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Have you heard that language is violence and that science is sexist? Have you read that certain people shouldn’t practice yoga or cook Chinese food? Or been told that being obese is healthy, that there is no such thing as biological sex, or that only white people can be racist? Are you confused by these ideas, and do you wonder how they have managed so quickly to challenge Have you heard that language is violence and that science is sexist? Have you read that certain people shouldn’t practice yoga or cook Chinese food? Or been told that being obese is healthy, that there is no such thing as biological sex, or that only white people can be racist? Are you confused by these ideas, and do you wonder how they have managed so quickly to challenge the very logic of Western society? In this probing and intrepid volume, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay document the evolution of the dogma that informs these ideas, from its coarse origins in French postmodernism to its refinement within activist academic fields. Today this dogma is recognizable as much by its effects, such as cancel culture and social-media dogpiles, as by its tenets, which are all too often embraced as axiomatic in mainstream media: knowledge is a social construct; science and reason are tools of oppression; all human interactions are sites of oppressive power play; and language is dangerous. As Pluckrose and Lindsay warn, the unchecked proliferation of these anti-Enlightenment beliefs present a threat not only to liberal democracy but also to modernity itself. While acknowledging the need to challenge the complacency of those who think a just society has been fully achieved, Pluckrose and Lindsay break down how this often-radical activist scholarship does far more harm than good, not least to those marginalized communities it claims to champion. They also detail its alarmingly inconsistent and illiberal ethics. Only through a proper understanding of the evolution of these ideas, they conclude, can those who value science, reason, and consistently liberal ethics successfully challenge this harmful and authoritarian orthodoxy—in the academy, in culture, and beyond.


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Have you heard that language is violence and that science is sexist? Have you read that certain people shouldn’t practice yoga or cook Chinese food? Or been told that being obese is healthy, that there is no such thing as biological sex, or that only white people can be racist? Are you confused by these ideas, and do you wonder how they have managed so quickly to challenge Have you heard that language is violence and that science is sexist? Have you read that certain people shouldn’t practice yoga or cook Chinese food? Or been told that being obese is healthy, that there is no such thing as biological sex, or that only white people can be racist? Are you confused by these ideas, and do you wonder how they have managed so quickly to challenge the very logic of Western society? In this probing and intrepid volume, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay document the evolution of the dogma that informs these ideas, from its coarse origins in French postmodernism to its refinement within activist academic fields. Today this dogma is recognizable as much by its effects, such as cancel culture and social-media dogpiles, as by its tenets, which are all too often embraced as axiomatic in mainstream media: knowledge is a social construct; science and reason are tools of oppression; all human interactions are sites of oppressive power play; and language is dangerous. As Pluckrose and Lindsay warn, the unchecked proliferation of these anti-Enlightenment beliefs present a threat not only to liberal democracy but also to modernity itself. While acknowledging the need to challenge the complacency of those who think a just society has been fully achieved, Pluckrose and Lindsay break down how this often-radical activist scholarship does far more harm than good, not least to those marginalized communities it claims to champion. They also detail its alarmingly inconsistent and illiberal ethics. Only through a proper understanding of the evolution of these ideas, they conclude, can those who value science, reason, and consistently liberal ethics successfully challenge this harmful and authoritarian orthodoxy—in the academy, in culture, and beyond.

30 review for Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody

  1. 5 out of 5

    Plamen Nenchev

    It does not matter if you lean left or right, liberal or conservative. If you are any sort of a reasonable person, this book that is absolutely vital to understanding the madness and social conflict of the last couple of years. It is really quite simple: We are facing an entirely different outlook on life. The question is no longer if someone actually engages in sexism, racism, white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, etc. in a specific situation, somewhere. Sexism, racism, white supremacy, homo It does not matter if you lean left or right, liberal or conservative. If you are any sort of a reasonable person, this book that is absolutely vital to understanding the madness and social conflict of the last couple of years. It is really quite simple: We are facing an entirely different outlook on life. The question is no longer if someone actually engages in sexism, racism, white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, etc. in a specific situation, somewhere. Sexism, racism, white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, etc. are instead assumed to be a permanent feature of society that exist in every human interaction, all the time, everywhere. You just have to peer long enough to see what you want to see—or nitpick until you deliberately miss the point. This is a feature, not a bug of the diffuse set of ideas academically known as Critical (Postmodern) Theory, colloquially as ‘being woke’ and that take the form of Social Justice scholarship and activism. And woke influence far exceeds the chanting activists with incessant demands that everyone is familiar with. Social Justice is what is taught, in various packaging, in a vast array of academic disciplines, e.g. Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Gender Studies, Fat Studies. Social Justice is also, directly or indirectly, the origin of a number of modern phenomena, from political correctness, cultural appropriation and identity politics to outrage culture, victimhood culture and cancel culture. Cynical Theories is the first book to ‘unpack’ Theory, acting both as a sort of a Rosetta stone that decodes its language and a roadmap that tracks what started as Postmodernism in France in the 1960s, mutated by adopting the Critical Theory toolset from Marxism in the 1980s and developed into a full-blown ideology that looked like neither in the 2000s. And what it uncovers is how staggeringly intellectually shallow Social Justice scholarship is. All of its principles can be traced back to the ideas of Michel Foucalt, Jean-Francois Lyotard or Jacques Derrida, ideas that were never meant for activism and whose practical application nowadays would probably make all three roll in their graves. But more importantly: Until now it has been very difficult to criticise Social Justice as it has been unclear where to draw the line. Most people would agree that gay marriage is reasonable and public lynching of people for posting on Twitter is not. But what about all the grey space in between? And here Cynical Theories makes it very easy to separate the grain from the chaff, i.e. what are legitimate civil rights and what is overreach and abuse of these rights. Most importantly of all, Cynical Theories illustrates the danger Social Justice ideology poses to the fabric of modern society. Dividing people into ‘oppressed’ and ‘oppressors’ solely based on skin colour or gender? Imparting collective guilt and collective victimhood for something your ancestors may or may not have done/experienced 200 or 500 years ago? Preaching that reason, logic, science and even grammar are ‘white supremacist’, ‘sexist’ and ‘racist’ because they were created by straight white males?! Postulating that there should be ‘alternative’ ways of gathering facts (to science and reason), starting with personal experience and ending with ‘magic’? Looking at individuals only as representatives of group identities rather than as independent agents and calling any dissenter ‘identity traitor’ (compare with ‘gender traitor’ in The Handmaid’s Tale)? Eliminating disagreement by calling anyone who disagrees with you racist, sexist, transphobic, etc.? Even if we disregard how racist, sexist, condescending and totalitarian all of this sounds, does it strike you like any sort of a recipe for harmonious society, like a way to bring people together and obtain, once and for all, social justice for all members of society???

  2. 5 out of 5

    Dan

    A book that willfully misreads and badly misrepresents both the history and overall direction of critical theory, all to make that tired old argument that postmodernism demolished that great and noble edifice of liberal humanism, and that progressive social justice movements have gone "too far." A lot of white people who feel like they are now being policed by "cancel culture" apparently respond strongly to this thesis, for obvious reasons. If they would read some actual works of critical theory A book that willfully misreads and badly misrepresents both the history and overall direction of critical theory, all to make that tired old argument that postmodernism demolished that great and noble edifice of liberal humanism, and that progressive social justice movements have gone "too far." A lot of white people who feel like they are now being policed by "cancel culture" apparently respond strongly to this thesis, for obvious reasons. If they would read some actual works of critical theory rather than the flimsy straw-man argument these authors provide, they would most likely look upon it rather differently. EDIT: strangers needn't bother sliding into my mentions with comments suggesting that I either haven't read it, feel personally offended by this stuff, or am otherwise too indoctrinated by "social justice theory" or whatever these morons call it – there are plenty of more detailed discussions of the book's many flaws available online for those who are seriously interested in this debate.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Antigone

    Now to the left; to the liberal arena, to the Democratic party, and to the current hybrid faction from which it is under assault. If you have, in your travels, chanced to hear terms like Privilege, Patriarchy, Intersectionality, the Cancel Culture, Identity Politics; if you have struggled to navigate the waters of a hyper-vigilant political correctness, been charged with fragility, shame, rage, living in denial and/or maintaining the oppressor's status quo, then you have encountered the influence Now to the left; to the liberal arena, to the Democratic party, and to the current hybrid faction from which it is under assault. If you have, in your travels, chanced to hear terms like Privilege, Patriarchy, Intersectionality, the Cancel Culture, Identity Politics; if you have struggled to navigate the waters of a hyper-vigilant political correctness, been charged with fragility, shame, rage, living in denial and/or maintaining the oppressor's status quo, then you have encountered the influence of the activist arm of the Social Justice Movement. And just as there are those who mistake all Republicans for maskless, gun-toting, Trump-loving rednecks, so are there those who are beginning to mistake all Democrats for proponents of the radicalized philosophies on the far south of their political spectrum. There are distinctions to be made on the Left, just as there are distinctions to be made on the Right. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have taken two hundred and sixty-nine pages to unravel the tangle with the sort of well-informed diligence that will, quite frankly, blow your hair back. To borrow rather shamelessly from another reviewer of the work: "This is the Rosetta Stone of Woke." They're going to tell you what it means, why it means that, and how it came charging across the landscape to knock at your door. The first two-thirds of the book is a deep dive into Social Justice Theory, citing the writings of the founding voices and analyzing the message. It's a hard read that demands close attention, but here's a hefty section of it that may prove the worth of the effort: "Not altogether unironically, the axis that has replaced class in social theory is privilege. As we have noted, privilege is a concept most closely associated with the Theorist Peggy McIntosh, a well-off white woman, and the author of the 1989 essay called "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." Influenced by critical race theory, McIntosh focuses on white privilege, but the concept of social privilege, unconnected to economic class, was soon extended to other identity categories - male, straight, cisgender, thin, able-bodied, and so on - to describe the relative statistical absence of discrimination against and disenfranchisement of such groups, by comparison with that experienced by various marginalized identity categories. Privilege-consciousness has since nearly completely replaced class-consciousness as the primary concern of those on the academic, activist, and political left, and one's status as privileged is assessed intersectionally, using the appropriate applied postmodern Theories. This attempt to flip the script by strategically redefining the absence of discrimination and disenfranchisement as unjust and problematic has arguably been a catastrophe for left-leaning politics throughout the developed world. "This shift away from class toward gender identity, race, and sexuality troubles traditional economic leftists, who fear that the left is being taken away from the working class and hijacked by the bourgeoisie within the academy. More worryingly still, it could drive the working-class voters into the arms of the populist right. If the group it has traditionally supported - the working class - believe that the political left has abandoned them, the left may lose many of the voters it requires to attain political power. As it divests itself of universalism, this resentment is likely to grow. New York University historian Linda Gordon has summarized working-class resentment of intersectionality: Some criticism is ill-informed but understandable nevertheless. A poor white man associates intersectionality with being told that he has white privilege. "So when that feminist told me I had 'white privilege,' I told her that my white skin didn't do shit." He explains: "Have you ever spent a frigid northern-Illinois winter without heat or running water? I have. At 12 years old were you making ramen noodles in a coffee maker with water you fetched from a public bathroom? I was." The authors go on to point out that traditional liberalism - the philosophy underpinning the Civil Rights Movement, the Equal Rights Movement, and the Gay Pride Movement - while imperfect, has proven time and time again to produce measurable, productive change whereas untraditional illiberalism in the form of the radicalized Social Justice Movement has produced very little for its adherents (beyond confirmation of their victimization) and, in the wrong hands, has actually created atmospheres of animosity and costly setbacks in social evolution. If you have any interest in the topic, I'd usually recommend you pick up a copy. Can't this time. The first printing sold out in a heartbeat. They're currently awaiting shipment of the second.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Someursault The Jumping Stranger

