During modern times, reasonable people would agree that for many of the earth’s inhabitants, things are better than they were hundreds of years ago.
People are freer, healthier, wealthier and less hungry. Life spans have increased, and fewer people are being killed in wars. A combination of liberalism, conservatism and capitalism are to thank for this. But in 2020, the spectacle of cities besieged by rioters with businesses aflame and looted, black-clad anarchists declaring downtown “sovereign zones,” police departments besieged by angry demonstrators, and the scourge of wokeness and cancel culture running rampant, one cannot help wonder how modern civilization has degenerated to such a state.
Into the breach comes a new book to explain just how all this has happened. Authored by James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, “Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender and Identity — And Why This Harms Everybody” is a book that should be read by anyone with a serious interest in the origins of today’s social justice movement and particularly critical race theory (CRT). Present and potential USD 383 school board members, educators and parents should read this book to gain an understanding of exactly what CRT is and what it aims to do.
CRT is an integral component of postmodernism ideology, a form of neo-Marxist thinking that emerged in the 1960s at the Frankfurt School, and particularly with the postmodern critical analysis of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. The first post-modernists were reacting largely to the failure of Marxism, the longstanding analytic framework of the academic left. Communism had lost all its credibility by 1956 except with Stalin’s useful idiots in academia, who were suffering from major disillusionment as their theoretical construct was falling apart.
“Cynical Theories” provides a detailed overview and coherent critique of postmodern critical theory — its roots and its objectives — and the authors rationally explain how critical theory has become the philosophical framework that underwrites such various subjects as women’s studies, queer studies, gender studies, postcolonial studies, fat studies, disability studies and critical race theory.
Lindsay and Pluckrose identify the philosophy’s two core principles: the postmodern knowledge principle — radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism; and the postmodern political principle — a belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how. Postmodernism is characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, relativism, a general suspicion of reason, and at its core is the belief in the oppressive nature of American society and the advocacy of identity politics, thus making it imperative for those oppressed to dismantle the entire system in the name of social justice.
The authors reveal that some of postmodernism’s core beliefs include: “All white people are racist, all men are sexist, sex is not biological, language can be literal violence, denial of gender identity is killing people, the wish to remedy disability and obesity is hateful, and everything needs to be decolonized.” Such beliefs, they say, congealed into a sort of gospel of social justice, reified into a dogma that cannot ever be challenged without the critic instantly indicting himself as an oppressive white supremacist. Moreover, the traditional liberal critical resources of logic, reason, evidence and science are absolutely disdained by today’s social critics, under the supposition that such values are themselves infected or “colonized” by ideas such as patriarchy and white supremacy.
Unless one is a masochist and wants to attempt to read the seminal works of critical theory, Pluckrose and Lindsay are adept at translating the linguistic mash up of critical theory’s incomprehensible academic jargon, steeped in words such as “unessentializable,” “presencing,” “decoloniality,” “dialectic enigmatic theory,” and “neodeconstructive rationalism,” and its bewildering sentences, dense opacity, and insufferable pompousness. Consider the following sentence: “In consonance with my emphasis on the performance relations of double and conflicted definition, the theorized prescription for a practical politics implicit in these readings is for a multi-pronged movement whose idealist and materialistic impulse, whose minority-model and universalist-model strategies, and for that matter whose gender-separatist and gender-integrative analyses would likewise proceed in parallel without any high premium placed on rationalization between them.”
CRT then emerges from the linguistic gobbleygook of social science departments, where the thinking is fuzzy headed, the scholarship is second-rate and the writing is third-rate. Few intellectual currents are less coherent and are more divorced from reality and clarity than postmodernism. In this book, Lindsay and Pluckrose illuminate how academia fell to such a low-level of critical self-awareness, and how some of the institutions of American society and many in the public have followed it into the postmodern follies.
So what exactly is critical race theory? CRT’s core tenet is that racism is ubiquitous in America; it is the every day, every waking minute experience of people who are not white. White supremacy is systemic and benefits white people. The authors maintain that CRT unambiguously asserts that racism is present everywhere and always, and persistently works against non-white people who are aware of this, and for the benefit of white people, who tend not to be aware of it, as is their privilege. No matter what goodness resides in their heart, every single white person is a racist and no matter their station in life, every single non-white person is oppressed — both assumptions based merely on skin color. The authors believe that seeing racism everywhere and believing every white person is a privileged racist will do nothing more than increase hostility and a reluctance to cooperate with worthwhile initiatives to improve social harmony in America.
The authors maintain that CRT has a paranoid mindset, which assumes racism is everywhere, always just waiting to rear its ugly head. They believe it will prove to be extremely unhelpful and unhealthy to those who adopt it, especially young children. If young people are indoctrinated to read insult, hostility and prejudice into every interaction, they may increasingly see the world as hostile to them and fail to thrive in it.
The authors, both committed liberals, wrote this book as a warning and a plea. They warn that if the divisive postmodern critical theory is not challenged and exposed to the people for what it really is, the social fabric of America and other Western liberal democracies will be ripped apart by its hateful divisiveness, suffocating political correctness and destructive identity politics. The authors lament that a billions of dollars a year industry of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” is thriving on college campuses, corporations and other institutions, extending postmodern theory’s tentacles into the fabric of western liberal democracies. Once confined to college campuses, the authors now demonstrate how emotional activism instead of thoughtful discourse is affecting the lives of ordinary Americans by requiring them to cope with the least tolerant and most authoritarian ideology that the world has had to deal with since the fall of communism.
They plead for a return to liberal values that have proven incrementally successful in the march of human progress and in advancing the causes of social justice over time. Social justice goals are noble — the improvement of mankind and the world we live in. But postmodern theory provides the absolute worst means to accomplish those goals because it trades on fear, ignorance, suspicion and stereotypes. Our community may eventually face the pressure to teach CRT because the social justice movement is relentless in its totalitarian attitudes and methods. Cynical Theories provides the general reader an excellent summation of the postmodern movement and should be read by those concerned about our community and its schools, and whether we want a united community or a divided community.
Bob Funk is a retired U.S. Marine and a retired high school principal.