Social Justice Usage
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, second edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2017, p. 193.
Intersectionality is the idea that identity cannot be fully understood via a single lens such as gender, race, or class alone—what legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) called a “single axis framework” (p. 139). Rather, our identities and the social meaning attributed to them must be understood in their interdependence on one another; identity is multidimensional. For example, one is not just a woman but a white heterosexual cisgender able-bodied woman. All of these identities interact in complex ways that shape how this particular woman will experience gender. Prior to Crenshaw popularizing the term, scholars had been writing about the problematics of a single axis of analysis for many years. Many of these scholars were and are Black, transnational, and queer feminists who have problematized the idea that there is a singular female experience that feminism speaks to and under which all women can be gathered.
New Discourses Commentary
Problematizing is the functional core of Critical Social Justice and its Theory and activism. To problematize something is to look for, identify, manufacture, and/or “expose” the “problematics” in it or associated with it. Problematics are ways in which the phenomenon, entity, person, circumstance, object, etc., under examination falls short of the moral agenda that necessarily lies at the heart of the critical theory examining it (by definition of a critical theory, which must be normative against what it sees as “oppression”). Of particular interest are ways in which those things might marginalize, exclude, minoritize, harm, cause oppression, or maintain or legitimate dominance and injustice through the machinations of systemic power.
Problematizing is, as adherents to Critical Social Justice and other critical theories would say, the process of making those oppressions (and other moral failings) “visible.” Put otherwise, problematics are what critical theories criticize, and problematizing is how it does its criticism. The goal of this activity is to replace false consciousness (especially internalized oppression) with critical consciousness (i.e., wokeness) and thus agitate for a social and cultural revolution.
It is impossible to overstate the central relevance of problematizing to the Theory and praxis of Critical Social Justice. This is because problematizing is the chief epistemological tool of any critical theory, which is taken to a particular extreme in the critical Theories of Critical Social Justice (e.g., critical race Theory, postcolonial Theory, queer Theory, whiteness studies, fat studies, disability studies, gender studies, women’s studies, masculinity studies, media studies, and critical pedagogy). That is, problematization is the primary, if not sole, means by which a critical theory decides whether or not a concept is valid and thus constitutes authentic knowledges (or “truths”).
To understand this, it is helpful to understand how other systems of thought utilize similar tools. Consider two other domains: philosophy and science. The primary means utilized in this regard in philosophy is called defeasibility, which is a process where an idea is challenged by potential “defeaters,” which are statements that, if true, would either contradict the existing claim or that expose failures of logical validity or argumentative soundness. Philosophical ideas that survive this process are, until that changes, provisionally granted the status of not being defeated, which is to say potentially good ideas that one can treat as knowledge. In a sense, then, rigorous philosophy proceeds by defeating (anti-verifying) bad ideas and retaining as good ideas (knowledge) those that still survive the relentless anti-verification process of defeasibility.
In science, defeasibility isn’t considered enough because it is possible for something to be perfectly logically acceptable and yet out of correspondence with reality. Truth and falsity therefore take on a different meaning under scientific approaches to knowledge that is described by the “correspondence theory of truth,” which roughly states that that which is true is that which corresponds with reality in some way. Thus, the scientific method, in addition to theoretical defeasibility, adds an extra dimension called falsifiability. A perfectly undefeated hypothesis in science can still be falsified by testing it empirically and finding out that it does not correspond with the results of experiment, which are taken to be reflective of reality (see also, objectivity and positivism). This circumstance was, perhaps, most eloquently expressed by the physicist Richard Feynman, who remarked, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”
In critical theories, problematization plays an identical role as defeasibility in philosophy (and theoretical science) and as falsification in (experimental) science. Those are processes within those domains of thought that allow people utilizing them to decide which ideas are bad, thus anti-verifying them. Ideas that have heretofore survived this process are provisionally considered “good” in some sense. In both philosophy and science, that status of “good” results in being considered “truth” or “knowledge.” In critical theories, by their very definition, truth and falsity are, however, largely beside the point, and in postmodern critical theories, like the Theory of Critical Social Justice, they are entirely beside the point. Ideas are either problematic or not (yet) problematic, and the effort to produce “knowledge” is establishing which ideas have not (yet) been problematized out of the possibility.
Understanding this requires understanding critical theories and their differences from what were offered up as a comparative alternative, traditional theories. Philosophy and science, relying upon defeasibility and falsifiability, are both traditional theories, which seek to understand the truth and reality of a situation, circumstance, phenomenon, etc., as fully as possible in as perspicacious terms as possible. That is, they seek to understand their object at hand in as much detail as possible and to do so in as objective a way as can be managed. This is especially true of the sciences. Critical theories—or, specifically, Critical Theory (see also, Frankfurt School and Neo-Marxism)—were introduced (by Max Horkheimer, explicity) in the 1930s as a kind of companion to traditional theories that could highlight the moral shortcomings (according to Neo-Marxist morals) of traditional theoretical understanding and thus refine knowledge not just to be informative but also liberatory from oppression and injustice.