    If you think this is a well-researched book on whatever might be called postmodernism, I encourage you to read some of its sources and work out for yourself what they imply. This book is, unfortunately but not unexpectedly, an exercise in strawman building. In their frankly weird attempt to define postmodernism, they provide this nugget: "[postmodern thinkers] rejected the underlying modernist desire for authenticity, unifying narratives, universalism, and progress, achieved primarily through scie If you think this is a well-researched book on whatever might be called postmodernism, I encourage you to read some of its sources and work out for yourself what they imply. This book is, unfortunately but not unexpectedly, an exercise in strawman building. In their frankly weird attempt to define postmodernism, they provide this nugget: "[postmodern thinkers] rejected the underlying modernist desire for authenticity, unifying narratives, universalism, and progress, achieved primarily through scientific knowledge and technology." It's as if they thought "hey, this book by Lyotard is kinda short and has 'postmodern' in the title, that should be enough to nail down a thought movement with unclear beginnings, wildly disparate assumptions and aspirations, spanning half a century, all the sciences and most of the arts". Whoever counts as "postmodern" thinkers is not at all clear, and some of those who definitely should be included had an explicit and almost perverse desire for authenticity, universalism and progress, hinging on science and dealing painfully much with technology. Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida are some of them, who dealt with all of those practically all the time. Which means that the authors either haven't read them or chose not to include them. Either way, that's a pretty poor starting point for a book making huge claims about postmodernism. Unfortunately, it's not the first we've seen of the kind. The post-Jordan Peterson movement, of which this book obviously is a part, could not exist if people bothered to actually read the thinkers they critique. This book fails on every level to do what's most important in philosophy: to read the sources charitably and critique them reasonably. This is most obvious when they write, "[Postmodernism] did, however, fail to appreciate that scientific and other forms of liberal reasoning (such as arguments in favor of democracy and capitalism) are not so much metanarratives (though they can adopt these) as imperfect but self-correcting processes that apply a productive and actionable form of skepticism to everything, including themselves." Even after having summarised postmodernism by way of this weird reduction ad absurdum, they still fail to see the extent to which postmodern thinking, particularly deconstructive thinking, disturbs any quest for truth, even science. Science is in this view somehow excempt from being a human endeavour. The way the authors put scientific knowledge as a type of truth-seeking that is excempt from history and human fallibility establishes the book as a dogma-based critique and not based on rational thinking or philosophical engagement. So I guess this book is for you if your dogmas are strong, you hate postmodernism but don't really know why, and you have no interest in being informed of what postmodern thinkers actually wrote and what we can learn from them. Addendum: Ahhhh, there's more. This nugget consolidates that the book is founded upon misreadings: "For Derrida, meaning is always relational and deferred, and can never be reached and exists only in relation to the discourse in which it is embedded. This unreliability of language, Derrida argues, means that it cannot represent reality or communicate it to others." This statement is not entirely true but entirely misleading. The point that the authors repeatedly fail to acknowledge is that the thinkers they refer to, reorganise and reframe what the authors take for granted. The result is that the authors use their preconceptions (let's be honest and call it dogma) to figure out what deconstruction "is", find that it's like fitting a square peg in a round hole, and then go on to blame the toy. I'm not even going to clarify what's wrong with the statement, it suffices to point the reader to either the source text or any actual study of Derrida since 1967. The only reason they're attacking "postmodernism" is that they believe that they can turn it into coherent, banal, obviously wrong sweeping claims to truth, in order to strike them down with what they believe is true. It's as if a warrior were to bundle up a bunch of straws to finally have an enemy they could defeat.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Lars

    First off, I never wanted to know any of this. However, I was noticing an increased stream of vocabulary I was hearing and found myself using. These terms included White Privilege, Systemic Racism, and Gender as a Spectrum. As a lifelong liberal, I found myself reflexively nodding with these claims, not questioning the verbiage being used. After the tragic events in Minneapolis and Louisville with the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, like many, I felt there was something fundamentally First off, I never wanted to know any of this. However, I was noticing an increased stream of vocabulary I was hearing and found myself using. These terms included White Privilege, Systemic Racism, and Gender as a Spectrum. As a lifelong liberal, I found myself reflexively nodding with these claims, not questioning the verbiage being used. After the tragic events in Minneapolis and Louisville with the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, like many, I felt there was something fundamentally wrong. I was attracted to White Fragility and How to be an Anti-Racist. Who wants to be a racist? I thought there might be some part of these books that would have actionable things I could do to help make the world a better place. I was wrong. I found both works simplistic, missing empirical evidence, soul-crushing, and ultimately a terrible view of life in general. All whites are racist. Discrimination in the name of anti-racism is ok. A theorized bureau of Anti-Racism as a de facto 1984 Ministry of Truth. This vision of people and humanity did not match my global experience and the way I would see the world. An online discussion brought me to the Evergreen riots and I went down. the Critical Theory rabbit hole. That's how I came to Cynical Theories. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay lay out the foundation of Critical Theories based on the nihilistic and cynical theories of Postmodern thought. I remember reading Foucault in 1997 or 1998 and found his view of the world cynical and paranoid. Looking at the power of discourses and assuming all interactions as either dominant or oppressed didn't seem healthy then and of little practical use. I figured this way of thought had no application in the real world. Cynical Theories show the evolution of academic word games and radical skepticism to applied Postmodernism and the manifested reification of Postmodern thought today. If you ever wondered what the department of gender studies, black studies, whiteness studies, feminist studies, or any discipline in your university with a title of _______ studies was doing, Cynical Theories tells you. It shows how scholarship has been twisted into Critical Social Justice Activism that we see everywhere today. If your organization has an office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, you are probably already under the control of this sort of activism. Cynical Theories shows how the Critical Theorists and their followers use word games, change definitions and use the fear of racism, transphobia, sexism, or ableism as a cudgel to enforce compliance rather than engaging meaningful criticism. The last chapter offers a powerful defense of liberalism and how to engage Critical Social Justice Theory with well-meaning debate, evidence, empiricism, and discussion. This is not to say that the followers will listen, but you will have the tools to engage them in a good-faith discussion. Take what you learn and have the courage to stand up for liberal values and find real solutions that make actual change in the world. I said I didn't want to know any of this. I'm an artist and musician and am usually concerned about making aesthetics and beauty in the world. I am glad however that I now know how to spot Critical Social Justice Theories in everyday life and it helps keep me grounded in reality. As an educator, I know the path I'm on and helping students make positive changes in the world by addressing root causes using science and empiricism to address the Sustainable Development Goals locally and globally.

  6. 4 out of 5

    George

    This book is the Rosetta Stone of woke. If you ever wondered why the New York Times prints the words “whiteness” or refers to “systemic racism” in every other story, Pluckrose and Lindsay explain the origins of these terms and many others. They decipher the jargon and bring clarity to the obtuse prose of Critical Theory, but be prepared it's depressing as hell. The mind virus of Critical Theory has festered and multiplied in the Anglosphere Academy for over 50 years, it has indoctrinated two gen This book is the Rosetta Stone of woke. If you ever wondered why the New York Times prints the words “whiteness” or refers to “systemic racism” in every other story, Pluckrose and Lindsay explain the origins of these terms and many others. They decipher the jargon and bring clarity to the obtuse prose of Critical Theory, but be prepared it's depressing as hell. The mind virus of Critical Theory has festered and multiplied in the Anglosphere Academy for over 50 years, it has indoctrinated two generations of young minds in a theology, it is a belief in witchcraft than a product of the enlightenment. These Theory infected minds now run elite universities, governments, media and entertainment entities and even to, what one would think immune to unfalsifiable dogma, STEM departments. Reading this book better prepares a parent or employee to push back by understanding the Theory canon and to combat it whenever they encounter it’s pressure. I disagree with Pluckrose and Lindsay when they argue that we should not defund these academic departments of public funds, but combat them in the marketplace of ideas. I believe Theory is a mind pandemic that needs to be starved of funds and legitimate status with extreme prejudice. Of course that's a pipe dream.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jason

