Since I was implicated in Dr. Levinson and Dr. Shenvi’s recent exchange published on the Aquila Report, I thought I might offer some final thoughts in response. If you have not read either of the pieces, it might be helpful to start there. (“Does Critical Theory Matter for the Evangelical Church to Act for Social Justice?: A Response to Neil Shenvi” and “A Response to Dr. Levinson On Critical Theory“)
When Dr. Neil Shenvi originally published his review of Dr. Bradley Levinson’s text, Beyond Critique, he wrote the following:
Hands-down, this book is the best source I’ve found for those interested in a systematic explanation of critical theory from the pen of critical theorists themselves. (“A Short Review of Levinson’s Beyond Critique” [emphasis original])
One would think, then, that Dr. Levinson’s critique of Dr. Shenvi’s own characterization of “critical theory” would be received with all due weight; but instead, Dr. Shenvi has chosen to rely on his own perceived expertise in the field to sidestep Dr. Levinson’s correctives. I wonder if Dr. Shenvi believes his review of “dozens of books” and collection of “thousands of words of quotations from primary sources” is an advantage over Dr. Levinson’s twenty five page CV, including several books, dozens of peer reviewed articles, and thirty years of teaching in the field?
Dr. Shenvi’s first move is to claim that Dr. Levinson “doesn’t actually state that any of my four tenets are false.” This is a curious claim, given that Dr. Levinson did exactly that; he wrote,
These so-called tenets read to me as caricature. They carry minor grains of truth, but they also simplify and obscure. (“Does Critical Theory Matter for the Evangelical Church to Act for Social Justice?: A Response to Neil Shenvi”)
For each of Dr. Shenvi’s “core tenets” (see HERE), Dr. Levinson explains in what way they are indeed caricatures. And last I checked, a “caricature” is still a false representation of the original. My presumption is that Dr. Levinson’s kindness and deference to a non-specialist tempered the bluntness of his underlying critique—a temperance seized upon by Dr. Shenvi to deny the important contradictions.
1. “Contemporary Critical Theory” vs. Critical Theory?
But the meat of Shenvi’s reply, and how my own work was implicated in the discussion, is his claim that he is not in fact talking about critical theory as either I or Dr. Levinson understand it, viz., not that “critical theory” which Levinson so ably, by Shenvi’s own account, presented in Beyond Critique. As such, Dr. Levinson’s correctives, according to Shenvi, come short of their target, i.e., “contemporary critical theory.” Now, since there is no field called Contemporary Critical Theory, nor a group of scholars operating under this title, we are right to be skeptical of this manufactured category. I, for one, am very skeptical. Dr. Shenvi has been using his “four tenets” or “core tenets” to describe some theory or ideological system for quite some time now, and I don’t see how his newer list of theorists and concepts can be the exclusive content he has been attempting to characterize.
He recently stated his intended scope of characterization to be the following:
Contemporary critical theory is promoted by scholars like Robin DiAngelo (who coined the phrase ‘white fragility’), Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (who coined the phrase ‘colorblind racism’), Kimberlé Crenshaw (who coined the phrase ‘intersectionality’), and Peggy McIntosh (who popularized the phrase ‘white privilege’). (“Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism?”)
In his recent response to Levinson, he writes,
I attempt to characterize a specific subset of contemporary critical scholars who coined or popularized phrases like “white fragility,” “colorblind racism”, “white privilege”, and “intersectionality”, which permeate our culture.
So, that which he is characterizing by his four “core tenets,” dubbed Contemporary Critical Theory, is an ideology promoted by DiAngelo, Bonilla-Silva, Crenshaw, and McIntosh, and includes concepts like white fragility, colorblind racism, white privilege, and intersectionality. (Or is it yet a “subset” of these?)
