Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms EverybodyWritten by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay Reviewed By Neil Shenvi
Cultural commentators on both the left and the right have noticed that the US is in the throes of a pseudo-religious revival. Some have dubbed this movement “The Great Awokening,” as millions of people and hordes of institutions, corporations, and universities have embraced the messages of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” antiracism, and social justice with gusto. But what ideas are fueling this cultural revolution? What are their origins? What are their implications? Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay set out to answer these questions in their bestselling book Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody. Their work is a crucial read for Christians struggling to understand the ideological underpinnings of terms like “white privilege,” “heteronormativity,” “intersectionality,” and “transphobia.”
The book’s project is ambitious: to chart the emergence of this increasingly influential ideology from its origins in postmodernism, through fields like postcolonial studies, queer theory, critical race theory, and fat studies, to its current manifestation in the Social Justice movement. According to the authors, postmodernism has evolved in three stages: its “high deconstructive” phase which petered out in the mid-1990s, its “applied” phase, which lasted until 2010, and its “reified” phase as “Critical Social Justice” (CSJ), a helpful moniker that I’ll adopt for the rest of my review.
Following scholars like Walter Truett Anderson and Steinar Kvale, Pluckrose and Lindsay identify two principles adopted by postmodernism in each of its phases: (1) “radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism,” and (2) “a belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how” (p. 31). To put it succinctly, reality and truth itself are viewed “through a lens that detects power dynamics in every interaction, utterance, and cultural artifact” (p. 15). In chapter 2, the authors explain how “applied postmodernism” grew out of a dissatisfaction with the abstract, skeptical nature of “high postmodernism.” Activists realized that as long as postmodernism insisted on deconstructing all truth-claims, including claims about injustice, discrimination, and group identity, it would remain largely theoretical. For this reason, they combined postmodern methods with the critical social theories that grew out of the Frankfurt School and the New Left of the 1960s, which were fundamentally oriented towards liberation, emancipation, and activism. “Applied postmodernism” then retained the central principles and themes of “high postmodernism” with one amendment: “identity and oppression based on identity are treated as known features of objective reality” (p. 59).
Chapters 3–7 take deep dives into various subfields of applied postmodernism: postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory and intersectionality, feminisms and gender studies, and disability and fat studies. Each of these fields applies the same basic framework: the dominant discourse (i.e., “way of speaking”) imposed by oppressor groups is interrogated to uncover subtle ways in which words, symbols, values, and norms support and perpetuate the marginalization of the oppressed group. For example, the phenomenon of “Orientalism” within postcolonial studies posits that Europeans constructed the notion of “the East” as exotic, superstitious, primitive, and “other,” while attributing opposite, positive characteristics to “the West.” Queer theory argues that the gender binary itself (i.e., male/female) oppressively sorts people into arbitrary categories that should be transgressed, destabilized, and “queered.” Critical race theory explains how “white supremacy” is encoded not just in overt acts of violence or legal discrimination, but through supposedly neutral, objective, and colorblind laws and policies. Disability and fat studies aim to show that notions of health and obesity are not rooted in objective facts about nature or function, but are ways in which society denigrates, shames, or others certain conditions and body types.
The concept of intersectionality, which was developed within the context of critical race theory, has played an extremely influential role in the convergence of these various disciplines into one overarching CSJ metanarrative. Intersectionality posits that various identity markers interact in irreducibly complex ways. As a result, CSJ views racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and fatphobia as “interlocking systems of oppression” that are inextricably linked and must all be combatted simultaneously.
The coalescence of these various expressions of applied postmodernism into CSJ is explored in chapter 8. If high postmodernism was characterized by playful skepticism and applied postmodernism by activism, then CSJ is characterized by certainty. Here, it’s worth quoting Pluckrose and Lindsay at length:
the belief that society is structured of specific but largely invisible identity-based systems of power and privilege that construct knowledge via ways of talking about things is now considered by social justice scholars and activists to be an objectively true statement about the organizing principle of society. Does this sound like a metanarrative? That’s because it is. Social Justice scholarship and its educators and activists see these principles and conclusions as The Truth According to Social Justice—and they treat it as though they have discovered the analogue of the germ theory of disease, but for bigotry and oppression.… Consequently, we now have Social Justice texts—forming a kind of Gospel of Social Justice—that express, with absolute certainty, that all white people are racist, all men are sexist, racism and sexism are systems that can exist and oppress absent even a single person with racist or sexist intentions or beliefs …, sex is not biological and exists on a spectrum, 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. (pp. 182–83)
Due to the proliferation of CSJ within our institutions, its basic tenets no longer need to be gleaned from esoteric academic journals. It’s the water we’re all swimming in.
