Helen Pluckrose and Dr. James Lindsay have written what I believe is one of the most important books of our time. The book is aptly titled Cynical Theories and explores the cynical worldviews and theoretical foundations of a very specific ideological framework that is called Critical Social Justice (CSJ), which they refer to in the book as simply “Social Justice” (note the capitalization) to distinguish CSJ from the general (and laudable) aims of uncapitalized social justice.
First, a Caveat.
Before attempting to explore some of the ideas put forth in Cynical Theories, I think it will be helpful for readers to understand my overall orientation in the consideration of the ideas presented in this book and its critiques of those ideas if I openly state my own general beliefs and positions.
So, here we go.
As a supporter of authentic anti-racism, pro-woman empowerment, and equal rights under the law for all people of all races, sexual orientations, genders, and ethnicities, I strongly and unambiguously support universal social justice and liberal values. It is my firm belief that the wins of the Civil Rights era, the legalization of gay marriage, and the rise of transgender acceptance have been positive and powerful developments in our society and that we have more work to do in the service of lifting up all people, especially those who continue to be passively set aside or actively pushed to the margins of society.
But, I also want to point out that while there is more work to be done to undo the unjust inequalities that still exist in some of our systems, I believe that all people from all walks of life possess in the core of their very Being what the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa has called Basic Goodness. I will even go further in declaring that I know this to be true in the bones of my own Being and that no social pressure of any kind will ever convince me otherwise. And, I know I’m not alone. It has been my experience that most people alive in the West in the 21st century genuinely support universal social justice and truly wish to see their gender, racial and sexual minority brothers, sisters and siblings enjoy all the benefits and advantages that naturally belong to all people.
That is, I do not see the world through the cynical lens of Critical Social Justice (CSJ), a very specific and highly complex ideological framework that explicitly teaches its adherents that the entire world is structured by, infused with, made of, permeated by and founded upon hatred, bigotry and selfishness in all their forms and that the only correct response to this terrible reality is for adherents of CSJ to constantly search for and root out this all-pervasive evil.
Before I continue reviewing the book, I want to explain what is meant by the word “critical” when we hear the phrases Critical Social Justice, Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory and other phrases like critical consciousness, critical pedagogy, and critical studies.
In the 1960’s a group of intellectuals formed a school of thought called the Frankfurt School and devised a “tool for analysis” called Critical Theory. The basic approach of Critical Theory -not to be confused with critical thinking which relies more on empiricism than speculation- is to engage in “structural analysis” into all phenomena. Put in a simpler way, Critical Theory is an approach to analyzing the world that involves picking apart everything (deconstructing) and to be skeptical of everything, especially the words, narratives, and discourses (ways of knowing and speaking) of those in power. Critical Theorists often use the world “problematize” which in a sense means to look for the problems (usually regarding power and injustice) which are presupposed to exist no matter what the context and circumstances are or who is involved.
And power is the most essential thing to consider in Critical Theory. In fact, one of the Frankfurt School’s most famous thinkers -Michel Foucault- believed that all personal and social relationships both individual and communal were structured entirely around power… who has it, how the language they use (discourses) maintains it, and how to recognize it.
To be fair, this approach to analyzing the world was originally set up to answer the question “what’s really going on here and am I being treated in a fair and truthful way by the society around me? In other words, Critical Theory’s original mission was to keep us from falling into false views (or false consciousness) within the context of our social and political settings by analyzing all knowledge claims made within those settings and how they impact us.
But, as we learn in Cynical Theories, this obsessive search for wrongdoing and power -and the accompanying belief that the entire world is structured around it- can take some dangerous and disturbing turns.
The Bleak and Terrifying Worldview of Critical Social Justice
By putting their insightful book out into the world, Helen Pluckrose and Dr. James Lindsay have undertaken a generous and monumental task that will hopefully educate a large number of people about what is really at stake in a world that embraces Critical Social Justice as its default belief system. Cynical Theories takes the reader through a journey into the dark, cavernous world of Social Justice and ends that journey with a manifesto that offers a strong and compassionate defense of true liberalism, open inquiry, reason, and love in the hope that we will all come to our collective senses and put a stop to the inter-group suspicions and hatreds that this ideology has been spreading for many years now.
