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How CRT and Classical Liberalism Collide

Most people seem not to appreciate how deeply some of the popular ideas advanced by advocates of Critical Race Theory conflict with the foundations of liberal democracy. More, not less, attention needs to be given to this disconnect.

Critical Race Theory has, at its core, two fundamental problems. The first is an academic and philosophical one that leads to devotional, almost religious behavior. The second is a tactical problem common among its proponents that involves what many would consider essentially deception.  

First, on a philosophical level, proponents of Critical Theory (CT), and all of its various offshoots such as the currently hotly debated Critical Race Theory (CRT), have generated a system of jargon that operates as a kind of code by which fellow adherents and those in the ‘in’ crowd recognize one another—and which excludes those both not educated in the code’s use and critics who refuse to use the code because giving that ground essentially cedes the argument.

The complexity of this jargon can become a shield against criticism—and leave those not explicitly trained in it with little hope of understanding what is being said by CRT advocates. All this has occurred at the expense of being able to clearly communicate with the ‘other side’ of any given philosophical, political, policy, ethical, moral, or scientific discussion. In turn, some advocates have rendered themselves virtually incapable of entertaining ideas not native to the philosophical framework they so closely adhere to—dismissing non-CRT-related ideas as either a cover for, or the dross from an oppressive system, the existence of which is central to their moral framework. 

This has contributed to many CRT advocates being overly condemning of the rich, historic, and diverse ecosystem of ideas that are constantly being grappled with, defended, discarded, and improved upon all around them—an ecosystem these advocates often seem to be unfortunately working to suppress, supplanting it with their own self-referential, non-falsifiable ideas. Some of these advocates increasingly do this through intimidation, McCarthyite levels of demand for adherence to an ever-shifting political standard of speech, de-platforming and doxing speakers they disagree with. While clearly most CRT proponents eschew violence, in too many other cases adherents of the philosophy seem to see aggression as an unfortunate means to an end.  If all else fails, they engage in committing acts of violence, vandalism, or other criminal mischief. This sometimes happens directly through students, or through other off-campus agitators invited, supported, and/or organized by the professional academic proponents of CT and CRT. 

The natural response to this type of bullying and even sometimes criminal behavior of those who believe in CT and its offshoots would be to withdraw from the field or to meet force with force. I do not believe that to be a helpful or healthy response for our society or the nation as a whole. I believe that the Great Conversation (which has historically encouraged exploration of competing ideas and philosophies) is what has driven western society and the world towards greater freedom and higher standards of living over the last millennia.

To preserve that conversation, I wish to propose a way forward on an intellectual level, by directly engaging with one of the foundational concepts of CT. As this essay makes clear, I’m a critic of critical theorists. Nonetheless, my hope with this article is to begin the work of bridging that gap that prevents conversation between the different schools of thought in one critical area.

The Value of Society

In Critical Theories jargon, different elements of society are deemed to be mere ‘social constructs’; rather than objective realities, these social building blocks largely reflect certain linguistic or interpretive creations of society. That includes performative actions that are leveraged to classify people into various groups. Critical Theorists do this in a very similar way to the Nietzschean philosophy of the Slave Morality, only turned on its head. 

Where Nietzsche rejected the use of what he called the ‘Slave Morality’ being forced on the ‘Masters,’ Critical Theorists seem to be pursuing exactly that imposition. CT and CRT proponents agree with Nietzsche’s argument that the only real laws are those of the pure exercise of power in all its forms. CRT and CT proponents seek to curtail abuses of power by granting various identity groups that power—essentially encouraging what Nietzsche would call the ‘slaves’ or the ‘lower class’ to shape society wholly on their own pure exercise of power. 

From this vantage point, institutions, like courts or legislatures, are nothing but tools through which the powerful exercise their will. Therefore, the tearing down of such institutions that prevent the ‘slaves’ or the oppressed from exercising their will without constraint could be nothing but moral. If, however, such institutions upheld the ‘slave’ power structure, then it is by necessity good. 

What is a ‘Man’ or ‘Woman’ but performative social structures that can be changed if we decide to change how they are performed through the socialization of children?

