What Critical Race Theory (or CRT) is and isn’t, who understands it and who doesn’t, and what people’s motivations are for defending or criticising it seem to be the issues dominating the culture wars right now. It is a good thing that we’re talking about contemporary critical theories of race. This particular approach to addressing racism is something we desperately need to have serious discussions about. The problem is that we are largely not having serious discussions about it. Instead, people are quibbling over terms, accusing each other of ignorance or malice and generally talking past each other without engaging the point in any kind of productive way.

The first hindrance to discussing Critical Race Theory is that the discussion generally fails to get past the accusation that the other person doesn’t understand what Critical Race Theory actually is. Often these accusations are correct. Many of the people advocating for CRT seem to believe it is any historically literate understanding of racial history in the USA, how horrendously it oppressed black Americans, why this was bad and how its aftermath is still felt today. Some even seem to think that CRT just means ‘talking about racism.’ Of course, if you believe that this is what CRT is, you will believe that anybody who opposes it is, at best, trying to gloss over a shameful history and, at worst, indifferent to or even supportive of racism. Meanwhile, some opponents of CRT believe it is essentially racism against white people and centred around the belief that all white people are racist, bigoted, and personally responsible for the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. If you understand CRT as the belief that white people are evil and generally inferior, you are going to believe that anyone who advocates it is, at best, a profoundly misguided conspiracy theorist and, at worst, a racist.

Many of the people who are wrong about what CRT is are well-intentioned but missing the point, preventing a more reasonable conversation from making progress. We are essentially looking at a conflict between two positions that can be discussed and evaluated. The critical theories of race approach argues that racism is ordinary (possibly even permanent) and a system embedded in attitudes and language that everyone is socialised into. It argues that we therefore need critical theorists and trainers to make everyone see and affirm their racism in order to dismantle it using certain critical methods. Meanwhile, the liberal approach to addressing racism holds that it is a prejudiced attitude often accompanied by discriminatory behaviours that individuals can adopt or reject, that they already do so to varying extents and that much progress has been made towards the ‘reject’ position. This approach maintains that progress needs to be furthered by consistently opposing the evaluation of people by their race.

However, often what we see is people who are genuinely knowledgeable about what CRT is nitpicking over terminology in pedantic ways and arguing over whether or not the most extreme approaches to ‘anti-racism’ are really CRT. The reality is that current critical theories of race are not identical to the Critical Race Theory that emerged in legal scholarship from the 1970s. Nevertheless, there are many people who are criticising the current manifestation of critical theories of race accurately in relation to their genuine negative impact on the real lives of real people of all races. It is not at all helpful to quibble over terms in these situations when we could be addressing genuine, complex problems and having productive disagreements about substantive issues. Often people choose to claim that a critic does not understand Critical Race Theory rather than engaging with their claims and arguments in order to make it harder for people to put forward their criticisms. It is commonly claimed that the critic simply doesn’t know what they are talking about because they have not studied the theories in higher education. However, neither have most of the people being hit by the impacts of them. Rather than quibbling over whether what critics are criticising is really the theories that emerged in legal studies from the 1970s, let’s address the reality of what critical theories of race look like right now and how they are impacting real people of all races.

The Evolution of an Idea: Materialist and Postmodernist CRT

It is not surprising that the theories have evolved and developed because that’s what ideas do. In this case, the two main branches of CRT – best understood as materialist and postmodern – have evolved into the two branches of what is known as Critical Social Justice (CSJ) approaches to anti-racism. These are still best understood as materialist and postmodern. In the transition and in both branches, they have become more concrete and dogmatic and also simplified considerably. This is unsurprising as CSJ anti-racism operates mostly within cultural studies and pedagogy – the study of approaches to teaching – while CRT operated mostly within legal studies. You will find more detailed information on this in my and James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories, which has a chapter on CRT, which was part of the second generation that we called “applied postmodernism”, and a chapter on current Critical Social Justice approaches to anti-racism, which is part of the third generation that we called “reified postmodernism.”

Firstly, let me explain what I mean by both CRT and CSJ anti-racism having a materialist and postmodern branch. In Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic describe these as the “materialist” or “realist” approach vs the “idealist” approach.

They argue:

This hypothetical question poses an issue that squarely divides critical race theory thinkers—indeed, civil rights activists in general. One camp, which we may call “idealists,” holds that racism and discrimination are matters of thinking, mental categorization, attitude, and discourse. Race is a social construction, not a biological reality, they reason. Hence we may unmake it and deprive it of much of its sting by changing the system of images, words, attitudes, unconscious feelings, scripts, and social teachings by which we convey to one another that certain people are less intelligent, reliable, hardworking, virtuous, and American than others.

A contrasting school—the “realists” or economic determinists—holds that though attitudes and words are important, racism is much more than a collection of unfavorable impressions of members of other groups. For realists, racism is a means by which society allocates privilege and status. Racial hierarchies determine who gets tangible benefits, including the best jobs, the best schools, and invitations to parties in people’s homes. Members of this school of thought point out that antiblack prejudice sprang up with slavery and capitalists’ need for labor…

Materialists point out that conquering nations universally demonize their subjects to feel better about exploiting them, so that, for example, planters and ranchers in Texas and the Southwest circulated notions of Mexican inferiority at roughly the same period that they found it necessary to take over Mexican lands or, later, to import Mexican people for backbreaking labor. For materialists, understanding the ebb and flow of racial progress and retrenchment requires a careful look at conditions prevailing at different times in history.

So, the idealists are those who look to attitudes, biases, categorisation, social constructivism and discourses as the sources of racism. I think it is more accurate to refer to these as the ‘postmodernists’ because there are many kinds of idealists, but those who think in this way draw heavily on the work of the poststructuralists, particularly Michel Foucault, and the overall theme is that of postmodernism – a skepticism of the ethos of modernity, especially science, reason, liberalism and progress. This is supported by the citations used by the advocates of this method. Within CRT, the postmodernist branch emerged largely from black feminist thought and is exemplified by Kimberlé Crenshaw who described her concept of intersectionality as “contemporary politics linked to postmodern theory.” Within CSJ approaches to anti-racism, the postmodernists are largely found in critical pedagogy and are exemplified by the approaches of theorists like Robin DiAngelo and Barbara Applebaum, who look almost entirely at the biases, attitudes and language believed to dominate the thought of white people. They frequently cite Michel Foucault to do so.

Meanwhile the materialists are those who look at economic, legal, political and governmental systems to see where the power imbalance lies. They do so empirically but they tend to cherry-pick statistics in order to read all disparities as evidence of racist discrimination. This gets in the way of addressing those that actually are while also neglecting to address those that are caused by something else – e.g., class, culture, geography – and so are of limited value for fixing genuine injustices. They tend towards cynicism and pessimism. Within Critical Race Theory, the key figure is Derrick Bell, who developed Interest Convergence Theory. This holds that white people only allow rights to black people when it benefits themselves. Bell also argued that racism has not improved at all and is, in fact, permanent.

Michelle Alexander also takes a materialist approach and has supported the ‘racism is permanent’ thesis but is a more rigorous empirical scholar generally, although her scope can also be counterproductively narrow. Within CSJ approaches to anti-racism, the key materialist figure is Ibram X. Kendi. His work also focuses on structures more than biases and, although he holds that racist ideas lead to racist policies, he believes that people of all races can choose not to hold racist ideas, unlike DiAngelo et al. He is thus bound neither to postmodern discourse theory nor the ‘racism is permanent’ position. However, he does take the materialist stance of systematically closing down any other option than racism as a cause of and explanation for disparities.

So, What is Critical Race Theory?

Critical Race Theory: An Introduction describes it as a departure from liberal Civil Rights approaches:

 

Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.

and sets out four key tenets:

First, racism is ordinary, not aberrational—“normal science,” the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country.

This is a claim that racism is everywhere. All the time. It’s just the water we swim in. It’s also claimed that most people of colour agree with this.  In reality, people of colour differ on this although a greater percentage of black people believe it to be true than white people.

Second, most would agree that our system of white-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material, for the dominant group.

This means that this system, which has just been asserted to exist everywhere, is valued by white people both psychologically and in practical terms. Many white people would disagree that they regard racism positively.

A third theme of critical race theory, the “social construction” thesis, holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient.

This argues that races are social constructs rather than biological realities which is true – “populations” are the biological categories and don’t map neatly onto how we understand race – and that society has categorised and recategorised races according to custom, which is also true.

A final element concerns the notion of a unique voice of color. Coexisting in somewhat uneasy tension with antiessentialism, the voice-of-color thesis holds that because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, American Indian, Asian, and Latino writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know. Minority status, in other words, brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism.

There is much evidence that there is no unique voice of colour, and although there is good reason to think that people who have experienced racism may well have more perspective on it, they tend to have different perspectives. CRTs are more likely to regard those who agree with them as authoritative than those who disagree – i.e  “Yes” to Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshsaw but “No” to Thomas Sowell or Shelby Steele.

The British Educational Research Association has formed its own overlapping list of tenets of Critical Race Theory:

1)  Centrality of Racism

For this they cite Delgado and Stefancic above.

2)  White Supremacy

The BERA paper clarifies that “‘White supremacy’ does not relate to the obvious crude race hatred of extremist groups but to forces that saturate society as a whole.” These are quite vague but include material benefits and ideas that can be held consciously or unconsciously.

3)  Voices of People of Color/Storytelling

This again focuses on those who feel ‘minoritised’ and the “depleting effects of racism” and focuses on experiences and fictionalised stories that convey those experiences. This was used often by Derrick Bell who included stories about a fictional island that only black people could breathe on, and a scenario in which aliens demanded all the black Americans in exchange for great benefits, to the agreement of white Americans. It is unclear that all voices and stories told by people of colour are equally valued with those who agree with CRT approaches.

4)  Interest Convergence

This is the idea mentioned above that white people only offer equality to black people when it benefits white people. It neglects the possibility that very many white people might genuinely have moral commitments to racial equality due to empathy and principles.

5)  Intersectionality

The framework set out by Kimberlé Crenshaw in which multiple variables of subordinated identity need to be considered at the same time as race – i.e. gender and sexuality. This can be done in a rigorous and reasonable way but is also hampered by Crenshaw’s commitment to postmodernism and rejection of universal liberalism. This tends to lead, in practice, to being suspicious of empirical studies into racism and other bigotries and to being divisive, creating a hierarchy of competing oppressions. I discussed that here.

Meanwhile, Payne Hiraldo, of the University of Vermont, set out five tenets of Critical Race Theory for use in higher education. These are:

1) Counter-Storytelling— “A framework that legitimizes the racial and subordinate experiences of marginalized groups.”

Because society is believed to be constructed by stories told by dominant groups, counter-stories are believed to counteract that. See above.

2)  The Permanence of Racism

This is a variation on the ordinariness of racism but stronger in its belief that racism is everywhere and in everything and doesn’t go away or reduce, but just changes in manifestations and so needs critical methodologies to detect it.