There is no question that President Donald J. Trump’s own obvious shadow dominates the landscape and that he bears great responsibility for fanning the flames of hostility and confusion, and this book does not suggest otherwise. But, Cynical Theories pulls no punches in elucidating the ways in which Critical Social Justice theory (which is often called simply “Theory”) has colonized and conditioned the minds of individuals and groups, causing many to embrace beliefs and practices that are not only cynical, but actively hateful, hostile and bigoted and dehumanizing against demographic groups that are disfavored in this ideology. Worst of all, this ideology has widely promoted a terrifying, fearful and delusional worldview that causes formerly sane, empathetic and thoughtful people to support the harshest measures against perceived enemies and to push for laws and policies that take away individual rights in the service of a dark moral vision driven by the paranoid delusions of the ideology itself.
In Cynical Theories, Pluckrose and Lindsay argue that the active ingredient in Critical Social Justice is cynicism itself: the belief that there is no such thing as goodness in the world and that the very essence of individuals is badness itself, which cannot be redeemed and must constantly be exposed and punished in service of a moral vision that is based on the belief that we live in a society made of bigotry. Critical Social Justice actively promotes the idea that not only do we live in a society that has policies that hurt people of color, but that we live in a “system of White Supremacy” where a dark and mysterious force called “Whiteness” has hypnotized all people into being “complicit” with racist systems and into actively participating in the functioning of racist systems, which are seen as the very essence of Western society. Believers of this ideology also believe that we live in a society that not only disadvantages women, but a society that is completely structured by an all-pervasive, almost mystical force of male domination called “the Patriarchy”, which means that we live in a “rape culture” where misogyny and violence against women can be found literally everywhere.
But, according to Pluckrose and Lindsay, “Theory” doesn’t stop there. Every possible group identity is covered by Theory and each group identity has a group identity “Theory” to go along with it ending with the word “studies”, including fatness studies, disability studies, gender studies, whiteness studies and so on. In all of these disciplines, a one-dimensional “us” is positioned against a one-dimensional “them”, and the entire social world is viewed through the binary of the oppressed fighting against the oppressors. What makes this fight so meaningful and even exciting for the young people whose minds have been occupied by this ideology is that the oppressors are almost always characterized as having an extremely powerful and almost boundless, mystical power and presence that the oppressed are trained to believe they will never be able to overcome without participating in a glorious revolution.
It should be easy to see what can happen when people who are very young and impressionable are trained to see the world in this way. Pluckrose and Lindsay sum it up perfectly when they note that Critical Social Justice educators “teach students to be skeptical of science, reason and evidence; to regard knowledge as tied to identity; to read oppressive power dynamics into every interaction; to politicize every facet of life; and to apply ethical principles unevenly, in accordance with identity.”
And when students then go out into the world that they see through a lens so darkly and seek to fight a perpetual spiritual war against a monumental enemy, it’s only a matter of time before society begins to fall apart.
How the Book is Organized
Cynical Theories is broken down into an introduction and ten neatly organized chapters. The introduction and the first two chapters explore the origins of postmodernism and covers the main contributions to postmodernist thought that has come to influence modern conceptions and practices of social justice activism and especially the specific ideology known as Critical Social Justice.
Chapters 3 to 7 cover the several distinct disciplines in which postmodernist Critical Social Justice scholarship has been applied, including Postcolonial Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory & Intersectionality, Feminisms & Gender Studies, and Disability & Fat Studies.
Chapters 8 to 10 cover the general movement that the book capitalizes as Social Justice (Critical Social Justice) and how the scholarship and thought leaders in this movement have been put into action in the areas of protest, policy-making, political bullying, cancel culture, education and relationships between different individual and group identities. The most important contribution in this section of the book is the final chapter called “An Alternative to the Ideology of Social Justice”, which provides some very real-world, sensible, compassionate and practical ways forward in achieving the equal rights, social cohesion and a just society that Critical Social Justice adherents claim to be defending in their increasingly adversarial forms of activism.
Postmodernist Principles and Themes in Critical Social Justice
In order to provide a proper understanding of the epistemological foundations of each of the disciplines (“… studies”) mentioned above, an important distinction is made in the early chapters of the book between social justice with no capitalization (which most right-thinking, moral people would naturally support) and the capitalized version of Social Justice (which follows a very specific ideology known as Critical Social Justice that has heavily influenced by postmodernist ideas).
