Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody. Durham, NC: Pitchstone, 2020. 352 pages.
In 1992, at a theatre party, a young woman holding a pretend microphone announced, “Hello, everyone. Our question tonight is ‘What is poststructuralism?’ Mr. Milner, can you tell our listening audience, in under 60 seconds: What is poststructuralism?”
There were a dozen confused people in the room. I spoke quickly:
“It’s complicated. Poststructuralists believe that we can’t actually communicate through language. The effect is, since writers can’t communicate, they go for style – pretty writing that doesn’t mean anything.”
“Can you give an example?”
“The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.”
The English Patient had just won the Governor General’s Award. There were audible gasps.
I was talking about postmodern fiction. Making fun of postmodern academic writing was, 25 years ago, a small industry. There was the notorious “Sokal affair” of 1996: New York University physics professor Alan Sokal wrote a deliberate parody, complete with impenetrable writing, myriad references and footnotes, arguing that the laws of physics have political implications and do not apply equally to all people. “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” was published in the prestigious academic journal Social Text. Sokal admitted to the hoax and generously offered, “Anyone who believes the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my (21st-floor) apartment.”1
The Journal of Philosophy and Literature’s annual Bad Writing Contest stipulated that entries must be “non-ironic. Deliberate parody cannot be allowed in a field where unintended self-parody is so widespread.”2 Judith Butler (first place, Bad Writing Contest, 1998) complained in the New York Times that the contest “targeted left-wing scholars.” Editor Denis Dutton defended his journal: “At this time bad writing is the stronghold of the post-structuralist left.”
Poststructuralism can be attributed, at least in part, to the disappointments of Marxism. The economic contradictions of capitalism were supposed to radicalize the working class and lead us to socialist utopia, but instead we got two world wars, the Nazis and Stalinist Russia. Marxists like Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser and members of the Frankfurt School concluded (in their different ways) that the capitalist state – through its control of the “superstructure” (education, media, religion) – was undermining the revolutionary potential of the working class.
Enter Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and a host of others. The ruling elites always manage what we believe. Knowledge is always ideological and has always been “socially constructed.” In Catholic theocracy, “knowledge” was revealed in the “Bible” as interpreted by priests. In modern bourgeois societies, “knowledge” was to be “discovered” via “science” and “reason,” but these too were made-up stories. Which meant, if I understood correctly, that physics is no truer than astrology and Darwin is no better a guide to nature than Genesis.
I wasn’t buying it.
After a thirty-year gap, I returned to university to study avant-garde theatre. All the younger professors – younger than me – were Theory aficionados. In researching my thesis, I learned about the symbiotic relationship between indecipherable avant-garde artists and incomprehensible poststructuralist theorists. Soon, I was sure, avant-garde art and Critical Theory would die their self-inflicted and irrelevant deaths.
Now, two decades after that, it’s clear that poststructuralism’s children are still kicking. Recently, a close friend shouted at me when I said “Aboriginal” instead of “Indigenous.” Another friend informed me, as if I were ignorant beyond belief, “Black people can’t be racist.” I blame poststructuralism. But how did we get from Foucault to my friends’ odd behaviour? That’s what Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay try to explain in Cynical Theories.
Early in the book, Pluckrose and Lindsay assure us of their commitment to gender, racial and LGBT equality and make clear their preference for liberalism, which they describe as “political democracy, limitations on the powers of government, the development of universal human rights, legal equality for all adult citizens, freedom of expression, respect for the value of viewpoint diversity and honest debate, respect for evidence and reason, the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion.” Liberalism is best thought of as a “framework for conflict resolution.”
But, they say, liberalism and modernity are at great risk from both “far-right populist movements claiming to be making a last desperate stand for liberalism and democracy” and “far-left progressive social crusaders (who) portray themselves as the sole and righteous champions of social and moral progress.” The threat from the far right is pretty clear. But are the “far-left progressive social crusaders” a genuine threat to liberalism?
Pluckrose and Lindsay take us from poststructuralism (philosophy), to applied poststructuralism (political theory) to reified poststructuralism (political action guided by Social Justice scholarship). “It” goes by many names: poststructuralism, postmodernism, Critical Theory, Theory. When writing about poststructuralism and its descendants, Pluckrose and Lindsay always write Theory with an uppercase T.
