Sunday, June 30, 2019
Critical Theory Versus Critical Thinking
Several years ago, a student at Occidental College told me his major was:
I’d never heard of it.
I looked into critical theory, motivated by my fear that the rapid evolution of culture will leave me behind.
The Red Queen, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, complains:
Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.
Or, briefly put:
Evolve or die.
Since I’m not ready to die, I evolved, a bit at least, and explored the meaning of critical thinking.
Here it is in a nutshell:
A set of German sociologists writing in the decades before WWII, suggested that history always contains a slant. Max Horkheimer, one of the founders of the field, considered a theory as critical insofar as it sought to:
liberate human beings from circumstances enslaving them.
Most significantly, critical theory maintains that ideology is the principal obstacle to human liberation.
In other words, critical theory is a variant of the idea that history is written by the victors. It adopts a critical attitude towards any idea, or set of ideas. No big surprise, the primary critical theorists moved to the US to avoid Nazism, settled primarily in New York, and became known as the Frankfurt School. Major critical theorists include Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, and Jergen Habermas.
One dramatic example of critical theory would be to critique the student loan crisis in the US. Unlike most European countries, we’ve developed an ideology, or, say, a custom, for students to borrow immense amounts of money to attend college. As a result, many become imprisoned—including working in unsatisfying jobs they hate—because of their student loan debt.
I once had a patient, a lovely woman who went to medical school in her mid-30s—rather late to attend medical school. She went into internal medicine, became a hospitalist, and told me years later that she would be paying off her student loan well into her 60s.
Awful, don’t ya think?
And, absolutely a form of oppression.
What does critical theory have to do with critical thinking?
Here, I rely on a source of controversy I’ve encountered with some young female colleagues who consider gender as entirely culturally based. They adhere to a theory of social constructivism, meaning that gender, including identifications such as male, female, gender fluid, or bigender, is an entirely socially constructed phenomenon.
My friend, Maria, a gender studies graduate from UCSB, taught me that sex is what exists between your legs, and that gender exists between your ears.
I’ll never forget that distinction.
I find it accurate.
BUT, here is where critical thinking clashes with critical theory.
Feminist critical theorists might argue against the idea of biology influencing gender. Worse, they might say, that line of thinking emerged from the belief systems of white, privileged males who, in turn, sought to oppress women by reducing them to their biological roles as mothers, caregivers, and loving, agreeable humans.
I respectfully disagree. Reducing the unimaginably complex phenomenon of gender to social constructionism is as problematic as reducing it to biology, culture, parental influences, or any one factor.
We humans are influenced by the hormones pulsing through our bodies. Men have tons of testosterone; women have tons of estrogen. These hormones create all kinds of physiological differences from the tone of voice to the shape of bodies.
I defensively proclaim to any radical feminists reading this post that I am in no way saying that biology is destiny!
Au contraire, I’m simply arguing that biology must play some role in gender.
How can it not?
Men undergoing gender reassignment surgery must take hormones to facilitate the transition; the same goes for biological women seeking to become men.
The older I get, the more I realize we humans know almost nothing.
The world is more complicated than we can even imagine. We have a penchant for reducing the endless complexity to singular categories. Perhaps it keeps us from going insane.
Returning to the one topic of gender, I believe the variables influencing it approach infinity. Moreover, all of those variables exist in dynamic interaction with one another.
What types of factors apply? Here’s a limited list of factors influencing gender that immediately come to mind:
Early childhood experiences, role modeling, trauma (like sexual assault, molestation, adoption, death of one or more parents or siblings), hormones, genes, cultural trends, disease, and historical period.
Critical theory holds that an ideology can be oppressive, and that includes, of course, phallocentrism, feminism, capitalism, etc.
Critical thinking invites you to think for yourself, to encounter the endless, dynamic interactivity of all things, and to face the way our lives unfold in a mostly unpredictable manner.
What’s the moral of this exploration?
Beware your own, mostly unconscious adherence to ideologies, uncover them, and apply your own critical thinking to them.
It’s a never ending struggle.
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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP