Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity. Pitchstone Publishing, Durham, North Carolina, 2020. Pp. 351.
Historically, universities were institutions devoted to the pursuit of truth. This search was guided by Socratic humility and Pascal’s dictum that “We know too much to be skeptics, but not enough to be dogmatists.” Contrary to romantic myths, there was never a time of cozy accord in university life, and academic disputations are well known for their ferocity. But until recent years, intellectual opponents could respectfully disagree. Professors believed in argument as the way to truth and engaged in debate in good faith with an open mind, firm in the belief that on any given topic there were truths to be known, provided we had the wit to avoid ad hominin attacks and the intelligence to recognize superior reasoning and better evidence. Disagreements could, of course, be explosive. Nevertheless, there was a tacit agreement about the norms of academic debate, including the need for a certain generosity of spirit and the principle of charity. This meant listening respectfully to one’s intellectual adversaries, correcting them when they were in error, and conceding to them when they had a better argument or better evidence.
Western universities are currently suffering from a series of self-inflicted wounds that mock such old-fashioned liberality. Notable in the Brave New University is the erosion of free speech and a narrowing of views deemed “acceptable” in the university community; a toxic intolerance for those who hold opposing views, including the de-platforming of speakers whose views fail to conform to the prevailing social orthodoxies; the quickness at which students and faculty take offence at unpopular opinions; the infantilisation of students by indulging them with “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”; the abandonment of the idea of objective truth, and the growth of an enervating relativism which refuses to maintain distinctions of enduring worth; the arrival of a managerialist class of administrative busy-bodies who seem determined to undermine the educative mission of the university; the widespread embrace of a therapeutic model of education; the brazen commercialising of research labs along with the predictable corruption of science; the misguided belief that university courses must be profitable from a business and industry point of view; and the growth of “identity politics” along with the concomitant erosion of disinterested scholarship. One could easily add to the list.
None of this is news. But recent years have borne witness to an alarming new development, one which threatens the university as never before. The past decade has seen a militant turn toward making universities bastions of woke political correctness. The university’s quest for truth is passe; the university’s new mission is the seeking of “social justice.”
In their new book, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay state, “There is a problem in our universities, and it comes down to Social Justice” (215). The authors examine the etiology of social justice and relate how universities are currently being led to the precipice by a toxic admixture of postmodernism and the fiery righteousness of social justice warriors. The authors relate how social justice arose from postmodern Theory (with a capital T) and how it subsequently seeped into the broader society to become the driving force of the culture wars. They conclude the book by proposing a philosophically liberal way to counter its manifestations in scholarship, activism, and everyday life.
The authors are passionate liberals who believe that the secular, liberal, and democratic societies born of the Enlightenment are still the template to measure human prosperity and happiness. They emphasize that the health and well-being of liberal societies are intricately bound with the university’s fate. Hence in examining the perilous state of today’s university, what the authors are ultimately defending are the core values and culture of liberal society, including “respect for the value of viewpoint diversity and honest debate [and] respect for evidence and reason” (11). They make clear early on the animating spirit of their inquiry: “… we have reached a point in history where the liberalism and modernity at the heart of Western civilization are at great risk on the level of the ideas that sustain them” (12). In brief, that liberalism which sustains the West’s secular, liberal democracies is now under siege by the social justice activists.
How did we arrive at such a juncture? According to the authors, the problem for both the university and for liberal society arises from the fact that “The progressive left has aligned itself not with Modernity but with postmodernism, which rejects objective truth as a fantasy dreamed up by naïve and/or arrogant Enlightenment thinkers who underestimated the collateral consequences of Modernity’s progress” (13).
The authors are scathing about social justice pieties, including the Foucauldian insistence that history is reducible to power relations. Where there is power, there is oppression, goes the argument, and any form of authority – including the intellectual kind – is illegitimate. Reason and science can be dismissed as nothing more than the daydreams of privileged white men who have used their position to maintain power and status. Likewise, the so-called canon is nothing more than the scribblings favoured by the powerful to maintain their status and privilege and can be safely confined to the dustbin of history.
The book hinges on the concept of “postmodernism,” a slippery and contested term that originated in obscure corners of academia. One of this book’s merits is that Pluckrose and Lindsay diligently trace the genealogy of the “postmodern turn” through the 1960s and 1970s, a necessary if challenging undertaking. The foundational ideas of postmodernism include the denial of universal truths, a skepticism about objective reality, a suspicion of reason and rationality, a belief in the relativism of moral and ethical discourse, a belief that language is the constructor of knowledge, sensitivity to ideologies of all kinds, and the view that “power” is always illegitimate and is the primary driver of history. Briefly, postmodernism is “that set of radically skeptical ideas, in which knowledge, power, and language are merely oppressive social constructs to be exploited by the powerful” (50).
Postmodernism holds broad sway in the humanities and social sciences and professional programs such as education, law, and social work. Postmodernist thinking also gave rise to new fields of enquiry, including postcolonial, queer, disability and fat studies, and critical race theory, all of which the authors examine in detail. What unites these disparate fields is the postmodern insistence on examining all social phenomena through the lens of oppression, power, and victimhood, and to “regard knowledge as tied to identity, and to read power dynamics into every interaction” (215).
