Skirmishes with Postmodernism and Critical Social Justice – Then and Now

Even if it seems like the shadow of Critical Social Justice hangs all around you, and has captured the minds of those you work with, do not abandon hope. Its apparent influence may be readily dispelled with a dose of courage and a word of truth. You may be surprised at who and how many agree with you.

Stand up. Speak out. The time to chase back the shadows is now. Perhaps my own account can offer some encouragement.

My own position on Critical Social Justice takes me back to the mid-2000s when I encountered its progenitor, postmodernism. I was studying literature at university, where my cohort and I were force-fed a diet of cynical and joy-killing literary criticism. There was nothing beyond the text, we were told. The author was dead, we were told. Ergo, all that mattered was the reader’s interpretation, and that could be taken to any extreme – far beyond the original literary, social and historical context, or any logical inference. It was a wholesale massacre of truth, tradition and aesthetics.

Feminist theory, Marxist theory, Freudian theory, poststructuralist theory… One lecturer had the gall to make the analogy of pasta sauces, claiming that a theory was something you added to a text in order to give it a particular flavour – as if the works of the literary canon would be drear and flavourless experiences without them. He would have been more accurate if he had likened theory to cyanide.

Thus, it did not take long for me to become disillusioned with my studies, though linguistics and medieval literature provided at least some sanctuary. I graduated, life went on, and I assumed that I was rid of what I considered to be pretentious, untalented literary criticism.

Many years passed. However, from 2017 I became increasingly aware of a rising tide. Postmodernism had filtered out of the ivory tower, I realised, and had manifested in strange new forms. No longer confined to literary studies, it was now seeping into the fabric of society at large.

I learned of the fight against Critical Social Justice by listening to YouTube videos while doing housework. Like many others, it was through Jordan Peterson especially that I became aware of the problem, with his accidental emergence in the eye of a cultural storm. I followed his videos with fascination, listening to his Biblical lectures, interviews and classroom clips while mopping the floors and cleaning the bathroom. At the same time, I began tuning in to the cultural commentary of other figures from Joe Rogan, Ben Shapiro, Bret Weinstein and Camille Paglia to Stephen Hicks, James Lindsay and Counterweight’s own Helen Pluckrose, combining their insights with my own personal contemplations.

Epiphany struck one afternoon while gardening. The French intellectual Michel Foucault, a darling of CSJ proponents, had championed the concept that the use of language and categories were, primarily, exercises in power; his ruminations led him to write studies on the history of prisons, madness and sexuality. Yet for all his dabbling in history, I mused, he and the rest of his ilk had more in common with the Metaphysical poets than they did with historians (or indeed philosophers) – putting forward propositions that are either far-fetched or outright absurd, and then undergoing a series of rhetorical acrobatics in order to make them seem plausible. The comparison pleased me. I had denounced the tenets of postmodernism back when I was eighteen; it was never going to convince me now.

Nonetheless, the threat of Critical Social Justice remained distant to me until January of this year. An email was sent to all staff within the university school where I work, stating that we had to undergo mandatory “anti-racism” training delivered by the charity Show Racism the Red Card: a one-hour recorded workshop, as well as two or three hours looking at items from a recommended reading list (Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility being first among them). This would be followed up in May by a meeting for all school staff to discuss their views and what steps the school should take going forward.

The spread of Critical Social Justice was now infiltrating my own workplace.

I was not unaware of the problem, and not unequipped with arguments against it, but I was still worried. How many of my colleagues, both within my team and the school more broadly, were on board with this ideology? Was the doctrine of CSJ “anti-racism” something they already took as a given, unbeknownst to me? I wondered if I alone was the Resistance, a one-man guerrilla cell stuck in hostile territory. It seemed as if I was enveloped in the shadow of CSJ.

The one-hour workshop recording was difficult to watch, both patronising and specious in its reasoning. We were asked to reflect on what parts of our identity afforded us ‘privilege’. We were told a fairy tale-esque story, followed by a quiz designed to expose our alleged biases. We were introduced to Robin DiAngelo’s idea of “morality” and the racism apparently evident in unequal outcomes. It was suggested that we are all complicit in creating the bars of a racism cage that imprisons non-white people. It was claimed that we live in “a society that is overall racist”. I expressed my irritation in one of my team’s regular video meetings. I wanted to know if my fellow team members had seen it, and what they thought of it. I was not shy about my own opinion. Concerned as I was about where other people stood, I could not – would not – hold back on what was anathema to me.

