The Problem with Critical Theory

I spent some years as a feminist scholar navigating different “epistemologies” and critical thinking. I can certainly see how valuable it is to challenge existing male-centered paradigms that completely marginalize women and others who do not fit the dominant narrative – white, male, heterosexual, secular. This marginalization was and still is true of most of the social sciences including sociology, psychology, anthropology, cultural studies and studies in language. Feminists borrowed some of our ideas from male critical scholars, often without questioning the intensely androcentric perspectives that existed in those writings (Foucault being among the worst).

I certainly believe language or “discourse” can create a kind of “reality” that can dominate to the extent of denying objective reality altogether. Trans ideology is a good example. “Truth” can be a fuzzy concept, depending on whose truth is being spoken and by whom. I found “standpoint theory” to be especially useful. This is “a feminist theoretical perspective that argues that knowledge stems from social position. … The theory emerged from the Marxist argument that people from an oppressed class have special access to knowledge that is not available to those from a privileged class.” It’s often now confused with intersectionality and identity politics, which misinterpret the theory by transitioning it from a collective or a class analysis to an individual level. As I get older I am more and more attracted to ” feminist empiricism”, which is a practise of exploring dominant discourses in science, law, politics, etc and “feminizing” them, with some forms of discourse more resistant to such interpretation than others.

There are different kinds of reality glimpsed in different ways by many different knowledge systems. Some are realities created in human minds. They can be very convincing. We have story-telling written into our DNA (I mean this literally). Without narrative frameworks in which to interpret the world reality is simply chaos – random objects and events. So we create “reality”, or “realities” both collective and individual (insofar as any individual can exist outside of a collective). These can be verifiably false (the earth is flat, the sun rotates around the earth, the universe was created in six days, biological sex doesn’t exist). Or they can express some element of meaning that might well be true in some sense (conspiracy theories sometimes can be like this). There can be many different ways of explaining a deeper truth (history, myth, art, science, religion and spirituality). But, the question remains – is there an objective reality “out there” that we can ever really know?

Critical theorists (not including gender critical theorists), such as feminist, race and queer critical theorists, seem to be saying no. Reality, they say, is a human construct created by language or discourse – and can be changed by creating a new discursive framework. Critical race theorists insist this has to be a collective endeavour. But critical queer theorists and so-called “libfems” or critical feminist theorists seem to be insisting that this discursive change is individual, not collective. The idea seems to be, not so much in creating a new and more just collective framework for people on the margins of the current racist, colonialist regime (as critical race theory seems to be trying to do), but rather in breaking down or deconstructing language and existing social structures in order to return us to chaos, out of which new realities of individual sexual liberation and empowerment can be born – “queering” the world so to speak.

So, in this theory of meaning there is no objective reality, merely subjective “realities”. Prostitution becomes “sex work” the same as any other kind of work, pornography becomes empowering, sexual objectification of the female body is a form of liberation from patriarchy instead of surrender to patriarchy, and something as deeply biologically fundamental as sex (male and female) can be relabeled as “gender”, and is declared to be completely alterable at will. It’s not that this creates a new objective reality – there is no such thing according to this epistemological framework – but that dominant discourses of sex and sexuality are reversed and overthrown. As individuals increasingly embrace this new language of gender, the old language of sex binaries is overturned. People (like gender critical feminists, “radfems” and TERFs) who insist on clinging to the old discourse can be labelled and dismissed as conservative reactionaries similar to, or complicit with, white supremists, colonizers, misogynists, Nazis. Anything said in opposition to the new discursive “reality” becomes hate speech, transphobic. Misgendering pronouns and “deadnaming” become actual literal violence, because discourse is “real”. There is no actual reality – only words, performance, expression, individual identities. This seems to be the nub of critical theory.

There are many problems with this approach. It’s not that transsexuals, intersexuals, or cross-dressers don’t deserve human rights. Of course they do. It’s not even about how easy it has been for this new discursive “reality” to be highjacked by men’s rights activists, or the pharmaceutical and cosmetic surgery industries (neither of which gives a flying fuck about epistemology). It’s not just the resulting erosion of the rights of women, girls and the LGB community (although this is not an accidental by-product). It’s not only the confusion of susceptible minds, or the mutilation of human bodies, especially children’s bodies. It’s not simply the silencing of dissenting speech. All of these things are huge problems, but there is something even more fundamental.

The big problem is that these critical theorists propose that material reality, apart from discursive “realities”, does not exist. So everything from the differences between male and female (on which all sexual orientations, gendered practices, and much of human experience ultimately depends), to biological sexual reproduction (which is of course where babies come from), to biological diversity (which largely exists because of biological sexual reproduction); to ecological stability, planetary systems like evolution or climate, geology or the oceans; and our place as a species on this Earth, become simply another form of fantasy, another conspiracy theory (maybe the world is round, maybe it’s flat – someone is trying to fool you), just another lie (if “lies” are possible without some truth to compare them with). Or, in the words of critical theorists, another “hegemonic discursive practise”, as the jargon would have it. Try believing that the geology of plate tectonics is just another “hegemonic discursive practise” in the middle of an earthquake. You can do it, but it won’t be very helpful.

Ultimately, critical theory is about power, who has it, who controls it, and who doesn’t. But if all of reality is just a set of “hegemonic discursive practises” revolving around power, then “reality” can never exist outside of those man-made systems of power that are generating so many of our current existential crises. Not only does this create an ongoing power-struggle consisting of endless conflicts over who controls the discourse of power, it also creates the bedrock of totalitarian political systems both communist and fascist (Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist, Nazi, Italian and Hispanic Fascist). It traps all of humanity, especially women and children, but also many men who are not in positions of power, in an inescapable endlessly recurring loop of violence from the bedroom to the UN Security Council.

But, thankfully, material reality does exist, and humans are part of it. There is no other rational way of explaining our universe or ourselves. Otherwise, we are simply lost in solipsism and narcissism, and any meaningful dialogue is nothing more than an endless argument about  power where we become powerless to change the real conditions of injustice because we don’t believe those conditions actually exist in any way we can interact with. Everything is just performance, “virtue signalling”. We believe ourselves to exist only because we think we do or say we do – as some people persist in saying the magic words “transwomen are women”. The words are indeed magical thinking, and the magic will never work. Critical thinking as currently practised is part of a lonely futile universe completely disconnected from the reality that is all around us, and inside us. It is being grounded in reality that allows us to lead genuinely meaningful lives.

“Cogito ergo sum” – I think, therefore I am – is one of the great mistakes of modern philosophy. The words are from one of the original masters of our existing “hegemonic discursive practises” – Rene Descartes (who might be described as the father of gender ideology). But we don’t exist because we think we do. We think, feel, act and observe because we exist. All living creatures do. And within that existence we, and other conscious life forms, create meaning – sacred, scientific, linguistic, cultural, gendered, embodied.  Our existence as part of reality is not ultimately a product of our minds. We don’t just make it up. It’s the reverse. We humans, male and female, including our crazy clever conscious minds, our living relations with the rest of this world, our universe, our bodies, our place on this Earth, are all products of Reality. We can understand some of it some of the time. We make many mistakes. But there are things that really are true, whatever we might think, including our ability to think at all. Why is the Great Mystery.

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