Liberalism is under attack. The attack is not coming from the supposed “superiority” of the Chinese model, authoritarian leaders like Turkey’s Erdogan or even the rise of right-wing populist movements in the West. These pale by comparison and in reality present no threat to our liberal way of life, unlike what the media or the radical left would have us believe. The attack is rooted in radical left, post-modernist, critical theory thinking that has been slowly taking hold of our schools, universities, media outlets and Hollywood since the 80s and 90s.
The latest episode to catch my attention was when the highly acclaimed winner of the 2020 International Booker Prize, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, was pulled out of translating Amanda Gorman’s forthcoming poetry collection into Dutch, after a wave of social media outrage that the publisher had picked a writer for the role who was not black. If you recall, Amanda Gorman was the young black poet who stole headlines at Joe Biden’s inaugural ceremony. This hate mob, generated on social media, felt that only a “spoken-word artist, young female and unapologetically black” could possibly comprehend the true struggles of the black community. White people according to critical theory thinkers or critical ethnic thinkers are all “racists”, especially if they don’t admit that they are racists, and couldn’t possibly comprehend the struggles and systemic exploitation of blacks. Whites now apparently have no moral authority translating a black person’s work. What madness is this?
But other equally ridiculous examples abound. The problem is that these voices not only get louder every day, they usually get their way. The comedian Kevin Hart was forced to step down as the host of the Oscar’s, when decades old tweets containing gay slurs surfaced. Not only was he forced to step down, he was forced to publicly apologise numerous times, whilst being publicly shamed over and over again. The actor Matt Damon incurred online wrath when he stated that sexual assault occurs on a spectrum: getting raped or child molestation is not the same thing as a pat on the butt, and whilst both should be confronted, they should not be conflated. Martina Navratilova was subject to an online mob for arguing that it is not fair for transgender women who had gone through male puberty to compete in high level women’s tennis; Germain Greer (the icon of feminism) was declared not a feminist for saying that “post-operative transgender men are not women”. These are daily occurrences.
I have two cognitive allergies: one to bullshit, the other to unfairness. In order to spare you from the rather dense, bizarre and at times totally incomprehensible theory – at least Marx was more readable -, I’ll attempt a broad outline of this movement. Critical thinkers, variously known as radical left/post-modernist/neo-Marxist (take your pick) theorists portray themselves as social justice warriors, fighting for a society that is more equitable and fairer to all. Few would disagree with these aims.
But that’s the pretty picture on the box; it does not correspond to what’s inside. In other words, what they are promoting is not what they say they are promoting. Critical social justice theories are not about treating people with equal respect and caring about issues of race, gender, sexuality and so on or trying to make society fairer. This would be the mainstream/traditional approach to social justice. Critical social justice theorists contend that society is stratified along social group lines and that this inequality is deeply embedded in its very fabric. They advocate social revolution as the only way to effect change. They aim to replace our current system with one that they themselves have socially engineered. Revolution, not equity of treatment, is their ultimate goal.
This advocacy is grounded in the belief that people cannot be trusted to make the right choices. They are blinded by a steady diet of consumer goods and images. Michel Foucault and others worried that our means of gathering knowledge and communicating it were little more than instruments of power that create injustice. The solution was to deconstruct knowledge and language for our own emancipation. Critical theorists agree with this and have taken it a step forward by trying to reengineer society according to their version of social justice. They tear down the freedom to think, to choose as we will and to be the arbiters of our own lives. In return they aim to replace our freedom with something “better”. The ideals of liberal humanism and of liberal autonomy (that people are free to make independent rational decisions that determine their own fate) are viewed as a mechanism for keeping the marginalised in their place. In other words, liberalism only serves to “fool” people into believing that they have more autonomy and choice than they actually have by obscuring larger forms of structural inequality.
The objective of critical thinkers is to deconstruct liberal societies and reconstruct them as social justice societies where they, and only they, determine what is right and what is wrong for everybody. How is this to be achieved? By applying and teaching the theory as widely as possible. Constant, cynical criticism is a solvent that can dissolve anything, including liberal societies. The point is to criticise everything even when it doesn’t make sense to do so and especially at times when it is unfair. They understand that the weakness of a liberal society is also its greatest strength: it eagerly invites criticism. The alchemy of a liberal society is to examine at all times what it is doing wrong, so that it can admit the mistake and correct it. This alchemy is precisely what created modernity and progress.
Critical theorists understand one thing: they just need to mobilise a large enough group to complain constantly about how liberal society is exploiting them or cheating them. They don’t have to offer solutions; they don’t need to understand the dynamics behind such a position. They merely need to air their grievances constantly and make everything seem problematic, teach it everywhere and make it a moral imperative.