In addition to making that important distinction, the authors elucidate in these beginning chapters the two postmodernist principles and four postmodernist themes they have identified as foundational to Critical Social Justice scholarship.
The Postmodernist Knowledge Principle is described as “radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism” and the
Postmodernist Political Principle is described as “a belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.”
The four major themes are described as:
1. Blurring of boundaries
2. The power of language
3. Cultural relativism
4. The loss of the individual and the universal.
At first glance, some of these ideas might appear to be product of the typically indulgent intellectualizing that often occurs when academics come together in the rarified spaces of their ivory towers, but as the chapters move forward, Cynical Theories explores in great depth just how far down the rabbit hole of cruelty and absurdity this ideology goes once these principles and themes are put into practice (actively applied). One of the most important things to understand about this ideology is that “Theory” -the canonical ideas that strictly inform Social Justice scholarship- tolerates no dissent.
In the chapter titled “Social Justice Scholarship and Thought”, the authors state this plainly.
“Social Justice scholarship does not merely present the postmodern knowledge principle -that objective truth does not exist, and knowledge is socially constructed and a product of culture- and the postmodern political principle -society is constructed through knowledge by language and discourses, designed to keep the dominant in power over the oppressed. It treats the as The Truth, tolerates no dissent, and expects everyone to agree or be “cancelled”. We see this in the obsessive focus on who can produce knowledge and how and in the explicit desire to ‘infect’ as many other disciplines as possible with Social Justice methods. This is reflected in a clear wish to achieve epistemic and research ‘justice’ by asserting that rigorous knowledge production is just a project of white male and Western culture and thus no better than the Theoretically interpreted lived experiences of members of marginalized groups, which must be constantly elevated and foregrounded.”
Three Distinct Phases of Postmodernism
One of the most helpful framings offered in this book is the way the authors detailed the slow roll-out of different phases of postmodern Theory and application and how these phases impacted the real world. Dr. Lindsay and Pluckrose lay out very clear fault lines and specific timelines in the mutations of Postmodern thought as it continued its long march through our academic institutions and other arenas of society since the 1960’s on through the early 2020’s.
There are three distinct periods of Postmodernism identified in this work.
The first phase began at the Frankfurt School in France in the 1960’s and involved a radical deconstruction of all meta-narratives, including the American myths of the self-made man, the goodness of the Founding Fathers, and the meritocratic, individualist fantasy of the hard work that entitles us all to achieving the American Dream. In Cynical Theories, this is called the high deconstructive phase.
The second phase is called applied postmodernism, which began in the 1990’s and found its zenith in the mid 2000’s with the installment of postmodern concepts like Privilege Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory and other offshoot theories that began to be applied to real world activism.
The third phase began in the 2010’s and is called reified postmodernism. In this phase, the deconstructive ideas, concepts and practices that began to be applied in the second phase began to become reified, which means that they have become “made real” and solidified and concretized into a rigid framework of beliefs, ideas and practices that has essentially become a secular religion.
We are currently in the third phase, which, according to the authors, has become contradictory and incoherent while at the same time, shrink-wrapped into a tightly organized secular religion with a complete canon of “sacred texts” and moral pronouncements that have energized increasingly large numbers of people to engage in activism on its behalf.
The most fascinating mutation from the first phase of high deconstructive postmodernism to the most recent iteration of reified postmodernism is the re-institutionalization of meta-narratives as a central component of the ideology. The earliest postmodern writers (e.g. Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard and others) were strictly deconstructionist in the sense that they broke down and de-legitimized all narratives -not allowing any of them to become sacralized as “The Truth About History and Reality” and believing strongly that all overarching stories (meta-narratives) are constructed and maintained in order to consolidate power and to control the perceptions (and language) of the populace. But, in the current phase of postmodernist philosophy as it is now expressed through Critical Social Justice is what Dr. Lindsay and Pluckrose have termed “The Truth According to Social Justice”.
