The Evolution of Post-modern Thought: Helen Pluckrose

Balanced Perspectives

In June of 2020, Helen Pluckrose gave a talk on the evolution of Postmodernist thought, highlighting three distinct periods of this evolution, ending with the current period which she and James Lindsay, the co-author of Cynical Theories call Reified Post-modernism. This talk offers a useful overview of the origins of words, phrases, beliefs about reality, activist strategies and behavioral practices of a very specific ideological framework called Critical Social Justice which draws much of ideas from three different historical phases of Post-modernist thought. Two of the most fundamental ideas in this framework is that there is no objective reality and that there are no universal human experiences.

To view the talk, CLICK HERE.

*Transcribed by S.D.

The Social Justice sounds like such a good idea. Who doesn’t want social justice? Nobody says, “do you know what society really needs? Less justice. Whatever our politics are, our ethics, our philosophies, our religions—or lack of all of the above—we generally all want to make the world a better place.

And yet we differ on how to achieve social justice and what it will look like. These differences can be productive. The conversations they engender between people with very different views helped us make our societies fairer and more accommodating of all kinds of people. Over the last 500 years and rapidly gaining in steam over the last 200 and particularly the last 50, we’ve set up secular liberal societies. Now I’m going to use the word liberal in this talk, but because I know we’ve got a lot of Americans here, I’m going to need to stress that I am using this in the general sense of freedom and openness and the opposite of illiberal. So, we’re not talking about left-wing as it’s sometimes used in America or right-wing as it’s sometimes used in Australia but an all-encompassing focus on individual liberty and the positive impact of the free exchange of ideas.

So, over the last 500 years—but really recently— this has with the civil rights movements, we’ve really sort of moved into a properly liberal age: freedom of religion and freedom from religion, equal opportunities for people regardless of gender, race or sexuality. Science and reason have become the dominant—or if not dominant, at least the most respected way— of establishing what is true, and this has been used to make remarkable advances in medicine and technology. The notion of the marketplace of ideas in which everybody could participate, everything could be said, and in principle, ideas are evaluated on their merits and hammered out. This has resulted in the most scientifically, medically, and technologically advanced societies humanity has ever known. It’s resulted in the most free and equal societies that have ever existed. Social justice has taken a leap forward.

And yet there is a movement that presumptuously labels itself Social Justice as though it alone holds the key to this, as though everybody else is actually seeking something different. This movement is not conservative, although it shares some values around segregation and purity with the far-right. It’s not liberal, although it speaks a liberal language of diversity, plurality, and inclusion. And it’s not Marxist, although it pays some lip service to anti-capitalism.

Social Justice is a highly counterintuitive movement which speaks its own language and has its own conceptions of the world. Accordingly, it is frequently misunderstood, miscategorized and attempts to counter it frequently fail. Conceptions of social justice that are rooted in Critical Theory don’t look much like the common understanding of social justice. People see the symptoms of the Social Justice movement quite clearly. They might refer to them as identity politics or political correctness, callout culture, or cancel culture.

It’s been hard to miss the demands to decolonize everything from curricula to hairstyles, and the tearing down of statues, defacing of paintings. Pronouns have become a matter of paramount political importance. They’ve also become much harder to navigate and use correctly in both their political sense and a grammatical one. It’s common now to hear that all men are sexist, and all white people are racist. If one protests at this, one is told it’s simply impossible not to be, due to the system of socialization that we’ve all been through. It seems that every day we hear news of a comedian being cancelled for a problematic joke, or a celebrity offering a groveling apology for the unintended misuse of a word, or that someone in the public eye has been found to have said something twenty years ago, which is now considered racist, sexist or homophobic. Artists of all kinds are frequently held up for criticism either because their work has not included a diverse range of people—in which case there’s a failure of representation—or because it has, in which case its cultural appropriation. Anyone who addresses political or cultural issues at all is likely to attract swarms of Social Justice activists to problematize, call out, distort, and misrepresent their arguments.

This is enabled largely by social media where activists can congregate and highlight the tweets or essays they have a problem with. Dog-piles are common, and it seems not to matter whether one is a prominent person or a private individual sharing their own experience on their own Twitter account. Even when speaking on your own account, you are likely to be accused of dictating to, or speaking over, marginalized people or you could just—we could just—go straight to white supremacist, misogynist, transphobic, fascist. It is becoming increasingly daunting, particularly for those with businesses or jobs they’d like to keep, to speak publicly at all. The approach of the social justice activists is uncharitable, unreasonable, frequently uninformed, unjust and unforgiving.

