Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2020
353 pp. $27.95 (hardcover)
It would be little exaggeration to say that America is exhibiting symptoms of mass hysteria. Rioters have tried—in the name of opposing racism—to tear down statues of Abraham Lincoln and John Greenleaf Whittier; “transgender activists” have urged people to burn J. K. Rowling’s novels because her latest book features a character who is a transvestite and a serial killer; and white entrepreneurs who serve burritos, white students who wear dreadlocks or braids, and black fashion students who design Asian-patterned bikinis are condemned, or even physically attacked, for “cultural appropriation.” Criticizing this madness is itself considered grounds for expulsion from school. Even using the word “madness” risks reprisal on the premise that it’s supposedly “ableist”—meaning it implicitly denigrates people who suffer from mental disorders.
Making sense of the bizarre rage often called “wokeness” has become a small industry, and works such as Robby Soave’s Panic Attack and Noah Rothman’s Unjust have helped explain the psychological and political dynamics at work. But in Cynical Theories, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay go a step further, exploring the connections between such phenomena as “shoutdowns,” “canceling,” and identity politics on the one hand and the philosophical doctrines taught in America’s universities on the other—doctrines they call simply “Theory.”
Theory, they argue, represents the latest wave of postmodernist thinking that began in the 1960s with the work of Michel Foucault. He and his allies argued that there’s no such thing as objective truth, or if there is, it’s inaccessible to us, because our knowledge consists of mere “narratives”—stories we tell each other and use in subtle ways, often unconsciously, to gain and keep “power.” Accompanying these two basic principles are four “attitudes” or methods: the blurring of boundaries between intellectual or social categories that are typically taken for granted (which can mean anything from men wearing dresses to scientists relying on anecdotal evidence); an emphasis on language as the tool that controls every aspect of life; cultural relativism—not only in terms of morality but even in epistemology; and the erasure of the significance of both the individual and the universal. This last item means that “truths” (a term postmodernists insist on using in the plural) have meaning only for groups: Nothing is true for a single person or for all mankind.
It’s sometimes hard to say what these ideas mean in practice, because postmodernists revel in bizarre jargon and general incoherence. That is to be expected: If there’s no objective truth, and “logic” is, at best, just one of many “ways of knowing”—one inherently tainted by racial, sexual, or class biases—then there’s no way, and no need, to express oneself clearly or give specific, empirically verifiable proof of one’s assertions. Indeed, to the postmodernist, lucidity is itself a kind of oppression. This accounts for the bewildering lingo many such writers use. Pluckrose and Lindsay quote an example from Columbia University Professor Gayatri Spivak:
I find [Derrida’s] morphology much more painstaking and useful than Foucault’s and Deleuze’s immediate, substantive involvement with more “political” issues—the latter’s invitation to “become woman”—which can make their influence more dangerous for the U.S. academic as enthusiastic radical. Derrida marks radical critique with the danger of appropriating the other by assimilation. He reads catachresis at the origin. (73)
As long ago as 1996, physicist Alan Sokal demonstrated the vacuousness of such jargon by getting a fake scholarly paper, composed entirely of gibberish, accepted by a postmodernist philosophy journal. Pluckrose and Lindsay repeated the stunt in 2018, this time with more than a dozen nonsense papers, including one that rephrased Mein Kampf in feminist mumbo jumbo.
Cynical Theories argues that postmodernism was relatively harmless until the late 1980s. Its practitioners, denying truth and employing an incomprehensible language, could not even articulate a dogma, and they therefore made little effort to implement widespread cultural or political change. But they shifted gears in the 1990s. Retaining the two principles and four themes, they fashioned a menu of theories—“postcolonial,” “feminist,” “queer,” “critical race theory,” and so forth—aimed at “deconstructing” long-held beliefs to show that they aren’t really true but are just mechanisms of “power” that society uses to oppress minorities. “Disability and fat studies,” for example, asserts that ideas about physical health have no objective validity but are just ways culture subjugates people with “different” body types. According to this argument, even deaf or paralyzed people don’t suffer from their deafness or paralysis but are victims of prejudice—held down by the network of power relations in society. This has even led some activists to argue that disabilities are a type of “identity,” that it’s exploitative to try to alleviate these conditions—and that deaf or paralyzed people who ask for help are “internalizing” their own “oppression.”
According to Pluckrose and Lindsay, these various theories coalesced into Theory around 2010, when practitioners mixed collectivism with postmodernism’s earlier rejection of objectivity and embraced “standpoint theory”: There’s no true truth, but there are different truths for different categories of people. “Having oppressed identities,” Pluckrose and Lindsay explain, supposedly “gives the oppressed a richer, more accurate view of reality—hence we should listen to and believe their accounts of it” (195). The dominant society—meaning, of course, white male society—commits “injustice” against these groups when it fails to affirm their beliefs.
In short, Theory inverts the old Marxist claim that workers in capitalist societies suffer from “false consciousness”—meaning that capitalism blinds them to their own oppression—and instead holds that “it is the oppressors who suffer from false consciousness, due to their socialization into a system of knowledge that benefits them” (197).
