Tom Gilson

Critical Theory’s No-Hope Mix of Power, Oppression, and Moral Confusion

What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be good, or to be happy? Does anyone know anymore?

Contemporary critical theory has a complex history and even more complicated social implications today, but there’s a sense in which much of it comes down to those few, basic, hugely important and very human questions.

I’ve been studying the new Ratio Christi publication Engaging Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement by Dr. Neil Shenvi and Dr. Pat Sawyer. I can’t recommend it too highly — you must read it, to understand everything in today’s culture from sexism to “homophobia” to racism to the immigration question, as well as academia’s hatred for “dead white male” studies.

Shenvi and Sawyer summarize critical theory in perhaps as condensed form as anyone responsibly could do. As I reflect on it here I must summarize it even further. I do so perhaps at the risk of crossing the threshold of irresponsibility. My defense: I’m strongly pointing you to their work. You’ll want to read it for further background on the narrow topic I’m focusing on here, and also for considerably more information on broader topics related to contemporary critical theory.

Materialist Roots

Critical theory has roots in Marxist materialism. Shenvi and Sawyer emphasize that Marxist is no longer a fair adjective to apply to it broadly, but I’m quite sure it’s as materialist as ever. It displays little to no awareness of transcendent spiritual realities, theists understand them. Instead it seeks to find the good in some present, physically-based experience.

Collective Human Identity and Morality

Critical theory leans toward viewing human identity not in an individual sense but as members of collectives. Identity is radically connected to your race, gender, sexual identity, nationality, able-ness, and so on; so you are what your group membership makes you.

Not only that, but persons’ moral goodness or badness is also radically connected to their group membership. “No white member of society is innocent,” says Richard Delgado, quoted in this paper. Innocent of what? Of the “taint” of oppressive power applied by his group over non-whites. This is your moral status, if you are white, and especially if you’re male and heterosexual. To the extent you belong to other groups, you are innocent, free of this taint.

Power Relationships

Critical theory takes this as moral truth, because morality is almost entirely a matter of groups’ power relationships, which are a matter of oppression versus liberation. As the authors say,

Critical theory’s pronounced focus on liberation has the effect of minimizing, or even negating the existence of other moral duties. Critical theorists will speak extensively about our obligation to overturn oppressive systems, to liberate the marginalized, and to seek justice, but will rarely speak about other moral virtues like honesty, kindness, chastity, patience, and forgiveness. Moreover, there are cases in which virtues like marital fidelity, modesty, or civility will be problematized as constructs of oppressor groups that need to be challenged rather than obligations that need to be honored.

Therefore critical theory might answer “What does it mean to be human?” with, “to be a member of various groups defined by your race, sex, sexual preference, etc.” The answer to, “What does it mean to be good?” is, “to be untainted by membership in an oppressor group.” And I should add that there’s apparently no complete rescue from that taint, for those who hold it. No amount of work on equalizing or overturning your group’s “oppressive” power position relieves you of the fault you carry by being part of that group.

So goodness or badness really does seem to reside in group membership. Perhaps you’ve heard, “No African American can be racist; no White can be innocent of racism.” This is where that comes from.

Happiness Decoupled from Goodness

But we still haven’t seen how critical theory would answer, “What does it mean to be happy?” (From here on I am departing from Shenvi and Sawyer to draw my own inferences.) It seem to me that on this theory, happiness and goodness stand virtually in direct opposition to one another. The oppressors are happy in virtue of the power and privilege they hold — the very things that taint them morally. The oppressed group members are unhappy because of their lack of power; which also makes them those who carry virtue with them.

This is a sharp break from classical Western and Christian thinking on virtue and happiness, which has always said that the good life is the life of the morally good person. Plato and Aristotle saw it that way. Their application of that principle was weak, however (to say the least), in the lives of the truly poor, the oppressed, and the enslaved.

Christianity’s Real Happiness and Virtue

Jesus came, though, and beginning with the Beatitudes, he laid a foundation for answering that question in the form of eternal felicity for those whose souls have been built for it through patience, humility, bearing up under struggles, and so on, with faith in him as the cornerstone.

James made a proverb of the moral equivalence of riches and poverty: “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away” (James 1:9-10).