But what has caused this intense focus on identity, knowledge, language and the power structures? That’s what I’m here to talk about.

I’m going to look at where these ideas really coalesced and how they’ve developed over the last 50 years into what we see now. The problem underlying social justice activism has a long history and in various different ways, but we really saw it come together in the late 1960s—66, 68, by 1970 certainly. This was a time of great social change. Society was recovering from the world wars, Nazism, fascism, genocide and Communism, and they were still mourning their dead. Empire had fallen, the Jim Crow had ended, technology was advancing rapidly, and a vibrant youth culture was forming. Ideologically, liberal activism in the forms of the civil rights movements, Feminism, and gay pride were in full flow, at the same time, as an angry and radical New Left was mobilizing. All in all, the feeling at this time was one, not only of change, but of a radical break from what had gone before. Old certainties were being challenged. Certainties about the advance of moral progress had been shaken by the wars. A new recognition of the ways in which the rights of women, racial minorities, LGBT people had been denied was really being felt. Religion was declining, pop music and mass-produced art were challenging notions of what counts as culture.

There is a sense that things were moving too fast and becoming artificial and mass-produced. This caused many intellectuals to write about the loss of authenticity. This new era which was unfolding was understood to be as the era of Post-modernity. The modern period is understood as one in which reality was simple, graspable, orderly and cohesive: a satisfying story of steady progress and increased knowledge in the advance of human rights which could be told straightforwardly. None of that seemed right anymore, so the idea that an era of Post-modernity was beginning became a repeated refrain among leftist intelligentsia. Arguably the most profound influence on the academics was the loss of Marxism. This framework had long formed the basis for leftist intellectual thought on how to make a better society. Now, for many, it had become untenable. Following the atrocities of the communist regime, the main grand narrative for the left was in trouble. Many felt that Marxism, like everything else, was a simplistic narrative, which had failed. This revolt resulted in despair that anything could be trusted anymore. The bitter hopelessness and despair of meaning permeates the writings of the first Post-modernists.

This shift caused a great upheaval on the academic Left. Traditionally, the Leftist stance has been comprised of two elements. One was the Marxist or Socialists which focused on material conditions economics and class. It wanted to read revolutionize society to redistribute wealth. The other is in liberalism which has focused on enabling the individual to access universal rights and opportunities. Liberalism seeks to reform society rather than revolutionize. Both Marxists and liberals are Modernists. That is, they both believe in an objective reality and the importance of evidence and reason, although they’ve come to different conclusions about where to go from there. They both believe that a society in which everyone is able to thrive and put their skills to good use and be very naturally secure, regardless of their class race gender or sexuality, is a just society. A society where some people are prohibited from this is an unjust society.

Despite these shared aims, Marxist and liberals have argued incessantly. Marxists have accused liberals of being half-measure sellouts who might as well be conservatives. Liberals have accused Marxists of being delusional utopians who want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. These arguments have been acrimonious, but they’ve also been productive in forming a functional Left. This was all to change with the arrival of Post-modernism. In the late 1960s, there arose from—all at once from—different discipline, the intellectuals who’d come to be known as the Post-modernists. Some are best understood as commentators on the condition of Post-modernity. That is, they were observing the change and describing it. The American Marxist Fredric Jameson deplored the shallowness of Post-modernity, the lack of heart to anything, the constant recycling and repetition of art. He diagnosed the nostalgia for anything real and said the individual had been lost. Jean Baudrillard leaned heavily towards nihilistic despair, and his book Simulacra and Simulation argued that society had entirely lost the real and was now just endlessly churning out copies of copies. In the Modern period, he claimed, everything began to be standardized and organized, so uniqueness and authenticity were gone.

But in the Post-modern period of mass production and technological simulation, there is no original, he said. Everything is now hyper real. He called metaphorically for acts of bloody terrorism and claimed that death was the only thing that was real. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari argued that people’s drives were constrained by a capitalist consumerist society where the only thing that flowed was money. They saw humans as coded in different times to different demands: first family, then despotic rulers, then capitalism. Like Baudrillard, they argued that modernity had standardized and systemized everything and that it needed to be dismantled. For them, it was not death that was the epitome of reality but human desires, and they should be freed. Deleuze ultimately committed suicide.

