I read Cynical Theories (2020) on the advice of a friend whose advice seldom fails. It’s a helpful examination of certain theories and their relationship to postmodernism, which was bonkers in the first place but has mutated into the social justice agendas of the hard left.
The authors are Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, who are hardly two peas in a pod. They had a considerable difference in opinion over the last election, with Lindsay deciding in the fall of 2020 to support Trump. I deeply admire Pluckrose, and whatever made Lindsay align himself on the other side of the electorate, that doesn’t undo his sound contributions in this book. In fact, his co-authorship tests the reader. Anyone who dismisses the book in advance because “Lindsay became a Trumpian” is subscribing to identity politics – judging a book not on the basis of its arguments, but who wrote it – which is what Cynical Theories is about.
Postmodernism’s Three Stages
Postmodernism has been hard to define, and the authors outline the core principles and corollaries shared in all three phases of the movement (pp 59-61).
The core principles —
A. The postmodern knowledge principle: Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.
B. 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 their corollaries —
1. The blurring of boundaries. Most evident in postcolonial and queer theories, which are centered on ideas of fluidity, ambiguity, indefinability, and hybridity – all of which blur or even demolish the boundaries between categories. The common concern is over “disruptive binaries”. This theme is less evident in critical race theory (which actually can be very black-and-white).
2. The power of language. The idea that words are powerful and dangerous – and can be just as harmful as physical violence – has become so widespread now to amount a near criminalization of the English language and making people (especially comedians) fear to speak at all. Concerns about verbal violence, safe spaces, microaggressions, trigger warnings, and politically-correct terminology all testify to the endurance of postmodernism in its applied and (especially) reified forms.
3. Cultural relativism. Most evident in postcolonial theory, but also more broadly in the context of social-justice scholarship. Put simply, western nations are the pinnacle of oppressive power, and the sins of cultural arrogance and western imperialism are as great as – if not greater than – customs like honor-killings and clitoridectomies.
4. The loss of the individual and the universal. As opposed to classical liberalism, which focuses on achieving universal human rights and access to opportunities (for all races, genders, and identities), so as to allow each individual to fulfill his or her potential, applied and reified postmodern activism is deeply skeptical of these values, if not openly hostile to them. Applied/reified postmodern scholarship regards classical liberalism as complacent, naive, or indifferent about deeply ingrained prejudices, assumptions, and biases that limit and constrain people with marginalized identities.
The original postmodernists (of the late 60s to the mid 80s) were a bit aimless, using irony and playfulness to reverse hierarchies and disrupt what they saw as unjust knowledge and power structures. The players are well known – Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard – and their treatises were mostly descriptive, of what has been and is (as they believed).
The applied postmodernists (of the 90s and the 00s) and the reified postmodernists (of the 10s to the present) have focused on dismantling hierarchies and making moral claims about language and oppression – thereby becoming an activist force, preaching about the evils of power and privilege. They have used postmodernist ideas for reconstructive purposes, in a prescriptive way – putting an “ought” ahead of what “is”. Applied and reified postmodernism have actively undermined public trust in the academy, and become more like a church, asserting what people ought to think and believe, irrespective of science and evidence which are seen as integral to power structures.
Put another way, the original postmodernists observed and lamented. The applied and reified postmodernists have sought to reorder society – and in the last decade, the reified incarnation has become a mighty effective force, and an authoritarian one.
The Social Justice Gospel of Reified Postmodernism
Social justice warriors frequently take umbrage at requests for evidence, because, as the authors explain, the scientific method is part of the discourse system and knowledge production that was built by powerful people who valued these approaches and designed them (it is said) to exclude alternative means of communicating and producing ‘knowledge’. Science, in other words, has been organized in a way to serve the interests of the powerful people who established it – white western men – while setting up barriers against the participation of others. To remedy this, applied/reified postmodernism has demanded “epistemic justice” and “research justice” in place of reason and evidence. Meaning that we should include the lived experiences, emotions, and cultural and/or religious traditions of minority groups, and consider them “knowledges” to be privileged alongside – or even over – reason and evidence-based knowledge.