The authors argue that the current phase of reified postmodernism is in some respects the mirror opposite of the classical version -the high deconstructive phase– in that it puts forth a powerful and unmistakably simplistic meta-narrative that revolves around current and historic oppression of groups of people. In this overarching meta-narrative, the country called America (and the West in general) is built solely on oppression and nearly all of the discourses, policies, norms, cultural artifacts, values and laws are intentionally designed to favor (i.e. to privilege) some groups over others. No room is allowed for acknowledging the many other variables of human life that contributed to building the world we see today such as the search for belonging and love, the need for meaning, the entrepreneurial spirit, scientific curiosity and discovery, creative artistry, inspirational awe at the magnificence of the cosmos, the lust for sex, the urge to innovate and invent, the natural instinct for protecting children, the fear of death, the quest for truth, the need to organize resources, the search for food, the call to adventure, religious inspiration, and all the other complex inner and outer realities and truly universal human traits that make all of us much more alike in the present moment and across time than these newer oppression-oriented meta-narratives would have us believe.
The authors put it this way:
“In this new incarnation, postmodernism is no longer characterized by radical skepticism, epistemic despair, nihilism, and a playful, though pessimistic, tendency to pick apart and deconstruct everything we think we know. It no seeks to apply deconstructive methods and postmodernist principles to the task of creating social change, which it pushes into everything. In the guise of Social Justice scholarship, postmodernism has become a grand, sweeping explanation for society -a metanarrative- of its own.”
And we see this happening all around us from the infiltration of these ideas into the climate change movement, the fracturing of the Occupy movement, to the introduction of postmodern racialized theories into K-12 Math curricula and teacher training sessions. Worst of all, we see the impact these radical approaches to social critique and activism on K-12 children and students in colleges and universities who are suffering emotional abuse because of the ways in which different radical social change programs are being forced into their learning lives.
Reified Postmodernism (third phase) and Social Justice Scholarship
The greatest irony of reified postmodernism, according to the authors, is that this new secular religion deconstructs everything considered “normal” in our society, including gender, sex, the nuclear family, the principles of responsibility, hard work, being on time, earning one’s status (meritocracy) and politeness while rigidly maintaining a oversimplified meta-narrative that we are never allowed to question or deconstruct. In reified postmodernism, these values are considered normative values and are collectively grouped under the heading “normativity”. And we must come to accept that normativity is something that should never be allowed to stand. Thus, we have the blurring of boundaries in Queer Theory, which involves “queering” spaces, “queering” relationships, and transmogrifying all forms and transgressing against all boundaries.
Another important theory covered in the book is Postcolonial theory which operates from many of the same postmodernist principles as Queer Theory. In Postcolonial Theory, the values mentioned above are considered “hegemonic” (unfairly dominating) because they were supposedly installed in our societies by cisgendered, straight, white males. Although many of these values can be verified to have been promoted in ancient societies, including matriarchal societies and empires controlled by people of color, Postcolonial Theory authors insist that these values are both “bad” and that they were manufactured by whiteness, maleness, straightness, and cis-ness.
The practical applications of these values are nearly endless. We see the throwing away of grammar and mechanics in writing because they are seen as products of “White Supremacy Culture”, and thus we have Postcolonial/Critical Race Theory authors like bell hooks and Critical Race Theory Buddhist teachers like angel Kyodo williams refusing to capitalize their names in order to “resist” the hegemonic values of White Supremacy or White Male Patriarchy. And we can clearly see the admixture of Queer Theory and Postcolonial Theory in the rejection of “gender normativity” or the gender binary when we see young girls transitioning into boys, men wearing dresses, women with beards, grown men identifying as little girls, boys with makeup dancing at gay clubs in front of grown men, and the growing trend of “gender-bending”, where an increasing number of people are self-identifying as either gender-neutral nonbinary or as any one of literally hundreds of genders.
My view is that there is nothing wrong with any of this experimentation, and as a queer, liberal artist whose been around non-conformity all of my life, I’m all for “sticking it to the man”. The problem identified in Cynical Theories -and one that I have identified in my own studies and experience- is that non-conformity with traditional categories, structures, norms and values has taken on a dark and twisted attitude of nihilism and contempt towards all of normativity. Thus, we see a fiercely held to tribalism that vilifies Whiteness, maleness, traditional families, straightness, non-transness (cisgenderedness) and all things deemed to be normative.
To say that these attitudes becoming reified has contributed to an increasingly balkanized society is to understate the problem. Under the guise of “liberation” from the supposed oppression brought upon us all by the “normies”, we see a movement that has actively trained people to see everything conventional as evil and as the enemy. And thus, we see in movements that are informed by this ideology a growing spirit of absolute hatred for Western countries (especially the United States and Britain) and for identity groups that have been labeled as “the oppressor” or as having the Original Sin of “privilege”.
