OP-ED: The fate of critique in the fight against Critical Race Theory

Adam Ellwanger, a professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown, argues that the study of critical theory can help Americans counter the rise of Critical Race Theory.

The op-ed investigates the Marxist origins of social justice as well as the false binary imbedded in transgender ideology.

To boil it down to its most basic tenets, Critical Race Theory (CRT) argues that the concept of racial identity is of the utmost importance in understanding that society is deliberately structured in a way that “systemically” oppresses racial minorities.

Not only do CRT proponents teach that a person’s race is their most fundamental characteristic, they also claim that any racial disparities in outcomes (whether related to wealth, criminal justice, academic success, crime, or any other metric) can only be attributed to an unrelenting racism that permeates every corner of American society. 

Over the last year, CRT has attracted more and more attention in America. Chris Rufo, James Lindsay, and other journalists and activists have helped to render the complex jargon and philosophical pretense of CRT in a voice that makes its tenets and implications accessible to non-experts.  In September 2020, President Trump issued an Executive Order that banned its used in the training of federal employees and those in the military. Although President Biden quickly rescinded the dictate, attention has now turned to the public schools across the nation that have formally installed CRT as a component of the curriculum. In Virginia’s Loudoun County and many other districts, private citizens have been making great progress in eliminating divisive racial content in the schools. To the credit of everyday Americans, a genuine movement to remove it from public school curricula has begun. Godspeed. 

But as a professor of rhetoric who received substantial training in critical theory during my seven years in graduate school, I’m starting to worry that the baby might be thrown out with the bathwater. 

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Opponents of CRT intuitively understand the threat it represents, but many of them haven’t actually read any of the fundamental texts in that area. This results in an ignorance about the history of CRT, which was derived from various forms of Marxist philosophy that circulate under the term “critical theory.” 

Marxism sought to achieve a communist revolution by fomenting division and animosity based on class identity. But because America in the late 20th century had a uniquely broad middle class, American Marxists had little success in exploiting economic inequality to stoke revolutionary sentiment. In more recent decades, proponents of “social justice” (which almost always happens to align neatly with Marxist notions of “fairness”) have sought to rehabilitate the older tradition of Marxism, but in a way that could more effectively cultivate social division in a diverse, affluent society like ours.

Rather than focus on class, today’s left intellectuals have mapped Marxist resentments onto different domains: specifically, racial and ethnic identity, targets of convenience in America’s multiethnic culture. “Critical Race Theory” is the name given to this approach, which works toward a new social order by cultivating race hatred. 

[REALTED: MAP: Critical Race Theory bans by state]

In what follows, I draw some important distinctions between critical theory (an earlier tradition that developed as an extension of Marxist thought) and Critical Race Theory. I hope to show that although the latter is a genuine threat, the former can be a very useful tool for the opponents of the institutional leftism that is currently remaking our society.

The texts that make up the canon of critical theory are not easy reading, but familiarity with them will equip concerned parents and students to hold educators and activists accountable. Furthermore, many CRT advocates are betting that non-experts are unfamiliar with the theoretical tradition of critical theory. They will be likely unprepared for Americans to use critical theory as a tool to expose the contradictions inherent in CRT.

A fuller understanding of the intellectual lineage of CRT reveals that while critical theory can be dangerous in its own right, it can also be effectively deployed in the fight against CRT. 

What is Critical Theory?: The Tradition and its Discontents

To begin, some definition of critical theory is in order. Simply put, it is the theory of critique: a scholarly inquiry into the purposes of criticism. Critical theorists address the questions of how criticism should be conducted, what ought to be criticized, and which goals criticism should pursue. 

When most people think of “criticism,” they imagine some kind of attack: a nasty comment about someone’s fashion sense, or a remark about some personal fault or shortcoming. This is not the kind of criticism denoted by “critical theory,” and I will use the term critique instead of criticism in order to keep this difference in view.

Critique, then, is a kind of intellectual assessment of something. The object of critique could be anything – a person, a text, a way of speaking, an idea, an object, a film, a design – famous critic Slavoj Zizek has offered an interesting critique of the architecture of toilets. 

The critic always approaches the thing he criticizes with an attitude of skepticism, but this doesn’t mean that critique tries to exaggerate the faults of something. The skeptical attitude advances the purposes of scholarly critique: to get a better understanding of how something works, or what it is, or how it is built. 