This may all sound like some obscure abstract theory that is not gaining traction in the real world. Alas this is not the case. Increasingly these theories are taught in universities and schools in the Anglosphere. Most universities now boast a Diversity and Inclusivity Officer in order to ensure that their institutions are “compliant” with social justice. Many of these officers require people to write statements of their commitment to social justice particularly diversity, inclusion and equity, including self-reflective statements of how they have fallen short in the past. Not only do these serve as political litmus tests for hiring but they can also be potentially useful should someone later step out of line. Reminders of Chairman Mao’s Red Guards and the self-criticism of the Cultural Revolution, now in a new disguise.
But this does not stop at schools and universities. Law societies, many corporations, even some cities now boast Diversity Officers. It may be seen as having good intentions, but it ultimately serves to evangelise this new breed of social justice activism. Large corporations such as Google and the BBC have fired employees on the basis of claims couched in social justice terms. These usually follow a barrage of “virtuous” outrage from both social and mainstream media. Facebook has become so vigorous in its censorship, that it will block and cancel accounts of people whose past posts are being read out of context by its algorithms – the so called “cancel culture”. Twitter has since upgraded its rules to ban all sorts of speech, in particular what it calls “dehumanising language against religious groups as well as gender critical feminism and all those who do not accept trans people’s stated gender and sex identities”.
Artists are especially targeted, leading often to the utter destruction of someone’s reputation and career, for something he or she might have said decades ago, even as a teenager. These are daily occurrences. But it doesn’t stop there. Critical theory is applied to everything: hiking, knitting, Catholicism, Buddhism, personal finance even the game Dungeons and Dragons. Nothing escapes its ever-watchful eye!
There are historical precedents. Critical theorists are a recloaked, modern day version of Marxist revolutionaries. Whereas Marxists believed that power was tied to wealth and therefore reform required them to seize the means of economic production, critical revolutionaries believe that power is tied to how people think and how they communicate. So, step one is to seize the means of cultural production, like education, the media, art, language and religion. Critical social justice theory is yet another example of a long line of self-serving power grabs allegedly designed for our own “good”.
The best-known plans often look better on paper than in practice. On paper, communism posited the idea that an advanced technological society can organise itself around cooperation in sharing resources, so that we can minimise human exploitation. The injustices that spring from the disparities between capitalism’s winners and losers can be eliminated. The argument is appealing, as theories go. In practice, communism generated some of the greatest atrocities of history. Tens of millions starved, were shot, imprisoned or died – a prime example of how our best theories can fail catastrophically in practice, even when motivated by an idealistic view of the greater good.
This new form of social justice is not communism but it has some similarities. On paper we can eliminate sexism, racism, bigotry and injustice and heal the world. We can remake our society from scratch to be fairer and socially just. Nobody will be left behind. Everyone gets an equal start. Everyone will be treated fairly and with respect. That’s the theory. In practice what they aim to do is reject our liberal tradition, the same tradition that defeated the Nazis (which devoid of irony, they now accuse their detractors of being); the same values that put man on the moon, ended slavery and invented modern medicine.
Social justice demands that we reject human freedom for the “greater good”; it demands that everyone follow the party line rather than their own character or their own best judgement. Social justice activists believe that those very freedoms “obscure and maintain oppression.” It demands that we all commit to a life-long struggle of dismantling our own complicity. Their aim: to create a utopian society. But all utopias are dystopias. Any scholar of history can easily attest to that.
Needless to say, the limits of freedom in a socially just society will be defined by critical theorists, not you or me or any person wishing to follow his conscience. Their job is to scrutinise every single cultural artifice for hidden injustices: speech, food, dress, text, performance, outcomes. They aim to apply open and constant cynical criticism to everything until the edifice of liberalism collapses. Critical theory exists to bring about a political and social revolution, to control our freedoms and to control thought and action for our own good, which it believes we cannot be trusted to know. Nothing can long resist consistent cynical criticism applied to everything: not art, not masculinity, not society as we know it, not an institution, not a nation, not liberalism.
Liberalism, in contrast, is about individual freedom. It believes in the individual and his/her dignity; that people should be judged by the content of their character because that is what determines who they really are. Liberalism believes in the universal – that there are inalienable rights underwriting what it means to be human. Liberalism is ultimately a system of conflict management that allows advanced society to exist. It works by guaranteeing freedoms to speak or not, to worship or not, to disagree or not, to think for oneself, and to enjoy one’s property as one will.
Liberalism built the modern world over the last five centuries. With it came the lowest infant mortality rates, the lowest poverty rates, the greatest access to health, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that the world has ever seen.
Looking back, both Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington were wrong when the Soviet Empire collapsed in 1989: the first prophesied the “end of history”; the other that there would be a clash of civilisations. What we are witnessing today is a cultural war from within the very bosom of liberalism. Lovers of freedom need to wake up to this fact, before we lose all we have achieved.