In-depth Essays


The question of whether or not there are biologically based psychological and cognitive differences between the sexes is a touchy subject in much feminist literature and increasingly—as these ideas have by now far outgrown the confines of academia—society at large. Judith Butler has gone so far as to say that sex itself is a social construct that has “no ontological status” beyond our social realities; that is, the significance of sex is socially constructed in the way we classify it. Others argue for the weaker claim that only gender is a social construct. Typically speaking, sex is thought of as one’s biology—as determined by the chromosomes one possesses and the ways in which one’s body is made up to aid sexual reproduction—and gender as the social expression or psychological traits that are typically associated with a particular sex.

Suspicion of psychological and intellectual differences between the sexes is understandable when placed in its historical context. It was not so long ago (and is still the case in many parts of the world today—as well as in many pockets of societies that have come far in gender equality) that females were thought of as inherently subservient, irrational, intellectually subpar and generally inferior to men. A lot of these ideas and stereotypes were dubiously justified by purported biological realities and used to keep women out of fields and jobs they were deemed incapable of succeeding in. It is not surprising, then, that to some the women’s liberatory project seems to necessitate demonstrating the falsity of these ideas and stereotypes by denying biologically based gender differences between the sexes and showing these differences, or ideas of differences, to be the product of socialisation. This does not have to include a Butler-esque radical suspicion of the biological categories of male and female; it merely requires a denial that such biological differences play a significant role in gender differences.

While this route is an understandable one, it can go too far. That is, if women’s liberation is deemed to only be achievable by eradicating stereotypes, one may be tempted to conclude that this involves demonstrating that women are identical to men in all ways—and that anyone who says otherwise is morally suspect or bigoted. However, from the correct claim that some ideas regarding gender differences and actual gender differences have been the product of misinformation and socialisation it does not follow that all ideas regarding gender differences and actual gender differences are the result of misinformation and socialisation. Indeed, given the years of evolutionary history that have produced the sexually dimorphic species that we are today, it would be quite startling if there were no differences in personality traits, interests, intellectual capabilities etc. between the sexes. Our cognitive and psychological traits, after all, are not under the remit of some immaterial Cartesian substance, but our physical brains.

The notion that anyone who doubts parity across all cognitive and psychological domains of the sexes is merely serving to reinforce, or reintroduce, ungrounded stereotypes we would be better off without, is misguided. Acknowledging differences between the sexes does not constitute or necessitate the disempowerment of one sex in favour of the other; in fact, I think a reasonable case can be made that—in our current times—the denial of genuine differences can send unnecessarily disempowering messages to women.

But figuring out exactly what these differences are, the degree to which they affect real world differential outcomes and the causes of these differences is much easier said than done.

Take IQ for example. With the proliferation of podcasters in recent years, I have found myself accessing ideas and thinkers through a medium I am unused to in the form of videos or recordings. As an avid book reader with a lot of love for the written word and less, so I thought, for the spoken one, my steps into this world were tentative. However, I found myself becoming enamoured with certain thinkers and speakers for their eloquence and wit in the face of situations and intellectual challenges which would have most stammering and red-faced. Watching people who surely fit the bill of “brilliance”—I am thinking here of the likes of the late Christopher Hitchens and, for people closer to my own age, Coleman Hughes and Alex O’Connor—can be something of an awe-inspiring experience and it filled me with a keen, but clearly unrealisable, desire to emulate.

For me, sometimes compounding this sense that emulation was unlikely was the realisation that not all, but almost all, of those I most admired and who filled me with that sense of awe tended to be men. There are of course many brilliant and awe-inspiring women, some of whom are in our Counterweight staff; however, the overwhelming majority of those who seemed to fit the bill of intellectual brilliance had or have an appendage that I lack. This became increasingly apparent to me once I had started accessing more and more ideas through YouTube. In reading, one is less inclined to notice the sex of the author – and therefore less inclined to ponder over their lack of appendage and whether such a state of affairs constitutes a hindrance in intellectual progression.

I started to worry if this might be caused by my own sexism. In conversations with a friend, we had both acknowledged that the really smart people we have met or looked up to tend to be men. Perhaps, though, it just seemed this way to us? Maybe we simply perceive men as smarter. Or maybe brilliant women just get less attention in general. Perhaps we are less likely to buy the books of brilliant women, listen to the podcasts of brilliant women, or invite brilliant women to debates. Perhaps we, as a society, really do have deeply ingrained biases that affected both my perception of the relative intelligence of the most intelligent men and women and the ability of brilliant women to progress.

These thoughts are quite depressing. I have always thought that men and women were of equal intelligence; both my parents have doctorates in STEM and I have precious little experience of people treating me as inferior, or assuming a lesser intelligence, due to my sex. However, the creeping suspicion started that I would never be like my heroes. This, of course, is probably true for almost everyone regardless of their sex. However, it stings a bit more when it seems like this is not the result of sheer statistical unlikelihood but the hobbling inflicted on my sex by a potentially unfair and biased society. A prejudice, in fact, that works so effectively I seemed to be sexist myself despite holding no conscious ideas of IQ differences between the sexes.

At first light, articles and research seem to support this depressing narrative; that is, that women, despite being equally capable, are not considered to be as brilliant as men. For example, in an article titled ‘We Are Biased to Think Men Are Smarter, and That Hurts Women, the author writes (referring to a study on gender bias):

“The odds of referring a woman were 38.3 percent lower when the job description mentioned brilliance,” the researchers report. This same bias was found whether the person making the recommendation was male or female. …

By many metrics, women are equal, if not superior, to men in the intellectual arena. “Girls make up over half of the children in gifted and talented programs,” the researchers note. “Women graduate from college at higher rates, as well as from master’s and doctoral programs.”

Yet the underlying prejudice persists. (It helps explain why children still think of scientists as male.) That means some of our smartest citizens are not getting the opportunities they deserve, which ultimately hurts everyone.

Bian and her colleagues point to two possible ways to fight this bias: “By changing the brilliance=men stereotype, or by making this stereotype irrelevant to decisions about employment.”

From another article, discussing a study on gender stereotypes:

“Overall, STEM fields are more likely to endorse the belief that you have to be brilliant to succeed,” he [Andrei Cimpian, the study co-author] says. “But there’s variation among the STEM fields, and that variation tracks with their diversity.” A 2015 study co-authored by Cimpian found that while women were earning around half of all PhDs in fields such as molecular biology and neuroscience, less than 20% of women were earning PhDs in physics and computer science, two disciplines commonly associated with “brilliance.” By contrast, around 70% of all PhDs in the humanities such as art history and psychology were earned by women at the time.

 

These articles and studies all seem to point towards the same conclusion: women are unfairly considered to be less brilliant than men. So, on the brink of denouncing all of western society and lamenting the unfairness imposed on me by drawing the short end of the stick of our species’ sexual dimorphism—why could I not be a clownfish?!—I came across some interesting information. There is a question in need of answering which is suspiciously lacking from consideration in these articles: are there differences between men and women when it comes to the very top end of the IQ distribution? The answer seems to be yes. While research tends to show that average IQ differences between men and women are non-existent or small—indeed, IQ tests are usually constructed so that there are no questions that advantage men over women and vice versa—there seem to be large differences between the sexes when it comes to IQ distributions. Namely, there are far more men on the extreme top end of the IQ distribution as well as the extreme low end of the IQ distribution. This means that, yes, there are more brilliant men—if we define brilliance in terms of exceptionally high IQs. However, it seems that there are more significant differences at the low end of the IQ distributions than at the high end. There is a decent amount of evidence in favour of this. See here, here, here, here and here for studies that seem to confirm the male variability hypothesis—the hypothesis that males show more variability than females in certain traits. Two of these studies are very large cross-cultural meta-analyses. Another includes two Scottish population samples of 11-year-olds, one containing around 71,000 children and the other 81,000 children. Another is a 30-year study with 1,173,350 test scores ranging over 20 years for SAT-mathematical ability and 440,369 test scores ranging over 30 years for ACT-mathematics and ACT-science.

So, is it settled? Is the male variability hypothesis confirmed and can we finally put to rest the question of biological or genetic cognitive differences between men and women? Alas, probably not. It is clear that males are more variable than females in some countries. However, disentangling nature from nurture is an often-impossible task, and it is not yet clear the degree to which these IQ differences are the product of genetic variability that is perhaps greater in men due to how they evolved for sexual competition or environmental and social factors. Indeed, it often makes little sense to pose the question as an either-or in the first place. The nature versus nurture debate is almost always a false dichotomy—the development of organisms is not so neat or easily divided into broad categories of biology versus environment. Further, the biological is indeed malleable. And, for all the countries that show homogenous findings of greater male variability, there are still some, albeit fewer, countries that some studies have found to be neutral in regards to male and female variability in IQ, and even countries that show greater female variability. Further, male variability seems to shrink to an extent as societies progress with gender equality, suggesting that IQ differences are not the sole product of genetics.

There is some conflicting information regarding the degree to which male variability tracks gender equality. One meta-analysis finds that mathematical variability correlates with gender equity measures, another meta-analysis finds that higher male variability is almost universal in countries with comparable assessments and another study finds that the shrinking of the male to female advantage in the very top end of mathematical ability (top 5%) has pretty much stopped within the last two decades. That is, it shrunk rapidly when many barriers in the way of women were taken away, and then plateaued.

Why do I always admire smart men, then? Is it because there are more men with exceptionally high IQs, and is this only a reality due to a prejudiced society, or is it the result of genetics, or, more likely, some combination of the two? Or perhaps it has less to do with IQ and more to do with average lower neuroticism in men and average increased aggression in men, helping them make it to the top of their professions in extremely competitive markets. Or perhaps it really is the result of prejudice and discrimination. In all honesty, I am unsure, and I am not convinced we have the data that will conclusively settle these issues. What I do think, however, is that finding out is important. And that these issues are unnecessarily polarised given the importance of the answers on the functioning of our society and given the fact that working out the data and sifting through the studies is genuinely hard. It will not do, for example, to fire or pressure to resign, those with whom we disagree on this topic.

