Knowledge is a power structure, maintained by manipulation of language. So, we learned from Michel Foucault, who inspired the postmodern turn in universities and emancipatory activism. Fact has been replaced by narrative, and objective reality by relativism. The framework of identity politics accepts neither individual nor universal truths. Your group status (gender, race, etc) determines how you are seen, and how you should see.
Cynical Theories is not easy on the general reader, but that is not necessarily a criticism. The depth of analysis is redolent of Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, which similarly exposed preposterous theories by carefully examining their claims. To do this, much awkward and obscurantist terminology must be deciphered. Pluckrose and Lindsay use capitals to differentiate postmodern distortions from general meaning, observing that ‘most people fail to understand the difference between social justice and Social Justice’.
Critical race theory, decolonisation, queer theory, gender fluidity and fat studies all follow the same script. The postmodern knowledge principle is that knowledge is discriminatory and must be deconstructed and rebuilt for epistemic justice, while the postmodern political principle is that systemically marginalised groups need a radical pursuit of social justice. ‘Woke’ ideology is applied with the zeal of a religious cult.
According to Pluckrose and Lindsay, postmodern theories differ from Marxism in that false consciousness is located in the oppressors rather than the oppressed. They focus on the French avant-garde philosophers but strangely overlook the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School. The 1960s was as much the decade of Herbert Marcuse (‘make love not war’) as of Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard. Cultural Marxism is not mentioned, as though the ‘march through the institutions’ was devoid of ideological motive.
A crucial concept illuminated by Cynical Theories is intersectionality. This is a matrix of victimhood: a black autistic lesbian has more cards to play than a homeless gay man, for example. A combination of identities is not reducible to a single person, because the units of social structure are indivisible. You belong to your collective status, and its struggle or shame.
Also important is reification, which makes critical theory an incontestable truth.Anyone disagreeing with its premises is reasserting the dominant discourse, but silence is not acceptable either. A tactic of identity politics is to sidestep debate by presenting simplistic dichotomies, using moralising labels to vilify sceptics. Few would argue that black lives don’t matter, and so the subversive agenda of Black Lives Matter is not challenged.
Critical race theory and transgenderism have invaded our culture as fast and fervently as the Bolsheviks overran holy Russia. Radical race-consciousness books such as White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo were bought in bulk after the BLM frenzy last summer. ‘Let’s start the conversation’ suggested a rack of this and similar treatises at WH Smith’s. Collectively, white people are racist. This is the cynical ideology spouted by the likes of Cambridge professor Priyamvadar Gopal. Such racial profiling rejects the teaching of Martin Luther King to judge people by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin.
The authors occasionally show signs of doctrinal thought themselves. The association of autism and vaccines is described as ‘antiscientific’, which is quite a leap from scientifically dubious. In promoting a liberal marketplace of ideas, Pluckrose and Lindsay warn against dogmatic religion and populist nationalism. This is the dilemma for liberalism: it’s like riot police whacking protestors with batons, to keep us safe. Tolerance will eat itself.
Science is regarded by postmodernists as oppressive to disadvantaged minorities. Yet the Covid-19 pandemic has renewed faith in experts, and the masses have acquiesced to authoritarianism based on official truth. Pluckrose and Lindsay show that postmodern theories are divisive, but perhaps society should be more sceptical, if not cynical, about the powers imposed on us. Critical theories waste energy on spurious and counterproductive grievances. While the intellectual degradation of the West continues apace, illiberal China smirks.
Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity – and Why this Harms Everybody, Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, published by Swift Press, 2020, £20.