This then was largely some hopeless despairing, yearning for anything authentic. It had no realistically attainable goals. These observations were almost impurely descriptive. However, there were some French theorists whose ideas had purpose, and they developed theories. They are best understood as the Post-structuralists and the Constructionists, and they went further in developing a theoretical practice.

In his groundbreaking book, The Post-modern Condition, Jean Francois Lyotard defined Post-modernism as a skepticism towards meta-narratives. By this, he meant that all the large overarching stories we told ourselves about how society worked, and the meaning of life were becoming less credible. Another description of meta-narratives is that they’re historically and culturally situated narratives which nevertheless are presented as universal. Lyotard included Christianity and Marxism in his understanding of them meta-narratives, but he also included science. As is typical of Post-modernists, his work focused intensely on the power of language. He saw this in terms of different kinds of games, which legitimated knowledge. He claimed that the language of science was inseparable from the language of power and governments. Rather than these big metal narratives, he argued, we need lots of mini narratives. Rather than authority of knowledge legitimized by scientific methods, we need a plurality of legitimation. That is, we need multiple knowledges with none prized over any other. This is moral and factual relativism.

For Jacques Derrida, the focus was even more intensely on language. He was radically skeptical of the possibility of ever conveying meaning by language. For him, words only referred to other words, so meaning is indefinitely deferred. House is understandable in relation to huts and mansion. Derrida also believed that words are used comparatively to give one term superiority to another. That is, men are defined as not being women and also as superior to women. He advocated ironically reversing these binaries to make them visible and challenge power hierarchies. This can be benign enough and quite poignant. I myself have been known to replace “the world and his wife” with “the world and her husband”. But, it can also go to quite a dark place if your conception of society is one in which women and racial and sexual minorities are constantly subjected to discrimination and abuse and then you want to reverse that binary. You are likely to end up with sexism against men, racism against white people, and for this to be morally justifiable as a kind of redressing the balance. This takes a step away from objectivity and towards subjectivity. It also undermines the reasonable person standard upon which much law and judicial decision is based.

Above all there was Michel Foucault. Of all the theorists, his ideas have most ingrained themselves in our culture. His key ideas echo both Lyotard’s skepticism of meta-narratives and Derrida’s suspicion of the reliability of language to convey stable meaning. The concepts of his, which have best survived and have had been adapted over the last 50 years, are episteme, powerknowledge discourses and biopower. In common usage, knowledge is defined as an accurate understanding of an objective reality. If we consider ourselves to know something rather than believe it, suspect it, hope it, or think it probable, we mean that we’ve been given sufficient reason to accept that it is true—that it matches reality. While cultural perceptions may vary, and ideas may change over time, something that is objectively true is true for everyone. It could be discovered that something was thought to be true, and actually it was false, but this doesn’t mean it was once true and then became false. It means that a mistake was made, and we are able to know this because of new evidence which shows it.

An example of this could be that the sun was thought to orbit the Earth, but it was later discovered that the earth orbits the sun. This was always the case and it doesn’t depend on humans believing it. This is a Modernist understanding of knowledge, and it was not how Michel Foucault understood it. His understanding of knowledge was as a cultural construct. That is, we decide what is true and what is known through categories and narratives created and enforced culturally. He referred to this as an episteme, a culturally devised system that provided the parameters for what could be considered true or false. Those in power set the episteme. Therefore, what is understood by society as knowledge is really just an exercise of power. It is powerknowledge. That’s one word, not two. With a similar relationship, the powerknowledge is both constructed and perpetuated by ways of talking about things—by discourses. Something becomes legitimized as knowledge by the way it is spoken about, and it then becomes the way to speak about things. Chief among these legitimizing discourses is science. Western societies largely accept the findings of science as the most substantiated sources of knowledge. This, to Foucault, was evidence that it was powerknowledge. He called this particular type of powerknowledge, biopower. This is now a dominant idea in Queer theory, disability studies and fat studies.

These ideas continue to plague us today, so it is worth taking the time to really try to get your head around them.

