Book Review

Social Justice Groupthink

Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody is one of the most important and enlightening books I have read in years.[1] It is a joint effort of Helen Pluckrose, a British political and cultural writer now in exile from the academy, and James Lindsay, an American author and mathematician. I say enlightening because to me every page contained an AHA! moment. Now for the first time I can gauge the extent of my cluelessness and naiveté over the last 30 years or more as I maneuvered the academic world and raised children who maneuvered it in their turn.

When I was an undergraduate in the 1970s, “Theory” (by which Pluckrose and Lindsay mean critical theory derived from postmodernist thought; they always capitalize the T when they use the word in this sense, and I will do the same) had not yet permeated academia. I was taught by professors who had entered their fields because they loved the subjects. There was a smattering of pretentious graduate students, to be sure. Once, along with a couple of other undergrads, I took a graduate French course, and we were so irritated by the grad students that we devised a game to lay bets on which of them was going to be most pompous each day. Every time one of them used the words phénomenologie, existentialisme, and I can’t remember what else, they would be awarded a point. We called the game Turkey Bingo. I see now how benign all that was, compared with what would come later.

Graduate school (Columbia), which I entered in 1986, presented a very different picture. “Theory”—Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, etc.—permeated everything. The department was no longer much interested in hiring the sort of life-affirming intellectuals I had studied with as an undergrad but was intent on modernizing itself by acquiring hotshots in the fashionable fields of postcolonial studies and feminism. The most visible professor there was Edward Said, whose groundbreaking Orientalism was still less than a decade old. There were new cant words to be learned, different from the ones I’d heard a decade previously in college, and everyone mindlessly parroted them. Hegemonic. Subaltern. Patriarchy. Logocentrism. Power structures. I found it irritating, reductive, above all boring, but I didn’t make a real effort to understand postmodern Theory or its purpose. In fact it never occurred to me that it really had a purpose; its adherents on campus thought of themselves as radicals, but since their language would have been utterly incomprehensible to the masses they claimed to champion, I couldn’t figure out how they might do anything practical with their ideas.

Upon completing my PhD, I left academia for nearly two decades, raising a family and freelancing. Then I took a job teaching literature at a small liberal arts college. When I arrived there in early 2011 the place was wonderfully refreshing after Columbia. Instead of earnest pedants imbibing and regurgitating rigid doctrines, I found a campus full of open, intellectually curious, enthusiastic, charming young people. Everyone participated in class discussions; they all studied what they loved.

By 2015, it had completely changed. Students were restless, easily offended, whiny. They were also passive and helpless. Everyone, for reasons I couldn’t understand, was always accusing everyone else of being racist. (Some faculty members indulged in this activity too.) People became unreasonably prickly if you called them by the wrong gender pronoun. It seemed that every single one of the female students was a survivor of rape or sexual assault (very loosely defined). Many students claimed to suffer from PTSD, though so far as I knew, no one had been on a battlefield. Plenty of others complained of anxiety and seemed to think this was a sufficient reason to skip classes and written assignments. A whole new set of cant phrases was now uttered rever­ently. Intersectionality. Cultural appropriation. Microaggressions. Black and brown bodies. My lived experience. One longtime, beloved instructor did not have his contract renewed when he told the girls in his class not to get “hysterical.” Being a septuagenarian, he was unaware that the word was “gendered” and “offensive.” Matters came to a head at a graduation ceremony when the valedictorian called the college a “white supremacist” institution. Parents and professors who were old enough to remember places that really were white supremacist—Rhodesia, apartheid South Africa, the Jim Crow South—understandably got angry when the idea was cheapened by applying it to what might just have been the wokest square mile on the face of the earth.

What on earth had happened to the place? Social Justice had arrived; and far from making the college a better place, it had made it demonstrably worse. I left my job there as soon as I decently could and continued working in the college’s prison program, which was, and continues to be, as delightful as the college itself had once been. I knew I couldn’t take the campus antics anymore, but I still didn’t properly understand what had happened, and it was not until I read Cynical Theories that all was made clear.