3)  Whiteness as Property

This incorporates ideas of white privilege and white supremacy in the idea that being white itself bestows material benefits on people. Although it originates with a somewhat dense and sophisticated argument by the legal scholar Cheryl Harris it tends to be rather simplistic and reductionist when broken down. See ‘White supremacy’ above.

4)  Interest Convergence

See above.

5)  The Critique of Liberalism

Liberalism is consistently criticised in CRT for individualistic and universalist approaches to overcoming racism, such as “colorblindness” – the commitment to not evaluating people by their race – equal opportunities, equal rights under the law, and meritocracy. Liberalism is often represented as having a tendency to overlook systemic racism by assuming an already “level playing field” when, in reality, genuine liberalism seeks to achieve one by removing barriers.

Finally, The Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education presents yet another variation on these same themes:

1) Centrality of Racism

A variation on the ‘ordinariness’ or ‘permanence’ of racism.

2)  Challenges to Claims of Neutrality, Color Blindness, and Meritocracy

The rejection of liberalism.

3)  Whites as Beneficiaries of Racial Remedies

Interest convergence theory.

4)  Centrality of Experiential Knowledge

The unique voice of colour and storytelling.

5)  Commitment to Working towards Social Justice

This commitment involves using the methods of Critical Race Theory rather than liberalism, obviously.

It should be clear by now that CRT is not just talking about historical and contemporary racism with a view to overcoming it – something that all approaches to addressing racism do – but a set of core beliefs that racism is ordinary and/or permanent; that white supremacy is everywhere; that white people don’t oppose racism unless it suits them; that there is a unique voice of colour that just so happens to be the one that agrees with CRT; that lived experience and story-telling are primary ways of revealing racism; that liberalism and the Civil Rights Movement approach are bad; and that working for social justice means using the critical theories of race set out above.

These can all be disagreed with – and often are – by people of all races who still genuinely oppose racism.

So, what is Critical Social Justice Anti-racism?

Let’s look first at Kendi’s approach. Here are some key thoughts of his from How To Be an Anti-Racist:

What is racism?

Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.

Okay, so what are racist policies and ideas?

We have to define them separately to understand why they are married and why they interact so well together. In fact, let’s take one step back and consider the definition of another important phrase: racial inequity. Racial inequity is when two or more racial groups are not standing on approximately equal footing. Here’s an example of racial inequity: 71 percent of White families lived in owner-occupied homes in 2014, compared to 45 percent of Latinx families and 41 percent of Black families. Racial equity is when two or more racial groups are standing on a relatively equal footing. An example of racial equity would be if there were relatively equitable percentages of all three racial groups living in owner-occupied homes in the forties, seventies, or, better, nineties. A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups. By policy, I mean written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people. There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups…

Since the 1960s, racist power has commandeered the term “racial discrimination,” transforming the act of discriminating on the basis of race into an inherently racist act. But if racial discrimination is defined as treating, considering, or making a distinction in favor of or against an individual based on that person’s race, then racial discrimination is not inherently racist. The defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity. If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist. Someone reproducing inequity through permanently assisting an overrepresented racial group into wealth and power is entirely different than someone challenging that inequity by temporarily assisting an underrepresented racial group into relative wealth and power until equity is reached. The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. So, what is a racist idea?

A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. Racist ideas argue that the inferiorities and superiorities of racial groups explain racial inequities in society.  An antiracist idea is any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences—that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group. Antiracist ideas argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities.

Is this Critical Race Theory? Not really. It shares some common elements in that it uses the materialist approach of reading all disparities as evidence of racism and in its rejection of liberalism, but the legal scholars of the original CRT would find this naive because of all the missing elements and because they believed law and policy changes made very little difference. Kendi does not claim there is a unique voice of color or that white people only support racial equality when it suits them. He does not really have a developed critical theory of race. He has a simplistic solution which involves equalising outcomes and a claim that anybody who opposes this is advocating racist policies because they have racist ideas. While liberals are likely to share his concerns about simplistic and racist arguments that attempt to explain disparities as being due to biological deficiencies of black people or self-imposed subcultural mores among black communities, his equally simplistic explanation of all disparities being caused by racism does not help. It just makes it even more difficult to look at disparities in a more rigorous and multi-faceted way.

Kendi’s ideas are most strongly countered by two black intellectuals who study race and racism – Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele. Sowell is an economist with a strong libertarian bent. He looks at data that offers disconfirming evidence for Kendi’s approach and suggests other reasons for disparities. Steele is more of a conservative who argues that white guilt has led to affirmative action which disempowers black people. Their work is valuable, but liberals are likely to find both of them incomplete as well as they place primary responsibility on the black individual to sort out their own upward mobility. This is difficult enough for anyone, but particularly for African Americans, who have only been allowed to be upwardly mobile for two generations. The solution to racial disparities is unlikely to be found either in placing all responsibility on white society or on black individuals.

If Kendi has a critical theory of race, it comes down to this: There is no such thing as ‘not-racist.’ There is only ‘racist’ or ‘anti-racist.’

In his rejection of liberal colour-blindness and his dichotomous thinking, Kendi shares one tenet of CRT and the dogmatic spirit of the materialists. With his moralistic assertion that one must agree with him or be racist and the great influence his work has on society, he mostly stands in the way of more rigorous study of disparities by making people fearful to undertake them.

More influential in current Critical Social Justice approaches to anti-racism, however, is the work of Robin DiAngelo. It is her postmodern cultural constructivist ideas that most people currently criticising CRT are raising concerns about.

In her book with Ozlem Sensoy Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education (2017), the authors write:

While some scholars and activists prefer to use the term social justice in order to reclaim its true commitments, in this book we prefer the term critical social justice. We do so in order to distinguish our standpoint on social justice from mainstream standpoints.

They define the mainstream standpoint on social justice in this way:

Most people have a working definition of social justice; it is commonly understood as the principles of “fairness” and “equality” for all people and respect for their basic human rights. Most people would say that they value these principles.

A critical approach to social justice refers to specific theoretical perspectives that recognize that society is stratified (i.e., divided and unequal) in significant and far-reaching ways along social group lines that include race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Critical social justice recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e., as structural), and actively seeks to change this.

The definition we apply is rooted in a critical theoretical approach. While this approach refers to a broad range of fields, there are some important shared principles:

All people are individuals, but they are also members of social groups.

These social groups are valued unequally in society.

Social groups that are valued more highly have greater access to the resources of a society.

Social injustice is real, exists today, and results in unequal access to resources between groups of people.

Those who claim to be for social justice must be engaged in self-reflection about their own socialization into these groups (their “positionality”) and must strategically act from that awareness in ways that challenge social injustice. [All emphases mine.]

The authors go on to say that, based on these principles, a person engaged in critical social justice practice must be able to:

Recognize that relations of unequal social power are constantly being enacted at both the micro (individual) and macro (structural) levels.

Understand our own positions within these relations of unequal power.

Think critically about knowledge; what we know and how we know it.

Act on all of the above in service of a more socially just society.

Is this not very clearly a critical theory of race and an evolution of Critical Race Theory?

At the 2014 National Race and Pedagogy Conference at Puget Sound University that included DiAngelo, the following tenets were posited:

Racism exists today in both traditional and modern forms.

Racism is an institutionalized, multilayered, multilevel system that distributes unequal power and resources between white people and people of color, as socially identified, and disproportionately benefits whites.

All members of society are socialized to participate in the system of racism, albeit in varied social locations.

All white people benefit from racism regardless of intentions.

No-one chose to be socialized into racism so no-one is bad, but no-one is neutral.

To not act against racism is to support racism.

Racism must be continually identified, analyzed and challenged. No-one is ever done.

The question is not Did racism take place? but rather How did racism manifest in that situation?

The racial status quo is comfortable for most whites. Therefore, anything that maintains white comfort is suspect.

The racially oppressed have a more intimate insight via experiential knowledge into the system of race than their racial oppressors. However, white professors will be seen as having more legitimacy, thus positionality must be intentionally engaged.

Resistance is a predictable reaction to anti-racist education and must be explicitly and strategically addressed.

In all of this, it is explicit that DiAngelo and her collaborators do maintain the key tenets of the older CRTs. They clearly believe that racism is ordinary; that white supremacy is everywhere; that white people don’t oppose racism because it suits them; that there is a unique voice of colour and it’s the one that agrees with them; that lived experience is a primary way of revealing racism; that liberal individualism is bad; and that working for social justice means using the critical theories of race set out by people like them.

The theories of DiAngelo and the other Critical Social Justice anti-racists are clearly not identical to the earlier legal theories, however. They contain less materialism, focus much less on law and much more on culture, draw more explicitly on Foucauldian notions of discourse, make little to no mention of storytelling and are much more simplistic and accessible. But their work quite clearly consists of critical theories of race that have been significantly influenced by Critical Race Theory. In Nice Racism, DiAngelo cites Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw among her influences alongside other Critical Race Theory scholars and more contemporary Critical Social Justice theorists of anti-racism and decolonial studies.

If it helps to call the current anti-racist theories “contemporary critical theories of race” rather than “Critical Race Theory”, do so, but for goodness’ sake, let’s stop the endless quibbling about terminology and talk about the ideas that have deeply infiltrated universities, employment, education, mainstream media, social media and general culture.

This is vitally important for two reasons.  Firstly, we need to be able address racism in society ethically and effectively. Secondly and relatedly, individuals need to be allowed to have their own views about how racism works and their own ethical frameworks for opposing it. They need to be able to discuss and compare them. This will help with achieving the first goal.

When it comes to discussing contemporary critical theories of race, we need to be able to talk about what the current theories actually say and advocate for and whether they are ethical and effective. Many people from a wide range of political, cultural, racial, religious and philosophical backgrounds would say “No” they are not, and they should be able to make their case for alternative approaches.

It is also vitally important that we are able to talk about how much influence these theories already have and how much they should have on society in general and on government, employment, mainstream media, social media and education in particular, and whether this influence is largely positive or negative. From my time listening to clients of Counterweight, I would respond, “Way too much” and “Largely negative” to these questions.

We need to be able to consider whether the advocates of Critical Social Justice antiracism, particularly those in positions of power, are inclusive of alternative approaches to addressing racism that are held by people with different political, cultural, philosophical and religious worldviews. Clients of Counterweight, many of whom are not white or western, who are ideologically diverse, and who often find this whole western CSJ phenomenon bewildering, tell us they are not.

Most importantly, we need to be able to measure and discuss what effects these theories have on reducing racism, increasing social cohesion and furthering the goals of social justice. Are they achieving that or are they increasing racial tensions, decreasing social cohesion and being the driving force for many injustices in society while creating a culture of fear, pigeonholing people of racial minority into political stereotypes, and silencing the voices of those who dissent? I strongly believe, based on the reports coming into Counterweight, that it is the latter. However, I am willing to be persuaded to think differently, so let’s talk.

Helen Pluckrose is the Founder of Counterweight and co-author of Cynical Theories. She is a liberal humanist.