Imagine that there is no objective truth, humans are blank slates who get filled up with a story, the powerful groups in society get to decide what that story is. All the slates once written upon, tell the same story, but from a different perspective, depending on where they are in relation to power. So, if the story includes the claim that men are dominant, and women are submissive, both men and women will speak into this discourse, but from a dominant or a submissive position. The same goes for the claim that heterosexuality is natural and homosexuality unnatural, that white people are suited for some professional jobs, black people for manual jobs. The imperative, then, of Post-modern approaches, is to study the discourses of society to find the Foucauldian powerknowledge, invert the Derridean binaries and empower the Lyotardian mini narratives.

This is now a plan.

This is the broad picture, and it’s not easy to grasp immediately, so I will set up the essential ideas as a kind of list.

Essential Ideas

· There is no way of obtaining objective truth.

· Everything is culturally constructed.

· Society is dominated by systems of power and privilege that people just accept as common sense.

· These vary from culture to culture and subculture to subculture.

· None of them is right or superior to any other.

· The categories that we use to understand things like fact and fiction, reason and emotion, science and art, and male and female are false.

· They operate in the service of power, [and] need to be examined, broken down and complicated.· Language is immensely powerful, and it is used to construct oppressive social realities.

· Therefore, it must be regarded with suspicion and scrutinized to find the discourses of power.

· The intention of the speaker is no more authoritative than the interpretation of the hearer.

· The idea of the autonomous individual is a myth.

· The individual is also a construct of culture programmed by his or her place in relation to power.

· The idea of a universal human nature is also a myth. It is constructed by what powerful forces deemed to be the right way to be. Therefore, it is white western masculine and heterosexual.

These are some core ideas of post-modernism which have survived in the academic world. Post-modernism is largely claimed to have died out. But, most of you will recognize these ideas in the social justice scholarship and the activism that we see today. That’s because they didn’t die out; they evolved. Not everyone believes that post-modernism has survived into the present day or that Social Justice is fundamentally a Post-modern movement. But it has, and it is.

The first wave of post-modernism did die away by the middle of the 80s. It was too intense and also aimless—nihilistic really. We can think of this as the High Deconstructive Phase of Post-modernism. It was ironic and pessimistically playful and fairly hopeless. It took everything to pieces, but once they were in bits all over the floor, there wasn’t much more that could be done. There was no confidence in the possibility of reconstructing because that would just produce new oppressive power structures. However, by the late 1980s a new generation of leftist academics had emerged, and they were inclined to be neither so aimless nor pessimistic. By this time the civil rights movements had begun to show diminishing returns. Within 20 years, huge leap forwards in equality had been made. Ironically this was the same time the original Post-modernists were saying it was time to give up on the myth of progress. But women had gained control over their reproduction, equal pay laws had been passed, similar legislation decriminalized discrimination on the grounds of race, male homosexuality had been decriminalized with legal equality largely obtained. What remained was suppressed attitudes to be addressed. Of course, Post-modernism was perfect for this—or almost so.

Just as the first wave of Post-modernists had emerged all at once from different disciplines, so did the next wave in the late 1980s. Post-colonialism actually emerged a little before that as an offshoot of Post-modernism. It was headed by the Foucault d and Edward Said who argued that the West had constructed the East as its inferior in order to construct itself in noble terms. He said it was time for previously colonized peoples to reconstruct the East for themselves. Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha followed in his footsteps, although they were more Derridean, having adopted his despair of the ability of language to convey meaning. They are largely incomprehensible.

However, the aim to reconstruct had begun. In 1989 over in Critical Legal Studies and Critical Race Theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw began developing her concept of Intersectionality. She described this as contemporary politics linked to Post-modern theory. The cultural constructivism of Post-modernism, Crenshaw felt was useful, in regarding gender and race as cultural constructs. But there had to be some objective reality if anyone was to achieve anything. The existence of oppressive cultural constructs around gender and race were decided to be what was objectively real. Furthermore, liberalism she claimed, was inadequate, despite the massive evidence that it was in fact very successful. Liberalism was too universal to be politically productive, and it was time for a more intense focus on identity politics.

