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.