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If You're Promoting "Social Justice" You're Promoting Foucault. Here's Why...

I Was Once a Young-Adult Postmodernist

Since my conversion over a decade ago, I've grown more and more aware of just how much postmodern philosophy has taken root in much of American academia and, sadly, professedly Christian churches. And as I've reflected on this situation, I've grown more and more aware of why God foreordained for me to religiously follow postmodern philosophy when I wasn't a Christian. 

I Was a Devoted Postmodernist

If you didn't know me during my college days, I'll give you a brief recap of my life at the time. When I woke up in the morning, I would start thinking about what I had fallen asleep reading. Sometimes it was Jacques Derrida; at other times it was Michel Foucault, or Frederic Jameson, or Jean Baudrillard, or Friedrich Nietzsche, or Sigmund Freud, or Jacques Lacan, or Karl Marx. When I left my house to go to my lit theory and philosophy classes, I made sure to grab a postmodernist tome of one sort or another, so that I could read on the subway. As I walked off of the train, on to the platform, up the stairs, through the turnstile, up the stairs to the street, and down the street to my college, I would continue reading my book, devouring and digesting every jot and tittle.

When I sat down in class, I filtered what I was learning about through postmodern theories. As I interacted, I consciously employed postmodern critiques, raising problems posited by postmodernist thinkers, and offering no solutions because, well,  only a vile modernist would do that. I scoffed at the idea that there are universal truths - be they aesthetic, ethical, ontological, epistemological, mathematical, biological, chemical, or physical. And I, like an usher at an Arminian alter call, warmly encouraged and bore very patiently with those who wanted to surrender their lives to Foucault or Derrida or Heidegger or Baudrillard, and renounce the perfidious imperialism of Western Civilization.

Having previously had a false conversion at the age of 16-17(ish), I had grown antagonistic toward all things Christian. I was opposed to the "oppressive" teachings of Western Civilization wherever I could find them, which was, or so I thought, everywhere. In my mind, Western Civilization had taken its basic assumptions about metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology woven them into every aspect of American life. I thought this because the postmodernists made a case for this in nearly everything they wrote. And I found those cases to be convincing...for a time.

Then God regenerated me, opened my eyes to see my intellectual sins against him, the Truth, gifted me with repentance and faith; and I repented and believed the Gospel.

The Underlying Thread

As a Christian, I didn't abandon my thinking about postmodernism. Instead, I thought even more thoroughly about the foundational assumptions of postmodernism, given that I had begun to see it creep into the lay and ministerial conversations that were taking place online and, in some cases, around me at that time. 

What I found was that one of the main threads of postmodern ideas infiltrating the church - at that time through the wiles of so-called "Emergent" and "Emerging" church leaders - was that of how orthodox Christian theology and practice were not the products of faithful exegesis of the Scriptures, but the byproduct of material and social forces over time.A nd I immediately recognized that kind of thinking for what it was - Foucault's analysis of power and knowledge. 

Some years later, I found that the situation was very similar. When the media began promoting Black Lives Matter, social justice, and critical race theory, I picked up on the postmodern jargon and concepts that increasingly saturated the news. And one of the main postmodern ideas infiltrating the airwaves and the minds of professing Christians, yet again, was that of how our current system is not based on universal and absolutely binding moral, epistemological, anthropological, and metaphysical truths, but is the byproduct of material and social forces over time. And I immediately recognized that kind of thinking for what it was - Foucault's analysis of power and knowledge.

I've been  actively opposing it ever since. But many professing Christians today are not aware of what they are actually promoting when they advocate for "social justice" and label their movement's opponents as "conspiracy theorists," so I thought I'd try my best to bring some clarity by posting academic works/citations that make the point for me.

Foucault's Analysis of Power and Knowledge

So without further ado, here are some helpful scholarly remarks that explain Foucault's analysis of power and knowledge. I'll make some brief explanatory remarks afterward.

Foucault's work has had a profound impact on virtually every field in the humanities and social sciences. Undoubtedly, one of the most valuable aspects of his work is to sensitize theorists to the pervasive operations of power and to highlight the problematic or suspicious aspects of rationality, knowledge, subjectivity, and the production of social norms. In richly detailed analyses, he demonstrates how power is woven into all aspects of social and personal life, pervading the schools, hospitals, prisons, and social sciences.

Following Nietzsche, Foucault questions seemingly beneficent forms of thought and value (such as humanism, self-identity, and utopian schemes) and forces us to rethink them anew. Where Nietzsche showed how the highest values have the lowliest ‘origins', for example, how morality is rooted in immorality and resentment, and how all values and knowledge are manifestations of the will to power, Foucault exposes the links between power, truth, and knowledge, and describes how liberal-humanist values are intertwined with and supports of technologies of domination.

