Given that neither Dr. Neil Shenvi nor I are experts in any critical theory (CT) fields, I’ve opened up some email conversations with actual CT scholars while in dialogue with Shenvi, in order to test our readings of their texts. Dr. Bradley A. U. Levinson has been particularly helpful and willing to offer clarifications and direction. Dr. Levinson is a professor in Indiana University’s department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, as well as the author of a fantastic overview of historic and modern critical theories, Beyond Critique : Exploring Critical Social Theories and Education, and is sourced throughout Dr. Shenvi’s own attempted reconstructions of CT. (Levinson’s many contributions to the field can be viewed in his twenty five page CV.) In addition, he has proven to be a gracious and generous person.
I presented Dr. Levinson with Dr. Shenvi’s fourfold construction of the supposed “core tenets” of modern critical theories as found in his, “Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism? – A Dialogue with Bradly Mason, Part 1,” as well as his, “Christianity and Critical Theory – Part 1,” wherein he attempts to answer, “What is critical theory and why should we care?” (Levinson was already aware of Shenvi’s review of Beyond Critique.) In addition to stating, “I thought you do a fine job yourself of challenging his ‘tenets’” (see HERE), Dr. Levinson offered his own response to Shenvi’s construction, printed by permission in full below.
I do believe that insight from CT scholars themselves is important to this continued discussion, especially with respect to proper characterization of their work, as potentially faulty language finds its way into church documents, resolutions, and popular Christian conceptions.
Finally, though I have many comments of my own on the response below, I will save them for another post to ensure that I in no way color Dr. Levinson’s words, nor offer my own representations.
Shenvi makes a move that has become all too familiar to those of us with close ties to faith-based liberation traditions. Like most Christian evangelicals, he arrogates to his own tradition the term “Christianity.” He then easily overlooks or discards the many other Christian traditions, from Roman Catholicism to mainline Protestant sects to Christian mystics and humanists. Only evangelicals are true Christians. Given the inherent dogmatism of such doctrinaire fundamentalists like Shenvi (those who argue from unprovable first principles and never question the absolute truth of their tradition’s interpretation of the Holy Bible), there may well be a fundamental incompatibility here, since one of critical theory’s hallmarks is a radical reflexivity and openness to historical contingency. As an outsider to this faith community, I cannot decide the question of compatibility. What I can do, however, is try to indicate where Shenvi misunderstands or mis-characterizes the tenets of critical social theories, as I understand them.
The core tenets of contemporary critical theory are:
1. Society is divided into dominant, oppressor groups and subordinate, oppressed groups along lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, gender identity, etc…
2. Oppression is not defined only in terms of violence, but in terms of dominant groups (whites, the rich, men, heterosexuals, Christians, etc…) imposing their values on subordinate groups (people of color, the poor, women, LGBTQ+ individuals, non-Christians, etc…).
3. We should expose and dismantle the values and structures of dominant groups. Racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and transphobia are all forms of oppression that must be dismantled.
4. ‘Social location’ determines our access to truth. In particular, oppressed people have special access to the truth through their lived experience, while members of oppressor groups are blinded by their privilege.”
These so-called tenets read to me as caricature. They carry minor grains of truth, but they simplify and obscure. Moreover, they highlight certain authors in recent traditions of feminism and Critical Race Theory who are themselves subject to much debate and criticism within a politics of social justice. Yet Shenvi insists that these are the “manifestation of critical theory that’s most relevant to our current culture.”
1. The whole notion of intersectionality is meant to trouble and complicate the notion that there are easily identifiable dominant and oppressed “groups.” While some contemporary versions of feminism or critical race theory indulge in fairly rigid categorical thinking, my view of the critical theory enterprise is one that emphasizes the fluidity of such categories. See, for example, the interesting historical literature on how the Irish (or the Jews, or the Italians) “became” white.
2. It is true that critical theory draws attention to the ideological dimensions of domination and injustice, which Shenvi clumsily defines as “dominant groups…imposing their values on subordinate groups.” In his review of my book, Shenvi cites a section where I offer the following as one of the “defining characteristics” of critical social theories: “the assumed need to dismantle and critique taken-for-granted ideologies, to challenge the ‘false consciousness’ … or ‘misrecognition’… that enables social domination.” He also focuses quite a bit on the notion of “hegemony” as first articulated by Antonio Gramsci. Yet I would remind the reader that our book was written primarily for a certain kind of scholar researching aspects of the educational process. Since education is a common vehicle for purveying ideologies qua knowledge, this aspect was highlighted. Yet any complete critical theory of justice acknowledges the spectrum of forces of domination, ranging from outright repression (“violence”) to manipulation of economic and political procedures, all the way down to the “internalized colonizer” who reproduces self-hate through the most intimate of educational gestures. Such forces often work synergistically, but they may have their own histories and trajectories.
