This essay is the second instalment of my series on woke tactics. This series is dedicated to helping you understand the way that Critical Social Justice advocates try to win arguments so they can advance their cause socially, politically, and institutionally.
As I mentioned in my last essay, it is often the case that CSJ activists are not trying to defeat you intellectually with evidence and arguments, they are trying to defeat you socially using power moves and social maneuvering. The CSJ activists – in many cases – are not trying to convince you on rational grounds, they are trying to gain social power and influence over society so they have the ability to spread CSJ everywhere. It is important to understand this as we look at their strategies. There may be times that the CSJ activists will try to use fair arguments to make their case and when that happens we ought to engage in good faith. However, we have to be aware that often they do not argue in good faith and instead use different tactics for which we must be prepared.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the next three tactics Critical Social Justice advocates use to win arguments.
The Kafka Trap.
Put simply, the Kafka Trap is a fallacy where someone is accused of something terrible and, when the accused person insists they are innocent, the accuser twists the insistence of innocence and uses it as evidence of guilt. Here is a simple illustration of the tactic:
Police: “You robbed the bank.”
You: “I did not.”
Police: “That is exactly what a bank robber would say. I knew you were guilty.”
The mechanism of a Kafka Trap works like this: someone goes about accusing someone else of something terrible and when the accused person insists they are innocent the person making the accusation twists the insistence of innocence and uses it as evidence of guilt. In this way, all the accused persons claims are treated as though they imply guilt.
The Kafka Trap was first discussed by Eric Raymond and named for the author Franz Kafka who illustrated this fallacy beautifully in his book The Trial. In The Trial the main character is accused of crimes and placed on trial without being told what he actually did wrong, and with no evidence being brought against him. He is then put through a process to destroy his reputation and credibility. The only way the trial ends is if he admits guilt, and his refusal to admit that he is guilty of these unnamed crimes is used as proof of how evil he is; after all, he is so remorseless that he won’t even be honest and admit guilt!
A typical Kafka Trap in the world of CSJ is to say that we are all complicit in (systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, etc) and then when someone denies that they are complicit in (systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, etc) the CSJ advocate will say that only a (racist, sexist, homophobe, etc) could be blind to their complicity in (systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, etc).
As you can see, the way this works is to say that denial of the accusation proves that the accusation is true. If you deny you are a racist, then you are a racist for denying that you are a racist. There is no way out.
When laid out that simply the Kafka Trap becomes obvious. It becomes less obvious when dressed up as a sort of academic jargon. The most obvious example of this is “white fragility.”
The concept of White Fragility was created by Robin DiAngelo in 2011. DiAngelo says that white Fragility refers to the agitation, anger, frustration, and shock that white people go through when they are confronted with their own racism. She claims that white fragility is the result of a lack of stamina in white people to confront racial issues honestly. According to DiAngelo, a white person’s denial and refusal to accept their complicity in racism is a result of white fragility. It is white fragility which explains why white people deny their complicity in racism.
“White fragility” is a Kafka Trap disguised as an academic idea. The way it works is that if you are accused of complicity in racism, and deny that you are complicit in racism, you will then be considered guilty of white fragility. Since, according to CSJ advocates, white fragility has the effect of preserving white people at the top of the racial hierarchy, exhibiting white fragility means you are complicit in racism. This means that when you are accused of being complicit in racism you have two choices:
Admit to your complicity in racism, or
Deny your complicity in racism in which case your denial is taken as proof that you have white fragility and are therefore complicit in racism.
As you can see, there is no way out because white fragility is a Kafka Trap.
Reframing is a tactic that is as old as the hills. In practice the way that this works is to change the terms on which the debate or conversation is being had. This is done all over the political spectrum and is a common tactic. A simple example of how re-framing works can be seen in conversations around gun legislation. Let’s suppose someone suggests some sort of regulation to make guns more difficult to purchase, the frame from both the left and right would go something like this:
Pro-gun person: “This is an issue of the right to bear arms.”
Anti-gun person: “This is an issue of gun violence.”
As you can see, the pro-gun person is putting the issue in terms of their right to posses a gun, and the anti-gun person is putting the issue in terms of the prevention of gun violence. Both of these statements are instances of people trying to decide the terms on which the debate will be had. The idea of re-framing is that if you get to frame the debate, you can determine the terms of the debate and essentially bake the conclusion right into them. In most debates we are usually trying to balance several competing interests, and if one of those interests gets to define the debate, they can tip the playing field in their side’s favor.
De-centering is similar to re-framing, but it works in a different way. De-centering is changing the focus of the debate. That is, de-centering is not so much about changing the terms on which the debate is had, but changing whose concerns get to be central to the debate and whose concerns get to take all the conversational oxygen. An example of de-centering might look like this:
Enlightenment Liberal: “I am not sure I agree with this policy position, we should analyze this reasonably and carefully using the methods of science.”
CSJ advocate: “White male scientists have been front and centre in this debate for too long. They need to sit down and be quiet so that the concerns of trans-women can be central to this conversation.”
Enlightenment Liberal: “But this is a scientific question.”
CSJ advocate: “We’re going to be centering the lived experiences of trans-women of color in this conversation. Sit down.”
The reason this tactic is used is that CSJ is very concerned with discourses and they think society is put together by a set of interwoven discourses and culture wide “conversations” as it were. CSJ thinks white people and “whiteness” have monopolized the cultural conversation in the west for far too long, and the way to end this is to “decenter” both of those by marginalizing people that argue from any position the CSJ advocates consider to be a product of white people, or whiteness. The idea is that it is time for white people to be quiet and let other groups dominate the conversation.
Decentering does not seek to tell you that you are wrong, or that your view is incorrect, or that you do not have your facts in order. The goal of decentering is to “win” by turning down the volume of any view opposed to CSJ, and turning up the volume of the CSJ worldview. In other words, decentering is a social power move that seeks to marginalize Enlightenment liberalism by moving it to the fringes of the discourse. Thus, with the use of this tactic CSJ advocates can bully their way into a place of prominence in the conversation.
Decentering seeks to move the CSJ view into a place of prominence and move any other view to the fringes of the debate by using social power. Rather than allowing people to use reason to decide which views ought to be central in the debate, CSJ advocates attempt to bully their way into a place of prominence in the conversation by claiming that any idea they do not like is “whiteness”
This tactic may be the most common tactic that the CSJ advocates use when they spread their ideas. The way this works is pretty simple: they take a simple word like “racism” and then redefine it to fit their needs. This is how the word racism goes from being defined as:
Bigotry against a person or persons due to their race.
“White racial and cultural prejudice and discrimination, supported by institutional power and authority, used to the advantage of Whites and the disadvantage of people of Color. Racism encompasses economic, political, social, and institutional actions and beliefs that systematize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources, and power between Whites and people of Color.”
Typically when someone says “America has a problem with racism” people take this to mean that America has too many people who are bigoted against other people because of their race. Most of the time they do not think that America is beset by institutional white privilege, nor do they think there is an institutionalized authority that is reinforcing racism. The result of this is that CSJ advocates can garner support and agreement from those who naturally support pleas to “help end racism” without realizing this redefinition has gone on. When people realize the definitions in play are not the usual ones, the CSJ advocate will insist that the CSJ definitions are the “correct” ones. It’s the linguistic equivalent of pouring out the wine, filling the bottle with Kool-Aid, pouring someone a glass without telling them what you did, and then when they complain, responding by saying “why are you upset, that’s how it’s supposed to taste.”
