Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity - and Why This Harms Everybody by Helen Pluckrose
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have done a lot of the hard and dirty work for those of us who cannot stomach wading through the incoherent works of Critical Theory. Stephen Hicks’ Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault did this for Postmodernism: showing how the ideas of the Counter-Enlightenment (starting with Rousseau) evolved into the Postmodernism of the mid-twentieth century. Pluckrose and Lindsay pick up the baton and carry the analysis forward showing how Postmodernism evolved into Critical Theory and Social Justice Theory – what they aptly call Applied Postmodernism.
They start by presenting the foundations of Postmodernism in the 1960s with a lot of attention on Foucalt, Lyotard, and Derrida. They lay out the essential principles and themes of Postmodernism. Then they discuss how several new approaches emerged out of this intellectual funhouse. These new approaches, postcolonialism, queer theory, and critical race theory, where more activist that the earlier postmodernisms: they were on a mission to end social injustice and rebuild a new, more just order.
Pluckrose and Lindsay move through each iteration of these theories. They identify the main intellectual roots of these approaches and how they currently manifest themselves. They also persuasively argue that these are theoretically hollow, incoherent, and have pernicious effects – often the very opposite of their self-proclaimed social justice mission.
They discuss the philosophical roots of this hollowness and incoherence. Most of these theories build on postmodernism’s rejection of objectivity in metaphysics and epistemology. Once objective reason and reality are thrown out, everything is up for grabs. (Personally, I think they could have done more here, but that becomes a different book. Moreover, Hicks book, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, does this for Postmodernism and the same criticisms would apply).
They close with discussion on how best to challenge and beat these theories in the marketplace of ideas. The two main themes here: demands for theoretical and scholarly rigor and openness to challenge and critique.
Throughout the work, Pluckrose and Lindsay do a good job of explaining and exposing the ideas behind these theories. Though their disdain for the ideas is evident, they take them seriously and do not engage in straw man arguments.
By appealing to a broad-based, reasonable liberalism, they are able to show how we can be against sexism, racism, oppression (little s, social injustice) without having to be in league with Social Justice Theory. We can acknowledge the many social problems that we have and work to fix them without all this fashionable nonsense. Indeed, the authors make a strong case that we have to reject these theories and their supposed solutions in order to make progress.
The world has made tremendous progress against all forms of injustice and oppression in the last few hundred years because of Enlightenment liberalism and humanism. To continue that progress we need to affirm and strength these ideas, not reject them. It is, as Pluckrose and Lindsay argue, this applied postmodernism, beyond being incapable of making further progress, has started to reverse some of that progress. These theories have reintroduced and reinforced identity stereotypes and categories. Instead of appealing to common humanity and reason, they make differences more salient inviting hostility and antagonism among members of different identity groups. The intolerance for critique or challenge (branding those who offer intellectual critiques as racist for example) has tended to silence the moderate voices, leaving only the extremes on the left and right to be vocal. And because these theories tend to reject objective reason, all that is left is force.
I think the authors are correct that if exposed to sunlight, these ideas would largely wither and die on their own. That is why they suggest making sure the marketplace of ideas is kept free and open; that ideas need to be open to challenge and criticism without punishment. And they recognize that we need good, reasonable ideas, theories, and methods that can tackle the issues. That is, in rejecting Social Justice we cannot reject the need to work towards more justice and freedom for all individuals. And we need good theories to do this. Their broadly construed Enlightenment liberalism is a good start.
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