In that same year, Mary Pavan was attempting to reconcile deconstructive approaches with feminism. Like Crenshaw, she argued that the methods were useful, but there did need to be a recognition of an objective reality. How can we advocate for women, for equality for women, unless women are a category of people that objectively exists? She advocated a toolbox approach in which Post-modern techniques would be used when helpful and not, when not.

Meanwhile, in expansion of gay and lesbian studies, Judith Butler was claiming that actually women don’t need to be a category of people that objectively exists. In fact, claiming categories to objectively exist is the problem. Queer Theory was born. It drew extensively on the work of Foucault and can be argued to be the purest form of Post-modernism currently in existence. However, Queer Theory avoided the fate of deconstructing itself into oblivion by making the deconstruction of categories a form of activism. Queer theory reifies queerness and a whole range of queer identities but deconstructs anything normative. In this way, it’s felt, people who don’t fit within masculine men attracted to women or feminine women attracted to men—don’t feel the pressure to do so. We can just deconstruct those categories altogether.

Just like that, post-modernism had become energized and politically actionable. We called this phase applied post-modernism.No longer was it aimlessly pulling reality apart and denying objective truth to exist, it was now objectively true that social reality was culturally constructed by specific systems of power. Post-modernism now had goals it acknowledged and justified its departure from the original post-modernists explicitly, often claiming that they were privileged white men who had little need to affect change in the world. This new form of Post-modernism was much more user-friendly. Consequently, it could break the bounds of the academy in the way the original Post-modernism could not. The dying radical Left adopted it for this reason. While much of Post-colonial Theory and Queer Theory remained largely incomprehensible to the layman, Critical Race Theory and Intersectional Feminism were written in clear language from the start. This is probably due to its foundation in legal theory rather than philosophy. Thus, activism for gender and racial equality was able to draw on its ideas. Critical race theory is rooted in some very strong scholarship by liberal humanist and Marxist scholars, which pointed out that white identity had been formed at the expense of Black identity. It is essential to note that Critical Race Theory is originally an American phenomenon, and the evidence that America was a racially divided society with Blacks as second-class citizens until very recently is indisputable.

However, with its recent descent into Post-modern discourse analysis, and conceptions of society as entirely underlain by systems of white supremacy operating in mysterious ways, Critical Race Theory has become quite unhinged. It threatens to undo much of the progress that has been made on racial equality. Using methods which assume racism to be present in any interaction between a white person and a person of racial minority, results in always finding it and further entrenching the belief in an ever-present white supremacy. Things that have been listed as racist microaggressions include complementing a black person on their eloquence, saying that you do not see people in terms of race, or that you believe the best person for a job should get it. It’s is clear what a minefield this is.

Of course, the people most affected by being trained to read everything in this way are racial minorities. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt described this entire method as a form of reverse Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT teaches people not to catastrophize and not to read negative meanings into everything. This decreases anxiety and improves one’s functioning in the world. Applied Post-modernism trains people to do precisely the opposite. It cannot help but increase anxiety and decrease ability to function. Lukianoff and Haidt provide much evidence that that is what’s happening. A similar pattern has emerged within feminism where again everything is seen in terms of a system of Patriarchy which hides beneath a benign surface. The job of the feminists is to detect it. Going through life in order to direct it detects ways in which men are belittling you is unlikely to lead to female empowerment. Teaching young women that society is hostile to them is probably not going to increase women’s engagement with the public sphere. One way in which the Post-modern understanding of hidden power structures works in society, is to see everything in terms of a scale. I’m sure some of you have seen some of those pictures of pyramids where at the bottom you’ve got asking a woman for coffee or complimenting her and at the top is rape and murder because this is understood as one big system of patriarchal rape culture—the manifestations of it of last and becoming increasingly torturous. This is largely to do with what’s been happening in scholarship over the last thirty years since the initiation and diversification of various types of theory.

When a system of scholarship is closed to external critique—as these theories generally have been—and when evidence and reason are not required in the first place, a body of work can quickly become quite deranged. What has happened over the last thirty years is that concepts have been built upon concepts leading to a towering mountain of theory, none of which has ever born much relation to reality.

One scholar writes a paper arguing for the existence of white privilege, Peggy McIntosh. She makes some good points, but she claims that simply being white confers great benefits on an individual without any consideration of class or wealth issues. This idea catches on in Critical Race Theory build on it until it’s well-established.