Since its beginning, Critical Theory has been guided by two “inextricably linked core principles” and “four major themes.” The core principles are:
- The postmodern knowledge principle: radical scepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to “cultural constructivism” – that “knowledge” is always socially constructed.
- The postmodern political principle: “a belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.”
And the major themes:
- The blurring of boundaries: Blurring boundaries is the postmodernist’s favourite sport. Different poststructuralists staked out their areas of specialty, exploring and calling into question boundaries between science and art, natural and artificial, low art and high, health and sickness, sane and insane, male and female.
- The power of language: For poststructuralists, language is inherently unreliable and “cannot represent reality or communicate it to others.” There is no real meaning: a writer’s intended meaning carries no more weight than a reader’s interpretation. Language has inordinate power to create (false) categories such as race and gender. “Deconstruction” means looking for contradictions, inconsistencies and hidden meanings.
- Cultural relativism: We can’t judge another culture because we are doomed to judge it by our standards.
- The loss of the individual and the universal: The individual, too, is a product of language. The universal is an effort to force dominant discourses – about nature or morality – on everyone.
Poststructuralism was immediately embraced by literary studies and the arts. Even though “postmodern Theory’s high deconstructive phase burnt itself out by the mid-1980s,” it didn’t die; it “matured, mutated, and evolved” and the two principles and four themes have remained pervasive and culturally influential as Theory diversified into distinct strands.
Critical Theory became explicitly political in the late 1980s, just when liberal movements had seen 20 years of remarkable legal and political progress toward racial, gender and LGBT equality. Still, racist, sexist and homophobic attitudes survived, and postmodern political Theory developed to confront not legal discrimination but attitudes.
Frantz Fanon’s 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth “set the stage for postcolonialism and postcolonial Theory.” To Fanon, “colonialism represented, above all else, a systematic denial of the humanity of colonized people … Edward Said, the father of postcolonial Theory, took inspiration from Fanon’s depiction of the psychological impacts of having one’s culture, language, and religion subordinated to another.” The downside is that postcolonial Theory, “with its disparagement of science and reason as provincial Western ways of knowing … impedes the progress of developing (countries. The) claim is not only factually wrong, morally vacant, and patronizing; it is also negligent and dangerous.”
The “blurring of boundaries” is central to Queer Theory, and the more radical the Theorist, the blurrier the boundaries. Pre-Theory gay activism appealed to universal liberal principles of shared humanity, but “Queer Theory regards the very existence of categories of sex, gender, and sexuality to be oppressive … and is radically sceptical that these categories are based in any biological reality.” Queer Theory is “arguably the purest form of applied postmodernism. It underlies much trans activism and makes an appearance in multiple forms of Social Justice scholarship.”
Pluckrose and Lindsay accept Critical Race Theory’s contention that race is a social construct. For example, tribes abound and are important social divisions in the Bible, but skin colour is barely mentioned: “In order to justify the abuses of colonialism and the kidnapping, exploitation, and abuse of slaves, their victims had to be regarded as inferior or subhuman … Perhaps most importantly, this was done by emerging forms of scholarship in what we would now call the social sciences and natural sciences.” With most of the glaring, legal inequalities between Whites and Blacks removed, postmodern Theorists focused on “microagressions, hate speech, safe spaces, cultural appropriation,” etc.
Prominent Black feminists brought attention to the Whiteness of feminism. Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the initially modest concept of intersectionality in a 1989 scholarly law paper, but it was soon expanded to include more than race and gender:
Trans men, while still oppressed by attitudes towards their trans status, need to recognize that they have ascended to male privilege and amplify the voices of trans women, who are seen as doubly oppressed, by being both trans and women. Gay men and lesbians might well find themselves not considered oppressed at all, particularly if they are not attracted to trans men or trans women, respectively, which is considered a form of transphobia and misgendering.
Critical Race Theory and intersectionality are centrally concerned with ending racism by making everyone more aware of race at all times. Racism is always taking place and the activist’s job is to find it: “The member of the marginalized racial group is said to have a unique voice and a counternarrative that, under Theory, must be regarded as authoritative.” Everything the marginalized individual interprets as racism must be accepted as racism.
