Criticism can divide. But banning criticism is a bad idea. The unanimity that results from censorship is not genuine. The productive solution is the more informed criticism.
I say this in response to efforts in several states to ban the teaching of “critical race theory” (CRT) in schools. CRT claims that racism runs deep in American institutions.
The reaction against the CRT follows a script written by Donald Trump. Last fall he described the CRT as a “crusade against American history.” He said it was “toxic propaganda, ideological poison, which, if not removed, will dissolve the civic ties that unite us, destroy our country.”
But banning a theory does not make it false. To disprove a theory, you must examine it critically. Rather than censoring the CRT, let’s encourage students to listen carefully to what critics have to say about racism. If the critics are wrong, let the students prove them wrong. If they’re right, let’s empower young people to imagine productive solutions. Ideological indoctrination is false, whether it occurs in defense of the CRT or against it.
The effort to ban the CRT is symptomatic of a broader human avoidance of critical thinking. We often prefer useful illusions about faith, family and country. When people challenge our delusions, we get on the defensive.
Religious are on the defensive when scholars critically examine religious texts and beliefs. Something similar happens when feminists criticize gender, sex, and family. It happens when philosophers question cherished values.
Ideas and institutions are strengthened by facing criticism head-on. Criticism exposes flaws and weaknesses that can be improved upon. Without criticism, bad ideas fester and institutions rot. If an idea or an institution is not strong enough to withstand critical examination, it is not the fault of the critic.
The crucible of criticism changes values. We cannot predict where this will lead. But the hope is that as bad ideas are exposed, better ideas will develop and institutions will be strengthened accordingly.
Radical criticism has a deep history. Socrates criticized Athens. Jesus criticized Jerusalem. The American founders criticized British tyranny. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has criticized the American Dream.
Heroes of criticism are often opposed to reactionary forces that aim to silence them without responding to their criticism. Sometimes it involves violence, as in the cases of the king, Socrates, and Jesus. But silencing the critic does not stifle criticism. If the criticism contains the truth, the next generation will push it forward.
It’s not easy to think critically about the status quo. Sometimes it seems easier to avoid thinking altogether. But as King said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” He also said that we have a “moral responsibility to be smart”.
Ignoring the race problem in America will not make it go away. Indeed, institutions that censor criticism end up appearing weak and stupid. It’s childish to cover your ears and close your eyes.
Adults must face problems with honesty, sincerity, and creative intelligence. Let’s model this behavior for our children. American children know that there are racial problems in America. The riots in the streets clearly show this. Keeping them from thinking critically about these problems will not solve them. Our children need a lot of essential tools to be able to imagine solutions to our problems. Silencing the critics is not a useful strategy.
Censors sometimes seem to think that the critical theorist gives rise to these problems. But critical theory is not an act of conjuring. Rather, it highlights the skeletons in the closet. The critical theorist does not create these spectra. They are already there.
Critical theory is about enlightenment. One of the most famous enlightenment mottos is “sapere aude”, which means “dare to be wise”. Wisdom requires courage to face the world without illusions. The light of truth exposes things as they are, not as we want them to be.
You have to shine that light in the closet. Ignoring the skeletons hiding there won’t make them disappear. You also have to look at yourself in the mirror. If you don’t like what you see there, turning off the light won’t help.