How Critical Theory Ruined Feminism
EDIT NOTE: This article was edited in May 2021, to clarify the concepts and terminology used.
Today, we’re going to talk about how critical theory ruined feminism, and in particular, brought about the rise of trans-exclusionary radical feminism, also known as TERFism. Classical liberal feminism, the kind I personally subscribe to, the kind proclaimed by great classical liberal thinkers like John Stuart Mill, is all about equality between the genders, equality for both men and women. It is a natural extension of classical liberalism, which demanded equal standing and equal opportunity for every individual. Where every individual is to be equal, men and women are by definition to be equal, right?
In recent years, feminism has become controversial among some people. Many are concerned about a movement they see as pitting women against men all the time. In particular, many people, particularly progressive people, have become concerned about the rise of gender critical feminism, otherwise known as trans-exclusionary radical feminism or TERFism, and its deeply anti-trans attitudes, arising directly from their worldview of men vs women as a zero-sum game. The truth is, this divisive version of feminism is the contamination of feminism with the critical theory worldview. It was resisted by many great feminists during the second wave in particular, but unfortunately it found its way in.
So what is the critical theory worldview? It sees people not as individuals, but as belonging to classes or groups. It sees individual choices not as agency or empowerment, but as a result of systemic forces, acting out power dynamics between classes. In this worldview, men are seen as an oppressor class, and women are seen as an oppressed class. There must therefore be some sort of class struggle between the two. In the critical theory worldview, women are literally pitted against men.
But this is not the product of feminism itself. Classical liberal feminists like myself don’t ever support gender wars. In fact, having a boys vs girls dynamic means that we will never get true gender equality, like real feminism actually promises. Rather, it is the product of a critical theory worldview. Therefore, what we should be opposing is the critical theory worldview. We need to insist that equality is to be examined at the individual level. We should be proud to reject analyses of group-based power dynamics, because these concepts serve to pit people against each other, while being not as relevant to individual freedom anyway. Of course, where there is real racism or sexism against individuals, we should face it. We should take it seriously. But we should do so in a classical liberal worldview, which will lead to the liberation of people as individuals. We should reject the group-orientated critical theory worldview, which will only lead to endless infighting, while promising a utopia that never ever comes.
A major problem we have is that the critical theory worldview has gained an upper hand in intellectual and academic discourse in recent years. Critical theory based pseudo-Marxist analysis has become the default system for analysing social relations and sociological reality. This must change. I propose that we call for the establishment of a new tradition of social analysis, where we analyse social relations based on the individual as the unit, and individual liberty as the highest good. The core Moral Libertarian principle of Equal Moral Agency for every individual would be a good starting point for this.
Using a moral libertarian analysis, we can develop a more individualist, and hence fairer, perspective on inequality. For example, if we are concerned about women having a harder time in politics or in STEM fields, what we need to do is to listen to the real experiences of women in those fields. We need to listen to what barriers they perceive as being in their career, and if these barriers are proven to be real, we need to fix them. However, we look at situations on an individual level, and we have no reason to generalise everything like critical theory loves to do. For example, while women are disadvantaged in politics, men are disadvantaged in custody battles. Each situation is unique, and we need to fix the inequalities in a case-by-case manner, looking at individual experiences in every case.
Originally published at taraellastylia.blogspot.com on October 19, 2018.
TaraElla is a singer-songwriter, independent journalist and author, who is passionate about free speech, liberty and equality. She is the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which focus on developing a moral case for freedom-based politics in the 21st century.