Now, to be completely fair it is not always the case that this is done dishonestly. CSJ thinks about the world in a different way then the rest of us so it “translates” any concept it likes into something that fits with the CSJ conception of the world. This means all the concepts that we use, they will redefine to fit their conception of the world. The redefinition of basic concepts is a hallmark of CSJ, which is why, as James Lindsey points out, “ this worldview is only ever communicated to us in reformulated perversions of our own concepts”. For this reason it is very important, when confronted with a CSJ advocate, to get the specific definitions for any term they use lest you get more than you bargained for.
I said this in my last essay, but I want to say it again for emphasis: The CSJ worldview progresses not through clarity and truth, but by muddying the intellectual waters and making social power moves.
The first step in preventing Critical Social Justice advocates from turning a discussion of truth into a struggle for power is to be able to know and understand the tactics that CSJ advocates employ. Being prepared for the ways in which the CSJ advocate will attempt to take the conversation off of the solid ground of truth, evidence, rationality, and warrant, and move it onto the quicksand of power struggle will allow you to push back against it more effectively.
I hope for this to be the first in a series of essays outlining a number of tactics used by the Critical Social Justice (CSJ) movement. This essay contains the first two. But first, a word about how Critical social Justice operates.
You cannot argue with a punch in the face. If you are intent on having a reasonable discussion with someone, and the other person is intent on punching you in the face, no matter how much energy and effort you put into building your arguments and gathering your evidence, it will not matter. You still need to deal with the punch to the face. Once the punch is being thrown, you can’t debate the punch, or invalidate the punch with logic, or provide evidence that the punch is unwarranted; you need to dodge, block or punch back.
There are situations where reasonable arguments and truth-seeking work, and situations where they do not. Obviously, we should be trying to create situations where truth-seeking matters. However, when someone has rejected truth-seeking efforts and is trying to punch you in the face, getting away from them, knowing how to punch back, or having a very large friend come to your aid are tactics which will be far more effective for dealing with that situation than attempting to discuss the science of punching or the logic of an uppercut to the jaw.
The principles at play in a street fight are a world away from the principles at play when trying to discover truth. If the goal is to discover truth then the person you are engaging with has to be willing to engage with you on truth-seeking terms and accept the outcome. If you are playing the truth game while someone else is playing the punch-you-in-the-face game, well, you’re going to get punched in the face.
You need to know which game is being played and set your tactics accordingly, even if that means walking away and refusing to play.
2. Social Moves
CSJ is a worldview: an entire system for how to look at and understand the world. That means CSJ has a way of understanding people, the universe, society, truth, ideas, beliefs, politics, religion, and anything else you can think of, built right into it. This means the CSJ worldview will have its own internally consistent methods for spreading its ideas. The tactics used by the advocates of CSJ are a product of the CSJ worldview and operate on the assumptions of CSJ. In other words, the worldview of CSJ comes complete with a set of instructions for how to spread CSJ and how a CSJ advocate ought to engage with anyone who pushes back: CSJ has its own social rules of engagement.
One of the more frustrating aspects of trying to push back against CSJ for me has been to watch people attempt to engage in a dialogue with a CSJ advocate, only to walk away frustrated and humiliated, sometimes with their reputation in tatters after a public thrashing. This happens for a very simple reason: the advocates of CSJ are not playing the same game the rest of us are and do not follow the same rules or employ the same tactics.
You see, CSJ advocates think we are all hopelessly biased, and that we hold our views for social reasons: we want to fit in, or we want to have the beliefs that make us popular, or we’ve been socialized by society to believe them. Consequently the way that they argue for their view is going to operate on a social level, not an intellectual level.
To put the strategy into simple terms: CSJ advocates are not trying to defeat you intellectually with evidence and arguments, they are trying to defeat you socially using power moves and social maneuvering. That sentence is worth reading again.
There is an old idea that says you can win a debate but lose the crowd, that even though people are capable of rationality, they are not purely rational creatures and are easily led astray by emotions, interests, group think, social pressure, confusions, logical fallacies, and other such things. We must be aware that if the truth is packaged poorly, and a lie is presented beautifully, people can be led astray by the appearances and side with the lie over the truth.
This is an unfortunate fact about our psychology: we are not perfect.
Where Enlightenment liberals believe this unfortunate fact can be mitigated by a commitment to truth and by putting checks and balances in place, CSJ advocates see this as an inescapable fact about the world. For the CSJ advocate, the way to spread their worldview is to use whatever methods work, and since the social method of argumentation works, social methods are what CSJ advocates use.
Again, to put it bluntly: the CSJ advocates are not going to try to win an intellectual battle with you by presenting the best evidence, reasons, and arguments; the CSJ advocate is going to try to defeat you socially by winning the crowd, getting you removed from a position of authority, destroying your reputation, attacking your motives, creating tremendous social pressure, and generally using whatever tactics they think will be effective at getting people to join their side. This means that any tactic that advances the goals of CSJ is the tactic they will use. Truth, fairness, and objectivity are not the point.
I’m not saying that the CSJ advocates are always lying. I’m saying the tactics they use game the natural social and psychological proclivities of human beings in order to get people to join their side, and that they think this is not only acceptable, but the correct way, indeed the only way, to operate.
3. Woke Tactics
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the tactics CSJ advocates use when trying to spread their worldview. For this essay I’ll be sticking to the first two of their argumentative tactics and strategies. Let’s begin.
This is a tactic where the CSJ advocate will make some very bold, controversial claim and when they are challenged on it, they will claim they were actually arguing for some simple, obvious, uncontroversial claim.
The tactic is so named after a medieval defense system composed of a motte and a bailey. The motte is an impregnable fortress which is almost impossible for the enemy to take. The motte is a small, cramped, ugly area that you really don’t want to have to be stuck in. It only exists so that you have a place to retreat to if you are attacked. The motte sits in the middle of the bailey. The bailey is a large area of rich farmland where all the food is grown, livestock are raised, and fruit is picked. The bailey is the area where all the productive economic activity occurs. It’s where you do all the things you really want to do: grow crops, pick fruits, and raise animals. The idea of a motte and bailey system is that all the things you want to accomplish occur in the bailey, and you only retreat to the motte when you are under attack.
So, when a CSJ advocate states some controversial opinion loudly, boldly, and publicly, that is the bailey. When they are challenged on it and retreat to some other position that is not controversial, the position they retreat to is the motte.
For example, a CSJ advocate might argue that gender and sex are both socially constructed and all the differences we see are the product of social conditions, social biases, and systemic sexism. However, when someone challenges this idea using facts about human biology (for instance pointing out that men are on average bigger and stronger than women), the CSJ advocate will retreat from that position and claim that they only meant the uncontroversial position that society constructs ideas about men and women and sometimes this can lead to stereotyping.
Again, the goal is to proclaim the arguments in the bailey, and then retreat to the motte when challenged. Once the challenge has passed, or the facts used to challenge you are no longer immediately evident, you emerge from the motte and go directly back to arguing for the positions that are to be found in the bailey.
