Why You Should Care About Social Criticism

Social criticism analyzes a society's power structures, norms, and patterns of behavior to identify how these contribute to social inequality, oppression and injustice. But social critics don't just aim to study society - they work to promote social justice.

Many social critics in modern times are secular, but there is a rich tradition of Christian social criticism also. Study Christian community development at City Vision University and learn how to live out Christian social justice.

Table of Contents

  1. Why is social criticism important?
  2. Types of social criticism
    1. Christian social criticism
    2. Enlightenment social criticism
    3. Modern academic social criticism
  3. Social criticism in the arts

Why is social criticism important?

Social criticism helps you understand people that aren't like you

Social criticism often reflects the perspectives and experiences of historically marginalized groups such as women, people of color, or the lower economic classes. This can help expand your worldview and see things from the perspective of people who are not as privileged as you are.

Social critics are activists

Many social critics are also activists, using their platform to raise awareness of social issues, challenge power structures, and promote social change. This can involve participating in protests, supporting political candidates, or advocating for policy change.

Social critics help change communities

Social criticism can aid in the work of community development by helping to identify the root causes of social inequality and injustice. This understanding can then inform the development of community-based solutions that address these issues and promote greater equity.

For example, a low-income or economically marginalized community might benefit from social criticism that sheds light on the ways in which systemic factors, such as wage stagnation or a lack of affordable housing, contribute to poverty. This understanding can then inform the development of community-based solutions, such as job training programs, affordable housing initiatives, or alternative economic models.

Additionally, social criticism can play a role in community development by promoting greater awareness and understanding of the needs and experiences of marginalized communities. By highlighting the perspectives and experiences of these communities, social criticism can help to build bridges between different groups and promote greater empathy and collaboration.

In conclusion, social criticism and community development are closely related, since social criticism can inform and guide the process of building stronger, more equitable communities. By examining the root causes of social inequality and promoting greater awareness and understanding, social criticism can help to create the conditions necessary for community-based solutions and lasting change.

Types of Social Criticism

Christian social criticism

Despite what many think today, historically, many social critics have been motivated by religious values, such as Christianity. For example, the Quakers were involved in many social movements during the 17th through the 19th centuries. In addition to their stance against war, Quakers called for the abolition of slavery, prison reform and increased women's rights. They were involved in organizing anti-slavery societies, advocating for abolition in the political sphere, and providing assistance to escaped slaves through the Underground Railroad.

More recently, many Christian leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have been strong social critics and reformers. Not only he, but many other leaders in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, were members of the Black church.

Biblical social justice

This is not surprising since both Judaism and Christianity are rooted in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), which, as pastor and theologian Tim Keller notes, has a rich vocabulary for discussing justice.

The Hebrew word for “justice,” mishpat, occurs in its various forms more than 200 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably. It means acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case, regardless of race or social status. Anyone who does the same wrong should be given the same penalty.

But mishpat means more than just the punishment of wrongdoing. It also means giving people their rights. Deuteronomy 18 directs that the priests of the tabernacle should be supported by a certain percentage of the people’s income. This support is described as “the priests’ mishpat,” which means their due or their right. Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.

However, Keller states, Biblical social justice goes being giving people what they are due - it is about restoring right relationships between people:

When most modern people see the word “righteousness” in the Bible, they tend to think of it in terms of private morality, such as sexual chastity or diligence in prayer and Bible study. But in the Bible, tzadeqah [righteousness] refers to day-to-day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity and equity...

Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render [retributive] justice [or punishment] unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else. Therefore, though tzadeqah is primarily about being in a right relationship with God, the righteous life that results is profoundly social.

In summary, as Joe Carter says, "Biblical justice includes all forms of God-ordained justice, including..[retributive] justice...(...legal justice) as well as justice between individuals...and justice involving organizations and groups."

Christians believe that God created all people in His image, which means that they are of infinite worth. That is the fundamental basis on which Christians have argued throughout history for better treatment for those who are being oppressed.

