Critical Theory Extremism and the Perversion of Academic Freedom

April 2021

Academic freedom is under attack by critical theory ideologues who try to suppress criticisms of their views and mob, ostracize, and cancel those who express these criticisms. However, the greatest threat comes not from its limitation but from its perversion by those who use it as a shield to conceal their own professional incompetence and abuse it to advance their subversionary agenda. Although not all incompetent academics are critical theory extremists, all critical theory extremists are incompetent academics. Furthermore, although being an incompetent academic may justify having one’s employment terminated, it also may not. If a junior faculty member is incompetent, they might improve and overcome this. The same cannot be said for the critical theory ideologue. Since their incompetence is grounded in their ideology, they cannot become competent without renouncing that ideology. So not only are critical theory extremists not owed any of the protections of academic freedom, but due to the tight connection between their incompetence and their ideology, there is a strong justice-based argument for terminating their employment.

An obvious objection is that this is an unjustifiable form of censorship that defenders of academic freedom otherwise denounce. Following Mill’s familiar reasoning, we should welcome an open intellectual environment in which academics are free to express and defend a wide range of beliefs on a wide range of topics because it is only out of this robust exchange of ideas that the truth can not only emerge but be seen to be the truth. If defenders of academic freedom are going to champion principled dissent, then we must welcome the expression of ideas with which we disagree as much as those we endorse. Call this the “Censorship Objection”.

The first failing in this objection is that it confuses academic freedom with freedom of expression, the bases of which differ. Mill advanced the above argument to help support a right to freedom of expression, specifically a right to freedom of political speech. Underlying our rights to freedom of expression the Canadian Supreme Court identified (in Keegstra) its role in promoting three values: individual self-fulfillment, the discovery of truth, and the fostering of a participatory democracy. In contrast the bases of academic freedom do not include the role that exercising such rights play in obtaining individual self-fulfillment. Individual academics might find their work fulfilling but their right to academic freedom is not justified by this. Society does not owe us fulfilling and meaningful work; to behave otherwise is to display an immature attitude of entitlement. Likewise, the bases of academic freedom do not include the fostering of a participatory democracy, at least through direct political action. Howsoever much academics want to effect positive changes in government and society, our direct focus should be on researching, enquiring, and teaching, including understanding and teaching about the natures of justice and democracy.

My argument opposing the protection of the academic employment of critical theory ideologues is based on denying their assumed rights to academic freedom, not freedom of expression. Our academic freedom rights rest mainly on the role that exercising those rights play in the pursuit of truth and the advancement of knowledge. However, critical theory ideologues notoriously deny that there is such a thing as truth, and prominent among this group of anti-reason, moral noncognitivist and relativist obfuscators is the belief that there is neither truth about, nor knowledge pertaining to, normative claims about justice; instead, all human interaction, including academic ones, are one form or another of the power-relation struggle between oppressed and oppressor. Therefore, those who defend what Harvard cognitive scientist David Perkins dubbed “good mindware” – logic, probability theory, the principles of the scientific method, and evidence-based reasoning in general – are merely trying to enforce a hegemonic, white supremacist, patriarchal, homophobic, racist, colonialist, transphobic, etc., political agenda. According to this view, the only way to overcome the entrenched forms of oppression – e.g., “systemic racism” – embodied in the “normalizing agenda” of the “neocolonial state” and as expressed in the “patriarchal” academic enterprise is not to argue against it by showing that it rests on one or more errors, but rather to either overthrow it or subvert it through direct political action.

The loathing of reason that drives the subversionary agenda of the anti-academic and anti-intellectual activism of the critical theory extremist is inconsistent with the bases of our rights to academic freedom. Thus, although there is ordinarily no necessary contradiction in being both an academic, say in one’s professional work, and an activist otherwise, these two roles are incompatible in their case. This leads us to the second failing in the Censorship Objection. Whereas academics who engage in legitimate forms of intellectual work express dissent, critical theory ideologues engage in social deviance. Since their academic work is their activism and since their activism poses a subversive threat to the institutions that justify academic freedom, extending the protections of academic freedom to them is a perversion of those rights.

How can we reconcile the ideologue’s claim to be committed to “social justice” with this claim that they are would-be anarchists and subversives? Although one of the challenges with taking their views seriously is that they frequently embrace contradictions, engage in obfuscation and obscurantism in their speech and writings, and employ intentionally vague and ambiguous concepts in their thinking, thereby making the task of simply stating their views difficult, in this case we can venture past noting that their claim about being committed to “social justice” is simply inconsistent with the promotion of justice to see a deeper point.

For some insight into this we can turn to and extend some arguments by Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath (The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed, Harper-Collins, 2004). Although Potter and Heath critique counterculture theory, we can extend their analysis to critical theory extremism as well, because not only do both share a common intellectual inheritance and many similar values and goals, but they both confuse progressive social change with anarchy. Potter and Heath argue that for counterculture theorists, social justice is only achieved once all coercion, including state coercion, has been eliminated. On this view coercion is only needed to prevent harm to others. However, if the reason why people cause such harm is not because they are bad or evil but because they have suffered from past and ongoing “social injustice”, and if the main cause of that injustice is the “patriarchal” state, then we can achieve “social justice” by overthrowing or subverting the state, along with its institutions, including, I would add, the traditional university, and thereby eliminate any need for coercion.