Imagine, for example, that it is the case that men are genetically more variable than women, leading to far more men on the top end of the IQ scale. If we ignore this, demonise those who research it or simply suggest it as a possibility, what happens? What is the cost of viewing all disparities between the sexes as a result of bias and prejudice if they are not? Without heavy social manipulation, we will never see perfectly equitable outcomes. This means that fields in which men tend to excel will always be viewed as sexist even in a hypothetically perfect utopia of meritocracy. What does it say to a young female mathematician who is, herself, brilliant, that she will likely be received badly in the academic world, that she will be falsely perceived as less smart than those with whom she has comparable or superior ability, that she will likely fail to progress and not be suited for jobs for which she is perfectly capable? When we ignore differences in capability, we convince those who are capable that they will not be perceived as such. We bolster the view of those who are not, and never were, capable that failures are the fault of bias rather than the genetic lottery.

It is important to note that the current evidence supporting differences between the sexes at the top end of the IQ distributions does not entail that all differences of representation in academically demanding jobs are the result of these differences. Further, it does not entail that woman are always perceived as less brilliant because they are less brilliant. Even stereotypes that have at least some bases in reality are still stereotypes which are essentially shortcuts that are often wrongly applied to, and affect our perception of, those who do not fit them. Further, there is a very large degree of overlap between the sexes and certainly a lot of women with high IQs. The differences we are seeing are, at the risk of repeating myself, at the very top end of the IQ distribution which means that the majority of men and women will not be impacted in the least by these differences.

On the other hand, let’s say that greater male variability is the primary product of socialisation. First, this would not negate the importance of taking into account current differences in the IQ distribution: it would not help, for example, to force equitable outcomes at high levels if there are not enough women to successfully compete at those levels – regardless of what caused this skew. Instead, research would need to be done to determine how exactly these different distributions are coming about and what could be done to reduce them in the long term.

We must, then, be cautious of four things. One, of suppressing or denying truths that are socially unpopular, the effects of which will always play out in differential outcomes in the real world yet distort our ability to effectively deal with, and interpret, them—to the ultimate disservice of women. Two, of utilising these truths to lazily justify all differential outcomes or to ignore the effects of bias and prejudice that can result from wrongly applying knowledge of the existence of differences in IQ distribution to the individuals in front of us who should only be assessed on their individual capabilities. Third, of conflating differences in IQ distribution with proof of genetic differences between men and women. And fourth, of trying to solve complex problems with surface solutions like forced equitable outcomes.

We could all do with stepping outside of our echo-chambers when it comes to matters such as these which are prone to politicisation from both sides of the spectrum. Whether your echo-chamber more closely resembles publications like the Guardian, the “intellectual dark web”, or something more right wing, the likelihood is you are getting an incomplete picture of the issues at hand packaged up to look neater and more conclusive than the data would allow you to be.

Isobel Marston is Counterweight’s Content Coordinator & a student of philosophy at the University of Southampton.


Introduction

This article sets out some important general guidance for engaging in public debate on topics in which a significant number of people engage with the topics as sectarian extremists. By “extremist” here, I refer not so much to the nature of the beliefs espoused themselves, but rather to those who use what they know to be unethical or dishonest means of seeking to advance a political agenda[1]. The behaviours from which dishonesty can be inferred in political discourse I describe in another article. Those who espouse sectarian beliefs often behave in this way because, as I explain elsewhere, sectarian ideas are fundamentally unpersuasive to most people because, by their nature, they can appeal only to a subset of people.

Know your audience

Always aim for the right audience. The audience is not those who seek to advance a political agenda by deceit themselves: by definition, they do not have an honest belief in what they are claiming, so cannot be persuaded. The audience is people who want to understand the world as it really is but might be misled by the extremists into believing falsehoods.

The only aim in most situations of engaging directly with extremists is to show them up as dishonest to the real audience, not to persuade them – just as the aim of cross-examining a person suspected of guilt in court is not to extract a confession, but to make it obvious to the jury that the person is lying when he or she denies the crime. Where this is not a realistic outcome, do not engage directly with the extremists (except possibly to find weaknesses in their argument – see below).

Be unremittingly scrupulous

There is truly enormous social power in being untouchable by credible allegations of wrongdoing. It allows one to criticise others’ wrongdoing and call for serious consequences for that wrongdoing with total impunity.

Thus, in all aspects of all discourse, be scrupulous. Never be tempted to make or endorse a bad argument for what you believe is a true position. Subject arguments for propositions that you already believe to double the scrutiny that you apply to arguments for propositions that you initially believe to be unfounded. Do not unthinkingly adopt a position advanced by a person whom you believe to be an ally. Never do anything that amounts to dismissing an argument in spite of, rather than because of, its merits.

Check with the utmost rigour the internal consistency of your own position on everything at the highest level of abstraction[2]. Think carefully about whether any counter-arguments to beliefs that you have adopted have merit. Be prepared to change your view if you are shown to have made a mistake or if new evidence emerges.

Engage with nuance. Be prepared to state – if this be so – that a particular policy, practice or similar has good points and bad points, and be able to explain consistently with principle why the good points are good and why the bad points are bad. Do not refrain from expressing uncertainty about something about which you are genuinely uncertain.

In particular, be totally consistent on sectarianism: reject sectarian ideas because they are sectarian, not because they favour the “wrong” in-group. Reject all sectarian ideas consistently no matter who constitutes the in-group and out-group, and be explicit in so doing.

Take control of framing the discussion

Do not debate on the extremists’ terms. Those who do not engage in discussion in good faith will often seek to frame the issue in a misleading way. Do not adopt this framing when discussing the issue – instead, adopt your own framing that more accurately characterises the issues, and do this consistently.

Use words accurately (if you are on the side of reason, you will have no problem making your argument using the real definitions of words as found in dictionaries) and use a suite of relevant concepts (e.g. sectarianism) that you consider to be helpful to foster a genuine understanding of the issues.

Where referring to an extremist’s conceptualisation or terminology is unavoidable, explicitly distance yourself from accepting it by, for example, referring to it as “so-called” or similar. If there be good reason to contest the extremists’ conceptualisation, leave others in no doubt that it is contested and that there is an alternative way of understanding the issues.

Find the adversary’s weak point

One exception to the guidance not to engage directly with the extremists is to do so in order to discover the weakest point of their arguments. This is more likely to be helpful where the argument is one with which you are relatively unfamiliar.

Keep pressing the adversary civilly but with extreme analytic precision about the exact justification for each element of the argument that you do not agree with until the adversary responds with incoherency or abuse. The last point made immediately before the incoherency or abuse is usually the strongest point – i.e., the one that cannot be answered by reason.

You do not need to do this personally – this works equally well by looking at how others have interacted with these particular extremists in the past.

Focus relentlessly on this issue in future discussions of the topic and emphasise and expand on it to drive home the fundamental weaknesses in the adversary’s purported argument. Frame the whole discussion so as to maximally emphasise this weak point where this can be done without being misleading in any way.

Confound polarisation

Political extremists operate by attempting to give the impression that everyone who does not accept their claims is an extremist of an opposite kind – in other words, that those who do not accept a sectarian stance that favours one particular in-group are necessarily sectarians that favour a different in-group.

Confound this falsehood by explicitly criticising ideas of both (or all) sectarian groupings. For example, when criticising sectarianism generally, find an approximately equal number of examples of far-right as far-left sectarianism to criticise.

Those who consistently criticise only one pole of a sectarianised issue can easily be understood, even by those who are not themselves extremists, to be taking the side of the opposite pole, even if the criticisms themselves are moderate and valid. Such one-sided criticism can then be used by those of the opposite pole in support of their own extremist sectarian agenda even where this is not intended by the critic.

By contrast, anyone who explicitly criticises both poles from the same principled stance instantly confounds any attempt to portray the criticism as support for one of those poles.

Thus, even if it appears at any given time that more danger is posed by one or another pole or that there is more material to criticise from one pole or the other, it is always a mistake to ignore the other. In any event, taking a long-term view, all sectarianism is equally dangerous even if one particular in-group appears to be ascendant at present. Those who seek to take a principled stance against all sectarianism will be far more successful by putting beyond all doubt that this is what they are doing at every possible opportunity.

Solve the real problem

Sectarian extremists often hijack genuine and serious problems such as racism, poverty or crime to promote extremist agendas by claiming that the extremist measures advocated are the only solution to the problem, that the side effects (which are usually the real aim of the extremists) are worth it for the prize of solving the problem, and that no one who disagrees with their solution takes the problem seriously or even wants it to be solved at all.

Criticising the solution without offering an alternative, in cases where the problems are real, makes it hard to distinguish those who accept that the problem is real and needs solving from those who criticise the solutions as a means of trying to suppress any attempt to solve the problem because they do not really believe that it is a problem.

Confound this technique by being careful always to present in such cases a real and genuine solution to the problem. In cases where the proposed extremist solution is likely (or even intended) to be ineffective or make things worse in other ways for the people whom the purported solution is intended to help, as is common, make this explicit, and relate that extremist solution directly to the argument about why the real solution is better as concisely as possible.

Find a persuasive sound-bite

For each argument against an extremist idea, find the most succinct and clear way of summarising it in the most persuasive way. This should be done in a single sentence, e.g., “planning control impoverishes millions by artificially increasing rents and house prices,” or, “so-called ‘alternative medicine’ is a fraud which enriches its practitioners by deceiving patients”. This can take careful thought, but it is more than worth doing.

Always be prepared to argue in detail if the occasion arises, but if you can summarise your ideas succinctly, you can engage with people who would not have the motivation to read or listen to lengthy and detailed arguments.

Starting with the most succinct presentation of your argument also puts the onus on the opponent to make more detailed arguments in response, the flaws in which can then be exposed. Anyone who has the motivation to read or listen to the opponent’s detailed criticisms is likely to have equal motivation to read or listen to equally detailed rebuttals.

Conclusion

To the casual observer of any given public debate, it can be difficult to discern who is engaging in the issues with good faith and who is not and who has an argument that has some basis in reason and who does not. This is often the result intended by those not engaging in good faith, who know that, if it were easy to distinguish, nobody would take their false and deliberately harmful ideas seriously.

