Know Your Enemy: What is Critical Theory?

I’ve been writing a lot about the tragedy unfolding in the LCMS lately: the false teachings included with Luther’s Large Catechism along with President Harrison’s response of blaming criticism on the “alt-right” all of whom he has declared worthy of excommunication. Since then, the story has been picked up by media outlets like Rolling Stone, who was eager to jump on the bandwagon in condemnation of the “white supremacists” lurking among us. Even Occupy Democrats took the time to praise President Harrison for his bold stance against the “alt-right.” The narrative is quickly solidifying that everything tearing my denomination apart is connected by a shadowy demonic ideology which our church body must come together to oppose.

Predictably, many conservatives are buying this story. Like Charlie Brown kicking Lucy’s football, they hope against hope that this time, when they prove their deep and abiding hatred for racism and fascism, people will finally believe them. With that settled, the left will finally become reasonable again, and conservatives might even be in a position to address a few other minor issues like our children being groomed by pedophiles, our teenagers cutting their bits off, and our entire society burying God’s Word in a steaming pile of nihilism.

Well, fools they may be, but conservatives are right about one thing: There is a shadowy demonic ideology driving this conflict. But it’s not President Harrison’s “alt-right” bogeyman.

What truly ties this controversy together from beginning to end is a philosophy called Critical Theory. And unlike the alt-right, which is shadowy primarily because it doesn’t yet  understand even itself, Critical Theory is shadowy only because conservatives never really took the time to understand it. Though confronted by it constantly, we were so busy becoming as innocent as doves that we never bothered to become as wise as serpents.

It’s time to rectify that. We need to be able to know our enemy for what it is and understand how it works. Accordingly, my next few posts will be an attempt to explain Critical Theory in terms even a conservative can understand. So we’ll start with the basics:

What is Critical Theory?

Put simply, Critical Theory is a philosophy whose purpose is to tear down any and all barriers to human progress. Like so much other wickedness, it was inspired by Marxism and emerged out of the Frankfurt School in the early 20th Century. But rather than asserting any particular belief, this philosophy focuses on undermining other established beliefs along with any social structures and institutions built on those beliefs. That’s why it’s called Critical Theory; it clears the way for what they see as the advancement of mankind.

Now, one might naturally ask, “if it asserts no inherent beliefs, what does it mean by ‘progress’ or ‘advancement?'” Well, being inspired by Marxism, it should be no surprise that progress is understood in terms of liberation from oppression. However, there is no single sense in which liberation or oppression are consistently understood. Critical Theory is centered more around stories of good guys and bad guys than around a straightforward belief, system, or ideology. As a result, there are many “flavors” of critical theory out there–each centered on a different narrative of oppression.

Marxism is the obvious example, as it was the prototypical critical theory (preceding the Frankfurt school by quite some time). In its narrative, the oppressors are the “haves,” the oppressed are the “have-nots,” and classism against the have-nots is the greatest sin. Its purpose is to liberate the have-nots from the haves by seizing the means of production and thereby tearing down even the idea of private property, which kept the rich rich and the poor poor.

But whereas Marx focused primarily on economic oppression, his intellectual descendants continually “discovered” new forms of oppression getting in the way of progress. Naturally, they felt the need to apply Marxism’s approach to matters of culture besides economics (which is why Critical Theory is often identified as “Cultural Marxism.”) And so Feminism is another example of Critical Theory, in which men are the oppressors, women the oppressed, and sexism the primary sin. In Critical Race Theory, the narrative is that whites are the oppressors, people of color the oppressed, and racism the primary sin. Queer Theory, of course, spins yarns about the alphabet people needing to be liberated from the chaste (those of us who are “cishet” and monogamous) and establishes homophobia and transphobia as the great sins. And there are numerous others–a wide panoply limited only by the imaginations of tenured professors.


With the different pairs of oppressor/oppressed assigned by narrative, the work of being “critical” begins. Every facet of society–politics, religion, economics, culture, art, education, and so froth–is examined through the lens of the narrative and is judged as either aiding the oppressor or the oppressed as humanity progresses to liberation. Of course, anything found to be aiding the oppressors must be removed from society.

One of the most common methods of doing so is to declare such things to be “social constructs.” In other words, instead of being some kind of transcendent value or natural good, it is merely an invention of a certain class of people (usually the ‘oppressors’ in the narrative) and imposed on the rest of society for the advantage of the oppressor.

For example, both Christians reading Scripture and scientists reading nature recognize “male’ and “female” to be real and incontrovertible facts of the created world. A Queer Theorist, however, would declare these to be categories invented by humans and assigned (rather than observed) by society at birth in order to impose heteronormativity. After all, it is precisely such categories which identify sexual perversions for what they are and therefore stigmatize the perverts. Liberating the perverts from stigma therefore requires the removal of these categories.

