One of the most irritating terms of our time must be “gaslighting”. It sounds so serious, but is just another of those pseudo-criminal charges that people fling around online, as though it has a well-known application in the real world. Loose in definition, assumed by the user to be understood by all, it is merely a form of elite jargon, known and understood only by a few.
But when a word gets used so relentlessly, it begins to take on a certain legitimacy — and even begins to crop up in the minds of people who loathe it. Indeed, it even happened to me recently after I read a number of pieces in the American press claiming that “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) was a bogeyman of the Right. Now here, I thought, is something that is definitely gaslighting. Surely these people must be trying to drive readers mad by making assertions that are so clearly untrue; presenting one vision of the world and then denying that it even exists. If this is not “gaslighting”, then what is?
In the New York Times last week, Michelle Goldberg claimed that the current wave of concern across America about CRT had simply been whipped up by a clever propagandist — and that, as a consequence, CRT had become a maddening debate. In particular, she said, “the phrase itself had become unmoored from any fixed meaning”. Elsewhere she criticised people of being guilty of a “moral panic” and said that she was “highly sceptical” of the idea that CRT is being taught in schools, before going on to explain that “antiracist education” isn’t “radically leftist” but just “elementary”.
This slew of claims demonstrates the problem at hand. For in CRT we are not talking about some hidden theory; we are talking about a school of thought which was openly heralded within American academia and has now been forced upon the wider world. Yet just at the point that it has infiltrated the public sphere, Goldberg and others claim that our understanding of CRT has become confused — as if an ideology that is wilfully obscurantist ought, in fact, to be straightforward and agreed upon.
In the Washington Post and elsewhere, this debate has come to define American politics in recent weeks. Most prominently, Joy Reid of MSNBC has taken to claiming that CRT is not being taught in schools, is not what its critics say that it is and is both too complex for people to understand and also an exceptionally obvious demand for social justice.
What prompted such a desperate defence? Well, American parents have finally woken up to what is being taught to their children. At one prestigious Manhattan school, the headmaster even resigned after a group of parents complained about a number of school initiatives, ranging from “racist cop” re-enactments in science lessons to classes about “decentering whiteness” and “white supremacy”.
But now, just at the moment that the American public are starting to push back, supporters of CRT are stepping away from their creation, pretending that concerned citizens have misunderstood it, or are railing at a mirage.
The aforementioned Reid, for instance, recently interviewed a leading CRT scholar — indeed the person who reportedly coined the term — Kimberlé Crenshaw, who has described the backlash against CRT as an effort “to reverse the racial reckoning unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetime”.
There is, to put it simply, a lot going on here; clearly, today’s discussions about CRT are unclear and disingenuous. But if there is a reason for this, it is that CRT’s decades-long advocates are no longer being honest. In their 2001 work Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic described CRT as a “movement” consisting of:
“A collection of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism and power… Unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.”
So this is not a hidden campaign. Its thought leaders did not try to hide the revolutionary, activist nature of their “discipline”. They boasted about it; the activism was the point. The purpose of CRT was never simply to throw around ideas — it was to change America, and by extension the wider world, by applying these new racial rules in the widest possible way.
So why the sudden reversal? Why the sudden retreat into contradictory forms of self-defence? The reason, I suspect, is clear: the ugly little game that has been playing out in American academia is — like many a theory before it — not surviving its first encounters with the public.
In that sense, at least, it faces a similar problem to that experienced by Marxists. On paper, Marxist academics were able to make grand claims about how to make an equitable society. But try it out on the public and they soon learned that what worked on paper did not work in practice
A similar, if so far less bloody, discovery is being made with CRT. Yes, its advocates may believe that they have come up with a system to create universal justice. But applied in American schools, for instance, all they come up with is a system which causes untold pain and ugliness.
Earlier this year when Grace Church School in Manhattan was in the headlines, people could see this for themselves. In private the headmaster conceded that there was a problem with the racial games he was forcing on all of his students. “Problematising whiteness” may seem fine in theory, but in practice it creates discord. As its headmaster reluctantly conceded, there are a lot of white children at his school; and if you “problematise” whiteness then you problematise them. Crenshaw, Reid and their fellow CRT supporters failed to account for that — and now this failing of theirs has plunged America into chaos.
In the meantime, their response has been to run for cover, camouflaging themselves with every technique possible. They say we don’t understand them. They say that CRT doesn’t really exist — or that it is all too complex to explain to ordinary people. But the simple fact is that CRT does exist, as a very large number of Americans have discovered. As for CRT’s bad reception, there is only one group to blame: its creators. It is their fault, not ours, that their ideology’s first mass encounter with the general public is proving such a failure.