CHT: A theoretical perspective for the 21st Century

Posted on: October 20, 2023 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Hydra "privileging forces"

CHT: A theoretical perspective for the 21st Century

A new theory for a new century
Being a 21st-century social scientist is a perhaps Sisyphean task; so much happens in such an unclear way, and trying to stay current with local, national, and international social and political news is akin to drinking from a firehose. Modern social scientists cannot ignore the fact that we live in a globalized, intricately, and infinitely interconnected social world made ever more seamless by increasingly ‘smart’ technologies that make national boundaries irrelevant. The increasing presence of artificial intelligence (AI) makes the future of humanity ever more complex and unpredictable.

At their core, all critical theories begin with the assumption that power and privilege asymmetries are at the root of most global social problems. Critical Hydra Theory (CHT) offers an explicitly pan-disciplinary and globally applicable approach capable of addressing 21st-century questions about the myriad social and, importantly, environmental problems facing humanity. CHT is a critical theory in the classic sense of this term and begins with the assumption that social injustices exist and must be systematically interrogated as part of our efforts to move humanity in a positive direction where dignity is afforded to all, including future generations.

Like other critical theories, CHT is also a radical theory in that it advocates for a change in the fundamental structure of our global social world, a reexamination of many deeply embedded assumptions about how human cultures can and should function, especially in relation to power and privilege. CHT is a tool that can be used to loosen the bolts of past social structures and serve to make positive and lasting social changes.

What constitutes a theory in the social sciences?
In the social sciences, a theory is a systematic framework or set of ideas that aims to explain and understand social phenomena, patterns, behaviors, or relationships. The primary purpose of  social science theories is to provide a structured and coherent way of thinking about and interpreting the social world. Important to remember is that theoretical perspectives in the social sciences are not mutually exclusive tools, but rather each perspective can be employed by the thinker as appropriate. Specifically, though critical theory focuses on examining socially constructed inequalities and serving as a tool for progressive change, it makes broad use of other perspectives to understand how narratives about these inequalities are constructed and maintained and also about the interconnectedness of all social institutions such as religion, politics, the economy, education, and so on.

CHT has key elements that constitute a theory in the social sciences and offers some useful methodological tools which enhance our ability to understand and explain our complex social worlds. As discussed elsewhere in this book, CHT builds on critical theory (and more specifically the so-called Frankfurt School) and more recently on Critical Race Theory. Below I explore what CHT offers a 21st century thinker.

Methodological tools
First, the most obvious tool is the image of the Hydra itself, visually reinforcing the premise that all privileging forces share the same body, and the root of all these forces is the tendency to engender toxic othering. This representation makes explicit the inherent intersectionality of the approach, and stresses that all privileging forces share a common origin. Simply presenting the Hydra image to those unfamiliar with CHT often has the effect of generating immediate appreciation for how all the implied ‘isms’ are related to each other.

Next, the central methodological tool used by CHT is learning from social critics with specific foci like racism or homophobia, for example, and immediately raising the question of how the insights from those who focus on one head can be used by those attempting to more deeply understand other heads.

This methodological tool is most effective when the questions and methodologies are probed and then creatively employed to deepen an overall understanding of privileging forces. To be clear, CHT has been inspired greatly by and employs the insights and methodologies of Critical Theory and Critical Race Theory. Here are several examples, many of which come directly from feminist thought.

