Cynical Theories

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* Book: 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).

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Review

1. Andrew Sullivan:

"What we have long needed is an intelligible, intelligent description of this theory which most people can grasp. And we’ve just gotten one: “Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender and Identity,” by former math prof James Lindsay and British academic, Helen Pluckrose. It’s as deep a dive into this often impenetrable philosophy as anyone would want to attempt. But it’s well worth grappling with.


What the book helps the layperson to understand is the evolution of postmodern thought since the 1960s until it became the doctrine of Social Justice today. Beginning as a critique of all grand theories of meaning—from Christianity to Marxism—postmodernism is a project to subvert the intellectual foundations of western culture. The entire concept of reason—whether the Enlightenment version or even the ancient Socratic understanding—is a myth designed to serve the interests of those in power, and therefore deserves to be undermined and “problematized” whenever possible. Postmodern theory does so mischievously and irreverently—even as it leaves nothing in reason’s place. The idea of objective truth—even if it is viewed as always somewhat beyond our reach—is abandoned. All we have are narratives, stories, whose meaning is entirely provisional, and can in turn be subverted or problematized.

During the 1980s and 1990s, this somewhat aimless critique of everything hardened into a plan for action. Analyzing how truth was a mere function of power, and then seeing that power used against distinct and oppressed identity groups, led to an understandable desire to do something about it, and to turn this critique into a form of activism. Lindsay and Pluckrose call this “applied postmodernism”, which, in turn, hardened into what we now know as Social Justice.

You can see the rationale. After all, the core truth of our condition, this theory argues, is that we live in a system of interlocking oppressions that penalize various identity groups in a society. And all power is zero-sum: you either have power over others or they have power over you. To the extent that men exercise power, for example, women don’t; in so far as straight people wield power, gays don’t; and so on. There is no mutually beneficial, non-zero-sum advancement in this worldview. All power is gained only through some other group’s loss. And so the point became not simply to interpret the world, but to change it, to coin a phrase, an imperative which explains why some critics call this theory a form of neo-Marxism.

The “neo” comes from switching out Marxism’s focus on materialism and class in favor of various oppressed group identities, who are constantly in conflict the way classes were always in conflict. And in this worldview, individuals only exist at all as a place where these group identities intersect. You have no independent existence outside these power dynamics. I am never just me. I’m a point where the intersecting identities of white, gay, male, Catholic, immigrant, HIV-positive, cis, and English all somehow collide. You can hear this echoed in the famous words of Ayanna Pressley: “We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need any more black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.” An assertion of individuality is, in fact, an attack upon the group and an enabling of oppression.

Just as this theory denies the individual, it also denies the universal. There are no universal truths, no objective reality, just narratives that are expressed in discourses and language that reflect one group’s power over another. There is no distinction between objective truth and subjective experience, because the former is an illusion created by the latter. So instead of an argument, you merely have an identity showdown, in which the more oppressed always wins, because that subverts the hierarchy. These discourses of power, moreover, never end; there is no progress as such, no incremental inclusion of more and more identities into a pluralist, liberal unified project; there is the permanent reality of the oppressors and the oppressed. And all that we can do is constantly expose and eternally resist these power-structures on behalf of the oppressed.

Truth is always and only a function of power. So, for example, science has no claim on objective truth, because science itself is a cultural construct, created out of power differentials, set up by white cis straight males. And the systems of thought that white cis straight men have historically set up—like liberalism itself—perpetuate themselves, and are passed along unwittingly by people who simply respond to the incentives and traditions of thought that make up the entire power-system, without being aware of it. There’s no conspiracy: we all act unknowingly in perpetuating systems of thought that oppress other groups. To be “woke” is to be “awake” to these invisible, self-reinforcing discourses, and to seek to dismantle them—in ourselves and others.

