Broadly speaking, the Critical Social Justice movement has some virtuous elements. It would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise because there are groups of people whose dire circumstances are not of their own making, and an advanced society should work to correct that injustice insofar as it can be corrected. The issue is that proponents of Critical Social Justice have embraced a narrow set of virtues and have discarded all the rest. When President Donald Trump ordered an end to Critical Race Theory training in federal workplaces, TIME magazine predictably described the ban as a transparent attempt to sow racial division and dilate presidential power. The virtues of anti-racism and anti-oppression are non-negotiable, and dissidents are not to be trusted. According to the Edison Exit Poll for 2020, the only demographic whose support for Trump has lessened over these past four years is white men. Perhaps in a normal world that statistic would discourage journalists from touting baseless claims about the President’s supposed racist agenda. But this is not a normal world; it is a world in which government and educational institutions are embracing a cynical worldview where everything is viewed through a racial prism. Anti-oppression training is a means to this end; an attempt to inculcate progressive virtues in students and professionals while at the same time eroding and vilifying traditional virtues.
Anti-oppression training is flawed because it is impossible to cherry pick virtues and still keep a coherent belief system. GK Chesterton said it best when he compared Christian virtues to the seamless robe Christ wore before his crucifixion:
The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus, some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus, some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity is often untruthful […] they have parted [Christ’s] garments among them, for His vesture they have cast lots; though the coat was without seam woven from the top throughout.
Critical theorists have attempted to divide interlocking Western virtues by portraying them as oppressive notions which the dominant culture has foisted upon minorities. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture described rational thought (prudence), a strong work ethic (fortitude), the “nuclear family”, (temperance), and taking responsibility for one’s actions (justice) as “aspects and assumptions of white culture.” At universities students are taught to reject “whiteness,” by “educating themselves,” protesting diligently, reining in their privilege and fighting for “social justice” through, and only through, the specific tools of Critical Social Justice. Thus, one can still be prudent, fortitudinous, temperate and just, so long as one does so in the correct way.
Once obscure academic jargon is now as widely accepted by politicians and popstars as it is by post-docs. As Critical Theory encroaches into popular culture its effects are felt more intensely within the university. Anyone who is critical of Critical Theory is in the minority – a position which becomes unsustainable when adherence to its commandments are prerequisites for campus life. I am a first-year law student at Queen’s University, a public research institution in Canada. In September I chose to volunteer with Pro-Bono Students Canada (PBSC), a volunteer organization which “envisions a society with accessible legal systems, where the dignity and rights of every person are upheld.” Volunteers work with lawyers and not-for-profit organizations to assist marginalized groups who are in need of legal advice. I volunteered with PBSC because I believe that this is a laudable goal. The students and professionals who I have met through this program have been kind, intelligent and genuinely concerned for the less fortunate. Although I have been impressed by many aspects of PBSC, I am dismayed by their decision to include mandatory anti-oppression training as a pre-requisite for all volunteers.
The training session is reminiscent of a propaganda reel; the philosophical underpinnings of the training are never declared, and the tenets of Critical Race Theory are presented as fact. At first glance the training seems like a standard orientation. Students are introduced to PBSC’s three core values, which appear to be noble on their face. The organization values dignity and acknowledges that everyone should be treated with respect and permitted to voice their opinion. Humility is the second value, which is ostensibly innocuous if one is unfamiliar with the Critical Social Justice lexicon (they mean this). PBSC volunteers are expected to be humble by listening to the “lived experience” of oppressed groups. I do not object to the idea that volunteers should listen to the people they are supposed to be helping; at one point in time this would have fallen under the purview of politeness and common sense. But lived experience implies something different than simply listening to an individual’s subjective life experiences; one must interpret those experiences through the lens of Critical Theory. Thus, PBSC volunteers are required to view members of their communities dichotomously as either victimizing oppressors or as oppressed victims. The third core value is equity, which is to be supported in “all its forms.” PBSC, wittingly or unwittingly, appears to advocate for social communism. As James Lindsay has noted, adherents of Critical Race Theory believe that there are invisible systems of power and privilege which must be overturned. True equality must be obtained at all costs, even if we must treat certain groups unfairly to achieve that end (for example, Queen’s University has restricted access to the Accelerated Route to Medical School to Black and Indigenous applicants. Similarly, there has been restricted or preferential hiring at Memorial University of Newfoundland, the University of Manitoba and the University of Victoria).