The techniques discussed here will, if applied consistently, confound abusive behaviours intended to cause people to accept ideas by deceit, manipulation or intimidation rather than persuasion, and circumvent dishonest attempts to confound real scrutiny. Those who engage in abusive conduct are not invincible: the fact that they have to behave abusively in order to have any chance of promulgating their ideas itself reveals a fundamental weakness in those ideas. Anyone who lies does so because he or she is vulnerable to the truth. Exploit those weaknesses and vulnerabilities relentlessly and consistently and the truth can prevail.

  1. The terrorist who uses violence to advance a political agenda is a paradigm example, but the principle of an extremist as a person who seeks to achieve political change through discreditable means encompasses also those who use dishonesty to achieve political ends.
  2. I.e., at the most abstract level possible, where it applies to the greatest number of different things. For example, if you are arguing for or against, e.g., free trade in goods, check that the reason that you believe in what you are claiming is fully consistent with the reasons that you believe in whatever views that you hold about free trade in capital and labour. Further, check that that reason is consistent with all of your other beliefs and all of the reasons that you hold those beliefs and the reasons that you consider those reasons to count as reasons. Check that it is fully coherent logically and is fully consistent with all facts about anything that you know to be true. If you find a conflict anywhere, it means that you are definitely wrong about at least some of your beliefs and need to consider very carefully what is true.

James Petts is a barrister in London who believes in the pre-eminent importance of reason in all aspects of life.


Reason and ethics

If (and insofar as) ethics is not based entirely on reason, there is no general[1] reason to be ethical. So much is a truism. The reason not to kill somebody out of anger has nothing to do with the fact that people have devised a concept of ethics and decided that killing somebody out of anger should be categorised as unethical according to that concept: it is that a world in which people are free to kill people out of anger is a much worse and more dangerous world than one in which such conduct is not practised and is prohibited. This is true not only for those who would be unlikely to kill out of anger themselves, but also for people who might be inclined to kill others out of anger.

The concept of ethics and the categorisation of anger killing as unethical is a description of the reason not to engage in that behaviour (and to punish severely instances of it in others) that exists quite independently of the intellectual work of categorising it, just as trees existed before anybody came up with the concept of a tree.

By definition, having a reason to make a particular choice means that that choice will tend to serve the ultimate goal of the agent making that choice. In the case of people, that ultimate goal is the state of having pleasant experiences[2]. A statement that a person ought to do something is a statement that a person has a sufficient reason to do that thing. Ethical statements are ultimately statements about what people ought to do, and therefore what people have reason to do. Thus, insofar as an ethical statement does not in fact disclose an already existing sufficient reason for a person to behave as directed by that statement, it is a falsehood and ought to be rejected by any person at whom it is directed.

Ethics and deceit

Human social interaction is complex. Whilst the truth of some ethical statements is quite straightforward to establish (e.g., it is unethical to kill another out of anger; it is not unethical not to bake me a cake every time that I ask for one), the truth of others is much more complex, and in many cases it is not at all obvious what the right thing to do is (what is the right level of personal taxation? To which, if any, charities should people give money? What sort of electoral system ought to be used for choosing governments?).

Dealing with complexity is challenging. History suggests that humans have a tendency to be overconfident in their beliefs and those of others in complex domains even when there is no basis at all for those beliefs. The historical practice of medicine is an example: humourism – the notion that the human body is regulated and constituted principally by the four humours, being blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm, the imbalance of which is the cause of all disease – was widely—and largely uncritically—accepted by medical practitioners without any empirical basis from the time of the ancient Greeks to the mid 19th century. Only in the 20th century did it become commonplace to test medical theories using controlled experiments and rigorous statistical analysis; before that time, it was common to rely on uncontrolled case studies or entirely untested theories. As a result, medical treatment was often positively harmful: in the mid-19th century, for example, far more women who were admitted to hospital for childbirth died of infectious disease than those who gave birth at home.

Reason and evidence based challenges to harmful established ideas often meet with abusive behaviour: the ideas of Ignaz Semmelweis, who first noticed that physicians themselves tended to spread puerperal fever to their patients and advocated hand-washing (after tests that he conducted showed that this reduced infection fatalities by 90%) were dismissed out of hand; he was removed from his post[3], and later suffered a breakdown leading to his eventual confinement to an asylum. In modern times, one might describe Semmelweis as being “cancelled”.

In medicine, there is usually no clear and direct benefit to anyone for believing in false theories; there is no doubt some cost of change in practices and learning which might affect the perceived expertise of established physicians (which may well have been the cause at least in part of the rejection of Semmelweis’s work), and, in modern times, so-called “alternative medicine” is a fraud which relies on dishonestly rejecting scientific scrutiny into its efficacy in order to enrich its practitioners at the expense of its patients, but, for the most part, nearly everybody benefits directly and relatively immediately from true advances in medicine: most people, after all, suffer ill health sometime in their lives, and, overall, physicians can make at least as much, if not more, money treating patients effectively than ineffectively (especially if they can be kept alive for longer). It is thus perhaps not surprising that the balance of incentives has favoured evidence based medicine in the long-term, which has brought immeasurable benefits to all humanity in the last century and a half.

Ethics has not been so fortunate. Like medicine, ethics is highly complex; but, unlike medicine, ethics deals in large part with conflict between people, so there is usually a stronger and more immediate incentive for people to deceive others about what counts as ethical. It is thus not surprising that the practice of ethics (and especially politics) still has a long way to go to catch up with the empirical and theoretical rigour now routine in the practice of medicine.

It is not difficult to understand the incentives that operate on people to suppress reasoned scrutiny of ethical claims. If I make a claim that it is unethical not to bake me a cake whenever I ask for one, it is in my (immediate) interests that other people not have the cognitive tools to subject that claim to scrutiny and reject it for lacking any basis. It would be in my (short-term) interests to perpetuate a whole theory of ethics which is superficially attractive to others, perhaps containing many parts that are true (e.g. the observation that people have an ethical duty to be altruistic to others at least sometimes), with the aim of deceiving people into believing that they must bake me a cake whenever I request it so as to increase my access to cake, and simultaneously to suppress the idea that ethical theories should be subject to any sort of scrutiny at all.

Whilst the example of a single person promulgating an entire ethical theory in order to obtain cake is purposely fanciful, that people tend to promote any superficially attractive ethical idea in order to advance their short-term interests at the expense of others is not; indeed, it is commonplace. Anyone who does this will tend to reject rigorous analytic scrutiny of ethics generally for the same reason that practitioners of “alternative medicine” reject scientific testing of their claims: because they know that their claims are false and cannot withstand scrutiny. Conversely, anyone who genuinely (even if mistakenly) believes her or his ethical claims to be true will welcome rigorous testing of the claims, as such a person would (of necessity) believe that those claims would pass any such test and that the passing of such a test would itself tend to vindicate the claims and thus make more people believe them. Likewise, a person acting in good faith would only want to believe the claim insofar as it is true, so would want to find out if it were in fact false. Similarly, genuine scientists who develop medical advances allow their theories and products to be tested scientifically and accept that sometimes those ideas will be falsified and the products shown to be ineffective by that process.

Ethical deceit is as harmful as it is common. It is always in a person’s interests to know the truth; the more complete and accurate one’s information of the world is, the better one can predict the consequences of one’s decisions. A person engaging in ethical deceit of another is doing something purposely in order to harm that other; if I insist that somebody else bake me a cake whenever I ask her or him to do so, and that person believes that doing so is a moral imperative and does so, that person will have spent resources on baking for somebody else which he or she could have spent on her or himself, and thus be harmed by the loss of those resources. Ethical deceit – like any form of deceit – is an inherently hostile act. Anybody engaging in ethical deceit should be considered a threat and treated accordingly.

Ethical deceit, is, of course, itself unethical. Although an individual act of deceit might benefit the deceiver, overall, for most people, including most people who would receive some immediate benefit from an act of ethical deceit, the world would be a better place if ethical deceit were never practised (and were severely punished whenever anyone attempted to practise it) than if it were practised widely. This may not be true for those who are in positions of immense concentrated power, which is one reason that it is very important to ensure that nobody ever be allowed to be in a position of immense concentrated power.

The practice of ethical deceit may properly be called pseudoethics in precisely the same way and for precisely the same reasons as deceptive purportedly scientific practice is called pseudoscience. Just as pseudoscience seeks to deceive people into believing that it is genuinely science for the personal benefit of those who promote it, so too does pseudoethics deceive people into believing that its claims are genuinely ethical for the personal benefit of its promoters.

Deceit and argument

Generally speaking, an argument is a series of connected statements that, if true, establish a proposition. A person claiming to argue that something is true is, by necessary implication, claiming that there is a sufficient reason to believe it to be true, and that is no less true of ethical statements than any other sort of statement.

If I were to say to somebody, “you should bake me a cake because my Theory of Cake says that anyone should bake me a cake when I ask them to do so and I am asking you to do so now”, I would be claiming that the Theory of Cake describes a sufficient reason that already exists for that person to bake me a cake on request. If that were not the case, the statement would be false. If, in making that statement, I knew that there is no reason to believe the Theory of Cake to be true, that statement would have been made dishonestly, and this amounts to a deliberate deceit. Further, if a person attempts to make another believe something to be true, or act as if it were true, other than by rational persuasion, then, necessarily, the person is engaging in deceit, emotional manipulation or intimidation. There is no other logical possibility as to how, but by reason, a person can cause another to believe something. Deceit, emotional manipulation or intimidation are all inherently abusive and threatening towards those at whom they are directed.

It is in every person’s interests to be able to detect whenever another person is engaging in dishonest forms of argumentation as, by doing so, people will be able to resist being deceived into believing or acting on falsehoods and thereby coming to harm. The more people who can successfully detect dishonest argumentation, the less that dishonest argumentation will be able to be effective, and the less likely that it would be that any person would come to harm as a result of third parties acting on the basis of pseudoethical falsehood.

Forms of dishonest argument – generally

All forms of dishonest argument have one essential thing in common: they aim to cause a person to accept or reject an idea or claim in spite of its merits, rather than because of them. Below, I list a number of specific common forms of dishonest argumentation, but there are likely to be many others not described here and perhaps some that have yet to be invented; but that they are dishonest forms of argumentation can in every case be discerned by analysing whether they demand that the idea or claim in question be rejected or accepted despite, rather than because of, the reason to believe it to be true or false.

