Cynical Theories: A Review of a Book on Critical Social Justice

Balanced Perspectives

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.

Black Lives Matter Everyday

Balanced Perspectives

I am re-sharing a post I wrote in January for a third time because it’s relevant to the current moment when conversations are happening around what some call structural and systemic racism and others call system-wide disadvantages.

Drawing attention to identifiable disadvantages faced by Black people and other people of color is not an attempt to signal my virtue or to protect myself from the mob by telling them I’m an ally with their cause. Rather, it’s an attempt to share my own understandings around the disparities faced by Black Lives and other lives of color in relation to my decades of experience as an educator in urban environments where the majority of students are students of color and where many schools I taught in have had a majority of teachers of color.

The disparities are real, and if the way I present them can be helpful in getting more people on board with understanding these disparities, then I want to do that.

Though the original post I’m sharing below doesn’t explicitly mention police brutality against Black people or other people of color, it does establish the argument that there are indeed extra hurdles that need to be jumped through by those who are not born into networks of advantage where certain discourses are spoken, taught, written, and practiced and where access to networks of support and networks of power are immediately available. A large percentage of white people are born into worlds where Standard American Discourse (the language that gives you access to successful educational achievement and networks of power) is the norm, and worlds where their own culture is treated as the default and is mirrored back to them in their schooling and in the culture at large.

The perspective I am presenting here is one that is in alignment with the practice of Critical Pedagogy -the educational wing of the Critical Theory approach to analyzing systems. It is an approach to structural analysis that, in many instances, offers interesting helpful observations about imbalances even if the interpretations of those imbalances and proposals for correcting those balances are not always accurate or effective.

Where I part ways with Critical Theory -and especially Critical Race Theory- is that I do not see these disparities through a conspiratorial lens or as the result of colluding forces vying for power; rather, I see them as lazy artifacts of a system that by default was set up to serve the majority -something that has gone on since the beginning of civilization itself.

That we should change and adapt these systems to better serve those left to the margins without compromising high standards is not a question for me.

It’s also not a question for me whether or not some groups have higher instances where individuals have surrendered to a life of “survival choices” partly due to their lack of access to education and other institutions and to networks and discourse communities that could have given them an equal advantage to that of their white counterparts.

The fact that these survival choices can often include the commission of crimes is also not a question for me…. white, black, hispanic, male, female, trans, etc. Anyone who is drawn to break laws on any level is bound to have more interactions with the police, and people born into networks of disadvantage who then go on to commit crimes when face with less opportunities to thrive are bound to have more of those interactions. Given some of the disparities in our country’s systems, this at least partly explains the statistically disproportionate killing of black people by police. in addition to other factors, including racism. And the more interactions with the police, the more that can go wrong.

We all have to make sense of all this from where we are, using our own experiences and our own moral and observational faculties. As an educator, I can best speak from the education angle, and I can say with confidence that in general, people of color in this country do not have the same level of advantages in our eductional institutions, our curriula and in the distribution of our resources.

This gap of equality of opportunity is what am exploring below in the context of standardized testing and other contributing factors.


“Why Culture in the Design of Standardized Tests Should Be Considered”

*Originally posted, January 11, 2020

I was going to respond to a thread about IQ tests and how cultural bias in the tests designers (like so many tests) can impact the results depending on the cultural background of the test-taker.

It wasn’t a good time for me to go down a rabbit hole, so I thought I’d write about it here.

I’d like to demonstrate for a moment how some standardized tests are experienced by some black students, Latino students, and other students who don’t come from home and neighborhood environments that speak the same discourse (or have the same cultural references) that the tests are designed with.

[NOTE: Contrary to the beliefs in certain strands of social justice ideology (e.g. Critical Theory), I don’t believe the inequality of opportunity represented in the test designs is intentional or nefarious or the result of a dominant group’s conspiracy to stay in power. I think it’s best to set aside that sort of suspicious thinking and get down to the business of understanding the different linguistic and cultural hurtles some groups may encounter in certain schooling contexts and why it’s important to make adjustments with these variables taken into consideration].

To demonstrate what this might be like, I have constructed a sentence in Spanish that is grammatically correct and that makes perfect sense on its own linguistic and cultural terms.

I then wrote out its exact English syntactical translation to demonstrate the difficulty of reading and answering questions that are written in a discourse and with cultural references that are different from our own.

Here is the literal syntax translation I came up with:

“Upon me placing depressed at cause of that some persons have the birds in the head when contemplate the legitimation of the examinations of IQ.”

It’s a simple sentence, so chances are good that you’d figure it out, even if you did not speak the same level or pattern of discourse as those who created this sentence. But imagine if the weird syntax, sequencing and culturally specific references were sprinkled throughout the whole test. You would be exerting a little more mental effort and might perhaps experience more fatigue than those for whom these syntactical pattens and cultural references are intimately known and immediately recognizable.

If you are a native speaker of English or even a person who was raised in a household that speaks Standard American English or Academic English, and you came across these types of sentence constructions on a test, it is reasonable to say that your results will likely be compromised by your lack of immediate, effortless access to the syntax and cultural references in the sentence.

