In order to be revolutionary, feminist theory cannot claim to describe what exists, or, “natural facts.” Rather, feminist theories should be political tools, strategies for overcoming oppression in specific concrete situations. The goal, then, of feminist theory, should be to develop strategic theories—not true theories, not false theories, but strategic theories.
These chilling words were written by Kelly Oliver a feminist philosopher at Vanderbilt University in the USA.
We can all be wrong and we frequently are wrong. Indeed, it is no crime to be in error. However, Kelly Oliver seems to be arguing that you don’t need to worry about whether you are right or wrong. Theories are merely feminist tools and strategies for overcoming their (supposed) oppression. A theory should be judged by its usefulness to an identity group, in this case women, rather than by whether it is objectively true or not.
I find this state of affairs concerning at the best of times but when it comes from a tenured academic at an elite American University it becomes deeply disturbing. Universities are supposed to be the engines of knowledge and when they unmoor themselves from a belief in objective reality the future of our democracy is in serious trouble. If we are all free to believe whatever it is strategically useful to believe we just end with opposing identity groups shouting whatever narrative is politically helpful to them.
This sort of language that Kelly Oliver uses is the illegitimate child of postmodernism that posits that there is no objective reality, only different narratives vying for dominance. Ultimately, this philosophy leads nowhere and disappears up its own ‘intellectual posterior.’ The additional spin that Kelly adds is that instead of all narratives being equal they should be judged according to their utility to historically oppressed groups. Who decides which groups have been oppressed? People like Kelly, of course. Certainly not people like you or me. Who decides how long we should suspend our normal critical faculties for? People like Kelly of course. Once again, certainly not people like you or me. In truth, the sort of theories that Kelly puts forward are deeply elitist and antidemocratic.
Another problem is that when you free yourself from objective reality and the need to collect empirical data to support your beliefs you can be very productive. No laborious collecting of information, no ethical committee approvals, no grant applications, no data checking or statistical analysis, just turn on the rhetorical hose pipe and you can produce vastly more books and papers than your empirically grounded colleagues. To the uninformed, this can look like impressive scholarship while in reality it is the outpourings of another feminist quackademic.
The opening quote from Kelly Oliver also reveals what distinguishes toxic feminism from a version of feminism that you might respectfully disagree with but that leaves the door open to debate and challenge with empirical data.
There has been much talk about people with unfashionable views being ‘cancelled’ at many of our Universities. Although I am not a free speech fundamentalist, I think there should be a broad range of acceptable dialogue. However, what should be absolutely unacceptable in the University sector is a denial that we should strive (albeit by mis-steps and successive approximations) to disclose objective reality. For that reason, Kelly Oliver has no place in a centre of learning and research.