While Cynical Theories is highly critical of CSJ, readers may be surprised at how balanced its treatment is. No discipline, not even fat studies, is dismissed out-of-hand. The authors routinely point out the valid insights provided by each field. Indeed, they insist they both support the pursuit of (lowercase) social justice. Rather, it’s their commitment to liberal values that makes them worried that these fields are overrun by activists whose fundamentally flawed assumptions are producing fundamentally wrong prescriptions: “What is, perhaps, most frustrating about Theory is that it tends to get literally every issue it’s primarily concerned with backwards, largely due to its rejection of human nature, science, and liberalism” (p. 258).
Cynical Theories also calls attention to the deeply poisonous nature of CSJ’s adoption of standpoint epistemology. Standpoint epistemology argues that members of dominant groups (men, whites, heterosexuals, the rich, etc.) tend to be blinded by their privilege such that they should defer to the claims and prescriptions of oppressed groups (women, people of color, LGBTQ people, the poor, etc.), who have special insight into oppression due to their lived experience. That said, the latter injunction doesn’t include all members of oppressed groups: “Members of these [oppressed] groups who disagree with standpoint theory—or even deny that they are oppressed—are explained away as having internalized their oppression (false consciousness) or as pandering in order to gain favor or reward from the dominant system (‘Uncle Toms’ and ‘native informants’) by amplifying Theoretically dominant discourses” (p. 195).
Not only is this outlook completely unfalsifiable, it also undermines appeals to logic, reason, and evidence, with devastating effects on our ability to actually solve social problems. From eruptions at Evergreen State, the University of Missouri, Haverford, and Bryn Mawr, to the shaming of Kevin Hart and J. K. Rowling, to the retraction of scholarly papers by Rebecca Tuvel and Bruce Gilley (see chapter 9), we’re witnessing the consequences of the mainstreaming of CSJ.
Cynical Theories has garnered many positive and a few negative reviews. Some criticism seems unavoidable given the scope of the book’s claims. Attempting to characterize the trajectory of an intellectual movement spanning over half a century, dozens of fields, and the work of hundreds of major scholars will inevitably invite disagreement. In particular, the book’s focus on the postmodern roots of CSJ downplays the role of critical theory, a tradition which stretches back to Karl Marx and the Frankfurt School. Yet this objection is something of a judgment call and is addressed in footnote 1 on page 271, which helpfully acknowledges the relationship between CSJ, Marxism, and critical theory (pp. 271–72).
A second, more serious objection is that Cynical Theories misinterprets or misrepresents numerous scholars in support of its claims. While I won’t go into details, I will offer four considerations when assessing these criticisms. First, in private correspondence with me, Pluckrose acknowledged that the book contains “a couple of examples of poor phrasing which create ambiguity and potential misunderstanding,” which she may address in a 2nd edition. Second, based on my reading of some of the primary sources, including the work of Dotson and Medina, I’m not convinced that accusations of misrepresentation are clear-cut. A plausible case can be made that Pluckrose and Lindsay’s conclusions represent over-readings that are nonetheless consistent with the scholars’ actual views on the subject. Third, it has been independently observed that postmodern scholars and their followers often employ vague or equivocal language, giving them a kind of plausible deniability when their views are challenged (see Nicholas Shackel, “The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology,” Metaphilosophy 36 : 295–320). This kind of rhetorical fuzziness must be taken into account in disputes over interpretation. Finally, even if some of the criticisms levelled against Pluckrose and Lindsay’s reading of specific scholars are valid, their overall argument remains convincing. Whether or not one or two trees in the forest have been mischaracterized, the forest is there and we’d be foolish not to see it.