  • Judith Butler, a queer feminist sociologist, is known for their argument that gender is performative. With that premise, a CHT thinker will be immediately prompted to ask to what extent is, say, class or race/ethnicity performative? How are other social statuses, both the privileged and the marginalized, also performative?
  • There is a growing awareness of and studies exploring the topic of internalized misogyny, the phenomena of females demonstrating contempt for other females or otherwise showing gender bias for men. Using that logic, the CHT thinker must consider internalized racism where BIPOC exhibit bias toward whiteness and/or contempt for BIPOC. Certainly, the idea of internalized classism now comes into focus as does internalized paternalism, where the colonized adopts the biases of the colonizer, and so on. The umbrella concept of internalized oppression is now being addressed by many scholars, and finds ample support from CHT.
  • Most females have been victims of and are hence painfully familiar with the phenomena euphemistically labeled ‘mansplaining.’ Can we also begin to explore ‘richsplaining’ or ‘Global northsplaining’ or ablespaining’, and so on? Indeed, this is where CHT would have us go.
  • Putting ‘white privilege’ into Google search just now yielded 331,000,000 hits including countless articles, books, web page resources, and, of course, a Wikipedia page. Using CHT, this term immediately generates questioning about male privilege, Global North (colonizer) privilege, hetero/cis privilege, and so on.
  • Similarly, when hearing about the ‘white savior industrial complex’, a term coined by Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole, using CHT we now need to ask about the ‘male savior complex’, ‘able savior complex’, and so on.
  • A very engaging exercise can be made out of finding examples of the terms ‘microaggression’ and ‘micro affirmation’ relative to all the heads of the Hydra. Typical students, especially BIPOC, will be able to identify micro-aggressions related to race or ethnicity, and using CHT this can lead directly into seeing how these actions can be found in reference to all the other privileging forces represented by other heads of the Hydra.

In sum, the CHT user seeks out methodologies of interrogation used by progressive activists in all areas of social justice work and retrofits them, as appropriate, for analysis of all other heads of the Hydra.

Global perspective
Conceived in preparation for a 2019 international conference of humanitarian workers in Berlin, Germany, Critical Hydra theory from its beginning has embodied a global perspective.

A first glance to some, the image of the Hydra seems off to some in that all of the heads are of equal size, inferring equivalent importance. Viewed from a Critical Race Theory perspective and particularly in the context of US culture, this critique may seem valid; racism appears to be a much bigger problem than, say paternalism/colonialism. Switch continents and countries, however, and the reality can be quite different, with the salience of these two heads reversed as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the lasting impacts of colonialism and post-colonial imperialism.

The heads of the Hydra are of variable salience depending upon the geographic, historical, social, and cultural context. The intent of the model is (1) to emphasize that work needs to be done in understanding the context-dependent salience of each head, and (2) that the full utility of the model encourages taking a broad look both chronologically and geographically.

That all heads share the same body and driving mechanism -toxic othering- demands that the critical Hydra theorist explore the complex intersectionality of the various privileging forces and ask questions like, ‘how can we understand the historic interconnection between racism, classism, and colonialism in the formation of policies, laws, and social norms which serve to systemically marginalize the population of (for example) the Democratic Republic of the Congo’?

As a side note, via online and in-person classes I have introduced and used the Hydra model now with learners in the US, Bangladesh (both with Bangladeshis and Rohingya), Kenya, and Jordan. Though there are always many questions, most learners grasp the model quickly and tend to immediately modify it to fit their own unique circumstances. How the ascribed status of refugee fits into the Hydra model is always addressed.

The ‘Anthropocentrism’ head of the Hydra
The 21st century holds many challenges, the most existentially threatening of which is the current climate crisis. Indeed, that we may be approaching multiple environmental ‘tipping points’ seems not in question. Having an ‘anthropocentrism’ head on the Hydra model makes the critical Hydra theorist truly a 21st-century thinker, the visual alone forcing the issue of the intersectionality between the human-to-human othering and human othering of the non-human world. Previous critical theories have ignored or have not found a place for anthropocentrism in analyses. CHT addresses this significant gap.

The toxic othering of the non-human world has been woven into the basic cultural assumptions of all modern cultures. These assumptions can be described collectively as a ‘mentality of exploitation’, putting human needs above those of other species. The normalization of this marginalization has been a key feature of the ‘success’ of capitalism, wherein industries blissfully ignore all externality costs of their consumption and pollution. First used in the late 1960s and now used in many social and environmental science discussions, the concept of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ is a key concept helping to explain how ignoring externality costs is a common feature of modern day industries. The internal logic of capitalism is such that as a new manufacturing facility is planned, for example, both the short- and long-term impact on air and water are rarely considered.When interrogating the anthropocentrism head, CRT leads us quickly into the related topics such as environmental racism and colonialism and the classist NIMBY (not in my back yard) pattern of placing toxic waste and disposal facilities into poor neighborhoods.Questioning human nature: a viable species?