Again, I find this difficult to accept. For many months now we have seen Dr. Shenvi identify the “critical theory” he is attempting to characterize in the following ways, and, in each case, apply his tenets in explanation:
Like many broad philosophical movements, critical theory can be difficult to define. It originated with the Frankfurt school in the 1930s but has evolved considerably since then. (“Critical Theory & Christianity”)
Over the last few years, new terms like “cisgender,” “intersectionality,” “heteronormativity,” “centering,” and “white fragility” have suddenly entered our cultural lexicon—seemingly out of nowhere. In reality, these words and concepts have been working their way through academia for decades, perpetuated by disciplines such as Post-Colonial Studies, Queer Theory, Critical Pedagogy, Whiteness Studies, and Critical Race Theory, among others. These fields can be placed within the larger discipline of “critical theory,” an ideology more popularly known as “cultural Marxism.” (“The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity”)
Critical theory is a set of beliefs or ideas that is foundational to many different disciplines in the humanities: Gender Studies, Cultural Studies, Critical Race Theory, Critical Pedagogy, Feminist Studies, Anthropology, Literary Criticism. It’s also the ideology at the heart of large segments of the secular, social justice movement. (“Christianity and Critical Theory—Part 1”)
People use many different terms to describe what I think is the same underlying ideology: ‘identity politics’, ‘cultural Marxism’, ‘intersectionality’. Jordan Peterson calls it: ‘postmodern Neomarxism.’ James refers to it as ‘applied postmodernism’ or by the humorous moniker ‘grievance studies.’ I personally like the term ‘critical theory.’ Academics talk routinely about ‘critical theory’ and self-identify as ‘critical theorists’ whereas I’ve never heard an academic self-identify as a ‘cultural Marxist.’ (“Notes for Unbelievable Interview with Esther O’Reilly and James Lindsay” [emphasis original])
And in the article titled, “Critical Theory Quotes,” Dr. Shenvi organizes dozens of quotes from, presumably, critical theorists around his now familiar “tenets” (though here expanded to six). Those quoted as representatives include not only DiAngelo, McIntosh, Crenshaw, and Bonilla-Silva, but Stephanie Wildman, Adrienne Davis, Michael S. Kimmel, Patricia Hill Collins, Richard Delgado, Jean Stefancic, Margaret Andersen, Jacob P. K. Gross, Beverly Tatum, Bobbie Harro, Iris Young, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Heather Hackman, Rosie Castañeda, Madeline Peters, Audre Lorde, Lauren Langman, Adrienne Rich, Ted Fleming, Mary McClintock, Suzanne Pharr, Cooper Thompson, Judith Lorber, Michelle Alexander, Ibram X. Kendi, Bell Hooks, Cherrie Moraga, and Stephen Bronner.
Again, in each of these articles, Shenvi employs one or another variant of his “core tenets” in answer to, “What is critical theory?”
Therefore, it is abundantly clear that the theory, or set of ideas, that Dr. Shenvi has been seeking to characterize with his tenets, is identified as a theory that “originated with the Frankfurt School in the 1930’s,” is a “larger” discipline which contains “Post-Colonial Studies, Queer Theory, Critical Pedagogy, Whiteness Studies, and Critical Race Theory,” is “foundational” to many fields like “Gender Studies, Cultural Studies, Critical Race Theory, Critical Pedagogy, Feminist Studies, Anthropology, Literary Criticism,” is the source of phrases like “‘cisgender,’ ‘intersectionality,’ ‘heteronormativity,’ ‘centering,’ and ‘white fragility’,” is often called “‘identity politics’, ‘cultural Marxism’, ‘intersectionality’,” and is represented by the list of an additional twenty eight diverse scholars noted above.
But—and here is a significant difficulty—I am also to believe that he has not been attempting to characterize that which most theorists simply call “critical theory,” that which Dr. Levinson wrote about in his book, nor even any known critical system like, e.g., Critical Race Theory, but rather is only seeking to characterize a small group of modern theorists and concepts?
This is pure contradiction. Either (1) Shenvi has in fact been using his “core tenets” all along to characterize a critical theory much broader, much more historical, and much more inclusive than just the subset he now identifies, or (2) he has moved his target in recent months after criticism. If (1), then how can his recent claim be true and function as an escape from Dr. Levinson’s (and my own) criticisms? If (2), then isn’t this just an obvious case of special pleading, wherein Shenvi is allowed to move his target into the path of his arrow as he sees fit in the face of criticism?
CONCLUSION 1: Either Dr. Shenvi has in fact been seeking to characterize a much broader understanding of critical theory with his tenets, or he is now moving the target to fit his characterization. If the latter, are there any parameters, or can we just create a title that sounds a lot like a common title, and add and subtract ideas and theorists which appear to “fit,” as needed?
2. “Contemporary” Critical Theorists’ Own Views of Critical Theory
As for the small group of theorists Dr. Shenvi now says he is exclusively attempting to characterize, all would be considered Critical Race Theorists (CRT’s) and all would consider themselves to be working within the CRT tradition (except, possibly, Peggy McIntosh). But Dr. Shenvi well knows that the core tenets provided by CRT theorists are not his four tenets (see his article, “What is Critical Race Theory?”). For example, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic ask in their popular Introduction to CRT, “What do critical race theorists believe?” In answer, they offer the following tenets: (1) the ordinariness of racialization, (2) interest convergence, (3) the social construction of race, (4) differential racialization, (5) intersection of identities and anti-essentialism, and (5) the “unique voice of color”—only the last of which obscurely figures into Shenvi’s construction. That is, the most obvious route to knowing what “critical theory” Crenshaw, Bonilla-Silva, McIntosh, and DiAngelo represent is blocked by the simple recognition that their tenets are not are not his. (And, of course, each of the ideas mentioned by Shenvi—colorblind racism, white privilege, intersectionality, and white fragility—were born of CRT.)
