The modern secular ideology of ‘Critical Theory’ seems to be from another planet.
It’s obsessed with race, gender, and a person’s identity in ways that feel alien to us. Whether it’s gender fluidity or heteronormativity, or demanding biological males be allowed to compete in all women’s sports, it’s strange to those of us brought up in traditional western (and non-western) societies. As the authors of the book Cynical Theories, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, point out:
People who have adopted this view [of critical theory] may be physically close by, but, intellectually, they are a world away, which makes understanding them and communicating with them incredibly difficult… They interpret the world through a lens that detects power dynamics in every interaction, utterance, and cultural artifact- even when they aren’t obvious or real… To an outsider, this culture feels as though it originated on another planet…
So, where did this ideology come from? What were its origins? And what are its core beliefs?
That’s what we’ll explore in this post.
Its origins take us back to France in the 1960’s, where the first wave of a new philosophy called ‘postmodernism’ took off.
1) The Revolution In Knowledge And Power: The First Wave of ‘Postmodernism’
The author’s explain how this new philosophy began:
A fundamental change in human thought took place in the 1960s. This change is associated with several French Theorists who, while not quite household names, float at the edges of the popular imagination, among them Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-Francois Lyotard. Taking a radically new conception of the world and our relationship to it, it revolutionized social philosophy and perhaps social everything. Over the decades, it has dramatically altered not only what and how we think but also how we think about thinking. Esoteric, academic, and seemingly removed from the realities of daily existence, this revolution has nevertheless had profound implications for how we interact with the world and with one another. At its heart is a radical worldview that came to be known as “postmodernism.” (p. 21)
It’s not easy to define postmodernism, argue the authors, ‘perhaps by design’. (p. 21) It arose during a time of great cultural upheaval. The First and Second World Wars had shaken Europe’s confidence in the notion of progress, and made people anxious about technology. Left-wing intellectuals across Europe thereby became suspicious of Western civilisation, which had just allowed the rise of fascism, often by the will of aggrieved electorates, with cataclysmic results.
Communism was exposed as being horrifyingly oppressive, which disillusioned many of leftist cultural elites. Science was held as enabling, producing, and justifying the previously impossible horrors that the world had just lived through. And so, postmodern thinking was incredibly pessimistic about the modern world, including the loss of meaning produced by rapid improvements in technology.
Two Keys to Postmodernism (and the later Social Justice Theory)
But in broad-brush strokes, the main themes of this pessimistic, indeed cynical, philosophy that known as postmodernism are as follows:
· Radical scepticism about whether objective knowledge of truth is obtainable, and a commitment to cultural constructivism (the view that different cultures view or ‘construct’ their own reality, and thus can never get to what is true: truth is relative to your culture). (p. 31) This entails a rejection of any truth claim: whether Christianity, Marxism, or even Science.
· Power. A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how. Thus society is set up for the benefit of the powerful, and this is bad for those with less power (the oppressed). 
Unsurprisingly, this philosophy is incredibly unstable, and eventually came to an inglorious end.
The End of First Wave Postmodernism: ‘Boredom’
After a while, this first wave of radical sceptical postmodernism burnt itself out:
The postmodernists sought to render absurd our ways of understanding, approaching, and living in the world and in societies. Despite proving simultaneously modish and influential, this approach had limits. Endless dismantling and disruption — or, as they call it, deconstruction — is not only destined to consume itself; it is also fated to consume everything and thus render itself boring. (p. 45)
Questioning everything and making everything absurd can only take you so far as a postmodernist. Like a corrosive acid that destroys everything in its path, this first wave of postmodernism burnt itself out.
But then postmodernism mutated.
When Postmodernism Mutates And Goes Viral: The Second Wave
‘Social Justice Theory’.
Postmodernism wasn’t content to stop with ‘everything is meaningless’. Although the first wave of postmodernism that began in the late 1960’s burnt itself out by the early 1980’s, it did not die.
Rather, it was taken up by a new set of academics who wanted to apply postmodernism to reconstruct a better world. (p. 46)
As the authors argue:
We therefore might think of postmodernism as a kind of fast-evolving virus. Its original and purest form was unsustainable: it tore its hosts apart and destroyed itself. It could not spread from the academy to the general population because it was so difficult to grasp and so seemingly removed from social realities.
