Critical race theory

‘Critical race theory’ is the perfect villain

Christopher Rufo

I wonder if I can keep this post short and sweet. Only by reminding myself that I’d like to write about his after much more consideration and effort. So can I keep this to a steak in the ground (Here at Troppo we’re always looking for ways to get red meat to the base)?

Be that as it may, critical race theory has been identified — by its opponents — as sitting at the apex of the hornet’s nest (or is that a Gordian knot) of wokeness, though the basic structure of the ideas also applies elsewhere — think radical critiques of gender and colonisation to name just two.

And here’s the thing. I agree with most of the anti-woke agenda in various areas with some passion. But I’m hostile not to the radicalism of the ideas of critical theory. Far from it. They are, for the most part, powerful and very welcome additions to our understanding of the world. But that’s very different to the more ambitious political, social and managerial application of those ideas where my response is often strong objection. I’d say precisely the same about Marxism.

That is, Marxism was an immensely powerful lens on the world, not just on economics, but on the whole structure of ideas around which public and social life is organised. Was it ‘right’. Yes, much of it was deeply insightful, but then it wasn’t the only way you could look at life or the phenomena it foregrounded. Marxism also came with its own stratospheric hubris in which it became the first ‘truly scientific’ study of humanity, rendering all else erroneous and obsolete. Not only that, but it turned out to predict the future as the working out of an iron law. The working class would be progressively immiserised and would then rise up in revolt.

One aspect of its overreach is the way in which Marxists were such passionate advocates and activists for the revolution. If it’s inevitable, why all the fuss? For its adherents, for all its masquerading as objective science, Marxism’s appeal was its inversion of the political ethics of the ruling class. Where revolution is the ultimate disaster for the governing ideology, it becomes the ultimate destiny and the ultimate good for the Marxist.[1. I’m generalising here, about what I’ll recklessly call ‘mainline’ Marxism but if you want to quibble with any of this thus far, please send your complaints together with a full psychological profile of why I’m really motivated by panic or malice to Troppo’s Chief Psychologist, Human Relations, ClubTroppo Collective together with a stamped self-addressed envelope to somewhere else. You will be vaccinated in due course #ItsNotARace.] And the good guys in history and in society as you look around are not those at the top a few of whom get statues erected to them — and torn down a century or so later. Like the New Testament, Marx’s testiment reassured its adherents that the meek would inherit the earth. 

With events having proven the prophecies wrong, the idea of nirvana following the revolution begins to look like a skyhook — a fictional ‘get out of jail’ card. As with a magician’s misdirection, while we’re all admiring the depth of the insights into the structure of things, and the working class have become the cool kids, we’re suddenly ushered into another room in which revolution is cool!

Critical race theory — and the Frankfurt School which was in many respects its intellectual vanguard — offers extremely powerful ways to theorise the ways in which power and oppression exist well beyond explicit legal and economic discrimination. Is it right? Yes, in the only way such things matter which is to say what I’ve just said — if offered a much needed lens on social reality of great power and insight which helped us understand how much more would need to be accomplished beyond formal legal equality — or even greater economic security and equality. And of course it’s not the only way to look at any of the things it focuses on. 

Moreover, the Frankfurt School was one of the offshoots of Marxism which was focusing on something that was obviously called for. With Marx asserting compellingly that “the executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” the Frankfurt school amongst others explored some of the contours of this insight. Foucault’s point in this context on “the relationship between power and knowledge, and how the former is used to control and define the latter” is similarly a point of immense and endless importance in our lives. 

But here’s the thing. Because some great minds have spun up some great analyses of power, power is still power. If I’m an activist organising demos and I work out that the spray that the police keep spraying on us is pepper spray, it might help me out — but not much. Because not only is it pretty hard to protect yourself against pepper spray and keep demonstrating (it being hard is kind of the point of pepper spray), if I do come up with pepper spray pills which make my fellow activists immune to its effects, the police are the ones with the power — remember! So they may just escalate the violence.