Further, these theorists give their own explanations of what broadly constitutes “critical theory”; and they are, again, not Shenvi’s. For example, Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo write in their text, Is Everyone Really Equal?:
Our analysis of social justice is based on a school of thought known as Critical Theory. Critical Theory refers to a body of scholarship that examines how society works, and is a tradition that emerged in the early part of the 20th century from a group of scholars at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany…. These theorists offered an examination and critique of society and engaged with questions about social change. Their work was guided by the belief that society should work toward the ideals of equality and social betterment.
… Critical Theory developed in part as a response to this presumed infallibility of scientific method, and raised questions about whose rationality and whose presumed objectivity underlies scientific methods.
… Efforts among scholars to understand how society works weren’t limited to the Frankfurt School; French philosophers (notably Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Lacan) were also grappling with similar questions (this broader European development of Critical Theory is sometimes called “the continental school” or “continental philosophy”).
… The logic of individual autonomy that underlies liberal humanism (the idea that people are free to make independent rational decisions that determine their own fate) was viewed as a mechanism for keeping the marginalized in their place by obscuring larger structural systems of inequality. In other words, it fooled people into believing that they had more freedom and choice than societal structures actually allow.
… Critical Theory’s analysis of how society works continues to expand and deepen as theorists from indigenous, postcolonial, racialized, and other marginalized perspectives add layers to our collective understanding. Thus, to engage in a study of society from a critical perspective, one must move beyond common sense–based opinions and begin to grapple with all the layers that these various, complex, and sometimes divergent traditions offer. (pp. 25-27)
As such, they briefly explain the nature of “critical” as an academic orientation:
By critical stance we mean those academic fields (including social justice, critical pedagogy, multicultural education, antiracist, postcolonial, and feminist approaches) that operate from the perspective that knowledge is socially constructed and that education is a political project embedded within a network of social institutions that reproduce inequality. (p. 1)
Kimberle Crenshaw, who reportedly coined the title “Critical Race Theory,” was simply borrowing the notion of “critical” already operating within Critical Legal Studies (CLS). As Crenshaw’s close collaborator Angela Harris explains,
CRT inherits from CLS a commitment to being “critical,” which in this sense means also to be “radical”—to locate problems not at the surface of doctrine but in the deep structure of American law and culture. (“The Jurisprudence of Reconstruction”)
As mentioned above, Peggy McIntosh does not even consider herself a critical theorist (nor CRT in particular), but has merely worked from her own experience of race in the workplace and academia (see “A Critical Caricature? : Dr. Peggy McIntosh Responds to Dr. Shenvi’s Characterization of Critical Theory”). Edwardo Bonilla-Silva does consider himself a Critical Race Theorist, but self-consciously operates within the loose paradigm described by Crenshaw, Delgado, Stefancic, and others, all of whom offer a description of their critical endeavors within CRT; which, again, is not Dr. Shenvi’s “core” tenets.
Since Patricia Hill Collins has been explicitly brought into the orbit of “contemporary critical theory” in Shenvi’s response to Levinson, her recent work is also helpful here. Seeking to position her understanding of Intersectionality as a critical social theory, she explores the question, What makes a theory properly “critical”? In order to answer, she reviews three critical theories thought to be paradigmatic. She begins with the Frankfurt School, arguing that,
The Critical Theory advanced by Frankfurt school scholars provides an important benchmark for subsequent discussions of critical social theory. Other perspectives build on its foundation, identifying various aspects of the concerns of Frankfurt school scholars as foundational to critical social theory writ large (Agger 2013; Bohman 2016; Calhoun 1995; Held 1980). (Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory, Location 1382)
While assessing the critical nature of Frankfurt, she zeroes in on a few identifying tenets:
Horkheimer identifies several core elements of Critical Theory that distinguish it from its traditional counterparts: (1) a distinctive theory of how social change has been and might be brought about; (2) adherence to an ethical social justice framework that aspires to better society; (3) engagement in dialectical analysis that conceptualizes critical analysis in the context of socially situated power relations; and (4) reflective accountability concerning critical theory’s own practices. Horkheimer’s discussion of Critical Theory provides a useful starting point for specifying the contours of critical social theory in general. It also provides an important set of ideas for conceptualizing the meaning of critical inquiry for intersectionality. (1314)
She then moves on to the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, zeroing in on these scholars’ cultural critique, drawn from within the wider Marxist sociological tradition (i.e., not Communism). According to Collins, CCCS scholars recognized that,
Many aspects of culture could be analyzed as social texts where meanings were not free-floating and detached from social interests, power relations, and material life. … Their work was groundbreaking in examining how subordinated groups (or classes) also used popular culture to resist their subordination. (1437)
Thus, she notes the “critical” character of their theorizing as examining the social basis for inequalities, produced and reinforced through common culture, as well as resistance movements drawing upon the same.