Here is the Spanish version:

“Me pongo deprimido a causa de que algunas personas tienen los pájaros en la cabeza cuando contempla la legitimación de los exámenes de IQ.”

And here is the modified English translation I came up with:

“I become depressed when some people go nuts when they contemplate the legitimacy of IQ tests.”

Even the word contemplate isn’t a perfect translation. It’s more likely that people go nuts [have birds on their head] when they consider all of the factors that determine the legitimacy of IQ tests.

Another interesting factor is that a Puerto Rican student might never have heard of the expression “tiene las pajaros en la cabeza”, which is a Central American expression, which literally means “birds on the head” but figuratively means “has mental illness” or “is crazy”.

It gets even more interesting when you consider that when Central Americans say “birds on the head”, they really mean “birds on YOUR head”, as the “you” is often understood (but not directly spoken) in many Spanish language constructions. A deeper investigation into the linguistic barriers would reveal that body parts are often spoken of without the appropriators “my”, “his” or “their”, which brings in an entirely new layer of inquiry into the relationship between language, the body and the conception of the physical self for cultures that speak a different language or have different linguistic constructions within the same language as the language (or discourse) that is spoken and written on the standardized test.

So, the political “Left”, which includes an educational component that strives for what we educators call “cultural literacy” has something to offer in the examination of where we might be marginalizing whole groups of people by not acknowledging -and adjusting for- the differentials that exist between majority/dominant groups’ access to certain discourses and cultural referents includes in some standardized tests and the lack of these portals of access experienced by minority groups and all those who do not speak the same discourse in the household.

And, when some tests are used to identify intellectual competency, then the lack of access to the “dominant discourse” becomes a troubling problem because then we are incorrectly assigning a level of intrinsic competence and even intelligence, that is likely to be incomplete or inaccurate.

We could call this “systemic racism”, but, where I part with the “woke” ethos is the more practical approach of simply naming a pattern, pointing to its outcomes and potential moral error, and advocating for a policy change.

So, there is a good deal of truth to the idea that privileged access to certain discourses can determine access to equal opportunity, which then impacts the life circumstances and outcomes in the lives of individuals who belong to groups who have considerable distance from the majority’s discourse.

Hopefully, over time, a more emotionally moderate and intellectually rigorous approach to examining education policies and equity issues (like the one I’m modeling here) can be recognized, embraced and practiced by us all.

Societal harmony, justice and peace may very well depend on it.

* This writing is Part I of a 2-part series. The other piece is called “Support Black Lives. Reject Racial Essentialism” and can be found here:

Support Black Lives. Reject Racial Essentialism

Balanced Perspectives

I support Black Lives Matter as a movement that is drawing much needed attention to specific structural disadvantages faced by Black Americans and other People of Color in the United States.

But, I do not support some of the ideas and philosophical positions that are becoming popular in some of the other movements that are adjacent to Black Lives Matter.

One of the most popular philosophical positions that I reject is *racial essentialism* -the idea that individuals of any race share a single, over-arching character trait that is said to belong to their group. Throughout history, we have seen how racial essentialism has offered justification for slavery, war, and genocide. But, it can also cause a more subtle outcome in more advanced civilizations… It can create an ever-present cloud of suspicion and a smoldering, slow-burning resentment between groups, undermining the collaboration, mutual trust and sharing of networks and skills that is necessary for a society to function in the most optimal way.

Here are two of the most popular racially essentialist ideas that have been advanced in recent years:

1. The idea that White people are permanent oppressors 
2. The idea that People of Color are permanent victims.

These and similar ideas come from a specific set of beliefs found in an ideological framework called Critical Race Theory, and although this framework has been embraced by academics and has the appearance of moral authority and scientific respectability, some of its central ideas has neither of those things. When we consider the deeper dimensions of CRT’s chief beliefs and the implications of a society that has embraced those beliefs, we can even say that some of these ideas can contribute to a perpetual and unnecessary spiritual war within our ourselves and between entire demographic groups for generations to come.

Here’s a brief simple history of the development of some of these ideas.

In the 1970’s anti-oppression manuals were passed out to workshop facilitators who were just beginning to hold anti-racist workshops that were based on Critical Race Theory’s beliefs about human nature and power and conflict, including the belief that all social, economic, political, and interpersonal relationships are governed by the pursuit of power and domination. With this ideologically-derived belief in mind, these manuals gave the facilitators instructions to intentionally inflict feelings of guilt and shame in the White workshop participants so that they could be freed from their junkyard dog grip on the idea that they were the cultural default and that Black and Brown people were just satellites forced to circle around the margins of a supposedly White world.

Over time, the central theme of these workshops (and the framework of Critical Race Theory itself) began to morph from the deep explorations into patterns of cultural domination and marginalization into advancing the twisted idea that all groups have permanent, unchangeable positive or negative traits. In short, these workshops and the published literature began to teach that all White people are racist oppressors and that all People of Color are permanent, innocent victims.