In practice this means that CSJ advocates make the radical claims they really believe (the bailey) until they get challenged on it, at which point they claim that they really mean some far less radical position (the motte). They will claim that the motte is their position only until the challenge passes, then it’s straight back to the bailey to argue for the radical positions they really believe.
B. Attacking motives
A common tactic used by CSJ advocates is to cast doubt on the motivations and good faith of the person who is arguing against CSJ. As I am sure you all know, attacking the character of a person making an argument does not make their argument wrong. If I argue 2 + 2 = 4 you cannot say that I am wrong based on the fact that I robbed a bank. 2 + 2 = 4 regardless of whether or not I am a scoundrel. I think this is obvious to everyone.
The CSJ version of a character attack has a particular shape and feel to it as they do not go after the character of the person the way most other people do. They will not accuse you of being a drunk, or a drug addict, or a womanizer. They will attack your motives by claiming that your arguments against CSJ are not genuine, but rather a smokescreen for the fact that you benefit from the status quo and so you argue for the status quo because you benefit from it. In other words, you oppose justice because you benefit from injustice, and all the intellectual reasons you give are just a cover for your selfish motives.
Most of the time CSJ advocates won’t straightforwardly say your motive makes you wrong. What they will do is launch the attack so as to suggest that your motives for arguing against CSJ advocate are bad, and for that reason you are not to be trusted. What the CSJ advocates want is for people to look at the thing you say with hostility and suspicion, and to create the impression that you are bamboozling other people, or otherwise hoodwinking them in some way. The effect they are trying to create is to cover you with a cloud of suspicion and distrust so that people won’t believe you or take you seriously.
These attacks can happen in number of ways:
They just assert it: “You are only saying that because you benefit from a racist system and you refuse to give up your benefit.”
They insinuate it with a certain amount of plausible deniability: “I have heard a lot of white people say that before, but I’m not sure you would be saying that if you were a person of colour.”
They can ask a question that implies you have bad motives: “Well, you oppose our CSJ policies, but don’t you benefit a lot from the way things are now?”
They can assert that all people in your positions think the same way and are trying to preserve their privilege: “You know what they say: to a person who is used to having privilege, equality can feel like oppression, and that is why you are against CSJ.”
Again, the goal is to create a cloud of suspicion around what you say in order to get people to turn their skeptical dials up when you speak. They want to remove from you the ability to have what you are saying taken at face value and instead get people to see what you are saying as merely you attempting to get what you want. Needless to say, people rarely take advice from those they are suspicious of.
4. Understanding: The First Step
The theme that runs through these tactics is that the CSJ worldview progresses not through clarity and truth, but by muddying the intellectual waters and making power moves. I won’t lay out an exhaustive program for fighting back here as that is beyond the scope of this essay. I am, however, hoping that becoming aware of these tactics will allow you to see them coming and understand the way in which CSJ advocates are engaging with you.
In my next essay I’ll bring to light three more tactics which CSJ activists use as they work to make their worldview dominant in society.
I think the only universally shared memory we have is the elementary school fire drill. We all remember the principal over the intercom, the loud buzzing of the alarm, and the teacher announcing that we are to put down everything, get in line, and walk single file toward the exit. Anyone who went to public school or worked in an office building has done this so often that for many of us the sound of the fire alarm means, “time for a fire drill” and not, “there’s a fire”. This has gotten to the point where when there actually is a fire, someone has to say “this is not a drill”; a phrase that is used with such frequency it has become almost cliché.
In light of that, I have no idea how to write this essay without blending into the chorus of voices who think one thing or another is wrong with schools. In a world where “this is not a drill” is so cliché that it gets used to announce the arrival of the latest celebrity couple, I don’t quite know how to ring the alarm in education without sounding like, well, an alarmist.
With that said, I think there is a significant problem in education, and I would like to write about it without sounding like a conspiracy theorist. So, I will try to lay this out as clearly and carefully as I can, with an eye to being as level headed as possible. I will also cite relevant portions from the relevant literature. It is my hope that when all is said and done this is not treated as yet another fire drill.
A new theory emerges
There is a school of thought in education, which I will refer to as the Critical School of Education, and its proponents seek to use education as a vehicle for spreading their political ideology and worldview. Those who endorse the Critical School of Education do not think the goal of education is to teach children to read, write and do math while helping to prepare them for life in the world, but rather see education as a “site of political struggle” and a vehicle for radical social change. To put it bluntly, these thinkers believe the role of the teacher is not primarily to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, but instead to teach students Critical Social Justice. The theory of teaching they use to justify this is called “Critical Pedagogy”.
I realize this sounds like a conspiracy, but I can’t do anything about that. What I can do is to take you through a brief survey of the relevant literature so you can see exactly how this is happening. I do not mean to alarm you, but I do mean to raise an alarm. Critical Pedagogy, much like other Critical Social Justice literature, is difficult to read, full of jargon, beset by abstract theories, and in many places disconnected from the world. Its adherents sometimes admit as much. That said, I will quote them at length so no one can accuse me of misrepresenting them.
A wonderful and clear survey of how Critical Pedagogy developed comes to us in the 2016 book The Critical Turn in Education by Isaac Gottesman. What makes the book so useful is that Gottesman is not trying to provide a massive and exhaustive survey of the entire field of education, but rather a brief and readable survey of key concepts in Critical Pedagogy and how they fit together. This means the book is clear; it says the quiet part out loud.
Gottesman begins with the following quote:
“To the question: ‘Where did all the sixties radicals go?’, the most accurate answer,” noted Paul Buhle (1991) in his classic Marxism in the United States[sic], “would be: neither to religious cults nor yuppiedom, but to the classroom” (p. 263). 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.
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. 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.
The initial claim of Gottesman’s book is that Critical Marxist thought has radicalized the field of education, and Gottesman is in favor of this development. Now, as you will see, it is not the case that the field of education has become straightforwardly Marxist, and I am not arguing that, but that is where the story begins.
The focus on Marxism in the Critical School was most pronounced in Paulo Freire, a Brazilian Marxist who also worked as an educator. Friere’s most influential contribution to the Critical School’s Critical Pedagogy comes in the form of his book The pedagogy of the oppressed. Freire argues that teaching is a political issue, teaching methods are a political issue, and that educational theories generally are also political theories. Freire thought that inherent in any education system are assumptions about people, authority, the use of power, and what counts as a good life. Freire thought that education was inherently political and that education is to be used as part of a program of radical social change.
Freire claimed that the role of the teacher is to bring political awareness into the classroom, creating in the student an awareness of politics and a critical awareness of where they were located politically according to Marxist political theory. In other words, the goal is to have students become critically aware of the political situation so they can create the revolutionary change the Marxists sought. As Gottesman puts it:
For Freire, being critical thus meant recognizing oppression, acting against it, doing so in solidarity with others who seek revolutionary change, and doing so continuously. It is this critical educational process that Pedagogy of the Oppressed [sic] articulates as the most important feature of constructing movements for radical social change.
In practice, this type of thinking gets put into practice in the form of radical teachers using their classrooms as places to teach radical fringe left politics to students. And Freire is no obscure scholar. His work has been cited more than 440,000 times. For some context, Albert Einstein has been cited around 137,000 times.
Freire took the first step towards the politicization of education, something which Henry Giroux, Freire’s greatest and most prolific disciple, would openly acknowledge. When Freire first wrote in the 1960s and ‘70s his work was ignored, but in the ‘70s and early 1980s it was Giroux who played a key role in bringing Freire’s work into mainstream education colleges.