There is no such thing as persuasion in this paradigm, because persuasion assumes an equal relationship between two people based on reason. And there is no reason and no equality. There is only power. This is the point of telling students, for example, to “check their privilege” before opening their mouths on campus. You have to measure the power dynamic between you and the other person first of all; you do this by quickly noting your interlocutor’s place in the system of oppression, and your own, before any dialogue can occur. And if your interlocutor is lower down in the matrix of identity, your job is to defer and to listen. That’s partly why diversity at the New York Times, say, has nothing to do with a diversity of ideas. Within critical theory, the very concept of a “diversity of ideas” is a function of oppression. What matters is a diversity of identities that can all express the same idea: that liberalism is a con-job. Which is why almost every NYT op-ed now and almost every left-leaning magazine reads exactly alike.

Language is vital for critical theory—not as a means of persuasion but of resistance to oppressive discourses. So take the words I started with. “Non-binary” is a term for someone who subjectively feels neither male nor female. Since there is no objective truth, and since any criticism of that person’s “lived experience” is a form of traumatizing violence, that individual’s feelings are the actual fact. To subject such an idea to, say, the scrutiny of science is therefore a denial of that person’s humanity and existence. To inquire what it means to “feel like a man,” is also unacceptable. An oppressed person’s word is always the last one. To question this reality, even to ask questions about it, is a form of oppression itself. In the rhetoric of social justice, it is a form of linguistic violence. Whereas using the term nonbinary is a form of resistance to cis heteronormativity. One is evil; the other good.

Becoming “woke” to these power dynamics alters your perspective of reality. And so our unprecedentedly multicultural, and multiracial democracy is now described as a mere front for “white supremacy.” This is the reality of our world, the critical theorists argue, even if we cannot see it. A gay person is not an individual who makes her own mind up about the world and can have any politics or religion she wants; she is “queer,” part of an identity that interrogates and subverts heteronormativity. A man explaining something is actually “mansplaining” it—because his authority is entirely wrapped up in his toxic identity. Questioning whether a trans woman is entirely interchangeable with a woman—or bringing up biology to distinguish between men and women—is not a mode of inquiry. It is itself a form of “transphobia”, of fear and loathing of an entire group of people and a desire to exterminate them. It’s an assault.

My view is that there is nothing wrong with exploring these ideas. They’re almost interesting if you can get past the hideous prose. And I can say this because liberalism can include critical theory as one view of the world worth interrogating. But critical theory cannot include liberalism, because it views liberalism itself as a mode of white supremacy that acts against the imperative of social and racial justice. That’s why liberalism is supple enough to sustain countless theories and ideas and arguments, and is always widening the field of debate; and why institutions under the sway of Social Justice necessarily must constrain avenues of thought and ideas. That’s why liberalism is dedicated to allowing Ibram X. Kendi to speak and write, but Ibram X. Kendi would create an unelected tribunal to police anyone and any institution from perpetuating what he regards as white supremacy—which is any racial balance not exactly representative of the population as a whole.

For me, these theorists do something less forgivable than abuse the English language. They claim that their worldview is the only way to advance social progress, especially the rights of minorities, and that liberalism fails to do so. This, it seems to me, is profoundly untrue. A moral giant like John Lewis advanced this country not by intimidation, or re-ordering the language, or seeing the advancement of black people as some kind of reversal for white people. He engaged the liberal system with non-violence and persuasion, he emphasized the unifying force of love and forgiveness, he saw black people as having agency utterly independent of white people, and changed America with that fundamentally liberal perspective.

The gay rights movement, the most successful of the 21st century, succeeded in the past through showing what straights and gays have in common, rather than seeing the two as in a zero-sum conflict, resolved by prosecuting homophobia or “queering” heterosexuality. The women’s rights movement has transformed the role of women in society in the past without demonizing all men, or seeing misogyny as somehow embedded in “white supremacy”. As we have just seen, civil rights protections for transgender people—just decided by a conservative Supreme Court—have been achieved not by seeing people as groups in constant warfare, but by seeing the dignity of the unique individual in pursuing their own happiness without the obstacle of prejudice.

In fact, I suspect it is the success of liberalism in bringing this kind of non-zero-sum pluralism into being that rattles the critical theorists the most. Because it suggests that reform is always better than revolution, that empirical truth is on the side of the genuinely oppressed and we should never fear understanding things better, that progress is both possible in a liberal democracy, and more securely rooted than in other systems, because it springs from a lively, informed debate, and isn’t foisted on society by ideologues.