It’s important to understand that most people we see out on the streets protesting and most advocates who work on behalf of people of color, social justice and civil rights do not hold these extreme beliefs. But, we also have to be aware that these beliefs are becoming more popular in certain areas of civic life and that we are likely to see more evidence of this as time goes on.

One idea that seems to be gaining a great deal of ground is the idea that all White people have a permanent condition of internalized racism deep inside them (that cannot be gotten rid of) and that they must learn to live with this condition almost like a chronic disease that has to be managed. This idea is accompanied by the idea of the exceptional access to wisdom that people of color are claimed to have due to their lived experiences as victims of oppression.

There are aspects of these ideas that can be said to have value, but ultimately, they have little practical value in any meaningful way. While it’s true that White people have often benefited from generations of accumulated wealth, property and access to language discourses and power networks, it does not follow that all White people are intrinsically and permanently racist. And while it’s true that victims of oppression should always be regarded as having the most insight into the impact of oppressive policies and systems on their own bodies and minds and the bodies and minds of their families and communities (their lived experiences), it does not follow that individuals who belong to oppressed groups, including People of Color, are permanently and intrinsically more wise than all other groups or that they themselves are somehow incapable of inhuman and oppressive behaviors (which even a cursory study of history can confirm).

So, now a question arises.

Should we reject all ideas associated with the specific CRT framework currently called anti-racism?

I don’t think we can.

Like all political ideologies and religious cults, there are some good ideas mixed in with the bad ones. Some ideas and understandings found in anti-racist teachings, in fact, have enormous value.

For example, if we replace the word “Whiteness” with “Majority-ness”, we can see what anti-racist literature is getting at. Growing up as a member of a majority group causes people in majority groups to consider themselves as the default stand-in representative group for all people. This is the idea that a majority group’s experiences (in this case White people) can be considered the universal experience that all other groups must relate to as a reference. One of the artifacts that results from this attitude of default-ness is an indifference to the suffering and inequities faced by those who exist on the margins of society, which means that systems and policies we have built often to not take into account the specific contexts and experiences faced by marginalized groups.

It’s important to acknowledge these things if we want to do the difficult work of building sustainable relationships in a multicultural society and if we want to clear the way for equal rights for all races and ethnicities.

But, to be truly effective in our aims towards an inter-culturally harmonious society, we also need to free ourselves from the idea that the attitude of majority default-ness or cultural supremacy is somehow permanent and unchangeable. The idea that people who belong to majority groups cannot become more deeply accepting of the intrinsic preciousness and equality of other groups is simply not accurate and is unsupported by scientific evidence and real life experience.

Another helpful way to look at this is to see that these ideas are not *sociological discoveries* observed through empirical investigation, but *ideological equations* designed to achieve specific political goals. And while we may support some or all of these political goals, indulging the psychodrama of guilt and absolution based on these designed equations is a pointless distraction that does nothing to advance those goals. It simply does not compare with the rigors involved in the serious analysis of problems and the actionable policy-making that can make a real difference in the lives of millions of people of color.

And it risks the deepening of the grooves of separation and inter-group hostility that can stifle the forward movement that all thinking people with a conscience desperately want.

Racial essentialism must go.

* This writing is Part 2 of a 2-part series. The other piece is called “Black Lives Matter Everyday” and can be found HERE:

The Buddha was not on the left… or the right

Balanced Perspectives, Psychology, Spirituality

The Buddha was not on the Left: A balanced perspective

In 2020 without warning, Facebook flagged and then banned an article called “The Buddha Was Not on the Left”, which was written from a balanced perspective by Patrick Stinton, a Buddhist practitioner who maintains the view that there are aspects of wisdom in both leftist and rightist thinking. At the time of this blog entry (5/28/20), this exceptionally thoughtful essay cannot be seen on Facebook.

Included in this image below is an excerpt of the essay that has been re-published in its entirety below.

Summary of “The Buddha Was Not On the Left”

In recent years, two of the most prominent theories in modern social justice belief systems -Intersectionality Theory and Critical Race Theory- have become increasingly influential in Western religious and spiritual communities, including churches, mosques, and temples. With the formal adoption of these theories by the American Southern Baptist Convention and by various schools of Buddhism in the United States and parts of Europe, it seems clear that these theories have been embraced to some degree as an extension of these traditions’ teachings.

In the essay, The Buddha Was not on the Left, clinical psychology doctoral candidate and longtime Vipassana meditation practitioner Patrick Stinton offers some insights that can provide balance to the perspectives and practices that have become increasingly commonplace in some spiritual practice communities, including practices related to group identity, teachings presented within the frames of ideologically driven oppression narratives, and the gradual embrace of the belief that one can know the inner lives of entire demographic groups based on the unchangeable sociocultural characteristics of individuals who belong to those groups.

