Gender, Race, Oppression, and Critical Theory (Shenvi/Sawyer)

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Hearing about many recent cultural issues and happenings has left me somewhat confused. I am wondering why some people today think it’s ok for a person to condemn violence by engaging in violent acts himself. I’m wondering how someone can think an entire group of people is guilty if only some members of the group have done evil. I’m also wondering why one group will absolutely not listen to or dialogue with a group it opposes.

Here’s a short booklet that has answered a lot of my questions: Engaging Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. (As a side, having studied postmodernity in seminary, it’s fascinating to me to see how critical theory’s epistemology seems to be a child of postmodernism.) Here’s an excerpt I marked up:

Because contemporary critical theory divides society into oppressed groups and oppressor groups, many critical theorists insist that our identity as individuals is inextricably bound to our group identity. From the perspective of contemporary critical theory, our experience of reality, our evaluation of evidence, our access to truth, our moral status, and our moral obligations are all largely determined by our membership in either a dominant oppressor group or a subordinate oppressed 􏰙􏰆􏰂􏰔􏰚 group. It’s important to note that the definition of “oppression” in critical theory differs markedly from the definition one finds in the dictionary, where “oppression” refers to “unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power.” According to critical theory, “oppression” should additionally or even primarily be understood in terms of “hegemonic power,” the ability of a particular group to impose its norms, values, and expectations on the rest of society: “In any relationship between groups that define one another (men/women, able-bodied/disabled, young/old), the dominant group is the group that is valued more highly. Dominant groups set the norms by which the minoritiized group is judged.”

Given this definition, contemporary critical theorists view racism, sexism, classism, ableism, capitalism, heteronormativity, and cisgender privilege as forms of oppression: “People [in the U.S.] are commonly defined as other on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, and physical or mental ability. Each of these categories has a form of oppression associated with it: racism, sexism, religious oppression/anti-Semitism, heterosex- ism, classism, ageism, and ableism, respectively.”  In saying that a particular man is an “oppressor” the critical theorist is not saying that the man has personally ever abused his power or, for instance, mistreated women in ways that are traditionally understood as unjust. Rather, the critical theorist is asserting that the group to which the man belongs (men) has imposed its views on society regarding what is normal, expected, and valuable, thus making the man an oppressor. By establishing hegemonic norms, dominant groups conversely characterize the “Other” as abnormal, unusual, deviant, or worthless. Of course, a particular individual can participate in both oppressed and oppressor groups simultaneously, but this overlap does not reverse or overturn the respective social position of the groups to which she belongs. For example, a white woman is oppressed in terms of her gender but is still privileged in terms of her race.

One of the most important implications of contemporary critical theory’s emphasis on group identity is the moral asymmetry it assumes between different groups. Because of its collectivist outlook, members of oppressor groups are not seen as morally neutral, even if their individual behavior has been unimpeachable….

I’ll come back to this book later, but for now if you’re interested you can find it online in several places as a PDF: Engaging Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. I also appreciate how this book shows some positives of critical theory but then contrasts it with the Christian worldview and apologetics.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

4 comments on “Gender, Race, Oppression, and Critical Theory (Shenvi/Sawyer)

  1. Windharp says:

    I just finished a college level English composition class which focused on several books: Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck) Fire Next Time (Baldwin), Loose Woman (Cisneros). We had to write about oppression in each book and collectively blame a specific group in our assignments. I wish I had the guts to take the view of the individual as perpetrator, not a group as oppressed/oppressor. It was too easy to fall into the Critical theory thinking and am glad you shared about this.

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  2. […] Gender, Race, Oppression, and Critical Theory (Shenvi/Sawyer) — The Reformed Reader […]

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  3. Windharp says:

    Reblogged this on Glorify God forever and commented:
    I’m living under the shadow of Critical Theory which is taught in college level essay classes, one of which I just finished. It’s a dangerous theory as it collectively blames one group for the misbehavior of another. I think this theory may just destroy America. There seems to be no individual responsibility in this country: only collectivist blaming. God’s plan involves a collectivist punishment of all mankind: we are equally sinful as our original humans were- Adam and Eve. By the atonement of Christ, we are individually saved by the Lord Jesus Christ, as God has planned this from the very beginning. He knows who His sheep are

    Liked by 2 people

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