What I didn’t realize, and what I think most people don’t realize, is that Social Justice Theory is a system, fully thought out and treated essentially as a religion by its adherents: The Truth, with which there can be no arguing. The reason this is not clear to the general public is probably in the name. What decent person, after all, could possibly be against social justice? But small s and j social justice—the perennial liberal project of trying to “make society fairer, freer, and less cruel,” in Pluckrose and Lindsay’s formulation—and Social Justice, an intolerant and authoritarian creed, are not the same thing at all. The latter is a movement that “presumptuously refers to its ideology simply as ‘Social Justice’ as though it alone seeks a just society and the rest of us are all advocating for something entirely different.”

Cynical Theories provides an excellent guide to the gradual development of Social Justice Theory from about 1960 to the present. It begins with postmodernist thought in what the authors call its high deconstructive phase, in which the ideas of Foucault, Derrida and Lacan were most influential. Its tenets famously included a rejection of Enlightenment values, with claims to truth seen as nothing but value-laden constructs of culture. For Foucault, power—social or political— determines truth, not correspondence with objective reality, which is in any case impossible to arrive at because were are all too deeply inscribed in our own value-laden cultural constructs to see it. Whereas Marxism had seen power as being wielded from above, Foucault saw it as a grid, permeating all levels of society. For Derrida, meaning can never be arrived at because it can be understood only in relation to the discourse in which it is embedded. To the postmodernists, all cultural values are relative and no one set of cultural norms is better than any other. Postmodernists rejected what they called metanarratives (Christianity, Marxism, Freudianism, liberalism, etc.) on principle, seeing knowledge as local, subjective, and relative. The postmodern view, our authors stress, “largely rejects both the smallest unit of society—the individual—and the largest—humanity—and instead focuses on small, local groups” —or larger ones, like racial and gender categories. This comes down to us as identity politics, which has done so much to poison contemporary discourse.

The early postmodernists were content to remain above the fray, theorizing and deconstructing as a purely intellectual exercise. A new generation, however, brought their ideas squarely into the realm of political action. The mid-1980s, as the authors explain it, saw the end of the high deconstructive phase and the beginning of a period they have dubbed applied postmodernism. At that time postmodern thought mutated into an array of Theories: postcolonial, queer, critical race, intersectional feminism, et alia. “Those social sciences and humanities scholars who took Theoretical approaches began to form a left-wing moral community, rather than a purely academic one: an intellectual organ more interested in advocating a particular ought than attempting a detached assessment of is—an attitude we usually associate with churches, rather than universities.”

Indeed. The new Theorists retained the original postmodern perception that it is impossible to arrive at objective knowledge or truth, but they made two important exceptions to that rule: identity and oppression based on identity, which they deem objectively real and always present. “They interpret the world through a lens that detects power dynamics in every interaction, utterance, and cultural artifact—even when they aren’t obvious or real. This is a worldview that centers on social and cultural grievances and aims to make everything into a zero-sum political struggle revolving around identity markers like race, sex, gender, sexuality, and many others.”

Intellectual justifications for this new faith-based system are often incomprehensible to the broader public. The Queer Theory dogma that categories of sex, gender, and sexuality are not only oppressive but phony—socially constructed—with no basis in biology, for example, is scientifically absurd but is nevertheless preached in classrooms across the nation. (Scholar Jonathan Gottschall has called this the “liberationist paradigm”—an understanding of society that detaches human nature from biology.) “Standpoint Theory” would have it that knowledge derives from the “lived experience” of different identity groups, hence is different according to which group one belongs to; “value-free” and “neutral” knowledge are impossible to attain. Then there is Postmodern discourse analysis that sees all discourse as expressions of power and submission; it now seems inevitable that such a creed would eventually arrive at the position that words are powerful and even dangerous, and that people who are marginalized, oppressed, black and brown, disabled, queer, female—whatever!—need to be protected from them. Hence the thought and language policing that I noticed as long ago as 1986 when I entered Columbia, and which has spread outside of the academy into the larger culture since then. “If knowledge is a construct of power,” write Pluckrose and Lindsay, “which functions through ways of talking about things, knowledge can be changed and power structures toppled by changing the way we talk about things.” That’s the idea, and the professoriate, which is mostly a product of the applied postmodernism phase, has served as an army of enforcers. If Social Justice Theory holds that two plus two is five (to use Orwell’s metaphor from Nineteen Eighty-Four), one simply doesn’t argue.