Critique is a good thing because it helps us learn more about the world, and thus helps us to develop new knowledge.

The scholarly type of critique has a long history. Much of the work of Plato, Aristotle, and the other thinkers of the ancient world is best understood as critique. Generally, though, when people talk about “critical theory,” they are talking about a particular type of critical theory: a group of philosophical texts produced by continental Europeans in the twentieth century, especially in the decades following World War II. Many of those theorists were profoundly influenced by the horrors of the Holocaust, an event that some took as evidence that the foundational principles of western civilization were deeply flawed. For them, critique provided a way to change society. On the whole, this type of critical theory is an extension or elaboration of the work of three especially influential thinkers: Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. 

Among the important figures in the modern tradition of critical theory are people like Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Paul De Man, Jean Baudrillard, Jurgen Habermas, Emmanuel Levinas, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and more. There are important differences in the perspectives of these thinkers, but on the whole, their critical methods (and their choices of what things must be critiqued) deeply inform the intellectual underpinnings of contemporary leftism. 

By exposing the internal contradictions of existing institutions, of dominant systems of morality, and of norms related to sex and gender, critical theorists like Herbert Marcuse and Jacques Derrida saw a way to undermine the public’s confidence in and commitment to the “status quo.” 

A sustained critique of culture, then, could help to undermine the values and institutions of the existing order – a task that necessarily precedes the establishment of a new one. This effort to remake Euro-American society in accord with Marxist economic principles (coupled with a subjectivist view of ethics) was immensely successful. 

As many of the European theorists immigrated to the US in the years after the World War II, this tradition of critique swept American universities by storm. This association between Marxism, European critical theory, and American scholars lies at the root of the negative connotations that many people have toward this critical tradition today. 

The political victories of critical theory can be observed in every sphere of modern life: government, education, media, Hollywood, sport, and more. But while the earlier tradition of critical theory gave attention to many different facets of society, Critical Race Theory creates a “grand narrative” of the sort that European critic Jean-Francois Lyotard warned against: it suggests that all social realities can be comprehended through a racial lens. 

Now, we return to CRT.

Critical Race Theory: Racism Writ Analytic

CRT is a particular deployment of the techniques pioneered by the critical theorists named above. But proponents of CRT begin from an uninterrogated assumption that society is fundamentally racist, that the existing social order was structured in a way that protects racial oppression, and that the racist aspects of the social order are deliberately and skillfully concealed by some elite group (typically, White people). 

Conveniently, the concealment of this racism ensures the need for a critic – some smart person who can conduct a critique of society and offer an interpretation that will expose the inherent racism. The hiddenness of the racism justifies the skeptical attitude of the critic: since it is hidden, critics must assume it could be found anywhere. And indeed, CRT devotees find it everywhere, often in the places we would least expect to find it. 

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One reason that these unlikely discoveries happen so frequently is that they highlight the skill of the critic. There is a good deal of vanity involved in the business of critique.

Like the continental critical theorists, advocates of CRT also seek to restructure society. Once their critique opens the public’s eyes to the inherent racism of the public schools, pancakes, the DMV, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, your church, your mom, your dog, your car, rock music, deodorant, and everything else – well, the public will be so demoralized and disenchanted that the existing social order will be morally indefensible. Then, the work of reinventing society can begin so that a new anti-racist one can be born, one that enacts justice by punishing the perpetrators of historical injustices. 

Coincidentally, this new “social justice” just happens to unequivocally affirm every policy proposal of the radical, Marxist left. According to CRT, “social justice” cannot be achieved until we observe statistical “equality” of outcomes among the races by every metric – economic, medical, educational, legal, and otherwise.

To achieve this kind of “just” society, CRT demands that “allies” commit themselves to “anti-racism,” by which they mean employing conscious racial discrimination as a means to compensate for historical discrimination. 

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Some people have observed that a lot of “anti-racist” ideas look decidedly racist when put into practice. Consider the way that colleges’ attempts to create racial balance in the makeup of the student body have resulted in systematic discrimination against many academically-adept Asians. CRT, if it is allowed to become an unquestionable component of curricula and public life in general, will return our society to an overt system of race privilege in which every person is labelled as “oppressor” or “victim” simply on the basis of skin color. 

From the perspective of the American political tradition, this would be an unmitigated catastrophe. For these reasons, we must fight it.