Their response was vindicating. One of my colleagues had finished watching the video and admitted that it filled her with a similar repugnance–and that she wouldn’t have been comfortable admitting it if I had not declared my own position so emphatically. As a team, we had a cathartic discussion about race, racism and the complexities of individual identity. Another colleague referred to the online unconscious bias training module we had to complete previously, voicing scepticism about its usefulness.

In the wake of the meeting, I felt emboldened. It felt like something had changed a little inside me. It was like I had a greater level of respect for myself.

Since then I have spoken to them a couple of times about the training video. They have not followed the permutations of CSJ as I have, but their reactions have ranged from unimpressed to feeling patronised.

I am safe within my own team. And I would not have known if I had never spoken up.

Yet that was only a start. Would I be safe beyond the confines of my immediate team? Would people be “allowed” to speak against CSJ’s anti-racism ideology? Or would they, as has happened in other workplaces, face condemnation, disciplinary proceedings and even sacking?

I knew that before the school meeting in May, I would have to speak directly to senior management about my concerns. I did not expect it to make any difference, but it felt like a necessary and appropriate step in my official “resistance”. For weeks, however, I procrastinated: doing additional background reading, gathering evidence and further marshaling my thoughts (Counterweight’s support in this has been precious). I was dreading the conversation; it was the head of school who had mandated the staff training in the first place. I was probably about to create a whole world of trouble for myself.

I finally raised the matter just before the Easter holiday, joining one of the regular “drop-in” meetings on Microsoft Teams held for colleagues in the school who have something to discuss. I voiced my concerns, making very clear my own antipathy to racism.

The reaction I received?

It turned out that the head of school had not yet watched the training video. I surmised from our conversation that she had in fact had little direct input regarding the content or implementation of the anti-racism training. Far from being a champion of CSJ ideology, she mentioned personally operating on a principle of colourblindness, and that she had raised her children to do the same. She was very open and sympathetic to my concerns and welcomed me sending her a link to Counterweight’s video of alternative anti-racism training sources. She also encouraged me to contribute at the school meeting in May.

Since that conversation, I have felt very much relieved. It no longer feels like I need to wage a secret war against an all-pervading force. The shadows I had perceived around me were in fact just that – shadows. On closer inspection they had melted away, revealing nothing.

The struggle is not over, of course. Inevitably there will be those in the school who do support the CSJ ideology, and the meeting in May continues to loom in my mind, but it no longer feels so much like my own personal D-Day. I would prefer for us as an institution to show “Show Racism the Red Card” the red card, but I am at least confident about two things: that it will not cost me my job to express my views, and that my workplace is not (yet) destined to become its own oppressive little totalitarian state.

And so that is why I say: even if it seems like the shadow of Critical Social Justice hangs all around you, do not abandon hope. Its influence on those around you may be just an illusion. Stand up. Speak out. The time to chase back the shadows is now.

Pierre Gaite is a medievalist and education professional. After teaching English in secondary schools for a number of years, he now works in the higher education sector.

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  1. Critical Race Theory (CRT) is like some terrible plague that has escaped from a University’s secure laboratory, carried out into the world in the minds of unwitting graduates, infected by activist professors and tutors who have a cynical political agenda. These graduates, armed with their degrees and doctorates consider that their newly acquired knowledge is actually the “truth” and must be – they are educated elites after all – aren’t they? Like all good disciples they are duty bound to ensure it is accepted as gospel. Oh? It’s sounds a bit like a religion doesn’t it?

    The real problem is that our leaders have allowed it to take hold and flourish, i.e. the leaders of political parties, media, institutions, enterprises – the top of our society who have the power, the status and financial rewards, but who through laziness, ignorance, ambition or incompetence seem to be unable to pull it back. It threatens to divide us so thoroughly that this cultural war could become a real one. As history tells us, it will be the great unwashed, the less well-educated, the working class that will ultimately do most of the fighting. It would come at a great cost – as all wars have and always will.

    Maybe there’s still time to prevent this war from happening in the UK (and Europe); and avoid the anarchy such as you see in Portland (Oregon), and other US cities. Perhaps, it needs to begin with the leadership in Academia, i.e. the tutors and professors who know they should call it out and expose it to proper scrutiny, and ideally give the young students alternative and better options for achieving social justice. The fire started in your institutions, please have the courage to extinguish it for all our sakes.

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