Last, she turns to “Francophone Social Theory,” focusing first on the critique of colonialism advanced by existentialist Algerian scholar, Franz Fanon, recognizing the critical character of his liberation efforts, and then moves on to postmodernism and poststructuralism, lauding their critique of power relations and deconstructive methods, but questioning their title to “critical theory” for lacking the commitment to an ethical core, social justice, and liberation theory, and lack of the “reflective accountability” found in the Frankfurt tradition; they are “more wedded to criticizing society than to reforming or transforming it” (3039). We could also note Collins’ emphasis on the “transformative” aim of critical theory, as opposed to the “reformative” aim of traditional theories, directly hearkening back to Crenshaw and Harris’ understanding of “critical” as moving beyond mere surface analysis—a hallmark of critical theories going back to at least Horkheimer. Throughout the book, Collins likewise argues that the union of praxis and knowledge production is an essential component of the properly “critical,” as well as the value laden and “dialogical” nature of epistemology.
In short, there is something that is properly “critical” about critical theories—something which, when lacking, disqualifies a theory, or system of ideas, from the title—at least according to actual critical theorists. And this is true whether we are talking about the critical theories of Max Horkheimer, Stuart Hall, Derek Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw, or Robin DiAngelo. Dr. Levinson offers the following helpful characterization and “defining characteristics”:
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. 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 [emphasis mine])
This is as good as any description, or list of distinguishing tenets, that I’ve seen, and captures well the “critical” nature of even Crenshaw, Bonilla-Silva, McIntosh, and DiAngelo’s work.
It is my contention that for any theory or system of ideas to be considered properly “critical,” it must at least see (1) group-wide inequalities, hierarchical social stratification, and social ills generally as not simply the product of individual policies and individual actors, but deeply ingrained in the socio-historical development of institutions, common norms, common values, cultural expressions, and relations of power which operate thereby, often with the approval and consent of both the dominant and subordinate, (2) that these “pathologies” develop through historical processes of social creation and change, and that much of the furniture of social life and knowledge are therefore constructed and conditioned imminently, and (3) that remedies require critique of the whole, and that the transformative action required to dismantle the systems and ideas which embody social dominance and pathology is inseparable from knowledge production itself. (This should be seen as consistent with the above and is presented more historically HERE.)
CONCLUSION 2: When theorists, who advance what Dr. Shenvi titles “contemporary critical theory,” give their own defining and distinguishing characteristics of “critical theory,” they simply are not Shenvi’s “core tenets.” In fact, that which makes a theory, or set of ideas, properly “critical” is notably absent.
3. Dr. Shenvi’s “Caricature”? The “Core Tenets of Contemporary Critical Theory”
Like Dr. Levinson, I also find Dr. Shenvi’s four tenets themselves to be misleading caricatures. I would here like to add a few more points to Levinson’s helpful critique.
[Tenet] 1. Society is divided into dominant, oppressor groups and subordinate, oppressed groups along lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, gender identity, etc…
First, I would note that critical theorists, whether past or present, are not attempting to invent divisions, carve people up into groups, nor haphazardly dub one group “oppressor” and another “oppressed” based upon theory or ideology. Rather, they are explicitly seeking to find the actual, local, and historical causes of EXISTING, socially constructed groups and group memberships, whatever they may be, identify the imposed hierarchies and resulting inequalities, and craft new discourses, narratives, and social actions to remediate them. Knowledge of such existing group inequities is a product of empirical research, guided by egalitarian values, and is not the product of philosophical speculation. We can demonstrate, for example, vast disparities within our own particular social context between Black and White Americans. If we commit to obscuring the socio-historical distinction between these groups, we are blinded to the deep divide along the centuries long, socially created “color-line” and are left unable to alleviate the suffering which has been engendered along it.