If the applied postmodernism of the 90s and 00s remained confined mostly to academic fields and activist circles, the reified postmodernism of the last ten years has been aggressively mainstreamed. Say the authors:
“The reification of the postmodern principles means that the original postmodern radical skepticism that any knowledge can be reliable has been gradually transformed into a complete conviction that knowledge is constructed in the service of power, which is rooted in identity, and that this can be uncovered through close readings of how we use language. Therefore, in Social Justice scholarship, we continually read that patriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism, cisnormativity, heteronormativity, ableism, and fatphobia are literally structuring society and infecting everything. They exist in a state of immanence – present always and everywhere, just beneath a nicer-seeming surface that can’t quite contain them.” (p 182)
And so it’s common now to hear that all white people are complicit in racism (if not racist), because of their automatic participation in the system of power and privilege described by critical race theory; that all men are likewise complicit in sexism (if not sexist); that sex is not biological, and it exists on a spectrum; that denial of gender identity is killing people; that the desire to cure disabilities and to remedy obesity is hateful; that criticism of the Islamic religion (describing it as a religion of violence) is hateful; and that language can be literal violence.
If that all sounds insane, or paranoid, or anti-factual, it is, and the authors compare the postmodernist view to a vast social conspiracy theory. A theory in which power is not exercised straightforwardly and visibly from above, but permeates all levels of society and is enforced by everyone, through routine interactions, expectations, social conditioning, and culturally constructed discourses that express a particular understanding of the world. Communicating with the applied/reified postmodernists (i.e. the wokes and social justice warriors) can be extremely difficult in this sense, say the authors, because they are so obsessed with knowledge, power, boundaries, language, and cultural relativism, that they see these dynamics at work everywhere – power displays in every interaction, offense in practically every other sentence, even when these aren’t obvious or even real.
The past decade has brought this all home, as social justice scholarship treats these postmodernist principles as dogma, tolerates little dissent, and “cancels” those who disagree with it. Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book thus comes as a welcoming corrective, and it’s especially useful for pulling together the core principles and corollaries of postmodernism that are sometimes elusive.
From Start to End
The book proceeds as a chronicle of the three stages. In chapter 1 the authors describe the tree trunk of original postmodernism, and its deconstructive project of despair and nihilism. In chapters 2-7 they outline the tree branches of applied postmodernism – postcolonial theory (which is exposed as often factually wrong, morally vacant, and patronizing, not to mention negligent and dangerous), queer theory (which often tries to modify or unmake the concepts of gender and sex in anti-scientific ways, so as to render itself baffling and irrelevant), critical race theory (in which racism is construed to be not merely prejudice, but “prejudice + power”), feminisms and gender studies (in which the classical liberal roots of feminism are seen to be replaced with the postmodern blurring of categories and an obsessive focus on language), and disability & fat studies (which advocate that disabled and obese people have a responsibility to celebrate their disabilities or fathood to subvert social norms, and even to refuse attempts at treatment or cure). In chapters 8-9 they paint the leaves of reified postmodernism, which is now an effective movement that has come to full fruition, taking the applied theories and cramming them down everyone’s throat.
And in that end game, a curious irony emerges – the “contradiction that lies at the heart of reified postmodernism: how can intelligent people profess both radical skepticism and radical relativism – which is the postmodern knowledge principle (1, above) – and at the same time assert the Truth According to Social Justice Theory with absolute certainty?” The authors offer the following explanation:
“The answer seems to be that the skepticism and relativism of the postmodern knowledge principle are now interpreted in a more restrictive fashion: that it is impossible for humans to obtain reliable knowledge by employing evidence and reason, but, it is now claimed, reliable knowledge can be obtained by listening to the ‘lived experiences’ of members of marginalized groups… The difficulty with this sort of Social Justice way of ‘knowing’ is, however, the same as that with all gnostic ‘epistemologies’ that rely upon feelings, intuition, and subjective experience. What should we do when peoples’ subjective experiences conflict? The overarching (classical) liberal principle of conflict resolution – to put forth one’s best arguments and hash the issue out, deferring to the best available evidence whenever possible – is completely eliminated by this approach. Indeed, it’s billed as a conspiracy used to keep marginalized people down.” (pp 209-210)
It’s thus no exaggeration, as the authors conclude, to say that the reified postmodernists – the social justice theorists – have created a new religion, a tradition of faith that is hostile to reason, falsification, disconfirmation, and disagreement of almost any kind.
