A new book on ‘social justice scholarship’
Who wants social justice? Or, to ask a simpler question, who wishes to live in a society that is unjust? Nobody, I expect. Or nobody except those cranks relegated beyond the fringes of acceptable discourse. Why, then, are we not all marching hand-in-hand, step-by-step, in support of ‘Social Justice’ activism? The answer is complex and counterintuitive: there is social justice, and then there is Social Justice. The former seeks progress within the tried-and-tested frameworks of law, science and reasoned argument; the latter proceeds on several deeply-held assumptions about the world, assumptions that have spilled out of ‘critical theory’ scholarship into our schools, businesses, civic institutions and society at large.
While this all sounds technical and messy, the underlying issues are reassuringly simple. Yet debates about these topics have so often collapsed into chaos because both sides, however well-meaning, seem to speak a different language. When emotions run high, and the fundamental issues are sheltered from academic and public scrutiny within the cocoon of abstruse terminology and obscurantist jargon, concrete progress is difficult, if not impossible. A new co-authored book, Cynical Theories, sets out to remedy the impasse, by patiently and lucidly addressing the problems afoot. It does so not by talking up a ‘culture war’, an over-simplistic and artificially divisive cliché, or by decrying the sinister march of ‘cultural Marxism’, a term so flabby and inaccurate as to be practically meaningless. Instead, despite the book’s exposure of logical methodological, terminological and – as the authors contend – moral failings in the sub-disciplines of critical theory, it is a work written with intellectual charity: it takes these fields seriously on academic grounds in order to understand and expose their weaknesses.
Cynical Theories is ‘written for the layperson who has no background in this type of scholarship… for anyone from any part of the political spectrum who believes in the marketplace of ideas as a way to examine and challenge ideas and advance society.’ The authors, for their part, are candid about their own philosophical commitment to liberalism: to freedom of expression, diversity of opinion, respect for evidence and reason, and the equal dignity of people both as individuals and as part of universal humankind. Their book is pitched as a ‘philosophically liberal critique of Social Justice scholarship and activism’, on the ground that it ‘does not further social justice and equality aims’. Despite this negative agenda, the book is not a reactionary hit-job, nor does it seek to caricature and scoff. Instead, having declared their ‘commitment to gender, racial and LGBT equality,’ the authors confess that they are ‘far less interested in dismantling liberal societies and empirical concepts of knowledge and much more interested in continuing the remarkable advances for social justice that they have brought’. In that spirit, their aims are not revolutionary but restorative: to ‘defend rigorous, evidence-based scholarship and the essential function of the university as a centre of knowledge production.’
So who takes on such a frank project in such a fraught climate? The authors’ formal academic training has been in Mathematics, Physics and English Literature, but since their exits from the university sector their shared activity has been analysing and appraising the state of scholarly research-cum-activism. James Lindsay is the American co-founder of New Discourses, a website devoted to critiquing ‘critical social justice’ scholarship. Helen Pluckrose is the British editor-in-chief of Areo magazine, a current-affairs digest committed to Enlightenment liberalism. What is more, she was a founding signatory to the Don’t Divide Us mission statement. Neither, then, is a stranger to confronting the subjects of this book, nor will either be surprised to discover the hostility that such a project will assuredly meet.
The Perils of Postmodern Scepticism
The book starts by swimming upstream to the early years of Postmodernism. Many may raise their eyebrows that the dominant, urgent campaigns of 2020 should be approached via a movement that emerged six decades ago. But the chain of thought emerges clearly enough. In the 1960s, and especially in France, various philosophers and critics who were disenchanted with the failures of 20th-century Marxism directed their energies to critique the world around them – or rather the linguistic, epistemological, social and political manifestations of that world. The postmodern playbook was clear enough: to ‘problematise’ sociopolitical structures by scrutinising language, deconstructing knowledge, exposing bias, and revealing power dynamics. The usual suspects of the period – Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard and co. – are briefly sketched, revealing their sceptical, detached, ironic, playful, and at times avowedly pointless theorising. It would have been easy to get bogged down in particulars here, not least since many of these scholars felt no compulsion to be consistent, or to declare openly how and when their positions had changed. But the book’s aim is instead to show how two general principles of postmodernism have survived and evolved over the subsequent half-century: that objective knowledge is either logically impossible or practically unattainable, since all knowledge is determined by an individual’s culture; and that power structures pervade society, controlling what is known and how it is known.