There are two good heuristics[4] for telling whether a form of argument is likely to be dishonest: (1) the self-application test; and (2) the heliocentricity test. It does not necessarily follow that a form of argument failing these tests will have been made dishonestly, but dishonesty is the usual reason for an argument failing these tests and it should at the very least give rise to great suspicion of the motives of the person making the argument, and in any event, one should not take any such argument seriously.

Many forms of arguments are only susceptible to one or other of these tests, depending on the nature of the argument in question.

The self-application test

This test applies principally to very abstract arguments, such as arguments about what it means for something to be true or how it is possible to know anything – what philosophers call epistemic arguments.

The test is very simple to apply: does the argument make any sense when applied to itself? For example, if I were to argue, “there is no such thing as truth”, then applying the self-application test, one would ask, “is it true that there is no such thing as truth?”, which already reveals the contradiction. If there is no such thing as truth, then the statement “there is no such thing as truth” could not be true, and there would thus be no reason to accept it or act on it. In other words, in making a statement about anything which, by necessary implication, the maker of the statement is inviting others to accept and act on, the person who is claiming that there is no such thing as truth is implicitly contradicting the content of the statement (and the idea of the possibility of any meaningful communication of anything) itself.

By contrast, the opposite statement does not have this problem. “There is such a thing as truth”, when applied to itself, entails no contradiction and is perfectly understandable.

The heliocentricity test

Heliocentricity is the understanding that the earth orbits the sun. It is here used as an example of an uncontroversially, notoriously and demonstrably true but not intuitively obvious fact about the world. Any other fact that has these properties will equally suffice for these purposes.

This test applies principally to arguments about contingent facts about the world – what philosophers call empirical arguments.

The heliocentricity test involves taking the purported form of argumentation and applying it to the idea that the earth orbits the sun (or the claim that the earth does not orbit the sun, as appropriate in the context). Does that form of argument applied to the available evidence affirm the claim that the earth does orbit the sun and reject the claim that it does not? If the form of argumentation in question would just as readily produce the answer that the earth does not orbit the sun as that it does, it is not a trustworthy form of argumentation and is probably dishonest.

For example, if I were to argue, “nothing is true that is not obvious in plain view”, that argument would not pass the heliocentricity test, since it is not obvious that the earth orbits the sun: one has to deduce it from careful observations and measurements. In other words, if a form of (purported) reasoning used in argument fails the heliocentricity test, applying it to the question of whether the Earth orbits the sun, it would fail to distinguish the truth of the matter (viz. that the Earth does orbit the sun) from a falsehood pertaining to the subject (e.g. that the sun orbits the Earth or that neither sun nor Earth exist), being equally able to be used to support an argument as to falsehood as an argument as to truth, and therefore is of no value in distinguishing truth from falsehood.

Specific forms of dishonest argument

There are now described various forms of dishonest argumentation frequently used by practitioners of pseudoethics to deceive people into harming themselves and others for the personal enrichment of those making the arguments.

Reason denialism

Reason denialism consists in the denial of reason, its universality or its applicability to the argument in question. Reason is, by definition, universal: anything that a person describes that is not universal in the sense of being applicable to everything is simply not reason.

As set out above, an argument, by its very nature, is a claim that there is a reason to do or believe something. In making an argument, a person is, by necessary implication, invoking reason. If the argument is, in fact, devoid of reason, it is a bad argument, and one that should never be made nor accepted. For this reason, reason denialism fails both the self-application and the heliocentricity tests: if there is no such thing as reason, there is no reason to accept any argument, including the one being advanced by the pseudoethicist nor that the earth orbits the sun.

Reason denialism is almost always used defensively: very few people begin an argument by making it clear that it has no basis in reason, for such an argument would be inherently unpersuasive. Instead, reason denialism is almost invariably only invoked when some unanswerable flaw in the reasoning in the argument has been discovered. That is itself telling as to the dishonest mindset of those who engage in this behaviour. It is an attempt to stifle scrutiny of the idea, carried out precisely because the person putting forward the idea knows full well that it is incapable of withstanding scrutiny.

Reason denialism is dishonest in exactly the same way that a shopkeeper who denies the existence of arithmetic after being caught short changing customers is being dishonest. A good way of responding to anyone who engages in reason denialism in an argument is to ask whether the person accepts that nobody rational would ever accept the argument being presented. Any answer other than in the affirmative is an answer explicitly claiming there to be reason to accept the argument, and thus contradicts the reason denialism. Any answer in the affirmative is a frank admission that there is no argument at all.

A variant of reason denialism that deserves particular mention because of its subtlety is criticism of an argument for being too abstract. It fails the self-application test, since that an argument should not be too abstract is itself an argument at almost the highest possible level of abstraction. It is in reality almost always intended to stifle scrutiny of the consistency of the argument presented with other things that the person making the argument believes, or has to accept, to be true, since abstraction is usually the most effective way of checking such consistency. A person might, for example, claim that a person’s stated reason for believing that immigration should be severely restricted contradicts that person’s stated reason for believing that there should (otherwise) be free trade, pointing out that there is no fundamental difference between the freedom of trade in goods, capital and labour. A reason denialist might respond by asserting that such an argument is “too abstract” because the denialist knows that he or she is incapable of justifying all of her or his stated views in a way that are consistent with one another and therefore that her or his position is incapable of withstanding scrutiny.

Another variant of reason denialism is to claim that, because something is an opinion, it is incapable of being true or false. This might be used either by the person claiming to have the opinion in order to suppress scrutiny of the truth of the claim (on which the person almost inevitably encourages others to act), or by a person claiming that somebody else’s claim is merely an opinion and for that (purported) reason alone should not be taken seriously. This is incoherent: an opinion is no more or less than an attitude towards a claim; the claim to which it is an attitude can be true or false in the same sense that any meaningful statement, by definition, can be true or false. Those who use this technique often take advantage of the confusion between personal preference and opinions about things that are, by their very nature, either true for everyone or false for everyone; but even personal preferences are simply a fact: that one person likes Victoria sponge and another does not means that, as a matter of universal truth, different people have different degrees of liking or disliking for Victoria sponge. In reality, the concept of opinion adds nothing to any genuine attempt to understand what is and is not true about the world and what should and should not be done.

Evidence denialism

Evidence denialism consists in denying that an empirical statement (i.e. a statement about a contingent fact in the world, e.g., “it rained yesterday” rather than a statement that is true irrespective of the particular state of the world, e.g. that 1 + 1 = 2) requires evidence for there to be sufficient reason to believe it to be true.

Evidence is, by its very nature, information constituting a reason to believe the empirical claim for which it is evidence to be true. A person who makes a statement about a contingent fact in the world does so in the hope that it will be believed and acted upon. Those who make such a statement knowing that there is no evidence for it make the statement dishonestly, knowing that there is in truth no reason to believe it to be true, in just the same way as a person who says, “your house is infested with mice” is dishonest if he or she makes that statement knowing nothing about the house in question. Denying the need for evidence for a claim amounts to a frank admission of dishonesty just as if, in the previous example, the person had said, “I do not need to have any information about whether your house is infested with mice to state with confidence that your house is infested with mice”. Making an empirical statement dishonestly is simply lying, which is an inherently hostile act.

Similarly, but more subtly, those who claim that weak evidence is a reason for a strong belief are also acting dishonestly. Whilst truth is binary (something cannot be part way between being true or false), certainty is not, and exists in degrees. If, on the basis only of a weather forecast predicting a 10% chance of rain tomorrow, a person says, “it is going to rain tomorrow” without any further qualification, that person is being dishonest.

This fails the heliocentricity test, as, without careful scrutiny of the evidence, one cannot meaningfully distinguish the claim that the earth orbits the sun from the claim that the sun orbits the earth or that there are no orbiting planets or stars at all.

Redefining words

It is not uncommon for people to make an argument by using a statement containing a word which the person making the argument has (purportedly) redefined to mean something other than its established definition. Almost inevitably, the intention is (purportedly) to justify the argument by reference to the word as specially redefined, but for the argument to be understood to mean what it would mean by the word in its established definition, and acted on accordingly. For this reason, the technique is often used with words which have particular emotional or social significance, such as “rape”, for example, by claiming that pornography amounts to “rape” as redefined.

The technique is deceptive in nature: it is intended to suppress the expression or even the comprehension of the distinction between the word in its established meaning and the word in its modified sense in order to stifle criticism of treating both categories as alike. It is thus intended to deceive people into accepting claims in spite of their merits rather than to persuade people into accepting claims because of their merits and is therefore inherently abusive. On any possible view, it cannot pass the heliocentricity test as any arbitrary redefinition of “sun” “earth” or “orbit” might easily make the statement “the earth orbits the sun” false according to the words as thus redefined.

In reality, most established languages have, and the English language certainly has, more than enough words to describe anything that needs to be described without altering the meaning of any of them from that already established. A descriptive phrase consisting of several words can be used where a single word does not exist to describe a particular concept. There is thus no honest reason to make an argument using a special and non-standard definition of any word, and anyone who does so is almost certainly doing it abusively, and doubly so where, as is often the case, the person makes a statement containing a word purportedly redefined without explaining that any special definition is being used at all.[5]

Invoking personal qualities

Unless a statement is inherently about the person making it, the nature of a person making a statement is logically incapable of being relevant to the truth of the statement made. Any attempt to invoke the personal characteristics in an argument about the truth of such a statement is therefore, by its very nature, a demand that a person accept or reject the truth of a statement for a reason inherently unrelated to whether it is in fact true, and is thus dishonest.

It is often used where there is a claim that the person making the statement has some sort of bias in favour of believing it to be true, but, except in cases where the person making the statement is claiming to know that it is true by reason of some unique personal knowledge, which is exceedingly unlikely to be sufficiently empirically rigorous or general for a high confidence conclusion about a general statement about ethics in any event, a motivation for bias is logically incapable of being relevant to whether the statement is true and is thus logically incapable of amounting to a valid reason to reject it.

Either the person making the statement is able to put forward a sufficient reasoned argument and sufficiently robust empirical data to demonstrate that the statement is true or he or she is not. If there be sufficient reason and independently verifiable data to accept the statement as true, then there is sufficient reason for anyone to believe it to be true notwithstanding that the person making the statement has some motive for bias. Likewise, if there be insufficient reason and independently verifiable data to accept a statement as being true, then there is insufficient reason to accept it notwithstanding that the person making the statement has no motive for bias.