Liberal feminists demanded that men and women be treated equally in such things as the right to vote, own property and access to employment. In the 1970s, university-based Marxist feminists connected patriarchy and capitalism and argued that capitalism must be overthrown to end patriarchy. Then came postmodern feminists who argued that it was the existence of categories – feminine and masculine, then female and male – that oppressed women. “As Theorists incorporated aspects of Queer Theory, Postcolonial Theory and, particularly, Critical Race Theory through the concept of intersectionality, the resulting feminism tended to “focus on identity in the form of race, gender, and sexuality.” By 2006, feminist scholars no longer understood “patriarchy” as the literal “rule of the fathers,” but instead as, “in Foucauldian terms, vague notions of male dominance permeating every discourse.”
Intersectional Theory resulted in the virtual disappearance of economic class, replaced by the concept of social privilege – initially White privilege, but soon extended to other identity categories, such as male, straight, cisgender, thin, able-bodied, etc. White feminists are expected to include, but not appropriate, “the experiences of women of color, providing space for them to be heard, and amplifying their voices – without exploiting them or becoming voyeuristic consumers of their oppression. These kinds of impossible, contradictory, double-binding demands are a persistent feature of applied postmodern Theory.”
Disability activism began in the 1960s with the liberal aim of increasing disabled people’s access to the opportunities available to the nondisabled. Disabled people were considered people with some form of disability, but according to “dis/abled” scholarship, disability is imposed upon people by society. Dan Goodley, author of Disability Studies: Theorizing Disableism and Ableism, “considers diagnosing, treating and curing disability as cynical practices, dependent on corrupt ableist assumptions and upheld by a ‘neoliberal system.’”
Although feminist scholars have long written about pressure on women to be thin, fat studies became a scholarly field quite recently: “Within fat studies, it is common to address negative attitudes towards obesity alongside racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disableism, and imperialism.” Poststructuralism and “feminist science” are used to dismiss the overwhelming evidence that nutrition plays a significant role in health and that obesity “is strongly correlated with early death.” Fat activism could play a valuable role by fighting discrimination and prejudice against obese people but, by “descending into radical social constructivism, paranoia, and science denial … fat studies is currently among the most irrational and ideological forms of scholarship-activism in identity studies.”
In the final three chapters, Pluckrose and Lindsay summarize Social Justice scholarship, look at what happens when Social Justice scholarship leaves the university to become “Social Justice in action” and suggest alternatives to Social Justice ideology. I would suggest several recurring themes of Social Justice scholarship:
- Radical scepticism coexists with radical overconfidence: “We now have Social justice texts … that express, with absolute certainty, that all white people are racist, all men are sexist, racism and sexism are systems that can exist and oppress absent even a single person (who is) racist or sexist.”
- All ways of knowing are equal. In the view of “research justice,” there is “a moral obligation to share the prestige of rigorous research with ‘other forms of research,’ including superstition, spiritual beliefs, cultural traditions … and emotional responses.”
- Some people know better than others. “Standpoint Theory” tells us that one’s position within a social power dynamic “dictates what one can and cannot know: thus the privileged are blinded by their privilege (while the oppressed) understand both the dominant position and the experience of being oppressed.”
- Power is systemic: “In Marxist thought, power is like a weight, pressing down on the proletariat. For Foucault, power operated more like a grid, running through all layers of society … Power is a system we’re all constantly participating in.”
- Race and gender don’t exist but Social Justice activists must look for them everywhere.
- “Thou Shalt Shut Up.” Social Justice educator Barbara Applebaum writes, “The mere fact that they can question the existence of systemic oppression is a function of their privilege.” According to Social Justice scholar Alison Bailey, disagreement is “willful ignorance.” According to Robin DiAngelo, Whites can’t tolerate even a minimum amount of racial stress and defend themselves through “the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving.” If you express anything other than “This is great – I’m learning so much!” you’re guilty of White Fragility. You can’t disagree, you can’t be silent, and you can’t leave.
- I’m okay, you’re privileged: “It is profoundly ironic that a movement claiming to problematize all sources of privilege is led by highly educated, upper-middle-class scholars and activists who are so oblivious to their status as privileged members of society.”
Pluckrose and Lindsay point to several ways in which Social Justice scholarship is harmful:
Academics have been fired or denied tenure for crossing intellectual lines visible only to Social Justice scholars (for example, Rebecca Tuvel and Bruce Gilley).