The rhetorical trap of critical theory is that it has coopted the cause of inclusion and forced liberals onto the defensive. But liberals have nothing to be defensive about. What’s so encouraging about this book is that it has confidence in its own arguments, and is as dedicated to actual social justice, achieved through liberal means, as it is scornful of the postmodern ideologues who have coopted and corrupted otherwise noble causes." (https://andrewsullivan.substack.com/p/the-roots-of-wokeness?)


2. Jonathan Church:

"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." (https://quillette.com/2020/07/20/the-truth-according-to-social-justice-a-review-of-cynical-theories/)

Interview

Excerpted from the transcript of the Jim Rutt Show (podcast interview):

"Jim: Today, we’re mostly going to talk about James’ his new book co-authored with Helen Pluckrose, titled Cynical Theories, How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, And Identity And Why This Harms Everybody, in which, the authors carefully and in great detail explore the history of postmodernism and how it has morphed into a series of theories that underlie a lot of what we see today in the public sphere. It will be out at the end of next month, at least according to Amazon. Is that’s still about right? Late August?

James: It’s complicated. It’s mostly right. It got delayed because of the pandemic. It was supposed to come out in May and then June and then August 25th, they’ve stuck it with. But they’ve also said that when they start getting enough copies from the printers, the distribution will probably just kind of start. So the official date is the 25th of August, but it may start trickling out a few weeks early with the first however many thousand copies they get their hands on.

Jim: Cool. And as always, we’ll have a link to the Amazon page on the episode page, which you can find at jimruttshow.com. Interesting to note, even though it’s not out yet, it’s already an Amazon bestseller. And after reading it, I can see why. This book will be an indispensable reference for people who want to deconstruct the deconstructionists. It’s extremely carefully written, well researched, has very good footnotes that take you to backup for pretty much everything they say. So if you want to become a anti-Po-Mo warrior, read this fucking book people. I’m telling you it’s well worth it.

Jim: Obviously, I got a pre-publication copy from James and I actually did read the whole book cover to cover and give it a major thumbs up.

James: Thanks, man. I actually read it again the other day and I was like, “Wow, this is a whole lot more fair.” I was kind of afraid we were taking some swings toward the fences, but it’s like, “Wow, this is really fair.”

Jim: Yeah, I was surprised, frankly, based on some of the shit you say on your tweet stream, right? That you were just going to skewer the motherfuckers unrelentlessly, but you were actually very fair.

James: No, the goal was actually to give it a very scholarly treatment and to explain it to people in a very fair and clear way. Twitter’s the arena, but books and publications are another matter. You got to be more serious. Twitter’s good for screwing around. Plus, I took the gloves off on Twitter and they started setting cities on fire saying that that’s okay because whiteness is property. And I was like, “Okay, gloves off.” But we wrote the book before they started setting cities on fire, so the gloves were still on a little bit when we wrote it.

James: It’s probably good in the long run because it does need to be treated fairly so that people will see that we’re not misrepresenting the bullshit that they actually believe. It’s so insane that it’s almost impossible to believe that they really think that.

Jim: Yeah, and we’ll get into that. Is it actually insane or how the hell is it that people come to believe that horse shit and do they actually, right?

Jim: Before we dig into the meat of the matter, and I know you do talk about this throughout the book, I think it would be useful to lay out the alternative to postmodernism, “social justice”, and all that stuff. What you and Helen layout is kind of interwoven throughout the book, and there’s a strong argument about it at the end, is that liberalism is the alternative, right? Philosophical liberalism … and this is from your introduction.

Jim: Philosophical liberalism, as opposed to authoritarian movements of all types, be they left-wing, right-wing, secular or theocratic. I want you to talk a little bit about that alternative because it is true. We still do have issues that need to be resolved. There really is still racism. There’s really still is anti-gay bigotry. Women have not reached full operational equality in the world and though in the West, we’re getting closer, but there’s another way to get there rather than this homo-horse shit. So maybe you could talk just a little bit about the fact that you’re not saying we shouldn’t fight for increased social justice uncapitalized but the way to do it is through liberalism.