Then another scholar Barbara Applebaum takes it a step further. She argues that white privilege allows people to—white people—to sort of get away with racism because they can absolve themselves of their privilege by acknowledging it. So now we need another concept to put on top of that, which is white complicity,in which white people can never absolve themselves of their responsibility for racism, they are just implicit in it by dint of existing.

So, this idea is accepted and built upon, and then another scholar Robin D’Angelo takes this a step further still. White privilege and white complicity are still central concepts to her work, but there’s still a problem because some white people disagree with them. We now need white fragility to close that gap. White fragility is when white people respond to being told they’re privileged and complicit in racism by doing one of three things: disagreeing, being quiet, or going away. That is, the only way not to be fragile is stay right where you are and agree.

This is not scholarship. This is a Kafka Trap.

There is simply no valid way to disagree with this conception of society, to moderate it, to qualify it, to agree with some of it, to point out problems. You just have to agree. It is also notable that Robin D’Angelo’s language is so simple and clear that she could be read and understood by a ten-year-old. She also speaks in terms of absolute certainty. This has also happened over time in the other theories. Even in Queer theory and Postcolonial theory, the kind of writing which was famously incomprehensible decades ago has become much clearer and much more sure of itself. As the body of scholarship has grown, and scholars have been able to point anyone who disagrees with them, at a mounting body of work, the fields’ confidence in their own rightness has grown. Whereas the first Post-modernists spoke in terms of radical doubt, and the Applied Post-modernists retained some tentativeness and raised issues as questions to avoid making challengeable assertions, the current scholars are absolutely convinced of the objective truth of their worldview.

This new phase of absolute certainty, clarity, and refusal to accept disagreement as anything other than a wish to deny privilege began around 10 years ago and has been rapidly escalating since 2015. Those original ideas of the first Post-modernists are now sacred creeds, which cannot be doubted. Listen to these core tenets developed by a group of scholar activists, including Robin D’Angelo. It was read at the national race and pedagogy conference at the University of Puget Sound in 2015.

Core Tenets

· Racism exists today in both traditional and modern forms.

· Racism is an institutionalized, multi-layered multi-level system that distributes unequal power and resources between white people and people of color as socially identified and disproportionately benefits whites.

· All members of society are socialized to participate in the system of racism albeit in various social locations. [Remember our slates with different versions of the story].

· All white people benefit from racism regardless of their intentions.

· No one chose to be socialized into racism, so no one is bad, but no one is neutral.

· To not act against racism is to support racism.

· Racism must be continually identified, analyzed and challenged. No one is ever done.

· The question is not, did racism take place but how did racism manifest in that situation.

· The racial status quo is uncomfortable for most whites. Therefore, anything that maintains white comfort is suspect.

· The racially oppressed have a more intimate insight via experiential knowledge into the system of race than their racial oppressors [but they’re not bad]. However, white professors will be seen as having more legitimacy. Thus, positionality must be intentionally engaged. [Then must always mention your race, gender, and sexuality and how it impacts what you’re saying.]

· Resistance is a predictable reaction to anti-racist education and must be explicitly and strategically addressed.

This is a creed. These are statements of absolute certainty and of objective knowledge. Therefore, we call this stage Reified Post-modernism.In one way, this latest development is highly alarming. It reads like a call to arms, it’s easily comprehensible to any idealistic young person who wants to fix the world, and its presence is strongest in the universities where they’re to be found.

In another way, this newfound clarity, confidence, and certainty is precisely what we need to have an effective push back. We can get at these ideas now. One doesn’t have to have a Ph.D. in the jargon to understand the claims and counter them.

For so long, this kind of scholarship has been enabled to build because the vast majority of people did not know what it was talking about. Even liberals did not know what it was talking about. Liberal academics in other fields did not know what it was talking about. The people pushing back at it have overwhelmingly been conservatives. Liberals mostly assumed that because it was in the service of social justice it must be a good thing and—a liberal thing—and if conservatives didn’t like it, it was probably both.

It’s now becoming increasingly clear that it’s not a good thing or a liberal thing. Liberals can now push back at it completely in keeping with their liberal principles. In my talk this afternoon I’m going to suggest that we can do that by looking at the core tenets of social justice by acknowledging how much of it is good, and how it’s then going wrong, how we can do it better.

Thank you