Due to the rapid and catastrophic global expansion of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, viruses and their modes of operation are currently on nearly everyone’s mind. People who didn’t already understand some of the basics of virology are learning that viruses exploit healthy, living cells and turn them into factories that make new raw materials—especially proteins and genetic material, strands of virus RNA in riboviruses like coronaviruses—that then assemble themselves into new viruses and flood surrounding tissues and cells as the host cell eventually ruptures. This process then repeats with increasing severity and consequences until the host dies or, hopefully, until the host’s immune system learns to recognize the virus for what it is and destroys it. It’s a fascinating process and, as many have pointed out, a useful metaphor.
For example, in 2016, two feminist scholars, Breanne Fahs and Michael Karger, published an academic paper in a relatively small academic journal carrying the title “Women’s Studies as Virus: Institutional Feminism, Affect, and the Projection of Danger.” In that paper, Fahs and Karger make the point that Women’s studies should see itself through this metaphor of the virus, comparing the “discipline” in favorable terms to other plagues like Ebola and HIV. Lest you think I exaggerate this claim, let me quote them on it. In their abstract, they write,
This paper theorizes that one future pedagogical priority of women’s studies is to train students not only to master a body of knowledge but also to serve as symbolic “viruses” that infect, unsettle, and disrupt traditional and entrenched fields. In this essay, we first posit how the metaphor of the virus in part exemplifies an ideal feminist pedagogy, and we then investigate how both women’s studies and the spread of actual viruses (e.g., Ebola, HIV) produce similar kinds of emotional responses in others. (abstract)
The paper genuinely endorses this view, discussing specifically ways in which viruses infect hosts, leave behind traces of genetic material that can lead to cancers and other health problems (thus, rendering them “transformative,” I kid you not), and illustrating ways in which viruses are opportunistic and exploit or even increase the inherent weaknesses in the systems they attack (this, and again, I kid you not, is cast in a favorable light for the metaphor as it applies to Critical Social Justice initiatives). Eventually, the paper concludes,
Women’s studies as an infectious discipline—one that serves not only as a virus that attaches to the “host” bodies of other disciplines and disrupts and infects them, but one that fundamentally alters the cell’s blueprint and directs it to a new purpose—might accurately describe the kinds of work that the field could prioritize and embrace (or, in any case, should prioritize and should embrace). Women’s studies students and the fields they infect and disrupt both gain from such an arrangement. As Clough & Puar (2012) noted, “In its replications, the virus does not remain the same, nor does that which it confronts and transits through” (p. 14). Just as women’s studies has gained much from its institutional status, it has also lost some of its “bite” (a problem this essay takes up). Further, if women’s studies also works to train students to become their own kinds of viruses, capable of infecting, disrupting, unsettling, and altering their own spaces (at work, home, in relationships, and in their communities), perhaps framing women’s studies as dangerous may actually prove useful and interesting. Dangerous things, after all, transform not only through destruction, but also through imagining and redirecting toward something new. (pp. 945–946)
Before I continue, let me pause to recover, given just how incredible it is to be reading this right now. Maybe you need the minute too…
Okay, I think my work is more or less done for me now because what I wanted to convince you of in this article is that critical theories are themselves a virus on the liberal body politic, and trying to make the case is a lot easier when you have people working in that school not only characterizing the view but actively and positively endorsing it for themselves. Nevertheless, I feel like I should explain further.
In brief, to get my thesis out there from the start, my claim is that liberal societies function in particular ways and have adopted particular norms, values, and patterns that simultaneously render them highly adaptive and effective amongst human societies but also uniquely susceptible to certain perversions of those norms, values, and patterns. Furthermore, critical theories represent a highly evolved, extraordinarily effective means by which those norms, values, and patterns can be perverted and turned into a kind infectious agent for which the viral metaphor is almost perfect. Thus, we see liberal societies like those throughout the democratic West particularly susceptible to infection by critical theories, including the postmodern adaptation for the purposes of achieving “Social Justice” that I have named Critical Social Justice. For this “virus,” we need a liberal immune response (critical thinking) that minimizes its influence while keeping the liberal body politic intact and healthy. (Of note, I do not think critical theories are the only such virus with this dangerous capacity against which we need immunity, but it is on these that this essay focuses.)
