In the scene above, Peter proposes a thought experiment to his philosophy class. He asks his students how they would have gone about discrediting the pseudoscience of phrenology at the height of its popularity. This not-so-subtle dig at the identity studies departments is an interesting way to think about how theories can flourish into fields with almost no connection to material reality.
The scene highlights Peter, James, and Helen's fundamental critique of the identity studies canon, which is that it gains legitimacy by mimicking scientific forms yet refuses to adhere to the expectations of the scientific method. Allow me to flesh this perspective out by drawing a comparison between a scientific theory and a Critical Theory.
A scientific theory emerges from the observation of facts. It’s a kind of story we tell about how certain groups of facts relate to each other and why they show up in the way they do. There’s an expectation among scientists that you should be able to familiarise yourself with a scientific theory and then use its principles to predict something new and verifiable about the world.
A Critical Theory, however, which is the genre of theory studied in the identity studies departments, doesn’t hold itself to this expectation. Critical theorists claim that the social sciences must integrate philosophy into their methods to make their findings work practically toward a moral cause. Where the purpose of a scientific theory is to understand the world as it is, the purpose of a Critical Theory is to change the world into something it ought to be.
Critical Race Theory, Postcolonial Theory, and Queer Theory, the three heads of the Social Justice hydra, are all different methods of criticising Western social norms from the perceived perspectives of outsider identities. I use the word “perceived” here because critical theorists are self-appointed representatives of the groups they study and they seek to generate a particular kind of “oppressed” perspective among their subjects rather than exploring their authentic thoughts and feelings.
They critique everything, from the way we form couples, to how buildings are designed, right down to the way white people prepare food. Their seemingly bottomless body of criticism is now decades old and is actively disseminated with the aim of “liberating” non-normative identities from the bondage of conservative social values and customary expectations.
“Criticism, yoked to a fixed set of conclusions, turns into an orthodoxy.”
-- Kenneth Minogue.
While some scholars working with Critical Theory use these theoretical frameworks as starting points to do real research, the standards of the field have devolved so badly that a fundamentalism has emerged from their vast body of work. I call this fundamentalist form of study and activism “Identitarianism”, and its adherents “identitarians”.
Identitarian students, activists, and scholars imbibe so much abstract theoretical philosophy that they lose the ability to unsee it. Critical Theory is no longer a conceptual framework to apply to particular phenomena but a worldview grafted into every aspect of their consciousness. If theories can be understood as lenses then this is laser surgery.
“The question is not ‘did racism take place?’ but rather ‘how did racism manifest in this situation?’”
Differing from scientific practitioners who are required to attempt to disprove their starting assumptions, these fundamentalists start with their conclusions and move into the field to accumulate proof and punish dissent. They write papers, books, articles and tweets, devise courses and workshops, create art and films, and contort statistics to reify their beliefs and evangelise their worldview.
The quasi-religious movement that proceeds from this body of work is my narrow definition of “Woke.” They themselves call their theories “a practice,” their worldview a “critical consciousness,” and they openly discuss a mass awakening project. The core objective of this project is to "reveal" and "dismantle" the oppressive superstructures of patriarchy, heteronormativity, and white supremacy. While these superstructures are theoretical abstractions for non-identitarians, they are considered concrete truths by those initiated into the movement.
Identitarian activists move through academia, the arts, legacy media, schools, religious organisations, and now even medicine, armed with little more than PhDs and passive aggression. They’ve been astonishingly successful in securing institutional power and cultural influence. So much is this the case that it’s common for me to encounter people with no academic background parroting their complicated jargon. When I ask if they know where a particular concept has come from, or if they can identify the assumptions embedded within it, they’re completely unaware.
I think it’s important to keep the identitarian label narrow and avoid applying it to the vast array of left-wing sensibilities that are now popularly deemed “Woke.” The work done by the fundamentalists in these fields, and now far beyond, informs many people I wouldn’t consider fundamentalists at all. If you make a distinction between the identitarian activists I’ve described above and your garden-variety leftie with technocratic leanings, you can paint a more detailed picture of how something like this has been able to claim so much power from within ostensibly liberal institutions.