|The Jolly Contrarian’s book review service™|
Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race Gender and Identity — Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay
A brave book in our polarised times, in Cynical Theories, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay take on the intellectual foundations of the current strain of militant leftist “critical” thought. Brave because the received wisdom piped into our liberal echo chambers declares that the intolerant right is the problem. Brave, because of the repercussions — mass shaming, mob rule cancellation, livelihood ruination — that sometimes rains down on those who transgress its principles, even inadvertently. It’s somewhat bracing even writing a favourable book review.
So I wouldn’t fancy Helen Pluckrose’s mentions right now. (There’s a simple answer to dealing with crappy mentions, by the way, folks: get off Twitter.)
The Theory of Theory
Anyway. Call it what you will: critical theory, social justice theory, applied (post?) post-modernism, “Theory” with a capital “T” or just raving bonkers wokeness — it is a movement that tactically defies categorisation, and therefore critical appraisal by deliberate design. In Cynical Theories Pluckrose and Lindsay wilfully transgress those hermeneutical boundaries and pin it down, articulating, examining and shining an unflattering light on it and the ways it subverts traditional liberal values of openness, enquiry and reasoned debate — liberal values that, they cogently argue, have delivered most of the social progress of the past half-century.
To be sure, life for the marginalised in 2021 is hardly perfect, but progress is a journey; we’re in a far better place than we were, and (notwithstanding the recent lurch to the right) we are still headed in a fair direction with a tailwind of basic liberal aspiration. As long as we bear in mind that progress is a journey away from an unsatisfactory now, not towards a utopian later, we should not be too discomfited (again, recent far-right agitations notwithstanding). In any society, however enlightened, someone has to be at the margins — assuming the end goal isn’t some kind of Stepford Wives arrangement, that is a bug not a feature. If you want diversity, there have to be minorities.
As the outlook as brightened, the objectives of social justice have had to re-calibrate, to nurture those nascent green shoots of power, and to give social justice campaigners something to complain about. This is exactly as Theory diagnoses about other socio-political power structures: once people have intellectual and economic power, through their organisation, they do not lightly give it up. As Theory has shifted its sights downrange from what has been accomplished to what is outstanding — and this is a bit of a moving target — its hostility to criticism has deepened. It has become illiberal. Its own language games and the power structures they comprise — by its own Theory, that’s what they are — have sanctified, and challenge to them more sacrilegious, through time. And so we find ourselves at a cancel culture, with even David Hume cast into the abyss. “Theory” has somehow escaped theory, has leeched out of the academy and transformed into doctrinaire, real-world militancy.
All this is, of course, highly ironic: Theory has become what it most despises.
It is very easy, and Theorists are prone to do it, to confuse a robust criticism of Theory itself with a rejection of the underlying concern to address actual inequities perpetrated on marginalised groups. But to question Theory is not to be racist. Yet at its extremes, Theory says exactly this, and indeed goes further: any white or male person is irredeemably oppressive, whether or not they would quarrel with Theory. If these are the rules, it’s not like we of the privileged have much of a choice, so we might as well enjoy it. But there aren’t the rules, needless to say.
A hermeneutical transgression
So suddenly going all fascist on everything is neither necessary nor productive. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay are not the first to set all this out, of course — Douglas Murray’s magnificently scathing The Madness of Crowds ploughed the same furrow, but unlike Murray, Pluckrose and Lindsay hail from the left, so are harder for Theorists to dismiss out of hand. And where Murray hurls (well-aimed) thunderbolts, Cynical Theories examines the various strains of Theory in measured, careful tones. Its dismemberment is all the more effective for it.
A primer in postmodernism
Cynical Theories is thorough enough to be a fascinating review of modern philosophy in itself — there are a small number of vastly influential thinkers, from the original French post-structuralists like Foucault, Derrida and Lacan in the “first wave” — all tenured, privileged, middle-aged, white European men, of course — through to Judith Butler, Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks and Candace West; not so pale, stale or male but similarly blessed — privileged? — with tenure, through which almost all the Theory literature flows. For an ideology so inimical to power as expressed through language, that is yet another great irony. But then, in Theory, ironies abound.
