What is mistake theory and can it save the humanities?

While critical theory is not without its uses, it is time that we take a more constructive approach to social issues. 'Mistake theory' can offer a useful lens.

Students graduating from Birmingham University, England. Credit: Malcolm McDougall Photography / Alamy Stock Photo.
Students graduating from Birmingham University, England. Credit: Malcolm McDougall Photography / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay originally appeared in ‘Knowledge and Information – Perspectives from Engelsberg Seminar, 2018’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault is the most cited scholar in the humanities of all time: as of July 2018, he has 873,174 citations on Google Scholar. Judith Butler’s influential book Gender Trouble, which gave rise to Queer theory, and the idea that gender is a performance rather than a biological reality, has been cited over 51,000 times; vastly more than most books written in the twentieth century, or any other time period.

In recent years, universities across the Western world, and particularly in the United States, have seen a rise in new forms of protest: the de-platforming and disinvitation of speakers, the implementation of trigger warnings and safe spaces, and a perception that there is a growing hostility to the principles that define the university experience such as open inquiry and debate. Simultaneously, populist revolts have been occurring around the globe, from Brexit to Trump to the rise of the Sweden Democrats and the backlash to liberal centrist parties across the European continent.

Does anything unite these two disparate trends? It may seem like along bow to draw, but in a 2018 essay posted on his blog, Californian psychiatrist Scott Alexander developed a model of politics which allows one to find parallels between the far-left activists on US university campuses and the far-right populists of continental Europe. His model is called the ‘Conflict versus Mistake’ model and it neatly reduces the fissures that many of us have observed within contemporary political discourse into axioms that can be applied across contexts.

Within his model, Alexander identifies two key explanatory styles that are crucial for understanding contemporary political discourse. The first is that of the ‘mistake theorist’. A mistake theorist, according to Alexander, is someone who believes that political problems arise because there is a mistake or an error in the system. To the mistake theorist, social phenomena arise from an interplay of many different variables. To understand social problems, one must generally undertake an in-depth analysis to work out what is really going on and how to fix it. Mistake theorists view politics like a science, or an engineering problem. They are like a mechanic looking at the engine of a car.

The second explanatory style is that of the ‘conflict theorist’. A conflict theorist sees the world as being comprised of oppressor classes and oppressed classes. Powerful groups systematically exploit disadvantaged groups. Any unequal distribution of resources is seen as evidence of one group exploiting another. The conflict theorist generally views interactions between groups of people as zero sum. For conflict theorists, politics is war.

The mistake theorist values debate, open inquiry and free speech. There is an understanding in the mistake theorist’s worldview that different people bring different skill sets and knowledge to the table, and that we need diverse views in order to harness our collective intelligence. Because free speech allows us to search for the truth and uncover our mistakes, the mistake theorist views free speech as sacrosanct. Conflict theorists are not so enamoured of the need for debate. They may view debate as being a distraction, a delaying tactic, or an attempt to proliferate ideas that are harmful to the disadvantaged. To the conflict theorist, protecting the disadvantaged is sacrosanct.

Moral sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning have theorised in their 2018 book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, that within this conflict theory worldview (what Campbell and Manning call the ‘victim-hood culture’ worldview) a moral hierarchy is set up according to one’s status as a member of an oppressed group. Members of less powerful groups are imbued with a special moral status, and due to this special moral status, members of the less powerful groups demand fierce and vigilant protection. To criticise the victim is to engage in victim-blaming.

By contrast, mistake theorists (what Campbell and Manning call the ‘dignity culture’ worldview) see persons as possessing equal moral status. A member of a so-called ‘oppressor’ group is just as entitled to his or her rights as a member of an ‘oppressed’ group. Moral status is not determined by one’s membership of an identity category. Emphasising the importance of process and method in coming to accurate conclusions, in contrast with rushing to judgement, the mistake theorist is likely to advocate principles like the presumption of innocence, procedural fairness, and due process.