Understanding Critical Theories
Critical theories, you have to understand, are not the same thing as critical thinking. In fact, scholars in Critical Social Justice, especially pedagogy (theory of education) and epistemology (theory of knowledge), are often keen to explain that they’re not the same thing. Whereas we have this general idea that critical thinking has something to do with using (often thoughtful, informed, perspicacious) criticism to improve our ideas and to better understand objective reality, we have critical educators like Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo explaining critical theories in these terms:
An approach based on critical theory calls into question the idea that “objectivity” is desirable, or even possible. The term used to describe this way of thinking about knowledge is that knowledge is socially constructed. When we refer to knowledge as socially constructed, we mean that knowledge is reflective of the values and interests of those who produce it. This term captures the understanding that all content and all means of knowledge are connected to social context. (Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition, p. 7)
Meanwhile, critical whiteness educator Alison Bailey explains (here, quoting at some length) in a 2017 paper in the feminist philosophy giant Hypatia,
Philosophers of education have long made the distinction between critical thinking and critical pedagogy. Both literatures appeal to the value of being “critical” in the sense that instructors should cultivate in students a more cautious approach to accepting common beliefs at face value. Both traditions share the concern that learners generally lack the ability to spot inaccurate, misleading, incomplete, or blatantly false claims. They also share a sense that learning a particular set of critical skills has a corrective, humanizing, and liberatory effect. The traditions, however, part ways over their definition of “critical.” … The critical-thinking tradition is concerned primarily with epistemic adequacy. To be critical is to show good judgment in recognizing when arguments are faulty, assertions lack evidence, truth claims appeal to unreliable sources, or concepts are sloppily crafted and applied. For critical thinkers, the problem is that people fail to “examine the assumptions, commitments, and logic of daily life… the basic problem is irrational, illogical, and unexamined living” (Burbules and Berk 1999, 46). In this tradition sloppy claims can be identified and fixed by learning to apply the tools of formal and informal logic correctly.
Critical pedagogy begins from a different set of assumptions rooted in the neo-Marxian literature on critical theory commonly associated with the Frankfurt School. Here, the critical learner is someone who is empowered and motivated to seek justice and emancipation. Critical pedagogy regards the claims that students make in response to social-justice issues not as propositions to be assessed for their truth value, but as expressions of power that function to re-inscribe and perpetuate social inequalities. Its mission is to teach students ways of identifying and mapping how power shapes our understandings of the world. This is the first step toward resisting and transforming social injustices. By interrogating the politics of knowledge-production, this tradition also calls into question the uses of the accepted critical-thinking toolkit to determine epistemic adequacy. To extend Audre Lorde’s classic metaphor, the tools of the critical-thinking tradition (for example, validity, soundness, conceptual clarity) cannot dismantle the master’s house: they can temporarily beat the master at Alison Bailey 881 his own game, but they can never bring about any enduring structural change (Lorde 1984, 112). They fail because the critical thinker’s toolkit is commonly invoked in particular settings, at particular times to reassert power: those adept with the tools often use them to restore an order that assures their comfort. They can be habitually invoked to defend our epistemic home terrains. (“Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes.” Hypatia, 32(4), 2017: 876–892, pp. 881–882.)
Bailey isn’t really mincing words here, and, indeed, she makes it plain that the traditions, methods, values, and approaches that we associate with liberalism and critical thinking are views as part of the problem from within critical pedagogy, which is to say from within critical theories themselves. Epistemic adequacy—which is a fancy way to say knowing what you’re talking about and having good reasons to believe you know what you’re talking about—is construed as a part of the unjust system (the “master’s tools”) that cannot bring down the “master’s house,” i.e., the system, as Audre Lorde famously put it. For that, you need critical methods.
Thus, and I mean this right down to the word they use to describe how they think, as Bailey observes here, critical theories are meant to look a lot like critical thinking while actually seeking to supplant critical thinking by modifying subtly what is meant by the word “critical.” Bailey tells us explicitly that the goal is to shift away from the rationalist, liberal, Enlightenment notion of criticism to adopt “neo-Marxian” ideas about “critical” thought. These come most specifically from the philosophy of Max Horkheimer in the Frankfurt School, a neo-Marxist and post-communist think tank that had the goal of advancing Marx’s thought by understanding his ideas culturally rather than economically and approaching them psychologically through the (unfalsifiable) psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud.