The effect of these twin principles was, and remains, manifestly destabilising in a post-Enlightenment world: the scientific method loses its primacy as a route to knowledge, because it is demoted to just of one many modes of knowing. Worse than that, the method and its achievements in the western world are vitiated by its historical association with men, most of whom were white. With science and reason thus rendered suspect, the space emerges for alleged problems about society to be theorised and postulated, without the usual requirements of evidence and data for their verification or falsification.
In addition to these two principles, the book argues that four general themes dominated postmodern theory and still permeate critical theory: (i) the blurring of boundaries – which challenges and destabilises categories to deprive them of power, alleging their subjectivity, fluidity, hybridity and indefinability; (ii) the power of language – which constructs knowledge and shapes society by its imposition of artificially binary terms; (iii) cultural relativism – which asserts that, since each culture creates its own (biased) knowledge systems, its values and ethics cannot be judged against any universal norms; (iv) the loss of the individual and the universal – which privileges group identities over individual autonomy, since the individual is the passive product of society’s ‘dominant discourses’ and culturally-created knowledge, and demotes or rejects the shared values of humankind.
Contrary to the belief of many critical theorists that postmodernism died an overdue death long ago, the authors of Cynical Theories seek to demonstrate that the postmodern principles and themes outlined above continue to underpin the assumptions of contemporary scholarship. To flesh out their case, they chart three waves of evolution: first, the formative origins of postmodern Theory in the 1960s (which itself has roots extending back into the nineteenth century); second, ‘applied postmodernism’, arising in the late 1980s; and third, ‘reified postmodernism’, which began to gain traction around 2010. These two latter phases require some explanation.
Putting Theory into Practice
Postmodernism’s ‘high deconstructive phase’ had burned out by the 1980s, inevitably destabilised and depressed by its own self-critical scrutiny. While the great majority of academic enquiry continued undisturbed in universities, various critics schooled in postmodernism revitalised its core principles by making an outwards-facing evolution, ‘the applied turn’, from abstract theorising to societal engagement. Necessarily, critical scholarship moved from its descriptive phase (how the world is/appears) into a prescriptive mode (how it should be). Since ‘critical’ theory can only proceed by the discovery and diagnosis of ‘injustices’, its mode of progess was clear enough: the blunt tools of postmodernism could be repurposed and resharpened to deconstruct power hierarchies, to delegitimise the alleged sources of hypothesised problems, and to ‘make oppression visible’.
Scholars wedded to the cause therefore proceeded to pursue their scholarship on the basis of several claims, which paved the way to challenging the world outside academia:
- that personal identities, although constructed by society, are real, and the primary route to group knowledge and empowerment.
- that the world is regulated by identity-based systems of power.
- that knowledge, which is inevitably partisan, is constructed by the powerful to serve these systems for their own benefit.
- that more reliable knowledge can be obtained from the lived experience of those people marginalised and oppressed by such power systems.
- that individuals’ experiences of oppression can be generalised to demonstrate that oppressive structures really do exist.
- that discrepancies of outcome or distribution in the real world have a single, dominant explanation: they are the result of oppression from a system of discrimination.
As should be needless to say, these claims were asserted conclusions to arguments that had not been made or evidenced. However, critical theory now allowed itself to apply the mixed ‘toolbox’ approach of using some deconstructive techniques of postmodernism to disrupt and eliminate certain categories, while affirming the manifest reality and significance of others. Scholars of ‘social justice’ now wrote with the conviction that their theories, if taken up outside the walls of academia, could change the world for the better.