Fighting Fire with Fire: Undoing CRT with Critical Theory

Although CRT is a descendant of the particular brand of critical theory that emerged on the left in post-war Europe, that is not the only brand of critical theory. We cannot allow the battle against CRT to become a battle against critical theory writ large.

Critical theory is important because it provides a blueprint for social change – and given the left’s consolidation of political power in our society, opponents of the new order would do well to cultivate an informed understanding of how to do the work of critique.

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One can think of critical theory as a powerful kind of conceptual acid or solvent – by applying its interpretive methods, one can dissolve any idea or concept. For example, on the whole, critical theory rejects the idea that there is some inherent, natural “essence” to one’s identity – whether that identity is based in racial, sexual, ethnic, or religious characteristics. 

But on this question of identity essentialism, CRT breaks with the critical tradition: it argues that your racial identity is an inviolable, essential part of who you are. This apparent contradiction opens a space in which the critical theoretical tradition can form the basis of a critique of CRT.

The problem, then, is not that this conceptual acid exists. The problem is that people are using it recklessly and carelessly, splashing it on things that we want to preserve. But we, as opponents of this wanton cultural destruction, also have access to this acid. We must learn to use it – where to use it and how to do so strategically. 

We can apply the methods of critique to the left’s own uses of those methods. For example, the utility of critical theory in fighting the contemporary left can also be demonstrated through a consideration of gender ideology. 

Historically, theorists have been critical of conceptual binaries, such as good/evil, black/white, outside/inside, etc. The argument is that binaries eliminate any “gray” area, and thus work to stifle differences and ideas that do not conform to the binaristic ideal. 

Today’s left has become preoccupied with the allegedly oppressive binaries related to sex and gender: i.e., male/female, man/woman, masculine/feminine. As a way to combat these dehumanizing “constructs,” left activists have asserted new “non-binary” forms of identity. But in practice, these new forms almost always merely consist of a mixing of various signifiers of masculine and feminine identity. 

A critical-theoretical perspective might argue that since “non-binary” identity only intermingles characteristics of both sides of the existing binary (rather than forming a wholly new identity without any reference to that binary), that these “non-binary” identities actually reaffirm the legitimacy of the existing binary. That is, they highlight that a new identity cannot take form without synthesizing traditional notions of sex and gender.

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Take a careful look at many of the people who identify as non-binary: typically, these “alternative” identities are performed by mixing traditionally masculine features (short hair, tattoos, facial hair) with feminine ones (use of hair dye, cosmetics, nail polish, jewelry, etc.). The non-binary identity isn’t a “third option” as much as it is a combination of two pre-existing, discrete genders. An authentic alternative identity – one that truly overcomes the gender binary altogether – wouldn’t take shape through references to masculine and feminine signifiers. But such an identity is nowhere on display in 2021, which is strong evidence that sex and gender is, in fact, binary on some essential level.

Because critical theory can be redirected toward these efforts, it is critical that in our fight against CRT we don’t also abandon the intellectual tools that can help us win the fight. 

We cannot afford to reject critical theory out of hand: it has too much potential as a weapon against the ideologues who seek to disfigure our society. 

Many critics have attacked the effort against CRT as an example of right-wing cancel culture. They’re wrong. 

No one is advocating that these ideas themselves be banned: we simply insist that they should not be part of public school curricula (or any other source of public expenditures). We will not allow the claims of CRT to be circulated as truth: rather, we will demonstrate the internal contradictions of those claims, and we will “interrogate” the unstated assumptions on which they depend. In other words, our fight against CRT will depend on strategies that extend from the tradition of critical theory. 

Today, professors and students who are concerned about the incessant leftward lurch of campus politics are often dismissive of critical theory. To some degree, this is justified – it spawned ideas like CRT and postmodern gender ideology. This resistance to critical theory is often reinforced by the professors who teach critical theory as a form of left-wing advocacy, suggesting that any “serious” critique will ultimately affirm the policy goals and worldview of the “liberatory” left. But as I have shown, the critical theoretical tradition could be made to serve an important role in the fight against the dangers of progressive ideology – on campus and off. 

If nothing else, critical theory advances a critique of power and its uses. With the left now in command of every single administrative and cultural institution in our society, we can’t afford to overlook such a potent tool for undermining existing power structures. 

Time to hit the books.