But then it changed:
In its evolved form, it spread, leaping the “species” gap from academics to activists to everyday people, as it became increasingly graspable and actionable and therefore more contagious. (p. 46)
While the original postmodern thinkers dismantled our understanding of knowledge, truth, and societal structures, the new [‘Social Justice’] Theorists reconstructed these from the ground up, in accordance with their own narratives… During its applied turn, [postmodern] Theory underwent a moral mutation: it adopted a number of beliefs about the rights and wrongs of power and privilege. The original Theorists were content to observe, bemoan, and play with such phenomena; the new [‘Social Justice’] ones wanted to reorder society. (p. 48, emphasis added)
This desire to reorder society is incredibly moralistic: which is why so many students graduating from these ‘Social Justice’ type courses (women’s studies; gender studies etc) become activists.
So what are the key underlying principles of social justice theory/critical theory?
2) The Core Beliefs of Social Justice Theory
While there is diversity around the beliefs of this new applied postmodernism (aka ‘Social Justice Theory’ or Critical Theory), there are some key principles and themes.
Despite mutating to become actionable for identity politics, this new applied postmodernism has retained the two postmodern principles at its core:
The postmodern knowledge principle: Radical scepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.
However, there is one important change: under applied postmodern thought, identity and oppression based on identity are treated as known features of objective reality. Thus, ‘the conception of society as comprised systems of power and privilege that construct knowledge is assumed to be objectively true and intrinsically tied to social constructions of identity’. (p. 59)
The postmodern political principle: A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how. This has also been retained. In fact, this is central to the advocacy of identity politics, whose politically actionable imperative is to dismantle this system (i.e. modern western society) in the name of Social Justice. (p. 59)
The four key themes of postmodern thought also survived the death of the high deconstructive phase and the subsequent applied postmodern turn.
1. The Blurring of Boundaries
We see this in Social Justice disciplines like queer theory, with its ideas of ‘fluidity’ of gender (i.e. ‘choose from x-hundred different genders’).
2. The Powerof language Language is seen as incredibly powerful, and a way to oppress people. The idea that words are powerful and dangerous has now become widespread and underlies much scholarship and activism around discursive (i.e. verbal) violence, safe spaces, microaggressions, and trigger warnings.
3. Cultural Relativism
The West is seen as inherently oppressive, and morally no better than any other culture. Our view of universal human rights, for example, is not superior to other cultures that don’t share that view. (p. 60)
4. The Lossof the Individual and the Universal
Here it’s worth quoting the authors in full:
The intense focus on identity categories and identity politics means that the individual and the universal are largely devalued. While mainstream liberalism focuses on achieving universal human rights and access to opportunities, to allow each individual to fulfill her potential, applied postmodern [i.e. Social Justice] scholarship and activism is deeply sceptical of these values and even openly hostile to them. Applied postmodern Theory tends to regard mainstream [western] liberalism as complacent, naive, or indifferent about the deeply engrained prejudices, assumptions, and biases that limit and constrain people with marginalized identities. The “individual” in applied postmodernism is something like the sum total of the identity groups to which the person in question simultaneously belongs.
A New Religion
All in all, Social Justice/Critical Theories hold to radically different views of society, and also of humanity. These are more than merely political views: they’re also religious views, that seek to describe reality in toto.
And so, Christians should be very wary of unwittingly taking on board the assumptions and beliefs of Social Justice Theory. While some of it will resonate with us (particularly our desire for (lowercase) social justice), at the end of the day it’s not too harsh to say Social Justice Theory is a heresy that’s destructive for humanity. 
In the next few posts we’ll be delving deeper into what the authors have to say about the specific beliefs of different forms of Social Justice Theory: postcolonial theory, critical race theory; disability and fat studies (yes, it is a thing), and feminism’s (plural) and gender studies.
 Pluckrose and Lindsay, Cynical Theories, 31. The authors later write: ‘In postmodern Theory, power is not exercised straightforwardly and visibly from above, as in the Marxist framework, but permeates all levels of society and is enforced by everyone, through routine interactions, expectations, social conditioning, and culturally constructed discourses that express a particular understanding of the world. This controls which hierarchies are preserved — through, say, due process of law or the legitimizing mechanism of scientific publishing — and the systems within which people are positioned or coded. In each of these examples, note that it is the social system and its inherent power dynamics that are seen as the causes of oppression, not necessarily wilful individual agents’. Pluckrose and Lindsay, Cynical Theories, 36.
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