It is germane to reflect on the consequences of postmodernism for liberal education. One can readily concede that some relations are about power dynamics, just as some people are oppressed and marginalized. And we all know that language, to some degree, shapes our understanding of the world. But to subject undergraduates to a steady diet of these reductionist and dogmatic understandings of society and the individual is anti-educational. It diminishes rather than expands the student’s intellectual horizons. More than mere power relationships are at play in history, and one’s identity is more than the mere facts of race or gender. Denying alternative understandings of the human condition is to engage in a not-so-subtle form of indoctrination.
The authors write that “Postmodern Theory and liberalism do not merely exist in tension: they are almost directly at odds with one another” (237). Liberalism favours universal human values and human dignity, while postmodernism favours group identity and victimhood. Liberalism encourages disagreements and debate as a means of securing the truth. At the same time, postmodernism rejects these as merely reinforcing the dominant discourse and rejects the notion of “the” truth, insisting that we can only discover “our” truths. Liberalism accepts that statements can correspond to reality, while Theory denies that words can ever correspond to reality, but only to other words in an endless “language game.”
The authors characterize postmodern thinking as a form of a “pervasive pessimism,” a reactionary skepticism about modernism and modernity, which in turn fuels a “profound cultural crisis of confidence and authenticity alongside a growing distrust of liberal social orders” (25). Postmodernism is radically skeptical of science, or indeed of any “meta-narrative” which claims to discover universal “truths.” In the postmodern turn, all such grand themes and their claims to universal truth are merely examples of myopic and arrogant cultural mythologies and more evidence of human hubris. At day’s end, postmodernism engenders a profound cynicism bordering on nihilistic despair about scientific or ethical certainties, or indeed about the prospect of human progress.
Among the acute effects of postmodernism was the dissolution of the “boundary between that which is objectively true and that which is subjectively experienced” (29). The effects of this blurring of objective and subjective are profound, with consequences for every aspect of intellectual life:
“The perception of society as formed of individuals interacting with universal reality in unique ways – which underlies the liberal principles of individual freedom, shared humanity, and equal opportunities – was replaced by multiple allegedly equally valid knowledges and truths, constructed by groups of people with shared markers of identity related to their positions in society” (29).
This new, postmodern understanding of the human condition sounds the death-knell for any pretense to universal knowledge. Under such a dispensation, knowledge, morality, meaning, and truth are local and culturally constructed. No one culture can conceivably possess the necessary tools and terms to evaluate the others. As the authors write, “The postmodernists sought to render absurd our ways of understanding, approaching and living in the world and in societies” (45).
If one embraces such a grim and absurdist account of the human condition, how does one survive, let alone flourish? The quick answer is that postmodernism’s premises and principles are unsustainable and self-consuming, leading the individual to passivity and quietude, if not nihilistic despair. But as the authors wryly note, “activism was simply not compatible with radical skepticism” (47). So out of the ashes of nihilistic despair grew what the authors refer to as “applied postmodernism,” which co-opted the notion of social justice from the civil rights movement and other progressive causes and quickly transmuted into what we know today as the “social justice movement.”
The social justice movement’s premise is that certain groups in society – primarily those who can be identified by race, gender, or sexuality – are grossly and unfairly disadvantaged and marginalized by society. Such groups are oppressed by those who wield power, most notably by white people, who are “privileged” by their skin colour. Theory reveals these disadvantages, while the enlightened scholar-activist’s role is to right these wrongs and re-order society according to their moral vision.
But at this juncture, questions start to crowd in. For example, Theory adopted a number of beliefs about the rights and wrongs of power and privilege and normative ideas of how, ideally, society should be ordered. These beliefs rapidly became as dogmatic and immutable as those of any religious doctrine. And like religious heretics before them, those who dare to question such beliefs are cast into academic perdition, including ostracization and even termination.
But what makes the social justice activist’s beliefs immune from criticism? And if we, as good postmodernists, subscribe to the belief that morality is relative, by what right does the activist’s understanding of morality and justice claim our allegiance?
The book’s concluding chapter proposes a “liberalism without identity politics.” The authors provide a welcome and eloquent restatement of the case for liberalism, comparing and contrasting it with the siren call of the social justice activist: “liberalism respects people both as individuals and as members of the human race. It does not respect identities or collectives per se; it values the individual and the universal; the human and humanity” (245).
Predictably, the quest for social justice has not produced liberally educated men and women but indoctrinated wokesters, whose “education” consists of learning how to parrot the latest platitudes about racism, sexism, transphobia, islamophobia, or other modes of oppression. Meanwhile, distinguished speakers are de-platformed for holding views that rub against the grain of the social justice activist, while hiring committees, in the name of diversity, ignore academic merit and hire based on race or gender.
We are at a weird historical juncture. In the name of social justice, no one in the university community feels safe. Everyone is alert and on edge, as even senior academics can have their careers ended by a disgruntled undergraduate or a spiteful administrative apparatchik. The professor is now answerable to undergraduates and university bureaucrats, which is undoubtedly a sign that something has gone wrong in higher education.
Despite some bright spots and dedicated individuals, the university is in a parlous state. One of the many merits of this lucidly argued book is that the authors show us precisely what is at stake in the seemingly innocuous quest for social justice. Who, after all, can be opposed to justice? Yet as the authors clarify, the quest for social justice is no mere harmless diversion but a subversive toppling of the university’s historic mission. Pluckrose and Lindsay conclude by urging us to maintain a belief in liberalism and to find the courage to “stand up and resist something with a lot of power” (266).