Diversity and Speech Part 7: Critical Theory – by Carlos E. Cortés    

This is the seventh in a series of columns based on my research as a former fellow of the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement.   In these columns I have discussed what I call the diversity movement — the composite of the myriad individual, group, and organizational efforts to reduce societal inequities that penalize people because of their actual or perceived membership in certain social groups.   In particular I have focused on the various issues raised  concerning language and the exercise of speech. 

In the past two columns I compared two threads of that diversity movement: intercultural diversity and equity-and-inclusion diversity.   For the most part interculturalists emphasize voluntary speech restraint through the development of intergroup understanding.  In contrast, while they often draw upon interculturalist principles, some inclusionists are more willing to pursue direct speech restraints, such as through regulations.  When it comes to the third strand of the diversity movement, critical theory, its advocates tend to take an even stronger position in support of  the direct restraint of speech, including through laws and codes.   

Like the first two diversity movement currents, critical theory’s roots stretch back historically.  They extend into the 1920’s to the Frankfurt School, an analytical movement growing out of the Institute for Social Research at Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany.   In the 1980’s, critical theory scholarship exploded in the United States.

Like all inclusionists and most interculturalists, current critical theorists are involved in the pursuit of greater equity.  However, they also argue for a deeper, more skeptical analysis of the structures of inequality, dominance, and oppression.  According to critical theorists, all elements of society — laws, systems, and cultural practices — need to be closely examined in order to discover whether or not, deep down, they contribute to the propagation and maintenance of group-based inequities.

In the pursuit of such critical analysis, nothing is sacred.  That includes speech and other forms of expression.  In particular, critical theorists have taken dead aim at the idea of free expression, refusing to bow to it as an assumed virtue.

Over time, critical theorists have sometimes questioned other areas of the diversity movement, often viewing them as too soft and superficial.  Conversely, although not always well versed in the sometimes obscurantist intricacies of critical theory, many interculturalists and inclusionists have availed themselves of its insights.  Some traditional diversity organizations have even built critical theory into their operations.  For example, the National Association for Multicultural Education has launched an initiative for spotlighting Critical Multicultural Educators.

Diversity advocates have developed myriad new concepts that call for deeper critical analysis.  While some of these new ideas may not fall properly within the “official” scope of critical theory, they at least indirectly draw upon critical theory in providing new analytical lenses for examining diversity and inequity in society.  Let’s call this the penumbra of critical theory.  Take two examples.

Peggy McIntosh did not invent the term privilege, whose roots stretch back to the Latin privilegium (irregular right or obligation).  The word has accrued myriad dictionary definitions and common cultural meanings.  However, in a piercing 1988 article, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,” McIntosh proposed a very precise reframing of the word.  In the process she captured a simple but elusive idea.

In brief, McIntosh’s conception of privilege is that members of certain societal groups receive unearned advantages over others, advantages supported by institutions and cultural practice.  More insidiously, individuals may benefit from privilege even if they fail to recognize that they have received those unearned advantages.  Indeed, part of the power of privilege is that it often operates under the perceptual radar. 

McIntosh’s concept caught fire within diversity circles.  Today the word privilege trips easily off the tongues of college students, whether or not they have ever read or even heard of McIntosh.  Unfortunately, the term privilege has also become battered and distorted by overuse, particularly on college campuses, where it often serves as little more than a battle cry or an all-purpose insult (“Check Your Privilege”).  Yet McIntosh’s crystalline original argument remains a bedrock of critical diversity thinking.  This includes shedding light on how societal structures and cultural practices confer greater speech access and power to certain groups.

A more recent addition to the diversity lexicon is the term microaggresssion.  Developed by psychiatrist Chester Pierce and popularized by psychologist Derald Wing Sue, microaggression refers to often subtle actions or remarks that have a cumulative negative impact on other individuals.  Such actions or remarks may occur unconsciously, out of habit, and without harmful intent.  But regardless of intent, they may have a deleterious impact, usually the result of relentless if unnoticed repetition.

Like privilege, microaggression has become a staple of diversity language, particularly on college campuses.   For some it has brought a reminder of the obstacles that many still face.  For others it has brought a greater awareness of the often-unintentional impact of their own language use. 

And the beat goes on.  The critical theory penumbra now glitters with such concepts as cultural appropriation, implicit bias, epistemic violence, mansplaining, cultural appropriation, and white fragility.  While these concepts are of varying quality and often suffer in their sloppy and sometimes authoritarian application, in totality they provide new critical perspectives on societal inequities, including those involving speech.    

Of the four diversity currents, critical theorists and their followers have taken the most aggressive position regarding the concept of “free” speech.  For them, the examination of speech cannot be divorced from a thorough analysis of inequitable outcomes built into language and language use.  For example, many critical theorists view arguments for free speech as a defensive and regressive strategy for reifying existent group power differentials.   Some advocate greater legal restrictions and punishment for certain forms of expression. 

Given the presence of critical theory alongside interculturalist and inclusionist approaches to diversity, it is guaranteed that diversity advocates will not speak with a single voice when it comes to addressing speech.  However, critical theory and its penumbra provide a series of useful lenses for examining the inevitable dilemmas of the diversity-speech intersection.  With that in mind, I suggest drawing on those ideas when examining the two basic questions that I posed in my last column:

***In order to foster greater equity, inclusion, and intercultural understanding, how should we address the issue of modifying or limiting speech?

***In order to foster robust speech, in what respects should personal and group discomfort, offense, and maybe even pain be viewed as inevitable aspects of personal, institutional, and organizational life?

When addressed simultaneously, these two questions provide a framework for weighing varying and sometimes conflicting positions and arguments.  I have found them particularly useful for fostering constructive discussions about the inevitable tensions and perplexing situational complexities involving the intersection of the fundamental values of diversity and speech.

See all articles by Carlos Cortes

Dr. Carlos E. Cortés

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