Social Justice Usage
Source: Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” 1984, p. 2.
Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
New Discourses Commentary
The phrase “master’s tools” as it is relevant within Critical Social Justice dates back to a 1984 essay by the black feminist Audre Lorde, who was attempting to make the case that the “tools” of the dominant system (these would be the “master’s tools”) will not dismantle the dominant system itself (these would be the “master’s house”). Lorde specifically contended that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. This statement draws upon a rather tortured metaphor to slavery (see also, post-traumatic slave syndrome), and generally insists that it will require using means and methods outside of the dominant system to disrupt and dismantle the dominant system and the oppression it causes (see also, epistemic oppression, epistemic violence, strategic resistance, strategic essentialism, revisionism, radicalism, and identity politics). Among the underlying assumptions in this metaphor is the idea that the existing system is unfairly dominant and requires dismantling (see also, revolution).
The metaphor obviously refers to the conditions of (African) slavery (in America – see also 1619 Project). Under those conditions, because the master would not allow his slaves to make use of his own tools to destroy his property, there is some truth to the claim that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” but there’s also obvious silliness: those tools are both capable and nearest to hand, so in a revolt, they certainly could and very likely would be precisely what tears down the master’s house. This appears not to matter to Lorde’s metaphor because the nature of black feminist (and later, critical race Theory, and later still Critical Social Justice) thought is that whether or not it would be allowed is the only relevant feature in the case of a systemic bigotry (e.g., systemic racism).
It is the system that enables systemic bigotries that Lorde insists needs dismantling and that she insists will never be dismantled using tools inside that system (racists won’t allow racism to be dismantled). The obvious silliness manifests here, though, as many, if not most, legal reforms in terms of institutional racism were achieved using legal methods and by arguing within legal discourses (i.e., the master’s tools are exactly what dismantled the master’s house of institutional racism on the legal level). Histrionics of this type, however, are typical of the critical genre.
Writing in 1984, many make the case that Lorde primarily referred to institutional racism or even structural racism (mostly in the material sense) and not so much to systemic racism (or structural in the abstract linguistic sense) with her famous declaration. There are reasons to doubt this. For one thing, Lorde was likely to have been informed by postmodern (discourse analysis) thought, which rose to prominence in black feminism around the same time, then going on to inform and shape critical race and intersectional thought. Lorde, as a black feminist highly interested in both the feminism and black liberation thought of her day, was also certainly well acquainted with critical thought and thus critical theories, as those formed the basis for most liberationist thought in her time (see also, New Left and Neo-Marxism), and their focus on ideology and hegemony matches her rather dramatic proclamation. Critical methods would certainly have been centrally concerned with structural elements prevalent in law and institutions, but they would also have been profoundly concerned with cultural elements and the way dominance and oppression operate within them. In particular, they would have believed that the cultural mores around such “structures” as law would be most influential in resisting any possible radical change.
Nevertheless, whether Lorde meant to include aspects of the cultural and, more interestingly, knowledge-production systems that are more readily identifiable with the terms “systemic” and “structural” in Critical Social Justice Theory, a recent Theorist, Alison Bailey, wrote explicitly in 2017 that features of the “knowing field” such as a reliance upon reason can be understood under the heading of what Lorde ultimately referred to with “master’s tools.” In this sense, the “master’s tools” can be understood to be anything that allows those with dominant positions in the system (of knowledge, particularly) to maintain their privilege (see also, privilege-preserving epistemic pushback and shadow text).
In this regard, reason, evidence, logic, civility, rules of order, rule of law, due process, rigorous methodologies, methodology at all, science, and even keeping to a timetable and meeting agenda can all be construed as implements of white supremacy used by white dominance to maintain its hegemony over other ways of knowing (like “lived experience”). Bailey’s argument amounts to saying that these tools are master’s tools, and they’ll never dismantle the master’s house, by which she means the epistemological systems that rely upon them. It thus takes discrediting the master’s tools and forwarding others in their place to overturn the system (this same pessimistic and necessarily revolutionary view is echoed by another contemporary Theorist, Kristie Dotson, in her outline of epistemic oppression).
Whether Lorde was referring directly to radicalism like typifies the liberationists in the New Left or something else remains ambiguous, but Bailey’s interpretation is neither equivocal nor marginal currently, including in critical pedagogy (the application of critical theories to and in education). Under Bailey’s interpretation, which would mesh with the Critical Social Justice importation of Foucauldian thought, the knowledge-production and teaching systems have to be remade. Thus, we can expect to—and do—find overt attempts to increase the range of what constitutes a valid epistemology (like lived experience, storytelling, tradition, counterstories, positionality and standpoint epistemology, and other subjective approaches) while working diligently to devalue established epistemologies (like in science). This is because following Bailey, following Lorde, the only way to remake the system for Social Justice is to dismantle the current one using tools that fall well outside its normal range. Yet again, however, as better science is the only thing short of a ill-conceived revolution in knowledge production that can overturn science, the silliness of the metaphor remains blatantly in sight.
As a final note, standpoint epistemology as it appears in Critical Social Justice utterly depends upon this “master’s tools” / “master’s house” way of thinking about the world (which ultimately derives from Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic,” which was taken up by both Marx and the Critical Theorists in the Frankfurt School). This is because the idea of the “master’s house” applied to knowing systems is the master-slave dialectic: the slave lives within the master’s house (system) but isn’t of it. The slave also has the insight to understand what the “master’s tools” are and has other tools at its disposal that the master doesn’t understand. Standpoint epistemology, as it exists in Critical Social Justice, essentially makes this same claim and attempts to elevate the “slave’s” tools while devaluing the “master’s.” (Cf. Nietzsche on the same ideas in Genealogy of Morals.)
1619 Project; Black feminism; Black liberationism; Change; Counterstory; Critical; Critical pedagogy; Critical race Theory; Critical theory; Discourse; Discourse analysis; Dismantle; Disrupt; Dominance; Epistemic injustice; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; Feminism; Frankfurt School; Hegemony; Identity politics; Ideology; Institutional racism; Intersectionality; Knoweldge(s); Liberationism; Lived experience; Marginalization; Marxian; Neo-Marxism; New Left; Oppression; Other; Positionality; Postmodern; Post-traumatic slave syndrome; Privilege; Privilege-preserving epistemic pushback; Racism (systemic); Radical; Revisionism; Revolution; Science; Shadow text; Social Justice; Standpoint epistemology; Strategic essentialism; Strategic resistance; System, the; Systemic power; Theory; Ways of knowing; White; White supremacy
Source: Bailey, Alison. “Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes.” Hypatia, 32(4), 2017: 876–892, pp. 881–882.
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 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.
Source: Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” 1984, p. 3.
Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educated men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women – in the face of tremendous resistance – as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.
Simone de Beauvoir once said: “It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.”
Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.
Source: Bailey, Alison. “Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes.” Hypatia, 32(4), 2017: 876–892, pp. 883–884.
Jennifer’s resistance is more difficult to unpack. It attempts to apply an accepted philosophical concept in an effort to move the conversation forward. Understanding the lack of epistemic friction in this instance requires both an awareness of the discursive dynamics at play and an understanding of how the use–mention distinction is being used. We need to ask: does Jennifer’s appeal to use–mention offer us beneficial epistemic friction, or it is just a case of using the master’s tools to defend the master’s epistemic home terrain? I’m not suggesting that she uses the philosopher’s toolkit maliciously. There is power in mastering the tools of the discipline, and she takes pride in arguing well. I’m just curious as to whether she is pressing the use–mention distinction into the service of a broader strategic refusal to understand.
Revision date: 5/14/20