Toward better critical theories
Yesterday, many students at Willamette participated in a day of silence in support of Gay/Lesbian/Bi/Transsexual etc. rights and equality. Last year, I hadn’t found out about it in time to participate, but I was struck by how much it impacted me, this having intelligent and articulate classmates not contributing to our class discussions.
This year, I threw my metaphorical hat in the ring. It was an interesting experience; I think that a lot of my classmates imagine me as on the verge of coming out in the first place, and for some of the younger classes, there’s an odd sense of prejudice that I picked up on, one that I’m not accustomed to encountering among my peers. It was a good to have this time of silent solidarity. I am so used to being among tolerant, justice-oriented people that it always stuns me to find bigotry in places where it shouldn’t be.
Perhaps the most significant element I noticed was in power differentials. As a white heterosexual American, I am part of the loud majority, the unquestioned assumption. People in power don’t have to worry about inclusive language, because language generally supports their power. Any destabilization of language, such as, for example, using “partner” instead of husband/wife or girlfriend/boyfriend, meets resistance from people who at some level recognize this as questioning whether their dominant view of culture and society is indeed correct.
The potential to destabilize the language which serves the hegemonic purposes of dominant culture is one that GLBT activists have very effectively used in the US. I’m not saying that our society has achieved equality, or indeed even come near it, but subversive use of language has opened up new and more tolerant discursive spaces and advocated for inclusion rather than exclusion of marginalized groups.
I have been wrestling with the various theories that I’ve studied over the past few years. Marxist, feminist, structuralist, post-structuralist, queer, psychoanalytic, post-colonial, African American, gender, relativism, the list is practically endless. I think I was so attracted to theory in the first place because I look out, see a world that is unjust, and I want answers. I want to know what someone who cares should do. These theories have their strengths and their weaknesses, most notably among them exclusivism and a certain amoralism.
By exclusivism, I mean both that critical theories tend to be buried in language, rhetorical tropes, and arcane academic arguments, and also that many are quite limited in focus, advocating for one issue at the expense of others. The way that this plays out is that we must now identify ourselves with a string of epithets, each attempting to counterbalance the weaknesses of the last. I am, for example, a post-feminist Marxist postructuralist new historicist episcopalian environmentalist, ad infinitum. I could easily spend the rest of my life teasing out exactly where on the radar of thought I should be located. Many do.
But this ignores two important ideas: one is that if we do spend all of our time merely theorizing our position, we become somewhat ethically or morally bankrupt, and the other is that theories divorced from life are useless at best and destructive at worst.
What seems to me to be missing is the sort of praxis, the cycle of action and reflection, that social justice advocates. Theories, rather than demanding action, seem to demand an inward, nitpicky self-dissection, an endless production of new journal articles and debates, and all the while, suffering is increasing in the world. Do the issues of whether sex precedes gender or gender precedes sex, or the question of ethics in regard to cross-cultural medical treatment really contribute to a better world, or are they being used as forms of escapism and ignoring suffering?
Next time, whenever that is, I’ll be discussing the usefulness of a meta-critical approach to theories, that is, asking whether we can construct and implement a justice-oriented criterion for looking at theories, at world views, at religions, etc., and draw on the knowledge of these various positions to effect social change. How do we, for example, go about drawing on the experiences of GLBT activists in the US and see their place within a larger system of injustice–one that oppressesses people who often have no voice to speak for themselves?