By the time it has reached its third wave, Theory is a “reified postmodernism”. It has moved from the original abstract sceptical disposition that there can be no truth and has inverted it. Now there is a universal truth, and it is that the prevailing “white, male, cis-gendered and hetero-normative” intellectual structures (let’s call them “Western” for the sake of space) are intrinsically abusive of, and must be subordinated to, the “lived experience” of marginalised people.
The “lived experience of the marginalised”, by contrast, is “reified”, rather abstractly, into a kind of transcendent truth, without the need for the dirty work of gathering evidence of what this lived experience of oppression actually is. These academics just seem to know. It is not clear how. You would think the daily grind of a tenured professor, however intersecting that individual’s collection of minorityships — talk about a “victim complex”! — would be rather atypical in its experience of “oppression”. Yet these people still manage to draw canonical archetypes of the “lived experience of the oppressed”, with which all members of the minority group are invited to identify, without gathering any evidence of what that “lived experience of oppression” might actually be. The justification for that: to have gather evidence is in itself an oppression: it is to be subjugated before the Western power structure — the scientific method, right? — that’s doing the oppressing in the first place.
But it is time for another irony: if to “live an experience” is to interact with a pervasive language game, it is interesting to see who is making up the rules of this game. To be sure, that’s a neat card trick, but that doesn’t stop it from being utterly preposterous. But to apply even that level of syllogism, to expose its simple-mindedness, is Western, ergo oppressive, ergo illegitimate. Checkmate, in the hermeneutic game.
But what about the actually marginalised?
So while eschewing the “Western” business of needing supporting evidence and logical argument, Theory nevertheless pronounces authoritatively on what is the “lived experience” (note: singular) of set of intersecting minorities, each of whose actual experiences, you would think, would be quite diverse. Yet those individual lives which contribute to the aggregate are subsumed into some kind of ineffable golden mean that is just known by academics. Nor is it easy to see how one can measure, at least without observation, the effect dominating Western intellectual structures actually have on those lived experiences.
But to raise these types of objection is to seek the wrong kind of enlightenment. It is to think in a Western way, and that won’t do. It’s the Theory that matters, see, even over the experience of individual at the margins: those marginalised people who don’t believe themselves to be oppressed have just been brainwashed by their Western oppressors. They are victims of some kind of Stockholm syndrome. At best they are part of the problem, not the solution.
You really can’t win. But it lays bear the illiberalism: the thing to be preserved at the expense of all else, including the marginalised themselves, is Theory. This is doctrinaire, dogmatic and despotic.
To step back outside the hermeneutic boundary again, and look at this from an unapologetically Western perspective, one can clearly see the gambit: Theory provides an alternative narrative — which is fine — but in doing so, deploys other tactics that stifle other narratives. Driving out any other possible narrative, cuckoo-style, renders Theory as no better than any other “hegemonic ideology ” — when compared with the Western liberal tradition, Pluckrose and Lindsay calmly point out, quite a lot worse — and will cause those who don’t accept Theory — and there will be plenty — to dig themselves in. The result: the burgeoning culture war we seem to be in the middle of.
As persuasion strategies go, telling your interlocutor he is, by dint of his own biology, irredeemably racist, sexist and oppressive (especially when everyone else’s biology seems to be a matter of utter conjecture) is hardly guaranteed to work. It is almost as if culture war is part of the plan.
In any case you can’t make an ought out of an is, as David Hume told us (before he was — ahh — cancelled), and that ought to be the overriding lesson of post-modernism: there is no legitimate way of moving from description to prescription.
We should not get stuck at a place of maximum plurality, where there are no rules and structures which can arbitrate on competing views; instead, we must resort to pragmatic heuristics: “do what seems to work best” without getting ideologically fixated on it. Iterate. Adapt. Test. Trial, and embrace error. But that requires field-work. You have to be out there, working at it; making steps forward, back and sideways. The reason the rest of us accept Newtonian mechanics is not that it is true — as it turns out, it is not — but because it does the job well enough.
This is a brave book. It is thorough, careful, compelling — at times horrifying, at others tremendously funny.
People should read it, especially since Theory has escaped its academic confines in the last few years and begun to infuse corporate life.