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The Truth According to Social Justice—A Review of ‘Cynical Theories’

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.

 

Jonathan Church is an economist and writer. Follow him on Twitter @jondavidchurch.

Comments

  1. In the 1980’s, the world was blessed because popular culture mocked the fundamentalists.

    Today, we are screwed because popular culture is the fundamentalists.

  2. I wonder how long their grip will endure? 10 years? 100?

    Well, the “Thousand Year” Third Reich lasted 12 years – but it took quite a few lives with it.

    The Soviet Union lasted seven decades – and took quite a lot of lives in peacetime.

    China is still ruled by the party Mao hacked together – also took a bunch of Chinese lives. Nowadays it mutated into socialism with Chinese characteristics or something like it.

  3. As a soixante-huitard and student of history, I’ve spent much of my adult life following the trajectories of various “revolutionary movements”— student and “professional”— Weather, Panther, Red Brigade, SLA, Khmer, Cultural, Mugabeism, Mujaheddin Khalq, Shining Path, Chavista, on and on… Every one a trail of tears. No justice, no peace? How much of liberté, égalité, and fraternité did the French enjoy from 1789 to 1815? How far did the state wither away after 1917? What wisdom, what truths have all the re-education camps yielded. The so-called and self-styled elites have nothing good to offer us, nowhere better to lead us. We play the lemming when we follow them, the fool when we stand by.
    Conventional wisdom for the intelligentsia at least since Nietzsche is that one must destroy in order to create. The sad fact is that they never manage to get past the first part— it’s always negative dialectics, and leads only to negation. The first premise of a better world never emerges— the bride never comes.
    Better, if you are essentially a pacific sort, to follow Voltaire and tend your garden. Better, that is, for a time, for some fortunate few. For the rest? Well, Shakespeare had it pretty much right, I think— judge the times, the time, your timing as best you can. No guarantees, no happy endings for the clear-sighted. Only the moment and the task at hand.
    That prophet of my salad days is mostly ignored in these, but he’s really no more nor less prescient than he ever was — and I take some small satisfaction (the most these times yield the majority of us) in late Bob’s songs of these times. As the chorus to his proletarian lament says, you can stand back or fight your best on the front lines. Just a bit from these Workingman’s Blues. And whether you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao or Comrade Ché, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow, anyway.
    Lock and load— but best to find out which side you’re on first.

  4. “What has always made the state a hell on earth has been precisely that man has tried to make it heaven.”

    Friedrich Hölderlin

  5. Straight from the universities and into the federal bureaucracy in Washington.

    Last month, a private diversity consultant, Howard Ross, conducted a training for federal financial agencies called “Difficult Conversations about Race in Troubling Times,” which asked white employees at the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, the National Credit Union Association, and the Officer of the Comptroller to pledge “allyship amid the George Floyd Tragedy.”

    According to whistleblower documents, the training begins with the premise that “virtually all White people contribute to racism” and have internalized “fairly consistent narratives about race” that “don’t support the dismantling of racist institutions.” Therefore, the trainers argue, white federal employees must “struggle to own their racism” and “invest in race-based growth.”

    “White managers” are asked to create “safe spaces” where black employees can explain “what it means to be Black” and be “seen in their pain.” White employees are instructed to “provide unconditional solidarity,” remain silent, and “sit in the discomfort” of their own racism. If any conflicts arise, the trainers insist that whites “don’t get to decide when someone is being too emotional, too rash, [or] too mean” and cannot protest if a person of color “responds to their oppression in a way [they] don’t like.”

    These bastards have be resisted at every step.

    At the end of the article the author asks that the Treasury Department be investigated by the Senate Finance Committee. For whatever it’s worth, I’ll be pushing my senators to do it.

  6. It is a little disappointing that even an economist does not recognize “the threat… to Enlightenment liberalism” emerged a long time ago. Counter revolution is, and has always been, the heart of the progressive enterprise. At every stage liberals have done the clutching of pearls, and the hand wringing over whatever is the latest incremental push. At no time have they defended liberalism on principle, rather only as a subjective, aesthetic preference.