The armoury of weapons from wokestan attempt to bootstrap power for those they regard as powerless. Some of them might be helpful. I’m personally in favour of affirmative action in many contexts and even quotas in some contexts. But they’re a blunt instrument and can generate perverse outcomes. 

There’s now a blizzard of other techniques like ‘subconscious bias training’ of various kinds. Such things could be useful if done with genuine insight and humility. But at least from the cases one hears of, no-one could accuse them of being done in that spirit. I’d add here in parentheses that there’s a whole blizzard of wokedom breaking out in bureaucracies in the pubic, private and third sector, like this creepy attempt to purge and decolonialise language at Brandeis Uni. Likewise governments jump into the fray with codes of ethics and cultural this and that. They could help in some ways, they could be harmful in others, but we’re rolling them out without much idea of any of that.   

Meanwhile on social media where so much of the action is, woke sensibilities and programs they lend themselves quite obviously to weaponisation. And they take us into an area in which whose side you are on comes to eclipse whether you’re making any sense.

And all this will have been worse than useless if disadvantaged communities’ energies are diverted from ways they can advance their own interests through their own agency. Most of that work will be largely invisible to the dominant class and culture. So it won’t be tweeted and won’t get many ‘influencers’ worked up. But the evidence of communities who are prospering in the multi-cultural societies of the West — of which there are many — suggests that this is where most of the action is regarding how things turn out for their members.

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11 Responses to Critical race theory

  1. paul frijters says:

    Hi Nick,

    I tend to agree and am starting to think of such things as a kind of courtly fashion.

    I am interested though: what do you think the insights of critical race theory are that were not well-known beforehand?

    • conrad says:

      Even if there were no critical insights (and I’m not going to read much of it to find out despite falling into the not-one-of-us Australian category — I must be a colored hating colored person :) ), it has brought a number of issues into the public sphere and presumably consciousness. Whether these issues would have got there anyway I don’t know, but certainly many people pushing cultural understanding use these ideas or at least terminology from it and the general public learns this terminology too. Even more complex ideas that would generally be hard for people to understand many more people understand because of it. For example, I think most people at least understand the concept (c.f., agree with) that power differentials mean that, say, black-on-white racism is different to white-on-black racism even if it manifests the same way (and people like Chris Rock were able to make this idea much more accessible via humour). In places without any of this ideology or where it is entirely suppressed (e.g., China), I doubt the average person has even thought about it.

    • conrad says:

      Out of curiosity, I stuck word sequences into Google to look at the number of hits I would get with economics vs. critical race theory-like terms. It’s hard to find things which are perfect synonyms so counts are hard to compare, but its worth a quick look (if I had time, which I don’t, I could do better scraping and clustering and get a better answer). Words put in are in square brackets.

      For example, lets say I thought about:
      Black people are stuck due to [“institutional racism”] (1.9 mill pages)
      Black people are stuck due to [intergenerational mobility] (340K)

      You can see which got more hits. This is somewhat disappointing to me, because one might imagine institutional racism is a serious part of intergenerational mobility.

      I also used [Intersectionality] because it reminds of the crazy terms you find in the academic education literature. It by itself gets 4.6 million although is biased because it’s only one word, [cultural dynamics] gets 1.22 Mill, and [Social construction] gets 4.5 million.

      As a comparison [economic benefit] gets 3.88 million and poor old [economic rationalism] only gets 119K.

      Fortunately [unemployment] is the clear winner with 212 million, so at least everyone cares about that.

      I think from these rather randomly selected words at least some of these ideas from critical race theory are happily in the public sphere, at least using economics terms as a comparison.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks Paul,

      Rather a good question as it unravels some of my implicit claims. With my only excuse being that, as I wrote in the piece, my object was to post something quickly. Coming up short in answering your question I now realise I should have couched the post quite differently. I wrote the post having read the New Yorker profile of Christopher Rufo’s hit job on CRT — which I quote at the outset. I recommend it to others if they’re interested.