Originally, Critical Theories were supposed to be used in tandem with traditional theories, which care about that which is true and that which is false, while introducing problematization as an additional means by which we might sweep “bad” (now, morally bad, not epistemologically poor) ideas off the table to create a better system of knowledge that is simultaneously effective and moral (again, according to Neo-Marxist morals, though this could certainly work with many other moral agendas). Even within the context of the Critical Theory movement itself (see, New Left), however, anti-intellectualism slowly took over (this is unsurprising, given what is being outlined here), leading one of the chief Critical Theorists in history, Herbert Marcuse, to bemoan the anti-intellectualism in radical and liberation movements by the early 1970s (see also, radical feminism, black liberationism, black feminism, liberation theology, postcolonialism, and liberationism).
To explain how this eroding intellectualism in critical movements at a guess, problematization is a much easier (and subjective) approach to disqualifying statements than defeasibility and falsifiability. All it requires is the capacity to claim offense or blame a system, or to do so on behalf of someone else or an identity group. In other words, traditional theories are hard, requiring setting aside one’s feelings and ego, usually obtaining significant education and training, and proceeding with extreme caution and care. Critical theories are comparatively easy, requiring only the ability to complain and somewhat plausibly connect one’s complaints to the system of power being critiqued by the critical theory (be that ideology, economic, knowledge, discourse, government, or some combination thereof). In the hands of intellectuals, then, critical theories will be one thing, but in the hands of non-intellectuals (or people pretending to be more intellectual than they are), they are quite another. (One will notice this simple observation explains much over the last half century.)
With regard to Critical Social Justice, the anti-intellectualism and centrality of problematization via the (highly interpreted – see also, authentic) “lived experience” of oppression (see also, knower, ways of knowing, and standpoint epistemology) reaches an altogether new height because of the profound influence postmodern Theory has had upon it. Critical theories absent postmodernism have always been constrained by their relationships with traditional theories—thus truth, falsity, and reality—even in the hands of anti-intellectual radical activists. What’s true still mattered. The central contention of postmodern philosophy, however, is an extension of the critical ethos: what’s true is beside the point (see also, Foucauldian, episteme, and power-knowledge). Postmodern Theory sees knowledges as culturally contingent and socially constructed (see also, social constructivism), and thus the correspondence between truth and reality becomes irrelevant as compared with the political application of propositions that have been authenticated and legitimated as “true” by the (powerful elites in the) culture that recognizes them as such (see also, discourses, narrative, and metanarrative).
The Theory of Critical Social Justice can be understood most simply as the fusion of this simplified understanding of postmodern Theory and critical theory with the intention of achieving what it calls “Social Justice” through identity politics. In this sense, the relevance of postmodernism is that it allows the critical theory of Critical Social Justice to set aside matters of truth and falsity altogether (because they miss the point, because objectivity is impossible anyway but politics aren’t), thus problematization becomes the core and chief epistemological tool of the entire program. Thus, in Critical Social Justice and its Theory and activism, ideas that are in any way problematic are deemed invalid whereas ideas that are not (yet) identified as problematic are valid, and this process is (nearly) wholly unconstrained from matters of truth and falsity in reality (and objectivity is seen as an undesirable myth claimed only to maintain hegemonic power, which is itself problematic). The result is that problematizing (through discourse analysis, close reading, and other critical qualitative methods) becomes the chief occupation of anyone in Critical Social Justice who is interested in producing “knowledges,” including by disqualifying actual knowledge from that status.
There are many direct results of this elevated epistemological status of problematization that, once understood, render many perplexing features of the Critical Social Justice project surprisingly comprehensible. For example, intersectionality becomes both inevitable and irresistibly popular because it is a means of doing cross-discipline application of problematization to other critical theories. (The “margins” spoken of in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s most famous paper, “Mapping the Margins” (1991), wherein she laid out in great detail what intersectionality should do, are the margins of (white) (radical) feminism and of (male/masculinist) black liberationism, both critical theories of identity. Thus, the purpose of intersectionality was, ultimately, to problematize each of these critical theories for being insufficiently critical.) This is believed to refine the knowledges of those critical theories by applying the core epistemological tool in ways that had been overlooked (due to influences of hegemonic power and willfully ignorant self-interest, of course).
The resulting elevation of intersectionally modified standpoint epistemology through the constant engagement of one’s positionality (relationship by identity to systemic power) is also utterly predictable. Engaging positionality becomes a chief occupation of Critical Social Justice in Theory and praxis because the lived experience of identity-based oppression is deemed to be the most authentic means by which someone can identify problematics or admit their inability to do so (due to internalized dominance), thus establish their status or limits as a knower. This also explains why engagement with the literature and views of Critical Social Justice only counts as legitimate if one ends up agreeing with it: it only accepts problematizing (i.e., critical) epistemologies as the way to do critical theories.