    A good subtitle for this book might have been Why Trump Got Elected. I'm not joking. I'm from Ohio, one of those key battleground swing states in presidential elections and have had many conversations on my trips home over the past four years. These conversations aren't about the economy or political platforms; they're about how "Everyone's a racist now and people are being fired for things they said 35 years ago and no one can say anything anymore without fear of the social justice mob coming a A good subtitle for this book might have been Why Trump Got Elected. I'm not joking. I'm from Ohio, one of those key battleground swing states in presidential elections and have had many conversations on my trips home over the past four years. These conversations aren't about the economy or political platforms; they're about how "Everyone's a racist now and people are being fired for things they said 35 years ago and no one can say anything anymore without fear of the social justice mob coming after them and what the hell verb do I use if I have to refer to a singular person as they?" I'm not saying these people are necessarily right. I'm just suggesting that they represent a sizable portion of the electorate and that their perceptions of modern discourse being reduced to some kind of inscrutable thoughtcrime inquisition is informing their voting more than probably any other issue. These people identify with Trump despite the fact that he's an incompetent imbecile because he's both powerful enough and shameless enough not to be canceled by histrionic 20-year-olds on Twitter. You can't shame the shameless. Anyway, about the book: it's dry and plodding and often written in the abstruse diction of the early postmodernists (Foucault, Derrida, etc.) whose worldview it indicts for planting the seed that grew into today's highly dogmatic critical theory influencing so much of our discourse on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability and obesity. I do feel like the link between Foucault and "Only white people can be racists because we've just now changed the dictionary definition of racism to preclude everyone except white people" is more tenuous than authors Pluckrose and Lindsay claim, but it's tough to argue that they haven't done their homework on each of critical theories informing the social justice movement they analyze here. Chapters 3-7--devoted respectively to postcolonial theory; queer theory; critical race theory and intersectionality; feminism(s) and gender studies; and disability and fat studies--are kind of a slog, but then chapter 8, in which the authors demonstrate that the excesses and absolutism of modern social justice rhetoric represent the reification of abstract ideas previously confined to the ivory towers of higher education, is suprisingly effective in a way that would be impossible without those previous esoteric chapters. I still think there's a better book out there on this topic waiting to be written. Actually, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate is a better book on this topic, but I'd still like to see something close to the basic thesis of Cynical Theories written for a more general, less academic audience. This group is currently moving increasingly rightward as a hyper-reaction to the doctrinaire fundamentalism of today's social justice rhetoric (essentialism is simultaneously wrong and the only permissible way of viewing the world) and getting their talking points from culture war profiteers like Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson. It might make for a more civil, less divisive and, frankly, less absurd kind of culture if more voices on the left were calling for more rational and less extreme ideas in the "intellectual marketplace" and reinforcing the idea that there's still room for nuance in our conversations and debates.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Josh K

    The book provides a good overview of the roots of activist scholarship and the contemporary culture of social justice derived from it. Should be read alongside of Rauch's Kindly Inquisitors and Sokal & Bricmont's Fashionable Nonsense and as an antidote to DiAngelo's White Fragility. The book provides a good overview of the roots of activist scholarship and the contemporary culture of social justice derived from it. Should be read alongside of Rauch's Kindly Inquisitors and Sokal & Bricmont's Fashionable Nonsense and as an antidote to DiAngelo's White Fragility.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Alexander Vishnyakov

    Thoughtful deconstruction of the Deconstructors themselves. Brilliant and eye-opening.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Katie Beswick

    I think there is a decent book to be written about how certain ideas that have a lineage in postmodern theory are (mis)understood and applied by those who seek to paint the world in terms of a competition in oppression. However, to lay a culture war fought by a hugely divided, though actually very small, online faction of the population at the feet of 'critical theory' is a bit ridiculous. As this book itself states, critical or 'postmodern' theory is not a monolith — different theorists write w I think there is a decent book to be written about how certain ideas that have a lineage in postmodern theory are (mis)understood and applied by those who seek to paint the world in terms of a competition in oppression. However, to lay a culture war fought by a hugely divided, though actually very small, online faction of the population at the feet of 'critical theory' is a bit ridiculous. As this book itself states, critical or 'postmodern' theory is not a monolith — different theorists write wildly different things about a range of subjects. Not all of these are about 'identity politics' either. Nor is 'critical theory', even post 1990, a coherent set of practical instructions for living life — rather critical theory offers ways of thinking about the world, about art, culture, society, nature, literature — some of them fantastical, some explanatory, some barely penetrable, some clear and illuminating. Sometimes, critical theory is a flight of scientific fancy, sometimes it is a call for social justice through addressing issues relating to race/class/gender etc. Sometimes it seeks to understand history or specific events through systematic analysis. It is a reduction in the extreme to use the phrases 'post-modernists think/post-modern thinking', as if 'postmodernism' is one straightforward thing - or as if postmodernism were a religious dogma (the authors actually do say this at points, although they confusingly also say they can't define postmodernism because it is a term that might refer to a wide ranging body of work that can't be contained. Not sure how that's religious dogma). Nor is all postmodernism about divisive identity politics - look for example at Donna Harraway, whose whole body of work is about the interconnectedness of all forms of life and our reliance on one another. ‘Identity’ is hardly the centre of her critical work. Nor could you characterise it as cynical in any serious sense. Does Hannah Arendt on the Holocaust and totalitarianism count as ‘critical theory’? Certainly I would teach it as such. Or is ‘Theory’ just stuff the authors don’t agree with? They seem especially to dislike the argument that racist ideas might have influenced historical events and artefacts, and that the resonances of those events/ideas might sometimes affect black people now. This book comes dangerously close to suggesting that no aspects of our socially constructed and situated identities have anything to do with power, that there is no social injustice embedded in culture. This is just empirically, by their own standards of 'liberalism' grounded in evidence and logic, untrue. For example, working class women have been disproportionately economically impacted by austerity in the UK, black males are massively overrepresented in the US penal justice system and so on. These are facts that have been systematically evidenced through numerous studies in a range of disciplines, using lots of different methodologies. Not only those grounded in 'Theory'. Therefore we can take them as 'true'. Yes, there is then a leap we have to make in trying to understand why that might be the case, and what it means, and that is where interpretation and using theory to think about it might come in. But even without Theory, to suggest that racism and sexism are not to some extent embedded in culture at structural rather than individual levels is clearly a nonsense. Unless what you are saying is that women are naturally bad with money and black men are innately criminal — obviously that's as ridiculously simplistic and not-evidence based a 'critical theory' suggesting (not that it does) it is all the fault of white cis men. Perhaps you don't find 'critical theory' (what, any of it?) useful for thinking about why inequality exists, or how the world works, or why certain things have come to be. That's ok, there are other ways of knowing about stuff. Why does this book pretend that anyone who has found meaning and understanding in critical theory is guilty of the worst kind of reductionist application of the worst kind of critical scholarship? Some of the basic assertions of this book are just factually wrong. Does 'critical theory', in any guise, suggest there is fundamentally no objective truths in the world? No. Does it suggest that our interpretation of certain truths is biased in favour of people who have traditionally conducted experiments and written books: yes, sometimes it does. They especially dislike the concept of 'lived experience'. But is it really that ludicrous to say that the experience of walking down a street at night might well be different for men and women because women are made to feel more at risk of sexual violence? Is that really a controversial position, in opposition to the basic tenets of liberalism? Come on, the authors must know it’s not, which leaves me thinking: what do they really want to achieve in writing this book? That no one reads Foucault and finds some of his thinking useful? I can't help but think this book project is just really a silly, pot-stirring endeavour that helps no one and leads to greater suspicion of academic expertise and even greater social divisions. It does help elevate their personal platforms as liberal soothsayers though. I would suggest that the authors themselves look beyond identity politics to think about how this 'culture war', which they trace back to 2010, can actually be mapped onto the emergence and explosion in popularity of social media, and the concurrent breakdown of hierarchies of knowledge. It is individuals from both sides of the political divide being able to garner a platform on the basis of lowest common denominator appeal that has got us into this mess. Of course it is ridiculous to make the blanket statement 'no white person can experience racism' (cf: the holocaust), or 'all men are rapists' or whatever it is. But I just don't believe that any serious thinker really operates with so little nuance, and where they do it is mainly the fault of Twitter, which is far more to blame for reductive social analysis than Foucault — and which also gives an elevated platform to any voices with no factchecking or context, amplifying the most emotive and easy to digest positions. When people have 280 characters to debate issues like racial injustice, is it any wonder the whole thing gets reduced to ridiculous binary shouting matches? The main issue is not that any significant portion of the population seriously thinks there is no objective truth, but that the traditional institutions where we could find truth have been undermined by non-traditional publishing platforms and the interference of nefarious interests via technology (e.g. Cambridge Analytica), so that 'truth' becomes harder to discern. That it seems to me is the fundamental problem, not critical theory. Thinking about the world is not dangerous - blaming universities and thought for the world’s ills is though. If someone read Foucault and concluded engineering should be based on lived experience, that is not Foucault's fault! If anything, it suggests more education is necessary, not less. Sometimes I wonder if the kinds of criticisms found in this book are just made because the writers feel bad they don't really understand critical theory, or, more generously, because they don't like reading that kind of dense, torturous prose. The simple, clear style of the writing of this book is certainly a challenge to some postmodern writing (though why everyone seems to forget a lot of the French stuff is translated, and this in part contributes to its difficulty, is beyond me). No one is saying the authors of Cynical Theories have to enjoy convoluted and linguistically complex theory. We can all enjoy or not enjoy different and experimental kinds of language, and take what we need from academic texts to help us with our own thinking. Reductively dismissing decades of thought and blaming scholarship for socially created problems because some not very good scholars wrote bad articles and said idiotic things on Twitter doesn't seem very helpful. Doing away with critical theory won't change the fact the world is in a mess and people need ways to think about that. Give us better ways to think about it, rather than sinking your energy into your own form of cynicism. This book ultimately contributes to the culture divide it purports to address by wildly, and I would suggest even deliberately, misconstruing, reducing and misrepresenting a range of post-1960s thought to 'cynicism' — in the process setting up strawman arguments that are as based in identity politics as any of the theories the book dismisses. I will say I admired the way this book gave me a renewed faith in the usefulness of all different types of critical theory for thinking and engaging with the world. It really made me think about what I find useful in certain ways of thinking, and for that I give it two stars.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Harald Groven

    Traces the emergence of radical left postmodern ideology the past 50 years, and explains how this ideology hurts the social justice cause the activists are supposed to help. — "Critical race Theory’s hallmark paranoid mind-set, which assumes racism is everywhere, always, just waiting to be found, is extremely unlikely to be helpful or healthy for those who adopt it. Always believing that one will be or is being discriminated against, and trying to find out how, is unlikely to improve the outcome Traces the emergence of radical left postmodern ideology the past 50 years, and explains how this ideology hurts the social justice cause the activists are supposed to help. — "Critical race Theory’s hallmark paranoid mind-set, which assumes racism is everywhere, always, just waiting to be found, is extremely unlikely to be helpful or healthy for those who adopt it. Always believing that one will be or is being discriminated against, and trying to find out how, is unlikely to improve the outcome of any situation." I read this after Sir Roger Scruton's Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, which traces development of far left political thought in the West during the 20th century. Cynical theories starts where Fools, Frauds and Firebrands ends, by postmodernism's transformation into social justice, CRT and intersectionality.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Brice Karickhoff