Thus, to understand and explain the persistence of racial inequality in schooling, one may examine how textbooks and teacher practices convey ideologies of racial inferiority, but one must also look to state legislative chicanery that abets segregation and creates or deepens resource disparities, as well as the corporate interests that encourage or facilitate such policies through funding organizations like ALEC (just as in the larger political domain, the rise of Trumpism can only be fully explained if an ideological analysis of Trump’s discourse deflecting the source of white working class anger and suffering from rapacious capitalists like Trump himself onto poor immigrants and ethnic “others,” is married to an analysis of tactics of voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the pernicious effects of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that has allowed so much unchecked money to flow into the electoral and regulatory process). In other words, critical theory tends to stake out the ideological dimension of power because it’s so often overlooked, but any critical analysis of power must examine the whole array of mechanisms, both material and ideological, that maintain domination.
3. OK, more or less. But again, values and structures don’t properly “belong” to particular groups. By “dismantling” ideologies and mechanisms that sustain inequality and domination, we are creating a more just society in which ALL become freer.
4. Shenvi only articulates what is called the “strong” version of standpoint epistemology, which might sustain that those who occupy a given position in the social structure (or raced/gendered/queered etc. body) see the “truth” of that structure in a way no others can. Yet most critical theorists in fact sustain a weaker version of standpoint epistemology—one that grants the uniquely powerful insights that the oppressed may have about the nature and quality of their oppression, as a corrective to the often arrogant assumptions of “objective” social science. Critical theorists would indeed sustain that whites tend to be socialized into ideologies that deny racial privilege (i.e., they are “blind”), but it would be self-defeating to believe that this situation is not correctible through humility, self-reflection, and education. Similarly, there are plenty of those who experience racial discrimination but who, because of their own ideological education, blame themselves for their condition rather than a pernicious social structure.
We must remember that the social sciences consist of highly conscious and enculturated organisms studying other conscious, enculturated organisms. The procedures of the natural sciences are often transferred over to the social sciences, with the presumption that we can study and predict the “laws” of human society just as we might the natural world. But critical theory rightly insists, along with a broader interpretive and pragmatic tradition (e.g., W. Dilthey, P. Ricoeur, J. Dewey), that humans studying humans requires a kind of procedural reflexivity often lacking in mainstream social science.
Dr. Bradley A. U. Levinson
And last, just to be 100% sure, I did ask one final clarification question of Dr. Levinson: “If Shenvi’s four ‘tenets’ were accurately stated, would they properly represent the ‘core’ of critical social theory, or would they—again, if accurately stated—merely represent some ideas included in CT’s, though also common to other traditions?” Dr. Levinson replied:
Tough to say how they might be more “accurately stated.” In any case, no, I don’t think they capture the “core” of critical social theories. I think the Intro to my book gets closer to doing that “properly.”
Here is a salient portion from the “Intro” Dr. Levinson refers to:
So what do these theoretical traditions have in common, and what enables us to be audacious enough to call them all “critical,” when their influences and assumptions may otherwise be so varied? Perhaps it is best to articulate this in terms of common values and common goals. Here are a few that might inform a critical project, just for starters:
- Participatory democracy and self-determination
- Social justice, equity, and respect for human dignity across lines of cultural difference such as class, nation, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and the like
- A redistributive, sustainable, and community-oriented economy
- Equality of economic and educational opportunity and an abatement of severe income inequalities
- Environmental awareness and responsibility
- Critical awareness of power and social interdependence
This is a dangerous list, we realize, in the sense that it projects certain values of the present onto thinkers of the past. Few critical theorists would selfconsciously embrace all these values and goals; certainly, Antonio Gramsci (Chapter 2) was not an environmentalist, nor was Horkheimer a great proponent of gender equity. Some, like Foucault (chapter 5), might even reject these values, insofar as they represent a singular normative vision. Still, we suggest that such a list provides a handy reference for the contemporary critical theorist. And if you share most of the values and goals just articulated, then you may well be a critical social theorist, too!
But of course values and normative goals are not enough to identify a critical social theorist.A lot of “liberal positivists” may in fact share such goals. [Emphasis mine] So we have to go a bit further, into the procedural realm. Following Agger (2006, 4–5) and Allan (2005, 16), we would add just a few more defining characteristics. Critical social theory is driven by
- “value-rationality” rather than instrumental rationality. In other words, it is not neutral in reference to values and has a definite (though not teleological) conception of “progress” and the social good, often a utopian vision or concept of “liberation.”
- the assumed need to dismantle and critique taken-for-granted ideologies, to challenge the “false consciousness” (Lukács) or “misrecognition” (Bourdieu) that enables social domination.
- an understanding of domination as structural yet dialectically connected to agency in people’s “everyday lives.”
(Beyond Critique, pp. 10-11)