There are many instances in which people who have an incentive to be biased nonetheless happen to be correct, and many instances in which they are not. Identifying the bias is incapable by itself of differentiating the two types of cases. Just as in the case of every criminal trial, where the defendant on trial has a strong incentive to claim that he or she is not guilty whether or not that is the case, identifying the bias tells one nothing about whether the underlying claim is true, which can only reliably be deduced by rigorous analysis of the evidence and argument, just as is the case where there is no bias.

Referring to irrelevant personal qualities plainly fails the heliocentricity test, as the characteristics of the person making a statement have no possible relevance to the relationship between astronomical bodies.

Claiming to take offence

Responding to an argument or scrutiny of an argument by claiming to take offence at it, rather than by an analytic response to the substance of the argument or a true answer (rather than mere response) to a relevant question is a common and dishonest means of trying to stifle reasoned scrutiny of a claim.

That a person takes offence at an argument or question is determined entirely by a person’s (actual or claimed) emotional reaction to that argument or question, and has no bearing on the validity of the argument or relevance of the question. It is thus, by its very nature, a means of attempting to dismiss an argument or question in spite of its merits rather than because of them. A person might well deliberately choose to take offence at any idea or question that contradicts or challenges that person’s ideas precisely because it does so, and people frequently in fact behave in this way specifically in order to stifle scrutiny of the claims that they make, which, as discussed above, is inherently abusive behaviour.

Such a reaction plainly fails the heliocentricity test. If taking offence were sufficient grounds to reject the conclusion of an argument, then that the earth orbits the sun could be judged to be false if a person was so inclined as to take, or claim to take, offence at the notion of a heliocentric solar system. This, of course, was the case: in times gone past affirming heliocentricity was, according to the Catholic church, so offensive as to be heretical and was thus rejected.

This dishonest behaviour should not be confused with justified criticism of personally hostile conduct, which itself, as set out below, is a form of abusive behaviour intended dishonestly to stifle scrutiny of opposing ideas by those who well know that their claims are incapable of withstanding that scrutiny because they are false. Indeed, those who dishonestly use this technique purposely rely on this confusion in order to stifle scrutiny of their dishonest behaviour in seeking to stifle scrutiny of the argument itself.

The only intelligible way to distinguish claims to take offence with the intention of stifling discussion and a response to abusive personal hostility is by scrutiny of the behaviour rather than the reaction or feelings of the person affected by the behaviour. The question is always whether the behaviour in question is intended to be personally hostile or whether it is an honest attempt at making a reasoned argument about the substance of the matter under discussion.

Personal abuse

It should go without saying that a person who engages in personally abusive behaviour of any kind in the course of argumentation does so with the intent of imposing her or his will upon others by intimidation rather than by persuasion. There is no other conceivable motivation for such behaviour. Plainly, such abuse fails the heliocentricity test as it can equally be levelled in response to any argument.

In every case, it amounts to a frank admission that the person engaging in such conduct is utterly incapable of justifying the claim that he or she is making, and is making the claim with no belief in its truth in order to harm others for personal gain, just as a person who commits armed robbery is by necessary implication admitting that he or she has no lawful entitlement to the money or other property demanded.

Vague emotive language

Vague emotive language is usually an attempt to manipulate people into believing a falsehood to be true rather than persuading people by reason. The language is emotive because that is what is needed in order to manipulate those not alive to the dishonest nature of the technique; and it is vague because more precise statements would more obviously fail to withstand scrutiny and thus fail to manipulate.

A paradigm example of this behaviour is referring to something as “obscene” as a purported reason for taking some or other action against it. The word “obscene” has no meaning other than the expression of emotive disgust at whatever it is referring to, and thus singularly combines both features of this abusive behaviour. Demanding that action be taken because something “is obscene” amounts to demanding that action be taken because of the personal emotional state of the person making the demand, rather than because taking that action would in fact lead to the optimum result overall, even though claiming that something is a reason for taking action inherently amounts to claiming that doing so would lead to the optimum overall result.

There are also subtler uses of this abusive behaviour, a common example of which is referring to a person, set of people or organisation as “obsessed” with something merely because that person or those people believe it to be important.

It fails the heliocentricity test for exactly the same reason as claiming to take offence fails that test: the emotional state of the person making a claim or to whom a claim is communicated simply has no bearing on the truth of the claim being made (unless the claim itself is inherently about that specific person’s emotional state, but that is not possible if the claim is a general ethical statement).

General evasion

General evasion consists in various miscellaneous behaviours intended to distract a person subjecting a person’s claims to scrutiny, or a person witnessing another subject a person’s claims to scrutiny, from reaching the (true) conclusion that the person making those claims knows that he or she has no sufficient reason to believe them to be true.

It is not possible to enumerate all of the behaviours that might fall within this general technique, but they might include, for example, repeatedly changing the subject when pressed, refusing to answer questions, responding to a question with the identical question that was asked without answering the original question, responding to a question with a statement which does not amount to a genuine attempt to answer the question (a common technique employed by politicians[6]), responding to a request for evidence with a request for evidence for a wholly uncontroversial and unrelated claim rather than actually providing the evidence sought (e.g., in a discussion about whether patents are a good thing, responding to a request for evidence that patents do more good than harm by asking for evidence that a prohibition on murder does more good than harm, without providing any evidence about patents), or suggesting that the matter be discussed at a later time (but then never continuing the discussion).

All of these behaviours are evidence that the person engaging in them has made a claim which he or she knows cannot withstand scrutiny, and wishes to conceal that fact from others so that he or she can continue attempting to cause others to continue to believe those claims to be true and act accordingly. They plainly fail the heliocentricity test, since these behaviours can equally be engaged in no matter what the substance of the argument to which they are a response.

This is distinct from the behaviour of a person acting in good faith who, when faced with a novel argument, is unsure whether to accept it and needs more time to consider the matter thoroughly in order to reach a concluded view. In such circumstances, the person would not be dishonest for not responding substantively to the argument, but such a person would make it clear that he or she is genuinely uncertain about whether the novel argument is valid or whether the premises offered in favour of the conclusion are true and not continue to insist that her or his original claim be accepted.

Conclusion

The field of ethics is neither magical nor mysterious; it is as susceptible to scientific study as anything else that is real, and subjecting it to such study would benefit humanity at least as much as the scientific study of medicine has benefited humanity since medicine became scientific in its practice. Its inherent complexity is not a reason to reject analytic and empirical rigour in its study any more than the inherent complexity of the human body is capable of amounting to a reason to reject analytic and empirical rigour in the study of medicine: indeed, quite the converse, as the more complex that something is, the more difficult that it is to understand it accurately without a rigorous approach.

Those who seek to obfuscate rigorous analytical scrutiny of ethics and ethical claims almost certainly do so dishonestly, in order to deceive, manipulate and/or intimidate people into believing false things about ethics, acting on which beliefs will harm those who have those beliefs to the (short term) benefit of those who promulgate them. The promulgation of such pseudoethics is an inherently hostile behaviour; those who engage in it are a threat and should be treated accordingly, in just the same way as anyone else who lies for personal gain is a threat to the well-being of those to whom they lie or those who might be affected adversely by others who act as if the lie were true. Those with the greatest incentive to practise pseudoethics are those who have, or who seek and believe that they have a realistic chance of obtaining, a great amount of power over others and can thus influence many people to believe the pseudoethical falsehoods for their own gain, and suppress dissent and scrutiny. Thus, those who employ pseudoethics purportedly for the benefit of those who are disempowered are almost certainly lying about their motivations: the disempowered are most harmed by further concentrations of power, and most benefited by the dissipation of power as would result from widespread rejection of pseudoethics in favour of a robustly rigorous approach. Intellectual rigour tends to dissipate power just as suppression of that rigour tends to concentrate it.

It is in everyone’s interests to have the cognitive tools to be able to distinguish between genuine and false ethical claims so as not to be harmed by the promulgation of pseudoethics, nor by the equally harmful idea that ethics does not exist at all and that one should never have regard for the welfare of others when making decisions. Those who wilfully seek to obstruct rigorous analytic and empirical scrutiny of ethics are doubly malevolent: not only are they deliberately seeking to cause immediate harm to others for immediate personal gain, they are also deliberately obstructing the ultimate establishment of an ethical equilibrium which would almost certainly bring as much benefit to humanity as the advances in medicine since the mid-19th century have done.

James Petts is a barrister in London who believes in the pre-eminent importance of reason in all aspects of life.

  1. It is possible that, in specific cases, a person might have a reason to act in accordance with a conception of ethics not based on reason if this will affect others’ behaviour (e.g., to avoid being subject to some punishment), but, in such cases, the categorisation as ethical or unethical is not a sufficient reason to act in accordance with that conception; the desirability of avoiding punishment or similar is the true reason.
  2. Irrespective of the other qualities of those experiences; some people, after all, find pain pleasurable, at least in some circumstances.
  3. Strictly, his term was not renewed
  4. I.e., rules of thumb
  5. For more on the dishonest, propagandist uses of language, as well as tips on clear writing, George Orwell’s classic 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ remains the touchstone.
  6. A famous example is an occasion in May 1997 when BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman interviewed Michael Howard, then the U. K. Home Secretary, and asked 12 separate times whether Mr. Howard “threatened to overrule” a person, to which Mr. Howard repeatedly responded that he had not overruled the person in question, deliberately ignoring the reference in the questions to having threatened to do so.

 


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.


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:

Graphical user interface, text, application, email Description automatically generated

Graphical user interface, text, application Description automatically generated

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:

Graphical user interface, text, application, email Description automatically generated

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.

 


Setting the stage

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.

This is how I feel about discussing education.

Various theories about how our education systems are falling apart, being subverted by various interests, and failing our children, have circulated for years in various quarters. In fact, there is an entire industry of books claiming to know what is wrong in education.

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.

He continues:

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.

Giroux explains why he uses postmodernism in his 1992 book Border Crossings:

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:

    1. the postmodern idea that such things as knowledge, truth, objectivity and reason are not absolute and universal.
    2. 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.

Conclusion

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.

