Taking a Step Back: Trying to Make Sense of “Critical Theory”


While it’s difficult not to have heard the words “critical race theory,” “critical gender theory,” or simply “critical theory” in recent years, what it all means is another question. But it’s an important question for those like me and David Brooks (“Universities Are Failing at Inclusion”) who are trying to figure out what’s going on with American campuses and among the intelligentsia. In his article, Brooks helpfully summarizes the tenets of the now prevailing ideology.

But taking a step back . . .

Here’s a primer on “critical theory,” (there’s also a pretty good piece on it at Wikipedia). “Critical theory” has its roots in Marx. Which is not to say it’s therefore a bad thing. Marx famously said of his work that he didn’t want simply, “to understand the world, but to change the world.” One can admire that impulse — I do. It is shared by all sorts of people of varied philosophies, politics, and faiths.

This basic impulse was picked up by the “Frankfurt School” of social theorists in Germany in the post-World War II era. Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse are some of the big names that go with critical theory development in that era. These were people I read when I was a graduate student in European Cultural and Intellectual history years ago.

Their approach is summed up in the Wikipedia article as follows: “A critical theory is any approach to humanities and social philosophy that focuses on society and culture to attempt to reveal, critique, and challenge power structures.” Whether you are analyzing an economic theory, a particular social sector (say medicine), or a literary text, power is the crucial, the determining, factor for critical analysis.

So the questions become, who has power? Whose interests are being served? What and whose interests does a literary, biblical, or sociological text underwrite? Who doesn’t have power? Who is being left out? Who is not at the table? Again, these strike me as good and important questions.

The early work of the Frankfurt School was subsequently filtered through that of French and American post-modernists, like Jacques Derrida and Michael Foucault, Richard Rorty, and Judith Butler. While this is over-simplifying it, the contribution of post-modernism was the idea that “everyone is coming from somewhere.” There is no neutral or objective point of view, nor are there any universal truths. All of us are creatures of our social (race, class, gender, national) location. Again, there’s value here. We are all influenced by our background and present context.

As all this was more widely popularized and took hold in the academic world as the interpretive lens (it is the theoretical underpinnings of DEI programs), it became problematic. Power, its use and abuse, became the only variable to be considered. So when analyzing a literary or biblical text from a critical theory perspective, there’s no place for something like a universal truth about life, about people, or about God that might be conveyed. It’s all about, and only about, power. This results in some pretty reductive readings. Don’t bother reading the Bible for truth about God. It’s all about the social construction of power. Same for Shakespeare, and God help “the canon of western literature.”

Moreover, it is assumed in critical theory that those who have power are always and everywhere oppressors. Or as Brooks puts it, “human relations are power struggles between oppressors and oppressed groups.” Conversely, those who lack or have less power are always and everywhere oppressed. From there it’s not a big jump to the following: all people/institutions with power are bad; all people/groups lacking power are good.

This has a great deal to do with the pervasive contemporary distrust of anyone in any position of authority as well as distrust of most all institutions. It has a lot to do with people seizing, or being ceded, the moral high-ground simply by establishing they are one sort of victim or another. Again, you may think this all very abstract. But it comes out, for example, in the decision of progressive city attorneys to not prosecute shop-lifting because shop-lifters are but victims of an unjust economy.

In response to a couple of my recent blogs on all this, one of you sent me a 2023 essay by the literary scholar, Rita Felski, who earlier wrote the book, The Limits of Critique, which was about the influence of critical theory in the humanities.

In her 2023 essay Felski made a couple of points about DEI and privilege and the way critical theory has come to be employed by academics, though not only academics. In recent years, for example, journalists influenced by critical theory have also argued against the idea of “objective journalism,” or simply “fairness,” in reporting and news coverage while arguing for engaged and advocacy journalism. You must chose a side.