Making Theory Fact
The wheels kept turning, until eventually, as the unwitting victim of its own sophisticated techniques, the boundaries of critical theory became so blurred that the distinction between scholarship and activism was either missed as invisible or dismissed as risible. And so it is in the last decade, from around 2010, that the authors locate the final evolution of critical theory. The change is simple: that the claims outlined above have become reified by scholars and activists, no longer to be seen as the working assumption of a critical ‘approach’ to society, but accepted facts of the world in which we all operate. But, unlike most other ‘facts’ of everyday existence, these are truths that cannot be falsified by contrary evidence. This ‘reified postmodernism’, the authors argue, seeks to promote wide-ranging activism on the basis of these ‘known knowns’ – despite the great majority of society having been side-lined in the discovery of, and debate about, these newfound truths. Nevertheless, despite their billing as ‘critical’, these disciplines emerge to be curiously incurious and uncritical about the world as a whole, limited by a myopic obsession with capitalist, western democracies, whose diverse presents are controlled by their uniformly problematic pasts. This, we are told, is the state of play for what Cynical Theories unites under the term ‘Social Justice scholarship’.
The following chapters of the book work through postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory and intersectionality, feminisms and gender studies, disability studies, and fat studies. The authors demonstrate that none of these fields, however apparently novel, marked an entirely fresh start: despite scholars’ repeated and concerted attempts to sever their disciplines from the unquestionably privileged white males who set the ball of ‘Theory’ rolling, the core intellectual line of descent survived uninterrupted. The book rightly make two important caveats to this claim: that by no means every scholar in these fields accepts all these particular postmodern principles; and that these fields (especially intersectionality and disability studies) have made valuable contributions to society which deserve careful consideration, even from those who reject their intellectual foundations.
With such a welter of information spanning so many increasingly diverse and divided subfields, it is difficult not to get lost on points of detail. The value of Cynical Theories for the non-expert comes instead through its isolating, paring down and challenging these core theoretical assumptions, doctrines which demand debate and discussion not uncritical acceptance. For supporters of Don’t Divide Us, two chapters are particularly salient, those treating Postcolonial Theory (Chapter 3) and Critical Race Theory (Chapter 5). The rest of this report will focus on both, outlining the theories (not facts) that motivate the decolonisation movement, unconscious bias training, and several prominent Social Justice campaigns.
Cynical Theories I: Postcolonial Theory
The dominant focus of ‘postcolonial studies’ in western universities has inevitably fallen on those peoples colonised by European nations in the last half-millennium. Rather than ranging far and wide over this vast, and often rich, discipline, the authors turn their focus to two particular problems posed by the field: the challenge to ‘western’ science, and the consequences of absolute cultural relativism.
First, because science and reason have been central to the development of ‘the West’, and because both have been marshalled to support and defend immoral aspects of colonialism in the past, the privileging of science and reason is deemed a specially Western practice. A similar argument points to the fact that science, as practised in western universities, has been dominated by white males: such a predominance informs the conviction that there is something fundamentally suspect in the so-called ‘scientific method’ that such institutions espouse and valourise. However this particular argument proceeds, the conclusion reached is alarming: ‘the East’, framed oppositionally as the ‘non-West’, should not partake equally in these hegemonic knowledge systems. The thought-process of the ‘applied postmodernism mind-set’ is formulated by the authors as follows:
“The west has constructed the idea that rationality and science are good in order to perpetuate its own power and marginalize nonrational, nonscientific forms of knowledge production from elsewhere. Therefore, we must now devalue white, Western ways of knowing for belonging to white Westerners and promote Eastern ones (in order to equalize the power imbalance).”
