A review of Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Pitchstone Publishing (August 25th, 2020), 352 pages.
In November 1964, the American historian Richard Hofstadter published an essay in Harper’s Magazine about the paranoid style in American politics, arguing that “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds” ripe for “conspiratorial fantasy.” Arguably, many elites in contemporary mainstream American institutions appear to believe that anybody expressing concern about a so-called cancel culture has been in possession of such a paranoid mindset. Even when 150 artists and writers signed an open letter in none other than Harper’s Magazine, decrying “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity,” the response from many has been to mock these concerns and dismiss them as “paranoid,” or “privileged.”
The backlash to the Harper’s Letter comes on the heels of John McWhorter’s thesis that anti-racism is a new religion, David French suggesting that a secular fundamentalist revival is occurring on the Left, and Andrew Sullivan asking whether “intersectionality [is] a religion?” In short, there is indeed something of a militant crusade that lies at the heart of what Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay call “Social Justice in Action,” the title of chapter nine in their sensational new book, Cynical Theories, which explains “How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody.”
While there are those who claim, not unreasonably, that cancel culture is “a catch-all for when people in power face consequences for their actions or receive any type of criticism,” Pluckrose and Lindsay write about a disabled grandfather and bag packer who was sacked by his employer for sharing an apparently Islamophobic Billy Connolly skit, an act, which they claim “follows from applications of postcolonial Theory” (in this case, the grandfather was eventually reinstated). They also write about the software engineer James Damore, who was fired by Google for writing an internal memo on diversity which cited scientific research about sex differences, arguing that this sacking “follows from the assumptions underlying queer Theory and intersectional feminism.” They write about how a British football commentator and comedian Danny Baker lost his job at the BBC “for not realizing that a photograph of a chimpanzee in a smart coat and bowler hat that he tweeted could be construed as racist,” which, they argue “follows from the way critical race Theory describes the world.”
The book explains a half-century arc of intellectual history culminating in our current state of histrionic overreach in the name of social justice. Cynical Theories superbly exposes a history of ideas which, in challenging unifying narratives and universal values, have come to threaten free speech, honest debate, and the valuing of reason itself.
The story begins in universities and culminates in the dogmas of Social Justice. However Pluckrose and Lindsay do not suggest that working towards a more just society is an unworthy cause. They argue instead that the crusade marching in the name of critical social justice is often not about social justice at all. It is about a nakedly illiberal set of cynical theories that find their origin in the ideas of postmodern intellectuals dating back to the late 1960s. These ideas have coalesced into a central thesis which posits that truth, knowledge, and morality are so wrapped up in discourses of power and privilege that they must be understood as socially constructed rather than as the fruits of objective inquiry. In the words of Robin DiAngelo, “there is no objective, neutral reality.”
If there is a mantra for postmodernism the denial of objective reality would be it. The ideas of myriad intellectuals such as Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and Jacques Derrida have branched off in many directions as postmodernism mutated from its playful—if nihilistic—state of radical skepticism in the 1960s to its militant, doctrinaire stage of “reified postmodernism” in the 2010s which possesses a “logical contradiction between [its] radical relativism and dogmatic absolutism.” (Full disclosure: I emailed back and forth with Pluckrose a couple of years ago on the subject of “reification,” a correspondence for which she has thanked me for in the acknowledgements of the book, however I was not involved in the book’s writing or editing).
From the opening pages, one gets the sense that Pluckrose and Lindsay have immersed themselves in every noteworthy work of postmodern scholarship available. They begin by identifying two postmodern principles and four postmodern themes.
The postmodern knowledge principle refers to a “radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.”
The postmodern political principle is the “belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.”
The four postmodern themes are:
(1) the blurring of conceptual boundaries such as that between health and sickness or truth and belief,
(2) the power of language to construct reality rather than to merely articulate the intent of an author or an objective reality that we can discover,
(3) cultural relativism, and
(4) the loss of the individual or a universal human nature in favor of compilations of socially constructed intersectional identities.