James: Yeah, that right. Our argument is ultimately about methods. If we have to use big words, we care about the approach with regard to epistemology and ethics. And we try to make the sustained case that the liberal approach, in the philosophical sense, which is the same philosophy that wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the US for example, that approach is the best we have for doing epistemology and ethics correctly. So social justice is an ideal and a lot of people don’t understand this because the fricking movement that’s so ascendant right now doesn’t want anybody to know it or doesn’t want anybody to remember it. Social justice is something that has been of interest to most societies throughout all of history, except maybe totalitarian ones. It’s certainly something that has been part of the American experiment from the beginning and then that’s also imported through most or all of the rest of the advanced democracies of the world.

James: So social justice, as an ideal, just means a fairer, more just society. And then the question becomes how do you try to achieve it? And what we wanted to try to show people is that there are lots of ways. There are lots of approaches. There are religious ideas about social justice. You can go back to Walter Rauschenbusch. We don’t mention that in the book specifically, but you can go back to Walter Rauschenbusch at the turn of the 20th century. And he was trying to push the social gospel from a Baptist perspective, so there are religious approaches.

James: The term social justice was invented by a Jesuit priest as a matter of fact, so there are religious approaches. There are liberal approaches, obviously, that we argue for, but there are also communist approaches or socialist approaches or materialist approaches. There are lots and lots and lots of different approaches. Even some conservative approaches can be seen as trying to establish a more fair society, so there are lots of approaches.

James: So what we want to try to do is take away the illusion that the current movement calling itself social justice is the only way to go about it. It uses a very specific method, which is critical theory infused with postmodern epistemology and ethics. And so we say no to that. We say, “Let’s look at other ideas.” So the liberal method for us is superior, as we make the case in the last chapter because it works, because it’s not what it’s accused of being. It’s not actually even necessarily as much a political philosophy as people think it is. It is in fact a method of resolving conflicts between people in societies. So if you look at capitalism, what you have is people with property rights.

James: Once those are enshrined, that’s a liberal philosophy position is that people have property rights. Once people have property rights, liberalism says, “Well, you can do with your own property what you want and you can work it out and you can trade pieces of your property for other pieces of other people’s property.” And capitalism becomes the liberal market approach or economic approach. And then you can look at it in politics. Well, you get your vote, everybody else gets their votes, so we’re going to now use a democratic way to authenticate who our leaders are. We’re not going to rely on the divine right of kings anymore. We’re not going to rely on who the warlord was that was able to knock everybody down and they become the leader. That’s not how we do. We’re going to ask the public and let the public decide and democracy becomes the liberal approach to resolving political conflict.

James: It’s all written in the Constitution. If you want to readdress the government for your grievances, you can petition, you can peacefully protest. You can always peacefully assemble. These are core amendments and core foundational principles of a liberal democracy that works. And then when it comes to understanding ideas, say if you and I have a different idea and we wanted to say, well, you say that you’re right and I say that I’m right and so we both believe that we’re right, we have to have a means of settling that conflict and liberalism offers a means. It says, “Let’s go ask the world,” or “Let’s see who can give the better, more reasoned argument if we can’t get the evidence.” It doesn’t say whose feelings are hurt. It doesn’t care. Then that’s why it’s so difficult for people to accept because sometimes the truth hurts and sometimes life isn’t fair and it can be very difficult to accept.

James: But the liberal approach to making sense of the world is, of course, that we can still be aware of the idea that there are realities of hurting people or things being unfair that we don’t want to see and liberal ethics uphold that. But at the same time, we say, look, we’re going to look at the evidence, and the evidence can include that hurt feelings are bad and we’re going to look at the best arguments and we’re not just going to give in because somebody is making a demand or somebody is claiming offense or whatever else. We actually have to make reasoned arguments. We actually have to appeal to the evidence. And so we have these different methods to try to resolve conflicts between individuals that come up within a society.

James: And our case is that if we want a more fair, more just, socially just society, we need liberalism to keep making the gains that it’s made for the past several centuries rather than saying, “Oh wow, we’re actually achieving real progress now, so let’s abandon the thing that got us there,” which is what the current movement is asking us to do. It wants to throw away liberalism and use its own radical approach. I mean, we don’t get into it deeply in the book, but it’s actually known as liberationism or liberation philosophy, which comes out of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, which is Neo-Marxism if you must know.