Potter and Heath argue that the crucial error in this thinking is regarding the coercive functioning of all large systems of cooperation and all attempts to resolve common, everyday collective action problems, as inherently oppressive. It is a basic truth of social life that we are afflicted by a variety of collective action problems, and it is one of the basic and legitimate functions of government to solve, or help solve, a range of these problems. The social norms, morals, and laws that help us resolve them are generally beneficial. Without them we would be trapped in an ongoing series of race-to-the-bottom dilemmas. For example, although I might prefer that everyone else assumes the mostly modest costs and risks from being vaccinated during a pandemic (if everyone else is vaccinated there is no need for me to be), refusing to be vaccinated is neither a blow for freedom nor one against the tyrannical oppression of the state. It is an act of social deviance because if everyone throws off these “chains” to assert their freedoms, then we are deprived of the benefits of cooperation. This is what absolute freedom, i.e., anarchy, promises us. By parity of reasoning, we also should not monopolize conversations, lie, litter, urinate in public, play loud music at night, jump the queue, touch the art, exploit moral hazard problems, stray off the path in a nature preserve, pick mountain flowers, cheat on exams, feed the wildlife, and so forth. Rule following is not the mindless conformity of the “logic of colonialism”; it is cooperating. Potter and Heath note that we have an expression for this. It is not being an “oppressed victim”. It is also not “inflicting violence on the body of the racialized, stigmatized, and colonized subject”. It is called being a “good citizen”.

The crucial difference between principled dissent and social deviance is this. Principled dissent that challenges current norms is motivated by a good-faith attempt to promote fairness in systems of cooperation. Of course, dissenters may be mistaken about this (our rights to freedom of expression and academic freedom are not only rights to express truths) but since their dissent is grounded in values that, in the academic context, justify academic rights, the airing of this dissent is a contribution to the search for truth and the pursuit of knowledge, including knowledge about justice. In contrast, social deviance is characterized by an attempt to overthrow the cooperative systems that make flourishing in life, and indeed, life itself, possible. However, since such acts of social deviance obviously cannot succeed in achieving these ends (since their success would lead to our collective demise), they instead manifest as attempts at subversion. Subversion is marked not by an attempt to promote fairness and justice, but by an attempt to promote the self-interests of the deviant, or the self-interests of some group or groups favoured by the deviant at the expense of justice and the reasonable interests of others. The reason why the critical theory ideologues’ commitment to “social justice” is not a legitimate form of academic activism, such as dissidence, is because their expression “social justice” is not about justice at all. It is code for “special pleading for the interests of favoured groups”. And since critical theory ideologues also practice identity politics, their special pleading is for those who they identify along favoured “identity markers” and especially favoured “intersections” thereof.

But what about injustice? Am I denying that there is racism, sexism, and all the other reprehensible forms of bigotry and wrongful discrimination; that these wrongs should not be righted? No, of course not. I am distinguishing between wrongness in the world and the critical theory ideologue’s identification and analysis of this wrongness. The two need not go together; to think otherwise is to practice the sort of crude dichotomous thinking that characterizes bad critical theory. The disgrace of the critical theory extremist consists in bullying people into thinking, or at least publicly affirming, that the two go together. On the other hand, the wile of the critical theory extremist is to lull careless thinkers into believing this. Similarly, I am also not claiming that various subjects of study in which critical theory ideologues tend to congregate, such as Women’s Studies and Indigenous Studies, are illegitimate fields of enquiry. Valuable academic work in these areas is ongoing. My complaint is with the disease not with the patient. Another variation on this poor thinking is to assume that anyone who criticizes the ideologue must be a reactionary conservative, white supremacist, hate monger, colonialist oppressor, etc. This is more bad thinking and strategic posturing. Extremists make a living by taking in each other’s washing but this should not obscure the point that one can criticize socially deviant ideology from across the political spectrum of legitimate dissent. To think otherwise is to, once again, fall prey to the wile of the critical theory ideologue.

Consistent defenders of academic freedom do indeed champion principled dissent, including the promulgation of ideas with which they disagree. However, acts and expressions of genuine dissent are generated from a fundamental respect for the exercising of reason and the underlying virtues and meritorious qualities that characterize reasonable academic discourse, including cultivating a love of intellectual goods, curiosity, introspective vigilance, interpersonal trust, interpretive charity, open-mindedness, fair-mindedness, communicative clarity, and the entire range of virtues modified by the word “intellectual”. These include intellectual humility, courage, carefulness, tenacity, autonomy, generosity, honesty, and thoroughness. (I have borrowed this list of intellectual virtues from T. Ryan Byerly, “Teaching for Intellectual Virtue in Logic and Critical Thinking Classes: Why and How.” Teaching Philosophy 42.1 (2019): 1-27.)

In contrast, critical theory ideologues tend to exhibit various corresponding vices of these virtues and it is from this viciousness that their misguided social deviance is generated, despite what they might claim about their good intentions. Here we see how their professional incompetence dovetails with their subversionary agenda. Considering their corruption of good and noble academic work, we continue to protect their “rights” to academic freedom at our collective peril. They threaten decline and dissolution from within of the many and considerable instrumental and intrinsic benefits of education, including a true liberal arts education. To those who would say that we should fight this by selectively defunding higher education, I reply by insisting on the distinction between the disease and the patient. To those who care about education, rather than indoctrination, I say: we must overcome our apathy, ignorance, and fear and take up the fight against this rot.