      I wanted to register the point that you can have a radical view of the world and end up having quite unradical views of what can be done about it. As far as CRT goes, and Marxism for that matter, I wanted to say that those believing in those ideas can have thoroughly odious or idiotic views about how they should play out into political activism without the bodies of theory themselves being terrible things.

      I shouldn’t have made the post about critical race theory. I was thinking of post-Marxist social theories by which I intend to include Gramschi, various strands of the Frankfurt school, Foucault and even the Dreaded Derided ‘postmodernism’ as all containing powerful insights. I take critical race theory to be the application of some of these bodies of theory to the question of race.

      But I shouldn’t have created the impression that I was au fait with CRT (or that I want to do so), or even that I have a deep knowledge of any of the areas I’ve just cited, though I’ve poked around and put some effort into understanding some of it.

      As to what such areas have to offer, I’d say their exploration of the way in which we are entangled in discourse, the way in which we participate in power relations through discourse, and so the patterns of oppression that are perpetrated through discourse. It is quite another thing to imagine that, having gained some insight into such things that we now have the tools to effectively cast off oppression — or even necessarily make much progress against it.

      I, for instance, have argued the view I have come to, that the Orwellian dishonesty baked into official communications and ways of thinking within organisations is an important means by which oppression takes place — or perhaps more importantly incompetence is protected and perpetrated. As for using the insight to do a bit better — well I’m waiting … ;)

      • paul frijters says:

        Hi Nick,

        yes, I have some similar affinity for postmodernism. I don’t really see why it is derided so much because it has such an obviously strong point, which is that we humans understand the world in stories. Its a bit like saying they see with eyes: obviously true. But that ‘narrative truth’ is used by lots of people to say ‘anything goes’ or that one is not allowed to say this is better than that. Which then begets a counter-reaction. But one can perfectly buy into the ‘narrative’ idea of postmodernism and also accept the story of one’s own group as better as that of anyone else, simply because ‘better’ IS a narrative too. But lots of people find that combination difficult and want their morals to appear timeless and groupless.

        I am not totally on top of CRT either, but I have gone many rounds with different notions of racism and anti-racism. A recurring difficulty in nearly all those debates (on either side, really) is what a human society would look like in which there are no group loyalties and hence no in-groups and out-groups. If one sees humans as inevitably group-oriented, the notion of “bias” starts to sound very strange. ‘Unwanted’ is a much better phrase, because it then directs one to the question ‘Unwanted by whom?’ which may well have good answers like ‘by the population as a whole when they reflect on it’.

        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          The objection to postmodernism always struck me as based on mistaking an ought for an is. It was descriptive — and also, in the light of our slide into fake news — prophetic. It’s true that all knowledge is socially constructed. But that doesn’t mean that Jupiters moons don’t revolve around it. Anyone who said that this is a contribution to astronomy is being silly. Of course a few people did say this, but then they can be safely ignored.

        • David Walker says:

          Paul, you’re probably already aware of this analysis – but for those who aren’t, there’s a critique of Paul’s “strong point” in postmodernism which goes quite some way to explaining some of the derision it now attracts. This critique depicts your strong point as one piece of a two-piece philosophical fraud, as follows.

          Most of the time, assert that …

          1) Reality is socially constructed, and this social construction of reality means there is no way to show convincingly that one view of reality is better than another. But this is a weak, dubious and highly vulnerable claim; how, for instance, does it let you asset that your view of climate change is better than Barnaby Joyce’s? So rather than defend it, when under scrutiny simply retreat and claim instead that you just believe that …

          2) Accounts of the world are produced by human observers and are therefore relative to their capacities, education, training and other experiences in society. This claim that our social history shapes our understandings is a completely defensible intellectual stronghold, though also dull – it goes back at least to Socrates, and for good reason has almost never been contested.

          This two-stage shell game was first described by the philosopher Nicholas Shackel and was dubbed by him as a motte-and-bailey doctrine. The paper also explains the name, for anyone unfamiliar with the details of medieval castle architecture. On some accounts, even Thomas Kuhn himself used this motte-and-bailey manoeuvre. The term does seem to me to neatly capture the intellectual weakness of the whole enterprise.