Giroux first read Freire in the early 1970s when someone gave him a copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed while he was working as a high school teacher. He then left teaching and went into the academy where he began making use of Freire’s work. He finally met Freire in 1983 and worked with him to help disseminate his work in North America. Giroux himself said Freire was his greatest influence and gives him credit for marking the moment when Critical Pedagogy came into its own. If Freire lit the match of Critical Pedagogy Giroux poured gas on the fire.
Giroux took the substance of what Freire was doing in Brazil and then adapted it in a more nuanced way to an American context. Giroux wanted to move away from the kind of economic reductionism of the Marxists who he thought were reducing complex social phenomena to the fallout of economic issues like poverty.
Giroux made two major moves which I think will help us understand what he was arguing. The first is to argue that teachers are not and should not be politically neutral and that politics is central to teaching. The second is to blend Critical Pedagogy with postmodernism and Critical Theory.
According to Gottesman:
Giroux sought to develop a Critical Pedagogy, an approach to education that, on the one hand, rooted itself in the critical Marxist tradition’s conception of the power of human agency and in its theoretical analysis of ideology and culture, and on the other hand, embraced, counter to the position of many in the Marxist tradition, the possibility of social reform and the realization of democratic socialism through complete engagement with the liberal public sphere and thus the institutions, including the modes of production, of the liberal nation-state. For Giroux, Critical Pedagogy was not a project committed to revolutionary Marxism, an intellectual and political tradition that deeply influenced Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed; rather, Critical Pedagogy was a project committed to socialism through radical reform.
So, according to Gottesman—who agrees with and affirms the use of Critical Pedagogy—Giroux wants to use education to bring about socialism through radical reform. The goal is to “free” people from having to live in a western capitalist democracy.
I would be tempted to say “this is not a drill” if it were not so clichéd.
Further, Gottesman isn’t taking Giroux out of context in his assessment. Giroux says explicitly in his 1988 book Teachers as Intellectuals: “The neo-Marxist position, it seems to us, provides the most insightful and comprehensive model for understanding the nature of schooling and developing an emancipatory program for social education.”
To be clear: Henry Giroux is arguing that the role of the teacher, whether in the university or in the public elementary school, is to use their classroom to teach revolutionary politics to the children so they grow up to create some kind of socialist society. He thinks that the goal of education is not math, writing, or reading (although those are useful tools). The real long-term goal of education is to teach children the politics and ideology of the radical left. This is what he is explicitly arguing.
Giroux wants to move away from the economically reductionist view of traditional Marxism and move toward something that operates directly on the social and cultural level.
The second major move Giroux made was to blend Critical Pedagogy with postmodernism and Critical Theory. Giroux wanted to use the tools of Critical Theory and postmodernism to attack and dissolve the assumptions of Enlightenment liberalism. He began his work by attempting to theorize Critical Pedagogy through the lens of Critical Theory, but eventually brought in the machinery of postmodernism as a way of trying to dissolve the assumptions of Enlightenment liberalism.
Rather than separating reason from the terrain of history , place, and desire, Postmodernism argues that reason and science can only be understood as a part of a broader historical struggle over the relationship between language and power. This is not merely an epistemological issue, but one that is deeply political and normative. Gary Peller makes this clear by arguing that what is at stake in this form of criticism is nothing less than the dominant liberal commitment to Enlightenment culture. He writes:
“indeed the whole way we conceive of liberal progress (overcoming prejudice in the name of truth, seeing through the distortions of ideology to get at reality, surmounting ignorance and superstition with the acquisition of knowledge) is called into question. Postmodernism suggests that what has been presented in our social-political and our intellectual traditions as knowledge, truth, objectivity, and reason are actually merely the effects of a particular form of social power, the victory of a particular way of representing the world that presents itself as beyond mere interpretation, as truth itself.”
By asserting the primacy of the historical and the contingent in the construction of reason, authority, truth, ethics, and identity, postmodernism provides a politics of representation and a basis for social struggle.
As you can see, Giroux wants to use postmodernism as a way of going after the Enlightenment liberal assumptions that our current society is based on. So he turns to postmodernism and in the process affirms two ideas:
the postmodern idea that such things as knowledge, truth, objectivity and reason are not absolute and universal.
that the Enlightenment liberal vision of truth, reason, knowledge, and objectivity has come to prominence only because liberals have exercised social power to make those ideas prominent.
In affirming those two ideas Giroux has fully imbibed the postmodern line of thinking that says the Enlightenment view that knowledge is obtained using reason, science, rationality, and objectivity is in fact false.
Further, Giroux thinks that in undercutting the assumptions of Enlightenment liberalism, postmodernism provides a framework for his political struggle against Enlightenment liberalism. It is clear then, that Giroux’s goal here is nothing less than the overturning of the Enlightenment liberal order in favor of some form of socialism that is informed by both postmodernism and neo-Marxism. If this sounds like what we often refer to as “wokeness” or “Critical Social Justice” that is because that is what this is.
What the theory looks like in practice
So far I have only discussed the work of two academics. I have not shown the entirety of the scholarly literature that justifies hijacking the education systems to indoctrinate children into Critical Social Justice because it is too large for a single essay to chronicle. However, there are literally thousands of published academic papers, studies, and books arguing that teaching is a political act and that teachers should teach politics. A brief snippet of news stories of this occurring in schools can be found here,here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Now I’d like to show you an example of how this is actually implemented in the classroom
In the 2015 book edited by Todd Horton and Lynn Lemisko entitled Educator to Educator, Lynn Lemisko argues in an essay she contributed that it is the role of the teacher to “look past” the official curriculum in order to “trouble” dominant narratives.
What does it mean to look beyond the curriculum? Well, what she means is that she is going to use the mandated lesson plan to teach her political ideology and worldview. She is going to do exactly what Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux advocated for: she’s going to use her classroom as a place of politics. Now, she is not going to refuse to teach the curriculum, she is going to teach past the curriculum. She is going to add her opinion and editorialize the lesson according to her world view.
As an example, let’s look at how Lemisko takes a simple class exercise about the value of technology, and she shows teachers how to hijack it to make it about Critical Social Justice instead (emphases mine):
One of the more difficult approaches to ‘looking beyond’ involves teacher candidates in examining resources, curriculum documents and practices for their silences – that is, what is left ‘unsaid?’. That which is left unsaid arises from the taken-for-granted notions of dominant culture. These implicit notions are hard to uncover because societal or cultural presuppositions are so deeply embedded within our thinking that we do not recognize that which is left out. When educating for social justice, teacher educators need to help teacher candidates learn to focus on both what is explicit (said or visible) and what is implicit (not said or invisible).