Conflict theorists are not the sole purview of the Left. Leading up to the 2017 French presidential election, Marine Le Pen frequently used conflict theorist rhetoric, pitting native Frenchmen and women against oppressive elites: ‘Immigration is an organised replacement of our population. This threatens our very survival. We don’t have the means to integrate those who are already here. The result is endless cultural conflict.’

Le Pen draws on the language of victimhood: immigration ‘threatens the survival’ of the French people, and that this threat is ‘organised’ — indicating an identifiable enemy. The enemy is a powerful class of elites. While the left-wing manifestation of conflict theorist worldview blames oppression on white people, men, straight people, and increasingly cisgender or cis people (those who identify with the sex or gender they were born with), the right-wing version blames bankers, globalists, and technocratic elites for exploiting and oppressing the ordinary people.

Unlike conflict theorists, mistake theorists are suspicious of passion and emotion when it comes to answering complex political problems. The apotheosis of this attitude is the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom’s book, Against Empathy. In this book, Bloom argues that empathy leads us to irrational decision-making, and a cool, detached, more statistical process leads to fairer and more utilitarian moral outcomes. By contrast, the conflict theorist is suspicious of methodological purity, and the cool rationality that process demands. Hot emotions are seen as assets, not weaknesses. Lived experience trumps data. To get anything done in the political sphere, one needs the spirit and passion of a true believer.

Importantly, the academic cultures we are exposed to in formative periods of our lives will influence which explanatory style we gravitate to. Naturally, a training in the behavioural sciences or the empirical social sciences may often lead one to be a mistake theorist. A student who has undertaken several years of coursework in statistics will know that any social phenomena likely has a multiplicity of causes. She will know that correlation does not imply causation. She will know that if she wants to talk about causality she must control for many extraneous variables. She will know that all scientific findings are provisional, and that hypotheses and theories are likely to be revised at a later date, when new and better data emerges.

A conflict theorist, on the other hand, does not see problems as having a multiplicity of causes. If there is a gender pay gap, then this is because men are oppressing women. If there is a gap between the earnings of immigrants and a native population, then this is because the native population are discriminating against the immigrant group. If there are health discrepancies between LGBT people and heterosexual people, then that is because heterosexual people are engaging in discrimination. This simple formula can be extended and applied over and over again.

A mistake theorist will look at the same problems and agree that discrimination is likely to be a factor. But the crucial difference is that the mistake theorist sees it as one factor among many. Understanding that correlation does not immediately suggest causation leads the mistake theorist to adopt a position of epistemological humility. A mistake theorist will also suggest that it is important to look at what other factors might be influencing an outcome. She might suggest that to fully understand why the gender pay gap exists, one must look at the difference in earnings between women who have children and women who don’t. If the earnings of women who do not have children are comparable to that of men, then this will tell us something very important, something that the standard oppression narrative cannot. Likewise, when looking at an earnings gap between migrants and a native population, we might want to control for prior education levels. If migrants as a group have a different average level of education, then this tells us something important. If there are health discrepancies between heterosexual and LGBTI people, then we might want to have a look at discrimination, but we will also want to look at many other variables including income, health-seeking behaviours and genetic influences. The picture is often more complicated and random than is implied by simplistic narratives.

While the mistake theorist hunts for data, conflict theorists view debate as a distraction from the real issues on the ground. What is the point of debating when women are only earning 70 cents in the dollar? Why conduct another study into the impact of immigration on the local economy when people are escaping persecution and are simply trying to find abetter life for their families? Treating people as if they were mere statistical units is inhumane. By the time one has collected the data and run the analyses, people will have already died. How can one think about these issues with a cool rationality, when what we really need is compassion and feeling?

If you are a mistake theorist, you will view conflict theorists as simply lacking in information. A conflict theorist simply has not read enough literature on economics, psychology or history, or simply does not have training in the scientific method. If you are a mistake theorist, you will view the conflict theorist as simply being naive and/or ignorant. And if in possession of the correct information, the conflict theorist will naturally become a mistake theorist. Mistake theorists believe that we improve the world through increasing education and reducing cognitive bias. They believe that we can reduce bias by being exposed to a range of different viewpoints, even those which are objectively bad, because one can then refine one’s own arguments.