Privilege: How Theory is Used to Shut People Down
Cynical Theories explores the rise of Privilege Theory and its applications and documents the history of the concept and the many new additions to the theory from CSJ thought leaders, including Peggy McIntosh (who wrote the now-classic essay, “Unpacking the Knapsack”), Alison Bailey (“Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback”), Barbara Applebaum (who coined the phrase “White Complicity”), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak(“Can the Subaltern Speak?”), and many other theorists.
What I found most useful about the book’s coverage of the history and development of Privilege Theory and its related concepts was how arbitrary many of them are and how easily they came to be regarded as authoritative or even sacred texts handed down from what can reasonably be called a sacred secular priesthood. A truer picture arose for me that these concepts are not sacrosanct at all and are often just the products of the rumblings and musings and ideological experimentations of individual fallible human beings who had already made a commitment to seeing the world through the single lens of Critical Social Justice and simply played around with ideas that rested on the unquestioned (and uncritical!) premise that all of life and all relationships are predicated solely on the pursuit and acquisition of power and domination.
This is not to say that some ideas do not have merit. One can easily ascertain that American Whites, for example, have had the experience of seeing people who look like them represented in history books, art, politics and entertainment for 400 years, so there is something valuable in recognizing that seeing your own group consistently represented and recognized is clearly an advantage at least psychologically.
However, as the authors of Cynical Theories note, there is something almost obscene and corrupt about the way Privilege Theory is often abused by activists and educators in the service of shutting people down, stereotyping dissenting voices who belong to identity groups that are disfavored by Theory, and intentionally stigmatizing any form of dissent by accusing people of bigotry, including unconscious bigotry.
One of the most important concepts that has helped to justify these shutdowns, according to Pluckrose and Dr. Lindsay is what Social Justice educator Alison Bailey has called Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback. The word epistemic, like the world epistemology, regards the nature of knowing and knowledge, which in the context of Critical Social Justice scholarship and practice involves a very different take.
The following passage from an essay Bailey wrote for the leading feminist journal Hypatia is included in the subchapter called “Thou Shalt Not Disagree With Theory” to use of the concept of Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback to shut students down.
“I focus on these ground-holding responses [dissenting opinions] because they are pervasive, tenacious, and bear a strong resemblance to critical-thinking practices, and because I believe that their uninterrupted circulation does psychological and epistemic harm to members of marginalized groups… Treating privilege-preserving epistemic pushback as a form of critical engagement validates it and allows it to circulate more freely; this, as I’ll argue later can do epistemic violence to oppressed people.”
The authors further describe Bailey’s belief that critical thinking (which includes free thought) should be replaced by Critical Pedagogy, which in Bailey’s words:
“…regards the claims that students make in response to social-justice issues not as propositions to be assessed for their truth value, but as expressions of power that function to re-inscribe and perpetuate social inequalities. Its mission is to teach students ways of identifying and mapping how power shapes our understandings of the world. This is the first step toward resisting and transforming social injustices.”
The authors of Cynical Theories argue that while this particular essay hasn’t yet become widely influential, it serves the purpose of giving us a window into the ways the concepts of epistemic justice, epistemic harm/violence, and epistemic pushback can be used to justify the shutting down of dissent and a useful example of the belief that allowing opposing viewpoints to be expressed (which are only serving to protect power and privilege) actively “harms” oppressed people by violating their sense of knowing (their epistemic well-being).
Most astonishing of all, write Pluckrose and Lindsay, Bailey’s aim in this passage and indeed the aim of all who believe in Theory is “not to seek truth, but to teach a specific understanding of Social Justice, for the purposes of activism”.
But, is social justice scholarship and activism itself bad? Not at all, the authors say throughout the book. In fact, they explicitly affirm in the two pages of the book “that many of the ideas generated even by the reified postmodernism of Social Justice scholarship -including the basic idea of intersectionality, that unique injustices can lie in “intersected” identities that require special consideration- are insightful and worthy of submission to the marketplace of ideas for evaluation, adaptation, further study, refinement, and potentially eventual application.”[italics mine]
They go on to say that insights, ideas, political movements, and ideologies should not be regarded as “the authoritative position of any identity group, since such groups are comprised of individuals with diverse ideas and a common humanity.” Most importantly, they deny “the worth of any scholarship that dismisses the possibility of objective knowledge or the importance of consistent principles”, contending further, that to deny these things is the product of “ideological bias, rather than scholarship.
