Book Review: Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, “Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody”

It tells us something when a potential reviewer of a book is warned that so doing could spell the end of their academic career, or when a scheduled lecture or guest speaker is cancelled  because students declare themselves unsafe while threatening violent disruption, or the plug is pulled on important research because one person feels that another somewhere may be offended and starts a social media pile-on; not least about the dire circumstances in our academic institutions as supposed upholders of free inquiry and expression. It also tells us of the need for a thorough exposure of the ideology which is suppressing free inquiry and supplanting diversity of opinion with conformity to a monoculture of radical beliefs and agendas. This ideology comes in a variety of guises and manifestations, such as Critical Race Theory, identity politics, Social Justice activism, intersectionality, or equity-based diversity and inclusion. Not only is it now ubiquitous in the universities but has now spread through the media, education, entertainment and sports, the judiciary, branches of government, the corporate world, and now even the police and the military. According to Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, the authors of Cynical Theories, it resembles nothing less than a quasi-religious movement, conceptually fluid but morally rigid, apparently sophisticated and unanswerable but mostly incoherent and unfalsifiable, preaching compassion but engaged in the persecution of non-believers and heretics.

There have been a number of attempts to grasp the essential nature of this phenomenon over the years, a difficulty compounded by its varied sources, its various iterations and its movement in and out of the academic world, plus it seems its resistance to firm boundaries and resistance to definition. One such attempt goes under the banner of ‘Cultural Marxism’, an interpretation of its development from the Frankfurt School of critical theory from the 1920s the 1960s and its influence on the French postmodernists. There are serious scholars of this interpretation, such as the philosopher Stephen Hicks, but it has also lent itself to controversial conspiracy-style broad-brush interpretations. Pluckrose and Lindsay avoid that particular controversy by rooting their analysis and evaluation in a left-liberal Enlightenment perspective that accepts the goals of a more equal and inclusive society but sees identity politics as inimical to those aims in its abandonment of universality and individuality in favour of collectivism.

In Cynical Theories the authors trace the roots of this ideology to the postmodernism of the 1960s and 70s, particularly the work of Michael Foucault and Jacques Derrida. In clear and readable prose (unlike that of many of their sources), Pluckrose and Lindsay lay out their analysis of the process by which the postmodern theories of French philosophers and literary theorists, were taken up by leftist academics from the 1980s on, principally in America, and informed the development of various forms of identity theory and activism that we are familiar with today. By around 2010 there was the consolidation of this intellectual trend in a third level of evolution as the various forms of identitarianism became increasingly ‘intersectional’, trading their various theoretical and activist perspectives, which was accompanied by a gradual transformation from epistemological relativism to doctrinal absolutism, theoretical complexity to ideological simplification and from the documentation of specific injustices to the reification of collective oppressed identities.

Two major themes appear in the writing of Foucault and Derrida that distinguish their work from the largely Marxist intellectual milieu in which they were working and which have gone on to influence the identity politics of today: the systemic, i.e. ubiquitous (rather than hierarchical), nature of power and the importance of language, both as rhetoric and as reality construction and manipulation. Rather than being in thrall to Marxism and consciously adapting it to a new political and social reality, according to Pluckrose and Lindsay it was disillusionment with the grand “metanarratives” of Marxism, Christianity and scientific rationality that led the postmodernists to undertake an intellectual dismantling of Western philosophy, culture and institutions. Though this “high deconstructive” phase ultimately only lead to a nihilistic loss of meaning, its critical potential was seized upon by certain progressive activists and theorists representing identities marginalised in Western society, whereupon postmodern theorising was re-energised and given purpose in attacking injustice by exposing the supposedly systemic nature of exclusionary attitudes, speech and speech acts towards vulnerable minorities, ironically at the very time when societies in the West had become more outwardly tolerant and inclusive than at any time in their history.

The book can be divided for convenience into five sections. The first section, chapter 1, deals with postmodernism in its original iteration. The second, chapter 2, considers the roughly thirty years from the 1980s to the end of the 2000s that saw postmodernism’s applied turn. The most obvious virtues of the book are seen, in these early chapters, in illuminating the origins and philosophical precursors of what for most of us is an almost inexplicable explosion of this ideology into our cultural landscape during the pandemic lockdowns, after simmering quietly at the margins for many years. What is particularly helpful is the authors’ attempt to isolate from the various stages of this developmental complexity, features that remained more or less constant, if emphasised more by some writers than others. These they define as two principles – “the postmodern knowledge principle”, which they refer to throughout as Theory and “the postmodern political principle”, referred to as Social Justice (both terms capitalised to distinguish them from their general usage) – and four major themes of postmodernism: “the blurring of boundaries”, “the power of language”, “cultural relativism”, and “the loss of the individual and the universal”.

Less happily, in a third section, chapters 3-7, Pluckrose and Lindsay’s dedication to the task takes us on a tour of all the significant branches of identity Theory: postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory and intersectionality, feminisms and gender studies, and disability and fat studies. Their scholarship is commendable and clarifying, the task necessary, and the authors are fair in identifying where these scholars have identified important issues of injustice. The problem is not the authors’ approach but the subject material itself. Probably it is the incessant focus on injustice and victimhood, on grievance, the contempt for traditional virtues, the delight in transgression and trashing the normal and the singular lack of awareness of their own privilege, which is ultimately both depressing and disturbing. The reason for the title (the jacket shows the word ‘Critical’ – as in ‘critical theories’ – being crossed out and replaced with ‘Cynical’) increasingly takes on significance.

