Title: Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity —and Why This Harms Everybody
Author: Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 3.5 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.
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Topic of Book
The authors trace the history of Critical theory, how it originated in academia and how it recently metastasized into the rest of American society.
While this book might seem a bit off topic from the rest of the blog, an understanding of progress also requires understanding the enemies of progress. Since 1917, the greatest enemies of progress have been Totalitarian ideologies on the left and right. The most important have been Communism, Nazism, Fascism and Authoritarian Socialism.
Within the last decade a new Totalitarian ideology has emerged: Critical Theory. It is most popular amongst college-educated Americans, where it is rapidly growing. This book is the best summary of the main tenets of Critical Theory and how it spread from universities to the rest of society.
I saw the beginnings of Critical theory when I was a graduate student in Brown University in the early 1990s. I never dreamed that it would move out of the academy. Unfortunately, it has. We need to understand it, so society can fight back.
- A radical new ideology has recently emerged among college-educated Americans. It goes by different names: Critical theory, Wokeness, Social Justice, Critical Social Justice, Critical Racial theory, Postcolonialism, Queer theory, Intersectionality.
- While new to most people, it has been popular within academic circles for decades.
- Around 2014, with the incidents in Ferguson Missouri, it exploded into American politics and changed the thinking of many liberal Democrats.
- This ideology, while disguised with seemingly liberal terminology, is profoundly illiberal. It shares many characteristics with religious cults and Totalitarian ideologies.
- Characteristics of this ideology include:
- Intense moralism and intolerance of other ideas
- Radical skepticism of the possibility progress at all
- Rejection of a single, objective reality, except their own
- Pervasive pessimism, cynicism and despair.
- Opposition to truth, science, logic and reason (which are seen as tools of oppression)
- Other important beliefs include
- Society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.
- Language is tool of oppression of the powerless by the powerful
- There are no individuals, only groups.
- What group one is a member of determines how much power they have.
- Therefore, all activists must focus obsessively on terminology.
Important Quotes from Book
We have reached a point in history where the liberalism and modernity at the heart of Western civilization are at great risk on the level of the ideas that sustain them.
Postmodernism has, depending upon your view, either become or given rise to one of the least tolerant and most authoritarian ideologies that the world has had to deal with since the widespread decline of communism and the collapses of white supremacy and colonialism. Postmodernism was developed in relatively obscure corners of academia as an intellectual and cultural reaction to all of these changes, and since the 1960s it has spread to other parts of the academy, into activism, throughout bureaucracies, and to the heart of primary, secondary, and post-secondary education. It has, from there, begun to seep into broader society to the point where it, and backlashes against it—both reasonable and reactionary—have come to dominate our sociopolitical landscape as we grind ever more painfully into the third decade of the new millennium.
This movement nominally pursues and derives its name from a broad goal called “social justice.”
Another, explicitly anti-liberal, anti-universal, approach to achieving social justice has also been employed, particularly since the middle of the twentieth century, and that is one rooted in critical theory. A critical theory is chiefly concerned with revealing hidden biases and underexamined assumptions, usually by pointing out what have been termed “problematics,” which are ways in which society and the systems that it operates upon are going wrong.
The movement that takes up this charge presumptuously refers to its ideology simply as “Social Justice” as though it alone seeks a just society and the rest of us are all advocating for something entirely different. The movement has thus come to be known as the “Social Justice Movement”
Social Justice, as a proper noun with capital S and capital J, refers to a very specific doctrinal interpretation of the meaning of “social justice” and means of achieving it while prescribing a strict, identifiable orthodoxy around that term.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to miss the influence of the Social Justice Movement on society—most notably in the form of “identity politics” or “political correctness.” Almost every day, a story comes out about somebody who has been fired, “canceled,” or subjected to a public shaming on social media.
Not only do these scholar-activists speak a specialized language— while using everyday words that people assume, incorrectly, that they understand—but they also represent a wholly different culture, embedded within our own.
They are obsessed with power, language, knowledge, and the relationships between them. They interpret the world through a lens that detects power dynamics in every interaction, utterance, and cultural artifact— even when they aren’t obvious or real. This is a worldview that centers social and cultural grievances and aims to make everything into a zero-sum political struggle revolving around identity markers like race, sex, gender, sexuality, and many others. To an outsider, this culture feels as though it originated on another planet.
This book aims to tell the story of how postmodernism applied its cynical Theories to deconstruct what we might agree to call “the old religions” of human thought—which include conventional religious faiths like Christianity and secular ideologies like Marxism, as well as cohesive modern systems such as science, philosophical liberalism, and “progress”—and replaced them with a new religion of its own, called “Social Justice.”