    I really can’t praise this book enough. It is a must read for anyone interested in progression toward a more just society. I disagreed with this book at times, but overall, it was immensely helpful. I have long believed that there is a crucial difference in the ways that one might approach social justice. For instance, with respect to racial justice, I’ve read countless books by and about the civil rights leaders, and I’ve read mostly all of the popular racial justice books of today. While they I really can’t praise this book enough. It is a must read for anyone interested in progression toward a more just society. I disagreed with this book at times, but overall, it was immensely helpful. I have long believed that there is a crucial difference in the ways that one might approach social justice. For instance, with respect to racial justice, I’ve read countless books by and about the civil rights leaders, and I’ve read mostly all of the popular racial justice books of today. While they both seem to focus on race, I noticed a shift in the underlying framework that made me very uncomfortable. I appreciate that White Fragility, So You Want to Talk about Race, and others are trying to achieve a more racially just society, but I was offput by the epistemological and moral framework they hold to be self-evident. This book exposed the difference between Classical Liberalism and Reified Post-modernism (different than the initial post-modernism of Foucault, but more relevant to today). Ideas are SO important. I would recommend this book to anyone, but beware, it is seriously dense. If you do read it please please let me know your thoughts.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Vincent

    Incredibly pertinent and well-researched.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Brian Griffith

    I had a feeling this book would make me think harder, and it did. Pluckrose and Lindsay claim that too many activists against racism, sexism, and other kinds of bigotry have grown dogmatic to a point that hurts their causes. I thought the authors were just going to argue for better tactics. But actually, they claim that social justice scholarship and activism has shifted ideologically to the point of rejecting liberal values and scientific standards of research. I felt the claim was exaggerated, I had a feeling this book would make me think harder, and it did. Pluckrose and Lindsay claim that too many activists against racism, sexism, and other kinds of bigotry have grown dogmatic to a point that hurts their causes. I thought the authors were just going to argue for better tactics. But actually, they claim that social justice scholarship and activism has shifted ideologically to the point of rejecting liberal values and scientific standards of research. I felt the claim was exaggerated, but it was presented in a rational, articulate way that’s worth hearing out. Of course they object to self-righteous zealotry. And of course all movements for morality and justice are prone to puritanical zeal, with zero-tolerance for sin and depravity. But beyond that danger, Pluckrose and Lindsay have a more basic objection. They argue that the methods and aims of activist scholars have grown inimical to both democracy and science. The accusations seem extreme, but I think all progressives should consider the best responses to them. The concern that made most sense to me is that we have increasingly shifted from seeking structural reform of laws, policies, and systems, to focusing on the reform of language. We seek to identify and weed out wording that reflects traditional prejudice, as if wording is the underlying cause of social inequity. Then, instead of doing the hard work of organizing for structural change, many progressives like myself would rather act as keyboard warriors for inclusive wording. Instead of trying to change social structures, we try to reform individuals by challenging the way they talk. The authors raise many other issues about identity, sexuality, disability, race, class, boundaries, strategy, censorship, and the process of validating knowledge. All of their questions deserve thoughtful answers, despite the fact that they seem far more concerned about the excesses of social justice advocates than the excesses of right-wing partisans. I’ll just give a taste of the book’s often constructive proposals: “Our knowledge of history is skewed by the biased records that survive, but the way to mitigate this is to investigate such claims empirically and reveal the falsity of such narratives, rather than include a greater range of biases and declare some of them to be immune to criticism.” (p. 80)

  15. 5 out of 5

    Domhnall

    The “cynical theories” targeted in this book include PostColonial Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory and Intersectionalism, Disability and Fat studies, various Feminisms and Gender Studies. They all have roots in liberation struggles and civil rights struggles going back generations, but in every case the new theories bring a methodology and an attitude that derives from and employs characteristics of Postmodernism. What emerges from this seemingly very academic and abstract perspective The “cynical theories” targeted in this book include PostColonial Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory and Intersectionalism, Disability and Fat studies, various Feminisms and Gender Studies. They all have roots in liberation struggles and civil rights struggles going back generations, but in every case the new theories bring a methodology and an attitude that derives from and employs characteristics of Postmodernism. What emerges from this seemingly very academic and abstract perspective is an agenda for practical political action which has had immense impacts under the generic label of Social Justice Theory [SJT]. There is nothing novel about the issues covered by these theories and a great deal of activism has already taken place over many generations, with significant achievements: the civil rights legislation of the USA, the increasing autonomy of women, the legalisation and social acceptance of homosexuality, the emergence of national cultures in liberated former colonies and many other achievements owing nothing whatsoever to Social Justice Theory. It would be absurd to claim that any of the issues have been resolved, and it is essential to be aware of the powerful forces on the political right seeking to undo past gains and halt further progress, but it is no less absurd to refuse to recognise the tangible achievements of what might loosely be called traditional progressive politics, with which SJT now seeks to compete. Today’s Social Justice Warriors have achieved quite astonishing penetration in academia, education, political organisations, public institutions and the corporate world, claiming to carry the banner forwards in the battle against oppression, virtually taking credit for the past achievements of those they now wish to supplant. but the argument of this book is that their methods are regressive and counterproductive, irrational and antiscientific, authoritarian and undemocratic, unlikely to produce gains comparable to those of the past, positively harmful to the causes they claim to serve and tending to drive voters and traditional activists into the arms of their right wing adversaries. Precisely to the extent that we do still care about the rights of women, LGBT people, diverse ethnic groups and others, and indeed for most of us to the extent that we are included in one or more such categories, it is essential that we recognise and tackle the challenge facing us as a result of the Social Justice Movement, that we reject their authoritarian and reactionary values and revert to established and successful progressive and democratic models of political engagement. You should not take from this that I like or agree with the authors personally, that their own proposals are entirely sound or that their coverage of the topics is adequate or authoritative. They have certainly made some contentious decisions to impose a clear and concise order on the material: they make sense, they are explicit and they are justified in the text but you must form your own judgement about the approach taken. The book will appeal to and be cited by many readers with whom I strongly disagree and it attacks or undermines some values and beliefs that I espouse. I don’t need to agree with a book for it to be worth reading. What it does achieve is a highly readable account of a topic that other writers make unbearably difficult, and for that blessing I can forgive a multitude of sins. Quotes “We are fluent in both the language and the culture of Social Justice scholarship and activism, and we plan to guide our readers through this alien world, charting the evolution of these ideas from their origins fifty years ago up to the present day.” [p16] A critical theory is chiefly concerned with revealing hidden biases and underexamined assumptions, usually by pointing out what have been termed “problematics,” which are ways in which society and the systems that it operates are going wrong. [p14] Because they focused on self perpetuating systems of power, few of the original postmodern Theorists advocated any specific political actions, preferring instead to engage in playful disruption or nihilistic despair... Nevertheless, throughout postmodern Theory runs the overtly left-wing idea that oppressive power structures constrain humanity and are to be deplored. This results in an ethical imperative to deconstruct, challenge, problematize (find and exaggerate the problems within), and resist all ways pf thinking that support oppressive structures of power, the categories relevant to power structures, and the language that perpetuates them – thus embodying a value system into what might have been a moderately useful descriptive theory. [p37] “Nevertheless, it is not uncommon for academics who work according to the postmodern knowledge and political principles to be disparaging of postmodernism and insist they do not use it in their work. ... Perhaps ironically, Theory has been internalized by – and thus rendered invisible to – many academics, even those who consider themselves to have eschewed Theory and claim to work with empirical data.” [p50] Liberalism is not perfect. Nevertheless it is the antidote to Theory. [p238] Postmodern Theory views the failures of the liberal order and its knowledge producing systems in a cynical way - as means by which the powerful obscure the limiting potential of oppression – and focuses on how unfair they can be, particularly to those who start out disadvantaged, since the system has no mechanism to compensate for their bad luck. It would thus tear the system down. ... This is because Liberalism is a system of conflict resolution, not a solution to human conflict. In being a system that works through the inputs of its participants, it offers up no one n particular in whom to place our trust, which violates our deepest human intuitions. It is not revolutionary, but neither is it reactionary... Instead, liberalism is always a work in progress. This is because it actually works – it leads to progress – so, as it solves each problem, it moves on to new problems, continually finding new conflicts to resolve, and new goals to achieve. ... Such processes, therefore, invariably amke mistakes and sometimes even go completely awry, before being subjected to the necessary criticism and correction... Problematizing is Theory’s way of exploiting these errors.... When done cynically, as with Theory, it can destroy people’s trust in the liberal system and obscure from them that it is this system that has made modernity possible. [p239] “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their characters,” said Dr King, appealing to white Americans’ pride in their country as the Land of Opportunity and their sense of fairness, and making common cause with them in their hopes for the next generation. He called upon their empathy and stressed their shared humanity. Had he, like Robin DiAngelo, asked white Americans to be “ a little less white, which means a little less oppressive, oblivious, defensive, ignorant and arrogant,” would this have had the same effect? [p258] 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. It allots social significance to racial categories, which inflames racism. It attempts to depict categories of sex, gender and sexuality as mere social constructions, which undermines the fact that people often accept minorities because they recognize that sexual expression varies naturally. It depicts the East as the opposite of West, and thus perpetuates the very Orientalism it seeks to unmake. Theory is highly likely to spontaneously combust at some point, but it could cause a lot of human suffering and societal damage before it does. The institutions it attacks before it collapses will lose much of their prestige and influence and they may not survive. It could also leave us at the mercy of nationalists and right wing populists, who pose an even greater potential threat to liberalism. [p258, 259]