Along these same lines, it is also important to see that so-called “oppressor groups” and “oppressed groups” are not essentialist categories, such that, e.g., “white” or “male” equals “oppressor” as such, nor “black” or “female” equals “oppressed” as such. The point is, rather, that given a society structured to distribute advantages and disadvantages according to socially constructed group membership, dominant groups are in a structurally oppressive relation to subordinate groups, by virtue of the society’s contingent distributive structure. No one can doubt this was true of “white” and “male” throughout American history; and all should recognize that this is not true of societies structured along different lines. One need only imagine a matriarchal society to understand that it is not biology that causes “male” to equal “member of oppressor group.” Whether one lives in such a society is an empirical question, not a subject of armchair theorizing, nor even biblical exegesis. Data is needed. That society is stratified in such and such a manner is not a theoretical maxim nor tenet of any theoretical system; that existing inequalities can be understood and addressed by recognizing the nature and functioning of social stratification is.
And to Dr. Levinson’s point, Intersectionality is in fact intended to complicate the metaphor of social group membership. The argument is not that there are literally consolidated groups collected on each side of the oppressor/oppressed divide. In Angela Harris’ words,
The tendency to think about oppression as an all-or-nothing concept—one is either “an oppressor” or “a victim”—prevents us from seeing how groups can be oppressed and privileged at the same time. (“The Jurisprudence of Reconstruction”)
Patricia Hill Collins states categorically that “intersectionality is not a theory of identity” (Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory, Location 812); that is, one’s individual identity is not determined by group membership, nor is one’s individual identity determined by “oppressor” or “oppressed” group membership. Rather, Intersectionality posits that analysis of the intersecting power relations which exist among socially constructed groups (or “group identities”) can help one determine his/her location, as an individual, within the stratified social system, helping to explain the advantages and disadvantages experienced. The oppressor/oppressed group paradigm within critical theory is itself a metaphor deeply complicated by the intersectional metaphor, neither of which identifies individuals as oppressor or oppressed simpliciter, but rather helps to account for inequities resulting from in-group/out-group distributions of advantage/disadvantage according to the socially constructed hierarchical binaries discovered to be operative in a given society. To stick with the spatial metaphors, it is principally a matter of individual “social location,” not individual identity as oppressor or oppressed.
[Tenet] 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…).
I have nothing here to add to Dr. Levinson’s helpful correctives.
[Tenet] 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.
I also have nothing to add to Dr. Levinson’s correctives here. I would only suggest that both responses, viz., to “tenets” 2 and 3, be read much more carefully and taken fully into account; they are clear rejections of Shenvi’s formulations.
[Tenet] 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.
On this last “tenet”—again in addition to Levinsion’s correctives—I would only add that this “tenet,” as stated, misrepresents even those modern theorists Dr. Shenvi claims to be characterizing. That critical theorists, past or present, claim “oppressed people have special access to the truth” is highly misleading. Standpoint Theory is itself rooted in empiricist, evidentialist, epistemology. The epistemic relevance of Standpoint Theory has to do with evidence and justification, not the nature of truth, its objective character, nor its public accessibility. Rather,
The claim is that members of marginalized groups are more likely to have had experiences that are particularly epistemically salient for identifying and evaluating assumptions that have been systematically obscured or made less visible as the result of power dynamics. (Kristen Intemann, p. 791)
Or, in Sensoy and DiAngelo’s words,
Minoritized groups often have the widest view of society, in that they must understand both their own and the dominant group’s perspective—develop a double-consciousness—to succeed.” (Is Everyone Really Equal?, p. 70)
This has nothing to do with “access to truth,” and everything to do with human subjectivity, evidence, and warrant. Truth is accessible to all and equally, but socialization limits objectivity:
“I’m looking out the window and there’s a rock there, what do you mean there’s no human objectivity? A rock is a rock. I see it with my eyes.” Yes, you see a rock, but the meaning, placement, and function of the rock is dependent upon human subjectivity—what you believe about what a rock is and where it should be; what you have been taught about rocks. For example, when is a rock an expensive gem and when is it something you toss aside to clear a path? When does a rock add beauty to your home and when does it make your home dirty? (p. 27)
The problem, according to Robin DiAngelo, is simple:
If group membership is relevant, then we don’t see the world from the universal human perspective but from the perspective of a particular kind of human. (White Fragility, pp. 11)
In short, “humans cannot be 100 percent objective” (p. 81).