    This is why libertarians parted company. Have any of the libertarian predictions failed? Has any of the theory been proved wrong?

    You did not defend private property, my liberals friends, you did not defend the fundamental liberal principle of self ownership. Now you are left with, ‘No, no, no, I want to draw the line here and not there.’ One of our progressive friends here at QC was impressing on me why he should not be bundled together with the Leninists and Maoists, but I was unable to impress on him why it is a distinction without a difference, on principle.

    If the hill you have agreed to die on is, whatever a majority of legislators is willing to vote for, your subjective, aesthetic preference for where the line should be drawn is inconsequential. There is a reason why it is the fellow travelers and party comrades who get purged ruthlessly.

    It is not a particularly recondite intellectual question, this contradiction between liberty and democracy, between liberty and equality. It is not a new question in western history.

  7. 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.

    That social justice warriors have appropriated postmodern theory as described above is simply priceless.

    I’ve had five separate occasions when I’ve had pretty intense debate with social justice types on the topic of Jordan Peterson. In each of these five occasions my interlocutors admitted to not having read either of Peterson’s two books! In other words, their positions were entirely socially constructed – very likely social media constructed – and owed nothing whatsoever to the processes of objective inquiry!

  8. In my opinion, the rise of the Social Justice Professor in Academia is largely based on what I call the “Yes, but” Ph.D. mills in the social sciences and humanities.

    Rewind to the late 1950s and 1960s when it was becoming increasingly difficult to write an original dissertation on George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Plato, Socrates, and other luminaries of the Western (and Eastern) World. There was too much competition with truly gifted and highly intelligent students and professors who had already made their mark in these areas.

    What were Social Science departments to do?

    They needed to keep the Ph.D mill going, so they moved to allowing more “Yes, but” Ph.D. dissertations and research.

    Through this method, we started hearing from ‘experts’ about alternative histories focused on “my truth” anecdotes.

    Such dissertations are hard to defend against because they’re based on some previously-obscure (often local) narrative that was never previously accepted as a valid meta historical account based on those who lived in, and studied, history.

    (This is fine in moderation as some critiques of previous historical accounts are more than warranted. The problem arises when practically every Ph.D. that is offered by an institution is based on one of these “Yes, but” areas of focus.)

    Over time, this mass of newly-minted “Yes, but” Ph.Ds started getting jobs in Academia, Government, Think Tanks, and they had to keep the charade going. Otherwise, their ‘research’ would be considered worthless and they’d be out of a job.

    As more of these Ph.Ds were created, we reached a point of critical mass and saturation where they became the mob in Academia and started vetoing the generally-accepted history of America for their “Yes, but” narratives held together by the glue of misfits seeking self-validation from each other.

    The STEM fields were a harder nut to crack.

    They don’t just print funny-money Ph.D.s like the Social Sciences started doing in the 1950s and if someone doesn’t come up with something that leads to progress in the field (including building on prior truths), then they can take their Masters degree and walk.

    This generally didn’t happen in the Social Sciences and Humanities areas.

    But now the STEM fields are also being infiltrated via selective hiring whereby the best potential professor isn’t selected; rather, one that has a decent-enough field of study and publications BUT also agrees with Critical Theory is hired.

    The Leftists’ echo chamber has been built, fortified, and it will be very difficult to penetrate at this point in my opinion. But I’m always open to discussions into how truth can be reinserted to destabilize their self-reinforcing myths.

    In the meantime, I’ve decided to read the Harvard Classics.

  9. I don’t know anyone who is not willing to help the poor. What many are not willing to do is help the mass beurocracy erected nominally to help the poor, but in reality to help itself. What the welfare cheat gets by working under the table for cash is nothing compared to what the 17 beurocrats dealing with him get in salary, benefits, pension, etc., over the table. (The poor, as a 16th century bishop cynically said, are a gold mine.) They - the bureaucrats - are the true welfare cheats that public supports with its tax money, where the trillions spent on the “war in poverty” really went.