“Together,” they write, “these six major concepts… are the core principles of Theory, which have remained largely unchanged even as postmodernism and its applications have evolved from their deconstructive and hopeless beginnings to the strident, almost religious activism of today.”
The rest of the book is devoted to explaining how these two principles and four themes have worked their way through the academy and society as it has evolved from its “high deconstructive phase” in the 1960s to 1980s, to “applied postmodernism” in the 1980s to mid-2000s, and finally to “reified postmodernism” in the 2010s, “when scholars and activists combined the existing Theories and Studies into a simple, dogmatic methodology, best known simply as Social Justice scholarship.”
This summary necessarily oversimplifies a half-century of evolving ideas. Indeed, Pluckrose and Lindsay devote six of their 10 chapters to explaining how these ideas have morphed and mutated, beginning with postcolonial theory, and working their way into queer theory, several waves of feminism, gender studies, disability and fat studies, critical race theory, and intersectionality. They demonstrate an impressive erudition as they analyze postmodern texts to uncover the meaning of things like standpoint theory, epistemic violence, and positionality, and explain how social justice scholars resolve the contradiction between “radical relativism and dogmatic absolutism” by favoring “interpretations of marginalized people’s experience” which are “consistent with Theory” while explaining away all others as an internalization of dominant ideologies or cynical self-interest.
The original postmodern intellectuals rejected grand narratives in favor of a radical skepticism which rejected Christianity, Marxism, science, reason, and the pillars of liberal democracy. A half-century later, their ideas have transitioned to what Pluckrose and Lindsay describe as reified postmodernism (reification refers to the idea that an abstraction can be made into a real thing). In this phase, social justice activism treats Theory as reality, and thus as the one and only way to view and interpret reality.
And so what we are left with is “The Truth According to Social Justice.” Teaching, write Pluckrose and Lindsay, “is now supposed to be a political act, and only one type of politics is acceptable—identity politics, as defined by Social Justice and Theory.” In this third phase, postmodernism pushes into everything, applying its deconstructive methods everywhere in the task of creating social change. Not without noticing the inherent irony, they observe that “postmodernism has become a grand, sweeping explanation for society—a meta-narrative—of its own.” As such, it functions as a set of pre-existing theories into which activists shoehorn the situational intricacies of experience. This has led to the dogmatism we see in militant social justice activism, “a tradition of faith that is actively hostile to reason, falsification, disconfirmation, and disagreement of any kind.”
None of this is to say there are no merits to fields like critical race theory, postcolonial theory, queer theory, and other critical theories. Intersectionality is a useful concept that conveys the idea that identity is connected to social groups. As members of several social groups, we can find ourselves the victim of multiple forms of social oppression. Moreover, we must recognize, for example, that queer theory is right that “[w]e have changed the way we see sexuality quite profoundly,” while the “initial aims” of disability studies and activism “were to place less onus on disabled people to adapt themselves to society and more on society to accommodate them and their disabilities.”
As Theory developed, however, reasonable and humane concerns about oppression and marginalization mutated into an ideological virus spreading through scholarship and society, with scholars like Barbara Applebaum writing that “[r]esistance will not be allowed to derail the class discussions!” and “those who refuse to engage might mistakenly perceive this as a declaration that they will not be allowed to express their disagreement but that is only precisely because they are resisting engagement.” Or Alison Bailey writing “[c]ritical pedagogy regards the claims that students make in response to social-justice issues not as propositions to be assessed for their truth value, but as expressions of power that function to re-inscribe and perpetuate social inequalities.” The Truth According to Social Justice abandons the liberal commitment to reason, science, and debate as a failure to “decolonize” our minds from the influence of Enlightenment institutions erected to benefit straight, white men.
In sum, politics matters more than truth.
What Cynical Theories expresses is not a paranoid state of mind. It is a genuine concern about the threat that social justice activism, identity politics, and the legacy of postmodernism poses to Enlightenment liberalism and the belief that “disagreement and debate [are] means to getting at the truth.” The book explains how we have arrived at a state in which social justice scholarship treats the principles and themes of postmodernism as The Truth, where no dissent is tolerated, and anyone who disagrees must be cancelled.