Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, Cynical Theories

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity, Swift Press.

I decided to read the book following a recommendation from an academic friend in the United States, whose judgement I trust. I confess, however, coming to it with a certain amount of caution. Was this to be some right-wing, reaction against straw men in the academy?

I soon found out that this was far from the case. The authors, one an historian and one a mathematician by background, are self-confessed left-leaning liberals, who want to stand for social justice and a fairer society. They are, however, very concerned with the “Theories” behind the “Social Justice” movement that are gaining a foothold in a number of humanities disciplines in higher education, and are influencing wider society and a generation of activists. These they see as nothing less than an attack on accepted standards of science, and an attempt to dismantle categories of knowledge and belief, reason and emotion, and men and women, “with increasing pressure to censor our language.”

If I’d read the last couple of sentences I’ve just written prior to reading the book, I’d probably have said, “Really?!” I have to say, though, I found Pluckrose’s and Lindsay’s well-presented and documented arguments quite convincing. And also quite shocking and unsettling.

Consider this summary of the work of a UK scholar working in the field of ableism: He “considers diagnosing treating and curing disabilities as cynical practices…in which people are forced to be fully autonomous, high functioning individuals so they can contribute their labour to capitalist markets.” This ideology, cloaked in academia, takes a quite serious anti-science stance, and goes far beyond laudably drawing attention to disability. It is ultimately dangerous. The section on fat studies (who knew?) is even more disquieting.

The book is not intended for an academic audience, but it is a serious read and the arguments are backed up by a significant number of endnotes and references. Having said that, it is well written in easy-to-understand prose, with the material clearly set out in each chapter. If you know nothing about postmodernism (and by the end of this book, you’ll wish none of us did), you’ll easily get the hang of it and there is nothing too obscure for the general reader.

Which is more than can be said for postmodern writers and many of the postcolonial, queer, disability and fat theorists, and the rest that are surveyed. It is to the authors’ credit that they have engaged deeply with this material so that they have been able to make it intelligible for the rest of us – much of it is deeply obscurantist.

The thesis of the book is that the academic underpinning of Social Justice scholarship and activism (note the capital letters) is, first the postmodernism of the 1960s and 70s, and then an application of this to issues of colonialism, race, intersectional feminism, disability and fat studies and queerness. That all this has not simply stayed within the bounds of academia, but has “begun to take root in the public consciousness as allegedly factual descriptions of the workings of knowledge, power and human social relations,” is the cause of considerable unease.

Pluckrose and Lindsay suggest that the original postmodern scepticism about the possibility of knowledge being reliable has become a solid conviction that knowledge is constructed in the service of power. Thus the world is made up of a complex matrix of power in which every interaction is a confrontation between oppressed and oppressor. Group identity lies at the heart of all this; it is something to be celebrated, becasue it disrupts norms and subverts values of society.

And these power relations are to be uncovered through close readings of how we use language. So then, white supremacy, the patriarchy, ableism, fatphobia, imperialism infects everything. And a slip of the tongue, an unwitting remark, can reveal the true nature of one’s place in the matrix. Effectively what we have is a huge conspiracy theory.

That’s not to deny the ills of racism, misogyny, colonialism and any other way in which human beings mistreat each other. And Pluckrose and Lindsay certainly do not want to do that. They simply think that liberal society, actually, has made pretty good strides at counteracting these ills, and they present good evidence for that, and for the potential for a liberal ethic that focuses on both the universal and the individual (as opposed to ever more fragmenting groups and sub-groups) to continue this progress.

I did find the last chapter, in which the authors present their hopes for progress and their alternative to Postmodern Theory – “liberalism without identity politics” – a little too optimistic. It is undoubtedly true that much of the world is a better place for more people than ever before, with fewer wars, less famine, better living conditions, less oppression and better health, and that freedom of debate is a precious commodity. All this largely the result of liberal democracy. And yet extreme finance-driven capitalism is creating enormous inequality in both the United States and the UK, half the world lives on less than $5.50 a day, and the richest 26 people have wealth equal to 50% of the world. And the pandemic has laid bare the global inequities and injustices more than ever before.

Historian Tom Holland’s Dominion makes it clear the contribution that Christian faith has had on our modern world, not least the idea of the equality and worth of every human being. This, Holland shows, feeds into much of the ethics we broadly share today and our legal and political systems. American philosopher, Nicholas Wolsterstorff’s work firmly roots justice – which he equates with human rights – in the biblical narrative and Christian tradition. From a Christian perspective, then, Pluckrose and Lindsay assign too much credit to the Enlightenment and the liberalism that has ensued.

Pluckrose and Lindsay do admit that “the speed and means of…progress are up for debate,” but nevertheless, a healthy degree of caution about the ever-continuing ability of humans to improve things merely through science and liberal principles is merited. Indeed, for Christians, whose point of view includes in its assessment of the human condition the problem of sin – unwelcome as that word is today – no political system or ideology can ever really be as soteriological as liberalism might like to claim for itself.

With that rider, I found Cynical Theories to be something of a wake-up call regarding the trajectory of thinking that is under way. Pluckrose and Lindsay are right to be concerned about it; we ought to be as well.