The rise of the social justice movement worldwide is rooted in the academy. Since the 1950s, specific thinkers, and the theories they developed, started gaining more traction and ultimately led to the spread of specific ideas that activists have come to embrace as the hallmark of their movement. Two such notable theories are critical theory and postmodernism. 

Critical theory is characterized by a group of thinkers that made up the “Frankfurt School”, including Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas and others. In the narrow sense, its central goal is the kind of critique that seeks human emancipation from slavery, looking to create a world that satisfies the needs and powers of human beings. In the broader sense, this theory is concerned with identifying the varied dimensions along which human beings are dominated in modern societies. Feminism, critical race theory and some forms of post-colonialism all form part of this broader project. 

Postmodernism articulates a general scepticism towards “meta-narratives”, such as the concept of Truth or Reality as objective notions that are not dependent on subjective interpretation. Essentially, postmodernism abandons the idea of objective reality or morality, and views every concept as valid only with reference to a specific framework of thought where there is no objective way of choosing one framework over another. Consequently, there is no such thing as “Truth” or “right” (in the moral sense). There are only different interpretations, and the ones that dominate only do so because they belong to the group with the most power in society. The social world is reduced to an interplay between power and discourse among different groups.

These two theories are at the base of identity politics – a phenomenon that has swept across the world within recent years, causing extreme political polarisation and compromising people’s ability to conduct measured conversations to reach a middle ground when it comes to societal issues that concern us all. 

As a PhD student in philosophy in Canada from 2013-2017, I experienced the acceleration of this political polarisation first-hand, and saw the rise in activism as these ideas became mainstream, receiving very little interrogation, even in the academic space. Upon my return to South Africa, Joe Emilio got in touch with me, interested to know more about what I had experienced during my time in Canada and why this drove me towards leaving academia and my dream of becoming an academic philosopher. 

In this interview with Joe, I delve into the intricacies of critical theory and postmodernism, explaining how these ideas have stimulated a movement that thrives on victimhood and the destruction of critical thinking. If you want to understand why modern-day activists believe what they believe, and why a person’s membership to a specific group has come to matter more than anything else, this interview will provide you with explanations and many real-world examples that are as hilarious as they are frightening.

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