Postcolonial theory thus risks assigning practices and principles that could be applied universally instead to one particular subset of the world, thereby downplaying or denying their value for those living in different cultures. The authors cite the damning assessment of Vivek Chibber, Professor of Sociology (and Marxist) at NYU:
“the lasting contribution of postcolonial theory – what it will be known for, in my view, if it is remembered fifty years from now – will be its revival of cultural essentialism [i.e. that people of the same culture are homogenous possessors of the same essential qualities] and its acting as an endorsement of orientalism, rather than being an antidote to it.”
To turn to the second issue, ‘cultural relativism’ – one of the recurrent postmodern themes listed above – views knowledge, beliefs and values as the product of the culture in which they emerged. As a consequence, it firmly rejects comparing such ideas and practices with those of other cultures or with any universal standards. The authors give particular focus to a subset of this doctrine – ‘standpoint theory’ – which treats an individual’s knowledge as the creation of their ‘lived experience’, and their ‘positionality’ in society. Each knower’s perspective is therefore epistemologically authoritative. Why? What of expertise and learning? That only compounds the problem, for whose knowledge do you know? As many postcolonial theorists will remind you, no knowledge of any kind can be produced ‘value free’. Nothing can be known without some subjective, personal baggage.
This is bad news for those people – whether scientists, mathematicians, academics or general citizens – who subscribe to the standard ‘correspondence theory of truth’: something becomes ‘true’ when it is shown to correspond with the facts of the real world. For cultural relativists, the ‘coherence theory of truth’ instead holds sway: something is true if it corresponds to a given set of beliefs, beliefs which may be held uniquely by a specific group, or even an individual. In such a scenario, ‘objective knowledge’ is a naive illusion, since myriad knowledges coexist in parallel: I may have ‘my’ truth, and you ‘yours’, even if they are mutually exclusive on logical grounds, or demonstrably untrue when scrutinised against external evidence.
Despite this focus on personal beliefs, postcolonial theory privileges group identities over individual members of them. Since those who share one or more identities are assumed to have the same experiences of oppression (or dominance), they should have a collectively shared interpretation of their world. Essentialising the group as a uniform community leads to the conclusion that they share a unique voice. This presents both practical and intellectual problems: How to handle disagreement within an identity group? Must some voices be labelled more ‘authentic’ than others? As several members of the Don’t Divide Us group have found in Britain, those who disagree with the asserted ‘voice’ of their identity group risk being lambasted for having unwittingly internalised ‘dominant discourses’, or for having cynically supported such discourses for their own personal benefit. Cynical Theories argues that this response is not only illiberal, but racist.
These arguments reveal some of the difficulties for the ‘decolonisation’ movements that loom large: if they require not only the introduction of other ‘knowledges’ alongside those hitherto privileged in the West, but also the devaluing of such ‘western’ knowledge and scholarship, this artificial opposition denies the possibility of any collective scholarly evolution. Worse still, it directs scholars onto certain intellectual paths on the basis of their supposed ethnic or racial allegiances. The authors of Cynical Theories conclude instead that it is not racist, sexist or imperialistic to have particular confidence in the scientific method. Science is not infallible, but its self-correcting scepticism allows it to progress on ever surer and steadier feet: its ability to be wrong does not mean it is to be dismissed as just one of many fallible practices of humankind.
Cynical Theories II: Critical Race Theory
Critical Race Theory evolved from critical legal studies in 1960s America but has only achieved widespread influence outside academia in the last decade. The theory is commendably committed to ridding the world of racism. But, as the authors state, it seeks to achieve this goal ‘through the unlikely means of making everyone aware of race at all times and places.’ Its crucial tenet, that racism is the inevitable default in any multi-racial interaction, replaces the important question ‘Did racism take place?’ with the question-begging alternative: ‘How did racism manifest in that situation?’ All well-meaning people baffled by this apparent proliferation of racism in our society have failed to apprehend the new doctrinally-imposed definition of that term: racism is not just discrimination or prejudice against others on the grounds of race, but can describe any social system in which racially disparate outcomes exist. (James Lindsay has since written about this particular vein of lexicographical activism.)