So the social construct must then be “deconstructed” through many and various ways in order to liberate the oppressed. This approach is facilitated by reducing any “oppressive” facet of the world to a matter of mere power dynamics. Wherever we might see authority, they would only see a power disparity. They likewise reduce hierarchy to entrenched power, delegation to power over slaves, cooperation to manipulation, and so forth.

For example, you might think of marriage as the foundational human relationship from which all society proceeds. You may recognize it as natural–maybe even designed and ordained by God on the very same day He created Man. You may easily observe that it’s far and away the best way to raise children, protect women, civilize humanity, and so forth. However, through a feminist lens, marriage is reduced to a tool that men have used to oppress women throughout history. The God-ordained headship of the husband is reduced from authority to power–a mere vehicle for abuse. The observation that men and women complement each other by providing things that the other lacks is recast as men manipulating women into oppressive gender roles. And so, some of the greatest blessings God has bestowed upon us are transformed by this simplistic reductionism.

And the efforts do not stop with the present. All of history ends up being reduced to flat conflicts between oppressor and oppressed as well. Naturally, the past always belongs to the oppressor. After all, they were the ones who invented and imposed all these so-called social constructs in the first place, and the nature of “progress” is to deconstruct them. That’s why they’re always tearing down statues, editing old movies, putting trigger warnings on old books, and either retroactively cancelling historical figures or trying to reinvent them as members of an oppressed group. Left alone, Critical Theory ends up corroding everything good about civilization.

A Pragmatic View of Truth.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of Critical Theory, however, is that it takes a pragmatic approach to truth. Natural law and human reason both make it clear to us that truth is a matter of a belief corresponding to the real world. As Aristotle put it, “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” This is what every competent philosopher has believed until the past century or two.

Critical Theory, however, departs from that understanding, instead teaching that truth is a matter of “what works.” When explained from certain angles, this approach can appear to make sense at first blush. For example, if you were asserting the laws of aerodynamics as “true,” the pragmatist would say that it’s irrelevant whether or not those laws correspond to reality (they may even say it’s impossible for a human to know whether they do.) Instead, what’s important is that following those laws will help you make your plane fly. According to pragmatism, that utility is what makes the laws of aerodynamics “true,” and they would cease to be true as soon as they cease to be helpful.

But while most of us can appreciate the practicality of engineering over and against pure science, we can also recognize the obvious pitfall of pragmatism: it consistently passes off lies as truth whenever those lies are deemed helpful. Any toddler can figure this out, for when mom asks about the broken vase on the floor, it’s very useful to the little boy to say that the dog did it. It’s very useful for the negligent student to say that the essay he bought was his own work. It’s very useful to the adulteress to tell her unknowingly cuckolded husband that her baby is also his. This is why you can never trust an epistemological pragmatist.

That’s also why you can never trust a Critical Theorist. In Critical Theory, truth and falsehood are always a matter of “what works” in liberating the oppressed.

For example, older conservatives may remember the days when “racism” was an umbrella term referring to a variety of race-based animosities and prejudices in America. But that was an abstract ethical question. By that understanding, some people are deemed racist and some are not based on their observable behavior. A white person could be innocent of racism and a black person could be guilty.

But if your entire purpose is to liberate people of color from white oppression, that kind of objectivity is not always helpful. And so the definition of racism was changed. Even a quarter of a century ago when I first went to college, I was taught that racism was a matter of being born white in an historically white country. (This was done during freshman orientation because they wanted to make sure everyone learned this. They made us all play a game called “Archie Bunker‘s Neighborhood” to drive the point home.) “Privilege” language wasn’t in vogue yet, but the fundamental concept was the same, encompassing every white person who benefits from the structures of “white privilege” built by our ancestors for the benefit of their descendants. That way, every white person is ipso facto guilty of racism and no person of color could possibly be called racist.

That’s a much less useful definition if you’re looking for any kind of moral truth, but it’s very useful for undermining an “oppressive” society. After all, you might notice that privilege in that sense is literally every parent’s job. I teach my children to read so that they’ll be able to learn more effectively throughout their lives:  privilege. I support school environments and traditions that help manage their education:  structures of privilege. I teach them to behave in ways that will help them to live moral, healthy, and fruitful lives:  even more privilege. And it’s not a coincidence that my children and I share the same race, so this is all clearly white privilege as well.

As a moral condemnation, this new definition of racism makes absolutely no sense–it is not immoral to have been simultaneously born a particular skin color and loved by your parents. However, if your goal is to tear down evil white oppressors in order to liberate the poor oppressed people of color, it’s quite useful indeed. And to the Critical Theorist, that makes it “true.” And it’s worth noting every expert in the field of “racism” has long been using that new definition. The dictionaries are already updated. The definition you grew up with is obsolete no matter how often you use it.