Jim: Yeah, Marcuse and those assholes, right?

James: Yeah, Marcuse in particular. You can dip into stuff that Adorno, Rowe, and of course, Max Horkheimer is relevant. You can dip into these guys, but Marcuse was actually extremely relevant to what we’re seeing today. A lot of people don’t realize this, but we all know who these Antifa assholes are running around and these Antifa guys, well, they are basically, if you take Herbert Marcuse philosophy, especially on repressive tolerance and Frantz Fanon’s ideas … He’s a French psychoanalyst that was studying the colonial condition. If you take those two people and you mix them together, you get Antifa. That’s what it is. That’s where their ideas come from. That’s why they think they’re justified in behaving in the world that the way they do.

James: So Marcuse, his presence has definitely felt throughout the world. And last time he had a massive following was in the mid-1960s, he wrote Repressive Tolerance in 1965. Lo and behold, 1967 and 1968, we have massive riots, including race riots that end up wrecking American cities, for example, that even Detroit hasn’t even recovered from.

Jim: Yeah, indeed. And in fact, we talk about liberalism and the fact that it has always been imperfect, but continuing to improve and we have to acknowledge that, right? Thomas Jefferson wrote the beautiful words, “All men are created equal”, but he was also a slaveholder. Oh, well, right. But on the other hand, in 1808, the US government abolished the slave trade. Britain abolished slavery not too long thereafter. United States spent 600,000 deaths, equaled to about 5 million at our current population, to end slavery, et cetera, et cetera and we’ll talk about some of the other progress of liberalism." (https://jimruttshow.blubrry.net/the-jim-rutt-show-transcripts/transcript-of-episode-73-james-lindsay-on-on-cynical-theories/)


Discussion

This book is not a critique of regular activism, but of ideological extremism

Steven J. Lawrence:

" moments of fierce advocacy and collective action on the behalf of desperately needed social change are not what the book Cynical Theories addresses.

It addresses ideological extremism.

Throughout history, the moral and tactical error of short-sighted extremism in the name of large ideals or legitimate threats has always left in its wake destruction upon destruction, as extreme partisans on all sides have often chosen to “burn it all down” for their noble causes, not always aware of the damage they have done in the service of an exciting moral vision or drive for social change. Like many others who hold less extreme views and wish to contribute to the great task of stitching society back together, I hope I can convince people that we can find another way to raise awareness of injustices and to achieve a equality of opportunity and a benevolent society so that we can avoid the destructive outcomes that our current trajectory is heading towards.

Although it is now a cliche to refer to “witch hunts, it’s important to note that the Salem Witchcraft Trials and pandemonium of 1692 were conducted without due consideration for the damage that would eventually come to the community after more than 200 people were falsely accused of witchcraft and 20 of the accused were executed. Even some of those who were most caught up in the fervor of that time would come to course-correct after a period of contemplation, in which the community reflected upon the outcomes of their behavior and had to grapple with a lot of guilt over that.

Since the beginning of recorded time, people of wisdom have always warned humanity to take up the boring discipline of looking deeply into reality and its complexities and to embrace the task of serving the greater good with an un-romanticized moral vision that is compassionate and at times slow. It may be tedious and unexciting to embrace sobriety and maturity and to practice the deep democracy of being in true communion with life’s complexities and the realities of human nature in all its glory, depravity, and mundaneness. But, the unaccelerated life of commitment, humility, and open-hearted engagement has often been the most sustainable and least destructive way for societies to make progress." (https://groundexperience.substack.com/p/one-we-are-part-i)

More information

URL = https://areomagazine.com/2018/12/18/postmodern-religion-and-the-faith-of-social-justice/

Summary by Steven J. Lawrence:

“ This essay introduces the idea that the framework known as Critical Social Justice (CSJ) has strong religious components and a religious-like organizational structure, which includes a canon of collected works by revered thought leaders, who are treated as a kind of clergy that essentially hands down doctrines and decrees that devotees listen to, adhere to, and hold as sacred and beyond all reproach and questioning.” (https://groundexperience.substack.com/p/one-we-are-part-i)