This attitude is encapsulated by John Stuart Mill’s declaration: ‘He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.’

With this quote, Mill accepts and expresses his own fallibility. He might be wrong, therefore he would not wish to prevent another person from speaking lest they possess information or insight that he might not have. This exchange of information helps the individual and the collective move towards a clearer understanding of the truth.

Alexander points out that conflict theorists, on the other hand, do not see the point in debating with one’s sworn enemy. If you are a conflict theorist, you are very clear about who is your enemy and there is no legitimate space for neutrality or objectivity. You view mistake theorists as enemies in your conflict. In trying to be objective, the mistake theorists effectively defend the status quo.

This attitude can be summed up in this quote from Herbert Marcuse, a prominent figure of the Frankfurt School: ‘Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left.’ Marcuse argued for the opposite of what Mill argued for, that is intolerance of anything not deemed to be of the correct political disposition.

This ‘intolerance of intolerance’ is arguably behind the rise of speech codes, de-platforming campaigns and the reduced support for free speech held by students on American campuses. One of the reasons why the conflict theorist perspective is gaining prominence is because it is very popular within our higher education institutions. The methodology through which conflict theory is taught is known as critical theory. One of the reasons why critical theory has been so powerful and has become so popular within academia is because of its unassuming name. Who can possibly argue with critical theory? Isn’t being critical why we go to university in the first place? What is not to like about critical theory?

Critical theory is not synonymous with critical thinking. To understand what it is exactly, one must go back to Karl Marx, and his observation that ‘philosophers have merely interpreted the world, and the point is to change it’. Marx pointed out that philosophy and science had heretofore been descriptive, and what he wanted was a prescriptive approach to scholarship.

Critical theorists of the Frankfurt School argued that traditional ‘theories’ or ways of looking at the world had thus far served the interests of the powerful. Because traditional forms of inquiry were uncritical towards power, it therefore served the powerful, while critical theory, in unmasking powerful interests, helped serve the powerless. All scholarship is political, they said, and by choosing critical theory over traditional forms of scholarship, one choses to challenge the status quo. When the Frankfurt School were developing their theory, this approach was new and fresh, and was no doubt very useful in mobilising emancipatory civil rights movements across the world. But these liberationist impulses have since ossified into rigid orthodoxies.

On campus, at least in the humanities, critical theory is the new dogma. In critical legal theory, academics focus first on politicising the law, and then prescribing the correct political values that the law should reflect, i.e. the correct attitudes around gender, sexuality, race, the environment and economics. Scholars cited within critical legal theory include Marx, Gramsci, Foucault and Derrida. Critical theory also dominates the study of literature, and other humanities subjects such as international relations are also increasingly influenced by the spectre of the methodology. New fields of study have also opened up such as critical plant studies, which claims that humans occupy a ‘privileged place’ in relation to plant life.

Critical theory is not without its uses. It has proven that as a methodology it is capable of critiquing the dominant power structures of the mid-twentieth century. Arguably, however, the method has dated. Now critical theorists are in a position of dominance. In many humanities departments around the world, theirs is the dominant ideology. In the humanities, feminist, queer and post-colonial approaches of interpretation have become the status quo. Uri Harris, writing for the online magazine Quillette, which I edit, has argued that this predominance of critical theory in the academy opens up challenging and paradoxical situations because, as critical theory becomes more widespread and its adherents more powerful, critical theory must then be turned on itself.

Both the far Right and the far Left are re-emerging across the Western world. It would be reductive and simplistic to place the blame for this development on either conflict theory or critical theory. Likewise, media which draw on erroneous and black-and-white narratives for explanations of complex social phenomena are not solely to blame. Of course the resurgence of left-wing and right-wing populism is influenced by a multiplicity of causes. Unfortunately, however, one of those causes is currently dominant within our institutions of higher education.


Claire Lehman