Identity politics is often portrayed as nothing more than an application of fairness in an attempt to build a more equitable society. Perhaps many fondly imagine that the waters of identitarianism lapping at their feet are the high-water mark of the ideas pouring out of academia, and that things will stop at that point, even if they suspect in their hearts that this is unlikely to be the case. Anyone who has any familiarity with ideologically totalising systems will recognise the point of inflection at which “Who could be against this?” moves from being a rhetorical question to something more sinister. The nominal fourth section of the book, chapters 8 and 9, looks at Social Justice scholarship and Thought and Social Justice in Action, respectively. It is in this most recent phase of its development that the toxicity of this ideology becomes most apparent.

To illustrate this, it is instructive to give a couple of examples, to be found on page 190:

[E]pistemic oppression…is alleged to occur when the knowledges and knowledge-producing methods…are not included within our prevailing understanding of knowledge….[However,] Epistemic exploitation [is] the injustice caused when marginalized people are expected to share their knowledge.

In 2013 Jose Medina coined the melodramatic term hermeneutical death, which describes a failure to be understood so profound as to destroy the person’s sense of self. At the opposite end of this spectrum is the concept of hermeneutical privacy, which describes the right not to be understandable at all.

Social Justice Theory it seems relies heavily on such double bind strategies, whereby you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. This, together with the general “problematising” of the normal, such as the lexicon of phobias, aggressions and symbolic violence to which those not in agreement with Social Justice are supposedly prone, supplies activists with what can be referred to as a rhetorical cudgel. This deeply cynical worldview can be seen in the concepts of cultural appropriation, in which the perfectly reasonable desire to admire an aspect of other cultures and make it a part of your own is considered actual theft, and white fragility – any (normal) response other than total submission to (actually racist) accusations of white privilege (supposedly inherent racism), simply for being white; in sum, any move or position which is not in agreement with the exacting, though shifting, requirements of Social Justice is self-condemnatory. Social Justice is steeped in this type of manipulative language. This may make activists assume their position is indefeasible. In reality it makes their arguments unfalsifiable and, therefore, unverifiable. Which, to return to the point made in the first paragraph, makes it akin to a severe millennial cult and something totally out of keeping with the traditions of the academy and society in the modern period.

The fifth and final section, chapter 10, deals with the strategies for countering Social Justice. Once more, Pluckrose and Lindsay recognise that Social Justice makes some legitimate criticisms of Western societies; however, it does so from within a framework that will not solve them and almost certainly exacerbate them. They insist the only framework that has consistently delivered progressive improvement in society is the application of liberal principles, primarily the belief in a common humanity and nature shared by all people, respect for individuals irrespective of identity or beliefs, rejection of final authority, the free exchange of ideas and having an evidentiary basis for any serious assertion. Social Justice implicitly or explicitly rejects all of these principles. The problem with liberalism, the authors accept, is that it takes time to deliver improvement, which makes absolutist ideas attractive to the impatient. Liberalism also has a potential flaw in that it allows and even encourages criticism of itself and, although this is to its ultimate long-term benefit in solving the problems in liberal societies and solving them more efficiently, it lays itself open to constant attack by those whose belief systems are untroubled by doubt.

Pluckrose and Lindsay outline four broad critiques of Social Justice theory and practice: it is philosophically (and frequently linguistically) incoherent; it is socially divisive; it is inherently totalitarian; and through catastrophising – imputing the worst possible motives to people – it is psychologically damaging. In their conclusion the authors deliver a critique of the principles and themes of Theory and Social Justice and of their application in practice: the stultifying effect they have on diversity of thought, the cohesion and tolerance of society, the possible reaction against minorities, the damage to institutions and organisations. They recommend, to the degree to which it is possible for individuals, to resist the institutionalisation of Theory by appeal to freedom of conscience and of Social Justice by affirming their commitment to social justice through liberal principles, and they have set out a few examples of “Principled Opposition” to Social Justice ideas that people can employ or use as the basis of their own strategy of resistance.

Cynical Theories is a significant contribution to the fight against the “totalitarian temptation” that seems to raise its head in different guises in every generation. There are criticisms that have been made of Pluckrose and Lindsay’s misrepresentation of some of the theorists they highlight by academics who are more versed in the literature, but this is par for the course for specialists berating non-specialists or specialists in other fields intruding on their territory. One could also raise their lack of contextualisation of postmodernism within the anti-Enlightenment stream of philosophy up to Nietzsche. However, this would be to miss the point of this book, which has sought to bring some clarity and analysis to a pervasive but poorly-understood phenomenon of contemporary English-speaking societies at this time, in which their entire cultural edifice, rather than just their faults, is under sustained attack. Whether identity politics proves to be a temporary aberration in response to a moral panic or results in permanent damage to our institutions and culture, will be decided by how we respond. The authors’ most important message, ultimately, is to remind us of the necessity of “eternal vigilance” in open societies, and that a liberal society’s fundamental principles and values need to be understood, taught and reaffirmed in every generation.

By Don Trubshaw

Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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