So the first thing Lemisko is going to do is tell teachers to refocus their teaching from things that are in the curriculum, to things they think are being left out. That is step one. She continues (emphasis mine):
I have asked teacher candidates to critically examine social studies curriculum documents and suggested learning activities and resources using this double focus. For example, we have examined together a learning activity connected to exploring the concept ‘interdependence’ that is suggested in the Saskatchewan Grades 1 – 5: Social Studies: A Curriculum Guide for the Elementary Level (1995). The explicit purpose of this activity, titled “Doing without” (p. 28) is to have learners identify some specific technologies and contemplate what life would be like without these. However, what is silenced or unsaid in this learning activity is a set of classed attitudes about easy accessibility to wealth and resources…
In this section she shows them how to further alter the focus of the activity for the children. The exercise was supposed to be about what life would be like without technology. Lemisko wants teachers to instead focus on what she thinks are attitudes about wealth and resources. She continues (emphasis mine):
In critically examining this suggested activity to find the ‘unsaid’ about socio-economic class, I ask teacher candidates to read the scenarios, think about the implicit assumptions that underpin the descriptions, and prepare to discuss questions such as the following:
What is assumed about accessibility to the resources and technology discussed in the scenarios?
What is assumed about what the families of grade four students must/should have if they need to imagine ‘doing without’?
Here Lemisko tells her teachers in training to ask questions about socio-economic class, rather than what life would be like without certain forms of technology. She wants them to read the activity through the lens of Critical Social Justice rather than through the lens of “what would life be like without this technology?” In getting her teachers in training to do this, she moves the purpose of the activity away from “find out what life would be like without technology” to “let’s talk about class, attitudes, fairness, and Social Justice.”
As you can see, what Lemisko is doing is trying to teach her teachers in training to use the curriculum in ways it was never designed. The goal of the technology activity was never to have a conversation about Social Justice, it was to make the kids aware of technology and its impact on them. It was never meant to be an activity to “make visible” various injustices that the Critical Social Justice movement blames on Enlightenment liberalism.
This is not what the curriculum was designed for, and it was not what the parent signed up for when they decided to send their kids to a public school.
Why the theory goes wrong
The current push to bring Critical Social Justice into education is a terrible idea. Let me explain.
The first point is a fairly straightforward one: it is immoral and illiberal for people to use the public school system to force a certain set of values on children behind their parents’ backs. Simply put, there is no justification for using public schools as a soapbox for a particular ideology. The liberal way is pluralist without being relativist, and that means that schools are places where we teach the children how to engage with each other on liberal terms with respect and civility. Liberalism admits of a wide swathe of values and seeks to equip children with the tools required to think clearly about the world. For a group of people to decide to embed themselves in the school system and use it as a platform to indoctrinate children is unacceptable.
There is a second point about the quality of education and how it suffers when politics are brought into the classroom.
One thing we all intuit naturally when we demand silence in order to concentrate, or we ask not to be distracted, or turn down the radio when looking for an address, is that in order to learn well we need to be able to focus and concentrate on the thing we are trying to learn. We must be able to pay attention. If our attention is divided we are liable to miss out on valuable information.
The modern world is a difficult one, and it requires that our children learn the skills necessary to get by in a world that is driven by technology. In a time when information is the coin of the realm, numeracy and literacy are incredibly important for flourishing. When someone takes a curriculum that is built to discuss technology and redirects the conversation toward their own political ideology, they are teaching their politics at the expense of preparing the child for the world.
It does no good for Lemisko, Giroux, and Freire to think they can weave Social Justice through the curriculum without compromising it. The resources in the classroom are not infinite and neither is a child’s attention span. In making space for Critical Social Justice, something else must be lost. To argue otherwise is to get something for nothing.
What we can do about it
To finish, I’d like to gesture broadly at what can be done.
First off, when this stuff makes it into the curriculum or classroom it is usually a small group of activists that are pushing it. Administrators who do not realize what is happening, or are easily swayed, can give in under the pressure. It is important to be involved in the school board, Parent Teacher Associations, and to make sure you know what children are being taught at school.
When a large organized group of parents makes themselves clear in rejecting this nonsense, that is very often enough to get the administrators to back down and remove the Critical Social Justice indoctrination from the curriculum.
It is important to get other parents who are concerned together. School board meetings, social media campaigns and school board elections are great places to make your voice heard and to let the people who make schooling decisions know this is unacceptable and to hold them accountable. Having organized groups that can carry out various tasks is important. Campaigns to get people onto the school board take time and volunteers, letters to teachers need to be coordinated, getting enough people at meetings to show the school board that the issue is important to parents takes planning. For all these reasons you must be organized.
In these matters the Critical Social Justice activists will not stop pushing. Their entire reason for being revolves around implementing Critical Social Justice in every area of everything in which they are involved. Their entire lives are devoted to this. If we are to be effective we must be as vigilant in our attempts to save our liberal democracy as they are in their attempts to tear it down.
To conclude, I want to simply say that I am not against justice, or fairness, or equality of opportunity. It is not my goal to tear anyone down and I realize that many of the people who teach Critical Pedagogy are well-meaning. One can’t help but listen to Henry Giroux speak and realize that he cares deeply about people. The problem is not that he doesn’t care, the problem is that his ideas are flawed. And for that reason we must keep Critical Pedagogy out of the school system.
There is a type of cynicism that you cannot fight against, the sort of cynicism which makes engagement impossible. Let me give you an example by way of a hypothetical conversation:
Man: Would you come to my place to watch a movie?
Woman: You’re just trying to sleep with me.
Man: I wasn’t implying that; perhaps we could go to the theater?
Woman: You’re still just trying to sleep with me.
Man: I can take a hint, maybe I’ll see you around sometime.
Woman: I’m still not sleeping with you!
Man: Never mind, obviously you do not trust my intentions, so I’ll take the hint and stop contacting you.
Woman: Oh, so now you’re ditching me because I won’t sleep with you!
As you can see by this admittedly clumsy and exaggerated back and forth, there is a certain type of cynicism that is simply impossible to deal with. There are some people who are going to read the worst intentions and the most absurd implications into what you say regardless of how well-intentioned you are or how carefully you say it. That person always thinks you have motives which you do not have and will interpret you in a way you did not intend while accusing you of attempting to do things you are not trying to do. In such a situation there is nothing that you can say or do that will matter in the slightest, as any answer that you give will be interpreted as an attempt to cover up your hidden motives or pull one over on the person you are speaking to.
It is exactly this sort of cynicism which bedevils us today in the form of Critical Social justice (CSJ).
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Postmodernist philosophical/sociological ideas fused with Critical Theory to form the backbone of what we now know as Critical Social Justice. The issues here are two-fold. The first is the inherent cynicism, nihilism, and pessimism of Postmodernism, the second is the cynicism inherent to Critical Theory. When those two things are combined there is a sort of synergism that creates a deep cynicism that overrides any real possibility of engagement.
The cynicism of Postmodernism can be seen most clearly in the work of Michel Foucault. Foucault held that claims to truth are ultimately a matter of power; as such, those with power get to decide what is to be considered as ‘truth’. That is, Foucault thought of truth as a purely social phenomenon where certain statements and descriptions of reality are given the status of truth by people in society that are given the power to bestow that status. According to Foucault, truth is not a set of accurate descriptions of how things are or how they should be; rather, truth is a status that society gives ideas, statements, or propositions which elevates them such that they can be used to justify certain choices, decisions, actions, behaviors, laws, policies, and so on. That is not to say that a true statement never corresponds to reality, but it does mean that whether or not a statement corresponds to reality is not a necessary condition for a statement to be designated as true.
This means certain institutions or groups have the power to elevate particular ideas, propositions, or views, to the status of “true”. For example a church may have the moral authority to decide what is ethically right or wrong within a society. Scientists have scientific authority which gives them the power to say what is true and what ideas we ought to believe. Again, Foucault thinks what is true is not a matter of which statements describe reality accurately, what is true is a matter of which statements society elevates to the status of “true” according to the standard set by whatever process a given society has for elevating statements to the level of “truth.”