Personal Reflections on Disadvantaged Groups
Having covered some important arguments made in Cynical Theories, I want to take a moment in this section to present some of my own perspectives around system-wide disadvantages that I am certain are real. I currently teach developmental reading and writing courses at a small technical and engineering college in a major city with a majority population of students of color, including American students and international students from a wide diversity of ethnicities and cultures. As a college literacy and communication instructor who has also taught in the same school district where many of my current students are coming from (some who I quite literally worked with when they were my middle school students), I am more than aware of the gap between the privileges and opportunities that exist between different populations in multiple areas of life.
One particularly salient example that comes to mind is when the Advanced Work students I taught in my middle school Journalism class was one hundred percent white, while almost all of the other homerooms that took that same class were almost entirely students of color. There’s much that can be said -and much that has been said- about how these types of glaringly obvious inequalities manifest and the extent to which historic oppression and bigotry might have contributed to the unequal outcomes in public education and other areas of life. It is beyond the scope of this book review, but I mention it here because I think it’s important for me to establish my professional context and personal experiences as I process the insights, theoretical ideas, and moral arguments presented in this book, especially when so much is at stake for my students and their families and communities, my own professional ability to do right by them, and the precarious nature of higher education itself at a time when enrollment is at an all-time low and when the building of relationships has become all the more challenging due to centrality of the online platforms that we have been compelled to teach with as a replacement for real-world contact.
Covid 19 has done a real number on my students’ communities, having disproportionately impacted communities of color, and with the added stressor of the additional economic hardship that some were already facing, it’s important for me to be sensitive, thoughtful and understanding about where they are coming from.
Even if the concept is often misapplied, overextended, and abused, privilege can be occasionally useful as a concept if it’s more reasonably defined as having certain advantages, access to certain opportunities and possessing freedom from certain kinds of suffering because of the fortune of being born into a certain identity group.
As an educator, it’s important for me to acknowledge some of the clear and undeniable disparities that continue to exist between different demographic groups in Western countries. In the United States, for example, most public schools are funded in large part by property taxes. It should be obvious to most honest people that the poverty of many urban districts with predominantly students of color have less money available to fund programs and resources for the local public schools serving those neighborhoods. And, when we consider the generational impact of American banks’ practice of red-lining (where banks intentionally didn’t offer home loans to people of color in certain neighborhoods) and the correspondingly small number of home owners among Black and brown populations, it’s impossible to deny the clear disadvantages faced by these populations.
Something that has never been lost on me was the fact that my Advanced Work students (a hundred per cent White) had their own laptops, more expensive cell phones and better access to after-school programs, private tutors, and multiple networking opportunities that I am certain have already brought them into networks of power and opportunity that my students of color are likely not to have experienced.
But, in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the widespread proliferation of diversity, equity and inclusion trainings that rely substantially on the reified postmodernist theories discussed in Cynical Theories, the question of the extent to which racism itself is the sole cause for all injustices and disparities faced by people of color -and what should be done about it- has come to the very forefront of the public’s consciousness, resulting in a very real crisis that threatens to tear our society apart.
Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and Anti-racism
Chapter 5 covers these two theories and begins with the subheading “ending racism by seeing it everywhere.”
Pluckrose and Lindsay affirm from the start that Critical race Theory is “at root” an American creation and that although the theory has been applied in other places, the racial history of the United States heavily flavors this system of ideas and practices.
This chapter acknowledges that race and racism began as social constructions created to justify European colonialism and the Atlantic slave and goes on to explore the rise of the Theory approach to analyzing and resolving the problem of racism in Western countries and in the United States in particular. We also learn about the beginnings of powerful challenges to White racist ideology, including the voices of former slaves Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and later the work of scholar and reformer W. E. B. Dubois who, alongside Winthrop Jordan “set out the history of color-based racism in the United States…. To expose racism for the ugly and unfounded ideology that it is.”