Horkheimer detailed the differences between a “Traditional Theory,” which, in brief, seeks to understand the phenomenon it describes, and a “Critical Theory,” which seeks to identify problematics within it according to the Neo-Marxist ideology. He did this in a 1937 treatise set perfectly to the purpose titled Traditional and Critical Theory, which sought to distinguish the two approaches. Critical Theory was named as such following the idea of Marxian critique (“ruthless criticism of everything that exists”) in the pursuit of dialectical materialism, which in turn was derived, with a particular purpose attached to it, from the Counter-Enlightenment project of Immanuel Kant (Critique of Pure Reason) centuries earlier (NB: this point is complex).
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes Horkheimer’s take on critical theories as possessing all of three essential characteristics: “it must be explanatory, practical, and normative, all at the same time.” That is, it must
- “explain what is wrong with current social reality,” which is to say identify problematics according to the Neo-Marxist view of social reality,
- “identify the actors to change it,” which is to say generate activists for this vision, and
- “provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation,” which is to say to set out the Neo-Marxist social vision and outline for activism.
From this description, it’s immediately clear that critical theory is a different kind of project than critical thinking. It is, in fact, one that, as Bailey tells us, though expressed in terms perhaps more familiar to Neo-Marxist thought, must resist, disrupt, dismantle, and subvert critical thinking because critical thinking is already part of the existing hegemonic system of dominance that defines society. Thus, critical theory has the goal of infecting critical thinking and turning it into critical theorizing in order to undermine the hegemony that is Theorized to have been built into the existing “knowing field” (Bailey’s term) or “fabric of society” (Sensoy and DiAngelo’s).
The metaphor of the virus is almost perfect for this circumstance, then, isn’t it? The liberal knowledge-production and education systems depend upon a concept called “critical thinking” that derives roughly (with amendments) from the Enlightenment rationalist perspective that elevates reason and eventually the empirical sciences as our best conduits toward understanding objective reality. Thus, criticism is a foundational point of liberal systems, and critical theory is the way to subvert it to different means and specific ends.
Critical theories, then come along claiming that our understanding of “critical” is, in fact, in error and needs to be updated and eventually replaced with its (Neo-Marxist) understanding of criticism, which was explicitly anti-liberal from the start. That is, the critical theoretic genetic material injects itself into the liberal host and starts to create critical theorists who, rather than pushing for critical thinking, say they are doing so while meaning that they’re awakening a Neo-Marxist “critical consciousness,” thus making more critical theorists to do their work for them. And isn’t this exactly what Fahs and Karger described in their paper about women’s studies?
The liberal system, because it is built upon accepting self-criticism, avoids the absolute elevation of any person or idea, and refuses to declare any idea absolutely settled (see Rauch, 1992 on this), is inherently capable of generating progress. It is, in fact, typically progressive, in the usual, not politicized, sense of the term, though progress can be both slow and saw-toothed, with many setbacks and wrong turns along the way. The idea, however, is that when we allow checking of each by each, and we don’t naively declare by fiat anyone or any idea to be absolutely and permanently correct, we tend to find serviceable if not correct answers to questions about the world, society, and how to organize these.
As a slight diversion (that’s probably worthy of its own essay at some point), this is because liberal systems have dropped the arrogance not of believing that absolute truth is obtainable, but that it’s even relevant to the question. You’ll notice that this seems to echo Sensoy and DiAngelo’s point above: “An approach based on critical theory calls into question the idea that ‘objectivity’ is desirable, or even possible.” My goal in this diversion will be to remove the critical perversion from this otherwise worthy and important observation; thinking about “truth” in the wrong way is a damaging distraction that leaves us highly susceptible to this virus.
Whatever hay the critical theorists, especially the postmodernism-empowered ones we face today in Critical Social Justice, wish to make about whether or not objectivity is desirable or possible in order to make room for their subjective nonsense, there is a point, a little golden needle, that can be rescued from their stack. It’s a point that few of us are distracted by, including our philosophers of science and, especially, our scientists, now that we were forced to reckon with it. This is because a useful and broadly accepted view of “truth” is ultimately pragmatic, even without getting lost in the unhelpful “if it’s useful, it’s kinda ‘true’”-weeds that pragmatism is too wont to get lost in. It is this: what we mean by “true” isn’t some absolute quality; it’s making statements about objective reality upon which we can bet and reliably win—and this enhanced by a simple recognition that when our statements about reality describe what’s really going on there better, those bets will also be more reliable.
This, I think you’ll agree, gives no quarter to postmodernist and critical nonsense about the radical locality of knowledge, the radical denigration of objectivity, and the radical elevation of subjectivity. That is a view that isn’t just unhelpful but positively damaging because it denies our ability to know things and favors personal—and political—interpretation over understanding, which matters rather a lot when the people promoting it also recommend thinking critically, meaning with a critical consciousness, meaning thinking like critical theorists and with their politics.
