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Religion & Liberty: Volume 30, Number 4

Critical theory, critiqued

Cynical Theories critiques the modern social justice movement from a politically liberal viewpoint and argues that liberalism can exist without critical theory or identity politics. As the authors state, the book is written “for the liberal to whom a just society is very important, but who can’t help noticing that the Social Justice movement does not seem to facilitate this and wants to be able make a liberal response to it with consistency and integrity.” The authors, who are academics, joined Peter Boghossian in the “Grievance Studies Hoax,” in which they fabricated absurd or unethical academic papers and had them published in peer-reviewed journals to show the corrupting influence these fields have had on scholarship.

The authors present their book as a case against critical theory (or “Theory”) from a traditional Western, liberal perspective. The authors describe Western liberalism as follows:

The main tenets of liberalism are political democracy, limitations on the powers of government, the development of universal human rights, legal equality for all adult citizens, freedom of expression, respect for the value of viewpoint diversity and honest debate, respect for evidence and reason, the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion. … Liberalism is thus best thought of as a shared common ground, providing a framework for conflict resolution and one within which people with a variety of views on political, economic, and social questions can rationally debate the options for public policy.

This tradition of liberalism, according to the authors, is compatible with both American social/political liberalism and moderate conservatism.

The bulk of the book is organized chronologically around the three stages of the development of critical theory. The first was its origin in postmodernism in the 1960s–1980s. The authors describe the works of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-François Lyotard and the resulting skepticism toward “a belief in objective knowledge, universal truth, science (or evidence more broadly) as a method for obtaining objective knowledge, the power of reason, the ability to communicate straightforwardly via language, a universal human nature, and individualism.” They call this phase the “high deconstructive phase,” which was characterized by nihilism and playful cynicism. It bequeathed to critical theory two principles and four major themes.

The first principle is “the postmodern knowledge principle,” which consists of a “radical skepticism as to whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.” According to this principle, what we call “truth” is just a social construct, and we should not assume that it corresponds to anything “out there” in reality. The second principle is “the postmodern political principle,” which is the “belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.” This is the belief that society is based, not on truth, but on power, and that even our appeals to truth and reason are only veiled attempts to exercise power over others.

These two principles are fleshed out in the following major themes:

1. The blurring of boundaries. Boundaries and categories of thought previously accepted as true (e.g., gender) are viewed as oppressive attempts to exercise power over others.

2. The power of language. Words do not refer to anything “out there” in objective reality, but rather consist of an endless, self-referential system with no anchor in the external world. Since they are not “true” in any meaningful sense, they are viewed as the means by which dominant groups oppress the powerless.

3. Cultural relativism. Since language does not deal in truth but in power, attempts to evaluate one culture from the standpoint of another are simply an attempt by one group to exercise power over another (colonialism). Furthermore, one’s own culture can only be critiqued using the value system (based in the biases) of that culture. Critiques by those in places of privilege are only attempts to maintain one’s own privileged position, while critiques by the oppressed are to be validated as a means of empowerment.

4. The loss of the individual and the universal. The individual and the universal are simply cultural constructions. Critical theorists focus instead on identity groups and their positions in the hierarchy of society vis-à-vis one another.

The second stage in the development of critical theory took place in the 1980s through the early 2000s, when postmodernism mutated from its high deconstructive phase into what the authors call “applied postmodernism.” In this stage, the concepts of postmodernism were put to use in various academic disciplines as tools for social activism. This mutation was characterized by a shift from simply theorizing about the problems of knowledge to a highly moralistic program for social change. It also limited its skepticism in one important area: “under applied postmodern thought, identity and oppression based on identity are treated as known features of objective reality.”

The authors spend a large portion of the book detailing the individual academic subdisciplines that arose during this time: postcolonialism (chapter 3), queer theory (chapter 4), critical race theory and intersectionality (chapter 5), feminism(s) and gender studies (chapter 6), and disability and fat studies (chapter 7). They survey the development of each field and its major authors and works, showing how the two postmodern principles and four major themes play out in that discipline.

The third stage in the development of critical theory, which the authors call “reified postmodernism” or “Social Justice scholarship,” took place in the 2010s. In this phase, the presuppositions of applied postmodernism have become accepted as self-evident “truths” that are beyond discussion. This has resulted in a focus on identity-related epistemology. The authors give examples of several works that show how this school of thought “refuses to submit its ideas to rigorous scrutiny, rejects that kind of examination on principle, and asserts that any attempts to subject it to thoughtful criticism are immoral, insincere, and proof of its thesis.”

Chapter 10 is the authors’ proposed solution to the trends they discuss throughout the rest of the book. The core of their response is a contrast between Theory and traditional Western liberalism. They describe liberalism as “a system of conflict resolution, not a solution to human conflicts.” Whereas reified postmodernism is functionally a self-confirming system of faith (as John McWhorter has argued), liberalism is a self-correcting system for distinguishing truth from falsehood through freedom of debate and the scientific method.

The authors provide two prescriptions for dealing with reified postmodernism. The first is to avoid institutionalizing it. They argue that, just as with any other religious belief system, one should be free to believe it or not without being penalized for dissent. The second, in keeping with the principle of free debate, is to challenge critical theory on its merits: “We do not believe that bad ideas can be defeated by being repressed ... Instead, they need to be engaged and defeated within the marketplace of ideas, so that they may die a natural death and be rightly recognized as defunct.” They conclude with some examples of how to articulate opposition to social injustice while rejecting the ideology of social justice.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in having a clearer understanding of our current cultural situation. The authors have succeeded in painting a compelling picture of both the dangers of critical theory and the merits of traditional Western liberalism. The single most important contribution of this book is the clarity with which it explains the philosophical principles behind critical theory. The authors draw out Theory’s central principles and themes in an accurate and lucid manner and show how its roots connect beneath the surface of our culture.

The book’s only mild weakness came in its explanation of the relationship between critical theory and other ideas and movements, apart from postmodernism. For example, the authors leave mostly untouched the connection between critical theory and Marxism. I also wondered at times where political and social conservatives such as myself exist in the landscape of traditional liberalism as they envision it. The “moderate conservative” is invoked but never appears in their account. One suspects that the authors consign religious conservatives to the domain of the “far-Right.” Finally, the authors seem to underestimate the philosophical assumptions behind modernity and modern science. While postmodernism is presented as a belief system, modern science is viewed as nothing more than an objective practice. At the risk of diminishing their argument (which I generally agree with), this oversimplification conceals important questions about the philosophy of science.

Despite these critiques, this book largely accomplishes its goal of providing an important critique of critical theory and its academic and activist offshoots. The Christian reader will not agree with all of the points made by the authors. (See the work of Neil Shenvi for an excellent supplement that brings a Christian worldview to bear.) But for sheer comprehensiveness, this book should be the go-to primer for anyone who wants clarity on the issues related to critical theory and modern social justice.

Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody.

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay | Pitchstone Publishing | 2020 | 352 pages

Reviewed by Noah Kelly

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Noah Warren Kelley will graduate with a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies (New Testament) from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in December 2020. His area of interest is in Greek grammar and linguistics. He blogs at Earthen Vessel.