These restrictive hiring and application practices are more nuanced than they first appear. As Douglas Murray has noted, Critical Theory is comprised of a large body of peer-reviewed scholarship which lends legitimacy to its proponents and can be used to dismiss its critics. Pulling from scholars such as Lena Dominelli (I can only assume because no citations are offered) PBSC identifies “Four I’s” of Oppression: ideological, institutional, interpersonal and internal. Perhaps the most perplexing definition is ideological oppression, which is said to be “one’s systems of beliefs and values such as the notion that there is good and bad in the world” (a fact that should be admissible in a school of law if nowhere else). Institutional oppression refers to the policies and frameworks which perpetuate the dominant ideology (if we accept Chesterton’s assertion that Western virtues are indeed Christian virtues, churches and faith-based schools are among these institutions, posing important questions about Critical Theory’s compatibility with religious freedom). Interpersonal oppression occurs in subtle communication, often through microaggressions, and can be both conscious and unconscious. PBSC teaches students that their private thoughts and feelings are oppressive and must be changed to properly align with anti-oppression. Internalized oppression occurs when one is compelled to hold negative thoughts about their own culture.
Ironically enough, anti-oppression training is thoroughly oikophobic and could result in internalized oppression by its own definition. Anti-oppression is not just offensive to the so-called dominant class, however. It is also incredibly condescending to minority groups, who it infantilizes by the assertion that microaggressions result in pain, guilt, shame, alienation and a loss of motivation. I suspect that many of PBSC’s clients would take issue with being portrayed as fragile, insecure and emotionally volatile.
PBSC encourages volunteers to become Critical Social Justice activists. Students are told that they must name oppression, and actively disrupt the structures in our society which cause it, but Critical Theory’s conception of oppression is so broad that it is difficult to identify any structure which could not be construed as oppressive. Students are also told that they must engage in anti-oppressive practice, which occurs when they acknowledge their power and privilege and exalt the experiences of social groups who have been historically marginalized. Anyone who “identifies” as white, heterosexual, male or able-bodied holds power and privilege in our society, and we can calculate the amount of power we have by examining our social identities. The formula for this calculation is not provided, but the trainer implies that a person’s superficial characteristics, such as race and sex, can be used to determine it. This begs the question of whether anti-oppression activists can determine other people’s power and privilege; it appears as though prejudicial judgement is built into the anti-oppressive model. The instructor helpfully informs students that if any part of this training makes them feel uncomfortable, it is simply because they have not engaged in enough self-reflection. Critical Theory is unfalsifiable – anyone who disagrees with the orthodoxy is simply incorrect and in need of more training.
Students are told that masculine culture dominates the legal profession, and as “leaders of tomorrow” they are obliged to commit themselves to dismantling that “system.” The first step is to engage in allyship, which can only be achieved after recognizing one’s power and privilege. After embracing an appropriate amount of shame and guilt, students can then move forward to enact change in recognition of the power they hold (presumably while they continue to accumulate student debt, work multiple part-time jobs, and reside in filthy subdivided apartments).
It is inappropriate for PBSC to demand that students accept Critical Theory as a precondition for volunteer work, especially without defining the theory or acknowledging any critiques of it. Critical Theory is incompatible with many different views which students may hold, from Christianity to conservatism to classical liberalism. If PBSC and Queen’s University truly care about creating an “inclusive environment” they should not permit students to be subjected to ideological training.
The issue runs deeper than a single volunteer group at an obscure Canadian university; 1600 future lawyers are involved with the organization and have presumably taken part in anti-oppression training. It is concerning that few students seem able to recognize the historical parallels between this movement and others where arrogant elites have sought to remake society in their own image. Maximilien Robespierre once said “to punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is cruelty.” If tradition is the source of oppression (which is certainly what the critical theorists believe) why not do away with it? Perhaps because in doing so we would abscise those virtues which are our society’s foundation. Chesterton knew that a lack of appreciation for tradition is antithetical to liberal democracy:
Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.
If Chesterton were as widely read today as Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo and Nicole Hannah Jones, perhaps our public discourse would be more humble and dignified. Unfortunately for today’s university students, Critical Theory is in vogue. The content of a person’s character has been predetermined by a narrow-minded academic elite who, in their supposed efforts to end bigotry, have made it part of the curriculum.