Many students, professors, intellectuals, media figures and the occasional invited speaker for, say, the Directed Studies program, claim to be taking on what they consider illiberal, politically correct culture. In particular, they challenge the discourse that has emerged with the growth of ethnic, queer and gender studies, which we can generally call “critical theory.” They complain about “offense” and “trigger warnings” as unintellectual endeavors that stop people from learning.
It’s a very unkind take. But my guess is that people who write and say those things about critical theory don’t care about being kind. They’d rather show off how much better than you they are, attempting to preserve their intellectual holy grail. But just being offended at people getting offended is itself an incredibly unintellectual act: doing so ignores the vast possibilities of critical thought inherent in the new intellectual discourse.
Fundamentally, critical theory is about accepting viewpoints different to the ones we grew up with. It’s about considering where the lens through which we view the world came from, and why it might not encompass other human experiences. Discounting intellectual and ideological traditions just because they have been historically ignored is lazy and completely antithetical to what some of the most heralded minds of the Western canon have done for so long.
Consider knowledge like a mountain, or as Newton said, “standing on the shoulders of giants.” The height of a mountain is fundamentally limited by the strength and breadth of its base. And the more we stack on the same base, the more precarious the whole tower becomes. Eventually, we’re placing grains of sand at the very top and hoping they don’t roll down.
Instead, we can expand the base of what we accept as true through other forms of knowledge. Galileo is a perfect example of this: knowledge in his time was based on the idea that everything rotated around the Earth, building various convoluted solutions to understand the ways of the universe. Rejecting accepted Christian belief by examining the things that at the time seemed unimpeachable, Galileo revolutionized the way we understand space, physics and the stars. In short, he was a giant on whose shoulders we all stand today.
In fact, all the greatest academic and artistic heroes made history by breaking out of existing molds. And critical theory, out of which this so-called “offense” and “outrage” culture stems, seeks to break the existing molds altogether.
Everything we hold true at any one time is predicated on a certain set of axioms. It’s just how knowledge works: if we don’t accept certain things as true just because they are, then it’s much harder to hold a coherent view of the world.
But in that attempt to create coherence, the academy often dismisses other ideas that don’t fit within its pre-established notions of how the world works. Those notions once included — and often still include — white culture being the most advanced and superior, wealth in capitalism being justly distributed, or men being superior to women.
In response to these exclusionary ideas, critical theory creates new axioms, upholds ignored ones and challenges the validity of existing ones. In this way, critical theory is the Galileo to the Western academy. And it is profoundly uncritical to ignore these new foundations of knowledge without questioning the roots of your own.
That isn’t to say that the way critical theory manifests in the world is faultless. But its problems — “cancel” culture, condescending and quick judgments and a lack of patience for those who are just trying to learn — come, ironically, from the very things that critical theory criticizes: patriarchy and capitalism.
We’ve created a world where kindness is weakness, where to be wrong is anathema. Toxic masculinity declares that we must always be superior to those around us; capitalism insists that generosity is illogical and contrary to our own interests. So, we are incentivized to never be wrong, ever. We are afraid to be less “woke” than the person next to us because we’ve been taught that not knowing something means we are inferior and — quite simply — bad people.
We are all wrong, sometimes. The actual question is what we do with it. And because of their unique position as disempowered in multiple systems of oppression, queer women of color have some of the most forward thinking answers. American writer Audre Lorde, in her famous talk “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House,” urges us to “reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside [ourselves] and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there.”
The deep internal understanding that Lorde sought, to fight that hatred in all of ourselves, allows us to build bridges of kindness and respect between one another. But it requires genuine self-insight on all sides. Yes, you, conservatives howling at the spitefulness of social justice warriors. Yes, you, woke Twitter reactionary. Yes, me, too.
TITANIA NGUYEN is a senior in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .