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The Critical Communication Method
What the anti-woke movement misses about communication.
“Words should mean something… The point of communication is that if I have some intention in my mind - I’m thinking something - I want that intention to appear in your mind so that you understand me. And then you say things back, because you have an idea in your head, and you want that idea to appear in my head so that I understand you.”
As a neurodivergent person, I wish that people were as literal and direct in their communication as anti-woke critic James Lindsay describes in the above quote. Unfortunately, in my experience, people do not say exactly what they mean. They say what they believe will produce the desired reaction in their audience.
For example, when someone says that a political opponent is “literally Hitler,” they do not mean that the person they are describing is literally the historical leader of the Nazi party from the 1940s. Rather, they are suggesting that you should respond to this person the same way as you would as if they were the historical figure Adolf Hitler. They are not saying that the person is “literally Hitler,” despite the fact those are the exact words they used. They are saying that you should respond to them with the same moral judgment you’d have towards Hitler.
In Linsday’s model of communication, the purpose of words is to reproduce the mental picture in the speaker’s mind in your mind. In the “literally Hitler” example above, the purpose of words is to produce a mental picture in your head that will cause you to act in the way the speaker wants you to. Words are not representations of literal truth, but an attempt to manipulate you into acting the way the speaker wants. If a picture of Hitler in your mind causes you to act the way the speaker wants, they will use language to produce that, even if that is not the truth. I call this the neurotypical communication model because there is already a word for people who only speak in literal direct communication: autistic.
If we were being generous, we might say that the feelings evoked by “literally Hitler” are closer to the speaker’s internal representation of the person they are talking about than any other language. Perhaps that description does accurately represent their view. However, such a description could be used manipulatively. If the speaker knows that calling their opponent “literally Hitler” will cause you to hate them and act or vote the way that they want you to, they could just as easily use this language to produce the desired effect in their audience, when they hold a different truth in their own mind. Even if the speaker does not intend to manipulate, this language is inherently manipulative, because it is intended to produce a reaction in the audience first and communicate the truth, second. By this standard, all neurotypical communication is manipulative. Only direct communication isn’t. Between these two styles of communication, which is more common?
By the way, anyone who doesn’t subscribe to my substack is literally Hitler. Subscribe:
Okay, now back to the article:
Lindsay and other anti-woke critics are correct that critical social justice often uses the second form of communication. Critical social justice terms usually have a highly technical definition that is different than the more commonly held colloquial definition typically used for these words. Critical social justice benefits from the emotional reaction produced by the language it uses while employing a second definition that would not produce the same reaction if separated from the emotional reaction.
Take for example the word “racist.” Critical social justice defined racism as a system and racists as people who participate in or uphold that system.Any system which produces unequal outcomes between racial groups is racist according to critical race theory. The colloquial definition of a racist is someone who hates or discriminates against other races. Based on the critical definition, activists can make statements like “all white people are racist” since all white people participate in the system of “whiteness" according to critical race theory. We could also say that someone who pays their taxes is a “racist” since they are participating in the system of the American government which critical race theory holds was founded on white supremacy. When most people imagine a “racist,” the image that comes to mind is probably closer to the colloquial “hate” definition than the image that comes to mind from the word “taxpayer.”
Through a highly technical definition that is different from the colloquial usage of a word, critical social justice is able to elicit the emotional reaction of the word “racist” for the actual definition “a person who participates in systems that produce unequal outcomes.” If critical social justice activists were to say “that person participates in and upholds systems that produce unequal outcomes,” they would not get near the same emotional reaction as saying “that person is a racist.”
Using hyperbolic language for political opponents is not new. George Orwell in his 1944 essay What is Fascism? complains that people “recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction” and that “almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.”In other words, before Hitler was even dead, people were already abusing the accusation that their political opponents were “literally Hitler.”
The innovation of critical theory is combining emotionally charged political language with strict academic definitions. Much academic theory uses big words that have no emotional resonance for the public. Words like “racism” or “violence” create an immediate emotional reaction in most people. Combining them with academic language to create words like “epistemic violence” tells the reader how they should feel about an otherwise abstract concept. “A refusal, intentional or unintentional, of an audience to communicatively reciprocate a linguistic exchange owing to pernicious ignorance”doesn’t evoke the same emotional reaction as “violence.” If theorists call it “violence,” the reader knows how they should emotionally respond.