In most other Classical Liberal or Enlightenment philosophies, society’s building blocks would be seen as something more than social constructs—instead, something like social contracts. Social contracts are a bedrock of the philosophical, political, and legal frameworks for American society as it stands some three hundred years after its founding.

Rousseau, among others, framed the world so people could better contend with the abuse of power that they were witness to under Classical Conservative or Monarchist Europe. They often wrote with an eye to curtail those abuses through the use of neutral arbiters; courts, constitutions, traditions, and more. 

They sought to remove humanity from the pure exercise of arbitrary will and power that had plagued Europe for so long, plunging it into a nearly eternal war on religious, philosophical, and racial grounds. These efforts aimed to prevent the cycle of oppressed becoming oppressors, leading to tyranny, then anarchy, and then back around to the once oppressed seizing power and seeking revenge, starting the cycle over again. This tragic pattern was widely accepted as the “human predicament” and most European enlightenment and Classical Liberal philosophies intended to break it.

The Slippage of Language and Invalidating Meaning

Language slippage is another important aspect of CT. It essentially means that words only mean what we collectively say they are defined as; they don’t innately have any meaning. A common example is the word “tree.” From this vantage point, the sound “tree” does not have any connection to an actual physical real-world tree without human interpretation. 

Only by hearing the word through the social construct of the language of English does the word have a connection to any physical tree. Through English, the word tree has meaning to others who would hear it. Even then, the word would only have meaning in our minds, as there is still no innate or natural connection between the sound of “tree” and an actual tree. 

To use Critical Theories terminology borrowed from Saussure’s field of semiotics, there is no natural connection between the signifier and the signified. English, therefore, is yet another social construct, an artificial matrix of sounds that we have all agreed have certain meanings. Social constructs can, and often should according to CT, change either through natural or artificial means. That desire for revision permeates much of Critical Theory, which postulates that society needs to ‘deconstruct all social constructs.’ 

The second fundamental problem that CT and CRT face is CRT proponents’ abuse of language slippage causing purposeful semantic overload (I promise you, I am trying not to use too much jargon here myself). Semantic overload refers to when a word, phrase, or concept has more than one meaning, causing confusion and misidentification. When someone says ‘to the left’ and you are facing them, the term ‘left’ has multiple potential meanings, causing confusion. Do they mean your left, or their left? Both are legitimate interpretations of the meaning behind ‘to the left.’

Semiotics concepts and perfectly valid intellectual tools, like the slippage of language, have been applied to other fields of study and used by proponents of CT and CRT to remove or confuse the meaning of social structures they politically view as inconvenient to their ideology. For instance, what is a ‘Man’ or ‘Woman’ but performative social structures that can be changed if we decide to change how they are performed through the socialization of children?

As the thinking goes, if we can change the narrative and alter the definitions of words (and how they are performed) we can alter reality. In the case of gender roles, this critique ignores the connection of natural biological instincts and environmental factors to their expression in the social structures of gender roles. Viewing such gender expressions as purely, and wholly artificial, with no basis in biology or environmental factors, has been soundly refuted in the fields of sociology, human biological development, childhood development, evolutionary biology, psychology, developmental psychology, political psychology, behavioral science, and family sciences among others.

As a more clear and immediate example of this ‘deception through redefinition,’ take the term racism. The way that racism is defined by most CRT proponents goes something like this: Racism is inequity enforced by social and institutional power that creates systemic inequalities and advantages based on race. Typically advantages are provided to those who self-identify or who can ‘pass’ for white, while disadvantages and oppression are felt by those who are ‘other.’

Definitions like that are widely used among proponents of CRT but rarely used by anyone outside that intellectual framework. Notice how it denies the possibility of racially unequal outcomes based on other factors not related to overt institutional oppression or white supremacist motive. 

An individual can not escape the effects of such a system either as an oppressor or as the oppressed. A white person can not be anything but an oppressor (on some level), and a black person can not be anything but oppressed (on another level), unless, of course, the system itself changes radically in a way that suppresses the oppressor, while elevating the oppressed.