Boethius (477-524 AD) was a late Roman senator and consul who was imprisoned on false charges of conspiracy. While in jail he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, of which one dominant theme is the moral equivalence of good or bad fortune. What matters, he taught, is not what one experiences, but the virtue one acquires in one’s soul. This book was highly influential in Western culture for close to a thousand years.

And I could share more along those lines. Virtue and happiness come closely into alignment in Western Christian thinking, yet we’ve so lost touch with that fact, that J. P. Moreland and Klaus Issler could write a book titled The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life (NavPress, 2006). It opens with an epigraph from Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, who was in a position to know. He said, “The meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering … but in the development of the soul.”

Critical Theory’s Interesting Twist on Power and Morality

Critical theory roundly rejects all that. It’s “hegemonic” “dead white male” thinking, a subtle power strategy by which the majority imposes itself upon the oppressed to keep them from recognizing their true condition and rising up in revolution. Some of us look at Christian and classical literature and see greatness, beauty, wisdom, and virtue. Critical theory looks at the same and sees power relationships. That’s what morality and goodness are all about: whether one participates, by virtue of his or her group membership, in the use of power against others.

It’s an intriguing twist on the relation of power to morality. I’ve written often about what happens when a people loses touch with transcendent morality — morality as defined by God, that is. Where there is no ultimate right or wrong, people tend to re-define right and wrong according to power. Even if it’s determined by something as seemingly innocuous as cultural consensus, it’s the power of the majority that makes it so. Might makes wrong.

Example: Gay Rights History

Just ask the gay rights activists of the 1980s through today. Formerly the consensus was against them, making it “right” to condemn homosexuality. That was oppressive to them, they would obviously say. They strategized through the power they had to multiply that power in culture, and now they’ve fairly well flipped that consensus.

When it was “right” to condemn homosexuality, it was “right” only by the power of consensus. Now that it’s “wrong,” it’s also “wrong” only by the power of consensus. There’s no higher standard by which to judge the consensus opinion.

That’s just one example of how morality devolves to power relationships when it loses touch with transcendent reality. As I said, though, critical theory puts an interesting twist on that. It condemns the oppressive use of power, which any thinking Christian would also do. But its only remedy to that oppression is to fight it with power.

The paradigm case of this is the conservative white campus guest lecturer. Over and over again students and faculty lock them out or shout them down. The crowds don’t stand up to reason with the speakers, explaining how they’re objectively wrong. They prevent them even from speaking. That’s power in action.

Moral Confusion

So critical theory condemns oppressive power, yet it has no real answer to it but power. It finds moral coverage in its conviction that the oppressed can never oppress; that is, if minority groups use power against majority groups, they commit no serious moral fault. But there’s little or nothing to offer by way of explaining just why it’s moral to act in this way. It’s power set against power.

And suppose the oppressed group wins. Who will they become then? The oppressors, naturally; for oppression is a matter of who holds power. And the day they do that will be the day they suddenly start treating their former oppressors with the dignity they themselves wanted all along, right? Wrong. People aren’t like that. When they have the opportunity truly to oppress — even to oppress by their own restricted definition of “oppress” — they will still be human. And they will use their power to oppress.

Or they’ll re-define “oppressed” so they can still claim that status. Gays and lesbians are doing basically that today. They’ve got real economic power, strong legal protection, and enormous social cachet with everyone except religious believers. That one last exception, though, seems to grant them oppressed status still. They can attack Christians verbally (“hater,” “homophobe”) all they want, without the slightest taint of lost innocence for it, since they’re still the oppressed group.

This is morally confused at best. But it gets worse

The Better Way

If might makes wrong, as I’ve said, then rightness and wrongness are defined strictly by power. This cannot end well. It can only result in power brought against power; which can only result in pain, loss, and violence.

There must be a better way, and in fact, there is. It’s the way of Jesus Christ, a way of humility, grace, and justice; where rightness is defined by God’s own revealed rightness; where it doesn’t require a power struggle to determine a moral winner. Guilt has an objective meaning based on motives, intentions, and actions. It has an objective solution through repentance, appropriate restitution, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Human relationships have a positive goal to aim for, life modeled after God’s unconditional love, rather than the bleak outlook of eternal up-and-down power struggles.

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Tom Gilson, Senior Editor, The Stream.

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