The Logical Conclusion of (some types of) Critical Theory [Scope]

I have a feeling that this post is going to raise some eyebrows and heat up some tempers, so let me state up front:

This is by no means a definitive account of ANYTHING.  I am open to criticism.  Please, give me feedback, as this is my own theory and by no means a reflection of all my beliefs.

Phew.  I dislike disclaimers, but the internetz require them sometimes.

Sociology is, at its core, an objective discipline that strives to describe and collect data regarding the inherently subjective experience of social interactions within a given culture.  In its purest form, Sociology is akin to the "hard" sciences like Biology and Physics, following the scientific method by requiring the testing of hypotheses and the replication of results under similar conditions.  Theories arise in Sociology that are quickly disproved, just like in any other science, and those that do withstand the test of time are rightly brought into question as our understanding of society evolves and changes.

While intellectually valuable, Sociology, like other hard sciences, needs a branch dedicated to applying itself to the issues it tackles.  Over the years, this branch has spawned multiple movements working towards equality in society including certain forms of Feminism, parts of the GLBTQ movement, and has raised awareness regarding continuing racial, gender, and socioeconomic disparities.  Most recently, Sociology has given rise to the field of Critical Theory, which strives to look at every social interaction through the sociological lens, thus providing constant feedback and an informal platform for dialectic exchanges.

When formalized, Critical Theory observes the situations of many different types of people and assigns them an amount of privilege as dictated by their social location.  A good representation of this is given by Patricia Hill Collins in her essays on the intersection of different social oppressions.  She states that we all have a location within an oppressive "matrix" (dubbed the Matrix of Oppression) that gives every individual a unique level of privilege, and conversely a unique oppressed status, thus making comparisons of oppression irrelevant and unhelpful to the continued objectification of oppression as it relates to a person's experience.

Everything about this makes sense.  In fact, it's quite liberating from the perspective of anyone who seeks to enact social change because it meshes so well with the "live and let live" philosophy that is embodied in the ideal of social equality.

In practice, however, there are some flaws in the theory's application to reality that need addressing if we wish to continue citing it as a justification for equality.  The issue becomes clear when we investigate more deeply the premise that people are not responsible for their social location and thus accountability is not to be considered on an individual level.  The idea is that privilege (and conversely oppression) are inherited through a number of channels including genetics, appearance, level of education available, socioeconomic status of family, and so forth.  For instance, a child of white affluent parents has a higher level of privilege and a lower level of oppression (debatable if you come from a family of WASPs.  just kidding.) than a child whose parents are dark-skinned, recent immigrants, and poorly educated by our society's standards.  Critical theory states that neither child is responsible for their social location because there was no conscious choice that could have been made otherwise.

Nothing wrong so far.  But when we take it to the next step, issues start to arise.  The more conservative among us say that all individuals should be held to the same standards.  This is wrong.  There is no one right way of living, thus standards should be flexible.  However, the Critical Theory contention, that we should excuse those who suffer the most oppression out of hand while questioning (also out of hand) the actions of those least oppressed, is equally as fallacious logically.  Recall:  the premise of the Critical Theory argument is that no one is responsible for their social location.  Thus, no one should be held responsible for their actions.  This is also incorrect.  Accountability is important not just as a personal value but as a societal value, and whether you believe in government or not, odds are you believe SOMEONE should be held accountable for atrocities committed against other human beings.

So, what we have here is a theory unequally applied.  THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT THOSE WITH HIGH LEVELS OF PRIVILEGE ARE OPPRESSED.  What it does mean, though, is that the theory needs revision.  When people interested in social equality (myself included) look at the social fabric that contributes to social inequality, we say "this is wrong."  That statement is still valid.  Those with privilege deserve less than they have, and those with less privilege deserve more than they have.  That is not a subjective statement, but rather one based on the philosophy that all humans, by merit of being human, deserve the same set of rights and privileges as their neighbors.  This idea has been around since before the written word:  there is evidence that pre-agricultural tribes had horizontally organized societies without clear winners and losers, resulting in a society of equals.

So here we are:  this is the jumping-off point for a whole new perspective.  If you can't blame someone else for your problems, and you can't blame yourself (both of these are valid conclusions), then what do you do to stay sane, improve your situation, and aid in efforts for equality?

A few things come to mind.  First is the radical idea that change can happen without clear winners and losers.  Sometimes, such as in a well-structured anarchy (oh, the contradiction!!!), change occurs because it should, and not because of some misguided sense of justice or desire to set the record straight.  Ours is a society that forgets its past, and quickly.  We are better served by moving forward with our plans for an equal society than we are by trying to fix problems that exist now because of the past.

What that means:  Let's start over!  It's laughable how easy it would be to simply drop out of society, especially from the perspective of the disenfranchised, simply because when a large enough group does so, they become their own social entity, independent of the needs and wants of the society we live in.  In a lot of ways, the privileged will have the hardest time with this because from their (our) perspective, there is a lot to lose.  Daniel Quinn (It wouldn't be a post without a reference to DQ) has a solution for this, too, and I paraphrase:  think not of all you will have to give up, but of all you have to gain by doing so.  This isn't a losing battle.  We can do this.  All we need are the skills.

"If you give a man a fish..."


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A blog about social change, written from Brooklyn, New York. Currently looking for contributors.