And it’s no accident that Donald Trump was elected in the midst of this crazed reified PoMo. In the middle of the 2010s, the time was ripe for someone like him. Granted this happened for many reasons (not least the Democrats’ neglect of the middle-class), a big reason was this regressive-left authoritarianism. When social justice warriors portray themselves as the sole champions of the marginalized, advancing their cause – astonishingly – by rejecting classical liberalism as a form of oppression, and then on top of that by doing so in increasingly dogmatic and authoritarian means, it wasn’t surprising to see a Donald Trump emerge. Wokeism called him forth.
The Endurance of Classical Liberalism
Pluckrose and Lindsay’s alternative to social justice theories comes in the final tenth chapter, where they explain why classical liberalism has stood the test of time as the best political option, and how classical liberalism and reified postmodernism are not just in tension, they are almost 100% at odds with each other:
- Liberalism sees knowledge as something we can learn about objectively, with enough discipline; postmodernism sees knowledge as created by human beings – stories we tell ourselves to validate privilege and power.
- Liberalism embraces categorizations and clarity of understanding; postmodernism blurs boundaries and erases categories, reveling in manufactured ambiguity.
- Liberalism values the individual and universal human values; postmodernism rejects both in favor of group identity and identity politics.
- Liberals champion the underdog, but they center on human dignity across the board; SJWs and wokes focus on victimhood.
- Liberals encourage disagreement and debate as a means of getting at the truth; postmodernism rejects these as ways of reinforcing dominant discourses that suppress certain perspectives – claiming that we can’t get to “the” truth but only “our” truths rooted in our values – and furthermore insists that most truth is just a language game.
- Liberals believe in progress; postmodernists are skeptical of progress.
- Most importantly, classical liberalism accepts criticism, even of itself, and is thus self-correcting; reified postmodernism cannot be criticized. Which means that classical liberalism is inherently constructive because of the evolutionary process it engenders; SJW/woke postmodernism is inherently corrosive because of its cynicism and attachment to methods that torpedo the evolutionary process.
Pluckrose & Lindsay’s book reinforces my classical liberal position. Liberalism holds to the values of individual liberty, democracy, limitations on the powers of government, universal human rights, freedom of speech and expression and debate, respect for evidence and reason, the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion – and these values have produced the freest societies over the past five centuries, with the least amounts of oppression. This is because liberalism is “intrinsically goal-oriented, problem-solving, self-correcting, and – despite what postmodernists think – genuinely progressive.” (p 243)
To those who insist that progress is a myth, I can only roll my eyes. Progress has always occurred the fastest (despite setbacks) under liberalism, not least in the 60s and 70s, when racial and gender discrimination became illegal, homosexuality was decriminalized, and women gained access to contraception. This all happened during the time postmodernism was revving up and, incredibly, insisting that it was time to stop believing in progress, science, and reason. Maybe the postmodernists just genuinely didn’t know what progress was. Or perhaps PoMo thinkers never stop to reflect that without the “oppressive tools of the white male patriarchy”, they’d likely be dead or living in primitive squalor without the benefits provided by math and science over the past centuries.
Can anything be salvaged from postmodernism?
Very little. The authors acknowledge kernels of truth to the core principles of postmodernism and the four corollaries, but it amounts to damning the PoMo project with faint praise. There is literally nothing postmodernism can do, that liberalism cannot do better. The authors consider each (see pp 252-258):
A. The postmodern knowledge principle. The principle assumes that knowledge is a socially constructed cultural artifact, which is only true in a banal sense. The principle does tell us to do a better job of listening and considering alternative ideas. Fair enough. But it certainly doesn’t obligate us to “listen and believe” or to “shut up and listen”.