Foucault's work is a powerful critique both of macrotheorists who see power only in terms of class or the state, and microtheorists who analyze institutions and face-to-face interaction while ignoring power altogether. For all its virtues, however, Foucault's work also suffers from a number of limitations. While Foucault came to acknowledge some positive aspects of Enlightenment reason, he failed to follow suit for the institutions and technologies of modernity. His critique of modernity remains too one-sided in its focus on repressive forms of rationalization and fails to delineate any progressive aspects of modernity (see Merquior 1985; Walzer 1986; Taylor 1986; Habermas 1987a). On Foucault's scheme, modernity brings no advances in medicine, democracy, or literacy, but only in the efficacy of domination. While Habermas' characterization of Foucault as a 'young conservative' (1983) is problematic and itself onedimensional (see Fraser 1989: pp. 35–54), he has correctly observed that Foucault describes all aspects of modernity as disciplinary and ignores the progressive aspects of modern social and political forms in terms of advances in liberty, law, and equality (see 7.32). 

[Steven Best & Douglas Kellner, Postmodern  Theory, pp. 68-69. (emphasis added)]

Some Commentary 

The main thrust of Foucault's work, as Best and Kellner explain, is the analysis of power and knowledge. Foucault does this not merely by looking at laws and practices definitive of a certain time and place, but by engaging in an analysis of their corresponding forms of discourse. Discourse, for Foucault, is more than speech. One source explains it as follows:

... discourse is a set of ideas, values and practices...inherited and reproduced by a society...the foundation through which [the] meaning of various social affairs is derived.(Source)

Foucault, in some places, likens these formative discursive elements to rules (as in a game) or mathematical formulae. The discursive elements, as they condition and constrain our speech and action, create boundaries separating good ideas from bad ideas, good actions from bad actions, truth from falsehood, madness from civilization, and so on. A simple, objective analysis of objective reality, Foucault thinks, is impossible, seeing as analysis itself is only possible within the grid of possibilities produced by a discourse.

Practically speaking, this means that a Western European's moral criticism of the economic practices of, say, Australian aborigines does not reflect what is objectively the case, but merely expresses what the dominant discourse values, prizes, and "valorizes," and, contrarily, what it sees as valueless, worthless, and, therefore, justly marginalized, excluded, etc. If we follow Foucault, then, the Western European's criticism ought to be viewed as a culturally ensconced expression of power. More specifically, it is a culturally ensconced expression of power over people and practices that are outside of the dominant discourse.

Any attempt by the Western European to call the beliefs and practices of the Aborigines irrational or immoral or, ironically enough, "good" are, thus, actually attempts to silence him by controlling what he can and can't legitimately say or do. If the Aborigines are going to be properly understood it is only going to be by means of their own self-description & self-evaluation.

Drawing the Connections

At this point in my blog post, anyone familiar with the claims, complaints, criticisms, and practices of the current "social justice" movement is probably drawing the connection between, on the one hand, Foucault's belief that institutions of power in society are the products and reproducers of the foundational elements - and therefore the entirety - of a dominant discourse, and, on the other hand, the "social justice" and CRT belief that institutions of power in American society are the products and reproducers of the foundational elements - and therfore the entirety - of the dominant discourse/ideology of "white supremacy."

Moreover, they will no doubt be drawing the connection between, on the one hand, Foucault's belief that epistemic and moral evaluations are not objective assessments of "the other"/"the outsider" but culturally ensconced expressions of power geared toward keeping one's discourse dominant, and, on the other hand, the "social justice" and CRT belief that epistemic and moral evaluations are not objective assessments of the ethnic "other" but culturally ensconced expressions of power geared toward maintaing the dominance of a "white supremacist" ideology/discourse

There is a lot more that can be said about this matter, of course, but this should be enough to make it clear that "social justice" advocates are promoting is Critical Race Theory's only very mildly retooled version of Michel Foucault's analysis of power and knowledge. It should also be enough for the Christian reader to see that if one accepts the ideas promoted by "social justice" advocates - whether secular or religious - he is accepting ideas that are clearly at odds with the teaching of Scripture. 

The basis for professing Christians' claims that our "libraries need to be decolonized" or "diversified" in order for us to have a better understanding of theology in general, and the Gospel in particular, is the immoral thinking of postmodern theorists like Foucault who reject the idea that truth - in regards to any subject - is God's possession which he distributes to men as he sees fit. 

It is a putrid philosophy that, like Satan in the garden, hissingly utters the lie that absolute moral, epistemological, and ontological boundaries are fictions meant to proscribe the thoughts and deeds of others - "lest their eyes be opened and they become like gods."