  10. This is backwards.

    A stable family creates resources. The fact is that people, even men, are less wealthy outside the family environment. Although the statement that families can’t form due to lack of resources is common among socialists, it is an unreasoned claim.

    We only need to point to the fact that the African American family was much stronger in the 1940s; in a time when the economic resources available to them were substantially fewer. During this time, though poor, they were able to increase their wealth at a percentage that far outpaces the wealth creation in that population today. That increase in wealth was an important precursor to the original civil rights movement in the 1950s.

  11. This is subterfuge. There is nothing reciprocal about the argument.

    Though marriage tends to reduce the freedom of an individual, it increases the wealth of the social unit called the family. This is well evidenced. The family, which has existed for millennia in all cultures, arose naturally to provide a social pact for resource gathering (e.g. wealth now) and nurturing (future wealth).

  12. As I said, read Theodore Dalrymple. He provides a wonderful antidote to the sort of juvenile thinking favoured by the left. He actually lived amongst and worked with the underclass for many years. He noted that they always had an excuse as to why they weren’t thriving. But what it came down to was that the State and crime gave them enough income on which to survive and didn’t encourage stable families.

    He noted that Asian immigrant families who were just as poor as the British underclass still managed to eat well and had thriving family lives.

    The resources the ‘‘poor’’ lack are moral ones that used to be provided by social expectations. Now the lefties have insead pushed the idea that the poor should not be judged by middle class standards and be left to live a life where nothing matters except the gratification of base desires.

  13. Thank God. Finally, someone is doing something against the Frankfurt school’s “nonsense machine” (Robert Scruton’s phrase) and its goal, to wit, to destroy scholarship and replace it with “activism” against “capitalist society”. (The fight against “racism” was tacked on later, ca. 1970, when it became clear the masses rather prefer capitalism to the horrors of life in the communist world.)

    Foucault & co. more or less succeeded, but the results have been two generations of dunderhead “humanities” graduates, of fools who know neither to read nor to write nor to think, let alone know Shakespeare or Homer or Joyce or foreign languages or logic. All they know is to shout “racist capitalist!” at regular intervals, since they were taught all that western culture really amounts to.

    Naturally, this leads to a backlash, since parents and students begin to demand something more than a living tape recorder (remember those?) stuck on a loop saying “racist capitalism!” about everything. For some reason they consider that less than a fair return for the $250 grand they pay for the young person’s so-called “education”.

    “Critical” “theory” is neither critical thinking nor a theory of anything. It is a religious cult for atheists: meaningless, unreadable holy texts are revered, because the priests (the professors) tell the faithful these texts really mean they are the elect, the only ones who see the truth.

  14. If you want proof that “critical theory” is just religious dogma, note that it explains everything - from A to Z, from Art to Zionism - without any of its gurus, let alone their followers, ever doing any actual research about any particular subject. They tell us the “real meaning” of western art without knowing who Rembrandt was, and what Zionism “really is” without knowing what the word “Zion” means.

    The whole point of a humanitarian education, as I wrote before, used to be to be able to tell when a man is talking rot, to tell the difference between true knowledge - reached by hard work and research into actual subjects, engaging with the real world - and nonsense.

    The “critical theorists” declare that the opposite is true: that scholarship is nothing but speaking nonsense, flinging the bull about, say, “capitalism’s postcolonialist concept of the other in Zambian society” - without knowing if Zambia is north or south of the equator, what its capital is, how many people live there ,what language(s) they speak, or anything else about it. “Capitalism sucks!” is the beginning and the end of the “scholarship”.

  15. Now we see how the poorly educated left-wing mind operates. It takes a phrase out of context and acts as if it means something it clearly doesn’t mean. I think it comes from being taught too much pomo interpretaion of ‘‘texts’’. making simple things complicated and complicated things simple is all part and parcel of the adolescent, left wing mind.

    The law is quite straightforward here. There needs to be a specific statement inciting someone to commit a specific crime. There was nothing in the original flagged post that did this.

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