The essay also explores the theme of what the ancients called “idiot compassion”, which wisdom traditions have rejected as sentimental and lacking in insight into the unadorned and sometimes harsh realities of life and human nature. By embracing personal responsibility, a healthy respect for boundaries and form, and the spirit of open-ended curiosity and inquisitiveness in place of victimhood consciousness, Stinton reminds us, a higher moral perspective and authentically powerful sense of self based on objective consciousness might be possible.

Ultimately, this work admonishes us to consider why the Buddha and the ancient teachers from other non-dual wisdom traditions would have rejected the one-sided approach to living our realization in the world.

Below, is the full text of the essay.

Political Polarization

November 1, 2018
By Patrick Stinton

Natural systems thinking has something to offer the assimilation of Vipassanā into the West, which in its pure form should decrease the social polarity we currently suffer.

In my estimation, a pro-borders/tradition/hierarchy/stability, i.e. “conservative” view and a pro-openness/revolution/equality/creativity, i.e. “progressive” view are two sides of the same coin. In fact, I am convinced that they represent natural forces or patterns found in all living things. This is a very strong, and maybe even unpopular claim in some contexts.
I would say that “Buddhism” is overrepresented and over identified with “progressives” and “the left.” I would also say that this produces an inaccurate and dangerously limited representation of vipassanā meditation, which is the practical system that the historical Buddhā taught. I believe that this limited representation over-emphasizes one part of a highly complex, total system while destabilizing another part. However, if there is any validity to this claim, then it should be no surprise when the natural forces that represent “the other side” react in kind to such a unidimensional, polar-progressive view with its own unidimensional, polar-conservative opposite.
It is important to note that this claim is based on the assumption that reactions in one side of a political polarity occur in response to reactions in another side of a political polarity. Not everyone will agree with this assumption, particularly people who are angry at democrats or angry at republicans, or just angry at the President, whatever “side” he actually represents. But what I am proposing is a heuristic which provides a new and possibly more productive way to look at a very complex problem. It suggests that the functioning of “the left” and “the right,” to grossly oversimplify that dialectic, are intrinsically interdependent and comprise a whole in which each cannot exist without the other. As reactivity and anxiety increases, some indications for this relationship might include; 1) that each side is equally hyper-focused on their own strengths and hyper-focused on their opponent’s weaknesses, and 2) that each side uses the same class of argument against the other to push their own particular message, such as “they are irrational, they don’t care about the facts,” “they are ignoring the research,” “get out and vote to save our democracy!” etc. When I see political arguments on the air, in the streets, and on the net today, I see the same class of combative message on both sides no matter the content of that class of message. Once I was able to “see” this for the first time, there has been no going back.
If, in fact, reactions on one side occur regardless of the intentions on the other side and visa-versa, then you might say the behavior of the total system is “natural,” i.e. it is not “constructed” by humans because it occurs regardless of their constructions. So I am suggesting that this behavior I start of a “natural system.” Murray Bowen (1978) suggested that the family is a [natural] “system” in that a change in functioning in one part automatically necessitates a change in another. I am extending this idea to the collective political level, saying that a change in one area automatically necessitates a change in another area. And so as the Buddha said, the wheel of dukkah (suffering) spins faster and faster, fueled by mutual avijjā (ignorance) of the reciprocal actuality of the total amalgam. Just like an escalating argument with a loved one, it never deescalates until someone decides to stop spinning the wheel.
What the Buddha Did
Now let’s be clear about the achievement of the historical “Buddha.” Like the Dali Lama, he was first a bodhisattva: an ordinary, unenlightened living thing who was a small step away from reaching enlightenment himself. But he set that opportunity aside to perfect his enlightenment which would allow him to perfectly teach others as a samāsambuddha, or “perfect Buddha.” This decision immeasurably increased the effort required to reach his final goal. He then went out on his own without a teacher and (re-)discovered Vipassanā, also known as Satipathannā, or the “path leading to the way out of suffering.” This singular achievement is illustrated as the enactment of a perfect synthesis of counterbalancing forces. He literally sat down with absolute determination to withstand his endless reactions to his own sensations in order to scientifically examine the entirety of his own physical and mental structure. That is the practice vipassanā. He then described, and acted in line with, the compensatory forces that govern all living things as highly complex, integrated, and interdependent systems. A hallmark of his “perfect” enlightenment was the ability to teach that total complex in singular form to all kinds of students with all kinds of learning styles. His ability to enact the total view allowed him to maintain a following that did not divide into factions. However, his students who became enlightened by merely following his instructions could only teach a partial view of the total complex. This is why his once-united followers split into ideological factions shortly after his death. These factions continue to split and split into modern times. There was not one of them that could singularly represent all perspectives of the total view on the nature of suffering and the way out of suffering simultaneously. They split because each had a proclivity and probably an aptitude to teach a certain part, and all of these parts are important.
This “total view” is called the Middle Path. Enacting the Middle Path did not make the Buddha a “Centrist,” or a “Moderate.” If the left/right, progressive conservative dichotomies have any basis in nature, then the Buddha was simultaneously progressive, centrist, moderate, and conservative. This is what “Middle” means in the Middle Path. It does not merely mean equidistant between two points. He often said something like “work ardently for the benefit of all by practicing compassion.” He also said “only you can liberate yourself by your own efforts,” and “only a country that maintains its original principles and traditions will endure.” Of course, he also said many other things. The former statement represents principles of openness, progress, and creativity, like those traditionally found on “the left.” The latter statements represent principles of reducing, defining, and stabilizing, like those traditionally found on “the right.” Together they do not represent a contradictory view. Both are fundamental. He exemplified all of them when appropriate.