In summary, problematizing is the critical-theoretical equivalent of falsifiability in science, which is to say the primary means by which it disqualifies hypotheses and other propositions from being considered knowledge. Unlike in traditional theories, however, problematization can apply not just to ideas but to the people who produce them, perhaps as a result of the explicit adoption of Freudian psychoanalytic theory into Critical Theory by the Frankfurt School, meant as a corrective to Marxian thought. Thus, people must engage their positionalities, which can render them unqualified as knowers due to the influences of willful ignorance, hate, and internalized dominance, thus designating their claims on relevant topics as problematic and inadmissible as knowledges. They must “stay in their lanes” and “shut up and listen.” People who expose themselves (or are exposed – see also, mask) as sufficiently problematic are to be called out and summarily canceled due to the fact that this identifies them as so complicit in hegemonic power and thus oppression that they must have their status as a potential knower (permanently) revoked to prevent further harmful malpractice and contamination of the discourses.
This means the chief practical activity of activists and Theorists in Critical Social Justice—that portion of the demand of critical theories that calls for praxis—is problematizing. Every possible cultural product (as understood under radical social constructivist assumptions) must be examined, critiqued, and problematized to the full extent that Theory indicates. This imperative therefore hijacks the epistemological and ethical engine of liberal societies and turns them into dysfunctional critical ones. It is in this vein that they attempt to seize every means of cultural production and turn them to critical theory (see also, critical pedagogy and decolonize).
Authentic; Black feminism; Black liberationism; Call out; Cancel; Close reading; Complicity; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical pedagogy; Critical race Theory; Critical theory; Decolonize; Disability studies; Discourse; Discourse analysis; Dominance; Engagement; Episteme; Exclusion; False consciousness; Fat studies; Feminism; Foucauldian; Frankfurt School; Gender studies; Harm; Hate; Hegemony; Identity; Identity politics; Ideology; Injustice; Internalized dominance; Internalized oppression; Intersectionality; Knower; Knowledge(s); Liberalism; Liberation; Liberation theology; Lived experience; Marginalization; Marxian; Masculinism; Masculinity studies; Mask; Media studies; Metanarrative; Minoritize; Narrative; Neo-Marxism; New Left; Objectivity; Oppression; Positionality; Positivism; Postcolonial Theory; Postcolonialism; Postmodern; Power-knowledge; Praxis; Problematic; Queer Theory; Radical; Radical feminism; Reality; Revolution; Science; Shut up and listen; Social construction; Social constructivism; Social Justice; Standpoint epistemology; Stay in your lane; System, the; Systemic power; Theory; Truth; Ways of knowing; White; Whiteness studies; Willful ignorance; Woke/Wokeness; Women’s studies
Source: Applebaum, Barbara. Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy. Lexington Books, 2010, p. 56.[Judith] Butler’s work is initially framed by a concern with the unproblematized identity category “women” that serves as the subject of feminism. Not only have white, straight feminists excluded women of color and lesbians from the universal concept of “women” but also they have not taken seriously Foucault’s insights that all identities are effects of power regimes. What is required, Butler contends, is a critical analysis of the subject of feminism and how “the category of ‘women’ . . . is produced and restrained by the very structures of power through which emancipation is sought.” A genealogical critique of the concept “women” is thus necessary to expose who benefits and who is excluded when essentialist notions of identity are the basis of politics.
Source: Giroux, Henry A. On Critical Pedagogy. Continuum Books, 2011, pp. 68–69.
Educators and other cultural workers need a new political and pedagogical language for addressing the changing contexts and issues facing a world in which capital draws upon an unprecedented convergence of resources — financial, cultural, political, economic, scientific, military, and technological — to exercise powerful and diverse forms of hegemony. If educators are to counter global capitalism’s increased ability to substitute the traditional reach of politics for the ever transnational reach of power, it is crucial to develop educational approaches that reject a collapse of the distinction between market liberties and civil liberties, a market economy and a market society. This suggests developing forms of critical pedagogy capable of appropriating from a variety of radical theories — feminism, postmodernism, critical theory, post-structuralism, neo-Marxism, etc. — those progressive elements that might be useful in both challenging neoliberalism on many fronts while resurrecting a militant democratic socialism that provides the basis for imagining a life beyond the “dream world” of capitalism. More specifically, this suggests, on the one hand, resurrecting the blemished traditions of Enlightenment thought that affirmed issues of freedom, equality, liberty, self-determination, and civic agency. On the other hand, critical theory’s engagement with Enlightenment thought must be expanded through those postmodern discourses that problematize modernity’s universal project of citizenship, its narrow understanding of domination, its obsession with order, and its refusal to expand both the meaning of the political and the sites in which political struggles and possibilities might occur.
Revision date: 5/6/20