Incredibly important diversion aside, by seeking truth (making statements about objective reality upon which we can bet and reliably win), we reliably generate progress. That is, in fact, a great deal of what “winning” means here. We can come to understand that we can manipulate our environment and develop powerful tools to do it. With this, we can do and have done great good, as the scientific response to our current Covid-19 pandemic is demonstrating. We can also mess up. We can acknowledge that this included the capacity to manipulate our fellow human beings, including by forcing them into bondage with our superior technological capabilities. We can then learn from our mistakes and move progressively beyond them, by coming to understand why this is a mistake, not only on practical grounds but also on moral ones, and take the necessary steps to correct that mistake and do better. Of course, we can also make reasoned counterfactual arguments about how it all would have been better off—and it very likely would have been—had we never had to learn those lessons through the ugly realities of our history, and we can use those to advise ourselves to be more prudent in our applications of power and technology in the future. (As a less morally valent example, the world would undoubtedly have been better off had we learned all of the safety and management lessons pertinent to the Chernobyl disaster without seeing the reactor actually melt down to teach us the lesson, and yet realizing this can’t change that it did.) This is all part of progress, liberal progress.
The critical theoretical method, at best, injects its critical genetic code into this process, bogs it down, and misdirects it. This is because critical theories tend to see progress as a myth, part of a broader liberal ideology that seeks to obscure the failures of liberalism and to protect the interests of those who hold power and influence within the system. For example, rather than understanding that the Atlantic Slave Trade was a horror that has generated long-lasting impacts, one of which was the abolition of slavery in liberal states—which has existed in various forms in every other human society and still exists in illiberal ones today—the critical method posits slavery and the social architectures that enabled it to be permanent features that still dramatically shape a mostly unchanged society today. As Fahs and Karger state, the critical approach, “as an infectious discipline—one that serves not only as a virus that attaches to the ‘host’ bodies of other disciplines and disrupts and infects them, but one that fundamentally alters the cell’s blueprint and directs it to a new purpose—might accurately describe the kinds of work that the field could prioritize and embrace (or, in any case, should prioritize and should embrace).”
Ultimately, it isn’t just the fact that liberal systems allow for self-correction that renders them progressive, of course. It is even more relevant that they are intrinsically organized to prevent the tyranny of the many upon the few, and thus they tend to be set up in ways that fundamentally care about the injustices faced by the “little people.” The majority is strong, of course, and establishing and ensuring rights, especially for those with less enfranchisement in the system—whether because of economic or, far less now, identity-based social standing—so this feature of liberalism can be intolerably (and deadly) slow, even seemingly unconscionable in many respects, but it is nevertheless core to the liberal project, which has always existed to speak truth to unjust power and to enable the less-enfranchised to have more of a shot against it. Freedom of speech, for example, is one of the most important devices in human history to enable the weak to stand up to the strong.
This is another site where critical theories inject their genetic material and pervert the liberal impulse. Generally speaking, liberalism is bent toward the humanitarian and egalitarian side of human nature, and progressive liberalism openly values these features. As Jonathan Rauch notes, these impulses can easily overtake the liberalism that enables them to thrive (for they tend to die rather rapidly without a backbone of liberalism that protects them). Indeed, it is in these impulses, some of the best of human nature, that critical theory is most able to act virally and “transformatively” redirect the direction of a society.
Rauch names a key feature of this problem the “radical egalitarian principle,” which insists that rather than adopting a solid core of liberalism, we should radically give favortism to the views and opportunities of those who have been historically, systemically, or institutionally disenfranchised, or who are now. It’s the idea of egalitarianism turned into reparative or even retributive activism. This is, ultimately, the injection of a kind of viral genetic material into the liberal body politic that leads a liberal people to sometimes distort how they think and feel about issues, to care too much about certain problems, as it happens. He compares this against a weaker strain of the same problem, the “egalitarian principle,” which urges us to consider all ideas equally, with no particular regard for expertise, methodology, or rigor, and says it’s enhanced by a “humanitarian principle” that our ideas should do no harm.