As they begin to describe the beginnings of Critical race Theory, Lindsay and Pluckrose make a distinction between the early phase of Critical race Theory, which was “materialist” in its approach focusing on equality under the law, economic fairness and rights to educational and housing opportunities, property tax law, and so forth, and the latest phase of Critical Race Theory which is postmodernist in its approach, focusing on language and discourse, hate speech, safe spaces, “whiteness”, representation in entertainment and media, micro-aggressions and implicit bias.
Ultimately this chapter argues that the Theory approach to solving racism is a “noble goal” with “terrible means”. As Critical race Theory grew in influence among Critical Social Justice scholars in the 1970’s and beyond, certain ideas became viral among the scholars, which in turn, propagated other new mind viruses which the authors of Cynical Theories call Social Justice memes. As these memes developed in the echo chambers of the Theory treadmills in academia, certain scholars rose above the rest and thus were able to influence the entire field with the powerful ideas we hear all the time in today’s institutions and various media outlets, including traditional and social media.
What follows is a brief bullet point list of common ideas, beliefs, practices, phrases and assertions related to race and racism that come directly from Critical race Theory.
- Anti-racism (the specific practice of CRT’s version). This word and its attendant beliefs have become mainstream since the murder of George Floyd and has become a vehicle for transmitting the beliefs and practices that come from Critical Race Theory and has been greatly helped by the publication of Ibrahim Kendi X’s books on anti-racism, including “How to Be an Anti-racist” and “Stamped from the Beginning”. One practice in anti-racist praxis is Maoist style struggle sessions in which one must either engage in self-denunciation for the sin of one’s inner racism or white supremacy (white) or engage in callouts and denunciations against those people of color who do not sufficiently follow the beliefs and dictates of theory due to their “internalized white supremacy”.
- All white people are racist and will never overcome it, but they can learn to live with it by listening to the “lived experiences” of people of color and take direction from them. This idea has been widely promoted by Critical Whiteness scholar Robin D’Angelo whose book #1 Bestseller “White Fragility” promotes a Theory she designed based on her own inner experience of racism against people of color. At a conference in 2015, D’Angelo and several other Theory scholars made the following statement: “The question is not ‘Did racism take place’? but rather ‘How did racism manifest in that situation?’” This idea stems from the ideological commitment to the idea that the entire world is structured by racism.
- Saying you “don’t see color” (color-blindness) makes you racist. The rejection of color-blindness was defended by Critical race Theorist Derrick Bell, the first tenured African American professor at Harvard Law School, who the authors tell us, “is often regarded as the progenitor of what we generally call critical race Theory, having derived the name by inserting race into his area of specialty: critical legal theory”.
- If it’s not intersectional, it’s white supremacy. The concept of intersectionality was designed by a Black feminist legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw who was a student of Derrick Bell’s. According to the authors, intersectionality began as a “heuristic” -a tool that lets someone discover something for themselves- but has long been treated as a theory and is now described by Crenshaw as a ‘practice’”. Crenshaw came up with the metaphor of a “roadway intersection” when she was examining three different legal cases where it was difficult to determine which marginalized identity of the plaintiffs were being discriminated against. Over the past few years, the concept and practices of intersectionality has exploded, giving rise to what some have called the “oppression Olympics” where people from different marginalized groups compete with one another for victimhood status.
- We live in a system of White Supremacy. This idea was advanced by Critical race Theorists Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic in their book Critical Race Theory. In it they assert that “racism is ordinary, not aberrational”, meaning that it is the fundamental ground of all things, not merely something that occurs every so often. According to these Theorists, racism is experienced by people of color every day in the United States which means that color-blind policies “can tackle only the most egregious and demonstrable forms of discrimination.”
- White Silence is Violence. This slogan has become ubiquitous and can be seen at virtually all #BlackLivesMatter protests. The concept of white silence stems directly from the concept of White Complicity developed by Theorist scholar Barbara Applebaum who forwarded the idea that just by being white in a white-dominant system and not actively working to “dismantle” systems of oppression, including the “dominant discourses” of “whiteness”, a white person is complicit with the “system of white supremacy”.
- Racism = Prejudice + Institutional Power. Therefore only white people can be racist. This idea was proposed by Patricia Bidol who designed the equation for a book she wrote in 1970. Interestingly, this idea predates the development of Critical race Theory, though it certainly does belong in the category of Critical Theory in that the re-design of the meaning of racism was an attempt not at discovering and promoting “truth” but in exposing the “discourses” that are propagated by those in “dominant groups” so that the systems they benefit from can be dismantled.