One of the most bizarre elements of this new belief system is so-called “research justice”:

This alarming proposal demands that scholars preferentially cite women and minorities—and minimize citations of white Western men—because empirical research that values knowledge production rooted in evidence and reasoned argument is an unfairly privileged cultural construct of white Westerners. It is therefore, in this view, a moral obligation to share the prestige of rigorous research with “other forms of research,” including superstition, spiritual beliefs, cultural traditions and beliefs, identity-based experiences, and emotional responses.

Having one’s cultural knowledge repressed by that of a dominant culture is called epistemic violence. (Note, again, the idea that words or ideas can constitute “violence.”) But one wonders whether the prophets of Social Justice would honor marginalized “knowledges” if they were white ones. QAnon, for instance? Evangelical Christianity? MAGA diehardism? I don’t think those would count.

The task of the college professor has largely become political indoctrination rather than that of guiding the student in an attempt, however imperfect, to find truth or perceive beauty. If biological reality doesn’t square with the ideals of gender studies, it’s swept under the rug. Students of literature, instead of learning to admire artistry and psychological truth, are kept busy hunting out the biases, hidden or otherwise, of authors who might have been revered liberals in their day (Dickens, say, or Twain), but who had preceded the age of Social Justice and hence were unenlightened. Obese people are told by Fat Theorists to ignore medical advice about the dangers posed by their condition: such advice is a manifestation of “fatphobia.” The disabled are instructed by Disability Theorists to be proud of their disability, indeed to revel in it (victimhood, in this brave new world, confers status); it’s the job of society to conform to them, not vice versa. Sometimes the physically and mentally disabled are even discouraged from seeking treatments, like cochlear implants or antidepressants, that might mitigate their very real problems.

The authors give us a handy summary.

A (Western) colonial mind-set says: “Westerners are rational and scientific while Asians are irrational and superstitious. Therefore, Europeans must rule Asia for its own good.”

A liberal mind-set says: “All humans have the capacity to be rational and scientific, but individuals will vary widely. Therefore, all humans must have all opportunities and freedoms.”

A postmodern mind-set says: “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.”

An applied postmodern mind-set says: “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)”—that is, “decolonizing” or “seeking research justice.”

I started hearing a lot about “intersectionality” a few years back at the college, but in my head-in-the-sand manner I just ignored it and got on with teaching literature. Now I find that it means a framework for the analysis of just where any given individual stands, socially and politically, taking into account his or her (or their) various identities—the purpose apparently being to arrange all of us on a gradient ranging from highest privilege to deepest oppression. (The fact that privilege or lack thereof cannot always be calculated in material or group identity terms does not enter into this thought system in any way.) Pertinent identities include “race, sex, class, sexuality, gender identity, religion, immigration status, physical ability, mental health, and body size . . . [T]here are subcategories, such as exact skin tone, body shape, and abstruse gender identities and sexualities, which number in the hundreds. These all have to be understood in relation to one another so that the positionality each intersection of them confers can be identified and engaged.” What could all this possibly produce except an exercise in pure narcissism? Everyone is interested in his or her own identity, of course, but really, truly, no one is much interested in anyone else’s. So what purpose is served here except to divide us socially—to cast down the “privileged” (all white cis-gendered men, for instance) and give status to the “oppressed,” with the most status going to the person with the greatest number of marginalized identities? And as the authors point out, the political backlash has proved very destructive. Denying the possibility of virtue to straight white men has hardly endeared the woke enforcers to those men, many of whom have turned to Trumpism in defiance of the new orthodoxy among the elites. (And yes, Social Justice Theory is undoubtedly an elite creed, with a far greater presence at high-ranking, expensive colleges and universities than at state schools and community colleges.)

In about 2010, Pluckrose and Lindsay tell us (about the time I started teaching at my college) Social Justice Theory and scholarship became reified: they began “to take root in the public consciousness as allegedly factual descriptions of the workings of knowledge, power, and human social relations.” Its tenets constitute

A new religion, a tradition of faith that is actively hostile to reason, falsification, disconfirmation, and disagreement of any kind. Indeed, the whole postmodernist project now seems, in retrospect, like an unwitting attempt to have deconstructed the old metanarratives of Western thought—science and reason along with religion and capitalist economic systems—to make room for a wholly new religion, a postmodern faith based on a dead God, which sees mysterious worldly forces in systems of power and privilege and which sanctifies victimhood. This, increasingly, is the fundamentalist religion of the nominally secular left . . . [It is] spread—with evangelical zeal—by graduates and through social media and activist journalism.