“Diverse” is a very good word to describe the range of people who come to Counterweight with problems. Our members are diverse in the sense of their race, sex or sexuality, in terms of their social class and level of education, in terms of their political, ethical, philosophical and religious views and in the kind of problems they are facing. We have so many cases and many of them are ongoing so that, rather than give detailed descriptions of a few individual cases, it will be more informative to give you an overview of some of the individuals we have met and the situations they have been dealing with.

The clients whose accounts follow have been given pseudonyms and some identifying details have been changed but the salient details have been retained. I shall try to group them together by outcomes in terms of successes, challenges and ongoing.

The Successes

Some situations we have simply been able to help people resolve and this is always immensely satisfying, although there is always the possibility of the problem recurring in a different form, so we stay in touch with people and make sure they know we are still here if they need us.

Charles is a dark-skinned Latin American second-generation immigrant to North America. He came to Counterweight feeling very angry because his employer – a tech company – had begun to circulate emails saying that white employees needed to acknowledge and work to dismantle their white privilege and recognize the oppressed and subordinated status of people of color within the organization. This resulted in Charles receiving a flurry of emails from white colleagues acknowledging this.

Charles experienced this as deeply insulting as he held a senior position in the company and many of the emails came from his subordinates as well as his managers. He showed us a letter he intended to send. In it, he accused his employers of disrespecting his parents who had come to the country with nothing and worked hard to build a highly successful business and then send him to one of the best colleges where he excelled and then obtained an excellent job and rose quickly through the ranks. The emails from white people informing him he was in some way subordinate and inferior to them were insulting to him personally and disrespected his work and the value he added to the company. His language was, shall we say, less diplomatic than this summary suggests.

Counterweight helped Charles to edit his letter into one that essentially said the same thing but was more assertive than angry. It also spelled out more clearly that Critical Social Justice (CSJ) ideas about race were not universally appreciated by people of color and that, for some people from Charles’ cultural background, they were experienced as an insult to their honor, dignity and hard work. This subtle reframing of the letter to accord more with CSJ ideas about the need for cultural competence and the current initiative having spectacularly failed at it worked incredibly well- and quickly. Charles received an immediate apology and the company backed off from all CSJ initiatives. This is the only time a situation has been resolved so immediately and effectively! It usually takes considerably more work.

Janine is an American PhD student who had faced five years of ideological bullying because of her focus of study. She was the first of her family to go to university and did not fit easily into any political group although she leans left economically. Her area of study incorporated biology, psychology and spirituality, focused on women as a group without looking through the lens of any particular brand of feminism and without focusing on critical race, postcolonial/decolonial or queer theory. For this, she was bullied and hindered in her studies. Janine suffered largely from being too conciliatory and willing to compromise. She was also sympathetic to many arguments from within these theories and supportive of the scholars who used them. Unfortunately, they were not sympathetic to her and the campaign to push her out was relentless and took a great toll on her psychological wellbeing. It is significant that her greatest ally in defending her right not to study women’s experiences through a racial theoretical lens was an African American female academic. Nevertheless, Janine was outnumbered and demoralized.

After altering her manuscript dozens of times to accommodate the beliefs of her supervisors, Janine was left with something that no longer represented hers. At this point, she got tougher and determined to do her PhD her way and she contacted Counterweight. We were able to help Janine by assisting her with the framing of her letters to administration and practicing with her for meetings as well as providing her with a sympathetic listener. Janine felt this gave her strength although the credit for her toughness, persistence and endurance all goes to her. Few people would have been able to withstand such sustained bullying for so long without giving up and leaving academia. We were also extremely fortunate to have among our team an academic in the same field as Janine who was able to take an official supervisory role and genuinely support her. Janine will now, finally, complete her PhD, and she will go on to provide a service that will support many women through difficult times.

Jawhar is a scientist who migrated to a Western country to take up a position within a field of science that will save many lives. As a liberal, secular humanist previously living in a conservative Muslim culture, he had struggled somewhat to be accepted and had to keep many of his beliefs in liberal universalism, gender equality and LGBT equality to himself although he had supported female and gay scientists in his field and also opposed antisemitism. He had hoped that it would be easier to be a secular liberal humanist in a Western secular liberal democracy but he was surprised to find that it was not.

Jawhar found himself regarded as problematic and potentially Islamophobic for considering himself privileged (his family was wealthy), saying he had not experienced any prejudice as non-white immigrant with a Muslim name and espousing liberal humanist values and saying he was glad to be living somewhere where sexism and homophobia were much less common. He was bewildered by this, having not encountered Critical Social Justice beliefs in his former community, and turned to Counterweight to discover what he was doing wrong. We were able to give him a primer on the core beliefs of CSJ and provide him with some answers to questions that would be compatible with his liberal humanist beliefs but not enrage CSJ believers. Jawhar passed his second interview using these techniques. He feels a need to speak out more strongly in support of liberal humanism but will do so when more established in his career.

Jack is a white British man who works for the emergency services in a life-saving capacity. He became concerned about what he saw as attempts to divide the team by race and also to condescend to himself and his colleagues as ignorant of racism. Jack was, as are many men and women who are drawn to dangerous but vitally important life-saving professions, a plain spoken and action-orientated person. He did not mince his words when he declared that he had absolutely no intention of thinking about what color somebody was when acting to save their life. He also objected to the demonization of the police force alongside whom he and his colleague often worked to save lives. For this, Jack was threatened with disciplinary action and removed from promotional opportunities.

Counterweight was able to help Jack write his objections in firm but diplomatic language and to ask for clear information about what he was and wasn’t allowed to believe and say. We were also able to help him co-ordinate with his MP and a trade unionist. The results of this were that Jack’s superiors backed off from attempting to penalize him for his belief that race should be irrelevant and that racism is best overcome by team bonding activities and ceased to air politicised narratives on behalf of the service and compel Jack and his colleagues to pretend to believe them. Jack was offered the promotion that his years of exemplary service qualified him to receive. Jack also believes himself to now be better able to negotiate diplomatically but firmly and thus be a stronger leader within the emergency services.

Alex is a non-binary liberal humanist committed to freedom of belief and speech. Because they have never, in 40 years, felt either male or female, Alex uses the term “non-binary” and appreciates this experience being recognized. Because they are a liberal humanist, they do not object to people using other terms or concepts to describe this and also defend other people’s rights to hold and express different views on gender and sex entirely. Alex works in the charitable sector and is committed to social justice issues but very concerned about the authoritarian nature of Critical Social Justice approaches to issues of sex and gender and particularly the silencing of dissent and stifling of viewpoint diversity. They were very likely to lose their job at some point.

This combination of having a trans identity while being at odds with the CSJ approach to trans activism left Alex rather isolated and also at risk of being cancelled. Alex did not fit ideologically with gender critical trans people and so could not find a home there either. Counterweight found Alex’s situation unique and thus requiring of more thought. Our peer support team were able to provide a listener to help with the anxiety and isolation and by searching among our contacts, we were able to find a liberal LGBT group focused on the individual and sex-positivity generally who felt able to give Alex some support, a potential community and also consider them for a role within the organization. It is always likely to be difficult for Alex to find acceptance but they do now feel less isolated and more optimistic.

David contacted us concerned about his 12-year-old nephew who was entering adolescence and expressing doubts about his sexuality or his gender. David’s nephew was not sure at this time whether he was gay or transgender. David’s concern was that his brother and sister-in-law were inclined towards believing the child to be transgender and were also encouraging him to think about this and come to a decision. David had suggested to his brother that it might be better to just be open and supportive of his child and make sure he knew that he was loved and valued and that these questions were common in puberty, but without encouraging him to settle on a sexual or gender identity. David’s brother had responded with disappointment and interpreted David’s concerns as discouraging of his nephew’s potential trans identity.

David approached Counterweight because he was himself very liberal and keen to support his nephew if it turned out that he was gay or she was trans and he was concerned that his brother might be right and that he was being unsupportive. He asked us for a variety of books that he could read on the subject so that he could have a more informed and ethical view and also for advice about whether we thought he was being transphobic or whether he was right to be concerned. Counterweight provided David with some book suggestions and also reassured him that his concern that his nephew needed space and time to work out his sexuality or gender identity without any ideological pressure was a positive and responsible one. We encouraged David to spend time with his nephew just being supportive and having fun so that he had a space where he could speak to a trusted adult about these issues without being pushed in any direction. David appeared to be reassured by this and we felt glad that this adolescent had someone in his corner who would be a responsible sounding board.

Gareth is the father of three children whose elementary school had sent out an email saying that the school intended to begin focusing more on diversity, equity and inclusion issues. It used many of the CSJ buzzwords about whiteness and microaggressions and seemed to believe that unconscious bias training was a rigorous scientific way of combating prejudice. Gareth was very concerned about this and had a tendency to anxiety and so had begun to suffer from insomnia and panic attacks. He was very much afraid that an ideologically biased series of classes were about to be imposed on his young children but also that objecting to this could be mistaken for racism or could hinder genuinely inclusive initiatives to reduce racism. Counterweight connected him with a peer support listener who was able to help him talk through some of his circling thoughts.

Gareth then returned to the practical advice department where we asked him to set out what his concerns were and what his principles were. We then formed his (already quite good) letter into an even stronger one in which he primarily expressed support for teaching about racism but raised some concerns about the texts and ethical framework that would be used. He pointed out that the language in the email was very much that of an American framework that might not be inclusive of his ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse school community, none of whom were American. He detailed some of the ideas that could be unsuitable for young children and those with different worldviews. The school responded positively saying that he was more knowledgeable about these theories than they were and that they welcomed his feedback and suggestions for books. It seemed that in this case the school was simply repeating some fashionable jargon and that Gareth had been able to intervene and provide information that prevented it from uncritically importing a book list and teaching programme that would have been highly biased.

Armando was a white British researcher who worked both in industry and academia. He had converted to Hinduism as a young man, and most of his life outside work was focused on studying and training in the spiritual practices he learned from well-respected teachers in India. He lived for some time in India itself, studying directly with his teacher as well as teaching at the local university. Returning to the UK, he wrote an academic paper arguing for the value of some central tenets of an ancient holy text for use in research practice. His faith community and university colleagues approved of the paper. However, the paper was aggressively challenged by some academics of Indian origin whose primary belief system was CSJ approaches to decolonial feminist theory. He was accused of having done harm by supporting patriarchal religious texts and also having done so while being a white man.

Counterweight encouraged Armando to respond through a simple, direct statement of his faith position, and to assert his right to refuse to adopt actively atheistic, anti-religious worldviews as a required lens.  Counterweight helped him understand the emotive double meanings of words used in the CSJ-based critique – such as “critical” and “harm” – and thus avoid falling into the trap of defensive self-justification. Once Armando understood how the CSJ academics were trying to manipulate his paper to be a vehicle for CSJ, with Counterweight’s help, he was able to put his position across with authenticity and calm assertiveness that seemed to make the problem go away.

Chloé is an indigenous woman who worked as an administrator in a psychiatric hospital. She had become increasingly concerned about the encroachment of CSJ ideas within her organisation. She already had a strong understanding of them. In particular, she was concerned about the concept of “whiteness” becoming dominant as an explanation for non-white people’s psychiatric conditions and the efficacy of identity-based theories generally for organizing patient care. She contacted Counterweight to talk through her plans for a meeting with her manager.