- White Supremacy Culture. This idea has taken on a life of its own. Based on the belief that the dominance of whiteness is perpetuated through certain “discourses” and privileged “ways of knowing” (such as the use of reason, logic and empirical evidence to discover truth) that keep this identity group in power, certain ideas, attitudes and practices are said to belong exclusively to so-called white supremacy culture and therefore to continue marginalizing people of color and indigenous people who are considered to have their own “ways of knowing” and being. The following list of white supremacy culture is commonly shared at Critical Race Theory informed “diversity, equity and inclusion” trainings: Being on time, being polite, attention to detail, “worship” for the written word, the belief in objective truth, scheduling (and the belief in the concept of time, the belief in working hard, rugged individualism, quantity over quality, paternalism, perfectionism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, comfort
- Progressive Stack. The practice of “centering” marginalized people in conversations and “foregrounding” their insights, experiences and demands. The more intersectional marginalized identities a person has, the higher up on the stack their status is, which means that they get to have privileged access to being heard, and, in some cases, privileged access to power and recourses.
I want to say here that I believe that it is of vital importance that we recognize that virtually all of the ideas, beliefs, practices, assertions and moral claims that have become institutionalized in the framework of Critical race Theory (and other Theories such as Post-Colonial Theory and Queer Theory) are unfalsifiable. This means that they cannot be proven or disproven and that we simply must accept them as a matter of faith. And, when you couple that religious-like edict with the authoritarian practices of “the progressive stack” and what the authors have called “the new caste system”, in which people considered to belong to “dominant” groups must constantly defer to those considered to be marginalized, it’s easy to see how the uncritical and deferential acceptance of these practices could make room for unscrupulous opportunists to rise to the top.
The following extended passage from Cynical Theories sums up what’s wrong with Critical race Theory in its reified postmodernist iteration:
“The core problems with Critical race Theory are that it puts social significance back into racial categories and inflames racism, tends to be purely Theoretical, uses the postmodern knowledge and political principles, is profoundly aggressive, asserts its relevance to all aspects of Social Justice, and -not least- begins from the assumption that racism is both ordinary and permanent, everywhere and always. Consequently, every interaction between a person with a dominant racial identity and one with a marginalized one must be characterized by a power imbalance (the postmodern political principle). The job of the Theorist or activist is to draw attention to this imbalance -often described as racism or white supremacy -in order to begin dismantling it. It also sees racism as omnipresent and eternal, which grants it a mythological status, like sin or depravity”.
In the last chapter of Cynical Theories, the authors present a kind of manifesto that affirms their belief in universal liberalism and open inquiry, which they contend were chiefly responsible for the successes of the Civil Rights era and later successes like gay marriage laws, transgender rights and equal rights for women. They also make clear assertions about what must be denied in order to win back the liberal approach to social justice as opposed to the illiberal approach that has come to dominate the discussions around rights and fair treatment.
All in all, I think they have successfully argued throughout the book for a return to universal social justice, and, given what’s at stake, I fervently hope that others will recognize this, too. Cynical Theories quotes extensively from the thought leaders of this Critical Social Justice ideology -with cited sources throughout the book and a comprehensive index of notes and citations at the end of the book, which readers who wish to refer to original source material will appreciate.
There are some elements of the book that I thought could have been better and more in alignment with their stated intention of appealing to the “layperson” rather than academics in the writing. I would say that the writing is (necessarily!) fairly sophisticated, which, given the subject matter, could not have been avoided, and I do recognize that they did their best to speak clearly without too much jargon and over-explaining. But, I think laypersons like myself (at least in comparison to them) would have appreciated some charts and graphs and maybe a repeating visual representation of the postmodern principles and themes for quick reference and reorientation. This is pretty heady stuff, and I sometimes found myself confused about what was what in regards to their original layout of the themes and phases of postmodernism.
Fortunately, Cynical Theories is not the last word, as Dr. James Lindsay and a team of people, including Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian and others created a remarkable foundation and website called New Discourses, which regularly publishes outstanding material that will arm people with the knowledge they need to roll back some of the more extreme elements of Critical Social Justice and help to usher in a newly invigorated and hopefully widespread commitment to the principles of universal liberalism, open inquiry, reason, evidence and debate.