I am a first-year law student at Queen’s University, Canada. In September I volunteered with Pro-Bono Students Canada (PBSC), a volunteer organization that “envisions a society with accessible legal systems, where the dignity and rights of every person are upheld.” Volunteers work with lawyers and not-for-profit organizations to assist members of marginalized groups who are in need of legal advice. The students and professionals whom I have met through this program have been kind, intelligent and compassionate. But, although I have been impressed by many aspects of PBSC, I am dismayed by their decision to include mandatory anti-oppression training for all volunteers.
The philosophical underpinnings of this training are never declared: the tenets of Critical Race Theory are simply presented as fact. At first glance, the training seems like a standard orientation. Students are introduced to PBSC’s core values, one of which is humility. PBSC volunteers, we are told, are expected to show humility by listening to the lived experiences of people from oppressed groups. Of course, volunteers should listen to the people they are supposed to be helping: this is simple politeness and common sense. But the term lived experience implies that one must interpret those experiences through the lens of Critical Theory. Thus, PBSC volunteers are required to view members of their communities as either oppressors or victims.
Another core value is equity in “all its forms.” Adherents of Critical Race Theory believe that society is governed by invisible systems of power and privilege that must be overturned. True equality must be obtained at all costs, even if we must treat certain groups unfairly to achieve that end. For example, Queen’s University has restricted access to the Accelerated Route to Medical School to black and indigenous applicants. (Similar restricted or preferential hiring practices have been instituted at Memorial University of Newfoundland, the University of Manitoba and the University of Victoria.)
PBSC identifies what it calls the “four ‘I’s” of oppression: ideological, institutional, interpersonal and internal. Perhaps the most perplexing of these is ideological oppression, which they define as “one’s systems of beliefs and values, such as the notion that there is good and bad in the world—a notion that is surely central to a school of law. Institutional oppression refers to the policies and frameworks that perpetuate the dominant ideology. Interpersonal oppression, they explain, is subtle and often takes the form of microaggressions, which can be perpetrated unwittingly. PBSC also teaches students that their private thoughts and feelings can be oppressive and must be changed to align with anti-oppressive norms. Internalized oppression occurs when one is compelled to hold negative thoughts about one’s own culture.
Anti-oppression training is thoroughly oikophobic and could therefore, by its own definition, result in internalized oppression for members of the dominant class. It also infantilizes members of minority groups by asserting that microaggressions against them result in pain, guilt, shame, alienation and loss of motivation. I suspect that many of PBSC’s clients would take issue with being portrayed as fragile, insecure and emotionally volatile.
PBSC tells students to actively disrupt the social structures that cause oppression, but Critical Theory’s conception of oppression is so broad that it is difficult to identify any structure that could not be construed as oppressive. Students are also told that they must engage in anti-oppressive practice, by acknowledging their power and privilege and exalting the experiences of members of social groups that have been historically marginalized. Anyone who identifies as white, heterosexual, male or able-bodied holds power and privilege in our society, and we can calculate the amount of power we have by examining our social identities. PBSC does not provide an exact formula for this calculation, but the trainer implies that a person’s superficial characteristics, such as her race and sex, can be used to determine it. This raises the question of whether anti-oppression activists can determine other people’s power and privilege: if so, it appears that prejudicial judgement is built into the anti-oppressive model. The instructor helpfully informs students that if any part of this training makes them feel uncomfortable, it is simply because they have not engaged in enough self-reflection. Critical Theory is unfalsifiable: anyone who disagrees with the orthodoxy is simply incorrect and in need of more training.
Students are told that masculine culture dominates the legal profession and that, as “leaders of tomorrow” they must commit to dismantling that system. The first step is to engage in allyship, which can only be achieved after recognizing one’s power and privilege. After embracing an appropriate amount of shame and guilt, students can enact change in recognition of the power they hold (presumably while they continue to accumulate student debt, work multiple part-time jobs and reside in filthy subdivided apartments).
It is inappropriate for PBSC to demand that students accept Critical Theory as a precondition for volunteer work, especially without defining the theory or acknowledging any critiques of it. Critical Theory is incompatible with many of the belief systems that individual students may subscribe to, such as Christianity, conservatism and classical liberalism. If PBSC and Queen’s University truly care about creating an “inclusive environment,” they should not permit students to be subjected to ideological training.
The issue runs deeper than a single volunteer group at an obscure Canadian university: 1600 future lawyers are involved with the organization and have presumably taken part in anti-oppression training. Worryingly, few students seem to recognize the historical parallels between this movement and others in which arrogant elites have sought to remake society in their own image. If tradition is the source of oppression—as these critical theorists believe—why not do away with it? Perhaps because, in doing so, we would abscise those virtues that are our society’s foundation. An appreciation for tradition is a core element of liberal democracy. As G. K. Chesterton writes:
Tradition means giving a vote to that most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.
If Chesterton were as widely read today as Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo and Nikole Hannah-Jones, perhaps our public discourse would be more humble and dignified. Unfortunately for today’s university students, however, Critical Theory is currently in vogue. The content of a person’s character has been predetermined by a narrow-minded academic elite who, in their supposed efforts to end bigotry, have made it part of the curriculum.