Taking back the language around Critical Race Theory
Don’t think of an elephant.
You are probably thinking of one right now.
But what if you were told “don’t think of an elephant” and you didn’t think of an elephant because the word elephant had been defined out of existence?
What if the only way you could think about an elephant was if someone asked you not to think about a large, grey, tusked creature? You may still think about that type of animal but you’d be as likely to think of a narwhal as you would of an elephant.
And that is the elephant in the room regarding the debate over teaching critical race theory in public schools: When you define the words, you define the discussion and that is half the battle.
The ability to express an idea clearly is critically important in any political context. If one cannot express a concept like “freedom” in any rational and coherent way—if it can only be felt in the pit of one’s stomach—then, for all practical purposes, it no longer exists in the public sphere.
When discussing the woke/progressive movement, it cannot be over-stressed that words matter. The freedom to choose which words to use to express an idea is at the heart of a free and functioning society.
True, our current president may not exactly know what words he is using at any given time. He may never have uttered the sentence, “You know, the thing, that guy over there who runs that place, c’mon man, the likelihood is highly unlikely, lying dog-faced pony soldier President Harris,” but it feels as if he has far too often. However, his staff and supporters and enablers surely know that words—truthful or not—can be used to shape, amplify, or shut down any debate about any topic.
It should be anathema to all to allow words to be misused to control a discussion. It should be just as problematic to allow narrow, but crucially important rhetorical dodges, to control a debate.
One of the most common dodges today involves the back-and-forth around whether critical race theory is being “taught” in schools—the key word being “taught.”
Those in favor of the concepts behind CRT, such as MSNBC host Joy Reid steadfastly—in as adamantine a fashion as possible—state that CRT is not being taught in schools because third-graders aren’t being handed Delgado and Stefanic’s “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction” textbook when they come back in from playing four-square at recess.
That line of argument, while not actually true, is simple, understandable and, in the limited amount of time available on a cable news show, extremely defensible. Even though it is usually made to change the premise of the discussion, to the extent it is technically correct in the "tiniest sliver of the truth" way possible, debating that point devolves quickly into a “he said/they said/ze said” circular argument.
The answer to this deceptive approach is to take a page out of the leftist handbook and control language yourself—and that brings us to the wonderful phrase “derived from.”
Saying that certain aspects of a curriculum are “derived from” CRT rather than “are” CRT does several things to strengthen one’s debating position. First, it has the advantage of being accurate and true. Second, it removes the undergirding of a Reid-type legalistic technical defense from the start, thereby eliminating a well-worn trope that has allowed TV types and school board members an automatic out from the discussion. (Even the most disingenuous CRT proponent has at the very least admitted a relationship between what is discussed by legal scholars at college and what is taught in school). And third, it is perfect as the basis for clear and simple analogies to illustrate what is actually occurring.
Does every mechanic have to take physics and memorize every law of thermodynamics to know how to fix an engine? No.
Do all passengers on an airplane have to have drag co-efficiency equations in their heads to be able to put their seats in their locked and upright position? No.
Does every eighth-grade earth science class have Alfred Wegener’s seminal work on plate tectonics—Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane—on its reading list? No. Do most of the kids who are even vaguely paying attention come away with a rudimentary understanding of continental drift and volcanoes and earthquakes and such? Yes, and that, terrifyingly, is what is happening with the tenets of CRT.
It could be said, sticking with the educational analogy, that school children are being taught a “Cliff Notes” version of CRT rather than having to slog through the whole critical race canon (and what an incredibly tedious and extremely annoying venture that must be), but learning it they are.
And with that “learning”—specifically because of the limiting of language at the heart of critical race theory—comes their un-learning how to think in any other way.
Thomas Buckley is the former Mayor of Lake Elsinore and a former newspaper reporter. He is currently the operator of a small communications and planning consultancy and can be reached directly at email@example.com. You can read more of his work at https://thomas699.substack.com.
Image: Elementary school classroom by the National Cancer Institute (edited). Unsplash license.
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