We seek to defend rigorous, evidence-based scholarship and the essential function of the university as a center of knowledge production against anti-empirical, anti-rational, and illiberal currents on the left that threaten to give power to anti-intellectual, anti-equality, and illiberal currents on the right.
This book, then, ultimately seeks to present a philosophically liberal critique of Social Justice scholarship and activism and argues that this scholarship-activism does not further social justice and equality aims.
The master’s house is a good one and the problem has been limited access to it. Liberalism increases access to a solid structure that can shelter and empower everyone. Equal access to rubble is not a worthy goal.
A fundamental change in human thought took place in the 1960s. This change is associated with several French Theorists who, while not quite household names, float at the edges of the popular imagination, among them Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-François Lyotard.
Taking a radically new conception of the world and our relationship to it, it revolutionized social philosophy and perhaps social everything. Over the decades, it has dramatically altered not only what and how we think but also how we think about thinking. Esoteric, academic, and seemingly removed from the realities of daily existence, this revolution has nevertheless had profound implications for how we interact with the world and with one another. At its heart is a radical worldview that came to be known as “postmodernism.”
This reaction often took the form of the pervasive pessimism that characterizes postmodern thinking, fueling fears about human hubris on one hand and the loss of meaning and authenticity on the other. This despair was so pronounced that postmodernism itself could be characterized as a profound cultural crisis of confidence and authenticity alongside a growing distrust of liberal social orders. Growing fears of the loss of meaning caused by rapid improvements in technology defined the era.
Postmodernism was particularly skeptical of science and other culturally dominant ways of legitimizing claims as “truths” and of the grand, sweeping explanations that supported them. It called them metanarratives.
This skepticism was so profound as to be better understood as a type of cynicism about the entire history of human progress, and as such, it was a perversion of a sweeping cultural current of skepticism that long preceded it. Skepticism of sweeping narratives—though not cynicism about them—was prominent in Enlightenment thought and in modernism and had been gaining momentum in Western societies for several centuries by the time postmodernism showed up in the 1960s.
The postmodern turn involves two inextricably linked core principles—one regarding knowledge and one regarding politics—which act as the foundation of four significant themes.
These principles are:
• The postmodern knowledge principle: Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.
• The postmodern political principle: A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.
The four major themes of postmodernism are
1. The blurring of boundaries
2. The power of language
3. Cultural relativism
4. The loss of the individual and the universal
Together, these six major concepts allow us to identify postmodern thinking and understand how it operates. They are the core principles of Theory, which have remained largely unchanged.
Postmodernism is characterized politically by its intense focus on power as the guiding and structuring force of society, a focus which is codependent on the denial of objective knowledge. Power and knowledge are seen as inextricably entwined.
Because of their focus on power dynamics, these thinkers argued that the powerful have, both intentionally and inadvertently, organized society to benefit them and perpetuate their power. They have done so by legitimating certain ways of talking about things as true, which then spread throughout society, creating societal rules that are viewed as common sense and perpetuated on all levels. Power is thus constantly reinforced through discourses legitimized or mandated within society.
Put more simply, one central belief in postmodern political thought is that powerful forces in society essentially order society into categories and hierarchies that are organized to serve their own interests.
Because they focused on self-perpetuating systems of power, few of the original postmodern Theorists advocated any specific political actions, preferring instead to engage in playful disruption or nihilistic despair.
The postmodern approach to ethically driven social critique is intangible and unfalsifiable.
This generalized skepticism about the objectivity of truth and knowledge—and commitment to regarding both as culturally constructed— leads to a preoccupation with four main themes: the blurring of boundaries, the power of language, cultural relativism, and the loss of the individual and the universal in favor of group identity.
The prevailing view among many thinkers today is that postmodernism has died out. We don’t think it has. We think it has merely matured, mutated, and evolved (at least twice since its origins in the 1960s) and that the two characteristic principles and four themes detailed above remain pervasive and culturally influential.
New Theories arose, which primarily looked at race, gender, and sexuality, and were explicitly critical, goal-oriented, and moralistic. They retained, however, the core postmodern ideas that knowledge is a construct of power, that the categories into which we organize people and phenomena were falsely contrived in the service of that power, that language is inherently dangerous and unreliable, that the knowledge claims and values of all cultures are equally valid and intelligible only on their own terms, and that collective experience trumps individuality and universality. They focused on cultural power, regarding it as objectively true that power and privilege are insidious, corrupting forces, which work to perpetuate themselves in almost mysterious ways. They explicitly stated that they were doing this with the purpose of remaking society according to their moral vision—all while citing the original postmodern Theorists.
Postcolonial Theory looks to deconstruct the West, as it sees it, and this ambitious demolition project was undoubtedly the first emanation of applied postmodernism. Unlike race and gender Theories, which had already developed fairly mature lines of thought and scholarship before postmodernism took hold in cultural studies, postcolonial Theory derived directly from postmodern thought. Moreover, postcolonial Theory came about to achieve a specific purpose, decolonization: the systematic undoing of colonialism in all its manifestations and impacts.