Mike Young is a Canadian thinker, writer and essayist. Follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/wokal_distance.

 


Whether you’re scrolling through Twitter, listening to your favourite podcast, or sitting on Zoom for a university class, discussions surrounding race can be found everywhere. Oftentimes these are important conversations to have. Racism, although not nearly as prevalent as it once was, still remains an ugly blemish on Western civilization, a blemish most are interested in erasing for good. So, as an open-minded, sympathetic person, you believe that discussing the issues around racial discrimination is an honourable endeavour in which we should all participate.

But perhaps, like many others, you have started to grow sceptical of some of the arguments being espoused during these conversations around race. Maybe you’re beginning to question the pretty extreme ideas that are being expressed.

You’re not sure where all of these radical views on race and racism have come from, but you do notice a commonality between everyone advocating for them: they all subscribe to something called “Critical Race Theory”.

What is Critical Race Theory (CRT)? I mean, what is it really? You may have some idea based on what you’ve heard here and there, but perhaps you’re not entirely sure of its core tenets. Alternatively, it could be that you are aware of the principles of CRT, but you don’t know much about where it came from. To many, it seems that this theory — which, in reality, is much more akin to an ideology — sprouted out from nowhere. However, an evaluation of Critical Race Theory’s evolution demonstrates that this ideology is nothing new, and has slowly been infecting our universities over the last few decades.

Critical Race Theory’s Predecessor

To gain a true understanding of the origins of Critical Race Theory, it is important to understand that it evolved from an area of academia known as Critical Legal Studies (CLS), which came to prominence in the post-civil rights era of the early 1970s.

Although CLS would not be formally founded until 1977 at a University of Wisconsin-Madison conference, the 1971 appointment of Harvard University’s first tenured black professor, Derrick Bell, was an instrumental moment in the development of CLS. Bell, a fundamental figure in the creation of Critical Race Theory, used “storytelling and a more subjective, personal voice” in his lectures to discuss and critique how the law shaped the lives of racial minorities.

Bell’s reliance on subjectivity and anecdotal evidence, as opposed to the objectivity and empiricism which is commonplace within academia, is a theme that remains constant throughout Critical Race Theory. Rather than testing the theory’s claims through data analysis, CRT scholars, and CLS scholars before them, prefer to focus on the “lived experiences” (a popular CRT trope) of black and brown Americans.

Throughout the 1970s, Bell’s method of evaluating the law grew in popularity. Increasingly more academics adopted this approach in order to criticize American legal institutions and shaped their legal ideology by borrowing from an array of radical thinkers, including Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Karl Marx. Judging by this cast of characters that inspired Critical Legal Scholars, it should be no surprise that many of them have described CLS as “a critique of objectivism, meritocracy and the prevailing liberal vision.”

The importance of this point cannot be overemphasized. Critical Race Theory’s predecessor, Critical Legal Studies, is identified by its own scholars as a critique of liberalism and its fundamental principles. The abandonment of liberalism—the foundation of our democracies which has emancipated countless individuals, ensured the protection of their inalienable rights, and given them the ability to pursue happiness—is not a small part of CLS and CRT, then. Quite the contrary, it’s a selling point of this ideology. So, how did such an illiberal movement spread throughout our universities?

Critical Legal Studies’ Transformation

Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, individuals who had self-identified as “activist professors” (certainly a red flag) began to expand the application of CLS into areas of academia beyond law classes. These activists started introducing its tenets into sociology, theology, and political science, which only increased its following.

This growth coincided with the publishing of Derrick Bell’s 1980 article in the Harvard Law Review, which is widely considered an essential text in CRT’s expansion. Bell suggested in the article that the decision of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which ended segregation in U.S public schools, was not decided for the interests of black and brown Americans; rather, the case was decided in order to serve the interests of white elites. This criticism is the foundation of one of Critical Race Theory’s key principles, which Bell called “interest convergence”.

The notion of “interest convergence” asserts that efforts to achieve progress towards racial equality are only possible when the interests of black and brown Americans converge with the interests of white Americans. Therefore, any effort by white Americans to combat racism, such as attending a Black Lives Matter protest, is not motivated by a genuine desire to help people of colour, but rather, must be inspired by selfish aspirations to advance their own white, racist agenda.

It doesn’t take someone with a PhD in psychology to see why this is a reprehensible notion. The message this sends to the students learning CRT is a troubling one: genuine progress towards racial equality is unattainable unless it serves to benefit white elites, and even when white people try to advance racial equality, they are only acting out of racist intent. More plainly, it tells white students they are racist regardless of their efforts to combat racism, and it tells black students that they need white people in order to enact change. Quite a far cry from the positive messages of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement.

The next vital moment in CRT’s evolution was when Bell resigned from Harvard to become the dean of the University of Oregon Law School in 1981. After Bell resigned, a well-respected white civil-rights scholar named Jack Greenberg was chosen by Harvard to teach Bell’s class on race. Despite the class having a majority white enrollment, the few black students in the class complained to the school administration, demanding that the school replace Greenberg with a black professor to teach the course.

Harvard stood its ground and refused to oust Greenberg in favour of a professor of color. The black students then boycotted the class and organized to have an alternative class to teach Bell’s course. The boycott was organized by another integral CRT scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw. Crenshaw is most famously known for coining the term “intersectionality”, which is the notion that people who belong to multiple marginalized groups suffer more discrimination due to their multiple identities. However, at a workshop she organized for the Harvard students in 1981, she was also the one to declare that Critical Legal Studies and the works associated with Bell’s original teachings would go by a new name: “Critical Race Theory”.

Critical Race Theory Expands

After the official creation of Critical Race Theory, it only continued to grow in popularity in the different areas of academia over the 1980s and 1990s. Two schools of thought developed amongst CRT’s scholars: “idealists” and “realists”.

Idealists believe that racism is manifested through images, words, attitudes, and social teachings within society. Therefore, racism can be dismantled by changing these elements within our world, so that the prevalence of ideas that suggest certain groups are superior or inferior to others based on their race is diminished. This perspective seems to be a rational one, so where’s the problem?

The problem lies in the fact that this school of thought is not the dominant one amongst Critical Race Theorists. The more prominent line of thinking comes from the “realists”. Realists believe racism is a means of allocating status and privilege, which all members of society constantly participate in. They also emphasize the notion that racism is not aberrant or abnormal — no, they claim that racism is typical, and is entrenched in our civilization.

In other words, racism is not an ugly blemish on our society that we can combat together. The dominant group in CRT claims that racism is perpetually embedded into all facets of the Western world, established within racial hierarchies that have been created and shaped over hundreds of years. This approach to CRT greatly outpaced the idealist school of thought and has essentially rendered the idealists a negligible faction within CRT.

Critical Race Theory experienced another milestone in 1988, when Crenshaw’s article in the Harvard Law Review criticized equal process for black and white Americans and expressed that it was “illogical” to treat members of different groups the same when some groups were treated unfairly historically.

This is no exaggeration: Kimberlé Crenshaw claimed that people should be treated differently in a court of law based on the colour of their skin, because of historical differences. This is starkly illiberal and contradicts the rule of law which is the bedrock of our civilization. It is even more concerning that Crenshaw also claimed that liberalism and its recognition of the human rights we all possess are inadequate to remedy racism because they endorse equality of opportunity, but ignore any assurance of “equality of results”. CRT openly advocates for the equality of results, the same disastrous principle which serves as the basis for communism, championed by some of history’s most hated despots, such as Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and Kim Jong-il.

CRT Today and in the Future

The completely illiberal principle of equality of outcome espoused by Crenshaw and other Critical Race Scholars throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s continues today, advocated most famously by Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, who make exorbitant amounts of money off of their ideology-ridden books such as How to Be an Anti-Racist and White Fragility, respectively. Diangelo also profits from the delivery of unscientific subconscious bias training, such as teaching Coca-Cola employees to “try to be less white” to the tune of thousands of dollars.

At the moment these words are being written, over 200 colleges and universities across all fifty of the United States are teaching CRT in one form or another. The number of U.S public schools teaching the content is uncertain, but CRT is increasingly appearing in K-12 education across the country.

This should have us all worried. However, courageous individuals are starting to fight back. More faculty members at universities and teachers in public school boards are combatting the toxic CRT epidemic that has plagued our education system. People like Jodie Shaw, Aaron Kindsvatter, and teachers in Loudoun County, Virginia are speaking out against the teaching of CRT in our schools. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis even came out recently and said that Florida would not be teaching Critical Race Theory in its schools.

This is uplifting news, but the war is certainly not won. Critical Race Theory will only be expunged from educational systems if more people have the courage to stand up against it, and express that it is not something we want to teach our children. It is absolutely necessary that we educate our youth about racism and how we must eradicate it in order to create a more just society. Racial equality is an endeavour that we should all seek to achieve, for the sake of all humanity and future generations. However, it is clear that Critical Race Theory is not suitable for tackling this problem, and we should stop its spread before it becomes any larger — and any more dangerous — than it already is.

Andrew Sansone is a freelance writer interested in politics, crime and culture. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AndrewSansone15 


Dear Editor,

During 17 years of living in various institutions for the disabled, and in the 2 years since I left, certain questions have nagged insistently at me…What changes in society are required if severe disability is either to be eradicated or to become no bar to full social participation?

Thus began a modest letter that would go on to catalyze decades of disability activism. Its author, Paul Hunt, was physically disabled and had spent much of his adult life in institutions, where he witnessed firsthand the scourge of ableism:

Countless times I have seen disabled people hurt, treated as less than people, told what to do and how to behave by those whose only claim to do this came from prejudice and their power over them.

Amidst these injustices, however, he also observed a “unique opportunity” for “those of us with unimpaired minds but severely disabled bodies” to prove that “our difference…does not lessen our worth.”

Soon after the letter’s publication, Hunt and fellow activist Vik Finkelstein founded the Union for the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) and penned a document containing a principle that would become the conceptual foundation for decades of advocacy:

In our view, it is society which disabled physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments, by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society.

Out of this document, the social model of disability was born, reframing disability as the result of interactions between one person’s impairments and a society’s norms. Since its inception, the model has played a pivotal role in the disability rights movement. The past few decades saw remarkable progress in securing rights, reducing discrimination, and improving accessibility for people with physical disabilities. In the 1990s, as the autism rights movement gained traction, advocates began to explore the model’s application to neurodevelopmental disorders.