          And this term does seem to map neatly on to what one might suspect would be the views of our plaque-erecting householders:

          1) Asset that the land on which you live is actually Wurundjeri land. But …

          2) When confronted by actual Wurundjeri who ask to use their land, explain that you just mean to express sympathy with their historical victimisation, or some such.

  2. conrad says:

    “There’s now a blizzard of other techniques like ‘subconscious bias training’ of various kinds. Such things could be useful if done with genuine insight and humility. But at least from the cases one hears of, no-one could accuse them of being done in that spirit”

    I agree that the ones that people have to do after being sent there by some management/annoyance committee are likely to have little value (especially given no-one wants to be there). That being said, there are probably some subconscious techniques that might have some efficacy in this area. For example, there are unfortunately gay people that have been taught what they do is bad and have messed up lives because of it (e.g., Oliver Sacks). There is some stuff now where they expose more explicit gay scenes to people subconsciously over time and this is supposed to help them get over it. Like any of these psychological tasks, whether they are getting results from the task or simply an interaction with the person running it who knows (I’ll guess the latter), but it might in part have some effect and isn’t just run to annoy people.

  3. Antonios Sarhanis says:

    The problem with intersectional theory or critical race theory is that its adherents are monomaniacs!

    Same as Marxists.

    I agree that there’s a lot to like about a lot of these theories. Just that it’s clearly not the whole story.

    I’m reminded of your post about being a Conservative Liberal Social Democrat. There’s a lot to like in a lot of traditions or schools of thought — just don’t go thinking that one of them has all the answers.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Indeed,

      But even if you wanted to come at the world solely from the perspective in these theories, these theories tell you that power operates subtly and insidiously. They tell you that it is shift shaping and many formed. They don’t’ make any promise that if you figure things out that will enable you to grab hold of power when it’s being wielded by others. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan says somewhere “Power is like that!”

      If you’re a slave and you figure out the political economy of slavery, that doesn’t enable you to flick a few switches and get power. There’s magical thinking right at the heart of all this whereby it is assumed that, the more radical your thinking the more power you’ll be able to wrest from the powerful. It’s complete bollocks.

      There’s the same kind of magical thinking at the heart of Marxism and it is, itself hydra headed. The emotional appeal is its radicalism. It therefore appeals to radicals. But when you pay attention, at least in its original form, the theory is that the radicals don’t need to do anything — it’s all going to happen of its own accord and moreover that if they did do something it wouldn’t have much if any effect.

      Further, as Michael Polanyi points out, it comes with its own kind of “moral inversion” which has been described as:

      the process by which the fusion of scientific skepticism (“extreme critical lucidity”) with utopian social aspirations (“intense moral conscience”) produces the dystopia of moral and political nihilism out of which arises the modern totalitarian state, in which the only principle of social order is absolute coercive power and in which material welfare is embraced as the supreme social good.

      • paul frijters says:

        Surely your real beef with critical race theory is that you detest its content, not its magical belief in getting power?

        I don’t see why you are so dismayed at the implicit argument that the morally pure should rule the earth. That’s the point of moral purity.

        There is an interesting race between power and moral purity, akin to the eternal chase between fauns and nymphs. Power will invariably clothe itself with the dominant morals of the day, but cannot possibly behave like that (whatever those morals are). The ambitious will then invariably claim there is something morally impure about those who hold power, meaning they should have it themselves, promising to bring that purity. Whomever wins that chase then clothes herself in whatever the new moral purity is, simply leading to the next round of the cycle.

        It is basically like watching fashions. One cause is the lust for power. Another is the need of power to appear morally good. Throw in any source of decay and change (ageing, democracy, war, commerce) and you beget a never-ending cycle.

        It no longer bothers me that the young and the ambitious use morality to beg for more power. That is their role in our system: it has come to have good aspects to it, involving renewal and destruction of what has lost steam. So i am not bothered by that bit (the radicalism). I am bothered by the supposed moral solutions they propose. Some I don’t mind, some I detest.

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