Counterweight practiced with Chloé for her meeting and found her to already be a confident and eloquent speaker who could address issues in a principled, knowledgeable, calm but assertive way. We discussed ways she could argue for including a greater diversity of worldviews and recommended that she ask for some specific reassurances that viewpoint diversity would be allowed and that neither staff nor patients would be required to identify in any particular way or consider their identity to be important if they didn’t view it as such. We recommended that she followed up this conversation with an email summary. Chloe reported back that the meeting had gone well and that she had received the assurances she sought and also been able to recommend alternative reading.

The challenges

Sadly, some of our clients have experienced situations that have not worked out well and looking at what went wrong and why is valuable. We continue to offer them moral support and community.

Simon was very concerned about some strongly CSJ based meetings going on at his workplace. Although these meetings were voluntary, he feared that the culture of the workplace would be affected by them. Simon wanted the meetings to be stopped but we could not support him with that as they were voluntary and so did not constitute an imposition of CSJ on anyone. We could support him in expressing his concerns about the impact such strong ideological ideas can have on team cohesion and in seeking assurances that different views could also be discussed, disagreements offered and that nobody would be pressured to attend these meetings.

Simon was very well-read on CSJ theories and very familiar with many examples of them having damaged or destroyed an institution. This had led him to send long emails and have lengthy meetings in which he imparted a great deal of information on these subjects. He was not wrong in anything he said, but the effect was rather overwhelming for his managers who were considerably less informed on the subject. Counterweight recommended Simon to slow down, provide simpler and more accessible information and try to work with his managers to a greater extent. Unfortunately, this did not work, and Simon’s managers are refusing to communicate further with him on the subject. We think this situation could have worked out better had a simpler and more co-operative dialogue been established from the start. See our Guide to Assessing CSJ Problems.

Tom was a white American man who worked for a children’s charity. He got along particularly well with one of his colleagues who was not white. He asked her out on a date while being very clear that if she was not interested, he would never bother her on the subject again. She said that she was not interested in him romantically and he never broached the issue again and the friendship, though awkward at first, soon resumed and became comfortable again.

Unfortunately, this was not accepted by a third colleague who held strong CSJ views and Tom was reported as a sexual predator to his manager. When the manager asked what the inappropriate behaviour had been in Tom’s approach to his colleague, he was informed that the problem was that Tom was white and the colleague was not and that this produced a power imbalance that was oppressive. Asking someone out while white did not break any rules so this complaint was dropped. However, everything Tom did after this point was problematized by the activist colleague until the manager was pressured to require Tom to attend racial sensitivity training. Tom refused to do this on principle as he believed his record of working well with underprivileged children, most of whom were black, and his consistent opposition to racism should speak for itself. Tom was fired. There is very little Tom could have done to avoid this situation apart from not to have asked out a woman of a different race to himself. Counterweight cannot advise people to avoid interracial dating as this is racist, illiberal nonsense.

Ivy is a small business owner and a feminist who has posted some gender critical views online and also condemned pornography as dangerous to women. She encountered trouble when offering work to a trans individual who was also a CSJ trans activist. Ivy was well aware that the individual was trans but offered them the job and a friendly work environment because their work was good and because her gender critical views do not lead her to believe that it is ethical to be unkind to or discriminate against trans people. Unfortunately, the individual who had been offered the work then searched Ivy’s name and discovered her gender critical views. Ivy was then accused of transphobia and disrespecting and hating the existence of trans people despite having offered the trans person in question work and continuing to commend their work and to hold the offer open after being subjected to such accusations. Ivy was also condemned for cultural appropriation because her businesses provided Latin American food while she herself is of European descent.

Ivy became the target of a social media dogpile and calls to boycott her business to which she responded by inviting the critics of her gender critical views to have a conversation with her about them. She remained warm and friendly throughout the exchanges and appeared calm and confident although she was in constant contact with Counterweight throughout these exchanges and was, in reality, very distressed by the abuse and afraid for her business. She was right to be. At the current time of writing, her business has decreased by 50% and, if this continues, she will be unlikely to be able to stay afloat. Counterweight could only offer Ivy moral support and encourage her that her dignified and civil approach was commendable in the face of such abuse and the campaign to destroy her livelihood. We hope to help her raise support in her local area.

Sarah is a white scientist who supported CSJ approaches to anti-racism. During a lecture, she made a comment that she then thought could have been a racist microaggression and apologized for it. She was fired and sunk into a deep depression. Counterweight was contacted by Sarah’s friend and colleague who asked us if we could help Sarah. The friend was an African American liberal leftist who told us that systemic racism remains a huge problem in the United States but that neither Sarah nor her comment were manifestations of that problem. She was worried that Sarah was too upset to defend herself and needed support.

Counterweight reached out to Sarah and offered support. Sarah responded and said she was ashamed and heartbroken and accepted the offer to be referred to our peer support team and meet with a listener. However, she did not accept any practical support and we have not heard from her since. We hope that she will come back to us at some point and we can help her strategise ways to rebuild her life.

The Ongoing

Very many of our cases are ongoing because authoritarian CSJ initiatives, particularly in workplaces, once set in motion, tend to pop up in different forms repeatedly, leaving the CSJ resister within the workplace often feeling that they are playing ‘whack-a-mole’ by addressing one problem after another. This was the case for one of our very first clients who is now a central member of our team and responsible for creating, facilitating and editing much of the media content you see on our site.

Harriet (her real name, not a pseudonym this time) became concerned about the emergence of CSJ ideas in her business nearly a year ago when plans for mandatory Unconscious Bias Training (UBT) were announced. Harriet had been aware of and worried about the growth of CSJ for some time before this but now felt she had a moral imperative to address it. This caused her some anxiety as she could not afford to lose her job. She contacted Counterweight which was, at that time, simply a Discord server and sought support.

Counterweight helped Harriet to draft a polite, cooperative, but firm letter to her employer requesting that the UBT training be made voluntary. In it, Harriet stressed her principled opposition to racism and her concerns about both the efficacy and ethics of UBT. This resulted in months of email exchanges and meetings during which Harriet was cajoled to comply and finally threatened with disciplinary action if she did not undergo this unscientific and intrusive form of mind retraining. We supported Harriet every step of the way but her unflinching, calm, polite persistence is largely due to her own determined and consistently principled character (which is why we wanted her for Counterweight and a large part of why Counterweight is thriving as it is).

Harriet underwent a very stressful investigative process during which she continued to calmly detail the problems with UBT and its tendency to increase racial tensions rather than decrease them. She addressed course materials specifically, referred her employers to the Equality Act and stressed her willingness to engage with and complete more ethical and productive diversity initiatives and courses. So calm and persuasive was she, that not only was the case against her dropped, but she was invited to join the Diversity and Inclusion committee, where she now offers guidance on training programmes and succeeded in having made all future D&I training voluntary. It took Harriet eight months to achieve her goal and she will continue achieving it both in her day job and for Counterweight.

Stefan is a teacher. He was concerned about information circulated among the students which recommended affirmation of transgender identity among trans youth as well as using much language from queer theory approaches to trans activism. He responded by sending a polite email suggesting that if the school were going to provide information about gender identity to adolescents, that they take a more balanced approach and include the advice of relevant researchers in the field who recommended a supportive explorative approach and also the existence and experiences of detransitioners.

Stefan’s suggestion was rejected by the administration and an official complaint was made against him by a member of staff who was themselves trans. The complainant claimed that Stefan’s suggestion had harmed them, made them feel unsafe and unable to come to work. Stefan was a pre-existing client of Counterweight and so he ran a responding letter by us in which he pointed out that he had been very supportive of this colleague and made many efforts on their behalf to make them feel included and valued. It currently seems likely that Stefan will receive an official warning. Stefan remains stoical about this and determined to fight it if necessary. He believes he has solid grounds on which to do so. Stefan is likely to repeatedly need to act as a brake on CSJ initiatives at his school and intends to do so. We will help him.

Calvin is a black British engineer who is facing repeated attempts to introduce racial diversity training programmes into his organization. He has had some success at resisting being compelled to attend any of these largely because it is difficult to accuse him of white fragility or wanting to preserve his white privilege. Nevertheless, he continues to be negatively affected by them in a number of ways. Firstly, plans to factor in compliance with EDI plans into performance reviews is likely to directly affect his pay. Secondly, he argues, initiatives that benefit middle management from racial minority backgrounds are likely to undermine recognition of their own achievements by their own hard work and ability including those who, like him, achieved that position before the initiative. Thirdly, being one of very few non-white employees in his company, Calvin finds the burden of being the one to have to constantly address the issue arduous. His white colleagues are generally too afraid of being thought racist to do so. This gets in the way of him advancing in his career.

Calvin came to Counterweight with various problems of these kinds as they arose and we supported him with the writing of letters and with connecting him with related organisations and individuals who could help as well as offering him moral support and strategic advice. Calvin finds our support to have been valuable, but again, the person doing all the work with calm, patient, principled persistence is Calvin himself. He is particularly good at taking a universal liberal approach and consistently objecting to CSJ approaches to anti-racism for the harm they do to black people and other racial minorities, for the racist assumptions they make about white people and for their overall failures to be either productive or ethical. We think Calvin will win eventually. If anybody can, he can.

(Note: we have two other engineers going through almost precisely the same process. In one case, a mixed-race technician is likely to leave his job unless they stop sending him emails about how he thinks as a “BAME” individual and creating a hostile work environment by having constant CSJ antiracist meetings which are voluntary but nevertheless causing significant damage to team cohesion. He regrets this but knows his skills are in demand so is not fearful for his future security. In the other, an autistic white engineer seems likely to continue being largely ignored but is determined to persist anyway and hopefully make a dent. We intend to help him. He is also invaluable for keeping meticulous records of everything that is happening in his organization which is a public service and thus answerable to the public. As the evidence mounts, it will become harder for his superiors to brush off his concerns and easier to persuade local authorities to intervene if necessary.)

Emma is studying to be a therapist. She is concerned about the damage being done to talking therapies generally by CSJ theories because they focus on identity groups and political power dynamics instead of the individual, their unique experiences and their particular difficulties. This focus, she told us, also significantly reduces the extent to which a therapist can empathise with and be allowed to understand people with different identities. She is far from alone in being alarmed about this and the group Critical Therapy Antidote was formed to address precisely this.

However, because she is still studying to be a therapist, Emma faces a dilemma. If she pushes back at CSJ ideas during her studies, she is unlikely to qualify and society will lose a therapist who still engages with individuals and their unique experiences and problems. If she does not challenge the ideas within her studies and write papers she can believe in, she will lose her sense of integrity and her passion for therapy. Therefore, Counterweight continues to help her to walk this line by looking at her essay plans and research proposals and helping her to produce work that will not create a flashing neon ‘problematic’ sign over her head but that still has rigour and integrity. This can be quite a challenge but Emma is up for it and so are we.

