Critical theory in a nutshell

2013-05-27 13:37

I once encountered someone who asserted that all men, without exceptions, were rapists. Not as hyperbole, but as a flatly literal claim. And when I pointed out that this was pretty sexist, she explained that, according to “critical theory”, there was no such thing as sexism against men, because men are a privileged group.

I have run into this a few more times, and it appears that there’s a wonderful little game going here. You take a term — say, sexism. You assert that some of the things it refers to are more important than others, and then redefine the term to refer to only those cases, then assert that since the others don’t match this definition, they’re not sexism at all. And then do those things, gleefully, while asserting that this is in no way bad or harmful, because you have a definition saying it’s not sexism.

I’d like to propose that we extend this to environmentalism. As you are likely aware, pollution is a significant problem. But wait! The vast majority of this ecological harm is done by large industrial operations, which are run by corporations, so I’m going to propose a new definition: “Pollution” shall be understood to be “the introduction of harmful chemicals and materials into the environment by corporations.”

The rationale, see, is that now if we want to talk about social policies to reduce the harm done to the environment by corporations, we don’t have to use qualified terms, we can just talk about “reducing pollution”. See how useful that is? How vital it is to effective discourse?

So, what are the implications? Say I hate people who go fishing, and I want them to die. I can go dump mercury in the local fishing pond. This isn’t pollution, because I’m not a corporation. Therefore there’s nothing wrong with it, and it is not harmful to the environment, because we already know that stuff which harms the environment would be called pollution. Since we’ve improved “pollution” not to refer to things individual people do, this can’t be pollution, therefore it can’t be stuff which harms the environment.

Same deal. (Distressingly, I posted this example once, and got a helpful note from someone who insisted that any thought whatsoever about non-corporate activities was useless for environmentalism. This is why we can’t have nice things, people.)

Peter Seebach

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