This means the things that we know, or claim to know, are the result of power that has been exercised by people or institutions. Thus, Foucault argues, power and knowledge are two features of the same object and consequently cannot be separated. Foucault is not arguing “knowledge is power” in the sense that if you know more about the world you can accomplish more, Foucault is arguing that knowledge and power are two aspects of the same thing, and each is a necessary condition for the existence of the other. It is for this reason that Foucault coined the term “power-knowledge.”
The resulting philosophy is a highly cynical view which claims that all the things we claim to “know” are really the product of truth and power mutually reinforcing and recreating each other. Power is used to create truth which is then used to create power. All of this is done in a way which is both contingent and done to serve the purposes of those who are able to exercise power. As Foucault puts it:
… in a society such as ours, but basically in any society, there are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterize and constitute the social body, and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated nor implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation and functioning of a discourse. There can be no possible exercise of power without a certain economy of discourses of truth which operates through and on the basis of this association. We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth.
In sum, this is the Postmodern side of woke cynicism: the one who determines what is true is the one who has power, and they use that power to their own benefit and for their own purposes, regardless of what reality might have to say about it.
The Critical Theory side of it is every bit as cynical, but it comes from a slightly different direction.
It must explain what is wrong with society as it is.
It must be practical.
It must have a moral vision for society.
Now, Critical Theory cannot have just any direction or moral vision, the moral vision must be geared toward the emancipation of all human beings, what Critical Theory often refers to as “liberation.”
Thus, a properly critical Theory is not content to describe the way the world works the way the laws of physics or chemistry do. A properly critical Theory looks at the world as it is and seeks to “fix” the way things are in order to emancipate people. By now, the clever reader will have asked “emancipated from what?” And this is where the trouble begins.
The underlying assumption of Critical Theory is that we are being dominated or oppressed by our society. Consequently, questioning the legitimacy of every single aspect of our civilization is deemed necessary to achieve emancipation. This means that the assumptions and presuppositions that our society rests on will also be criticized ruthlessly. It follows from this that the frameworks, reasoning, logic, beliefs, traditions, presuppositions, practices, and ideas of every single thing in our society need to be ruthlessly critiqued and questioned.
We can see it clearly in this comment from Geoffrey Bennington who at a conference on Critical Theory said:
Critical theory taught me that the first indispensable critical gesture and the prerequisite for any critical practice is to look carefully at the terms of the question to which one is being asked to respond. That means that before trying to give answers to the questions about environment or framing we need to ask what kind of environment or frame do the questions themselves propose for our discussion here and what kind of answers do they more or less secretly program in advance.
This is the cynical eye of the Critical Theorist at work. The assumption is that questions themselves “secretly program” answers. It is not enough to say that a bad question will yield an unsatisfying answer, or that the wrong question cannot get you the right answer. They argue that the question is in some way secretly programming an answer.
Since Critical Theory looks at the assumptions and presuppositions of everything, it ends up always questioning the assumptions of both whatever it is critiquing, and the terms of engagement regarding the critique of that thing. If for example they are critiquing politics, they will question both the assumptions of politics, and the assumptions about how to critique politics and the terms on which politics can be critiqued. As such there is always an undercurrent of suspicion that both the terms of engagement and the existing conceptual playing field of whatever topic is at hand are themselves chosen to reinforce the status quo and thus prevent the re-ordering of society along the lines that the Critical Theorist wants. You might say that the Critical Theorists are worried that the conversation game is rigged.
Once you realize that CSJ has both Critical Theory and Postmodernism in its foundations you realize why it is that having a conversation with individuals taken in by CSJ can prove to be nearly impossible. This is because if every debate begins by asking “why are you privileging such and such, what standards are you using, by what authority do you make judgements, why should we use your concepts, why should we discuss this according to your rules, what are your motives and who benefits?” Nothing can survive that line of critique when it’s brought with an unrelentingly cynical eye.
Utilizing questions about people’s motives and what they stand to gain when you examine a claim is bad enough when it comes to discerning the truth value of that claim. Adding the Postmodern view of subjective and socially constructed truth leaves you in further disarray as correspondence to reality is no longer a viable technique to judge between competing claims. Unless you can appeal to objective truth, there is no way to fend off charges of bias and self-interest. This leaves people in a place where they are no longer able to appeal to reality as the ultimate arbiter of whether an idea is good or not.
This is why CSJ drives people to distraction. Every attempt at conversation merely devolves into a cynical meta-level struggle for control of the overarching terms of the debate and the conceptual playing field on which the debate will take place. At this point the topic that was supposed to be up for discussion quickly takes a backseat to the struggle to determine what the rules of engagement will be.
This sort of situation is not good for conversation. In fact, it is dangerous. If people are unable to have substantive discussions about their differences with an eye to resolving them, those differences will only deepen, increasing the likelihood of conflict. Yet this is exactly what CSJ does, sowing suspicion, distrust, and cynicism into the very discussions and conversations that are supposed to allow us to problem solve and build relationships. For this reason, we ought to jettison the CSJ movement and instead focus on a liberal approach, grounded in principles of fairness, empathy, equality, and truth, so we can debate, discuss, and disagree properly.
When I was a child, I used to like watching my mom bake cookies. One day as I was watching her bake, I asked if I could help. She said yes, and so I went about getting ingredients and mixing them as she instructed. Unfortunately, I mistook the flour for powdered sugar, and as a result added extra flour to the dough, while leaving out the powdered sugar entirely. I proceeded to mix as she had taught me, and then put the cookies on the pan to bake. When they came out of the pan, they were bitter, could not hold together, and crumbled. The result was not good because ingredients matter and getting them right is important; the fact that two things look similar does not mean we can replace one for the other.
Diversity and tolerance are like this. If you replace them with something that looks similar but is not made of the same stuff, your organizational relationships will not hold together and the whole thing will crumble.
In an increasingly interconnected world, it is imperative that people of different backgrounds understand how to communicate and get along even though this will require crossing all manner of cultural lines. This has led many organizations to require some kind of diversity training. The trouble arises when selecting diversity training that is influenced and informed by an ideology called Critical Social Justice (CSJ). Picking the wrong kind of diversity training can produce results that are, in fact, antithetical to good and charitable communication. Unlike typical diversity training that focuses on understanding, unity, tolerance, empathy, cross-cultural communication, conflict resolution, and other strategies to make a diverse organization better functioning, CSJ diversity training has a different set of assumptions that yield a very different result.
Liberal diversity training programs utilize methods that respect people as individuals. These types of training courses are based on liberal ethical principles regarding freedom and harm. They uplift individuals by giving them tools to navigate and thrive in a diverse workplace, without hurting others. Further, they use scientifically valid techniques to ethically teach the strategies, ideas, concepts and actions that make this possible and avoid moral, political, or ideological indoctrination by appealing to broadly humanistic ethics. To wit, liberal diversity training programs give people who hold different values the ability to work with each other, while recognizing the vast moral differences that may exist between them–so long as the people in question are willing to work together and co-operate.
Diversity training programs informed by CSJ do not operate in this way.
