Is Critical Theory Actually Critical?
Beyond woke and anti-woke.
There are two dominant responses to critical social justice. One is to accept it entirely and “do the work” that critical social justice demands. The other is to reject critical social justice, become “anti-woke,” and oppose critical social justice. All of American politics is polarized around these two positions.
I’d like to present a third option.
Both the “woke” and “anti-woke” have accepted the idea that critical theory is critical, and not a neutral tool. To be a critical theory, a theory must not only explain the world but attempt to change it. Critical theories contain an inherent political incitement by design.
Yet the process by which these theories are developed is itself not critical. Critical theory could also be thought of as a tool for analyzing power and language. One could create a theory that explains what is wrong with the world and attempts to transform it for any purpose or end.
In my book Children’s Justice, I break down the process of critical social justice theory into five principles and apply them along with many other social justice ideas to children’s issues. Based on this analysis, I conclude that American society has a problem with systemic pedophilia that can only be solved through a radical transformation of the way we treat children, which I call Children’s Justice.
This analysis is different than any previous critical social justice theory, yet it is very clearly critical social justice. The ideas of the book are based in previous critical social justice thinkers such as Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, Michel Foucault, Miranda Fricker, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Herbert Marcuse, etc. Yet, many who consider themselves “anti-woke” have responded positively to the book and left glowing reviews. Why is this? Do the critics of theory really hate theory or just the conclusions of theory?
Imagine for a minute that you had only seen the scientific method used to build bombs. A person who had only seen science used to construct bombs might believe that they hate the scientific method. Yet, the same method could be used to improve or extend life. Not keeping the scientific method would also remove the possibility of the benefits that method might bring. Likewise, there might be benefits to theory we can only know if we explore it as a method, rather than focusing on the cultural bombs it drops on society.
Critical social justice is already the dominant power in society. Why not understand it and use it as a tool for good?