B. The postmodern political principle. The principle assumes that the world is a zero-sum power game and a conspiracy theory without individual conspirators. It can’t accept that progress is incremental and fallible, and practically resents scientists’ lack of omniscience. It is correct, however, that harmful discourses can gain tyrannical power and harm people. And guess what? Reified postmodernism is one such discourse. It’s good that liberalism fights back against it and its social justice theories, as this book does.
- The blurring of boundaries. Granted it is wise to be skeptical of rigid boundaries. They should be tested always. But categories themselves are not inherently oppressive. If you want to argue that men and women don’t fit neatly into boxes, use science to show that, not your wishes.
- The power of language. Language can indeed be dangerous, but regulating language, censoring speech, or manufacturing offense in language is even more dangerous. Liberalism advocates a marketplace of ideas; the idea that social justice is served by restricting what is said or banning some ideas or terminologies is unsupported by history or reason.
- Cultural relativism. There are indeed profound differences across cultures. As a former Peace Corps volunteer I’m aware of that more than many. But it’s just as dangerous and ridiculous to pretend that we cannot make judgments about the practices of a culture other than our own. Despite our variances across culture, we are first and foremost human beings with a universal nature.
- The loss of the individual and the universal. There is some truth to the idea that individualism and universalism is limited, but there is more truth in the idea that everyone of is is an individual and share a common human nature. Identity politics is simply a lousy way to empowerment. Imagine, say the authors, if Martin Luther King Jr. had asked white Americans to “be a little less white, which means a little less oppressive, oblivious, defensive, ignorant, and arrogant” (like Robin DiAngelo asks in White Fragility). The fact that King, liberal feminists, and gay pride activists of the 60s and 70s grounded their social-justice protests in appeals to liberal, individual, and universal dreams is what made them successful. Making common cause with others is the enlightened approach to social justice.
The authors conclude with a set of “principled oppositions” which illustrate their approach to social justice (the classical liberal one) compared to the postmodern approach to Social Justice (with a capital S and J). I’ll cite the third one, for sexual identity:
We affirm that discrimination and bigotry against sexual minorities remains a problem in society and requires addressing.
We deny that this problem can be solved by queer theory, which attempts to render all categories relevant to sex, gender, and sexuality meaningless.
We contend that homophobia and transphobia are defined as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory acts against homosexual and transgendered people on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.
We deny that dismantling categories of sex, gender, or sexuality or that forwarding concepts of an oppressive “heteronormativity” and “cisnormativity” is the best way to make society more welcoming to sexual minorities.
We contend that sexual minorities are also normal and represent a natural occurring variation on sexuality and gender identity and can easily be accepted as such in the same way that other variations (like red hair and left-handedness) are currently recognized as traits found in a minority of humans who are regarded as completely normal human individuals and valued members of society. Homophobia and transphobia are intentional acts, undertaken by individuals who should be expected to do otherwise.
They also do sets like this for racism, sexism, and social justice in general. Affirmations, denials, and contentions that I agree with entirely.
Alongside Cynical Theories, I recommend another book that I never got around to reviewing: The Coddling of the American Mind (2019), by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. The book describes the alarming decrease in people’s ability to cope with debate, challenges to precious ideas, and hurt feelings. Sometimes it’s hardly the students’ fault, and Cynical Theories helps us see why: the culture of reified postmodernism is so suffocating and omnipresent these days, that it’s simply how students are conditioned: they’ve been indoctrinated to believe that they shouldn’t have to be threatened by challenging or difficult or different ideas – especially not those that go against social justice dogmas.
Watch your language
And on another related note, I’ve been particularly fascinated by the second corollary of postmodernism, regarding the power of language, and how people are so willing to let language unnerve and upset them to debilitating degrees. I speak as a minority on the subject. I’m a member of the LGBTQ community and know first-hand the power of derisive speech. It’s human nature to be bothered by hostile language or hate speech – and tempting for many to want to censor or deplatform it altogether. But we have to be better than that, and refuse to allow language to get the better of us. The reified postmodern idea that language is literally violent is only true if the listener allows it to be true. Decrying politically incorrect speech at every turn grants language way too much power over us. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t have empathy as speakers; simply that we need more resilience as listeners.