These explorations represented a departure from UPIAS’s notion that society disabled “physically impaired people,” pointing to social norms and expectations as a source of disability for people with autism as well as being the forces that cause us to view autism as an impairment in the first place. As the neurodiversity movement grew in popularity, its agenda metastasized into an increasingly radical ideology which claims that, as articulated by Dr. Nick Walker:

The idea that there is one “normal” or “healthy” type of brain or mind…is no more valid than the idea that there is one “normal” or “right” gender, race, or culture. The classification of neurodivergence (e.g. autism, ADHD, dyslexia, bipolarity) as medical/psychiatric pathology has no valid scientific basis, and instead reflects cultural prejudice and oppresses those labeled as such.

This declaration is absurdly anti scientific and concerningly divorced from reality. By framing “neurodivergence” as problematic only because of prejudice and oppression, Walker blurs the distinction between impairment and disability that UPIAS’s founders articulated so clearly. He also suggests (and goes on to state explicitly) that medicalizing neurodivergence constitutes further oppression.

This viewpoint is unlikely to be shared by the many patients who seek medical treatment for psychiatric conditions.

However, this paradigm does appeal to a select portion of the autistic population. Despite being significantly disabled, neurodiversity advocates are generally capable of running advocacy campaigns, receiving graduate degrees, writing prolifically, and presenting to broad audiences. They tend not to have intellectual disabilities, nor do they struggle overmuch with basic communication, nor need round-the-clock care, nor represent the severe end of the autism spectrum. They see themselves as being limited primarily by social expectations, viewing their autism as a gift, not a burden, and accordingly, they are the social model’s fiercest champions. They reject attempts to “pathologize autism” and autism therapies, claiming that autism is an identity and that trying to treat an autistic patient would be akin to gay conversion therapy. They also object to the concept that autism ranges in severity, insisting that “low-functioning” autistics are no less impaired than “high-functioning” ones.

“Autistics who are normally called low-functioning may need 24/7 care…[b]ut that doesn’t make them any less intelligent…,” one advocate earnestly explains. “I can hear some parents saying: ‘but some adults ARE low-functioning. They still cannot care for themselves.’… My answer: neither can Stephen Hawking,” writes another. These objections betray a troubling willingness to overlook intellectual disability and embrace fantasies of unlimited autistic potential, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. Autism is associated with a wide range of challenges that take an immense toll on individuals’ and families’ wellbeing, including wandering, aggression, self-injury, psychiatric crises, gastrointestinal issues, sleep disorders, and more. None of this negates the devastating effects of stigma and discrimination, but to claim that these challenges are all caused by “society” is simply absurd. By dismissing problems related to intellectual impairment, we risk further harming an already neglected and underserved population. And yet, neurodiversity advocates continue to insist that there is nothing intrinsically impairing or problematic about being autistic, that everyone on the spectrum is perfect just the way they are, that if only the world were “designed by autistics,” every person with autism would thrive.

As the definition of impairment shrinks, that of oppression expands. Just as racism can now be identified in everything from bra names to math equations, woke disability activists discover proof of ableism everywhere. Neurodiversity organizations such as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network pursue valuable advocacy efforts, but they also embrace a Critical Social Justice-based worldview wherein resolving oppression is no longer just a question of securing tangible rights or outlawing explicit discrimination. Rather, it is a matter of liberation involving the Sisyphean task of eradicating every trace of so-called ableism while simultaneously finding ableism everywhere. During my own stint as an activist, I excelled in the art of problematizing everything, spending inordinate amounts of time bemoaning the problematic nature of Netflix shows, research agendas, and everything in between. Needless to say, my complaints about the unfairness of the above phenomena hardly endeared me to potential allies.

Left unchecked, the conflation of annoying phenomena with intractable oppression leads to counterproductive forms of advocacy that rise beyond the level of petty disputes, actively interfering with efforts to secure meaningful progress toward disability rights. Sometimes, this takes the form of hostility toward advocacy groups and autism researchers, who are blamed for contributing to a “pathology paradigm” and widespread ableism. Autism Speaks, with its undoubtable history of espousing dubious viewpoints on vaccines and insistence on using person-first language, is a favorite punching bag. It’s perfectly reasonable for autistic people to object to the organization’s history, but accusations of eugenics and genocide are hyperbolic, to say the least, and when neurodiversity activists insist on boycotting Autism Speaks, they are attempting to channel money away from supporting autism caregivers in underserved communities, hosting thousands of autism-friendly events, and advocating for autism insurance benefits covering millions of people.

Hatred toward Autism Speaks remains a primary staple of neurodiversity advocacy, but activists have developed extensive repertoires over the years. From calls to disbar doctors who conducted an innocuous study on the grounds that it “traumatized” autistic children, whom the researchers didn’t see as “fully human” to ongoing controversy about applied behavior analysis, which neurodiversity advocates describe as invariably abusive and torturous to the insistence that technologies and interventions designed to help autistic adults find jobs are actually a form of gaslighting and trauma, there is no shortage of battles to pick. Autistics bemoan neurotypicals’ tendency to “silence autistics” and regard people on the spectrum as “the real autism experts.” But when activists pick apart every word for evidence of ableism, use their own experiences to make sweeping generalizations, and shut dissenters out of the conversation, is it any wonder they aren’t taken seriously?

Most concerning, however, is the extraordinary viciousness that neurodiversity advocates demonstrate toward anyone whose perspective happens to contradict theirs. At best, dissenters are deemed ableists and told to stay in their lane or check their privilege. At worst, online mobs will launch spectacularly hateful campaigns against the supposed ableist, accusing them of silencing “actually autistic” voices (even when the person in question is themself actually autistic). Often, the targets of this abuse are the parents of severely autistic children who share their experiences to raise awareness about the challenges of severe autism and instead find themselves being blamed for their children’s conditions.

A typical example of these disputes arose in 2018, after a parent posted a photo on Facebook depicting the backseat of her car, which her severely autistic son had ripped up, with the hashtag #AuthenticAwareness. Neurodiversity activists pounced, with a neurodiversity news site publishing a lengthy blog post accusing “autism parents” of indulging in a “feedback loop of woe” and “digital exhibitionism” after they “los[e] the emotional and physical wherewithal to support their disabled member’s family needs.” Its author outlines the six stages of this loop, wherein the parents of severely disabled children “make every disability-related challenge…about them,” “constantly express pain through digital exhibitionism,” and risk “escalating to violence towards the targeted disabled family members.” To summarize, for the mere crime of sharing her family’s story, this woman was labeled an evil bigot on the path to violent crime.

The social model constitutes a valuable framework for understanding disability, but neurodiversity advocates have neglected the goal of acceptance in favor of harassing and silencing dissenters. Hyperbolic declarations about “autistic liberation” and petty squabbles over slogans distract from serious disability issues and alienate potential allies. While Twitter users fret over logos and semantics, people with autism struggle to find jobs, are unable to access health services, face bullying and abuse, fall behind in distance learning, and are at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19. This is the ableism that the neurodiversity movement ought to be fighting.

Exchanging extreme interpretations of the social model of disability for a more moderate alternative would make space for heterodoxy in conversations about autism and facilitate multifaceted solutions to the problems at hand. By emphasizing the distinction between impairment and disability–and recognizing that this distinction may not always be clear-cut–we can address the social causes of actual oppression without denying the impairment that autism inherently confers. Additionally, we should allow for a diversity of viewpoints on autism, acknowledging that there is no one-size-fits-all explanation for disability. Developing a more moderate set of positions could garner greater support for the cause without scaring off those who are rightly perturbed by the current excesses of the neurodiversity movement.

Despite all the progress made in disability rights, autistic people continue to face prejudice and injustice on top of their neurological impairments. It’s time for the neurodiversity movement to abandon its radicalism or risk being part of this very intolerance.

Lucy Kross Wallace is an undergraduate at Stanford University. She blogs at lucidity.site.

On what do we disagree?

This is a question which admits many answers. We might offer the safety of vaccines, the cause of COVID-19 or the best way to achieve social justice, to name but a few points of contention in 2021. In fact, entertain pretty much any belief that you hold to be true and—no matter how much you think the evidence points to the unquestionable veracity of your belief—somebody will disagree. What I find interesting, however, is when topics become so emotionally charged that people all over the place apparently—and vehementlydisagree over moral issues to an authoritarian-stifle-your-opponent-extent, when I am convinced their morals are really not so far apart. Our discussions around racism often work like this. For this phenomenon, the more interesting question becomes: on what do we agree, and further, why have we found ourselves disagreeing?

Before we answer these questions, let’s take a step back and explore how disagreements can serve to help or harm a given society, how the current disagreements around racism are falling into the ‘harm’ category, and why finding at least some ethical consensus in this domain is vital for the functionality of our society.

 

The social significance of disagreement

That members of the human race find themselves in constant states of disagreement with one another is indisputable (challenge me if you like, you will only be supporting my point). From genetic dispositions and personality traits to personal life experiences and even indoctrination, one will find no lack of sources to point at and blame for such a state of affairs. Luckily though, throughout the western world disagreement and conflict are much less likely to degenerate into violence than in times gone past. Since all of you reading this have survived thus far, and have probably had your fair share of disagreements, it seems that it is not disputes per se that are inherently dangerous and threatening. Instead, it is how differences of opinion are handled that distinguishes a society liable to degenerate into intra-societal tribalism and warfare at the drop of a hat, from one that can capitalise on differing opinions to the advantage of everyone.

The latter is the ideal of a liberal society.

Liberal societies are predicated upon viewpoint diversity and utilise disagreements to keep hashing out ideas until we find the ones that work best, whilst allowing people the freedom to retain their own personal beliefs. Upholding freedom of belief is crucial for functional societies since it serves to circumvent the outbreak of violence and repression that can occur when we start to think that everyone ought to believe what we believe, and that they should be made to do so by any means necessary. Of course, the totalitarian impulse can still rear its head when it comes to sensitive moral issues; it becomes harder to respect another’s freedom of belief if, say, that belief is one in which torturing a child or killing a puppy is thought to be justifiable. But the belief, if it has not transformed into action, is still one that people have the right to hold.