By contrast, the traditional understanding of racism is as follows, given by Webster’s Online Dictionary. “A belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” This definition is universally applicable, both to groups and to individuals. An individual can be racist or not racist based on their individual beliefs and actions. It does not presuppose guilt or innocence based solely on race.

Though the CRT-inspired definition has become more widely used because of the ongoing public debate, I believe that this CRT-inspired meaning of racism has far less to do with real-world oppression of minority or majority rights, and much more to do with the pure exercise of power in inter-racial power dynamics. Power exercised in line with CRT goals is “anti-racist,” while power being used against its goals is “racist” (reason and context be damned). In many cases, reason and context themselves have even been characterized as “white supremacist” beliefs, while any individual member of the ‘oppressed’ group that does not fall in line with CRT’s goals or policies is proposed as suffering from some form of internal oppression. 

In the case of African Americans who do not agree with CRT’s policies or views, for example, they often suffer humiliating and dehumanizing slurs whose only intention is to ‘poison the well’ against them and invalidate their voices. Consistently, only those members of oppressed groups who agree with CRT’s views are seen as intelligent, capable, and educated.

Getting back to the example, if a white person has more power than a black person, the white person is by definition “racist.” And the system that produced the more powerful white man is, by definition, “systemically racist.” Under this popular CRT definition, the intrinsic value or goodness of the individual’s actions do not have anything to do with the racism of said person. If the roles were reversed, and a black man had power over a white man in an individual instance, the black man would not be considered racist under CRT’s definition. Their actions, restraints, and judicious or moral use of power matter very little in this framework, in comparison to which is the larger and more powerful racial group. That’s what matters most.

Yet when others try to clarify these distinctions for the public, CRT proponents too often insist their definitions have been badly misrepresented. 

Amidst the confusion, listeners or readers can be led to think they are acting on the traditional definition—allowing activists to thereby wield the power of America’s revulsion to the evil ideology of racism to bludgeon their political and social opposition.

Instead of directly interacting with their opposition’s criticisms, most proponents of CT and CRT will call their opposition many sorts of names—or worse simply dismiss valid criticisms as proof positive of structural ills, like racism, they present themselves as possessing the unique insight to correct. Through what amounts to a lie, activists can wield social power in the same fashion as they claim their opposition wields legal and structural power—with pure unrestricted malice if they so choose.

Appreciating Natural Social Contracts 

How do the aforementioned philosophies of Social Contracts apply here?  Usually, Social Contract Theory is applied to the use and application of government. This is because the deep thinkers of its formative age were concerned with such things as the abuse of power, representation, producing a good society, natural rights, and the consent of the governed. In short, they were concerned with removing the ability to wield arbitrary power by all aspects of society, while supporting minority rights.

This basic logic behind social contract theory can be applied to other areas of study, however, including language. Using the same example as above, the language of English is a generally agreed-upon set of rules for communication between those who are versed in the elements of the contract. We might label these more specifically as “Natural Social Contracts.” These are entered into through natural human development (parents teaching language to their children), exercised based on any given person’s natural ability to wield language, and enforced by the natural consequences of being misunderstood by those you are trying to communicate with.

There are clearly linguistic variations, with different ways of expressing the fundamental aspects of communication like accents, or pidgin forms of English. But in general, if someone says the word “tree,” everyone who is a ‘signatory’ or who participates in the natural social contract of English is going to know what they mean.

Since language is essentially performative (we have to speak, gesture, or write to communicate), the only direct negative consequence that would follow not adhering to the fundamentals of this contract would be an inability to communicate your thoughts or ideas clearly. Consequently, those capable of better executing their portion of the contract enjoy an easier time communicating with their peers, with better writers, or speech givers, better able to communicate than poor writers or speech givers.

Of course, if a variation gets adopted and spread wide enough or long enough it becomes an addendum to the contract. These updates are created not by artificially forced means, like an update to the Académie Française, the Stanford Dictionary, or any of the various style guides. Instead, these addendums are achieved through collective natural action over time, or through the adoption of a particularly convincing or ingenious argument. While artificial attempts to change a language can be successful, such as through updates to a dictionary, if a change is not adopted willingly by a majority of people, continuing with the analogy of a contract, it will not be adopted as an addendum to the contract.