Given the influence of CSJ on our culture, it is no surprise that this discussion has spilled over into the evangelical church as Christians wonder whether and to what extent they can embrace these ideas. While some Christians insist that CSJ is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity, others see this claim as fearmongering. Therefore, Cynical Theories offers a very important third-party criticism of CSJ by authors who, as professing atheists, have no “skin in the game” when it comes to the compatibility of CSJ and Christianity. While Pluckrose and Lindsay don’t explicitly connect the dots between CSJ and Christian doctrine, it is not hard to see why a philosophy that challenges the possibility of objective knowledge, rejects biblical sexual ethics, adopts an epistemology based on “lived experience,” destabilizes written texts, and functions as its own comprehensive, totalizing worldview will come into conflict with Christianity and will divide Christian communities.
Fortunately, more and more evangelicals are beginning to take this threat seriously. Last August, Tim Keller wrote a long article listing the ways in which “postmodern critical theory” is incompatible with the Christian worldview, and characterizing it as “deeply incoherent,” “far too simplistic,” “undermining [of] our common humanity,” “[denying] our common sinfulness,” “mak[ing] forgiveness, peace, and reconciliation between groups impossible,” “offer[ing] a highly self-righteous ‘performative’ identity,” and being “prone to domination” (“A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory, Life in the Gospel, https://tinyurl.com/q5sob7s2). In a two-part article, John Piper warned against critical race theory, writing that “in its mainstream expression — it is another manifestation of the age-old enslavement of the fallen human heart to self-deification (‘I will be my own god’), and self-definition (‘I will define my own essential identity’), and self-determination” (“Critical Race Theory, Part 2: The Root Problem,” Desiring God, 24 November 2020, https://tinyurl.com/5f5gm9gz). Recently, six SBC seminary presidents and convention president J. D. Greear issued a statement affirming that “Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message” (Baptist Press, 30 November 2020, https://tinyurl.com/uf37mznp). Finally, in his excellent book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), Carl Trueman explains how critical theory plays a major role in the modern transgender movement.
For those who continue to insist that CSJ is, at best, a fundamentalist bogeyman and, at worst, an excuse for racism, sexism, and bigotry, Cynical Theories should be a wake-up call. Surely, if two atheists can see a battle looming between the Christian faith and the postmodern religion of social justice, evangelicals can hardly afford to ignore it.
Yet Christians should also realize that Pluckrose and Lindsay’s prescription for fighting this ideology is limited. They urge a return to classical liberal, secular principles based on free speech, freedom of conscience, open dialogue, and public debate. Certainly, this approach will help stave off the growing illiberalism of the progressive left, but two caveats are in order.
First, they offer no basis for these shared values. Why should I permit speech I disagree with when I have the power to suppress it? Why should I refrain from imposing my values on others via law? They ultimately appeal to self-interest: we all benefit from truth and therefore we ought to support liberal mechanisms that are successful at discerning truth. But what if I am less interested in the abstract benefits I might derive from truth and more interested in the very concrete benefits I derive from the ascendency of my tribe? Moreover, what should I do about conflicts over the legality of prostitution or pornography or abortion? At some point, we will hit bedrock differences between worldviews that will not be resolved by any amount of free discourse and public debate.
Second, Pluckrose and Lindsay insist that liberalism is not a worldview. But if they’re correct, then liberalism will never have the attraction of CSJ in terms of meeting people’s needs for meaning, purpose, significance, and identity. CSJ assures people that they are on the right side of history, that they can be clean and virtuous if only they divest themselves of power and stand in solidarity with the oppressed. In other words, CSJ tries to fill the God-shaped hole in every human heart. Even if it doesn’t quite fit, many find it more appealing than (classical) liberalism, which makes no attempt to fill this void.
In contrast, Christianity has the resources to deal with CSJ at a deep level. It not only explains why oppression is evil, but also why it is merely one of many evils that grows in the fertile soil of the fallen human heart. It also explains why revolutions aimed at producing an earthly utopia so often produce a nightmare of bloodshed and suffering, and why no amount of virtue signaling and allyship can fill our need for righteousness. In short, the Christian gospel tells a better story. While it is universal, totalizing, and comprehensive, it does not oppress but sets captives free. That’s the good news that everyone, including the most zealous devotees of CSJ, needs to hear.
The Summit Church
Durham, North Carolina, USA
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