In our current discussions regarding racism, we can see this totalitarian impulse raising its head.

Emotion, hysteria and endless moralising are entrenched within the topic of racism, and understandably so, but, whilst understandable, this state of affairs is hardly optimal. Why? The political orthodoxy on matters of race no longer allows for disagreement. So, not only are people being pressured to accept things that they don’t believe to be true, but important social issues that require varied perspectives if there is to be any hope of progress, are being viewed through a one-sided lens.

The justification for rigid etiquette on what can, or cannot, be said about race and racism is grounded in the moral importance of the cause. When fighting for liberation, you know your cause is morally good, you know those who oppose you are morally bad, and therefore there is no time for nuance or liberalism when lives are at stake. The problem, then, is that when people begin to feel that they are operating from the unequivocal moral high ground and that anyone who dissents is morally bankrupt, they begin to think that their own morality must be imposed onto the world and that all dissenting views must be stifled.

This, of course, is an untenable belief to enact in a liberal and free society. We all know what can happen when we ditch individual freedom and autonomy in favour of the “common good”. Consequently, finding ethical consensus can help to ameliorate totalitarian impulses by humanising those who think differently to us. So, let’s apply this to the racism debate by figuring out what we are disagreeing about, why we are disagreeing and how we might resolve at least some of those disagreements to find some ethical consensus.

 

The redefinition of terms

So, what exactly are we disagreeing about?

In the cacophony of polarised voices that have become the defining feature of our cultural times—and, indeed, our Twitter feeds—one might be forgiven for thinking that those on either side of the loudest debates are operating from ethical frameworks that share very little in common. In fact, they cannot even agree on what constitutes immoral treatment of a particular race. After all, the “woke”—a term I use with some hesitancy for its propensity to simplify and homogenise a wider variety of voices than it is sometimes credited for—are ardently against racism. The “anti-woke” also claim to be ardently against racism. It is the racism of “wokeness” that often leads people to become aggressively “anti-woke”.

What is going on here?

The explanation for such a phenomenon is already out there. It goes something like this: we do not all mean the same things by our terms anymore. Words like racism have been weaponised by a linguistic sleight of hand. The redefinition of racism has two main ramifications in that it changes a) who can actually be racist and b) what constitutes racism.

Let’s begin with (a): who can be racist?

Those who buy into Critical Race Theory (CRT) think that people without power cannot be racist, and they hold that determining who has power and who doesn’t can be figured out by the quantity of melanin in a person’s skin. The reasoning for such a position rests on the view that we live in a white supremacist system; racism operates on a systemic level and thus cannot be reduced to the attitude of any one individual. Whilst a black person’s prejudice might be unpleasant, a white person’s prejudice serves to perpetuate social inequality. Consequently, the former cannot be a case of racism, whereas the latter can be. Those who use the traditional definition of racism tend to think that anyone can be racist since they believe it to be a racially prejudiced attitude that an individual holds. Thus, Critical Race Theorists are fine with making derogatory or stereotypical statements about race, as long as that race is white people.

Now, let’s move on to (b): what constitutes racism?

For CRT, what constitutes racism is, at the risk of sounding facetious, pretty much anything. Any unequal outcomes are racist, subtle body language is racist, things that feel racist are racist, not being actively anti-racist is racist, science is racist, believing in the principle of colour-blindness is racist. You get the point. Those who utilise the traditional definition of racism have a much more specific state of affairs mapped out for determining what constitutes racism: that is, an act that is prejudiced or discriminatory against a particular group and individuals within it on the basis of their membership in a particular group, where the group is defined racially.

Consequently, the paradox of both sides thinking the other is racist partially parallels what is sometimes called a “merely verbal dispute”, in so far as the paradox dissolves when you realise they mean something different by their terms. Except, in this case, the dispute is clearly not merely verbal. If we were all using the same unambiguous terms, the conflict would not simply resolve itself and vanish into thin air. For at least some of the population, however, I am inclined to think that while the disagreement can be traced back to these terminological differences, it is not the result of buying into the CRT definition of racism; instead, it is born out of ignorance that such a radical redefinition has even gone on. For this group, at least, using agreed upon terms might just dissolve the dispute.

 

How the redefinition of terms misleads us

Few among us would be quick to stand in the way of a movement that advocates for social justice, yet support for such movements often comes too quickly due to a paucity of knowledge regarding the different approaches to it. Critical Social Justice (CSJ) has diametrically opposed starting assumptions and values to Liberal Social Justice. Thus, it seems likely that, for some of us, our differences would fall apart if we were working from the same brute facts, instead of accepting second-hand interpretations of reality, as conceived by CSJ activists.

Take, for example, the frenzied debates over cancel culture and its existence, or lack thereof. Some hold that it would be more aptly named “consequence culture” and is therefore morally justified (of course, the moral righteousness of a mob has dubious ethical standing if our history is anything to go by). If those who condone or dismiss cancel culture took the time to look into the unveiled circumstances—as opposed to relying on hyperbolic hit pieces—that have caused some to be fired, censured and lacking in job security due to allegations of racism or bigotry, I am sure a lot of them would think, like I do, that “consequence culture” or “cancel culture” is not something that ought to be frivolously dismissed as nothing to worry about.

After all, oftentimes those who come under the “woke” banner do not really ascribe to different theories of truth or spend their time reading obscure philosophy and arguing about the merits of differing accounts of social constructivism. Not everyone is concluding “that’s racist” because they mean something different by racism; instead, they have heard—from people who truly do have a different definition of racism—that something racist is happening. They assume it’s true and then they parrot it. Maybe they have read a scathing article denouncing all those right-wing white men that are intent on silencing the oppressed by circulating delusory fantasies of censorship. Since the free-speech debate is certainly not new (and can often be more delusion than reality), they assume that the current furore over cancel culture is just more of the same.

However, you can see here for a list of around 90 people de-platformed, cancelled, or fired within British academia and here for a list of around 100 cancelled academics in America and Canada. The sins that have led to ruined reputations, loss of jobs, de-platforming, and public shaming range from positing that the police are not all inherently racist, to suggesting that college students can decide on their own Halloween costumes or indeed for simply writing an essay about the importance of academic freedom. The problem far surpasses the realm of academia and celebrity culture; these are simply the most high-profile and easy to track cases.

So, how many among those who condone cancel culture would really think that all police are racist? Or that writing an essay on academic freedom is a fireable offense? I am willing to bet not as many as it might appear. For some, our differences are not primarily moral or ideological, but informational. We are not armed with the same facts.

At a stretch, I think this point may be extended even to those who have settled on different definitions of racism.

 

How dodgy information encourages acceptance of redefined terms

Ask yourself, why might individuals have accepted the CRT conception of racism in the first place?

If we keep our answer in relation to the average person, thus excluding the enthralling nature of Foucault’s prose from the equation, we might better understand why CRT’s assessment of society has been accepted by people who are unlikely to be familiar with the academic literature of CRT.

Put simply: it provides a ready-made explanation as to why certain identity groups do not do as well as others within our society. When our social feeds were overflowing with videos of black men being brutalised by the police, some explanation was called for. Discrimination is illegal. Racist views have been deemed socially unacceptable by the majority of society. How is this happening in the 21st century?

The answer: racism works through an invisible power system, perpetuated by hidden biases, discourses and institutions. When we are bombarded with statistics showing time and time again that black people do worse than white people, it seems like racism must be everywhere, we just cannot see it. So, we listen to the “experts”. We accept redefinitions of racism because it appears unavoidable that traditional definitions of racism are not sufficient to fill the explanatory gap that has opened up.

Of course, unequal outcomes and police brutality are not nearly as black and white—pardon the pun—as they are presented in the media and Facebook or Twitter posts (those well-known sources of accurate, objective information). Since the realities of these two topics require careful consideration, I do not have the space to go in-depth within this article. However, Coleman Hughes wrote an excellent piece in Quillette, The Racism Treadmill, on what he calls the disparity fallacy, elucidating why it is a mistake to assume that unequal outcomes are always the result of discrimination. Further, our most current evidence to date, a study conducted by Roland G. Fryer, Jr., indicates that racial bias is not an all-pervasive force that leads to the state-sanctioned killing of black men by the police. In fact, they found no evidence of racial bias when it came to white police shooting black men.

Maybe if everyone knew this, then they would be less likely to accept the new definition of racism. Unfortunately, once a particular worldview has become entrenched, it is usually resistant to change on the basis of new information.

 

Cause for hope

Whilst the above paints a pretty drab picture of the discourse on race, I do think, probably naively, that not agreeing on the same facts might give us at least some reason to be optimistic. Perhaps it is not the case that our morals or principles are miles apart from one another. Perhaps we just think we know different things, and as such have different perspectives. If this is the case, then we have a lot in common. Both I and those who dismiss cancel culture think that people ought to lose their jobs if they commit objectively racist acts. Both I and the BLM supporters think that black lives matter and that racially motivated state-sanctioned killing is morally reprehensible. Both I and those who fight for (Critical) Social Justice abhor the notion of white supremacy and believe that a person’s worth is not determined by their immutable characteristics. I could go on; in the ethical domain, we have more points of consensus than we do disagreement.

To be clear, I am not trying to imply that if we all knew the same things, we would all think the same things, nor am I trying to imply that such a state of affairs is desirable. It isn’t. However, in trying to understand how we each got to our conclusions and perspectives and in trying to find points of consensus between those with radically different world views, communication is made possible once more. It’s hard to engage in real debate when you assume your opponent is bad, morally bankrupt or totally absurd.

No matter how vast and unbridgeable our divides may seem, creating caricatures of our opposition is unlikely to do us any favours. When I see the views I share being denounced as “fascist” or “racist”, I resist the urge to dehumanise my opposition in the way some of them might do to me. I bear no ill will to people who have been misled by redefinitions or people who accept redefinitions on the basis of their access to dubious “facts”. I assume they are operating from similar moral landscapes to my own until I have good reason to believe otherwise. I simply hope that in time—and with the concerted effort of the swathes of people who are interested in unearthing the truth—more people might come to see that our differences are really not so great.

 

Isobel Marston is a student of philosophy at the University of Southampton and the Content Coordinator for Counterweight.