Endless volumes have been written in attempt to articulate the simultaneous synthesis of all aspects of a Middle Path in singular form, but it is not possible. The only singular articulation of the Middle Path is a person who develops and enacts it. There are no words for that.
This is not a complete technical description of the historical Buddha’s attainment, but it is one important aspect of his attainment that “progressives” on “the left” have to contend with so long as this so-called “Buddhism” remains their brainchild. Actually, everyone has to contend with this, not just the left. But I believe it is self-evident that “Buddhism” currently belongs to “the left.” I am arguing that this “left” has appropriated this so-called “Buddhism” from the practical tradition of vipassanā, and often uses it as an axiomatic justification for a new atheist-sectarian fight against the right. The Middle Way is not exemplified by “compassion,” as I my ears certainly first heard it and my mind first integrated it. The goal of vipassanā is pañña, or “wisdom.” Specifically bhavana-maya pañña, or “wisdom from your own direct experience,” not suta-maya pañña (“merely heard/followed wisdom”), or cinta-maya pañña (“intellectualized wisdom”). Bhavana-maya pañña is the development of “Right View,” the final product of the Eightfold-Noble Path. The perfection of the total view in its entirety; moving beyond all polarities.
This is a difficult thesis to support, of course, because I am suggesting that the implicit assumptions used to support a particularly left-leaning hyper-moral position are rooted in this so-called “Buddhism” we have created. Implicit assumptions are invisible by definition so you can’t prove or disprove their existence or influence. But this is a blog, and I will continue.
What Vipassana Is
So why am I making these strong claims? Because vipassanā is something you do, not something you think. A “Buddhism” which does not practice vipassanā is as real as a birthday sentiment manufactured by Hallmark Cards, Inc. Actual, serious, diligent, twice daily practice has a way of balancing the mind that reading, chatting, and FaceBooking cannot provide. Vipassanā is a dynamic, systems practice which must be taught over a long period of time by experienced teachers. It must be taught in ideal conditions which support each of its many integral features simultaneously. It can only be practiced after making a commitment to a certain degree of morality, which is only possible when taught in ideal, prepared conditions over an extended period of time. It cannot be reduced to a symptom-focused therapies which exclude that base of morality, and must be given away for free as an act of friendship (Fleischman, 2016).
Vipassanā without each of the integral features of the practice can only create another sectarian ideology to be exploited by the idle, reactive interests of one tribe against another. Vipassanā is an equalizer, not a divider. It is the unbelievably difficult act of confronting our basic, biologically reactive processes by learning to sit still, systematically training unbroken attention on our own concrete, physical and mental structure. It is building up to making this a one-hour effort twice daily, and at least one sustained 1-2 week effort every year. It is giving up the search for “something special” in favor of a total understanding of the ordinary, mundane aspects of Nature. This can often be really boring. Like science, it requires hours upon hours of objective observation to discover the basic, natural laws which govern our bodies and minds; not just on the cushion but in every moment of our lives. It just so happens to be the most difficult thing we can do, especially within the context of our most intimate relationships, and it never gets any easier. Vipassanā doesn’t generate “equality” through ideas, it equalizes through the direct, hard-won experience that all things that live face the same challenge that we face when we try to meditate: a living mind’s intrinsic, unending, automatic reactivity to our own sensory-perceptive system at every level of analysis. It perfectly demonstrates to us that absolutely zero of our suffering comes from others, it comes from the universal reactivity to our own material and mental selves as we co-exist with others. This suffering is generated by a partial, inaccurate view of our own total amalgam. We literally generate ignorance by ignore-ing what is not represented in this partial view of ourselves. We then call this inaccurate view “I,” and it becomes the primary heuristic through which we organize our lives.
Vipassanā is taught as the tool to complete this partial, inaccurate view. But it takes hard work to experience this directly and not just talk, think, or argue about it either directly or indirectly. Vipassanā is the humble act of discovering the reciprocal reality of our own functioning through ardent, systematic, continuous observation. Among other things, it helps us discover that blaming others for our discomforts is as illogical as blaming the painful sensations in our back for the painful sensations in our leg, and visa versa.
Conversely, I argue that “Buddhism” is a partial view appropriated by the West to fit one value system of many which does not represent vipassanā in its entirety. If “Buddhism” were actually balanced in this regard, then the most conservative Christians and Muslims lining up to learn how to better observe themselves along side all the rest of the “progressives.”
I am not promoting the progressive “equality” of representation here as in affirmative action hiring. I am implying that vipassanā is automatically attractive to all when it is transmitted in its complete form. There is nothing that is simply “progressive” or “conservative” about Vipassanā. It is simultaneously both, and everything in between.
Implicit Values
Just as Nietzsche predicted, scientism and atheism have torn our old religious/axiomatic roots from under us, and for good reason. Just look what wonderful good those European Enlightenment values have done for everyone on the planet. The sovereignty of the individual, bend over backwards to prove yourself wrong, and so on. The human world has since achieved an increase in global wellbeing that accelerates exponentially on so many dimensions that any rudimentary glance through our ancient and classical histories alike reveals this as an absolute miracle. But the universal, non-sectarian practice of vipassanā must not be as become a weapon of the sectarian, atheistic left against the sectarian, theistic right. If it remains appropriated as “Buddhism” by the fleeting shelf-lives of the Barnes and Nobles and Amazons to promote a tribal left that fights the tribal right, we will all suffer even more in the long run as we move further away from the universal, uniting aims of vipassanā.
