Why are so many people shouting that they are right, their opponents are wrong, and if they have to take to the streets to make their point and silence their foes, they will? They certainly don’t seem consumed with doubt, like a consistent postmodernist would be. Nor do they seem committed to rational democratic conversation, like the Critical Theorists.
Instead, they’re telling people like me that we’re racists and that society and all its constituent institutions need radical overhauling. They’re telling me to shut up and get on the right side of history.
What’s going on?
The previous installments in this series (starting here) position us now to encounter two similar, but quite different, phenomena: Critical Race Theory and what I call “the New Moralism.” They seem similar in that they both are confident, even insistent, and they are both confrontational, even to the point of cancelling the voices of their opponents. But they’re also deeply different: One is modern, and the other is (and this isn’t a typo) post-postmodern.
Once you grasp Critical Theory, it’s not hard to grasp Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory arose in legal studies a generation ago and has since spread to other disciplines. Convinced of the basic premise of Critical Theory—that the institutions of all societies are warped by the exploitation of the weak by the strong—certain African-Americans, and later people of other ethnic backgrounds, have looked at the American legal system and seen it to be exactly what Critical Theory would expect it to be: pervaded by racism, with the dominant Whites tilting the legal table in their favour and against their competitors (non-Whites).
Critical Race Theory then looks at other institutions and finds what it expects to find: racism everywhere, as everywhere those with power use it to alter systems to their advantage. Thus the finding of “systemic racism” is not so much a shock as a foregone conclusion. Of course, in the very nature of human interactions, there will be racism everywhere.
Critical Race Theory is thus paralleled by other forms of what we might broadly call “critical theory” (without the capital letters that denote the Frankfurt School in particular). Feminist theory comes immediately to mind, of course. Patriarchy is ubiquitous, and feminist scholars and activists thus find differential treatment of women virtually everywhere they look. Of course, in the very nature of human interactions, there will be sexism everywhere.
We likewise see similar analyses and similar condemnations of our society in terms of homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and just good old-fashioned exploitation of the poor by the rich. Of course, in the very nature of human interactions, there will be oppression everywhere.
Now, these various critiques of the ills of our culture may share with postmodernists certain critical tools that expose the tendentious ambiguities of language in the duplicities of advertising, the rationalizations of propaganda, and the org charts of corporations. Like the postmodernists, critical theorists of all stripes aim to see through the deceptive Big Stories that aim to legitimize the dominance of the powerful over their rivals.
Unlike the postmodernists, however, all such critical theorists are confident that they are simply right in their moral judgments that racism, sexism, and other prejudices and discriminations are wrong. Such judges refuse to take the postmodern turn into doubt, and instead they maintain the absolute justice of their cause. Thus they can be, and often are, confused with and labeled as postmodernists, but I trust it is plain now that they aren’t.
So convinced are critical theorists of these various sorts of their rightness, in fact, that in the name of liberalism—of freedom, of human rights, and so on—they can become fiercely illiberal. The other side is patently, venomously wrong: Why should we tolerate a single word out of their lying mouths? Why give them a platform to advance their dangerous deceits?
Meanwhile, most of the rest of us have been exposed to the radiation of postmodernity that has burned away our confidence in any One Truth, in any trustworthy authority. Modernity undermined traditional authorities, and postmodernity took care of all the rest. There is nowhere we can turn for certain knowledge.
But no one can live in a state of perpetual doubt. So we don’t.
Instead, many of us have opted for all we’ve got left—namely, our individual sense of what’s true and good and beautiful, our own intuitions. Bereft of any external source of authority, we now trust ourselves. Boy, do we.
What seems obvious to me is what I’m going with. And since I can find lots of people who agree with me (the internet is a big place) and reinforce my sense of rightness, I’m sticking with my opinion—on everything from politics to medicine, from religion to diet.
I’m entitled to my own opinion, right? Who are you to say different? No one’s going to tell me what to think or do. That’s just your opinion. I have my own truth. You have your reality and I have mine (and mine is actually real and you are sadly mistaken). And so on and so on, go the ferocious stabbings of social media.
Instead of a postmodern fog in which we all mind our business and get along as best we can, unable to be sure of anything, we have emerged into the light of . . . our own little candles, which we are treating as the Light of the World.
Thus we have the New Moralism: I’m right, you’re wrong, go to hell. And we do send people to the contemporary equivalents of hell: unfriend, block, censor, deplatform. This is the mentality of another form of “cancel culture” nowadays.
Two generations ago, in the full (modern) assurance of the correctness of their cause, communist-hunters on the right were canceling anyone they suspected of leftist sympathies: in government service, in the armed forces, in the universities, even in Hollywood. Postmodernity blew in as such confidence crumbled in the broader society, the Sixties prompted a leftwing tilt in the academy (yes, I realize that’s a pretty big generalization—explication will have to await another column…or book!), and now we have progressives on campus excoriating and deplatforming the conservatives they despise.
They might be part of the (modern) critical theorists. Or they might be post-postmodern New Moralists who just know they’re correct.
Alas, we see the equivalent on the American political and cultural right nowadays with Trump and Co. simply writing off what their critics and opponents say as “fake news.” That sort of refusal to engage, to make an actual argument, and instead attempt to simply silence the other as just obviously wrong is equally anti-democratic, and equally a manifestation of the New Moralism, as anything on the left.
In sum: Postmodernity, Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory, the New Moralism—to lump all of these phenomena together as “Cultural Marxism” or “postmodernism” is, as I trust is now clear, wildly simplistic. Contemporary culture is not just one stream, but several currents in a vast ocean flowing simultaneously—sometimes coinciding, sometimes diverging, sometimes opposing.
Thus endeth the explainer. Next week, as part 5 of this four-part series (!), I’ll suggest how Christians should find themselves agreeing with a lot of what these various viewpoints assert, even as we remain standing firm on the authority of God’s Word, a Word of good news to a searching, seething culture.