Questioning human nature: a viable species?
All social theories are ultimately based on assumptions about human nature and wrestle with the question ‘what does being human mean?’ Critical Hydra Theory (CHT) encourages us to scrutinize both the essence of human nature and the convergence of the self and society. It offers a distinct perspective, allowing us to perceive the entirety of humanity as one single entity, especially in our interconnected 21st-century existence. As a critical and radical theory advocating for a deep reassessment of both individual cultures and our global culture, CHT immediately runs into questions about basic human needs (instincts?), motivations, capacities, tendencies, and limitations.

One key tool of CHT is contrasting the social lives of humans that lived in pre-modern times (i.e., before the rise of state societies) and those in modern cultures. By studying the lives of pre-modern humans, for example, we find that the assumption that humans are greedy to be false; an egalitarian ethos appears to be the dominant mindset and communal sharing was the order of the day. The essential wisdom being considered by CHT is that human nature is more so ‘culture nature’ and that human nature may be more a factor of cultural influences than we might have previously assumed. The assumption that at least in part human nature may be malleable offers a glimmer of hope for social change advocates.

What we know from history, and more specifically from archeology and anthropology, is that complex state societies emerged independently on every continent, albeit at different times. We know also that a shared characteristic of all ‘modern’ cultures is the fact of structured social inequality and the cultural justification of same. In order words, toxic othering is a universal fact of all modern humanity. But it is a fact of human nature? Through individual and group action, can ‘the moral arc of the universe’ be bent toward justice, toward a world where toxic othering everywhere re-manifests itself into benign normal othering. Can those who use tools like critical Hydra theory expose and then provide viable alternatives to deeply embedded marginalizing structures?

The world is dominated by the privileging forces represented by the Hydra and these forces are causing untold human misery. Can we do better? Making the world more just for all, both now and into the future, is the ultimate test of our humanity and the imagination and power of the human spirit. To the extent that human agency exists, are we able to use our power to take control of human history and

  • turn back a climate change-induced hellscape which looms in our near future?
  • stop committing genocides such as those in the Congo, Myanmar, Gaza, and Europe?
  • learn to accept all expressions of sexuality and gender identity?
  • reject the normalization and glorification of gluttony and greed creating billionaires with god-like power and an obscene pooling of wealth across the globe?

In the end we must ask: are humans a failed species, so frail and weak as to not be able to rise up against the privileging forces? All the heads of the Hydra are important. But the evil trifecta of classism, colonialism, and racism combined with the slow-moving cancer of anthropomorphism must be recognized and confronted most aggressively if we are to prove ourselves as a permanently viable species and not just a character ‘That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more.’  

Progressive and positive social change necessitates both individual and collective action.

The challenges facing humanity are massive and demand unprecedented levels of effort to face them effectively. All the above questions are critical and demand being addressed using every analytical device at our disposal. Critical Hydra theory is a tool, but it must be wielded by those with courage in their hearts and who possess a deep faith in the positivity of the human spirit.

As we imagine and then enact this new chapter of humanity, we need to remember one of the most important tenets of critical Hydra theory, namely that we need to listen to the voices of those who have been historically marginalized, especially those who have been multiply marginalized. Women’s voices. Refugee voices. Queer voices. Poor voices. Global South voices. Elderly voices. BIPOC voices. Differently abled voices. By listening to these voices and learning about how to endure and then confront oppression(s) we can move forward as one toward a more just world for all.

Wherever the research takes CHT with respect to human nature, we mustn’t limit our imagination of what our social world can look like based on incorrect assumptions.

A future made possible by confronting toxic othering
Critical Hydra theory is a theoretical perspective for the 21st century based on the promise that humanity must make it to the 22nd century and beyond. Though most readers will not live to see this next century, we have a sacred responsibility to do everything in our power to ensure our children and grandchildren will, and that this rebuilt world will be marked by a respect for human diversity and be structured so that all humans everywhere will be able to reach their full potentials.


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:


Comments are closed.