Power exercised in line with CRT goals is “anti-racist,” while power being used against its goals is “racist.”

A deeper appreciation of these Natural Social Contracts may help us prevent the devaluation of important social structures through immersion in CRT. Thus, marriage, while perhaps not a perfect institution, still has value in today’s society if it is viewed as a contract that is willingly entered into, rather than an oppressive construct that dictates to the participants.

Value and Meaning

You will never hear CRT proponents widely use the phrase “social contract.” Why? Because the word contract remains a neutral word, or potentially even a positive one. It implies value and importance, which would go directly against those who wish to use the slippage of language to remove meaning from certain social constructs, in order to further their political and social aims. If something has value, you do not destroy it.

The phrase contract also implies people’s willing participation rather than forced association. Even if a person knows English (the terms of the contract), they do not have to use it.

If I were to say gender is a social contract, rather than a social construct, it implies that gender roles might have positive effects; that they are not wholly oppressive, but in fact are a give and take. This would suggest that gender roles may reflect a legitimate symbiotic relationship of mutual trust and mutual respect despite the difference in labor type between its members. This does not imply perfection and leaves room for improvement of the contract, such as increased freedom and decreased stigma for non-conformist lifestyles. But it does imply value.

This same logic—that social institutions have meaning, importance, and value, that they are not intrinsically oppressive tools—can and should counterbalance every part of CT. Do that, and conversation about the value of all elements of our society can begin. Whatever changes need to be made as a society will become clearer, and those changes can be made. But wherever there is value, that value should be kept.

Let us look at race once again. If we were to follow CRT’s logic to its end conclusion, one of two outcomes with regard to the idea of ‘race’ can happen. Looking at race through a historic and cultural lens there is value in the social construct or contract of race. If we are allowed to have an open and honest conversation about race, as we have in the past, we can discard false notions, prejudices, and injustice, while preserving that cultural and historic value.

Shut down the conversation as most CRT proponents seem to want to do—and two negative outcomes become possible. First, race can get washed away entirely, where even the discussion of its historic effect becomes taboo, and punished in some way as we have seen on some college campuses. This would inevitably leave communities hollow and adrift, disconnected from their family and cultural history. As one example, the Jazz era would be forgotten as we understand it now. It would become blurred from its context into a far different story if we are unable to discuss the historic racial context that surrounds it. The injustices, the triumphs, and the tragedies.

Or the second option is that race can continue to be leveraged as an oppressive tool for one side to use against another in the game of pure inter-group power dynamics that most CRT proponents view as intrinsic to society.

This allows whatever group is in ascendancy the justification it needs to dish out revenge on those who once visited such evils on them in the past. This would be reminiscent in many ways to what racial essentialists of the very early 20th century sought to produce until the evils of the Nazi regime woke the world up to the inevitable conclusion of such philosophical thought put into practice.

If we are unable to have the conversation outside the linguistic constraints that CRT seeks to place on everyone, race will become a meaningless taboo, or a tool of oppression, degradation, and humiliation to be wielded by whatever group currently clings to power. The only thing that will stop this outcome, is for us to restart the Great Conversation.

Reigniting the Great Conversation

Understanding that there is value in social constructs is one way to reignite the Classical Liberal ideal of the Great Conversation—encouraging the inertia of tradition and the forces of progress to hash out what is best as time moves on. That entails leaving behind the old and useless or outdated parts of our social structure and keeping what is essential and important to human development and happiness.

But it seems many proponents of CRT and its cousins do not wish to hear this. They resist acknowledging any intrinsic value in social constructs. Rather than remodel and improve upon these contracts, fostering a legitimate conversation on how to best progress—too often CRT proponents seem to want to tear these contracts down, and to enact a kind of ongoing revenge for the past. Those of us who disagree with CRT typically see it for what it is—namely, a toxic ideological environment that suppresses speech not currently in the political or social ascendancy, through the undermining of important and valuable social institutions that protect, and give meaning to many people’s lives.

About the author

Max Halsey

Max Halsey is a consultant in the private and public sectors. He has an MPA from Brigham Young University.
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