Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity
Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Pitchstone Publishing, 2020.
Why “Cynical”, you ask? The book jacket reveals most of it by stroking out “Critical” with a jagged line and replacing it with “Cynical”. It’s a play on words, right off the bat. Most are familiar with critical theory being one of many academic ways of looking at the world. Many saw it as Marxism without the partisanship or gulags.
Authors Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay see the new incarnation of Critical Theory as a contrived opportunistic ideology, with some serious harmful agendas that make human interaction much worse. Thus: Cynical, because pretending to be progressive.
The real problem with CT 2.0 is in its coalescence with evil twin Postmodernism 2.0. Combined they become an activist movement embodied in a hyperbolic version of social justice, confusingly naming itself Social Justice.
Simplified in the famous words of prominent theorist Jean-François Lyotard, in 1979, postmodernism is “incredulity towards metanarratives”, or rejection of utopianism. There is some sense to arguing that utopias failed and that it is time to take stock.
Ostensibly progressive and “left-wing”, postmodernism therefore had a practical side: to liberate people from faux tall tales that inspired many to work towards a better world. We learn that those stories were “naïve” goals (equality, fraternity, universal rights, and liberties established in law, the scientific method, enlightenment values). And there’s also laissez-faire and neoliberal capitalism and Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist communism, not to mention fundamentalist religions.
So, crash back to earth, as we must, into a troubling hell where “everything is political”, where there rules a deeper linguistic interpretation of texts (and “unreliabilty” of language), the foggy multi-layering of contexts, and the deconstruction of everything. This also signals a re-emergence of relativism: “The Woman’s point of view”, “The Black point of view”, “The Western Old White Straight, Able-bodied Male’s point of view.” And so on.
The cost of this was refutation of any objective reality and its substitution with quite complicated, less coherent uber-skepticism. For many, postmodernism has always been avant-garde, but when the artistic movement (which was just good expensive fun, let’s admit it!) shifted into political theory, it re-emerged as far too obscure an endeavour, painfully anti-humanist, and too loaded with impenetrable jargon for its own good.
Because postmodernist thought was also plagued with self-contradictions of its own making—“isn’t postmodernism itself a metanarrative?” “Doesn’t it rely on unagreed language too?”—it fell out of favour and became a kind of perpetual critiquing methodology, and with that came its slide into pessimism and nihilism. Not strong organizing principles. Or so we thought.
You could sloppily think of postmodernism as a flavour of Marxism, but add to it gender and sex and race, then downgrade class, remove the acceptable analytical tools, and forget about the Glorious Future. Postmodernists broke from Marxists over “metanarratives”. False consciousness, à la Marx, was also flipped, and now the oppressor is seen as the one that is misled. When that happens, you know the ideas have penetrated the mainstream. It became the philosophical companion to critical theory, an even older idea1 about power relations. Pluckrose and Lindsay believe this mixture to be a mostly harmful, radicalized, tribal world view. I think they’re right, and you will be excused for nodding, but it has spread like wildfire in the last decade or so.
Cynical Theories is one of several recent books (others include The Madness of Crowds, and The Coddling of the American Mind) that address the growing blend of identity politics, critical theory, postmodernism, “wokeness,” and cancel culture—a vast area of debate, polarization, activism and challenges. These are the polemics of a group of activists who support this current tribalist climate, led by Robin DiAngelo (White Fragility), Ibram X Kendi (How to Be An Anti-Racist), Kimberlé Crenshaw (Mapping the Margins), Allyson Mitchell (Fat Studies), Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick (Queer Theory) and many others.
Let’s start with a couple of obvious points:
That second point pushes back against the catastrophists (“things are terrible!”) and that change is impossible, either because dominance narratives are intractable [or because] human nature is essentialist.
Things can be bad, but they are better than ever before in almost every category. That’s a Steven Pinker-like claim and the evidence for it is very strong, but debated. We may have exploitation, anti-union laws, low-wage countries, but there is no chattel slavery in North America. Women may experience a wage and power gap, but these are not the 1950s; women can vote, own property, and charge their partners with assault. They can compete for jobs, they dominate some professions and admission and graduate categories in university, and they inhabit more than a quarter of the highest paid “one percentile” jobs. Imperfect, but not nothing.
Into this debate step Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay with their useful take-down of the underpinnings of wokeness fundamentalism. They pull together the many strands of postmodernism, critical theory and “Social Justice” theory (not your grandmother’s social justice, so do not be confused). The malaise, they argue, is both pernicious and incremental, beginning in the 1930s (critical theory), rising in the 1960s (postmodernism), later crashing, but re-igniting three decades ago with an emboldened capital “CT” Critical Theory.
One foundational writer was Kimberlé Crenshaw, who laid out critical race theory (1989, 1991), and showed how gender and race “intersected”. She proposed that “complex layers of discrimination objectively exist as do categories of people and systems of power—even if they have been socially constructed.” There is much truth here. But, significantly, she also rejected universality “in favour of group identity.” To her credit, as Pluckrose and Lindsay point out, in 2017 Crenshaw raised concerns that her concept of intersectionality had been hijacked into a way of talking about marginalized identities and wasn’t doing much to alleviate oppression.
