By Graham Floyd
The social justice movement is all the rage (both literally and figuratively) in modern American society even within the Church. People are clamoring for oppression of one form or another to cease and the rights of certain groups to be recognized. While this movement seems noble on the outside, there is a major flaw on the inside. There is an incoherence that lies deep in the heart of the modern social justice movement that exposes it as intellectually untenable providing an amazing opportunity for the Church to reshape this movement.
While there are different definitions of social justice, the egalitarian definition is the most prominent definition today. This version embraces the equal rights of people such that they must have access to the opportunities to get what they need or want. Anything else is unjust and must be eliminated. One of the central tenants of the modern social justice movement is that society is steeped in oppression that often goes unnoticed. This oppression is labeled “privilege” of one sort or another, and the social justice movement is tasked with unmasking and eliminating it.
As a result, the social justice movement has adopted a particular philosophical method known as Critical Theory. This theory originated from the Marxist tradition of the Frankfurt School. These scholars sought to emancipate humanity from social slavery so that people could fulfill all their needs and desires. Domination of particular ideologies, groups, or powers must be decreased, and freedom in all areas must be increased. This master theory has spawned other subsidiary theories, but they all share the same qualities. A critical theory must explain what is wrong in society, identify who can change society, and provide the means and principles to enforce that change.
There are many different critical theories active in America’s intellectual and social arenas. Feminism, critical race theory, queer theory, and others all claim that certain groups have been oppressed by some power and ideology. This oppressor is typically labeled as white, western, heterosexual, cisgender (i.e. people who identify with their biological gender) males. They have crafted society according to their ideology perhaps unknowingly such that it privileges them at the expense of minorities. This analysis leads to the notion of intersectionality: where a person is oppressed on multiple levels, such as being both female and a lesbian which increases oppression as well as power through group cooperation.
An example of this methodology can be seen in critical race theory. This theory argues that racism is ingrained (i.e. institutional) in America’s social structures perhaps unrecognized by its perpetrators. Such power structures normalize and promote racism; therefore, they should be changed or removed. Some of the key elements of this movement include:
- A critique of liberalism for allowing the freedom to say and do racist things,
- Revisionist interpretations of history from an African-American perspective,
- Intersectionality with other oppressed groups,
- Essentialism where “oppressed” and “oppressor” applies to a group regardless of personal involvement,
- Narrative of one’s experiences with oppression,
- Appeal to nationalism with reparations involved,
- White privilege, and microagressions
From these principles, it is easy to see how critical race theory is an offshoot of Critical Theory. African-Americans are “enslaved” by the “powers” that control American society: white people. Whites have asserted their “ideology” on this country so that it benefits them over minorities. This “domination” must decrease, and “freedom” for African-Americans must be increased through the telling of personal experiences of aggression, a retelling of history from an African-American perspective, a reduction in privileges for whites, and a redistribution of wealth. Critical race theory asserts an explanation of the problem, an identification of actors for change, and principles by which the change is to be affected.
It is easy to see how Critical Theory has shaped the modern social justice movement, but there is a pernicious logical problem lying at the heart of this movement. As was noted above, the social justice movement claims that certain groups have been oppressed by some power, namely white, western, heterosexual, cisgender males. This group has forced their view of the world on the rest of society, which is oppressive and immoral. Critical Theory helps to expose this oppression and end it.
Let us now look closely at those who are the originators of Critical Theory. What you will notice about the Frankfurt School is that it is comprised of white, western, heterosexual, cisgender males. The philosophical foundations of the modern social justice movement are based on the very thing it claims is the problem. As a result, the modern social justice movement is steeped in the oppression it condemns. If this movement is going to condemn the ideological oppression of white, western, heterosexual, cisgender masculinity, then it must condemn Critical Theory as well as itself. Further, if the social justice movement achieved is goals, then (according to its own philosophy) the movement would immediately become an oppressor socially dominating certain groups with its ideology. Again, the movement condemns itself for attempting to oppress others. Even Critical Theory seeks to do what it condemns: dominate and repress other groups and ideologies.
In logic, this outcome is called a self-refuting idea: to accept a position requires rejecting the position (or vice versa). If one accepts Critical Theory and the social justice movement, then one must automatically reject both. By refuting their own claims, Critical Theory and the modern social justice movement are incoherent (i.e. nonsensical), and what is incoherent cannot be rationally accepted. If the social justice movement is to remain a force in this country, then it must radically change itself into a rational position.
This is where the Church must step up. The Church has the opportunity to transform the social justice movement into an intellectually and biblically sound movement. By redirecting this movement back towards a correct, biblical conception of society and justice, the Church can more fully proclaim the Gospel and show the love of God to a lost world. If God is the source of truth, then anything less is incoherent.
Janet Flynn and Maxine Johnson, “What is Social Justice?” OUP Blog, March 25, 2017. https://blog.oup.com/2017/03/what-is-social-justice/; accessed September 6, 2018.
James Bohman, “Critical Theory,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, March 8, 2005. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-theory/; accessed September 6, 2018.
“What is Critical Race Theory?” UCLA School of Public Affairs. https://spacrs.wordpress.com/what-is-critical-race-theory/; accessed September 6, 2018.
Ibid.; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_race_theory. See also Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, “Critical Race Theory: An Annotated Bibliography,” Virginia Law Review 79(2) (1993): 461-513, and Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, 2nd ed. New York: New York University Press, 2012.
A list of members of the Frankfurt School can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankfurt_School; accessed September 6, 2018.