  16. 4 out of 5

    Marija

    As someone who is excited by and grateful for Faulcault's creative thinking and unique mind, I must admit that this book serves his legacy well. It is systematic, well-written,and it is revealing how applied postmodern thought is making its way out of academia and into the world. At the same time, the book shows the divergence from Foucault's thinking, as well as his strong influences. The authors dissect new trends in public discourse and believe that the problem emanating from the left is a dep As someone who is excited by and grateful for Faulcault's creative thinking and unique mind, I must admit that this book serves his legacy well. It is systematic, well-written,and it is revealing how applied postmodern thought is making its way out of academia and into the world. At the same time, the book shows the divergence from Foucault's thinking, as well as his strong influences. The authors dissect new trends in public discourse and believe that the problem emanating from the left is a departure from its historical point of reason and strength, liberalism. “At best, this has a chilling effect on the culture of free expression, which has served liberal democracies well for more than two centuries, as good people self-censor to avoid saying the “wrong” things. At worst, it is a malicious form of bullying and—when institutionalized—a kind of authoritarianism in our midst.”, they claim. They further point to many symptomatic tendencies that have taken a dominant place in public discourse since 2010, for example: "We hear laments about cultural appropriation at the same time we hear complaints about the lack of representation of certain identity groups in the arts. We hear that only white people can be racist and that they always are so, by default. Politicians, actors, and artists pride themselves on being intersectional. Companies flaunt their respect for "diversity," while making it clear that they are only interested in a superficial diversity of identity (not of opinions).” If you want to dig deeper into how applied postmodernism fails to live up to the ideas of freedom, equality, scientific thought, and inclusivity, this is a great read.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Bob

    Wherein “postmodern” becomes a bad word, and Foucault a maleficent patron saint of latter-day cancel culture. Thanks, Foucault. ... Thoroughly and persistently academic; rightly so, perhaps. But the last three chapters do achieve a sort of bravura sweep to them. ... This book is for those who read/tried to read White Fragility (I’m of the latter category) but chafed at the wool being pulled over one’s eyes... ... But in the interest of positivity— I believe this book will help readers advance into a m Wherein “postmodern” becomes a bad word, and Foucault a maleficent patron saint of latter-day cancel culture. Thanks, Foucault. ... Thoroughly and persistently academic; rightly so, perhaps. But the last three chapters do achieve a sort of bravura sweep to them. ... This book is for those who read/tried to read White Fragility (I’m of the latter category) but chafed at the wool being pulled over one’s eyes... ... But in the interest of positivity— I believe this book will help readers advance into a more productive social justice mindset grounded in liberalism, humanism, and universality (god willing). Cheers to that!!

  18. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Achord

    Well written. Readable. For the untrained in theory. Read this when people tell you to “educate yourself” in woke studies. Their thesis: cynical theories are born from postmodernism and militate against liberalism. Their solution: a return to liberal order, the individual before the community, rational dialogue toward truth, ideas before identity, principle before people, tolerance before belonging. The liberal has become the conservative. My take: critical theories undo the liberal conception of Well written. Readable. For the untrained in theory. Read this when people tell you to “educate yourself” in woke studies. Their thesis: cynical theories are born from postmodernism and militate against liberalism. Their solution: a return to liberal order, the individual before the community, rational dialogue toward truth, ideas before identity, principle before people, tolerance before belonging. The liberal has become the conservative. My take: critical theories undo the liberal conception of man and society, and reawaken and justify identitarian over ideological loyalties.

  19. 5 out of 5

    LondonIDW

    👍 An instant classic, detailed, meticulous and highly readable. We're discussing it at the LondonIDW as soon as we can. https://www.meetup.com/LondonIDW 👍 An instant classic, detailed, meticulous and highly readable. We're discussing it at the LondonIDW as soon as we can. https://www.meetup.com/LondonIDW

  20. 5 out of 5

    Wick Welker

    An overstated polemic against the liberal intelligentsia. I enjoyed Cynical Theories much more than I thought I would. I had a healthy dose of skepticism coming in and, as it turns out, that’s kind of the author’s point. I really did get a lot out of this book but I believe I have legitimate reasons to give this book 2 stars and not offer my full support of the author’s arguments. First, I genuinely have some positive things to say about this book which I will eventually get to. In about the first An overstated polemic against the liberal intelligentsia. I enjoyed Cynical Theories much more than I thought I would. I had a healthy dose of skepticism coming in and, as it turns out, that’s kind of the author’s point. I really did get a lot out of this book but I believe I have legitimate reasons to give this book 2 stars and not offer my full support of the author’s arguments. First, I genuinely have some positive things to say about this book which I will eventually get to. In about the first quarter of this book our authors lay out a very detailed (and boring) explanation of postmodernism. I’m not an expert on postmodernism (which I’ll call PoMo) but from what I understand it was an academic movement of the mid 20th century that is rooted on the premise of deep skepticism, doubting objective truth and common universal concepts of how reality is perceived. PoMo fractures classic modern narratives into metanarratives that question our very reality and argue that truth is based on individual and lived-in experiences. PoMo is basically a radicalized challenge to classic epistemology. The discussion of PoMo is extremely important for the rest of the book and almost every argument made relies on PoMo. Why? Because the authors argue that modern day Social Justice movements are just rebranded PoMo movements—renegade philosophies that have resulted in cultural authoritarianism and behavior policing with all the chilling and unsettling Orwellian implications you can imagine. The authors also venture into post-colonialism which is based on the belief that the scientific method supports while male power structure. According to the authors, the PoMo Social Justice movements have pitted radical skepticism against scientific skepticism, supplanting the scientific method with nihilism, essentially obfuscating science in a quest for cultural conquest. The form of these neoPoMo movements are Critical Race Theory (CRT), Queer theory, Feminism, disabled people and the obese (which they call “fat studies”). The authors believe that all these group identities have atomized into movements that no longer seek liberal change, but assert cultural dominance that have culminated in belief akin to a religion. With these new belief system, there are of course heretics—anyone who may disagree that say sex is a biological fact and not a spectrum or that not all minority group individuals have the same experience of victimization. All of these movements fall under the umbrella of Critical Theories which constantly question the status quo, assume power structures and white supremacy are covert, ever present, and must constantly be challenged. According to the authors, Critical Theories are also post-colonialistic in that they advocate for “research justice” elevating group experience over empirical evidence. The author’s discussion on CRT includes the argument that it advocates black nationalism and trains people to seek racism in every social interaction with impunity and hostility. They clearly suggest that white people are victims of CRT and that the theory leads to constant confirmation bias in its acolytes who categorize everything based on race and in essence—become racist themselves. They argue that CRT is likely to tear apart the very fabric of society because it creates tension and racial hostility where it shouldn’t really exist. They claim that the intersectionality of subjugation casts blame solely on white men and makes them the focus of societal problems. They claim that CRT engenders white guilt, even on an individual level, and demands white repentance. CRT for them is casting individual and personal responsibility on white people. Our authors essentially argue that CRT subverts prior civil rights achievements and obstructs further meaningful change. Here are the things I like about this book. I agree with the authors that Critical Theories, and how they influence Social Justice, have hindered open discourse. I do believe that Cancel Culture, one of the main impacts that the authors bemoan, is a real problem. People should be forgiven for their mistakes, misconceptions and misunderstandings. Social Justice movements do create a militant attitude toward dissent, creating heretics that don’t really exist. I agree that there is a trend of cultural authoritarianism going on in the media, universities and the workplace that ostracizes people for voicing their opinions. Free discourse is required for liberal advancements and in this sense, Critical Theories can shoot itself in the foot. Critical Theories could very much be a cultural vehicle for left-wing authoritarianism which, of course, would be a terrible state to find ourselves in. Critical Theories are likely in large part responsible for the right-wing authoritarian backlash we’re currently seeing and the erosion of expert opinion and the scientific method. Here is my main problem with the book and why it deserves 2 stars: the authors exaggerate, overstate and create a false dichotomy between victims of Critical Theories and actual victims of state/cultural-oppression. Here’s the meat of the problem which they didn’t touch on at all: there are very real and very disparate outcomes based on race and sex that the authors don’t mention even once. This is an actual phenomenon and there are only two conclusions to draw from the hard data of ongoing inequality: there is either structural subjugation going on or the victims are to blame for their circumstances. That’s it—it’s either one of those two options. So where do our author’s fall? It is very reasonable to infer that the authors don’t believe that the ongoing inequitable forces in our societies are due to structural power imbalances based on race and sex. This is highly problematic and is an attitude that insulates and protects the status quo of oppression. The authors, like many conservatives, rest on the laurels of the Civil Rights movements and assume that such gains will eventually happen again but offer no real avenue for it to happen. It’s a huge irony that the author’s claim that science and data are oppressed under Critical Theories and don’t recognize the cold hard metrics of very clear disparities of social outcomes based on race. The authors have a naive and sanctimonious trust in incremental liberalism. But systemic racism is very, very real and it is embedded in disparities seen in household income, employment, health outcomes, incarceration rates and intergenerational wealth. This was an enormous oversight by the authors and invalidates the bulk of their arguments. Whatever problems Critical Theories create are dramatically disproportionate to ongoing racism and sexism in western society. The authors infer that these are symmetrical problems but it’s very obvious that a white professor being fired for a tweet is vastly different from an innocent person of color being shot-dead by police in the street caused by systemic racism. They don’t actually offer analysis of how CRT is harmful, it was pure speculation based on anecdotes, Twitter exchanges and professional repercussions for open speech. The authors clearly overstate and exaggerate the hindering to science that Critical Theories pose. They went as far as saying that Critical Theories could hinder scientific advancement on the scale of suppressing scientific advancements on par with silencing someone like Albert Einstein. This is totally absurd. The only hindrance I see on science from Critical Theories is in the social sciences. Hard science will survive the surveillance state of Critical Theories just fine. I don’t believe the authors are radical right wingers but I did find their smug, condescension quite ironic given that this is something they vehemently are opposed to in academia. The crux of their arguments rests on post-modernism and this is their greatest weakness. Yes, PoMo might be influencing current Critical Theories, but the only proof of this is academic conjecture and even if there is nihilistic influences in Social Justice movements, you can’t just throw the baby out with the bath water and assume that “liberal democracy” will clean up the mess when it is on a foundation that is deeply inequitable from the very beginning. Imagine applying these author’s approach to Palestinian apartheid. It’s laughable to even think such an impotent approach would do anything for such severely subjugated people. It would seem the authors ask subjugated people to wait and suffer while liberal technocrats sort things out. The meat of this book is an academic fight, not a real fight that average everyday people need to be worried about. The authors do not offer tangible solutions other than suggesting inherent trust in ill defined liberal incrementalism and really only obfuscate real struggle, hoping that change will occur without Social Justice movements. The question is: how did prior civil rights advancements even arise? I would argue it was challenging existing power structures, which Critical Theories does, that leveraged cultural change into legislative change. Change comes from protest and rebellion against structural oppression. The authors don’t understand this. Critical Theories are just that, theories, imperfect models based on imperfect social sciences. That does not mean they are not helpful and cannot bring about meaningful change. At the same time, we should all be careful of becoming militant Social Justice zealots, creating enemies and heretics where they don’t exist. That is the valuable warning of this book but I found the rest to be mostly a polemic full of academic grievances that aren’t applicable to actual struggle.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    A true reference work for matters of social justice. It is dense and weighty, with many references and quotes from primary source authors. Maybe it’s greatest contribution is explaining the argot of these theories. Words like research justice, problematize, and discourses. Not an easy read but an excellent resource. For a short introduction to the topic and the author, listen to this conversation on Thinking In Public: https://albertmohler.com/2020/09/02/j... A true reference work for matters of social justice. It is dense and weighty, with many references and quotes from primary source authors. Maybe it’s greatest contribution is explaining the argot of these theories. Words like research justice, problematize, and discourses. Not an easy read but an excellent resource. For a short introduction to the topic and the author, listen to this conversation on Thinking In Public: https://albertmohler.com/2020/09/02/j...