As should be clear from the case studies listed here, Counterweight exists to help anyone – regardless of race, gender, sexual identity, political or religious beliefs – suffering from the imposition of an illiberal and unethical ideology. We were not created to help, and do not only receive requests for help from, any particular demographic because CSJ does not actually serve to uplift or speak for any one demographic. We will keep supporting – and fighting for – the many principled and courageous people who have asked for our help to defend the freedom necessary for a functioning liberal society from the ground-up.

Helen Pluckrose is the Founder of Counterweight and co-author of Cynical Theories. She is a liberal humanist.


Policymakers in GOP-led states like Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma are currently proposing that Critical Race Theory (CRT) or any of the current more popular theories that draw on that school of thought and are probably best called ‘Critical Social Justice concepts of Anti-Racism’ (but that isn’t very catchy) should be banned or limited in schools. Counterweight exists to help people, including teachers, parents and children who are having authoritarian Critical Social Justice (CSJ) ideas imposed on them to resist. This leads some people to think we might support bans on teaching CRT in schools. Do we?

The simple answer to this question is “No.” We are a liberal humanist organisation that upholds freedom of belief, freedom of expression and viewpoint diversity. We consistently oppose people trying to ban ideas they don’t like and we do so for two reasons. Firstly, because freedom of conscience is an essential individual liberty and secondly because prohibition makes defeating the bad ideas much more difficult. There isn’t a simple answer because this isn’t a simple question and the public conversation around this issue is a mess. This mess is largely caused by people confusing and conflating two sets of distinctions that really cannot be confused or conflated if one wants to approach the issue from a liberal perspective. These two things are:

1) The difference between teaching about ideas and indoctrinating in ideas.

When we teach children about more than one set of ideas, including ideas that conflict with one another, we prepare them to be able to engage in the adult world where they will encounter many ideas, having already learned something of them as well as having been encouraged to evaluate and compare ideas and make arguments for and against them. When we indoctrinate children in one set of ideas, we put them at a disadvantage for engaging with the adult world of ideas and make them less able to comprehend or cope with ideas that differ from their own or make arguments about them.

2) The difference between disallowing coerced affirmation of ideas and banning expression.

When we prevent children from being forced to affirm any ideas, we allow them freedom of belief and encourage them to make up their own minds about whether the ideas are good or not. When we ban certain ideas from being taught to children in schools, they are denied the opportunity to think about them and evaluate them until they are forced to cope with diverse viewpoints in the adult world.

Teaching about ideas and disallowing coerced affirmation of ideas are thoroughly liberal and encourage informed critical thinking and tolerance of viewpoint diversity. Indoctrinating in ideas and banning expression of ideas is profoundly illiberal and discourages informed critical thinking and promotes intolerance of viewpoint diversity. This is very basic liberalism, in principle. In practice, things can become messy as individuals can claim to be upholding the liberal stance while actually enforcing the illiberal one, either deliberately, using a “motte and bailey” move, or due to a genuine misunderstanding of liberalism which is regrettably common.

The difficulty of threading this needle is exacerbated by the confused rhetoric around this issue which seems to be coming from everywhere. It comes from both Democrat and GOP policy makers themselves, mainstream media and political pundits from the left, right and centre, academics within the field of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and members of the general public engaged in the culture wars.

Jon Street and Audrey Conklin write for Fox News about Joe Biden’s Department of Education intention to set up grants for schools that:

take into account systemic marginalization, biases, inequities, and discriminatory policy and practice in American history; incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives and perspectives on the experience of individuals with disabilities; Encourage students to critically analyze the diverse perspectives of historical and contemporary media and its impacts; Support the creation of learning environments that validate and reflect the diversity, identities, and experiences of all students; and contribute to inclusive, supportive, and identity-safe learning environments.

The grounds for this grant are extremely vague and thus widely open to interpretation. It is impossible for any historically aware American not to know that racial inequality was enshrined in American law and culture for most of its history and impossible to teach history honestly without including this! The inclusion of diverse perspectives is good and so is critical analysis of them. However, validating the diversity, identity and experiences of all students is impossible as they are bound to disagree with each other even when they have the same identities, and so it is entirely unclear what an “identity-safe learning environment” would look like and how this is compatible with the critical analysis of diverse racial perspectives. This “identity-safe” condition would seem to exclude the teaching of texts like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, which argues that at least one identity (white identity) is inherently negative. It is possible, but unlikely, that that is its intention.

Conservatives are convinced that the grant supports inclusion of such texts and they may well be right. However, the way some have responded is concerning. Street and Conklin report that Reps. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) and Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) have sent a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona urging the Biden administration to reconsider the grant, arguing that it is “antithetical to the American Dream” and saying “It is therefore counterproductive and even dangerous to allow our vulnerable school children to be taught the falsehoods prevalent in the 1619 Project or in Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist.” Similarly, Mark Moore writes that “Republicans in Texas are also moving ahead to forbid the teaching of ‘woke philosophies’ like critical race theory, arguing that ‘traditional history’ should be taught in classrooms.”

This response from Republicans quite clearly falls on the illiberal side of the two issues by assuming that any teaching about the 1619 Project, Dr Kendi’s work, power struggles, “woke philosophies” or critical race theory will be tantamount to indoctrinating in them and thus proposes banning expression of them to children. They also advocate alternative teachings about “the American dream” and “traditional history”. But whose dreams and which traditions, exactly? Americans have many but it seems likely they are referring to conservative ones. If so, it is not children being indoctrinated they are worried about per se but children being indoctrinated into the “wrong” ideas.

When Natalie Allison writes for The Tennessean, she says: “Critical race theory teaches that racism is ingrained in U.S. institutions and that people who are white benefit from it. The concept and whether schools, churches and other corporations should subscribe to it has been a source of controversy within institutions for several years but has received heightened attention in recent months.

Herein lies the problem. Churches may subscribe to whatever ideas they like, and corporations have a certain amount of freedom to set their own values, but schools should not subscribe to any ideology at all. They should however educate children about a variety of them, when they reach an age where learning about more complex topics like politics and philosophy are appropriate, in order to prepare them to enter universities or simply the adult world.

Allison says, “The rest of the amendment, filed as an amendment in the House earlier this week by Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, prohibits public or charter schools from teaching that:

  • One race or sex is superior;
  • Any individuals are ‘inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive’ because of their race or sex;
  • A person should receive adverse treatment due to their race or sex;
  • Their moral character is determined by race or sex;
  • A person bears responsibility for past actions by other members of their race or sex;
  • A person should feel discomfort or other psychological distress because of their race or sex;
  • A meritocracy is racist or sexist or designed to oppress members of another race or sex;
  • The United States is fundamentally racist or sexist;
  • Promoting the violent overthrow of the U.S. government;
  • Promoting division or resentment between race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation or class;
  • Ascribing character traits, values, moral codes, privileges or beliefs to a race;
  • The rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups;
  • Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; or
  • Governments should deny to any person within the government’s jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.”

But what does “teaching that” mean? Does it mean children shouldn’t be taught that these ideas are true without being given any counterviews? If so, this is a legitimate protection of children from indoctrination. Or does this mean that children shouldn’t be taught that these ideas exist and encouraged to critically analyse them alongside others? If the latter, then children will enter the world unprepared to encounter these ideas and completely inexperienced in evaluating them or arguing for or against them.

As Adam Harris wrote for The Atlantic:

The language of these bills is anodyne and fuzzy—compel, for instance, is never defined in the Idaho legislation—and that ambiguity appears to be deliberate….“The vagueness of the language is really the point,” Leah Cohen, an organizer with Granite State Progress, a liberal nonprofit based in Concord, told me. “With this really broad brushstroke, we anticipate that that will be used more to censor conversations about race and equity.”

The effects of this vagueness of both Democratic and Republican policymakers and their failure to spell out what they wish to promote or ban or limit does not help the general public to make informed and thoughtful evaluations of the issues.

As Conor Friedersdorf wrote:

In a recent Atlantic/Leger poll, 52 percent of respondents who identified as Republicans said that states should pass laws banning schools from teaching critical race theory, but just 30 percent of self-identified independents were willing to say the same. Meanwhile, a strong majority of Americans, 78 percent, either had not heard of critical race theory or were unsure whether they had.

Nevertheless, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declared:

Texans reject critical race theory and other so-called ‘woke’ philosophies that maintain that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex or that any individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive. These divisive concepts have been inserted into curriculums around the state, but they have no place in Texas schools.

If it were true that Texans reject CRT it would be unlikely that they’d be being taught in Texas schools. Clearly some Texans don’t reject CRT ideas and very likely most of them don’t know what they are. Does it not seem that a solution to this would be to teach Texan children about them and present counter arguments, thus preparing them for encountering them and being able to engage with them in the world at large? This idea seems unpalatable to many conservative commentators, as I have found repeatedly when addressing the issue on social media. I have been told very forcefully by many conservatives that children do not need to be taught about Critical Race Theory at all.

This seems very short-sighted and alarming, not least because my own book on the subject, Cynical Theories, which includes both a chapter on Critical Race Theory and a chapter on Critical Social Justice approaches to anti-racism, has just been adapted for young adult readers and we hope to persuade schools to include it in curricula. It suggests a distinct lack of confidence in either the persuasiveness of one’s own political views or the critical thinking skills of young people. I feel confident that when presented with liberal approaches to anti-racism vs CSJ ones, the superiority of the liberal approach will be quite apparent. Surely conservatives, if they believe strongly enough in the validity of their own political arguments, should want them to be compared to those of CSJ? The conservative activist, Christopher Rufo, seemed to see no worth in teaching about CRT at all:

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To be fair, many conservatives who have insisted that CRT should not be taught seem to doubt not so much their own ideas or the minds of young people, but that schools or teachers can be trusted to teach political and philosophical views in a neutral and balanced manner. As Rufo then confirmed, it is coercion and indoctrination into a “Neo-Marxist ideology” that concerned him more than teaching about. However, I’m not sure “shaping the speech of the state in pursuit of common values” is compatible with the liberal aim for freedom of belief and viewpoint diversity:

Other Twitter users were sceptical that teaching about CRT could or would ever be done alongside other ideas and with the children being encouraged to critique it. CRT, I was told repeatedly, does not allow criticism of itself and instead insists that everyone must simply affirm its tenets. This is true, but that means that diverse political worldviews should not be taught by Critical Race Theorists who hold their own views to be unquestionable. Or by liberals, Marxists, libertarians or conservatives who are unable to accept and encourage dissent. In fact, if the students cannot tell which of the political ideologies their teacher herself subscribes to, that teacher has done her job well:

I am sympathetic to scepticism that political ideas can ever be taught or received in an objective fashion but maintain that this should always be the aim rather than banning teaching about them. Some people seem to believe that this is a hopeless pipe dream, or that I am simply naively unaware that there is an educational imbalance where CSJ ideas are concerned, even though Counterweight has already very publicly addressed this as a problem and supported many parents in addressing it:

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So, I am not arguing that conservatives are wrong to believe that authoritarian CSJ ideas are being taught as true in schools. At Counterweight, we have seen more evidence of this than most people ever will. We have also helped, supported and connected concerned parents and teachers who have come to us for help in addressing it. I am also not unaware that advocates of CRT and CSJ approaches to racism genuinely are trying to get schools to teach it as true and claiming racism and preservation of white privilege as the only reason anyone would object to this (conveniently ignoring all the black people who object to it for a variety of reasons).