CSJ-based diversity training programs operate according to a theory of the world that rests on very different assumptions. The assumptions of CSJ are that people are programmed by systems of power in the form of discourses. Those discourses condition us to think about the world and our place in it according to the tenets of that particular discourse. This means all the ideas, concepts, beliefs, art, education, media, politics, and discussion in our society form a stew of discourse that we marinate in. According to CSJ, this shapes everything about us, including how we see and think about the world. Further, the discourse sets the tone for what people believe and sets the limits of socially acceptable opinion.
As a result, CSJ sorts people into groups based on traits such as race, disability status, gender, ethnicity, body type and sexual orientation on the grounds that people are oppressed by systems of racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, ableism, and fatphobia.
CSJ thinks the solution to all of this is to train people to be able to see all these systems so they can change their thinking and deconstruct and dismantle the stew of ideas.
CSJ also says that members of each group share a perspective with all the others; all the women have a shared experience, the men have a shared experience, black people have a shared experience, and so on and so forth. Further, the subjective experiences of oppressed groups are supposed to provide privileged access to truths, which are to be the starting point for understanding how society works.
The result is that CSJ diversity training makes several mistakes as a result of a misplaced focus, while failing to focus on badly needed ideas. Much like my sugarless cookies, CSJ diversity training mixes in the wrong ingredients. Let’s look at how this works.
CSJ says we have been programmed by the discourses of society to hold various bigotries and prejudices even if we don’t know it. To rectify this, we must be tested for “implicit bias” and trained out of such biases. However, there are two main problems associated with the IAT test. The first is its dubious construct validity, and the second is that it has failed to establish a strong link between “bias” and behavior.
Let’s start by getting clear about what “construct validity” is and why it matters here.
Simply put, construct validity is the degree to which a test actually measures what it claims to be measuring. So, in this case we would ask: does the IAT measure what it says it is measuring? If it does not, then the IAT lacks construct validity. The IAT measures the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g. good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g. athletic, clumsy). For example, if someone associates “white people” with the category “good” more strongly than they associate “black people” with the category “good” then they implicitly associate whiteness with goodness, and blackness with badness. The test is measuring how strongly people associate categories with each other, it does not measure bias, bigotry or prejudice.
People can associate words and concepts together (or not) for reasons that have nothing to do with bias, bigotry, or prejudice. For example, I might have a very strong association between the word “gay people” and the word “athlete,” but that does not mean I am buying into a stereotype about gay athletes, it might just be that my best friend is gay and an athlete. It is a mistake to assume that if someone associate’s two ideas they are doing so because of an unconscious bias. In the example I gave, someone may have an athletic friend who is gay and that may be the reason they associate “athlete” with “gay person”; bigotry, bias, prejudice and stereotypes have nothing to do with it. I should note that the chance of such associations being the result of random personal experiences is diminished when general trends emerge for large groups of people taking the IAT. However, the point that is salient here is that the IAT does not show why those associations exist. The explanation that the strength or weakness of associations are the result of bias, prejudice, or bigotry is taken for granted by many CSJ activists.
Now, let’s look at the link between bias–as measured by the IAT–and behavior.
When you train people until they associate “whiteness” and “blackness” equally with “goodness” and “badness,” there is no measurable change in behavior. This is likely due to the fact that the link between implicit association and how people behave is tenuous at best. If there are bigoted, biased or prejudiced people within an organization, implicit bias training will not solve this. As such, a focus on implicit bias will take time and resources while failing to solve the problem for which it is used.
The second problem that CSJ diversity training suffers from is that it teaches a particular ideology about society which it thinks can be applied to every area of life.
This is bad for any organization seeking diversity training for two reasons:
Forcing people to accept any particular political ideology or belief system to join an organization violates the ethical principle of freedom of conscience and should be avoided.
The liberal notion of freedom of association and freedom of expression go hand and hand with freedom of conscience, not just to restrain the hand of government, but because they are Enlightenment liberal values. The reason for this is that the Enlightenment liberal view of the world views rational debate as the best tool for finding truth.
Once someone resorts to the exercise of power to resolve a debate about the truth of a claim, they are abandoning the very mechanisms of rational debate that produces and validates truth claims. Using force to resolve a debate poisons the well. For this reason, forcing someone to accept a claim against their will violates not only the norms against the use of force, but also cuts against the liberal conception regarding how truth is discovered to begin with. In other words, that is, we arrive at truth using reason, not power.
The CSJ belief system is deeply flawed.
CSJ is put together using concepts taken from philosophical postmodernism, and academic Critical Theory, neither of which have universal acceptance. In fact, there is a large body of scholarship which would argue that Enlightenment liberalism, with its use of rigorous academic methods, is vastly superior to postmodernism and Critical Theory. However, CSJ uses the methods prescribed by postmodernism and Critical Theory to conclude that such things as racism, sexism, and homophobia are baked into our society. They then argue that we have to pick apart all the ideas of our society so we can get rid of all the racism, sexism, and homophobia.
CSJ follows this line of thinking to the point of absurdity. For example, the University of South Carolina mandated that every student in the Women’s Studies program take a class that required them to acknowledge and believe several tenets of Social Justice. In another example, New York City’s education department mandated Social Justice training which taught that individuality and objectivity are both part of “White Supremacy.” Obviously, these are particularly ridiculous examples of this phenomenon, but they underline the point that CSJ diversity training is based on and teaches the most potent and radical vision of diversity training that is available.
The result of all this is that if you use CSJ diversity training in your organization you will end up bringing in a version of diversity training that is both radical and ineffective. Further, given the curriculum taught within these diversity trainings, they are more likely to create CSJ activists than to create a tolerant, diverse, and effective organization.
While I can’t give you a full guide here, I think there are a couple of things you can do to ensure that you get a liberal version of diversity training rather than the CSJ alternative. As a note: the easy tells are the linguistic sign posts of CSJ and the heavy use of academic sounding jargon.
Critical Social Justice diversity training will:
Focus on “systemic” versions of power, sexism, racism, and homophobia.
Have a very heavy focus on how language makes us think.
Employ implicit-bias or implicit association tests.
Will make use of academic jargon including but not limited to: white fragility, white ignorance, implicit racism, patriarchy, cisheteronormativity, deconstruction, complicity, discourse analysis, structural inequality.
Will focus on “equity” instead of “equality”.
Will place heavy emphasis on how people are different and how they disagree or see the world differently.
Liberal diversity training will:
Emphasize that we are responsible for our actions.
Treat people as individuals rather than representatives of groups.
Seek to see the best in people.
Teach tools and give practical training for conflict resolution.
Emphasize shared humanity rather than emphasize difference and disagreement.
CSJ diversity training dresses itself up as an authentic way to create a tolerant and harmonious working environment but fails to use the frameworks, methods, practices, and ideas that might lead to one. I hope it is clear that CSJ diversity training ought to be put aside in favor of a liberal version of diversity training. It may be difficult to tell the powdered sugar of liberal diversity training apart from the flour of CSJ diversity training, but with careful examination it is possible to ensure that you select an appropriate diversity training for your organization.
There is a very old and very awful movie called The Blob. As terrible as it is (and it is really terrible) the premise of that movie provides us with a very good analogy for what happens when Critical Social Justice begins to get involved in your business or institution.
