It’s all your fault
The backlash against the sociological imagination
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed in startling clarity the fault lines that already existed in societies around the world.
However, along with the increased awareness of important issues of racism, transphobia and inequality, there has been a sustained backlash. A new conservative trend has emerged: taking up and demonising academic theories as proof of there being no problem beyond individuals. In other words? It’s all your fault.
CW: This article includes transphobic statements made by others.
Critical Race Theory and racism
What is Critical Race Theory (CRT)? Developed in the 1980s, the theory holds two key precepts:
- That structural racism exists in order to maintain white supremacy
- That reforming the structures of law, power and society is possible
Academics who work in this field are dedicated to examining how racism is built into structures, and solutions on how to undo them. Delgado and Stefancic in their foundational work ‘Critical Race Theory: An Introduction‘ discuss everything from micro-aggressions (small negative social interactions that can cumulatively impact the mental health of the marginalised) to the American legal system.
Why is it being discussed so widely at the moment? Because of the spurious assertion by the right-wing that it is being taught in schools. Equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, in a recent address to parliament falsely stated that CRT proponents want to institute segregation of ethnic groups. She also argued that those who believe that systemic racism is real are doing so “…to politicise my skin colour.” She went on:
It is associating being black with negativity, oppression and victimhood in an inescapable way. It’s creating a prison for black people.
Badenoch also warned that discussing white privilege in schools during Black History Month was illegal – although neglected to mention under what law. Firstly – her assertion that Critical Race Theory is taught in primary or secondary schools in England is not correct. So what is she doing, by invoking Critical Race Theory here?
When Badenoch and the right wing criticise CRT it is an example of a classic straw man argument. A straw man argument is a classic bad faith tactic – you create an imagined, exaggerated and incorrect distortion of your opponent’s argument and demonise it. What is their counter-argument for why racism exists? That racism is a character flaw of a single individual. A bad apple, who must seek to cease being racist (but should not access any education programs or academic works on the subject). Simply be better.
Essentially the right wing argument here is to equate the idea that structural racism is real with Critical Race Theory. It is no longer socially acceptable to state that racism does not exist and that it is not structural, thanks to the hard work of activists, the careful sociological work of researchers and independent inquiries such as the Macpherson report, conducted in the wake of the death of teenager Stephen Lawrence.
However, right-wingers can argue that CRT is wrong, evil and should be illegal. Badenoch has argued that government programs that teach about racism and how to prevent it should be banned, because of their connections to the sinister CRT. She is not the only politician using this tactic – the outbound US President, Donald Trump, has called CRT a “toxic ideology” that will “destroy our country”. He successfully shut down training for federal employees on racial bias, saying:
We were paying people hundreds of thousands of dollars to teach very bad ideas and frankly, very sick ideas. And really, they were teaching people to hate our country, and I’m not going to allow that to happen.
Here Trump draws a false equivalence: Critical Race Theory = hating your country. For how can you be a patriotic person, and love your country, if you believe it to be structurally racist? Of course, it is entirely possible – in the same way we love our racist relatives or colleagues – by hoping and believing that they can be better and challenging their terrible views.
With this argument now being used by the Tory party in the UK, we must be on guard for the dismantling of both education and programs designed to reduce racism – which is, after all, the real purpose of demonising this obscure area of academia.
Queer Theory and trans rights
Next up: Queer Theory. I recently got into a horrible Twitter spat with a person who stated:
Not really. Trans is a queer theory concept. LGB issues are domestic. Queer theory puts gay people in the same cage as paedos, necrophiles and other (according to Gayle Rubin) victims of heteronormative fascism. Enjoy.
— Alan Page (@egapnala65) November 23, 2020
There’s that idea of the cage or prison again from Badenoch’s comments about Critical Race Theory. So – let’s back track slightly and ask: what actually is Queer Theory?
Queer Theory is an academic field that initially started in examining literature, and was then applied to film and other media and eventually began to be used as a critical practice of examining concepts such as heteronormality and cisnormality. This is the assertion that the world is constructed in order to enforce heterosexuality and cis gender identity and repress other sexual orientations and gender identities. (Cis being those who identify as the gender that conforms with their biological sex.)