 

Marcus Johnson, writing about the Idaho bill, amply demonstrates this:

At its core, the argument about critical race theory is a debate about power, part of a much larger debate about who has power in American society and which voices deserve to be heard. America has for nearly all of its history been politically dominated by white men… But in an increasingly diverse society with a rising multicultural class, there are more and more voices who are challenging existing power structures. And that is ultimately what this debate over critical race theory is: It’s about who gets to define what it means to be American, who gets to define how U.S. institutions work. And that’s what the discomfort with the theory amounts to: It is a threat to those who have always had the power to define us as a country. They are now losing the power to shape that narrative, and the people gaining it—finally—are people of color.

Here we see, yet again, the standpoint epistemology that ties knowledge to racial identity with the clear implication that white men will tell one story and “people of color” another. In reality, many adherents to Critical Race Theory are white while many opponents of it are not. We certainly should not want children taught that their race determines what their politics should be and that any disagreement with CRT can only indicate a wish to preserve the power of white people. With this claim, Mr. Johnson provides justification of the fears many people have that the teaching of Critical Race Theory will not be done in an objective way and that disagreement with it or inclusion of counterviews will not be considered legitimate or even allowed.

State Senator Carl Crabtree, one of the lawmakers behind the proposed legislation in Idaho, has spoken to this fear:

There are concerns that, in isolated instances, students have felt intimidated or coerced into certain ideologies. Every student deserves a learning environment where they can think freely and learn without prejudice. We want our students to learn about race in America without being led to predetermined conclusions. HB 377 does not prohibit the teaching or learning of any subject, it protects a student’s right to formulate their own opinions and ideas.

Here, Senator Crabtree expresses the liberal standpoint on both of the important distinctions by opposing indoctrination in in favour of teaching about and asserting the difference between banning belief in things and coercing belief in things. There is no talk of replacing one form of indoctrination with another such as the “American Dream” or “traditional history” or “shaping speech to common values” and he explicitly rules out the prohibition of any ideas which includes CRT. It is to be hoped that the senator consistently makes such distinctions with such clarity and that other Republicans and Democrats do so too.

But Amnar Akbar, associate professor of law, seems to dismiss concerns about coercion when, speaking about Tennessee, she asserted to The Hill:

The term critical race theory is being used by Republicans in a loose way to capture all sorts of critical thought about the histories and legacies of racism in this country. It’s a bogeyman that they’re constructing around critical attention to the history of the country.

Antonio Parkinson too was both dismissive and accusatory when he said, in the same piece:

Race is a very, very uncomfortable subject here in the Tennessee legislature, and especially having those conversations in truth. There’s a lot of fragility and defensiveness when we try to have these conversations. This goes back to the question of, is America racist? These conversations are uncomfortable for a lot of people, especially people that benefit from the institutional and structural racism that exists in America.

Meanwhile, Kimberlé Crenshaw, the professor of law who is credited for the concept of intersectionality and the naming of Critical Race Theory claimed that “attacks on critical race theory are grounded in reactionary concern about racial progress” and said:

The attacks on critical race theory in Idaho and across the country are evidence of a frightening truth: Republican legislators are using a phantom threat to justify jaw-dropping attacks on racial justice, freedom of speech and a society’s understanding of its history.

So conservatives are not wrong to fear that CSJ approaches to anti-racism include some very racist ideas or to point out that they consistently reject criticisms or counterviews as an attempt to preserve racial inequality or that CSJ ideas have been taught as established fact in schools. They do and they have and children must be protected against this indoctrination. They do go wrong when they try to ban these ideas or replace them with other (conservative) ideas rather than insisting on clearer legislation that sets out a practical plan for teaching about a range of views in as objective a way as possible and prevents indoctrination in any one set of ideas.

It is particularly strange that the difference between banning certain ideologies and not coercing children into affirming certain ideologies seems to be unclear to many Americans. It is precisely the same difference between banning Christianity and not forcing people to go to church. Citizens of liberal democracies generally don’t have much difficulty with understanding this distinction and easily understand that freedom of religion includes both the right to practice any religion and the right not to be forced to practice any religion. America is the liberal democracy that was founded on this principle which was then enshrined in its constitution. American conservatives who take great pride in their nation as the “Land of the Free” should understand it best of all. Many of them clearly do and yet it seems many do not. This is alarming. An education that teaches children the basic tenets of various worldviews and arguments for and against each one and encourages them to think critically for themselves about which, if any, they find most convincing and ethical is something that is sorely needed in the current dangerously polarised political landscape of the United States.

Helen Pluckrose is the Founder of Counterweight and co-author of Cynical Theories. She is a liberal humanist.

 


I am often asked if I know of any liberal diversity training programmes or whether I could develop one. I know of some excellent programmes to address diversity issues that are compatible with liberalism. See here, here and here, for example. But I don’t know of any specifically liberal diversity training programmes. And there’s a good reason for that.

Liberals don’t tend to train people in what they should think.

Liberalism is committed to the freedom of the individual including their freedom of belief. It also values pluralism: the position that many different moral frameworks and belief systems can and should exist and that this is beneficial to the development of knowledge and moral progress. This is often referred to as ‘viewpoint diversity’ or ‘the Marketplace of Ideas.’ Therefore, there could not really be a liberal training session in ethics because it is not liberal to train people to have (or pretend to have) any specific moral, political, religious, or philosophical views. There could, however, be a liberal discussion group.

In places of employment, it is utterly reasonable and, indeed, necessary for there to be rules against displaying prejudice or hostility to people or discriminating against them because of their race, sex, sexuality, nationality, religion (or lack of religion), gender identity, disability, weight, etc. It is also entirely in keeping with liberalism to see this as something that is important enough to have a meeting or series of meetings about because prejudice and discrimination are illiberal. There is nothing illiberal in an employer making sure that everybody knows it is unacceptable to behave in prejudiced ways or in encouraging them to give thought to how they can contribute to fostering an inclusive and friendly working environment.

What might such a meeting or series of meetings look like? I will suggest one way this could work. First, they would be led by a facilitator in a liberal fashion.

Time could be set aside for the workforce to get together as a whole or in groups to discuss how to achieve and maintain an inclusive working environment. It would thus begin with the assumption that racism and other forms of bigotry are unacceptable in the workplace and must be combatted. It would also begin with the assumption that there are many moral frameworks from which it is possible to oppose bigotry and that a large part of diversity is the diversity of viewpoints. It would understand that inclusion requires the consideration of all viewpoints, whether they are held by the majority or the minority.

The facilitator of the discussion group could begin by asking people how they understood a certain issue. For this hypothetical scenario, we will take racism as the issue. Everybody would be encouraged to contribute their own definition of racism. People would also be free not to share their views on it because it is illiberal for an employer to demand to know the inner values, thoughts, and beliefs of their employees. The individual may consider their own religious, political, or ethical views to be private or they may not have any well-thought-through positions on these issues and therefore would not feel confident articulating their views.

These definitions could then be written up on a board and members of the group invited to discuss the pros and cons of each one. Realistically, the strongest difference of opinion is likely to be over whether racism consists in individual prejudice on the grounds of race or in a largely hidden system of oppressive power that operates throughout society along the lines of race. The merits of these two definitions could be discussed with the aim of finding some common ground or overlap. For example, some people who believe racism to be an individual attitude may concede that such attitudes can create systems of power that disadvantage racial minorities. Others who believe racism to be a system of power may concede that individuals do have some agency to reject racist ideas. But nobody should be compelled to concede either of those and it would be accepted that different ideas about how racism works exist among the group. Anyone who asserted that different opinions should not be permitted to exist would simply have that belief added to the list of different opinions but would not be allowed to derail the meeting.

The meeting could then move on to inviting members of the groups to describe the ethical framework from which they oppose racism. A liberal might say that evaluating people by their racial category rather than as individuals is likely to result in both factual error and illiberal stereotyping. They may also say that the best way to combat racism is simply by opposing judgements based on race. A Marxist, on the other hand, might say that social class is the major cause of inequality. They may argue that a primary focus on race divides the working class and makes remedying class-caused disparities harder. A Social Justice advocate would be likely to say that opposing racism requires all of society to become aware of the unconscious racial biases that they believe we are all socialised into and that we should work to dismantle them.

Meanwhile, a conservative or libertarian might argue that people need to take personal responsibility not only to treat all races equally but also for much of their own success and that placing too much responsibility on society is disempowering to individuals. Somebody whose primary ethical framework is religious might argue that racism is wrong because we are all God’s creations or draw on theological texts from their specific faith tradition as grounds for opposing racism. It is likely that most people would simply say that racism is stupid and hurtful and that we should be thoughtful and kind to our fellow humans generally, not only our work colleagues. The facilitator could write up the key points made by each person and then brainstorm the pros and cons of each approach.

There are many such questions that could be asked and a skilled facilitator would be able to encourage and moderate civil discussion and disagreement about the points raised, thus enabling employees to think about racism in ways they had not done before. This would not be a training session but an opportunity to think more deeply about race and racism by learning more about the diversity of views around racism. Anybody unable to express disagreement civilly would need to be asked to leave.

There would, of course, be some people who did not wish to take the opportunity to learn more about diverse viewpoints around racism and may, in fact, have ethical objections to being required to do so. Some of the objectors would likely be Social Justice advocates who believe that all but one viewpoint on racism is racist and also that having to hear other views is harmful to non-white people and makes them feel unsafe. Others might object from the position that there is already far too much talk about race and that racism is most likely to be overcome by ceasing to talk about it. These people could be encouraged to come along and make this case but if they repeated their objection on ethical grounds, it would be illiberal to force them to do so. Instead, they could be presented with a simple policy against exhibiting racial hostility, prejudice, or discrimination at work and required to commit to not behaving in that way.

This hypothetical liberal discussion programme sounds very simple and that’s because it is. However, there is a difference between simple and easy. In our current climate, it is unlikely that these kinds of sessions would proceed easily. It is much more likely that the very suggestion of holding meetings to discuss a variety of ways to understand racism and a range of frameworks from which to oppose it would provoke outrage. The existence of such sessions could even be asserted to be evidence that the company believes that the humanity of people of colour is up for debate even though the beginning assumption is that racism is unacceptable, and the purpose is to discuss ways to oppose it. Given the negative reception these sessions may produce, employers will need to be extremely brave to implement them and facilitators will need to be psychologically hardy individuals highly skilled in diplomacy and negotiation. I hope some will rise to the challenge.

Helen Pluckrose is the Founder of Counterweight and co-author of Cynical Theories. She is a liberal humanist.

 


What Do we Mean by “Critical Social Justice”?