You can see the thread here from Marx’s “I’m not interested in understanding the world; I want to change the world.” Academia and journalism have been two settings where there had been an aspiration to being at least somewhat “disinterested.” Post-modernists told us there was no such thing as being “disinterested,” “objective,” or “dispassionate.” Everyone has an agenda (which ironically leads to Trump’s cry of “fake news”). Everyone and everything has a stake in the power game. Ideals, civilizing influences, morals, and affections are dismissed as “bourgeois” or “middle-class,” which again evidences the influence of Marx who had no love for the middle class.

Back to Felski’s 2023 essay, and several quotes from it, beginning with this one: ” . . . academics are often oblivious to the ways in which their manner of communicating can make others feel small.” That is nothing new, and such condescension may be getting worse as many — of course, not all — academics, now intoxicated by critical theory have become shrill, harsh, and self-righteous. In addition, purity tests have proliferated on campus.

Felski continues: “Meanwhile, even as economic inequality intensifies, the silence about class in contemporary theory is rarely broken. White men are routinely lumped together as a group and chastised for their race, gender, and cis privilege, with little heed given to the countless individuals who are out of work or trapped in low-status and low-paid jobs and who are disproportionally prone to deaths of despair. Critique, in such contexts, seems virtually guaranteed to trigger further defensiveness, resentment, and a flight to the right.”

In this next paragraph Felski refers to the work of a newish member (Robin Celikates) of today’s “Frankfurt School” who is critical of “critical theory.” I know, that sounds like “inside baseball,” except that it really isn’t.

“Its proponents may contend that they are not blaming individuals but showing how they are being manipulated by systemic structures of whiteness or toxic masculinity. Celikates, however, queries the assumption that it’s acceptable to treat others as dopes as long as you can show that it’s someone else’s fault. To treat the beliefs, intentions, and motives of one’s fellow human beings as nothing more than the effects of structures is to objectify and dehumanize them. Denying their ability to reflect on their circumstances ‘obscures the complexity of social reality in general and of everyday practice in particular, and will not be able to grasp these in a manner that is anywhere near adequate.’”

This came out in Hillary Clinton’s infamous 2016 description of Trump supporters as “deplorables.” Even if that may be an apt description for some, it came across as a tone-deaf dismissal from “the betters.”

Moreover, continues Felski, “intellectual claims to greater knowledge can easily veer in an anti-democratic direction, as claims to epistemic superiority are translated into claims to political authority.” We know more than you, we’re the experts, so sit down and shut up!

And then this (my italics added). “Perspectives that clash with the critic’s own can be disqualified via an assortment of ready-to-hand adjectives (complicit, neoliberal, nostalgic, confused, naive) or explained away (‘how predictable that you would say such a thing, given the privileges of your race/gender/ sexuality!’) rather than engaged in their own terms as arguments and normative claims. The result is what Celikates calls an immunization strategy that guards the critic from being contaminated by the views of others.”

Elsewhere political philosopher Michael Sandel, author of The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, referred to this as the “politics of humiliation,” which has been a huge factor in recent American life and which a demagogue like Trump has played on to great effect.

Well, that’s probably enough for now — more than enough I suspect you may be thinking! But I will conclude with this final observation.

Many today, perhaps especially in my generation, think a liberal vs. conservative, left v. right binary explains everything, and it is just a matter of choosing sides, blue or red. That is far too simple. While it might have been a good fit for the 70s, 80s and even the 90s, it is, for the times in which we live, really an out-of-date construction. Things are more complex, more pluralistic than liberal v. conservative or Democrat v. Republican. Remember, both parties are themselves split internally. All this requires deeper, more nuanced thinking.

A more accurate depiction of our current state is that quasi-religious (that is claiming ultimacy) extremes are dismissing moderates who do not expect, or wish, a politicized heaven on earth.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinsonhttps://www.anthonybrobinson.com/
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. Anthony Robinson,
    A good piece about intellectual noise. But I must admit I have no clue what DEI is, and nowhere in the piece is the acronym explained. I am also curious about your phrase “cis privilege”. I know about it being on this or that side of the Alps, but are you talking about the assumed privilege of the poor fool putting himself in the line of fire? Having to ask these questions makes me feel, well, small. DB


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