Critical Theory is a difficult concept to explain and understand. Some will say that it is an amalgamation of other theories, while others will reject this. It would not be possible to explain all the nuances of Critical Theory in a single blog post of several hundred words, but an an attempt will be made to provide basic ideas concerning it.
Critical Theory is an extension or perhaps a reaction to the ideas of Karl Marx and communism. Marx was pushing for a proletarian revolution of the working class rising up against the bourgeois. However, except in a few places, this never happened. This left supporters of Marxism frustrated, and they began to explore why this happened. Furthermore, many began to despise Marxism because of its failures.
One conclusion that they made was that Marxism was generally a disaster. The average person does not want to live in a communist state. On paper, it looked good, but in practice, it was often worst than capitalism. This led the early shapers of critical Theory to conclude that people fear freedom, which led to the rise and success of fascists governments over communists ones.
What needed to take place was that people needed to be awakened to their oppressed position in life. Marx had more of a deterministic view of the world in that revolution was inevitable because of the suffering. Critical theorists proposed that people needed to be woke to the oppression they were living under, which happened through people becoming critical.
By critical, it is generally meant to criticize the existing domineering culture. Examples of the West’s dominant culture would be male leadership over women, white leadership over minorities, heterosexual leadership of homosexual, etc. By questioning these imbalances in power and accepted norms, people would call not for an economic revolution but rather for a cultural one. All oppressed classes need to rise up and push for change.
The people who formed the foundations of critical Theory were naturally scholars. Therefore, their views began to permeate universities slowly. This long march through the institutions has been compared to Mao’s long march through China. One of the surest ways to have a long career in academics is to find a problem (the significance of the problem is irrelevant) and announced to the world through papers, media, and conferences how your problem is a big problem and how people need to pay attention to this and the solutions that are being proposed. Generally, people are good at finding problems; however, we tend to get into trouble with the answers we implement.
Critical Theory began to question such ideas as perceived privilege differences between groups (privilege has been defined as normalizing one group’s behavior at the expense of another). Other concepts are attacked, such as objectivity, hard work, and even the reasoning process that people use. These ideas were claimed to be cultural constructs of those with power who then impose their worldview on the oppressed. There are even suggestions of implicit bias, which is a form of bias a person has without even knowing it. For example, there have been accusations that some people are racist strictly because their skin color is the majority group’s color. In other words, guilt by DNA rather than by actual evidence.
The conspiratorial bent of Critical Theory is a powerful way of explaining all suffering within a given context. Another way to look at this is that one can say that Critical Theory can function as a narrative that explains where most suffering comes from for minority groups. Can’t get a job; it’s oppression. Can’t buy a car; it’s oppression. You can’t pass your classes; it’s oppression. This may not have been the intention of the original developers of critical Theory. However, students always extend the ideas of their teachers in the wrong direction. The idea that people are not responsible for the situations they are in but instead, it is the dominant group’s fault is an example of a poor application of the worldview of Critical Theory.