Postcolonialism and the related Theory arose in a specific historical context: the moral and political collapse of European colonialism, which had dominated global politics for more than five centuries.
While, initially, postcolonial Theory scholarship mostly took the form of literary criticism and the discursive analysis of writing about colonialism— and was frequently couched in highly obscure postmodern Theoretical language—the field gradually expanded and simplified. By the early 2000s, the concept of decolonizing everything had begun to dominate scholarship and activism, and new scholars were using and developing the concepts in different ways, with more actionable elements.
Critical race Theory is, at root, an American phenomenon.
Materialists dominated the critical race movement from the 1970s to the 1980s; but, from the 1990s, postmodernists were increasingly in the ascendant. Over time, the postmodernists came to focus on microaggressions, hate speech, safe spaces, cultural appropriation, implicit association tests, media representation, “whiteness,” and all the now familiar trappings of current racial discourse.
Critical race Theory invested heavily in identity politics and its supposed intellectual justification, standpoint theory—roughly, the idea that one’s identity and position in society influence how one comes to knowledge.
The core problems with critical race Theory are that it puts social significance back into racial categories and inflames racism, tends to be purely Theoretical, uses the postmodern knowledge and political principles, is profoundly aggressive, asserts its relevance to all aspects of Social
Justice, and—not least—begins from the assumption that racism is both ordinary and permanent, everywhere and always. Consequently, every interaction between a person with a dominant racial identity and one with a marginalized one must be characterized by a power imbalance (the postmodern political principle). The job of the Theorist or activist is to draw attention to this imbalance—often described as racism or white supremacy—in order to begin dismantling it. It also sees racism as omnipresent and eternal, which grants it a mythological status, like sin or depravity.
There is a problem that begins in our universities, and it comes down to Social Justice. The most immediate aspect of the problem is that Social Justice scholarship gets passed down to students, who then go out into the world. This effect is strongest within Social Justice fields, which teach students to be skeptical of science, reason, and evidence; to regard knowledge as tied to identity; to read oppressive power dynamics into every interaction; to politicize every facet of life; and to apply ethical principles unevenly, in accordance with identity. But Social Justice also
materializes as a prevailing campus culture, which accepts many of these ideas as known-knowns.
The real world is changing to absorb the skills of such students, and a Social Justice industry already worth billions of dollars is forming, all dedicated to training our companies and institutions to enact and police The Truth according to Social Justice. A new job entitled (some variation of) “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer” has emerged. It is designed to change the organizational culture to accord with the ideology of Social Justice. These officers are the architects and enforcers of soft revolutions; they are inquisitors, seeking incidents of bias and imbalance. These also are not fringe jobs… They have become the norm, not the exception, for many institutions and corporations of sufficient size. These officers therefore now wield significant institutional, social, and cultural power.
The cynical Theorists whom we now recognize as the original postmodernists laid the groundwork for a new Theoretical approach to human hubris. Rather than following in the footsteps of their predecessors, who attempted grand, sweeping explanations and visions of how the world could and should work, they wanted to tear it all apart, right down to the foundations. They weren’t just skeptical of specific visions of human progress: they were radically skeptical of the possibility of progress at all. This cynicism was effective. In becoming politically actionable, this cynicism was specifically applied to remake society.
It isn’t going to work. Social Justice is a nice-looking Theory that, once put into practice, will fail, and which could do tremendous damage in the process.
Why? Partly because we humans aren’t as smart as we think we are, partly because most of us are idealists on at least some level, partly because we tend to lie to ourselves when we want something to work. But Theory is a metanarrative and metanarratives are, in fact, unreliable.
The postmodernists got that right. What they got disastrously wrong is mistaking effective and adaptive systems for metanarratives. Religions and many theoretical constructions are metanarratives, but liberalism and science are not. Liberalism and science are systems—not just neat little theories—because they are self-skeptical rather than self-certain, by design. This is a reasoned—not a radical—skepticism. They put the empirical first, rather than the theoretical. They are self-correcting. Liberal systems like regulated capitalism, republican democracy, and science resolve conflicts by subjecting human economies, societies, and knowledge production to evolutionary processes that—over time, and with persistent effort—produce reliable societies, governments, and provisionally true statements about the world. The proof is that almost everything has changed over the last five hundred years, especially in the West. As Theory points out, that progress has sometimes been problematic, but it has still been progress. Things are better than they were five hundred years ago, for most people most of the time, and this is undeniable.
If you would like to learn more about the ideological enemies of progress, read my book From Poverty to Progress.