Ralph Waldo Emerson once proclaimed that “One idea lights a thousand candles.” Every magnificent feat, act of atrocity, technological advancement and social movement began with a single idea. The twenty-first century ushered in a period of steadily intensifying societal divisions, group conflict and a decline in individual well-being. This did not happen by chance: it is the result of a socially engineered idea that is more than three generations old. The historical origins of this idea reveal its sinister intent and harmful effect on humanity. The present moment provides an opportunity for reflection on our current ideological practices and exploration of alternative possibilities. By adopting new ideas, we can ignite more than a thousand candles to illuminate the current darkness.
One fundamental reason for the chaos, turmoil and revolutionary violence in the streets is the application of Critical Theory to the individual. Critical Theory is a framework that centralizes meaning-making in cynical criticism and analyses of group power and oppression. It rejects objectivity, essentialism, the scientific method and individualism.
Critical Theory emerged from the writings of Max Horkheimer in 1937, as a philosophy designed to dissolve liberal, capitalist societies. Liberal societies value the moral worth of the individual, private property, and free-market capitalism. In 1919, Horkheimer and others established the Frankfurt School to address the recent failings of Karl Marx’s theories and reconfigure his revolutionary methodology. Karl Marx theorized that societies are destined to go through six stages: primitive communism, slave society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and, finally, stateless global communism. He believed that a revolution was necessary to advance beyond capitalism since individuals are reluctant to surrender their autonomy and self-determination. Marx declared that the oppressed proletariat would overthrow the oppressor capitalists. During the years 1917–1919, the proletariat-led revolution failed multiple times, despite optimal socioeconomic conditions and political attitudes. The Frankfurt School scholars set out to correct the flaws in Marx’s theory and determined that revolution could not occur when there were only two groups in conflict with each other—proletariat and bourgeoisie—and proposed organizing society into multiple oppressed identity groups. In 1937, Max Horkheimer shared his idea that Critical Theory could be an instrument of revolution. He proposed socially engineering liberal a liberal society to devalue the moral worth of the individual and lead people to approach each other critically and cynically: would, over time, dissolve that free/liberal society. Marxism also considers the traditional bonds between individuals and God, their family units, and their nation oppressive, along with morality, law, science, culture, history, and art. Horkheimer believed that socially engineered practices that encourage the constant critique of such bonds, institutions and traditions would dissolve them over time, without violence:
The revolution won’t happen with guns, rather it will happen incrementally, year by year, generation by generation. We will gradually infiltrate their educational institutions and their political offices, transforming them slowly into Marxist entities as we move towards universal egalitarianism.
We are currently living through the third generation of Critical Theorists and their critical methods have become the hegemonic framework of societal meaning-making. In their 2012 book, Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo describe how and why these movements came to supersede liberalism:
[Many of these movements initially advocated for a type of liberal humanism (individualism, freedom, and peace) but quickly turned to a rejection of liberal humanism. The logic of individual autonomy that underlies liberal humanism (the idea that people are free to make independent rational decisions that determine their own fate) was viewed as a mechanism for keeping the marginalized in their place by obscuring larger systems of structures of inequality. In other words, it fooled people into believing that they had more freedom and choice than societal structures actually allow.]
Critical Theory interprets the individual as problematic. Its pragmatic application to human experience is the primary cause of the current injustice and turmoil.
Not only is Critical Theory designed to achieve political aims, it does so by cultivating humankind’s most primitive and destructive inherent traits. Diminishing individual value and focusing on group identity enables systemic dehumanization. All human beings are equipped with the capacity for prejudice, aggression and cruelty. Societal conditions and norms impact the frequency and intensity of these behaviours. As Rick Hanson has argued, drawing on the work of Efferson, Lalive and Feh, “As soon as you place anyone outside of the circle of ‘us,’ the mind/brain automatically begins to devalue that person and justify poor treatment of him.” By transferring the moral worth of the individual to group identity, automatic psychological systems that justify dehumanizing other individuals are established and increase the frequency and intensity of acts of prejudice, aggression, and cruelty. A recent study of political and cultural attitudes and their correspondence with the dark triad traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, detailed elsewhere in this magazine, suggests that Critical Theory is impacting personality and society in harmful ways. Therefore, we must consider future implications of continuing the status quo.
We are faced with a choice, then: we can continue to use Critical Theory as a meaning-making framework or seek an alternative. Restoring moral worth to the individual is imperative, as Soviet exile Joseph Brodsky puts it:
the surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned impostor couldn’t be happy with. Something, in other words, that can’t be shared, like your own skin—not even by a minority.
Compassionate Humanism is a framework designed to fortify the individual and increase the overall well-being of humanity. It is based on honouring human dignity and is promoted by practices that build awareness, equanimity, kindness, and compassion for oneself and others and celebrate our common humanity. Honouring human dignity means recognizing the uniqueness, divinity, and consciousness of all human beings. The Compassionate Humanism framework proactively removes the indignity and systemic dehumanization engineered by divisive Critical Theory methods.
The candles ignited by Critical Theory burn for destruction, not illumination. A new set of ideas is needed: ideas that promote self-awareness rather than self-destruction, equanimity rather than chaos, compassion rather than division and commonalities rather than differences. Human beings are wired with capacities for prejudice, aggression and cruelty: primitive tools that keep the physical body safe. We are most likely to behaviourally express these capacities towards those we perceive as other. Critical Theory exacerbates such behaviours. Compassionate Humanism will reverse the harm done by Critical Theory.
Human beings are naturally driven to pursue well-being in their own unique ways, so a framework that strengthens our most positive human capacities, while mitigating the harmful ones, is needed to maintain a healthy, free society. Therefore, a societal framework that advances liberalism by cultivating resilient individuals compassionate about our greater humanity is needed, if we are to emerge from our current state of chaos and disunity. Compassionate Humanism could enhance individual well-being and societal cooperation for generations to come. Over time, we can create a society where we are all acknowledged as the divine, conscious beings we are and return our focus to building systems that enhance the human experience rather than marching towards its destruction.
A complete explanation of the Compassionate Humanism framework is available here.