Vipassanā is only vipassanā when it is non-sectarian. It is as far away from “Buddhism” or any other “ism” as you can get. It has to be universal. It is a practice which enables a person to better see the total integrated view, not an ideology to embolden one part of a social system over another. I am arguing that Western popular literature has created a “Buddhism” which over-emphasizes the “left” and “progressive” side of the coin to fill the axiomatic void created by the European Enlightenment; One that is partially a make-believe ideology exclusively organized around equality, welcoming, caring, forgiving, providing, and selflessness.
Yet this is entirely as it should be, at least for a time. Progressives who are interested in radical new ideas obviously possess the temperament necessary to seek out and assimilate such radical novelty. I myself am the temperamental equivalent of a radical progressive so far as the Big 5 personality traits are concerned; high in trait “agreeableness” and very high in trait “openness,” sometimes to a fault. This objective assessment matches my own subjective opinion. For the record, I am not a registered democrat or republican, and make every effort to move between all sides of the political spectrum. I still enjoy a strong position on one or another issue, and I retain many biases. But let it be known that I am not suggesting yet another layer of blame, this time aimed at progressives. This is not an indictment from outside the circle, but a momentary call for more coordinated progress from within.
Further, the ideas of equality, welcoming, caring, forgiving, providing, and selflessness are essential ideas in vipassanā. But they are not the only essential ideas in vipassanā. All of these ideas have their respective counterparts which are required to form a balanced, integrated system. We also have to promote inequality, denial, dissociation, selfishness, not just sometimes, but just as often as their seemingly more desirable counterparts.
“Sacrilege!” any self-respecting progressive might say.
But no! We all appreciate the advantages of not equalizing across every social dimension, denying a stranger at the gate when there truly is no room within, ignoring another’s suffering when our own is simply too much to bare, and so on. I am arguing that so long as a person’s implicit atheistic or progressive assumptions are pulled from a partial view of this so-called “Buddhism” in a “fight” against a theistic or traditional right, our problems will only increase. No matter how hard any one person “fights” another without developing the total view, the system will always find a way to balance itself out and no one will like how it manages to do that. We will only drive its polarization, its regression, the intensity of our remarkably functional society’s auto-immune response that will eventually devour us all.
If we are all standing on a circular table balanced on a single point in the middle, you have to take a step to the edge for every step I take to the edge, lest we both fall off. If I want you to step toward the center, I must step toward the center. But we can’t both stand right in the center, and so we assume our positions respective to our temperaments and aptitudes. As in family, as in society.
But my thesis relies on the assumption that we are balancing on the same table to begin with. If we don’t share that assumption, then we will always miss each other like ships in the night.
But if we do share that assumption, then both sides of that coin are not merely important opinions owned by some people or others, something to be considered, and then rejected as accurate or inaccurate. They represent natural and fundamentally counterbalancing forces that hold societies together. The literally positive terms “equality, diversity, and inclusion” may sound great for a time, but that mantra destabilizes societies when left unconstrained by their natural, compensatory opposites. Equality of opportunity becomes equality of outcome and people die in scores by the socialist systems required to enforce it. Diversity of competence becomes diversity of representation, and we are unable to make use of our precious few experts for the benefit of everyone. Inclusion across boundaries becomes dilution of the central organizing structures required to organize a society, or simply exhausts the basic resources we all need to survive.
Progressives can’t simply vote for gun control and against the prohibition of abortion or react in outrage at every hint to someone denied at the border, as if their axioms represent self-evident truths that are being ignored and spat on by evil “others.” And so also for conservatives. The answers to these problems are not self-evident. If they were, there would not be an equally potent conservative outrage which immediately and automatically rises in opposition to the progressive outrage every single time. Though by all accounts polarized, the voting distribution in the US has proved to be an incredibly stable system over the last decades as presidential elections remain perfectly divided among democratic and republican candidates. One can easily make the case that the idea that one side represents “the end of our democracy” is delusional at best. Everyone has something to offer the discussion, but almost none of us appear to actually be very good at representing our contribution in a way that isn’t either a reaction to an opposing view or one that indicts another faction.
Redefine each term however you like, but “equality, diversity, and inclusion” do not provide a stable collective ethos. They represent only one side of the total view. We need openness and progress, but without borders and stability we will be consumed by chaos.
I would say that it doesn’t matter if one practices “vipassanā,” per se. But I am certain that the less each of us utilizes ways to balance our minds as individuals, the less we are able to see more than one side of things. Our biases will consume and destroy us just as we purport to confront them. Rowing on one side of the boat just sends us in circles. Get the total view and row forward. The only way is to stop blaming republicans, or democrats, or men, or women, or any other group, or president, or family member, or mental or medical disease, and start developing the individual capacity to function up on as many sides of the total view as possible simultaneously. This is the product of vipassana as the Buddha taught it. That is, to see each challenge for what it is: a single symptom of a greater collective process in which we participate. To be a solid self within a fluid yet coordinated group, to learn exactly what it means to function simultaneously “100% for self and 100% for others.”
The Buddha taught vipassanā. “Buddhism,” so it is called, is not vipassanā. If the vipassanā that we know today is what the Buddha actually taught, then the Buddha was simultaneously progressive and conservative, left, center, and right, creative and stable.