The premise that language effectively constitutes reality—and that it blinds the majority to the fact that they use language to oppress minorities—deserves emphasis because it accounts for one of Theory’s most pernicious aspects: the way its practitioners simultaneously insist upon orthodoxy and disclaim their own efforts to enforce it. Consider one widely circulated review of Cynical Theories that criticized the authors for misrepresenting the opinions of Syracuse University professor Barbara Applebaum. Pluckrose and Lindsay write that Applebaum’s book Being White, Being Good “advocates shutting down . . . student disagreement” with theories of “social justice” during classroom discussions (200), but the reviewer objected that this is not what Applebaum actually wrote. And that is true: She expressly denies that she advocates forbidding disagreement—which, she says, “would not promote social justice”—and contends instead that “whites [should] genuinely [listen] to what people of color are trying to tell them.”1
But a closer reading reveals that, notwithstanding her denial, Applebaum does, in fact, advocate silencing dissent. She just calls it something else. Quoting Theory proponent Judith Butler, she characterizes disagreement as “normative violence,” which is conveniently “invisible” and which leads to “the dehumanization of the excluded and delegitimated.”2 This equation of speech with violence is no accident; according to Theory, conversations are not about reality—they are reality. Any difference of opinion creates a “power” imbalance that threatens to “erase” a person’s only source of metaphysical significance, which consists of others’ “affirmation” of his or her “lived experience.” To “genuinely listen,” therefore, refers not merely to politely hearing, but to actually affirming. Thus, Theory inherently classifies disagreement or criticism as forms of injustice, and its practitioners are led, whatever their protestations to the contrary, to silence dissent as a way to get “whites” to “genuinely listen.” No wonder Applebaum admits that students “often complain in teacher evaluations that they have not been allowed to disagree.”3
All of this might be laughable if it weren’t so eerily similar to the dystopian future of George Orwell’s 1984. In that book, written decades before Theory metastasized, Orwell imagined a world in which the proponents of the idea that reality is just a social construct took it to its ultimate conclusion. The individual’s ability to apprehend truth and articulate a judgment about it, Orwell thought, is what makes freedom not merely a political preference but a requirement of human life. This is why Winston Smith writes in his diary that “freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.”4 Big Brother, however, holds that reality is made up of “power” and consequently seeks to control language so as to sever the individual’s grasp of reality. That is why, when Winston is tortured at the novel’s climax, he is forced not only to recant, but to actually believe that two plus two equals five, if Big Brother so decrees.
The connection between Theory and Orwell’s warning became undeniable just three weeks before Cynical Theories was published, when a group of Theory advocates attacked Lindsay online, insisting that “the idea of 2+2 equaling 4 is cultural” and that “because of western imperialism/colonization, we think of it as the only way of knowing.” Lindsay—who happens to be a mathematician—aptly replied that this was yet more proof that Theory “is a direct assault on reason itself by means of destabilizing the meaning of meaning.”5
Although Pluckrose and Lindsay correctly identify Theory’s rejection of objectivity as its most fundamental absurdity, they don’t address its essential political failing: its presumption that any deviation from “equality” is by definition unjust. Just as Theory defines dissent as aggression, so it asserts—without ever bothering to prove—that if more physicians, physicists, or pharmacists are male than female, that’s proof of “structural” injustice, which must be remedied through government policies that inflict actual injustices on innocent people—such as giving preferential treatment to members of minority groups at the expense of others who are deemed “overrepresented.” Theory, in short, mandates government redistribution of both wealth and opportunities. Many of its practitioners even abandon the word “equality,” preferring “equity” because it avoids the implication that they believe in equal legal treatment. By omitting discussion of this essential error in Theory, Cynical Theories overlooks one of the most insidious fallacies of today’s “social justice” movement.
Pluckrose and Lindsay nevertheless do an admirable job of summarizing in accessible terms the stew of often purposely incoherent ideas that constitute Theory. And their patience in doing so is laudable for another reason: Given the utter irrationality of many highly publicized clashes in recent years over “social justice,” it’s easy to dismiss the entire subject as unworthy of attention. But some aspects of these disputes—and some of the questions raised by Theory’s spokesmen—deserve serious consideration. It is true, for example, that epistemology has ethical and political consequences and often is exploited for that purpose: Witness the way churches and their allies use faith (and peer pressure) to shield doctrines such as self-sacrifice against rational criticism, with the consequence that many people who otherwise might have led fulfilling and joyful lives never realize the opportunities before them.
It’s also true that legal and cultural institutions often embody assumptions that make minorities, at best, uncomfortable, and at worst vulnerable to the unequal consequences of laws. From advertising campaigns that thoughtlessly make minority members feel unwelcome, to licensing laws that require African hair braiders to spend thousands of hours learning to do hairstyles that can’t be physically performed on the hair of black customers—even though hair braiders do not cut hair—to arbitrary Drug War policies that exacerbate racial prejudices and increase violence in inner cities, our society often does disproportionately harm minorities.
Given how thoroughly wrong Theory is, it’s sometimes tempting to dismiss these concerns as merely manufactured grievances. But as Pluckrose and Lindsay conclude, it’s important to recognize that “each of the postmodern principles and themes has a kernel of truth and points to a problem that needs to be dealt with”—only, dealt with in a better way (251). Culture’s influences and consequences can be subtle and hard to recognize or articulate—and can stifle individualism and freedom. But in the end, only a society that celebrates objectivity, reason, and individualism can make the world a safer, freer place.
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1. Barbara Applebaum, Being White, Being Good (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2011), 195–96.
2. Applebaum, Being White, Being Good, 73, 172.
3. Applebaum, Being White, Being Good, 102.
4. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1983), 77.
5. James Lindsay, “2+2 Never Equals 5,” New Discourses, August 3, 2020, https://newdiscourses.com/2020/08/2-plus-2-never-equals-5/.