who do still seem a little a little disreputable, a little “intellectual dark-web.” Academia and journalism it seems to me are only starting to push back on it, to engage with it intellectually. I wrote about the NYT profile of Robin DiAngelo a week ago that was starting to ask honest questions. I think this is critically important when you’re talking about something suddenly so powerful as CT. That said, both academia and journalism seem to me to be wrestling with the question of their “telos” (as Jonathan Haidt has termed it): are they pursuing truth or social justice?
Meanwhile, I have been reading about CT more and more over the last few days. This has been a fascinating experience that is already helping me to better understand so much of what I see culturally and in calls for ed reform. I wanted to talk briefly about one of the most interesting concepts I have stumbled on so far.
One of the most important concepts in CT that I’ve read about so far is the concept of hegemony. This term essentially means the way that a dominant group is imposing its beliefs (“ideology”) on everyone else, achieving a kind of social control through developing a false consciousness rather than through force or violence. From what I am learning, terms like this — and much of CT — came from the wake of the “failure” of western states to ditch capitalism and take up communism. Why would people vote against their interests? Well, clearly they possess a false consciousness — that comes from hegemony: dominant beliefs that are so inculcated that it’s very difficult to think outside of them and which serve to preserve the social control of the dominant group. Critical theory sets out to expose this hegemony.
A few thoughts on this.
First, it is so ironic to me to discover this term within CT, because the feeling I have had over the last five years or so has been that our cultural discourse, at least on the left, has been trapped in some kind of reductive bubble that I couldn’t quite define. That bubble, I now realize, was Critical Theory. How ironic that CT itself can become hegemonic (which I think has happened) even though it purports to be the cure for this.
Next, I’m starting to realize what the CT worldview is: a series of groups or systems endlessly vying for power and domination of each other in something of a zero-sum game. What counts is group membership, not individuality, and, above all, the pursuit of power.
Meanwhile, critical theory, as original envisioned by the Frankfurt School, was different than traditional theory because it started from a specific view of the world and sought to critique existing systems for not living up to that view . . . rather than just trying to propose an idea about the world that was true (like a traditional — say, scientific — theory). I keep thinking to myself that this idea — starting with some preconception of how the world should work — and then trying to critique society for not living up to that idea — is fundamentally idealistic. It feels Platonic to me — the world as an imperfect copy of an ideal.
It also strikes me that perhaps this is why, in some sense, as I start to read more CT thinkers (particularly in education), I often wonder what their ultimate goal is, beyond critiquing the injustices of the educational system. It would be one thing to call for improvement and reform in the tradition of liberalism / a more perfect union . . . but it seems to me often that’s not what is happening. Instead it seems to me that a lot of CT is a call for a kind of revolution (well illustrated by the revealing answers given by CT advocates in the DiAngelo NYT piece) and for a kind of “radical pluralism” (as I heard Henry Giroux’s goals in education once characterized) or perhaps even a kind of cultural relativism that says anything goes, because all ways of knowing are equally valuable (except for the dominant way, which is oppressive).
Hegemony plays into this. It’s such a cynical way to view the world. Science is not a remarkable way to arrive, peacefully, at truth — it’s an oppressive, western tradition that cancels out other ways of knowing. Education itself is not liberating, it’s a reproduction of the unjust status quo (unless it is Critical Theory). I keep thinking here about E.D. Hirsch’s point that we have to have some kind of cultural consensus in our language and traditions in order to be able to talk to each other as a country. What scares me even more is the global rise of nationalism, embodied here in the US by Donald Trump. As much as many on the left would like to discredit the idea of nationalism, it comes from an important desire for a kind of national identity. It’s not enough just to hope for a borderless world. The idea of a “global community” isn’t very comforting if we don’t have real ones here at home. If we as Americans wish to be even a somewhat united country, we need at least shared principles in mind and some kind of shared language by which to govern ourselves and to communicate with each other. Seeing education that tries to promote even a basic level of coherence — a system which necessarily chooses certain values over others — as merely “hegemonic” seems to me, at a basic level, a very cynical way to view things . . . and perhaps even (I fear) a way to play into the hands of nationalistic demagogues like Trump.
I am not saying there isn’t some truth to the idea of “hegemony.” One of the most important “false consciousness” ideas that we have, I think, is the promise that each of us may one day be spectacularly wealthy under capitalism. A number of writers were raising this four years ago when it became clear the white working class was voting Trump rather than someone who commentators felt might better represent working class interests better (such as Bernie Sanders). The bottom line is that people want to make a country in which they have the chance to win and get super rich . . . rather than a country that reallocates resources to provide a greater safety net for the present. If they didn’t feel this way . . . it would have already happened.
So clearly there is something to hegemony, it’s just that it so quickly gets so very cynical. And I am starting to think there is something cynical about the whole worldview of critical theory. The idea that our world is just a series of identity groups or class groups warring with each other is such a peculiar way to view the world when you think about it.
But at the same time, CT is both deeply cynical and idealistic. As I mentioned, it often seems like the goal of CT is to critique existing systems for not living up to the ideal of a world . . . totally without injustice. That’s an idealistic place to start from, and CT ends up by seeing the world as a set of groups all in competition with each other in a series of overlapping, intersecting tribal oppressions.
And yet, if CT starts idealistic and ends cynical, liberalism seems like it’s the opposite. Liberalism starts from a cynical place — seeing humans as essentially self-interested actors, innately focused more on private gain than public good. And yet liberalism channels that selfishness into a regard for the public good in a kind of social contract. Many of the things we put up with we do because they’re still a lot better than us being in a constant state of war or forceful oppression from the government.
You can feel the echoes in CT of a kind of idealistic desire not to harm anyone; hegemony itself is a kind of protest against any one system getting to “win.” Traditional liberalism, meanwhile, is perfectly content with producing winners and losers. Capitalism surely does this. So does our system of epistemology: liberal science, which decides that some people are right and some are wrong, some ways of making meaning are rigorous and some are not. So does science: there are winners and losers. Liberalism seems to acknowledge that humans are cruel, and that is a fact, and we must live with that, but tries to find the most bloodless, humane way of deriving knowledge and truth from that reality. It all reminds me of that quote (from Winston Churchill, I think — I am definitely going to get the words wrong): “It’s the worst system out there . . . except for all of the other ones.”
Liberalism seems to recognize a kind of “hegemony” as inevitable and in fact as necessary. Hegemony is a kind of consensus that we have reached about what constitutes the best way of knowing things. You need a consensus about that in order to determine truth. But what’s important for liberalism is that total consensus is *never* achieved. It’s always subject to more debate. It’s never set in stone. That too is important. In other words, you’re always going to have (and need to have) some kind of general consensus in society about what the best values are, the best ways to generate knowledge — but it’s also important that that consensus can always be changed or modified.
Where I am right now, I can see how valuable the critiques of CT really are for a liberal system. Lord knows a critique of our worship of science or the injustices so clearly present in our society are deeply important. But what’s important is that liberalism is a system that can be ever-perfecting . . . and I’m not sure CT on its own leads to that kind of place. Something is telling me that it leads, as many of the communist revolutions did, to a much darker place, where “hegemony” starts to look a lot less bad when compared with the alternatives . . .