“Universities are among the best, and ideally the least biased, centres of knowledge production,” but “Social Justice scholarship and ethics completely displace reliable and rigorous scholarship into issues of social justice.”
Social Justice scholars “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.”
Social Justice’s focus on race, gender, etc., crowds out practical and measurable approaches to health, education, crime, the environment, poverty and equality.
Social Justice scholars train students to work in a Social Justice industry worth billions of dollars: “According to a major job search website in the United Kingdom, equality and diversity jobs are especially common in the Equality and Human Rights Commission, professional associations, the Law Society, schools and universities, the police, large private sector companies, local authorities, trade unions, and the Civil Service.”
Inside and outside the university, focus on race can be beneficial. In my field, Canadian theatre, it’s led to the hiring of more Indigenous, Black and Asian actors and managers, and will lead to the production of more plays by Indigenous, Black and Asian writers. But would this have happened in the absence of Social Justice scholarship? Perhaps more slowly, but yes: Canadian theatre and the world have been moving toward greater inclusivity for decades.
Outside the university, where few people have heard of Foucault or Butler, what remains of Social Justice scholarship? Language is considered extremely dangerous. The first language rule is: if you’re not Black, never say the “n-word.” There used to be no embarrassment attached to saying the word when reading aloud from a classic novel (or when writing an article like this), but suddenly people started losing their jobs for exactly that. When did that happen? There are many derogatory words for ethnic, religious or national groups – kike and spic, for example – but Inroads and I needn’t fear retribution for writing them out.
Social media have made people far more vulnerable to condemnation for minor offences. It doesn’t help that some of the enforcers are complete idiots. A Black security guard in the United States broke his school board’s zero-tolerance policy on racial slurs when he told a student not to call him the n-word. The security guard was fired – and rehired only after an enormous outcry that included an offer from Cher to cover his legal expenses. Consider, too, the treatment of Lindsay Shepherd by professors and staff at Wilfrid Laurier University.3
How serious is all this? Compared to what, nuclear war? Are these anecdotes unfortunate, rare incidents, or are they the tip of the iceberg? How many people have to lose their jobs to make it a serious problem?
Right-wing populism is a bigger problem than Social Justice activism, but Social Justice activism can help conservative extremists get elected. What do you expect to happen when you tell millions of well-meaning, fair-minded people that they’re racist? What happens when you tell high school dropouts stocking shelves at Walmart that they benefit from White privilege? Judging by the amount of time right-wing populists like Tucker Carlson spend warning Fox News viewers that Social Justice warriors and cancel culture are taking over America, they must think there’s an audience receptive to that message.4
Pluckrose and Lindsay oppose banning or removing public funding from courses rooted in postmodern Theory. “We cannot fight illiberalism with illiberalism,” they say, but we must speak out; if those on the right are the only ones challenging Social Justice excesses, then right-wing extremists will gain support:
You don’t need to become well versed in Theory and Social Justice scholarship … but you do need to have a little bit of courage to stand up to something with a lot of power. You need to recognize Theory when you see it, and side with the liberal responses to it – which might be no more complicated than saying, “No, that’s your ideological belief, and I don’t have to go along with it.”
Don’t leave home without…
A few things with which to arm yourself in preparation for a scrap with Social Justice activists:
- Areo, an online journal, edited until recently by Helen Pluckrose
- Counterweight, a liberal humanist organization, founded by Helen Pluckrose, which provides resources for people in trouble because Critical Social Justice is being imposed on them in the workplace.
- Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker: An excellent compilation and investigation of liberalism’s many successes.
- Glenn Loury, John McWhorter and Coleman Hughes: Three articulate, brilliant and moderate Black scholars. Hundreds of hours of stimulating entertainment on YouTube.
1 Bad Blood Over Bad Writing, Irish Times, April 8, 1999.
2 The World’s Worst Writing, Guardian, December 24, 1999.
3 Madeleine Carlisle, Black Security Guard Fired for Repeating the N-Word When Telling a Student Not to Call Him It to Get His Job Back, Time, October 22, 2019; Lindsay Shepherd, Wikipedia.
4 See Sean Iling, ‘Wokeness is a Problem and We All Know It’: James Carville on the State of Democratic Politics, Vox, April 27, 2021.