Even the more controversial claims, though not mentioned by Shenvi, such as the idea of white, black, male, or female “ways of knowing” are easily demystified with the above ideas in place and a corresponding recognition that epistemic power is, as a matter of fact, wielded by dominant social groups, determining intellectual values, “useful” research programs, standards of evidence, and acceptable participants, on behalf of subordinated groups. Just as we say history is written by the winners, so the present is largely written by the “winning.”
Standpoint epistemology posits that experiences and creative social action provide distinctive angles of vision on racism, heteropatriarchy, and capitalist class relations for people who are differentially privileged and penalized within such systems. … [T]he purpose of standpoint epistemology was never to become a theory of truth. Rather, standpoint epistemology is a dimension of theorizing that recognizes the significance of power relations in producing knowledge. (2863, 2939)
CONCLUSION 3: Each of Dr. Shenvi’s core tenets, as they are stated, misrepresent the ideas they are intended to characterize and/or summarize.
[Note: I am well aware that a list of quotations will be rolled out in response to my critique. It reminds me of an article I wrote a few years ago, and was published in the Aquila Report, “Surprised by Orthodoxy.” It was a healthy list of quotes from many Fathers and Doctors of the Church—about 40 pages worth—attempting to expose Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware’s ESS errors. It was well received with fantastic feedback, from everyone except actual theologians and scholars in the field. To my mind and to many lay readers, it was a “case closed” argument. To scholars it was nearly worthless, except as maybe a catalog of places to begin actual research, argument, clarification of terms, comparisons of backgrounds, differing traditions, multiplicity of metaphors, sites of equivocation, etc. In short, the quotes themselves, even a huge list of them, lacked the “thick” literary, historical, and conceptual context needed to pass as scholarship or even argument.]
4. “Core” Tenets?
Further, even if Dr. Shenvi’s tenets were thoroughly reconstructed to accurately represent the ideas of critical theorists, they still would not represent the core of any critical theory, whether “contemporary” or otherwise. They simply are not, either individually or collectively, distinguishing.
Simone Weil sums up a common assumption of many social theories, both ancient and modern, in her Oppression and Liberty (1955):
Human history is simply the history of the servitude which makes men—oppressors and oppressed alike—the plaything of the instruments of domination they themselves have manufactured…. (p. 66)
The Enlightenment was itself a project of emancipation, from the tyranny of kings, nobles, land-owners, and clergy, all by means of supposed unshackled reason (see, e.g., Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie). John Locke’s project was responding to Thomas Hobbes’ hegemonic Leviathan and Rousseau the oppression of the rich. Before Karl Marx, Babeuf wrote a “Manifesto of Equals”; Sainte-Simone, Fourier, and Owen envisioned egalitarian utopia; Blanqui, Proudhon, and Blanc critiqued the oppressive regime of private property; and Fichte and Hess constructed the basis for Hegel’s dialectic of “Master and Slave” (the “oppressor and oppressed paradigm”), later taken up by Paulo Freire.
In 1859, John Stuart Mill described the tyranny of social hegemony as “more formidable than many kinds of political oppression”
Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. (On Liberty, Ch. 1)
He notes elsewhere that “[a]ll causes, social and natural, combine” to “enslave” and oppress women in particular (“The Subjection of Women”). Likewise, Sarah Grimke argued in 1837 that chattel-slavery was itself born of patriarchy: “The lust of dominion was probably the first effect of the fall; and as there was no other intelligent being over whom to exercise it, woman was the first victim of this unhallowed passion,” classing women as “the oppressed” (“Woman Subject Only To God”).
In 1878, Frederick Douglass described America as a “society divided into two classes, as oppressed and oppressor” along the “color line” (Selected Speeches and Writings, p. 629; see also HERE). It was W.E.B. Du Bois who articulated the concept of “Double Consciousness” (1903) and “Second Sight” (1920), the basis of our modern conception of the Unique Voice of Color, and “Psychological Wage” (1935), the basis of our modern conception of White privilege, and even the field of Whiteness Studies itself, in “The Souls of White Folk” (1910) and elsewhere.
Dr. Martin King spoke and wrote often of the oppressive systems created by white men—the so-called oppressor and oppressed paradigm, as well as the epistemic relation it encompassed:
The dilemma of white America is the source and cause of the dilemma of Negro America. Just as the ambivalence of white Americans grows out of their oppressor status, the predicament of Negro Americans grows out of their oppressed status. It is impossible for white Americans to grasp the depths and dimensions of the Negro’s dilemma without understanding what it means to be a Negro in America. (Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 109; see also HERE)
Much earlier, Sojourner Truth, Mary Terrell, Nannie Burroughs, Fannie Williams, and Anna Julia Cooper wrote of the intersection of race and gender oppression and the unique voice of the Black Woman:
The colored woman of to-day occupies, one may say, a unique position in this country. … She is confronted by both a woman question and a race problem, and is as yet an unknown or an unacknowledged factor in both. …Not many can more sensibly realize and more accurately tell the weight and the fret of the ‘long dull pain’ than the open-eyed but hitherto voiceless Black Woman of America. (“Our Raison D’etre” )
Well outside the critical tradition, even modern Libertarian feminists identify patriarchy as properly “class oppression.”