Counterweight, while being consistently opposed to all authoritarian attempts to curtail freedom of belief and expression and/or enforce adherence to any ideology or belief system, is specifically geared towards helping people who are having Critical Social Justice (CSJ) beliefs forced upon them. This is because we operate primarily in the Western world where these ideas are a dominant discourse, a discourse which carries much prestige and power. They are thus difficult to resist by the general population without incurring material or social penalties. Material penalties include disciplinary action in employment while social penalties accrue from being misunderstood to oppose genuine social justice in the form of racial, sexual and LGBT equality. Both of these potential risks deter people from criticising the ideas because they simply cannot afford to lose their job and/or because they abhor bigotries like racism, so being believed to support them is psychologically unendurable.

But what do we mean precisely by “Critical Social Justice?” And is it really a clear and useful term? Some people have criticised our use of it. This can be because they support or are sympathetic to the ideas underlying CSJ and think that to use the term as a kind of shorthand for a variety of theories and activisms acting in the alleged interests of a variety of marginalised groups is overly dismissive of a vast body of thought that merits more careful consideration. For other people, the problem is that while they share our concerns about this scholarship, activism or worldview, they believe the term “Critical Social Justice” to be too unwieldy and potentially daunting to those without an academic background in the theories. They suggest that other terms for the same phenomenon like “Wokeism” are more graspable and immediately recognisable to the average person. In short, our usage of the term “Critical Social Justice” is criticised both for being too simplistic and for being too complicated by differently motivated critics! This essay explains and defends our use of the term.

To those who say we are reducing a vast range of scholarship to a simplistic term in order to dismiss it, we would argue that we are not. We are not criticising all or even most of the scholarship that focuses on issues of social justice. Some of it is very good. Nor are we criticising everything that has been called “critical theory” in the intellectual history of the last century. We are criticising a very specific, current approach to issues of social justice that are referred to as “critical” approaches by people who are using them and defining them in simplistic terms right now. This will be demonstrated below.

To those who say we are using unnecessarily academic language that will alienate non-academics or that simply lacks the needed “punch” to inspire people to oppose it, we would argue that there is value in specificity. The word “woke” is both useful and valid since it originated with activists themselves who use the African-American Vernacular English word to describe being able to see systems of oppression that are invisible to most people but particularly to the privileged. However, it is also ambiguous and applied far too broadly by some of the “anti-Woke.” Despite having criticised these ideas for many years and written a book about it, I myself am frequently accused of being “woke” for doing things like voting Labour, not being a fan of Trump, thinking racism still exists and is still bad and for believing that we can care about protecting women’s spaces and sports and about the social acceptance of trans people at the same time.

Allow me, then, to explain what we mean by “Critical Social Justice” and how this differs from liberal approaches to issues of social justice and why we advocate for the latter. Those of you who only want a brief overview can just read the first part while those who are interested in the more specific usages of terms like “critical”, “Critical Social Justice”, etc. by the scholars who work with them and my discussion of the problems I see with them can read the second part too.

What is Critical Social Justice and How Does it Differ from Liberalism?

Critical Social Justice (CSJ) is a specific theoretical approach to addressing issues of prejudice and discrimination on the grounds of characteristics like race, sex, sexuality, gender identity, dis/ability and body size. It has some of its intellectual ancestry in Marxist thought and the concept of “critical consciousness” (that is, becoming aware of oppressive power systems – note the similarity with “woke”) but more from postmodern concepts of knowledge, power and discourses. CSJ holds that knowledge is not objective but is culturally constructed to maintain oppressive power systems. This is believed to be achieved primarily by certain kinds of knowledge being legitimised by powerful forces in society, then being accepted by everyone and perpetuated by ways of talking about things – discourses.

These oppressive power systems believed to exist and permeate everything are called things like white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, heteronormativity (assuming that most people are heterosexual), cisnormativity (assuming that people are men or women depending on their reproductive systems), ableism and fatphobia. However, it is believed, most of us cannot see these oppressive discourses and systems because they are just the water we swim in. The marginalised have a greater ability to see them and so have a greater competence to define them and point them out. Knowledge is thus tied to identity and one’s perceived position in society in relation to power – often referred to as “positionality.”

The Critical Social Justice theorists and activists apply their “critical” methods to analyse systems, language and interactions in society to “uncover” these power systems and make them visible to the rest of us. They believe that in this way society can be revolutionised and social justice achieved provided the rest of us accept our moral imperative to pay attention to and accept their interpretations. This is often referred to as “doing the work” or simply “educating yourself.” Any scepticism of these interpretations is assumed to be an attempt to preserve one’s own privilege if one is of a group perceived to be privileged or, if one is not a member of a privileged group, it is seen as evidence of one having internalised the oppressive power system.

Liberalism is the approach to achieving social justice that preceded the CSJ approach and is still the one most commonly held by the general public. (Please note that the “liberalism” described here is meant in the philosophical sense and not in the political sense often used in the United States as interchangeable with “leftism.”) Philosophical liberals are focused on freedom, individuality and equality of opportunity. They primarily want every individual to be able to pursue their own goals and fulfilment provided this does not infringe on anybody else’s pursuit of the same. Liberals do not usually deny the existence of dominant cultural narratives although they might disagree about what they are with CSJ adherents. For example, CSJ adherents believe society to still be dominated by white supremacist and patriarchal discourses and themselves to be a radical movement pushing back against such systems of oppression. Liberals are more likely to think that while bigoted attitudes certainly still exist and some normative assumptions also exist that need addressing, racism and sexism are widely regarded negatively by society. They may even think that CSJ itself is a dominant narrative with prejudiced assumptions that has significant social influence and needs pushing back.

Liberals usually accept that many different ways of talking about things (discourses) exist in society and believe that individuals have the agency and free will to evaluate and reject or accept these ideas. This is often referred to as the ‘marketplace of ideas’ model and credited for the cultural changes that have occurred over the last 70 years or so in which cultural attitudes towards race, homosexuality and gender roles have become much more liberal. Liberals tend to think less in terms of revolution and more in terms of reform. For example, they are likely to believe that secular, liberal democracies are generally good frameworks but that they have failed to extend all their benefits to all people equally and these barriers must be removed. Enabling women and racial minorities to access all professions and be paid equally and enabling same-sex couples to marry are liberal reformist approaches.

Therefore, while the CSJ approach advocates for identity politics, liberals advocate for removing social significance from identity – that is, eradicating the idea that one’s race, sex or sexuality tells us anything about anybody’s abilities, morals or roles in society. While the CSJ approach argues that knowledge is relative, positional and tied to identity, liberals argue that knowledge is objective (at least in principle although we should never be too sure of having obtained it) and individuals of any identity may access it, although experiences and perceptions may vary. Where the CSJ approach insists we are all socialised into the acceptance of certain discourses and therefore language must be closely scrutinised and policed to dismantle oppressive power systems, liberals believe that culture has influence but that individuals have agency and can use language to argue for and against ideas and that bad ideas (including bigoted ones) are best overcome by better ideas.

Ultimately, then, Critical Social Justice and liberal social justice are opposed in many ways in their approach but ultimately seek the same outcome – a just society in which nobody is discriminated against due to their race, sex, sexuality, gender identity, religious or cultural background, physical ability or weight.

What does the Critical Social Justice Scholarship say?

Many people associate the word “critical” with critical thinking which is generally understood to mean the examination of an argument or claim in the light of reason and evidence rather than accepting it uncritically. This is not what is meant in terms of Critical Social Justice. In her 2017 paper ‘Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes’, Alison Bailey, a professor of philosophy, explains the difference between critical thinking and critical pedagogy (a teaching method). First, she shows us the ways in which these things are similar, though:

Philosophers of education have long made the distinction between critical thinking and critical pedagogy. Both literatures appeal to the value of being “critical” in the sense that instructors should cultivate in students a more cautious approach to accepting common beliefs at face value. Both traditions share the concern that learners generally lack the ability to spot inaccurate, misleading, incomplete, or blatantly false claims. They also share a sense that learning a particular set of critical skills has a corrective, humanizing, and liberatory effect.

So far, so good. But then Bailey starts to show us the differences:

The traditions, however, part ways over their definition of “critical.” Nicholas C. Burbules and Rupert Berk’s comparison of the traditions provides a useful background for my discussion in the next section. The critical-thinking tradition is concerned primarily with epistemic adequacy.

The term “epistemic” refers to the ways in which we decide what counts as true knowledge, as Bailey goes on to explain:

To be critical is to show good judgment in recognizing when arguments are faulty, assertions lack evidence, truth claims appeal to unreliable sources, or concepts are sloppily crafted and applied. For critical thinkers, the problem is that people fail to “examine the assumptions, commitments, and logic of daily life… the basic problem is irrational, illogical, and unexamined living” (Burbules and Berk 1999, 46). In this tradition sloppy claims can be identified and fixed by learning to apply the tools of formal and informal logic correctly.

Yes, this is what is generally understood by critical thinking. When someone tries to employ critical thinking, they are essentially looking for flaws of reasoning or unevidenced claims or unwarranted assumptions being made due to an ideologically biased interpretation of a situation. The value of critical thinking is understood to be that it helps us to discover what is true or what is morally right. Critical thinking is central to the liberal conception of the marketplace of ideas in which people evaluate certain ideas before ‘buying’ into any of them. While every individual will have their own biases that limit their ability to impartially examine ideas for their merits, the expectation is that they should try to do so and to make reasoned and evidenced arguments for their own position. Meanwhile, people with an opposing view will do the same for their position and this back and forth will lead to some ideas winning out over others in public consensus. Critical pedagogy, Bailey explains, is something quite different:

Critical pedagogy begins from a different set of assumptions rooted in the neo-Marxian literature on critical theory commonly associated with the Frankfurt School. Here, the critical learner is someone who is empowered and motivated to seek justice and emancipation. Critical pedagogy regards the claims that students make in response to social-justice issues not as propositions to be assessed for their truth value, but as expressions of power that function to re-inscribe and perpetuate social inequalities [emphasis mine].

So, “Critical” in this neo-Marxist sense is not about discovering what is true but about uncovering power dynamics. As explained above, ‘truth’ is considered to be a social construct created in the service of power. Therefore, critical pedagogy is looking for the oppressive power dynamics that are assumed to underlie all claims of truth in order to dismantle them. This is a political endeavour aimed at empowering this neo-Marxist concept of social justice and challenging critical thinking. Bailey is explicit about this purpose of critical pedagogy:

Its mission is to teach students ways of identifying and mapping how power shapes our understandings of the world. This is the first step toward resisting and transforming social injustices. By interrogating the politics of knowledge-production, this tradition also calls into question the uses of the accepted critical-thinking toolkit to determine epistemic adequacy.

Kiaras Gharabaghi and Ben Anderson-Nathe argue similarly for a political understanding of “critical” in their 2017 paper ‘The need for critical scholarship’, saying:

Critical scholarship is less an approach and more an invitation; it is a way of thinking about research as a form of resistance. While resistance is usually associated with the politics of the day, with tangible forms of oppression or with nuanced forms of manipulation, we believe that we must balance the production of the orthodoxy with resistance to system-preserving truths.