The book moves to analyse another central assumption of critical race theory, ‘white privilege’: this controversial doctrine mandates that all people whose skin is adjudged not non-white have some real, guilt-inducing privilege because of the general absence of racially discriminatory experiences. The grim spectre of ‘white supremacy’ that infiltrates all corners of western society can be acknowledged but not exorcised. If a white person fails to accept these declarations, and is either perplexed or upset by the ineluctable charge of ‘complicity in racism’, they only reveal their ‘white fragility’. Those seeking evidence to understand the scale of the problem alleged will find themselves frustrated. Criminal charges, whose particulars can be examined on their own terms, are of course one thing. But the authors instead explore how critical race theory explains non-criminal interactions – how an individual’s experience of an event as ‘racist’ serves as sufficient evidential authenticity for the ‘(micro-)aggression’, irrespective of the intentions, actions and beliefs of the supposed aggressor: what the theory recognises to be a subjective (and necessarily one-sided) reading of the situation is nevertheless generalised as a reliable symptom of racially-motivated oppression. Western society, and the institutions and practices that pervade it, can be adjudged to be ‘systemically’ racist, since disporportionate outcomes or experiences by race are proof of the totalising flaw.
Throughout this chapter, and through the book as a whole, the authors take a committed stand against identity politics, dismissing it as both untrue and insulting that a given identitarian category can be reduced to a monolithic and uniform group, whose status is to be privileged above both the individual and the universal. They see the world differently: given the psychological evidence for ingroup favouritism, they argue that encouraging humans to extend their empathy to the human race as a whole, rather than to an (often arbitrarily defined) identity group, is likely to be a better course for societal progress. Cynical Theories thus makes an impassioned case for aiming towards a post-racial, colour-blind, universalist outlook, a central principle of liberalism. The authors refuse to rekindle the social taboo of evaluating others by their skin colour, rather than their individual words and deeds. They reject the new Theory-driven definition of racism and instead advise more proactive, constructive and morally defensible ways to confront racism and improve society (see the close of this report).
(Cynical Theories was completed before the intensification of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer. Although this campaign therefore goes unmentioned in the book, it is safe to assume the authors would contend that the same theoretical commitments underpin its ideology: just as the decolonisation movement in schools and universities is informed by postcolonial theory, so too is the Black Lives Matter movement informed by critical race theory.)
An Illiberal Present
The foregoing report is a necessarily brief survey of these chapters, which are themselves necessarily brief digests of complex and divided disciplines. But they are representative of the book’s broader concerns. The authors argue that the present state of Theory, especially in its activist form, is at root illiberal and unreasoned. However well-meaning its intentions have been, in its most cynical guise it is not just deconstructive but destructive. Although the book’s characterisation of ‘Social Justice’ scholars as quasi-religious does not fairly describe all of its devotees, it provides ample evidence for their authoritarian commandments of orthodoxy and dogma. Couched in such terms, ‘The Truth According to Social Justice’ does not brook dissent, however rational, empirical and benevolent. Its promulgators obsessively patrol the precise language used by others, picking apart words and phrases instead of engaging with the arguments and thoughts behind them. Censorship of this sort brings many perils, and invariably hinders societal progress. In fact, such intolerance of dissenting opinions we usually call bigotry, and such strong-arming of others to think or act differently despite their own principled beliefs we usually call bullying. To demonstrate the real difficulties of pursuing debate in 2020, the book details how three contemporary critical race theorists recommend reframing disagreements as ‘privilege-preserving epistemic pushback’, and advise the dismissal of counter-arguments that are unproductive to the cause (pp.199-207).
The research behind Cynical Theories is substantial – evidently exhausting, if not exhaustive. Despite ploughing through some 250 articles and books of very variable quality, the authors resist the temptation to descend into mockery. This will surprise some, since the writers are best known to the public for their involvement in the ‘Grievance Studies Affair’, in which twenty bogus academic papers – which used sloppy scholarship and junk science to breed social-justice chimeras – were submitted to academic social science journals. By the time the hoax was revealed, seven had been accepted for publication, and seven were actively under review. To some observers, this was a cynical, politically-motivated betrayal of hard-won academic trust; to others, it exposed real problems in the methodology and practice of activism-driven social sciences. It is to the credit of Cynical Theories that its contentions, however damning and depressing, cannot be dismissed without on-the-table engagement.