The authors’ use of the word “fundamentalist” is very apt: one of the first things I noticed when these ideas started percolating down to me was their rigidity and complete lack of nuance. Social Justice warriors enforce them like Jacobins. Such Robespierres often serve as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officers (a real growth industry!), “inquisitors seeking incidents of bias and imbalance . . . But what constitutes ‘bias’ in these cases? Since the slights students have complained of include support for President Trump, ‘phallic snow objects,’ and expressions of antiracism such as ‘I don’t see color,’ and bias is operationally designed as a ‘state of mind,’ it appears that sensitivity detectors might be set rather high.” This certainly conforms with my own “lived experience” in academia, and to those of my friends in businesses ranging from theater to publishing. Even activists within the fields of mathematics and engineering, as the authors show us, are pushing for Social Justice principles to be applied to their disciplines. To what possible purpose?

Is Social Justice hegemony—a metanarrative in its own right, ironically—here to stay? I think it’s unlikely: for endless deconstruction eventually consumes and kills every principle, and the revolution is already eating its own through a brutal cancel culture. Pluckrose and Lindsay are proud liberals, and they provide a superb defense of liberalism as the only historically successful vehicle for positive change. It was liberal principles and the liberal spirit, not Social Justice Theorizing, that finally overcame monarchy, imperialism and slavery, that ended segregation, that extended the franchise to all adults, that decriminalized homosexuality and rendered gender and race discrimination illegal. As Pluckrose and Lindsay write,

By seeking to expand our circle of empathy ever wider, liberal humanism has achieved unprecedented human equality. It did so by exploiting the better part of our nature—our empathy and sense of fairness. By seeking to divide humans into marginalized identity groups and their oppressors, Social Justice risks fueling our worst tendencies—our tribalism and vengeance. . . . Whereas the civil rights movements worked so well because they used a universalist approach . . . , Social Justice uses a simplistic identity politics approach which ascribes collective blame to dominant groups . . . [I]t is incredibly naïve to expect it not to produce a counter-revival of old right-wing identity politics.

And of course it already has.

I was forcefully reminded of Sinclair Lewis’ passionate defense of liberalism towards the end of his prescient 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. Lewis’ protagonist and alter ego, Doremus Jessup, is reflecting on his struggle against the fascist regime that has taken charge of the United States. Doremus

had once simple-heartedly hoped that in the mass strength of Communism there might be an escape from cynical dictatorship. But he saw now that he must remain alone, a “Liberal,” scorned by all the noisier prophets for refusing to be a willing cat for the busy monkeys of either side. But at worst, the Liberals, the Tolerant, might in the long run preserve some of the arts of civilization, no matter which brand of tyranny should finally dominate the world.

“More and more, as I think about history,” he pondered, “I am convinced that everything that is worth while in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever. But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.”

Liberalism and science, Pluckrose and Lindsay remind us, are “systems—not just neat little theories—because they are self-skeptical rather than self-certain . . . They are self-correcting.” Enlightenment empiricism encourages us to critique our own beliefs and modify them, however reluctantly we may do so. “People in liberal systems are free to believe anything they wish, and they’re free to argue for anything they want, but to claim that such beliefs are knowledge and demand they be respected as such is another matter.” Social Justice dogma, which demands uncritical adherence, is the opposite of liberal, although the political right has muddied the waters for years by grouping us all into a collective rubric of “liberal,” “the left” or “radical.”

But liberal and radical are not the same thing. Pluckrose and Lindsay end their book with a plea and a promise. “We urge Social Justice advocates to see that the more they achieve their goal of controlling discourse, the clearer it will become that theirs is a hegemonic ideology: an oppressive dominant discourse that acts in pursuit of power and therefore needs to be deconstructed and countered. We will gladly help out with that.”
[1] Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. Pitchstone Publishing. $27.95.