Where Alison Bailey, who I quoted above, describes critical thinking as part of the deeply problematic “master’s tools,” this is one feature of what she’s talking about. This is because the view from critical theories, especially the Critical Social Justice side that has strongly taken up the radical egalitarian principle, is that the existing tools in society, by claiming not to care at all about the source of information but only the methods that have established it, in truth only care about that information that furthers its current, local, and biased self-interests. This is because the critical view doesn’t seek to understand or even improve methodologies that lead us to knowledge and progress; it seeks only to infect them with a pernicious belief that those methodologies were invented to serve the selfish (identity-based) interests of the people in the identity groups who created them. Thus, they speak of “white science” and “Western knowledge” as though these ideas possess only political, not methodological, superiority to others that they tend to outcompete, even when used by non-white people outside of Western contexts, and they attempt to claim for themselves the noble legacies of the civil rights movements, which are antithetical to all but their most superficial moral impulses.
This really is best understood as an injection of viral RNA into the liberal system, turning us away from the means and methods that can produce liberal progress toward seeing them as just another form of political dominance and exploitation by white, Western, men. The virus is seeing everything through this kind of political and politicizing lens, and by infecting one field of thought, work, or life after another, critical methods spread exactly like viruses do. They infect those susceptible cells they can (maybe the theoretical humanities in the academy, maybe sociology, maybe academic publishing, maybe aspects of the media) and then convert those liberal organs into critical theory virus-producing machines that eventually spread the virus to other cells and organs, one by one, claiming to “wake them up” to a better purpose, from their perspective: creating more viruses.
Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it. They say it themselves, and would shout it from the rooftops, if that were more effective than teaching it in every school system, college, and university in the Western world. Fahs and Karger and everyone who has cited them do, at any rate:
The notion of women’s studies as dangerous and infectious implies, much like the metaphor of the virus, that it has permanently altered its host’s DNA and has radically upset its environment. This process reveals the danger of dismantling the status quo by introducing feminist pedagogies into the corporate university. Perhaps women’s studies could, now and in the future, embrace as a true accomplishment the infection of traditional spaces both within and outside the academy. It has, in part, already done so, but we argue that women’s studies could push this political position even further. For example, resituating women’s studies as an exuberant contagion, one that disregards a pre-determined canon of thought and instead prioritizes a fusion of activism and scholarship, could transform its self-understanding and political priorities. Accepting these possibilities rather than trying to be safe, respectable, and accommodating represents important territory in the future of feminism. (pp. 944–945)
The Need for a Liberal Vaccine
It is the best impulses and features of liberalism that critical theories in general and Critical Social Justice in particular seek to exploit, infect, and pervert to their own ends, which would undo the liberal order and all of modernity in favor of a Neo-Marxist dystopia founded (or, foundering) on identity politics and postmodernist anti-intellectualism. This means that defending ourselves against it as societies requires us to develop a strong vaccine that can prevent the virus while remaining compatible with the liberal body politic. It does us very little good to kill the patient in trying to cure the disease, after all.
Just as producing a vaccine against a physical virus, like Covid-19, requires first isolating the virus, identifying its genome, and understanding how it works, both in isolation and in concert with the human immune system, an inoculation against critical theory begins with understanding it and its interactions with liberal societies. Luckily, this information is readily available because, perhaps in their hubristic certainty in their own agenda, critical scholars have been writing about this in very clear—if dense and academic—language for a long time now. Everyday people can learn to read it, and existing scholars can learn to read it faster and with more authority. (My own academic colleagues and I went from knowing nearly none of this to publishing rather a lot of it at the PhD-research level in only a few months’ time.)
The most important piece of the puzzle for understanding and vaccinating against critical theory as a virus is to understand that it has subverted the language, even including what it often calls itself: critical theory, anti–racism, Social Justice advocacy, climate justice, Theory. These terms, these ideas, can be understood, and once they’re understood, they can be spotted and resisted for what they are. The liberal impulse to want to do better by the disenfranchised and liberal reliance upon making use of fair and informed criticism can be immunized against these viral agents—by understanding them, learning to recognize them, and realizing that there are and always have been better, more effective ways to deal with the issues they speak about.
This isn’t to say it will be easy. These ideas, ways of thinking, and subverted meanings of our words are out in the wild now, and stamping them out is neither the right approach or one that can succeed. Liberal societies do function in particular ways and have adopted particular norms, values, and patterns that simultaneously render them highly adaptive and effective amongst human societies but also uniquely susceptible to certain perversions of those norms, values, and patterns. Critical theory is the perversion. Critical thinking, which they seem so eager to subvert and remake in their image, is ultimately the medicine that will undo it. It’s the liberal immune system (which makes their self-imposed analogy to HIV all the more poignant).