Secular Enlightenment Social Criticism

Secular social criticism dates back at least to the Age of Enlightenment, in the 17th and 18th centuries. During this time, philosophers, writers and other intellectuals and arts challenged traditional ways of thinking, calling for greater rationality and individual freedom. Social criticism was an important part of this movement, as thinkers sought to understand the social and political structures of their time and identify ways to improve society.

An early Enlightenment figure was the 17th Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who helped initiate the radical Enlightenment with his critique of religious and political authority. In his major work, "Ethics," Spinoza argued that individuals should be free to think and act as they see fit, so long as they do not harm others. Additionally, Spinoza was critical of the political structures of his time, including the Dutch Republic and its treatment of religious minorities, such as Jews. He believed that the state should be secular and that religious authorities should not have the power to dictate political decisions.

Another key Enlightenment figure was the French philosopher and political writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who influenced the French Revolution. In works such as "The Social Contract," Rousseau argued that the existing social order was unjust and that a more democratic and equitable society was possible. He also wrote "Emile, or on Education", an influential critique of the educational ideas prevalent at his time. In "Emile," Rousseau argues that children should be allowed to develop naturally, without being subjected to the constraints of traditional education. Other French Enlightenment thinkers, such as Denis Diderot and Voltaire, also engaged in social criticism, challenging traditional ideas about religion, government, and society. Their works helped to promote new ideas about individual rights, freedom of speech, and the importance of reason and science.

In contrast to the revolutionary, and largely secular, French Enlightenment, social critics of the 18th century in Great Britain and the United States had largely more moderate political views and were often less critical of religion. Among these were John Locke and Adam Smith. Locke was an English philosopher who argued for individual rights, including the right to life, liberty, and property. He was also critical of absolute monarchy and advocated for limited government. Smith was a Scottish economist who is considered the father of modern economics. In his book "The Wealth of Nations," he criticized mercantilism, a prevailing economic theory at the time, and advocated for free trade and the division of labor.

Mary Wollstonecraft was another significant British social critic of the time. In her book "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman," she criticized the treatment of women in society and argued for their education and equality.

Among the most well-known American social critics were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, whose ideas were influential in justifying the American Revolution.

Modern secular academic social criticism

In the positivist debate, beginning in 1961, critical rationalist and social scientist Karl Popper debated with the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School regarding whether the social sciences should attempt to be neutral and objective or take a political stance on social issues. The Frankfurt School was a group of philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists who were active in the mid-twentieth century. They were critical of the dominant cultural and political institutions of their time and believed that these institutions perpetuated social inequality and oppression.

The work of the Frankfurt School has had a significant influence on modern academic social criticism. In particular, their ideas have informed the development of specific academic forms of social criticism, such as critical race theory, gender studies, environmental justice, disability studies, postcolonial studies and labor studies. Critical theory has also been influential in literary criticism.

Social criticism in the arts

In literature

Social criticism can also be expressed in fiction, such as a revolutionary novel like The Iron Heel (1908) by Jack London or in dystopian novels like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or Ray Bradbury'sFahrenheit 451 (1953), or Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985).

Fictional literature can have a significant social impact. For example, the 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe furthered the anti-slavery movement in the United States, and the 1885 novel Ramona, by Helen Hunt Jackson, brought about changes in laws regarding Native Americans. Similarly, Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle helped create new laws related to public health and food handling, and Arthur Morrison's 1896 novel A Child of the Jago caused England to change its housing laws.

In other arts

In addition to literature, social criticism can also be found in other forms of art, such as music, film, and visual art. Music has long been a powerful tool for social criticism, such as protest songs, political hip-hop, punk music and even some operas (such as The Cradle Will Rock or Trouble in Tahiti). Similarly, films like Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" (1989) and "BlacKkKlansman" (2018) use humor and satire to critique systemic racism and discrimination. Visual art can also serve as a form of social criticism, such as Pablo Picasso's painting Guernica, which depicts the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.

Originally based on an article from Wikipedia; revision incorporates text from OpenAI's ChatGPT

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