We see here the belief that oppressive systems of power are what are accepted as truth and thus that this requires resistance by default. Gharabaghi and Anderson-Nathe argue not for the critical thinking that evaluates arguments on their merits in order to reach conclusions but to begin with the assumption that power imbalances underlie the whole process of thinking and that to think this way is to be “critical”:

And so we invite you to submit your scholarship that is critical not in its conclusions but in its starting points: Is attachment really the framework in which we must see the entire life form of youth? Is trauma a universal concept? Does resilience explain something in particular or is it a way of identifying the economic, social, and cultural processes that re-produce a colonial, white, heterosexist, ableist social order? How do binary constructs of ways of being and of living impact on the full diversity of humanity? Are we either male or female? Are we racialized or white? Are we religious or atheist? Are we rich or poor? Are we perpetrator or victim?

Like Bailey, Gharabaghi and Anderson-Nathe reject the idea of objective knowledge or objective truth but regard knowledge as a social construct which is tied to a person’s identity and their position in society:

Critical scholarship can perhaps be characterized in another way. It is a way of approaching knowledge that is inherently not certain, always fluid, rooted in the lived experiences of people with multiplicity of life-contexts and informed by dialogue, relationship, and connection with those who have a stake in the knowledge being generated. Critical research is not out to create truth; it aims to consider the moment and looks forward to a way of seeing that moment in ways we could not have imagined. Finally, it invites into the research process an active identification of and engagement with power, with the social systems and structures, ideologies and paradigms that uphold the status quo.

The “critical” idea, then, has its roots in Marxism. Marx himself advocated the “ruthless criticism of all that exists.” However, Marx and traditional Marxists believed and continue to believe in objective truth and in science as the best method for obtaining knowledge. However, the neo-Marxists or post-Marxists and then the postmodernists who turned their attention to culture and the relation between power, knowledge and language became radically sceptical of the ability to obtain objective knowledge. They also moved increasingly from critiques of economics and class to those of identity – race, gender, sexuality etc. This move occurred in academia. An excellent source for following this development is The Critical Turn in Education: From Marxist Critique to Poststructuralist Feminism to Critical Theories of Race (2016) by Isaac Gottesman, in which he says:

After the fall of the New Left arose a new left, an Academic Left. For many of these young scholars, Marxist thought, and particularly what some refer to as Western Marxism or neo-Marxism, and what I will refer to as the critical Marxist tradition, was an intellectual anchor. As participants in the radical politics of the sixties entered graduate school and moved into faculty positions and started publishing, the critical turn began to change scholarship throughout the humanities and social sciences. The field of education was no exception.

The turn to critical Marxist thought is a defining moment in the past 40 years of educational scholarship, especially for educational scholars who identify as part of the political left. It introduced the ideas and vocabulary that continue to frame most conversations in the field about social justice, such as hegemony, ideology, consciousness, praxis, and most importantly, the word ‘critical’ itself, which has become ubiquitous as a descriptor for left educational scholarship.

“Hegemony” refers to the dominance believed to be held by powerful groups or sets of ideas over all others while “ideology” refers to those ideas and is usually used negatively. “Consciousness” refers to one’s understanding of one’s position in the world as part of a social class and in Marxist thought it can be true or false depending on whether it tallies with Marxist ideas of class consciousness or not. The working class were held to have a false consciousness if they did not recognise their own exploitation. Within cultural and identity studies and related activism, the idea of a false consciousness remains but it is more often applied to the privileged. They are believed to be unable to see their privileged positions unless they develop critical consciousness or, more colloquially, become “woke.” “Praxis” refers to putting these theories into practice. Says Gottesman:

Initially sequestered in curriculum studies and sociology of education, today critical scholarship is frequently published in the journals of some of the field’s most historically conservative areas, such as educational administration and science education. The critical turn radicalized the field.

Indeed. One could even quite reasonably argue that this ideology has becomehegemonic”. The problem of left-wing bias in the academy has been pointed out repeatedly as a problem for knowledge production even by those of us who are left-wing ourselves. A marketplace of ideas cannot work to advance knowledge and make moral progress if all its wares are rooted in the same ideas. Gottesman acknowledges the “critical Marxist tradition” to have more recently become mixed with other identity-based theories:

Since its beginnings in the 1970s and 1980s, critical educational scholarship has also pushed far beyond the Marxist tradition and its focus on political economy and social class. Although the critical Marxist tradition remains a foundation for much of the work that followed, critical educational scholars now engage a range of intellectual and political traditions that help us better understand culture and identity, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, constructions of ability, ecological crisis, and their myriad intersections.

These theories have much more to do with postmodern concepts of knowledge, power and language to the extent that James Lindsay and I have referred to them as “applied postmodernism.” But do these newer intellectual and political traditions really help us better understand culture and identity or is there still value in exploring them via a diverse range of viewpoints? Liberals would certainly argue that there is and always will be value in political and intellectual diversity and in living within a pluralistic liberal culture that positively encourages the free exchange of ideas and maintains an expectation that they will be presented with reasoned argument and evidence. Unfortunately, the most recent incarnation of this critical tradition is not open to dialectic or the marketplace of ideas. Nor does it have much confidence in individuals’ ability to evaluate and reject or accept ideas. It has rapidly become a dogma with clearly spelt out tenets.

The best example of this is to be found in the section of Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo’s Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education (2017). I think a look at the section entitled “What Is Critical Social Justice?” should be enough to convince critics that it is not we who are being reductionist about what it is and how it works but the purveyors of it. Sensoy and DiAngelo also make it very clear that Critical Social Justice is something very different from what most people understand as social justice, which remains mostly liberal. It is particularly important for liberals to understand this distinction. Sensoy and DiAngelo write:

While some scholars and activists prefer to use the term social justice in order to reclaim its true commitments, in this book we prefer the term critical social justice. We do so in order to distinguish our standpoint on social justice from mainstream standpoints.

They define the mainstream standpoint on social justice in this way:

Most people have a working definition of social justice; it is commonly understood as the principles of “fairness” and “equality” for all people and respect for their basic human rights. Most people would say that they value these principles.

Indeed, they would. This is liberal humanism. However, Critical Social Justice is not about fairness and equality for all people but a very specific political theory. Sensoy and DiAngelo write:

A critical approach to social justice refers to specific theoretical perspectives that recognize that society is stratified (i.e., divided and unequal) in significant and far-reaching ways along social group lines that include race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Critical social justice recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e., as structural), and actively seeks to change this.

That is, Critical Social Justice is not just an acceptance that bigoted attitudes and inequalities continue to exist, and that society still has work to do to overcome that, but a firm belief that systems of oppressive power are deeply embedded in the very fabric of society in ways that can only be revealed by “critical” and not liberal approaches to social justice.

As discussed above, liberal opposition to Critical Social Justice ought not to be equated with the wholesale rejection of social justice scholarship. Much of this scholarship includes sound empirical sociological research and consistently liberal ethics. Instead, it is the particular “critical” approach that is antithetical to liberalism. Sensoy and DiAngelo state this “critical” approach explicitly and then detail its principles:

The definition we apply is rooted in a critical theoretical approach. While this approach refers to a broad range of fields, there are some important shared principles:

    • All people are individuals, but they are also members of social groups.
    • These social groups are valued unequally in society.
    • Social groups that are valued more highly have greater access to the resources of a society.
    • Social injustice is real, exists today, and results in unequal access to resources between groups of people.
    • Those who claim to be for social justice must be engaged in self-reflection about their own socialization into these groups (their “positionality”) and must strategically act from that awareness in ways that challenge social injustice.

From this, we see that Sensoy and DiAngelo are referring to identity groups when they speak of “social groups.” They posit a simplistic model of society in which people are divided by their race, sex, class, sexuality and ability and then ranked and allocated certain resources depending on their identity. This goes against empirical evidence which paints a much more complex picture of society than a straightforward white supremacist, patriarchal, homophobic, ableist system in which people can plot their “positionality” by their identity and expect consistent results from it. We know, for example, that the most successful demographics in society are not white but that this does not mean racism has disappeared and never impacts people’s life outcomes. Believing that such a simple framework can be used to understand society and to further social justice is unlikely to be successful. Further, by assuming that all people are socialised into certain beliefs due to their identity they end up placing more social significance on immutable characteristics rather than less. Thus, Critical Theory contributes to the creation of the very social structures it claims to seek to challenge, inadvertently disempowering the people it seeks to empower. Liberals generally reject this reductionist worldview and seek to overcome racism, sexism and homophobia by consistently objecting to anybody’s worth being evaluated by their race, sex or sexuality and seeking empirical evidence of discrimination and effective ways to overcome it.

The authors go on to say that, based on these principles, a person engaged in critical social justice practice must be able to:

“Recognize that relations of unequal social power are constantly being enacted at both the micro (individual) and macro (structural) levels.”

Are they, though? Is there reason to believe that identity-based power dynamics are constantly in play in consistent ways in every interaction and every system in society? Isn’t reality a bit more complicated than this? Is it possible that many if not most people actually go about their lives seeing others as individuals rather than as identity-based pawns positioned on a power grid? Sensoy and DiAngelo also state that we must:

“Understand our own positions within these relations of unequal power.”

There is an unwarranted certainty in the claim that there are identity-based relations of unequal power that needs to be “understood” – that is, accepted to be true. Must I “understand” that every time I interact with a man, he has more power than me and is exercising it against me and that every time I interact with a non-white person, I have more power than them and am exercising it against them? Is it that most people fail to “understand” this or is it that most humans who regularly interact with a variety of other humans don’t find it to be true? Another of their suggestions:

“Think critically about knowledge; what we know and how we know it.”

Yes, absolutely. This includes thinking critically about the knowledge the critical theorists claim to have and how they claim to know it and being able to disagree with it. Unfortunately, according to DiAngelo, disagreeing with this conception of the world (as well as staying quiet or going away) cannot be a legitimate alternative viewpoint about how society works but a symptom of “white fragility. White fragility occurs whenever white people disagree with and object to the claim that they are inherently racist. Sensoy and DiAngelo conclude that we should:

“Act on all of the above in service of a more socially just society.”

Unfortunately, I think acting on all of the above in the service of a more socially just society requires acting against Critical Social Justice and in the service of liberal social justice. It is only within a liberal framework that multiple viewpoints on social justice can exist and be argued for. It is only within the liberal marketplace of ideas that people’s arguments can be separated from their identities, allowing anybody to subscribe to any viewpoint and challenge any viewpoint and not be confined to the one presumptuously deemed to be appropriate for their race, sex or sexuality. It was liberalism that convinced society that women and racial and sexual minorities were individuals with their own minds and voices and in possession of exactly the same moral right to access everything society had to offer (including the full range of ideas). It is this liberal concept of social justice, with its extraordinary record of achievement, that we must defend and further.

Helen Pluckrose is the Founder of Counterweight, Editor of Areo and co-author of Cynical Theories. She is a liberal humanist.