Anti-woke critics like James Lindsay take issue with this communication method because they feel that the precise academic definition is often hidden by the emotional reaction evoked by the words chosen. When most people hear words like “racism” or “violence,” they assume the colloquial definition, rather than the academic definitions of critical theory. Activists often don’t correct them, because they want listeners to act from the emotions evoked by those words. If they were to correct listeners and say that they actually only mean systems that produce unequal outcomes or refusal to reciprocate a linguistic exchange, then their audience might not take the intended action. If you read academic theory, these definitions are clear, but most audiences are not reading that deeply.
As Lindsay puts it, “if I use a word to mean more than one thing at once, I can trick you.”Yet it isn’t a trick, since critical social justice activists are entirely open about their method. Rather, it is a combination of rigorous academic theory and emotional political communication, a hybrid of autistic and neurotypical communication styles. This hybrid communication style takes the best of direct precise neurodivergent rigor and neurotypical broad emotional strokes.
I use this linguistic technique in Children’s Justice. Several readers have asked why I chose terms in Children’s Justice that create such a strong emotional reaction. Why call that which allows or participates in the harm of children “systemic pedophilia?” Isn’t that too strong? One could also ask critical social justice activists, why call unequal outcomes between groups “systemic racism?” Both terms are chosen because the words create the desired moral judgment. Systemic pedophilia fits as a literal definition - the acts it describes fit the legal definition of rape of a minor and are carried out by systems rather than merely individuals - but it also evokes a strong emotional reaction. Most people’s internal representation of a pedophile is different than the social systems described, yet these systems cause more harm than an individual predator. Since these systems cause more harm, our image of them should actually be worse than that of individuals who harm. Not everyone will understand the full extent of that harm or all of the theory behind it, but they do know how to respond to a pedophile. That reaction is what we want to “appear in their head” to quote Lindsay.
Of course, if you don’t love this theory, you are free to communicate like an autistic person. I did for over the first twenty-five years of my life. It was very difficult until I developed a special interest in communication. You can have the debate using only facts and logic. You can always be literal and direct. Those who do usually lose. Keep in mind that the stakes of this conflict are the lives of children. I believe their well-being justifies changing our communication style to a more effective method, even if principled autists might not prefer it.
The hybrid communication style of critical theory contains more information than either direct autistic communication or neurotypical hyperbolic communication since it contains both strict intellectual content and evocative emotional content, rather than merely one or the other. Even the anti-woke have begun to adopt this model. James Lindsay now uses the term “Race Marxism” to describe critical race theory.Race Marxism has a specific definition as describing a political ideology that supports redistributing resources on the basis of race. It also evokes the desired emotional reaction in Lindsay’s target audience. Even the terms used to fight critical theory now use its linguistic technique. The hybrid communication style of critical theory is simply more effective, and the future of any political movement depends on mastering this communication method.
MKE, Mythinformed. @MythinformedMKE. “Words and definitions are important. @ConceptualJames IRL at @NBFORG Pewaukee, WI [video].” Twitter. 2021 June 24. twitter.com/MythinformedMKE/status/1408234755875876864, https://archive.fo/k95nd.
DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility : Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Beacon Press, 2018, p. 4.
Kendi, Ibram. How to Be an Antiracist. 1st ed., One World, 2019, p. 13.
Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, 1st ed., Teacher’s College Press, 2012, p. 119.
Orwell, George. “What Is Fascism?” Orwell.Ru, Tribune, 1944, www.orwell.ru/library/articles/As_I_Please/english/efasc.
Dotson, Kristie. “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing.” Hypatia, vol. 26, no. 2, 10 Mar. 2011, pp. 236-237.
Lindsay, James. “Critical Race Theory Is Race Marxism.” New Discourses, 28 Feb. 2022, newdiscourses.com/2022/02/critical-race-theory-is-race-marxism.