Cynical Theories: Review, Commentary, and Discussion

Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Copyright 2020, Pitchstone Publishing, 352 pages.

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay set out in this book to explain, in plain English, what the philosophies of critical theory and Postmoderism are, where they came from, how they evolved, and how they are being implemented. The book is cogent, well-researched, and boils down what is a bloated body of literature into its barest elements. To do this, the authors fit postmodernism into two principles and four themes:

  • The Postmodern Knowledge Principle: objective (i.e. neutral, impartial, and scientific) knowledge is impossible; all knowledge is socially/culturally constructed.
  • The Postmodern Political Principle: society is built and formed via systems and relations of power which determine how and what people know
  • The Four Themes: the blurring of boundaries, the power of language, cultural relativism, and the loss of the individual and the universal

Contrary to the book’s title, which has “Critical” in “Critical Theory” crossed off and replaced with “Cynical”, the authors do not begin their history of these ideas with the Frankfurt School. I imagine this was more due to constraints about the word count of the manuscript than an oversight, since James Lindsay focuses attention on the Frankfurt School in many of his other endeavors, and this book isn’t really meant to be a history of philosophy per se. However, this omission may leave a reader wondering what the origins of these Postmodern Theoretical (with uppercase T to indicate that it is talking about the Theories espoused by the radical left) ideas are. I will not fault the authors this omission. I do recommend James Lindsay’s “New Discourses” podcast, though. Another great resource is the podcast “Philosophize This!” podcast, which has episodes on the Frankfurt School as well as other thinkers in the same line of thought (e.g. people like Max Weber, Antonio Gramsci, Gilles Deleuze, etc.).

Instead, the authors begin in the 1960’s when French thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Fredric Jameson were ascendant with their Postmodernist ideas. The authors call the period from the 1960’s to the late 1980’s the first stage in Postmodernism. During this stage, Postmodernism was rife with pessimism, nihilism, and irony. The Postmodernist thinkers, disillusioned with Marxism, thought that nothing mattered and there was no way to ever know anything. Since all we have is language, and language is not inherently meaningful, then the Postmodern Principle #1 had to be true. All we can say for sure about language is that it was invented and impressed upon the masses by those people who are in power, making all discourse (a favorite word among the Postmodernist ilk) essentially a mechanism by which the powerful control the oppressed.

In Postmodernist thinking, though, power is seen differently than it was by their Marxist forebears. Power, instead of being interpreted in the economic materialism of Marx, is instead practiced in the domain of identity groups: sex (man vs woman), race (white vs black), mental health (normal vs insane), orientation (heterosexual vs homosexual), and so on. These binaries, however, are not symmetric: language always holds one as dominant and one as inferior, which then causes people to internalize these asymmetric binaries: the dominant is seen as default and good and the inferior is seen as “other” and in need of treatment (e.g. medical in the case of homosexuality or insanity, political in the case of “inferior” races in the form of colonialism, and so on).

One of the main ideas to stem from an analysis of this dynamic is that there is no such thing as metanarratives – all-encompassing stories/explanations for human nature and the human condition. Those ideas that were thought of as metanarratives – religion, science, rationality, reason, liberalism (in the classical sense rather than the sense used to describe the American left) – were just the narratives of the dominant group (namely heterosexual white men). The only reason they are accepted as the best way to obtain knowledge is because they are the tools of the dominant group and they have been forced upon everyone else.

As the authors point out, conclusions like this are in themselves incredibly condescending and bigoted. The assumption seems to be that only heterosexual white men are capable of being rational and reasonable. Such are the many contradictions, double binds, and impracticality associated with Postmodernism.

The authors then name the late 1980’s and the 1990’s as a period of rapid evolution in Postmodern thought. The hopelessness, aimlessness, and nihilism of the first school terminated in an inevitable dead end. However, there were people who understood the usefulness of Postmodernism, but modified so as to allow for certain metanarratives that are politically useful. The authors call this turn “applied Postmodernism” since it attempted to turn the Postmodern Principles into something actionable. The book goes on to explain five (or possibly six, depending on how you view chapter 7) different schools of thought in this new wave of Postmodernism: Postcolonial Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality, Feminisms and Gender Studies, and Disability and Fat Studies.

Postcolonial Theory is primarily concerned with West vs East, with West having dominated the East for centuries via colonialism and imperialism. This school of thought is concerned with how those in the West view those in the East (called Orientalism) as “other” and inferior. They are then occupied with how the East can regain its own identity.

Queer Theory is concerned with disrupting ideas about gender/sex/orientation binaries. Their project is “to queer” these ideas so as to blur the lines between the sexes, genders, and sexual orientations that dominant groups (heterosexual white men) have imposed on people: this sort of binary categorization is seen in Queer Theory as violence and must be done away with.