  22. 4 out of 5

    Pete

    Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody (2020) by Helen Pluckrose and James A Lindsay is a thoroughly researched explanation of how various critical identity theories came into being and the problems they cause. For anyone who has wondered how a radical feminist like Germaine Greer could be banned from speaking at University and similar events this book provides an explanation. Pluckrose is a Biden supporting left w Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody (2020) by Helen Pluckrose and James A Lindsay is a thoroughly researched explanation of how various critical identity theories came into being and the problems they cause. For anyone who has wondered how a radical feminist like Germaine Greer could be banned from speaking at University and similar events this book provides an explanation. Pluckrose is a Biden supporting left winger and both Lindsay and Pluckrose are very sympathetic to the problems of minorities of various kinds. They believe that critical theory based ideas are bad and have serious deleterious effects. Pluckrose and Lindsay came to prominence with the ‘Sokal Squared’ hoax, together with Peter Boghossian they submitted made up papers to various critical studies journals and got four of them accepted. Pluckrose is a historian and Lindsay is a mathematician. First the book provides a quick overview of Postmodernism and states that Postmodernism has two principles and four major themes. The principles are: •The postmodern knowledge principle: Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism. •The postmodern political principle: A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how. They describe four major themes of postmodernism as: The blurring of boundaries, the power of language, Cultural relativism and the loss of the individual and the universal (groups instead being important) The book then frequently refers back to these ideas and how different areas of critical scholarship have adopted them. The book also points out that Postmodernism in its original form had very little to say about what people should do or how they should act. Apparently the book’s rapid history of Postmodernism isn’t strong and their characterisation isn’t entirely correct. This is somewhat similar to Steven Pinker’s description of The Enlightenment in Enlightenment Now. However, for both books this isn’t a great problem. In Enlightenment Now the important thing is the massive increase in living standards over the past 200 years. In Cynical Theories the book’s description of how critical theories have been used in various other areas is what is important. Cynical Theories then describes the way that academics took various aspects of Postmodernism and looked for ways to apply them. This blended Postmodernism with the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School. This blend would be applied to Postcolonial Theory, then Queer Theory, Racial Theory, Gender Study and later Disability and Fat Studies. Critical Theory meticulously looks at these various applications of theory, outlines major thinkers and examines why so many of these areas have become so illiberal. The book does this while remaining sympathetic to most of Social Justice. Finally Pluckrose and Lindsay describe a liberal alternative to critical theory for making the world a more just place. They describe this as Liberalism Without Identity Politics. Cynical Theories is a very good book. It’s interesting to note that Lindsay has written books on Atheism and this book is very much in the spirit of books about religion by atheists who have read religious texts. It’s not an easy read but it is definitely worthwhile for anyone who wants to understand the theoretical underpinnings of Identity driven critical theory and cancel culture.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Tomes

    This is probably my top read for 2020.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mark Alexis

    It is a boring platitude that history has produced its share of intellectual folly. Jean Jacques Rousseau, for example, believed that humans are born a "blank slate" and only corrupted as they grow up in modern society, an assertion he could have known to be insane merely by paying a few hours of attention to the handful of children he fathered and sent off to the orphanage right after their birth. Karl Marx falls neatly into the same category: Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he spent mos It is a boring platitude that history has produced its share of intellectual folly. Jean Jacques Rousseau, for example, believed that humans are born a "blank slate" and only corrupted as they grow up in modern society, an assertion he could have known to be insane merely by paying a few hours of attention to the handful of children he fathered and sent off to the orphanage right after their birth. Karl Marx falls neatly into the same category: Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he spent most of his life staring at books and had little actual regard for the "proletariat" he purported to elevate. This showed in his writings, which betrayed a one-dimensional view of the capitalist economies in the West. Yet few intellectual currents in modern history have been more divorced from reality than the philosophy labeled postmodernism from the 1960s onwards. This broad amalgam of ideas and the Social Justice Movement it spawned are the subject of an important new book by James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose (of 'grievance studies affair' fame), titled Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody. Lindsay and Pluckrose aim to explain "how [Postmodernist] Theory has developed into the driving force of the culture war of the late 2010s," and propose "a philosophically liberal way to counter its manifestations in scholarship, activism, and everyday life." Since we're presently living through the age of cancel culture and street riots, it goes without saying that the arrival of Cynical Theories is extremely timely. That these two authors would agree with that assessment is evident: "Postmodernism has, depending upon your view, either become or given rise to one of the least tolerant and most authoritarian ideologies that the world has had to deal with since the widespread decline of communism and the collapses of white supremacy and colonialism." While the original postmodernism is hard to define (possibly on purpose), Lindsay and Pluckrose identify the philosophy's two core principles: 1) "The postmodern knowledge principle: Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism"; and 2) "The postmodern political principle: A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how." Flowing from these two principles are "four major themes of postmodernism": 1) "The blurring of boundaries" ("a suspicion of all the boundaries and categories that previous thinkers widely accepted as true"); 2) "The power of language" (seeing ideas as "mere constructions of language"); 3) "Cultural relativism" ("no one set of cultural norms can be said to be better than any other"); and 4) "The loss of the individual and the universal" (both the autonomous individual and the universal are products of "powerful discourses and culturally constructed knowledge"). Subsequently, the book documents how the original postmodernism of Foucault, Sartre, Derrida and Lyotard, which was too nihilist and self-destructive to be of any practical value, mutated into a more activist philosophy and ultimately into "Critical Theory" propagating -- capital S and capital J -- "Social Justice". It made this transformation without abandoning the aforementioned two principles and four themes, however. The authors take each and every research field under postmodernism’s umbrella in turn and delve deeply into its epistemology: Postcolonial Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory, Feminisms and Gender Studies, and even the bizarre phenomenon of Disability and Fat Studies. Lindsay and Pluckrose deserve credit for both the exhaustiveness of their research -- who but the greatest masochist would want to spend countless hours perusing Lyotard's insufferable books? -- and the fact that they give postmodernism its due. For the most part they refrain from inserting value judgements until the conclusion of each chapter and the closing of the book. Instead, they let the postmodernists speak and the reader draw their own conclusions, which, if they have a grain of intellectual honesty in them, cannot be but damning of the entire postmodernist enterprise. Steeped in hideous words such as "unessentializable", "presencing" and "decoloniality", both the postmodernist language and its claims border on plain derangement. Disability and Fat Studies in particular stand out in this respect. Take for example this quotation from Fiona Campbell’s Contours of Ableism: "[A] chief feature of an ableist viewpoint is a belief that impairment or disability (irrespective of “type”) is inherently negative and should opportunity present itself, be ameliorated, cured or indeed eliminated." One would be hard-pressed to find a person in a wheelchair who would disagree with this display of ableist oppression. Of course, the postmodernist would counter that the disabled, too, are socialized into a hierarchy of ability and unaware they're under the oppressive yoke of their marathon-running fellow citizen. Such a circular line of argument is unfortunately a feature of the postmodernist doctrine, not an incident, and to its advocates it's become a stick with which to beat those critical of their program: "Social Justice scholarship and ethics," the authors write, "completely displace reliable and rigorous scholarship into issues of social justice by condemning all other approaches as complicit with systemic bigotry and thus unthinkable---or, in practice, unpublishable and punishable." Long confined within the borders of college campuses, Theory was bound to spill over into the wider society. Lindsay and Pluckrose write: "The real world is changing to absorb the skills of such students, and a Social Justice industry already worth billions of dollars is forming, all dedicated to training our companies and institutions to enact and police The Truth according to Social Justice." This spread also explains the totalitarian novelty of 'cancel culture' and, while not mentioned in the book, the riots haunting American cities in the spring and summer of 2020. What happens at Evergreen doesn't stay at Evergreen. The remarkable feature of Cynical Theories, and the one thing which makes the book so valuable, is that it is written from the perspective not of a fire-breathing conservative but of old-school liberals who champion the emancipation of women, gays, blacks and others within the framework of liberal democracy. Lindsay and Pluckrose don't think that Theory is contributing to this cause---rather the opposite, in fact: Theory "allots social significance to racial categories, which inflames racism. It attempts to depict categories of sex, gender, and sexuality as mere social constructions, which undermines the fact that people often accept sexual minorities because they recognize that sexual expression varies naturally." Moreover, they also worry, not without reason, that it "validates and emboldens identity politics on the identitarian right." The authors' answer, then, lies in a vigorous defense of liberalism, which, "despite its shortcomings, is simply better for humans. ... It is simply astonishing that over the same twenty year period (1960–1980) during which women gained access to contraception and equal pay for equal work, racial and sexual discrimination in employment and other areas became illegal, and homosexuality was decriminalized, the postmodernists emerged and declared that it was time to stop believing in liberalism, science, reason, and the myth of progress." It is hard to argue with this verdict. One idea in the book which leaves the most critical of readers scratching their head is the notion that postmodernism constitutes a rejection of Marxism and Communism. This is odd, considering that the original French postmodernists were without exception die-hard Communists before descending into their nihilist despair during the 1960s. In his excellent book Explaining Postmodernism Stephen Hicks argues that the new philosophy was instead "a symptom of the far Left’s crisis of faith" after Communism lost its last shred of credibility in 1956, and "a result of using skeptical epistemology to justify the personal leap of faith necessary to continue believing in socialism." Though the relationship between postmodernism and Marxism is a complex one and beyond the scope of this review, the neutral reader is tempted to support Hicks' view. However, the main problem with Cynical Theories is with its form, not its content. The book purports to be "written for the layperson who has no background in this type of scholarship but sees the influence of it on society and wants to understand how it works." Sadly, it has somewhat failed to meet that goal. Neither Lindsay nor Pluckrose are academics (though the latter's mildly obscure biography informs us she is "an exile from the humanities"), but they have nonetheless managed to produce a book which reeks of the mustiness of college libraries. It is presumably not thorough enough to meet the standards of academic rigor, yet is too dry and delves too deep into the abscesses of postmodernist thought to appeal to the masses. In this respect the work is largely on par with Hicks'. This is a missed opportunity in light of current events, for the sooner the general public learns about the shenanigans on the part of Robin DiAngelo and her ilk, the better. These minor criticisms aside, Cynical Theories is a remarkable achievement. To say that its authors took one for the team is perhaps an understatement. The subject at hand is not for the faint of heart. Yet their research is solid, and only somebody with an agenda could take issue with how postmodernism and its intellectual spawns are presented in the book. Now it's up to us all to relegate the entire monstrosity to the dustbin of history, just like its Marxist sibling in 1989.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Mike Fendrich