There is nothing un-libertarian, then, in recognizing the existence of economic and/or cultural forms of oppression which, while they may draw sustenance from the state (and vice versa), are not reducible to state power. (“Libertarian Feminism: Can This Marriage Be Saved?”)
Modern egalitarian liberals like John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Will Kymlica, Richard Wasserstrom, and Susan Moller Okin all address oppressive relations between classes, races, gender, sexuality, and ability, but explicitly argue against critical theory. According to Liberal Feminist Elizabeth Anderson,
The proper negative aim of egalitarian justice is not to eliminate the impact of brute luck from human affairs, but to end oppression, which by definition is socially imposed. (“What is the Point of Equality?”)
And dozens of feminist (and other) theorists outside of the critical tradition have built the legacy of Standpoint Epistemology. And this all just scratches the surface, leaving out many important figures and traditions, in particular Black Liberation Theology.
CONCLUSION 4: Even if Dr. Shenvi’s “core tenets” were reconstructed to accurately represent the ideas of the critical theorists advancing “contemporary critical theory,” they still would not represent a distinguishing core of any theory or tradition.
Conclusion: Critical Theory and Evangelicalism
To conclude, why do I find it so important to write all of this? Why push back against a brother in the faith who only claims to be guarding the Church against error? Because daily pastors and laymen are attacking orthodox brothers and sisters doing the needed work of antiracism in the Church. “Critical theory” has seemingly taken the place of “Communism” in the 1950’s, “Marxism” in the 60’s and 70’, and “Cultural Marxism” in the 80’s and 90’s, functioning as an attack against justice oriented Christians, particularly those advancing racial justice and racial and ethnic reconciliation.
And the fact of the matter is, if one is going to attribute “critical theory” to a fellow evangelical’s beliefs in order to claim dangerous, illicit, and disqualifying influence, then one is required to attribute that which is distinctive to the tradition, not simply that which may be included, though common to other parallel and much earlier traditions. If one cannot reach this necessary bar, then one should simply say there are some ideas which are inconsistent with Christian doctrine and point out where fellow evangelicals have erred by adopting such ideas. I do not think Dr. Shenvi has reached this bar. I don’t believe that his “core tenets” are being employed in the manner he claims, I don’t believe the scholars he cites believe his “tenets” accurately characterize their own work, I don’t believe his “tenets” are even accurate representations as stated, and I don’t believe they are individually or collectively distinguishing of any social theory, even when properly reconstructed.
I suggest a cessation of the demagoguery surrounding critical theory, and a shift toward treating it as any other theory produced in the academy. For example, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Rationalism, Materialism, Empiricism, Idealism, Positivism, Libertarianism, Egalitarian Liberalism, Conservatism, Nationalism, Americanism, etc., are not Biblically exegeted systems; yet from them, you and I and the Church as a whole have drawn many valuable concepts, categories, and arguments. Critical theory is really no different and should be judged in the same manner.
Further, it is important to understand that critiquing one’s opponent by arguing that this or that phrase, sentence, or argument sounds like this other one, or is even a direct quote from this other tradition, does not constitute a valid critique. When I sense the Socratic method being employed, I do not say, “Hold up. You know that method is from a pagan philosopher and is built on the assumption that humans can remember the pure forms from before their spirit was imprisoned in their bodies. I will have no more of your paganism.” Nor do I assume that when someone quotes, for example, Thomas Sowell that he or she has therefore turned atheist, adopted the historical materialist eschatology of free markets, and has become captive to an alien ideology making “inroads” into the Church, rather than engage his specific argument on its merit.
Finally, Dr. Shenvi writes:
Third, I fully admit that my understanding of Christianity is based on a historic, Protestant and evangelical reading of Scripture. Dr. Levinson is quite right to call attention to that fact. While contemporary critical theory is indeed compatible with various forms of Christian mysticism or liberation theology, my contention is that it is not compatible with historic, Protestant/evangelical theology. Since that is the theology that Bradly Mason, The Gospel Coalition, The Aquila Report and I all share, it presumably goes without saying that the conflict between contemporary critical theory and evangelical Christianity is the center of our concern.