Critical Race Theory is concerned with the power dynamics between white people and people of color (mostly black people). They take axiomatically that racism exists everywhere and at all times, with every minuscule interaction between white people and black people being interpreted through the ideas of power dynamics of the oppressor (white people) and the oppressed (everyone else). This is seen as an irreparable, inevitable, and omnipresent threat that people of color experience all the time while white people are completely oblivious to it (e.g. White Fragility, epistemic injustice, White Ignorance, etc.), since white people are the de facto benefactors of this power dynamic, and so it is in their own self-interest not to acknowledge their own inherent racism.

It was from Critical Race Theory that intersectionality sprung, where black female feminists began criticizing feminism for being white. Intersectionality brought forth the idea that having two oppressed statuses – such as being both black and female – not only results in the oppressions of those two classes, but also further oppression above and beyond the sum of oppression from those classes. From there, the ideas of intersectionality blossomed into an ever increasing number of intersections upon which people can stand: not just race and sex, but also gender, sexual orientation, disability, nationality, and even different levels based on how dark a person’s skin is compared to other people of color.

Feminism, which began as both a liberal and a Marxist/materialist/radical project to gain access to equality under the law and economic opportunity for women, changed after many of these laudable goals were achieved. Searching for new monsters to slay, feminists within academia adopted Postmodernism as a way to attempt to go beyond the liberal or materialist project. Instead of equality under the law and access to economic opportunity, they became concerned with language and cultural expectations. This became ever more confused when feminism adopted ideas from Queer Theory and began to insist that biological sex wasn’t real and that any science that attests to this fact is, at best, wrong, and at worst, evil. This resulted in a change from feminist studies, or women’s studies, to gender studies, with gender – the way a person identifies (e.g. masculinity and femininity, cisgender and transgender) – taking on central importance, along with intersectionality.

Disability and Fat studies are similar in many ways, but not exactly the same. However, what they have in common is the goal to make having disabilities (both physical and/or mental) and being fat virtuous and something to be proud of. As the authors note, the idea is that being disabled is considered a social construct: a person might have some physical or mental impairment, but they are only disabled because society fails to completely accommodate them. A perfect society would be one in which having impairments would not limit a person’s abilities. Implicit and explicit in both Disability and Fat Theory is that being disabled or fat is morally good and therefore disabled and fat people should not wish to improve their lives in any way (e.g. a deaf person should not want to hear, even if technology existed that could give them the ability to; fat people should not want to lose weight). Inherent in these ideas is a radical distrust of science, which is seen as “normalizing” those who are not disabled or fat and making those who are disabled or fat into “other”. Instead of using science and medicine to help the disabled and the obese, we ought to just reform society so as to accommodate them.

In chapter 8, the authors talk about the third incarnation of Postmodernism, which followed Applied Postmodernism, and began in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s: Reified Postmodernism. This is the idea that Applied Postmodern philosophy and scholarship was a real and True (with capital T) understanding of the world and how things actually work – it became a metanarrative. The authors say that these Postmodern ideas became known-knowns: it is not just known that oppressive power dynamics are immanent and omnipresent in every facet of human society, it is known to be known – it is just common knowledge. This, as the authors explain, has the effect that, to Postmodern thinkers, challenging the Postmodern metanarrative ranges anywhere from ignorance (you just haven’t engaged with the Postmodernist literature enough or in the proper way) to explicitly bigoted (the only reason you would disagree is because you want to protect your dominant status; or, if you’re someone who is not in the dominant group, it’s because you’ve internalized your oppression or you’re hoping for a pat on the head by your oppressors). Indeed, disagreeing with Postmodernist thought is seen as proof of its validity and Truth, since it predicts that people will disagree with it due to their desire to remain dominant or because of their “white fragility.” This, as the authors note, puts postmodernism on par with religion in that any evidence of its inconsistency with reality is taken as further proof of its Truth.

Postmodernist thinkers, utilizing Postmodern Principle #1 (objective knowledge is impossible; all knowledge is socially/culturally constructed), Theorize that the dominant group are incapable of understanding oppression. The oppressed, however, understand both the oppressed and the oppressors. This gives the oppressed special insights that the oppressors do not (and can not) possess, making the various “knowledges” (personal experience, spiritual beliefs, etc.) in these groups superior to the knowledge of the oppressors (e.g. science and reason). These varieties of “knowledges”, the Postmodern thinkers insist, must be identity group “knowledges” and not personal or universal forms of knowledge: if you are in group A (which may be an intersection of groups B, C, and D), then your experience is identical to all others who are in group A. You cannot have a different experience, because that might lead you to disagree with Postmodernist Theory, which the Postmodernist thinkers Theorize away as internalized oppression. There is also no universalized knowledge: there is no human nature, there are only identity group experiences which shape who you are. Claims that science and reason can reach universal conclusions that apply to everyone is just the oppressors attempting to force their “knowledge” onto everyone else; science and reason are not only just as valid as other forms of knowledge, the Postmodern thinkers claim, but are in fact worse since they have been forced on the oppressed for so long. Thus, the Postmodern thinkers insist, science, reason, rationality, epistemic adequacy, and impartiality must be jettisoned.

