Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why This Harms EverybodyCynicalTheories
By Helen Pluckrose And James Lindsay, 2020.
Pitchstone Publishig, 2020
Reviewed By Tim Horman

Helen Pluckrose, editor of Aero magazine, and James Lindsay, a mathematician and cultural critic, have written Cynical Theories to explain how Critical Theory has become a driving force of the contemporary culture wars, and to propose a “philosophically liberal way to counter its manifestations in scholarship, activism, and everyday life.” Their book traces the evolution of postmodern and post-structuralist theory over the last 50 years, showing how these theories have moved beyond the academy and into popular culture, particularly the modern Social Justice Movement. Cynical Theories is a story about how the “despair and nihilism” of postmodernism found confidence, which then developed into the sort of radical conviction “normally associated with religious adherence.”

The story, as Pluckrose and Lindsay tell it, begins with the ‘postmodern turn’ of the late 1960’s. Postmodern and post-structuralist academics such as Jean Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, began to deconstruct what the authors call the “old religions” of human thought, which included traditional religious faiths like Christianity, secular ideologies like Marxism, and “cohesive modern systems, such as scientific approaches to knowledge, philosophical liberalism, and the concept of progress.” Early postmodern theory achieved this by questioning the capacity of language to produce meaning, by rejecting the legitimacy of metanarratives, and emphasising the endless deferral of truth or objectivity, since ‘truth’ is merely the socially constructed effect of language games. Such ideas were effective at dismantling those ‘old’ modes of thought, but not particularly useful for reconstructive social change.

However, the work of Michel Foucault was instrumental in the shift from Postmodernism to Critical Theory, because he recognised the “political implications” of postmodern theory and particularly how those addressed questions of unjust power-relations in society. Foucault’s groundwork has become what the authors call applied Postmodernism, or Critical Theory. Critical, so-called, because it is concerned with “revealing hidden biases, underexamined assumptions, and unearthing the dynamics of power and privilege in society and discourses.” Proponents of Critical Theory, say Pluckrose and Lindsay, “are obsessed with power, language, knowledge, and the relationships between them.” The authors trace the application of these dynamics through a range of academic disciplines: post-colonial studies, queer theory, feminism, gender studies, critical race theory, disability and fat studies.

As Critical Theory has been applied to questions of societal injustice, it has morphed into the contemporary Social Justice movement that wants to “interpret the world through a lens that detects power dynamics in every interaction and utterance... even when they aren’t obvious or real.” Under this rubric, belonging to certain identity groups designated by race, sex, gender, sexuality, and many others, determine either one’s complicity in injustice or experience of marginalisation and discrimination. Furthermore, these power dynamics are impossible to escape, since all knowledge, including identity, are social constructs that function to protect and advance the interests of the privileged. The Social Justice movement thus “centres on social and cultural grievances and aims to make everything a zero-sum political struggle.”

According to Pluckrose and Lindsay, the intention behind all this is to initiate an ideological revolution that will lead to a cynical and radical re-ordering of society. Cynical because Critical Theory and the Social Justice movement it has spawned seek “...remaking society according to their moral vision”, all the while quoting book reviews the postmodern theorists, who reject the idea that objective knowledge is obtainable. In other words, Critical Theory operates on the same unjust power-relations   as those “old religions” it critiques, and is itself like a religion because it is prescriptive rather than descriptive – it puts the ‘moral’ cart before the ‘empirical’ horse. This means it cannot be easily argued against, at least, not by empirical or ‘western’ modes of knowledge, since those are simply viewed as tools to ensure power remains entrenched in (for example) white/male/heteronormative discourses.

Pluckrose and Lindsay write that “...in the face of this it has become increasingly difficult, and even dangerous” to raise objections to these “divisive and constraining identity politics. Since objections to irrationalism and illiberalism are often misunderstood or misrepresented as opposition to genuine social justice.”

This is perhaps the key point that Pluckrose and Lindsay make in their book, that a rejection of Critical Theory is not a rejection of the need for social justice per se, but rather, a rejection of Critical Theory as a helpful means by which to achieve it. In fact, the authors argue that Critical Theory “allots social significance to racial categories, which inflames racism. It attempts to depict categories of sex, gender, and sexuality as mere social constructions, which undermines the fact that people often accept sexual minorities because they recognize that sexual expression varies naturally.” In other words, attempts to advance social justice by means of Critical Theory, end up making the situation much worse and this harms everyone.

Instead, the authors believe that the best means to achieve ongoing advances in social justice is to strengthen secular philosophical liberalism and the importance of “empirical and rational concepts of knowledge.” In their view, secular philosophical and political liberalism works because, since the Enlightenment, it has provided an arena for the marketplace of ideas to be debated openly, leading to such developments as universal human rights, legal equality for all adult citizens, freedom of expression and religion, and the separation of church and state.

This has created, the authors argue, the most diverse, equitable, and least discriminatory culture in human history. Secular liberalism, “despite its shortcomings, is simply better for humans. It is astonishing that over the same twenty- year period (1960–1980) during which women gained access to contraception and equal pay for equal work, racial and sexual discrimination in employment and other areas became illegal, and homosexuality was decriminalized, the postmodernists emerged and declared that it was time to stop believing in liberalism, science, reason, and the myth of progress.”

Cynical Theories is an extremely well-researched yet accessible book, that provides a clear and compelling overview of Postmodern thought and the importance of secular liberalism as a counter to the excesses of the Social Justice movement. The concluding section is particularly helpful, as it suggests a practical framework for doing “fair battle” with Social Justice ideologies when engaging with real-world issues of injustice, be it racism, sexism, or homophobia. One minor critique is that Cynical Theories does not address from where the Enlightenment values the authors believe are so important to liberal democracies, have emerged. They are largely taken as given, and this seems to miss a crucial question: why are those values under threat of being supplanted, if they were so effective? As a Christian, the answer seems obvious: many of those Enlightenment values themselves rest upon the foundation of the gospel, without which they cannot be sustained. This is not a Christian book, however, so putting that critique aside there is much in Cynical Theories that can nevertheless help Christians to both understand the cultural landscape we are in, and be equipped to offer a thoughtful response to Critical Theory when we encounter it.

Tim Horman is Senior Pastor of One Community Church of Christ in Blackburn, Victoria. He was previously an Assistant Minister in the St Hilary’s Network and is a graduate of Regent College.