Group identity was becoming queen, with virtually everything reduced “to one single topic of conversation, one single focus and interpretation: prejudice, as understood under the power identity asserted by Theory.” It is difficult to miss the bigotry inherent in this framework. Many have also pilloried its quasi-religious traits that include an invented language, sinners, repentance, forms of absolution and unchallengeable Truths.
While most people across the spectrum reject “political correctness” and cancel culture, as the publication Hidden Tribes (2018) made clear, the phenomena continue to grow, as does a liberal (but also a conservative and, alas, a predictable far right-wing) backlash against it.
The reach of Critical Theory has been broad: From linguistics, literature, sociology departments, to the creation of sub-departments of gender and feminism(s) studies, post-colonial studies, “fat” and disability studies, critical race theory. There is even a debate about objective reality, the validity of empirical science over other “knowledges” (plural), and whether 2+2=4. (Not to mention whether teaching mathematics to black students is “racist”. The irony within that idea should cause you to flinch.)
Social media escalated the pace and rabid tone of things, and then there was the George Floyd killing in 2020, which was a triggering moment. It was focused on the assumption, statistically true or not, that when a white cop kills a black man, the only allowable explanation is systemic racism.
Over the last decade or so, graduates (and now advocates) of critical theory were fed into education fields, human resources departments, political parties, NGOs, media, and advertising. If you didn’t notice, then you haven’t been paying attention. Mass media advertisements seem very quickly to have adopted the new trends, even with “over-correction”, suggesting that corporations are very concerned about being on the correct side of commotion.
While, superficially, critical theory is a spinoff of old-fashioned class struggle, as the book notes, now it’s black versus white, female versus male, trans and gay versus straight, trans versus gay, disabled versus abled. This is contrary to the once progressive (now “naïve”) assumption that we should not be defined by tribal identity silos but by what we say, do and think, which is the inspired framing of Martin Luther King Jr.
The greater number of oppressed identities you can lay claim to (black, female, gay, Muslim, “non-European”), the better you can correctly understand the real world. This is known as “standpoint theory”. While absent the rigour of scientific methodology, this seems unchallengeable.
Out of this Social Justice war and hierarchy, your right to speak or express contrariness is also directly affected by your “caste position”, Pluckrose and Lindsay claim. Not only are some words now “violence”, but your words have little value unless you are a member of an oppressed group. (For example, for some: A rich black person can be listened to, but not a poor white person. An intersectional puzzle.)
There is an entire new lingo one needs to learn, beyond the pronouns you are permitted to use. Intersectionality replaces solidarity (the former provokes the downtrodden against the oppressor identities; the latter builds unity of all for common cause). You are now defined by your skin colour (what used to be called racism), and all “dominant” group members must fall in line, admit to the history of “your vile legacy”, apologize, and then stop talking. If you complain, you are “fragile”. Your individuality has been disqualified by your wrong group identity(ies).
John Wood Jr. expressed the cynicism well in a recent piece, “Remember Martin Luther King Jr.?” in the online publication, Persuasion. The core problem, he said, is that “anti-racism concerns itself chiefly with seizing and exploiting social and political power to remedy the imbalance of power in society. The art of building relationships despite differences, which can yield stable and enduring consensus, is undeveloped. Modern antiracism does not see beyond confrontational activism.” The dogma is painfully divisive, self-contradictory, and likely to lead to endless internecine fights between groups of people, led by a relatively small vanguard, vying for position in the new competitive mosaic.
While Lindsay and Pluckrose are liberals, much of the critique of “wokeness” comes from the right. That is primarily because the advocates of the new identitarianism are generally progressives on other subjects, although the ideas do not seem as widely supported by those who spring from the old Left. Arguably their time has come to dust off the cobwebs and get back into the battle of ideas.2
The authors of Cynical Theories do not advocate censorship of these bad ideas, for they adamantly oppose de-platforming and cancel culture. They believe the distraction will eventually collapse under its own self-contradictory weight, which seems plausible but a painfully long process. They argue instead for a few strategic responses to speed that result: Nobody should put up with or knuckle under the pressures to submit, nor agree to “take a knee” only to prove you are not a racist, nor apologize for your skin colour or privilege. Instead: disagree, refuse to cooperate, push back, state what you see to be the truth. Be honest, polite, and logical. Remember your values.
And know that this new nonsense, too, shall pass.
Robin Collins is a long time peace activist and progressive, based in Ottawa.
1 For details, delve into the Frankfurt School and liberation and activist scholarship, the work of Horkheimer and Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas, and Freire.
2 Author’s note: Readers of the recommended book should check into the funders of James Lindsay’s other project, New Discourses. One of them is a far-right wing Christian conspiracy theory advocate, and while I detected no such political agenda, nor piper being paid in Critical Theories, this loose end is peculiar.