In chapter 9, the authors then go on to describe the ways in which Postmodern Theory has manifested in recent times in the form of Reified Postmodernism. They begin by going through a number of concrete examples of what has come to be called “cancel culture”, bringing up cases of people in the last few years running afoul of the online activists who have been indoctrinated into such thinking. Unfortunately, due to the publishing process, many of the examples used seem almost outdated (despite being only a year or two old), since the book does not bring up any of the intensification we’ve been experiencing throughout 2020. That is not, however, a criticism of the book, which does illustrate their point: Postmodern Theory in action manifests as cancel culture.

The authors also cite recent books The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, and The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning. They discuss the main themes of these books, which are manifestations of Postmodern Theory that perpetuate the mindset required to buy into the Theory. Lukianoff and Haidt talk in their book about how Postmodern Theory is almost like reverse Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is used by therapists to help depressed and anxious people not catastrophize everything and always assume the worst. With Postmodern Theory, instead, people are taught to see everything in the worst possible light (hence the concept of ‘microaggressions’) and to treat even the slightest potential transgression of the Postmodern Theoretical orthodoxy as an unforgivable sin. Campbell and Manning point out how these Postmodern ideas have caused a shift in Western culture. Where once people lived by honor culture – valorizing strength and honor, resulting in aggressive responses to perceived slights – and then, through social progress, people adopted, along with liberalism, what is called dignity culture – not overreacting to slights, instead attempting to talk things out, and when that doesn’t work, go to the authorities – but now, in the past decade or two, we have moved on to victimhood culture. This finds people valorizing weakness, as opposed to strength in honor culture, but once again brings back the overly reactive response to perceived slights while maintaining the dignity culture means of appealing to authorities to right the perceived wrongs.

The final chapter has the authors elucidate their alternative to Postmodernist Theory: maintaining liberal values. This book is obviously not meant as a rigorous philosophical defense of liberalism, but it seems to take axiomatically that A) liberalism is better and B) that maintaining liberalism is possible. I agree, for the most part, with A, though with qualification. I think it’s important to understand liberalism’s role in bringing about the sort of nihilism and anomie that prompted the genesis of Postmodernism in the first place. Liberalism, with its ideas of happiness being equal to physical pleasures and accumulation of material possessions, is alienating to the human condition. This isn’t a necessary result of liberalism, but it is the way in which it evolved over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Liberalism itself may be a universalist philosophy, but it is universalist in its individualism: people are free to seek happiness in their own ways, but being that humans are animals with animal desires, and an evolutionary drive to attain their happiness in ways that require the least amount of energy, we tend to go for the instant gratification. This leads to a buffet of shallow relationships (both romantic and platonic) that result in loneliness, a persistent search for immediate sensual pleasures (like one-night stands, overeating, and drug and alcohol consumption), and latching onto radical or bizarre subcultures (e.g. radical left or right-wing political groups or bizarre cults based around the barking mad proposition that the earth is flat) that fulfill the need for belonging and identity. The other assumption, that we can go back to liberalism, may also be misguided. It may be that liberalism has completely run its course, or that if we want it back it will have to be different in many important ways (i.e. ways that address the issues I pointed out above).

That all being said, though, I think the diagnosis that Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay made with this book about the dangers of Postmodern Theory is spot on. These ideas may appear to have laudable goals – ending discrimination – but their methods are atrocious. In that regard, I disagree with what the authors say in their final chapter, that Theory looks good on paper: these Postmodernist Theories do not even look good on paper. The reason that these Postmodern thinkers need to denigrate science and reason is because they know that any reasonable person who would stumble across their literature would see the ideas for their lunacy, impracticality, and, I should say, bigotry – against both the so-called dominant heterosexual white men and against the victims they claim to champion. In many ways, the radical left have taken up the sorts of backward, ignorant, and pernicious ideas once only espoused by lunatic-fringe radical right-wingers, wrapped it up in relentlessly obscure verbiage, and then rebranded it as Social Justice.

Understanding the ludicrous, contradictory, and divisive pseudo-philosophical ideas the Postmodern Theorists are vomiting into the minds of impressionable young people is the first step toward combating these bigoted absurdities. Cynical Theories is a book that will help bring that understanding. I hope more people will read it. so that hopefully we do not descend into the sort of dark age that any full adoption of these cynical Theories will surely conjure.