It’s Worse Than Hypocrisy

A failure to appreciate the twistedness of this pragmatic view of truth is at root of conservativism’s tendency to dismiss this sort of thing as hypocrisy. We’ve all heard the line, “if it weren’t for double-standards, the left would have no standards at all.” While liberals chanted “believe all women,” we remembered all the women who accused President Clinton and how the left never cared about them because President Clinton was useful to their agenda. We hear all the time that things like wearing blackface or using the N-word are considered racist in the extreme. But when they see pictures of Justin Trudeau wearing blackface to a party or hear audio of Joe Biden using the n-word, the left never cares because those men are useful to their agenda.

When conservatives see that, they dismiss it all as hypocrisy–that liberals proclaim these principles but have no interest in living up to them. And so we get all the lines about liberals being the real racists and hear every conservative ask in unison what would happen if the situation were reversed. And every last one of those efforts falls completely flat because conservatives are still thinking in terms of the correspondence view of truth and because of Critical Theory, liberals are not.

These things are not principles to today’s left. They are tools which are picked up when useful and put down when they are not. When you watch a man explain in the same interview that A) race is a social construct which produces racism once its imagined and B) you’re racist if you don’t immediately recognize a person’s race when you see it, the obvious contradiction is not hypocrisy. He’s simply using lines that “work” according to his narrative in different contexts. It’s no more hypocritical than putting down a hammer and picking up a screwdriver. That’s why conservatives who perpetually hope to provoke first shame and then repentance by denouncing liberal “hypocrisy” never accomplish anything.

Critical Theory is practiced almost exclusively through expedient lies. When you read crazy stories about how America’s preference for white meat turkey at Thanksgiving is racist, or that it’s transphobic when a normal man doesn’t find a mutilated man pretending to be a woman sexually attractive, it’s not because anyone actually believes such things (apart from a handful of truly broken and deluded souls.) The point is to create confusion and put opponents in a constant state of defensiveness—constantly trying to prove that they’re not racist, sexist, homophobic, and so forth. And while conservatives scramble to defend their good name to people who couldn’t care less, “progress” marches on unimpeded.

And it has worked amazingly well because conservatives never bothered to learn. They just keep taking the bait and allowing themselves to be manipulated through arguments about principles. But the only “principle” of Critical Theory is fighting for the oppressed against the oppressors. Their presumptive narratives govern all. There is no good faith present in this conflict except when a show of good faith is deemed temporarily useful.

But this is just the beginning, for we have only scratched the surface of this topic. Our considerations thus far have mainly been a matter of politics. But the true danger of Critical Theory is a spiritual one. In the next post, I will explain why Critical Theory is not simply an undesirable brand of politics, but a false religion claiming for Hell the souls of those whom it deceives.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
This entry was posted in Feminism, Lutheranism, Natural Law, Politics, The Modern Church. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Know Your Enemy: What is Critical Theory?

  1. scotta says:

    People become like the idols they worship. Nihilism and power dynamics are what they believe, and – lo and behold – they become like that themselves. Sophistry is a tool in their arsenal. As you point out, confusion and paralysis is useful to them, or, even better, wasting time on obviously foolish errands.

    From a post by Wretchard: “The Communist advice is: to disarm the victim, make him feel guilty for resisting. If the victim still resists, the Bolshevist is advised to act like the aggrieved party. . . . He was only being kind, only righting historical wrongs.”

    I look forward to your suggestions for fighting back.

    • Matthew Etzell says:

      I don’t know what Matt would say about how we fight back, but here are some things (this is not intended to be an exhaustive list) which come to my mind:

      1) Stop caring about what the left calls you. As Matt pointed out, the left lies incessantly; lying is, in fact, leftists’ native language. Their accusations have no credibility, because leftists have no credibility, because they have no respect for the truth. Additionally, the various “-isms” and “-phobias” leftists accuse you of aren’t actually sins, so there is no need to feel guilty about them or try to prove your innocence.

      2) Study God’s Word and boldly confess it. The only way to fight lies is to know and proclaim the truth. As Paul writes in Ephesians 6:10-20:

      Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.

      3) Identify your allies and support them. Do not let disagreement over minor (tertiary or quaternary) issues separate you from those with whom you agree on all major (primary or secondary) issues. Do not let disagreement over details separate you from those with whom you agree on the big picture.

      4) Identify false friends and stop trusting them.

      5) Substance is more important than style. Truth is more important than tone.

      6) Finally, some encouragement from God’s Word:
      As Christ says in Matthew 5:11-12:

      “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

      As Christ says in Matthew 10:16-39

      “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

      As Christ says in John 15:18-21:

      “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”

      As Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:12-17:

      Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

      As Peter writes in 1 Peter 4:12-19:

      Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.

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