The plot of “The Blob” is very simple. A meteorite crashes in the countryside of a small town in the USA carrying a small, red, jelly-like blob. Upon crashing, the Blob begins to absorb everything it touches, growing larger, redder, and more aggressive. Everything the Blob touches is destroyed and added to the Blob’s growing size. Two teenagers attempt to warn people, but they are ignored. No one believes them until the Blob reaches a nearby city and begins to absorb entire buildings. Only then do people begin to act.
When Critical Social Justice activists become involved in a company, they will inevitably begin to redirect resources away from the mission of the company and toward Critical Social Justice. Like the Blob absorbing everything in sight in order to make itself bigger and more powerful, Critical Social Justice activists will get a foothold in an organization and absorb more and more resources as they work to make Critical Social Justice central to the function of the organization. This explains how a razor company ends up making an ad about toxic masculinity, and a shoe company ends up making public statements commenting on race relations.
The Critical Social Justice activists believe that various forms of racism, sexism, homophobia etc prevent particular identity groups from gaining equal access to resources and opportunities, thus leading to unfair outcomes. On the surface such a claim looks reasonable: surely racism, sexism, and homophobia cause tremendous strife for those on the receiving end of them. However, because Critical Social Justice does not view the world the way many of the rest of us do, a number of problems begin to crop up, and the whole thing begins to go off the rails.
Critical Social Justice activists have a vastly different understanding of racism, sexism, and homophobia than the rest of us. Critical Social Justice holds that they are not just beliefs held by individuals; rather, they are systems of oppression that have been built into the very structure of our society. In the same way that all the roads in a city interlock to form a system of roads, Critical Social Justice believes that individual racism, cultural racism, institutional racism, and all other forms of racism interlock and overlap to form a system of racism that is present through all of society.
As a result, if you were to ask a Critical Social Justice activist about racism, they would tell you that everything in society, all our art, social conventions, language, ideas, religions, political ideas, education, knitting clubs, video games, and institutions have racism baked into them and that it is not possible to avoid being socialized into a racist worldview if you are white.1 Further, they would say that because many of the people who contributed to the founding of our society and the creation of our culture held racist beliefs, culture and society is therefore totally corrupted and contaminated by racism. This view of society is paired with the doctrine of complicity which states that we all share moral responsibility for the systemic oppression (racism, sexism, homophobia etc) that Critical Social Justice thinks dominates our society. We all share responsibility for the condition of our society such that even if we ourselves have not done anything racist, we are complicit in systemic racism in virtue of our participation within the society that perpetuates it. According to Critical Social Justice, the only way to avoid being complicit in racism (or any other sort of systemic oppression) is to actively and aggressively confront it at every turn. Further, to deny the existence of systemic racism is another form of complicity.2 There are two implications that emerge from the combination of these CSJ ideas regarding systemic oppression and complicity:
Critical Social Justice activists think every organization they enter, and all the people involved with those organizations, need to be thoroughly vetted for beliefs, attitudes, prejudices and ideas that might perpetuate systemic oppression.
Critical Social Justice activists think they will be complicit in systemic oppression if they do not get their entire organization and all the people involved in it completely on board with Critical Social Justice.
Thus, Critical Social Justice activists will be highly motivated to get organizations they join on board with Critical Social Justice. In fact, many activists think spreading Critical Social Justice is their most important goal. It is merely a matter of time, therefore, before they create serious problems within the organization.
Let’s take a look at how that goes.
When Critical Social Justice begins to take root in your business the Critical Social Justice activists will usually begin with something small. They may ask that your company implement Critical Social Justice-style sensitivity training which may look a lot like typical workplace sensitivity training. However, it will teach people to see systemic oppression everywhere and in everything and to call it out whenever they can. This leads people to become hypersensitive whilst encouraging them to accuse others of racism, sexism, and homophobia for even the smallest perceived slight or misstep.
The blob of Critical Social Justice has now gotten its first resources and it has grown a little bigger and a little stronger.
Once the activists within the organization taste their first success, they will begin to pressure the company to dedicate further resources to Critical Social Justice. As they escalate, the activists may ask for further sensitivity training, they may ask for workplace harassment policies, or they may ask for remedial processes for those who are seen to have done something racist. Whatever route they go, the new training and policies will always lead to both a greater awareness of Social Justice and a greater dedication to Critical Social Justice by the employees.
Remember, the Critical Social Justice conceptualisation of progress differs from the way people typically understand progress.
Whilst we might applaud a new path that aims at rectifying genuine wrongs, Critical Social Justice is more interested in creating wrongs where there are none, and then busying itself applying “fixes” for whatever it has deemed problematic. As more people become more sensitive to Critical Social Justice concerns, they will become ever more sensitive to perceived slights and missteps while feeling ever more empowered to call other people out for those perceived slights and missteps. This leads to an increase in workplace conflict and an erosion of trust within the organization.
The blob has now eaten more resources and it is now grown even bigger, even stronger, and it wants even more resources.
The activists will begin to ask that the organization take a stand on issues related to Critical Social Justice and that the organization dedicate resources toward Social Justice activism. Activists will demand changes to employment and hiring practices, changes to the organization’s mission statement and any other changes they deem necessary for advancing the cause of Social Justice. They will use the thirst for Critical Social Justice that was created by the training they asked for as leverage in demanding that the company take a public stand on contentious social issues, and demand the company pick sides in political fights. Failure to implement these demands may cause the employees to stage walkouts or engage in strikes of the sort that happened at Google in 2018 when employees staged a walkout in part over a transparency report about sexual harassment policy during the height of the Me Too movement.3
The blob will keep absorbing resources, it will keep getting bigger and stronger, and it will use its increased strength as leverage to demand further resources.
You can see how this works: because Critical Social Justice sees oppression as being systemic, every area of the company must be vetted and every member must go through Social Justice Training. However, with each new training and each new policy, the organization members become more dedicated to Critical Social Justice and ever more willing to read systemic oppression into anything and everything.
As the organization tries to appease the members who are fast becoming Critical Social Justice activists it will alienate the members, customers, and patrons who do not agree with the Critical Social Justice activists. This leads to a divisive, hostile, and uncomfortable working environment with first-rate employees leaving the organization and long-time customers and working partners seeking out other organizations to engage with.
So, it is imperative for anyone who runs an organization to let people know that, whatever their feelings on Critical Social Justice, activists do not get to hijack the organization for the purposes of propagandizing and perpetuating it. The members of your organization must realize that they do not get to make Critical Social Justice the paradigm through which all decisions are made. This will ruffle some feathers, and there will be short-term conflict. However, for the long-term health of the organization, it is important to make sure that Critical Social Justice is not able to make itself the dominant force within your organization.
While Critical Social Justice activists may try to create bad publicity if you don’t give in to their demands, it is important to remember that bad publicity will not last long, and the damage will not be permanent.4 News cycles move quickly, the spotlight is hard to keep, and the power of activists is grossly exaggerated. As such it is better to take a stand early on and protect the integrity of the organization than to allow Critical Social Justice to get a foothold and to then have to navigate the myriad of issues created by newly empowered activists. If an organization treats people fairly, provides equal opportunity to everyone based on merit, and conducts itself with integrity, then there is no reason to allow the organization to be pushed around by Critical Social Justice activists.
If your organization comes under attack by Critical Social Justice activists, or employees try to bring Critical Social Justice into your organization, the best option is to simply refuse it access and stand your ground.5