I’ll end with a passage from Our Best and Most Tasing Gift: The Universal Features of Meditation by Vipassana teacher Paul Fleischman (2016):

We have all come to wish that meditation effloresces into both personal equanimity, and also into harmony, that is, interpersonal and social good will. Today, meditation is promoted as part of wistful attitudes, like “Peace Now,” “War is Not the Answer,” or “Coexist.” Meditation has become blurred with the cultural matrix of the sixties, within which it emerged into the Western World. Anecdotes from the hazy mountains of the past circulate as if they were historical documentation about the peaceful accomplishment of mythical meditators, once upon a time, long ago. Almost everyone confuses Gandhi and the Buddha and imagines that meditation made the Buddha into a pacifist, which he wasnʼt. Even the Buddha did not claim to have solutions to the widespread violence and war that were present in his own time and that press onward into ours.We all want to believe that the good feelings we can locate in ourselves during meditation will suffuse around us with social blessings. You can count me in as one among the hopeful. But I am a meditator who questions the objectivity of my own beliefs, so I want to ask whether meditation really has a significant benign social impact.Certainly, in our minds as we meditate, or as we get up from meditation, we feel the great embrace. We feel not only greater self integration, and self acceptance, but greater appreciation and empathy for others. The relatively enhanced homeostatic regulation of our thoughts, feelings, nervous system, blood flow and other psychosomatic processes has optimized our sense of peace and wellbeing. We feel more understanding and forgiving. And we feel surges of gratitude for our opportunities, primarily, meditation itself. We feel pervasive love. Many of us will at that moment practice “Metta,” as we believe that the Buddha taught it, radiating all beings and all directions of the cosmos with our grandparental hearts, (whatever our age), with our feelings of love, joy, peace and compassion. This is meditationʼs glow, our harvest moon, our own light in the dark.

But is that feeling durable and socially significant?

Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York, NY: Jason Aronson.

Encouraging a more generous activism to reflect who we are

Balanced Perspectives, Bullying & Mobbing, Social Justice Ideology

Many of us who work for social justice have learned to be silent in some communities for fear that we will called out, labeled with reputation-compromising epithets or accused of something we have not done.

In 2016, Frances Lee published a well-known essay around this phenomenon called “Why I’ve Started to Fear my Fellow Social Justice Activists”. This was one of several watershed pieces that have been coming out over the past few years in response to “cancel culture” and the increasing patterns of bullying, ideological fixation, and de-platforming that has occurred in social justice movements.

In the recent essay, titled “No Justice without love: why activism must be more generous”, Lee goes further into their understanding of what really matters in our pursuit of a just world and why we need to operate out of love and humility rather than reducing our activism to outrage, cruelty and contempt.

What makes this piece particularly powerful is that Lee, a transgender intersectional activist and cultural studies scholar, has identified the unproductive elements that have crept into many of today’s social justice movements with more precision. The following passage about how information and dogmas are sometimes shared in these movements sums this up:

“But the way they [ideas for change] are presented, re-shared and absorbed into activist culture as infallible gospel truths removes people’s agency to think for themselves. I want to be a member of a thriving and diverse social movement, not a cult or a religion.”

“Furthermore”, they continue, “I worry that identity is being deployed as a way to separate people rather than to create coalitions to work together en masse.”

Lee’s new book, Toward An Ethics of Activism: A Community Investigation of Humility, Grace and Compassion in Movements for Justice, addresses the “relational aggression” that is common in some of the communities that form around these movements and explores some of the ways in which the inevitable conflicts can be surfaced, understood, and healed.

If the book reflects the basic decency and humanistic outlook of this essay, it could make a big difference in bringing more people in alignment with movements for social change.