A Liberal Future?
Despite their deep convictions about the failures of postmodernism’s theoretical descendants, the authors maintain a profound respect for education, for scholarship and for the university sector. They reject direct pressure or guidance from the state. They rightly assert that it is only from within that universities can regulate and scrutinise these disciplines, ensuring that they serve as a trustworthy, non-partisan space for conflict resolution. Academics must show how reasoned discourse can be conducted and defended, thus inspiring wider society to talk across its rapidly-widening divides once more. Disagreement about the theoretical is always legitimate when it is honest and principled: it should not be met with dismissal, slander or calls for cancellation, but frank and robust discussion.
Yet here we are: since our society now faces a dearth of open debate, both within academia and without, this book deserves careful reading, even by those who suspect its motives. It will, of course, be said that the authors have approached this book with an agenda, and that is right: it is to reveal to the non-expert the fundamental assumptions of critical theory, and those activist movements that have sprung from it, and to encourage those who believe that these theories do more bad than good for the world to step forward and make their counter-arguments with confidence. Experts in individual fields will rightly be able to point to oversimplifications, to partial misrepresentations, and to the unfortunate exclusion of more nuanced and balanced theorists within these fields. But these criticisms, even when taken together, would not undermine the general arguments that run through the work, or dampen the authors’ enthusiasm for debating what are and remain theories about the world in which we live.
The book’s final chapter, ‘Liberalism without identity politics’, sets out the authors’ alternative vision for academia, where liberalism, science and scholarship proceed by self-correcting scepticism and reasoned argumentation. They demand an environment that distinguishes between scientific knowledge and belief, between the experiential and the evidential; an environment that regards both freedom of speech and freedom of belief as sacrosanct but blocks their imposition as ‘knowledge’ upon others without any verifiable evidential basis. Their closing recommendation is thus always to ‘listen and consider’ to those whose worldviews differ, but to remember that there is no compulsion to ‘listen and believe’.
Given its character, the book is a sobering and disheartening read. Many will be frustrated to realise that such complex theories, which have so much to say about identity, say so little about two of humanity’s most potent discriminators and inhibitors: socieconomic status and social class. That said, although so much of the book is critical (in every sense), it is refreshing that the closing pages leave some space for the positive. The authors end by setting out their own principles for countering racial and sexual discrimination and for solving social injustice (pp.265-9). Pluckrose and Lindsay make the following case that so-called ‘Anti-racism’ activism is not the sole, or indeed the most effective way, to stand against racism, especially not for those privileged to live in one of the world’s most socially progressive nations:
We affirm that racism remains a problem in society and needs to be addressed.
We deny that critical race Theory and intersectionality provide the most useful tools to do so, since we believe that racial issues are best solved through the most rigorous analyses possible.
We contend that racism is defined as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behavior against individuals or groups on the grounds of race and can be successfully addressed as such.
We deny that racism is hard-baked into society via discourses, that it is unavoidable and present in every interaction to be discovered and called out, and that this is part of a ubiquitous systemic problem that is everywhere, always, and all-pervasive.
We deny that the best way to deal with racism is by restoring social significance to racial categories and radically heightening their salience.
We contend that each individual can choose not to hold racist views and should be expected to do so, that racism is declining over time and becoming rare, that we can and should see one another as humans first and members of certain races second, that issues of race are best dealt with by being honest about racialized experiences, while still working towards shared goals and a common vision, and that the principle of not discriminating by race should be universally upheld.
Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity — and Why This Harms Everybody by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, Swift, 352pp, £20
Report by David Butterfield, Senior Lecturer in Classics, University of Cambridge.