This is all sounds well and good, but a central concern of mine throughout these last couple years of discussion is that I see Shenvi’s statement above to be a case of misrecognition. I think that the contradiction being sniffed out and reacted to is not primarily between critical theory, contemporary or otherwise, and the “historic, Protestant, and evangelical reading of Scripture,” but rather between two secular and competing social theories. The modern, dominant, Western social theory of “abstract liberalism”—including ideas and values like colorblindness, mere formal equity, socially determined “merit,” radical individualism, with concepts like “racist” and “classist” defined only as aberrant, individual, intentional ill will—is not drawn from the pages of Scripture (also discussed HERE). Rather, we can study its development in American society as an historically conditioned social theory, and we can even see how it has contributed to subjugating whole people-groups and continues to deny any social means of repair. A case could even be made that Christianity is much more compatible with critical theory than it is with the abstract liberalism that has reigned throughout American history.
For example, our understanding of the Fall, sin, and corruption is much more amenable to critical theoretical methods. It is very important that Christians understand the pathological nature of sin, whether it be individual, familial, social, or systemic and institutional. We are not to be friends of “the World” which benefits and exalts the prideful, the powerful, the high, the rich, the mighty, and the oppressor. Sin has not only brought about spiritual and physical death, but sin has broken man’s community with God (Gen. 3:24-25), broken his community with neighbor (Gen. 3:16; 4:1-8; Gal. 5:14-15), corrupted his economic activity (Gen. 3:17; Isa. 3:5; Mic. 2:2), corrupted his habitation and environment (Rom. 8:19-21), and has even distorted his very mind and reason (Matt. 15:19; Rom. 1:28; Eph. 2:1-3; 4:18). A surface level critique which avoids underlying systems and structures is, Biblically, a weak critique of our collective sinful condition.
Further, the method of critique provided by critical theorists is immensely valuable for cultural, social, and political analysis by Christians. It is undoubtedly appropriate to study how our ideas and enjoyments are shaped by our daily economic activities, to acknowledge how all of life can be infected by “commodity fetish,” to agree with Postman’s critique of the culture industry in Amusing Ourselves to Death, to speak of a “culture of death,” the “sexual revolution,” the “pornification of society” (as evangelicals certainly do), and even to see that current disparities along the “color-line” have resulted from powerful historically entrenched institutions and thought patterns, that 1492 and 1619 have a lot to do with 2019, or that a single event, such as the murder of Trayvon Martin, can expose an whole historical narrative.
And it is plainly true that humanity can create and rearrange the furniture of social reality in many ways, including its artifacts, its institutions, its systems, its constructed group identities, and its thought patterns; though, of course, only within the essentialism of Biblical anthropology. But to argue, for example, that the idea of intersecting group identities shaping an individuals’ social relations and location within systems of power is somehow anti-Christian or Marxist is simply absurd. There is a reason that our Lord first revealed Himself as Messiah to an (1) unmarried, (2) Samaritan, (3) woman (Jn. 4:7-26). There is a reason that Christ taught the leaders of Israel the meaning of “neighbor” through the example of a Samaritan traveler, contrasted with a Jewish priest and Levite.
These are just a couple examples of the discussions that could be had. (For more “positives” and “negatives,” see “Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 4: Is CT Anti-Christian?.” I’d also argue that most all of what constitutes the subset, Critical Race Theory, is quite justifiable in light of the “social construction of race” thesis, but that is for another time.)
As an evangelical, I believe all ideas, truth claims, and social analyses are to be governed by the authority of the Scripture. When a member of the church at large transgresses its creeds or confessions, those specific transgressions should be addressed. Conservative Christians seem to have no problem doing this—and constantly. But this current air of critique by ideological taxonomy and cootie-ism is simply not helpful, especially when those engaging in it show no interest in actually engaging in antiracism, racial reconciliation, or confronting misogyny and class exploitation.
Those who instead engage in such critique by taxonomy, like Dr. Shenvi himself, run the immediate risk of having their mischaracterizations exposed by one side, thereby losing all credibility, and offering only rhetorical fire power to the other side, allowing them to ignore actual arguments and conclude discussions with guilt by association or illegitimate totality transfer. I’d argue that the best way forward is to critique the actual arguments of opponents. If they are wrong, show why. Defeat the arguments. Attempting to rout ideological opponents by connecting their arguments to alien traditions we consider “bad” will only appease the uninformed and bolster the rhetorical.