For a similar treatment of how we can build a sense of welcome, authentic solidarity and a spirit of generosity in human rights/social justice movements, please read Starhawk’s essay on “How to Build a Welcoming Movement”.


Graduate Student Explains Why We Need More Standpoint Theory

Balanced Perspectives, Social Justice Ideology, Social Theory

Sonia Zawitkowski, a graduate student in applied social psychology, has written an interesting essay arguing for the positive aspects of Standpoint Theory.

Put in the simplest possible way, this is one of the main theories in modern Social Justice Ideology (SJI) that asks who is in power and who stands to gain more power by holding a specific position on an issue. It is a higher resolution justification for the beliefs and behaviors of those who practice what some call “identity politics”

But, as to be expected from the Electric Agora online philosophy forum founded by philosopher, Daniel A. Kaufman, this essay presents a more subtle perspective that is worthy of consideration. 

This site hosts essay writers from all persuasions who present deep perspectives on issues, which makes its tagline ” a modern symposium for the digital age” earning of its name. Not surprisingly, the site has been awarded as one of the top 100 philosophy blogs.

Below are a few notable titles:

All Philosophy is Activist Philosophy by David Ottinger

Postmodernism as Truth in Advertising by Kevin Currie-Knight​

Random Reflections on Intellectual History, Abstraction and Social and Political Values by Mark English

Adolf Reed Jr. Critiques AntiRacism™ Ideology

Balanced Perspectives, Social Justice Ideology

Dr. Adolf Reed Jr., a noted scholar and professor of politics and the history of race, published a paper in the Dialectical Anthropology Journal in June of 2018. While the writing and citations is highly academic and erudite in its expression, the insights and critiques of the ideology known as AntiRacism™ and its parent ideology, Critical Race Theory are an important contribution to the conversation around the impact of hardline ideologies on the solving of society’s problems.

Helen Pluckrose and What Social Justice Gets Right

Balanced Perspectives, Social Justice Ideology

Helen Pluckrose, editor of Areo Magazine has written a balanced essay, inviting the reader to consider the genuine insights and important contributions to social harmony and justice in the concepts and practices that social justice scholarship has advanced in recent years.

In What Social Justice Gets Right, a case is made that we can work to structure our systems, design public policy, and treat others in all the ways that social justice theories encourage without falling into the trap of extremism, dualistic thinking, or ideological fixation.

Here is an excerpt:

“Liberal critics of the postmodern conception of the world, currently most visible in Social Justice activism, don’t claim that these ideas have no validity. They do. Given the choice of believing that culture strongly influences what a society accepts as true and believing that it has no impact, rational people who value evidence and reason must conclude that it does. The idea that recognition of this belongs to postmodernists or Social Justice activists, while the rest of us wander around in a comfortable haze of common sense waiting for them to make us woke to it is simply false. Humans in general have been aware of the existence of culture, the power of narratives and the tendency of humans to hold biases they are not fully aware of since long before Social Justice came into existence. Where liberals with progressive aims disagree with the Social Justice scholars and activists is on how to understand these biases and address them. It is essential to be clear about this if we are to make any kind of balanced and fair critique of Social Justice, and if we are to do so confidently en masse.”

Conflict Mediator and Zen Teacher Promotes “Healthy Inclusion”

Balanced Perspectives, Bullying & Mobbing, Social Justice Ideology, Theory as Weapon

In recent years, spiritual communities, including Christian churches from different traditions, temples, meditation centers, yoga centers, and other practice communities have experienced a rise in intergroup conflicts and ideological schisms since the adoption of diversity and inclusion measures that are based on the ideological assumptions of Critical Race Theory, Standpoint Theory, Queer Theory, and other postmodernist ideologies that are built upon the oppressor vs. oppressed frame of reality.

While these programs are almost always well-intentioned, they are often implemented in unhealthy ways.

To work with this challenge, organizational consultant, conflict mediator and Zen teacher, Diane Musho Hamilton developed a program called “Healthy Inclusion 2.0” in collaboration with teachers, mediators, and organizational theorists. Although this blog post is not an explicit endorsement of the program, we feel it’s important to support campaigns for healthy inclusion like the one that Hamilton has designed.

The following list, taken from Hamilton’s 10 Directions website,  describes what “unhealthy inclusion” looks like, and calls for a new approach to inclusion, equality, diversity and social justice in communities and organizations.


* Oppressive rules around speech and “political correctness”. – – There can seem to be a hypersensitivity to language and behavior that can create a culture of fear.

* Endless processes of blame and accusation that don’t seem to ever resolve.

* A victim-oppressor framework that doesn’t allow any other narratives to come forth.

* The inversion of power hierarchies instead of their transformation (with a new group of oppressors at the top instead of no oppressors there).

* Devaluing of assertiveness and aggressiveness that can breed innovation, both inside a team and with competitors.

* Creating a talent drain as some leave rather than speak out.

* A monoculture that only values a narrow range of attitudes, politics, personality types, and communication styles.

* The demonization of those with differing views.

* A focus on internal politics and policies which draws too much attention away from action and movement forward.