It builds on work such as Foucault’s ‘The History of Sexuality‘ and Judith Butler’s ‘Gender Trouble‘. Steven Seidman has written a useful introduction to the theory’s use in sociology. It’s been an essential part of campaigning for equal rights for the LGBTQ community, allowing us to critique systems (such as the institution of marriage) as being designed to exclude everyone but heterosexual and cis people.
But how has it become so twisted in the mind of the individual I interacted with? This person believes that trans people were invented by Queer Theorists (making their existence impossible before the 1970s). We know that trans people have in fact existed throughout history – for example: the Chevalier d’Éon, a French spy and expert fencer who lived the latter part of their life as a woman.
This Twitter person may have come to believe this after Queer Theory was weaponised by former comedian Graham Lineham:
Lineham was subsequently permanently suspended from Twitter for repeated violations of their rules against hateful conduct and platform manipulation, according to a spokesperson for the site.
His purposeful twisting of the meaning of Queer Theory is a simple reworking of the old Christian fundamentalist notion of ‘the gay agenda’. Queer Theory here has been totally removed from it’s context, it’s meaning twisted – it is recast by Lineham as a sinister conspiracy, coming to corrupt the innocent with ‘gender ideology’ and teaching them that it’s okay to be gay. After his suspension from Twitter, he wrote on the parenting forum Mumsnet that:
I still use the word “grooming” in various permutations because I believe that gender ideology is a form of societal grooming. It is a very real threat to the wellbeing of women and children and if our ability to name a threat is removed, it is even more difficult to fight that threat.
For a fun and beautifully explained video essay on Queer Theory, allow me to present Philosophy Tube:
Neoliberalism and inequality
In 1959, C Wright Mills wrote ‘The Sociological Imagination‘, which he defined as “the awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society”. At what point, he asked, does a personal issue become part of a wider structural issue? Sociology seeks to find and study this relationship. I contend that neoliberalism seeks to destroy this distinction. Margaret Thatcher famously said:
They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.
And in so doing, effectively denied the existence of the sociological imagination itself. Sociology is irrelevant if society does not exist. So is the responsibility of government to try and improve the society over which they govern. Obesity is just an issue of self-control. Sexism is about individual bad men, and women choosing not to become CEOs because they have different priorities. Racism is when a person spontaneously develops the idea that some people are genetically inferior and acts on it. Homophobia and transphobia don’t exist – it’s just queer people being sensitive. If they conformed more, they wouldn’t get bullied. While these things have been extensively studied and been found not to be correct – these are all popular right-wing talking points we’ve heard hundreds of times.
Neoliberalism is a controversial term – it has been applied to a range of economic and social policies and politicians, from its beginnings with Reagan and Thatcher, to Tony Blair and Obama. In ‘Neoliberalism as a concept‘, Rajesh Venugopal writes:
Firstly, and most straight-forwardly, neoliberalism is described in this literature as a radical laissez-faire economic policy experiment.
While laissez-faire makes it sound as though neoliberalism is a relaxed, easy-going approach to economics, this is not the case. Laissez-faire here could be better translated as ‘survival of the fittest’ or as Trump might put it “It is what it is.” If there is no such thing as society, then the government and the country’s elites are not to be blamed if may people’s lives are difficult. They should simply innovate more. Hustle harder.
Essentially, neoliberalism could be defined not only as the rejection of the sociological imagination, but the wanton destruction of the safeguards and supports put in place to create a better society for all: unions; public healthcare; regulations on businesses to stop them from poisoning us and the planet; protections for the marginalised; equal rights for all.
These attacks on approaches such as Critical Race Theory and Queer Theory are simply continuances of the approach taken by Thatcher – to deny that we live in a society which can be improved for all, and to reduce who we are to a seething mass of selfish individuals. A denial of our faults and mistakes as a people and an attempt to criminalise approaches that could put things right. The abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass once said:
Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.
To put this in the parlance of the recent Black Lives Matter movement:
(Hugo Jehanne for Unsplash)
(Hugo Jehanne for Unsplash)
(Hybrid for Unsplash)