    Probably closer to 4.5 but what can you do. Cynical Theories is a book well worth reading. What began in 1960’s as a radically new conception of the world known as postmodern theory headed by French philosophers Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Francois Lyotard has morphed into an activist worldview under the rubric known as Critical Theory in its many forms. Critical Theory has taken over academia and is spilling over into the general public with a flood of publically accessible (sort o Probably closer to 4.5 but what can you do. Cynical Theories is a book well worth reading. What began in 1960’s as a radically new conception of the world known as postmodern theory headed by French philosophers Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Francois Lyotard has morphed into an activist worldview under the rubric known as Critical Theory in its many forms. Critical Theory has taken over academia and is spilling over into the general public with a flood of publically accessible (sort of?) books attempting to explain everything from social injustice, colonialism, feminism/gender/sexuality studies to what is perhaps best known, Critical Race Theory and their necessary support of intersectionality. Theory sees the world through group identity and how groups that are higher up on the intersectionality food chain always, inevitably and necessarily oppress groups with less power. This Theory always gives the moral and knowledge high ground to the oppressed group. The more oppressed groups one belongs to the more authentic their voice, their knowledge and their morality. If one happens to find themselves disagreeing or even having a few questions about Critical Theory, they will be hard pressed to find anyone to discuss them with as their issues or questions come from an oppressor position rooted in oppressor sources of knowledge making them invalid. Critical Theory is thus not falsifiable. If one refuses to accept Theory as known, known truth (that is truth that baseline like water boiling at 212 degrees) then one is castigated as racist, sexist, homophobic, whatever the topic may be, cancelled or deplatformed if necessary and can’t see the known, known truth because of the systemic power structures that are in place to sustain the power of oppressor groups (privileged) or if you happen to be in one of intersectionality’s oppressed groups, you have sold out to the existing power structure and the majority oppressor group and have sold your soul cheaply. I hope I have fairly, yet very basically, describe the warp and woof of the world of Critical Theory. There is more to it but as I have studied it from sources on both sides, I believe this is a fair assessment. So why read this book? Well because there are deep, fatal flaws to Critical Theory whose result is that the very groups Theory at least theoretically attempts to help get hurt. “Social Justice is a nice-looking Theory that, once put into practice, will fail and which could do tremendous damage in the process. Social Justice cannot succeed because it does not correspond with reality or with core human intuitions of fairness and reciprocity and because it is an idealistic metanarrative (like communism).” Not corresponding to reality is a serious problem for any metanarrative. If your explanations of reality don’t in some way match up to reality, then how can the cure work? There is also the insistence on group identity and only group identity and that all humans who are in groups based upon certain characteristics (race, sex, orientation, ect) are a monolithic group. This of course denies the immense complexities of humanity while at the same time discards the multitude of similarities that every human being possesses. This eliminates individual differences and individual responsibility. There is also the point of being non-falsifiable, therefore there is no serious debate nor discussion about its strengths and weaknesses, nor in fact can there be. You are either all in or part of the problem. No first year philosophy student would accept this as valid. The authors rightly see Critical Theory as a new religion with its own unassailable assertions, priesthood (Ibrim X. Kendri, Robin DiAngelo and a host of others whose books proliferate bookstores (the Scriptures) and the academy) and rabid followers who will not tolerate dissent. This is not only intellectually dishonest, it is intellectually lazy. I could go on but realize by now most readers will have considered this to be too long and stop reading. But there are three more things I need to address. There is real injustice in this nation. While improving since the civil rights movement, racial relations (read black/white) are not where they could and should be. America still has people who fall through the cracks, people where family, government and the church inadequately support them if at all. Basic human needs, food, health care and the like are still daily struggles for some. These problems exist and only a fool would deny it. Yet, secondly, the author’s dependence on a renewed liberalism to solve these problems through reasoned arguments, debates and policies is naïve at best. Liberalism, like its twin brother capitalism, work best when those illiberal institutions like family, church and local community are thriving. What we are experiencing in our nation now is not an aberration but the logical end of liberalism when these mediating structures are at best privatized if not eliminated altogether. How does liberalism answer the question why should I care? Because it’s nice? The right thing to do? How is this not social constructionism from a different perspective? This is a pretty thin, overly optimistic view of human nature. Ask yourself this question. If every civil rights, anti-discrimination law had 100% compliance, would racism and discrimination be wiped out? Of course not. I do recognize that the lived experience of minority groups would probably be better but individual hearts and minds would not be changed. These are moral problems, not necessarily legal problems. This brings me to my third point, the place of the church and family in our society. I fully understand that many consider both of these institutions as outdated based in irrational superstition. And I also understand that both of these have hurt many people. And I also understand that the authors and many, many others do not and will not differentiate between Christianity (a religion rooted in historical events and falsifiable if these events didn’t happen) and all others (based on assertions by its founder, not falsifiable). Critical Theory fails the same way liberalism fails. It starts with a wrong understanding of man, has a wrong narrative on why things are the way they are and a wrong view of how to fix the issues that we face. And we wonder why we struggle and the sins of our nation perpetuate. It is the Christian narrative that accurately describes reality, all people created in the Image of God and therefore worthy of all respect and honor, humanity debased at the Fall leading to all manner of sin, abuse and oppression (and the spending of hundreds of billions of dollars annually to figure out new ways to kill each other) and humanity restored by faith in the God-man Jesus Christ and living faithfully in love and obedience to Him and our neighbor. Thankfully, the authors have shown that Critical Theory, because of its emphasis on cynicism, deconstruction, catastrophizing and problematizing everything, all knowledge being social constructed to maintain power, including other subjective sources of knowledge (such as lived experience based on personal perception) as equally true with more stringent sources of knowledge and being, frankly, linguistic gamesmanship, cannot sustain itself and will self-destruct. The question then is, what replaces it? Hopefully we will be more thoughtful with our next pick.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kris

    The five stars doesn't mean no flaws or complete agreement. It's the incredible vocabulary and organization that make this a superb read. The writing style is heady. You can tell these are academics, not journalists. But it's worth it. Stick with them. The last chapter ends with solid claims and contrasts between classical liberalism and postmodern intersectionality, which is really useful for discussion. This is one of the few books I've found that can coherently explain what postmodernism is (a The five stars doesn't mean no flaws or complete agreement. It's the incredible vocabulary and organization that make this a superb read. The writing style is heady. You can tell these are academics, not journalists. But it's worth it. Stick with them. The last chapter ends with solid claims and contrasts between classical liberalism and postmodern intersectionality, which is really useful for discussion. This is one of the few books I've found that can coherently explain what postmodernism is (alongside Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture). Coming out of the classroom and into pop culture and modern media, this book feels like a kind of sequel to The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. This book has a more academic tone, and holds more answers to the problem, than books written by journalists, like The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, and The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture. Other related books: --Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy --Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense --The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous --The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success --The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution

  27. 5 out of 5

    José Antonio Lopez

    Anyone who is in shock by the current political events should read Cynical Theories. The honest concern for social justice has morphed into a freaking monstrosity called Social Justice (with CAPS) by Pluckrose. This is a textbook example of what Ayn Rand called "anti-concepts". The third generation of post-modernism today Social Justice Theories are self-destructive and enemies of any kind of progress. Pluckrose offers a historic summary back to Foucault, Derrida and other postmodernists, the as Anyone who is in shock by the current political events should read Cynical Theories. The honest concern for social justice has morphed into a freaking monstrosity called Social Justice (with CAPS) by Pluckrose. This is a textbook example of what Ayn Rand called "anti-concepts". The third generation of post-modernism today Social Justice Theories are self-destructive and enemies of any kind of progress. Pluckrose offers a historic summary back to Foucault, Derrida and other postmodernists, the assault to the American Universities, and finally the assault of the American Streets. This sociopolitical movement is the cradle of the Cancel Culture and has reached many countries outside of the US. We can't know how far this nonsense may go, but as Pluckrose calls to action; freedom/progress loving people should stand for and defend the classic liberal values that have offered humanity the best time ever.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Joseph Stieb

    A thorough and highly readable rejoinder to all forms of critical and postmodern scholarship by 2 of the authors of the recent "social justice hoax," in which they submitted ludicrous papers to critical theory papers as a way of proving the shoddiness of this kind of scholarship (they got 6 accepted, through peer review, before being exposed). This book is sort of their follow-up project on the roots of and problems with postmodernism, critical race theory, intersectional feminism, queer theory, A thorough and highly readable rejoinder to all forms of critical and postmodern scholarship by 2 of the authors of the recent "social justice hoax," in which they submitted ludicrous papers to critical theory papers as a way of proving the shoddiness of this kind of scholarship (they got 6 accepted, through peer review, before being exposed). This book is sort of their follow-up project on the roots of and problems with postmodernism, critical race theory, intersectional feminism, queer theory, fat studies, etc. This is book is great for understanding the roots and evolution of this kind of scholarship, which I am generally skeptical of. The roots of it lie in mostly continental European philosophy, especially Foucault and Derrida. Pluckrose and Lindsay spell out 2 essential principles. The first is a sort of radical social constructionism: the belief that everything about our society, including things like sex or sexual orientation, are socially constructed at the root. Thus, the boundaries and binaries that rule our society are inherently fluid and malleable as it is discourses that essentially create reality. This is part of why postmodernists radically critique science; they believe that scientific knowledge is really just a discourse of "biopower" that uses its prestige and access to power to define and thereby oppress others. This leads to the second principle, which is that all ideas are really just expressions of power, as are politics. There is no objective way to figure out whose ideas are better than others because ideas are ultimately put forth in the service of powerful groups, who claim objectivity to cover the self-interested nature of the ideas they have created. These ideas started as a critique of "modernism" and metanarratives like liberalism, Marxism, nationalism, etc, that claim grounds for objective knowledge (although I and the authors disagree that liberalism is a metanarrative in the same sense as these other beliefs). The original postmodernism was "playful" in the sense that it mainly wanted to deconstruct concepts without creating much in their places or asserting a clear political use for this deconstruction. That changed in the 80s and 90s with the rise of applied postmodernism, which sought to use these core concepts to address the oppression of various groups. Queer theory, for instance, emerged to argue that all sexual and gender categories are basically constructed and totally porous as a way of dethroning "cisheteronormativity." Intersectional feminism and standpoint theory emerged under the arguments that one's inhabiting of various vectors of identity-based oppression gives one access to special knowledge that ultimately cannot be understood or critiqued by someone not occupying those positions. By the 2010s, however, the authors argue that critical scholarship (btw, the critical here basically means that you interrogate and deconstruct cultural/ideological categories and concepts for any hint of bias or power imbalance, things which can basically be found anywhere if you want to find them), had become "reified," in the sense that scholars now argued that while we can't really know anything we can know that discourses are both real and oppressive to marginalized groups. The a priori existence of oppressive discourses and the belief that they saturate all social interactions and maintain privilege and power imbalances in our society became the anchors of critical scholarship. This is how you get critical race scholars Robin DiAngelo arguing that all white people are racist, that it takes special knowledge and training to see racial and other forms of oppression in every nook and cranny of our society, and that criticizing or denying one's racism is just evidence of how deeply racist discourses have infiltrated your mind (Marxist false consciousness lives on) The authors conclude that not only is critical scholarship bad scholarship (it is proudly non-empirical and basically unfalsifiable, among other problems) but it is inherently illiberal and bad for actual social justice. I certainly agree The book could have been stronger in a few ways. These authors are definitely mad, and they have spent a lot of time on Twitter arguing with mean-spirited folks. This mean-spiritedness has rubbed off a bit; they should have purged the book of little insults and smart-aleck lines (critical scholarship doesn't "infect" society, for instance). They have definitely done their homework on critical scholarship in general, but at times I think they still downplay racism, sexism, etc. For example, the fact that we elected a racist president (racist by these authors' own definition, in my view) should have been acknowledged (among other problems-read something like Rachel Snyder's book on domestic violence to see how far we have NOT gone on that issue). In a way, it may be that these authors' exposure to the madness of this way of thinking has made them overly assertive of the progress we have made. Lastly, I think these authors need to wrestle more with the concept of bias. I agree that racism in terms of discriminatory behavior and belief in innate superiority have declined sharply in the last 50 years or so, but bias is a trickier concept that I think is alive, well, measurable, and still harmful. if you are biased and you deny it but continue to act in a biased way, that is effectively a form of racism, sexism, etc. Despite these critiques, I agree that postmodernism and the type of scholarship they criticize in this book are not the way forward, and that they will actually make many of these problems worse. I will say this in closing: a lot of this book I found boring, but that isn't because of the authors. I became a bit bored at times because these fields all constitute the same ideas being recycled and reified over and over again. You already know what the answers are going to be, so the scholarship just isn't that interesting. I'm sure the authors felt a similar way by the end. I'd recommend this book to people who don't really understand where a lot of these ideas are coming from and/or share my skepticism about this kind of scholarship. I'd also recommend it for people already engaged in this scholarship, as it is an important rejoinder to many of its baseline assumptions.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Mayim de Vries

    All the stars. A must-read.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Finny

    ''But Theory is a metanarrative, and metanarratives are, in fact, unreliable. The postmodernists got that right. What they got disastrously wrong was mistaking effective and adaptive systems for metanarratives. Religions and many theoretical constructions are metanarratives, but liberalism and science are not.'' I thought Cynical Theories was going to be an easy read. I've found myself broadly agreeing, in the past, with classical liberals, such as Douglas Murray and Jordan Peterson, on many key ''But Theory is a metanarrative, and metanarratives are, in fact, unreliable. The postmodernists got that right. What they got disastrously wrong was mistaking effective and adaptive systems for metanarratives. Religions and many theoretical constructions are metanarratives, but liberalism and science are not.'' I thought Cynical Theories was going to be an easy read. I've found myself broadly agreeing, in the past, with classical liberals, such as Douglas Murray and Jordan Peterson, on many key issues relating to human nature, academia, and the state of Western modernity. While our social/political worldviews have never aligned completely, I've always especially appreciated Peterson's idea that humans aren't rational empiricists, and that magical thinking, spiritual/religious narratives, and cultural mythologies are an important part of the human condition. The soft nationalism and acknowledgement that ethnic populations are somewhat cohesive groups with broadly aligned interests, espoused by both Peterson and Murray, is something I've also appreciated. I also share their general opposition to postmodern and postmodern-derived political worldviews and concepts—Peterson, especially, at times trends toward an almost esoteric traditionalist perspective. My point is: generally, I've found the classical liberals to be genuinely intellectually honest, to some degree, and their work to be palatable popcorn political entertainment. Then I encountered Helen Pluckrose. I picked up Cynical Theories expecting some insights into the general trends of progressive/postmodern thought in academia, Helen Pluckrose herself being an academic. I ended up finishing the book with 10 pages of notes, almost exclusively critiquing Helen, Helen's biases, Helen's lies/inaccuracies, and the entire philosophical foundation of what I will refer to in this review as 'liberalism'—though it must be remembered that this is a far cry from the more conservative, spiritual/long-term, and Burke influenced 'classical liberal' label which is frequently applied to people like Peterson and Murray. I also found Helen accidentally made a better case for the broad fundamental concepts of postcolonial theory than any of the postcolonial theory I've encountered in the wild, though this was the opposite of her intention. As far as I can tell, despite her protests, Helen Pluckrose is, for all intents and purposes, a Marxist. While she occasionally critiques Marxist analysis as simplistic and makes overtures to 'human nature,' she fundamentally believes that the only human differences lie between individuals, and that group differences stem primarily—if not exclusively—from socioeconomic status and early environment. Her core philosophical critique of postmodernism seems to be that it isn't Marxist enough, and that postmodern and 'applied postmodern' (her term not mine) theory fails to account for how social economic inequality almost exclusively dictates a person's life outcome. The most frustrating part of this is that, in my readings of 'applied postmodern’ (read: postcolonial, queer, feminist, and critical race) theory, socioeconomic inequality has been at the forefront of their solutions, with most writers openly writing from some form of Marxist/post-Marxist socialist/communist perspective. The thing is, other than thinking that the 'applied postmodern' conclusions—namely, that she, a white woman, got her position due, at least in part, to being a member of the dominant social group within society—are flawed and unfair, Helen doesn't seem to actually disagree with many of the base fundamental concepts espoused by the proponents of critical theory. Every paragraph reads somewhat like this: [a field of theory] is wrong. It is wrong because it abandoned leftist (read: Marxist) critique and because it is revolutionary and wants to actually change things. Now, don't get me wrong, I actually agree with all the analysis espoused by [field of theory], I just don't like social change and would prefer if the solutions weren't applied until after I'm dead. Therefore I suggest slow incremental changes toward the exact same ends, but implemented so slowly that their effects wont be seen until after they can no longer have any effect on me or my career. Helen Pluckrose wants everything the critical theorists want, she agrees with all their core issues and, for the most part, their analyses—again, only wanting a layer of Marxist material analysis laid on top—she just sees the speed at which they want to implement their solutions as too fast, because social change is scary, and so she wants the same changes but implemented at a snail's pace. The only real separation between the 'applied postmodernists' and Helen is that Helen has a frankly religious devotion to a 'liberalism' which she defines at one point as: 'positive social change.' No, that's not me taking her out of context to make her words fit my narrative—as she does with her opponents, and, most infuriatingly, at one point with E.O. Wilson—Helen has a conception of 'liberalism' which literally amounts to 'good things, but not bad things.' She herself says that it's philosophically undefinable beyond that point, and that things which claim to be liberal but are bad are actually just totalitarianism/postmodernism/conservatism/sinful, and that things that are good, yet claim not to be liberalism, are actually just liberalism unaware that it's liberalism. Variously, in the book, the Civil Rights movement, the Gay Rights movement, the Women’s Rights movement, and even the French Revolution are all stripped of their revolutionary origins and presented as liberal debates where the 'marketplace of ideas' allowed for these things to be implemented via slow incremental change. Adding to Helen's religious conception of 'liberalism,' she claims that all science and knowledge is the product of liberalism, and that all knowledge claimed to have been gained via non-left-liberal systems is either useless and must be discarded, or was actually (unknowingly) the product of liberalism. To bolster this argument, at one point she claims that the Ancient Greeks were actually liberals, and this is why they were capable of early scientific methods. As can be assumed, Helen's religious devotion to the intellectual primacy of a nebulous system of 'liberalism’ causes conflict when it comes into contact with the postcolonial idea that knowledge can still be valuable/useful when gained from systems outside of white Western liberalism/neoliberalism—which, despite Helen's constant protestations, is what liberalism/neoliberalism is: white and Western. And rather than simply acknowledging that the postcolonial theorists might have a point when they discuss how a witch doctor believing a Demon Flower is inedibly poisonous because it's inhabited by evil ghosts is a valid way of communicating the concept of 'eat flower: die' to the tribe, Helen instead denies the very concept of that knowledge even existing or being usable. This patent refusal to acknowledge that a tribal person might be able to understand the world around them through non-scientific means leads to one of the most startling moments in the book: Helen states, openly and proudly, that spiritual cultures should be destroyed and replaced with liberalism. At one point she boldly states that Islam should be removed from the Earth via the mass secularisation, and cultural annihilation, of Middle Eastern peoples, because liberalism is what they really want, they just don't know it yet because their eyes have been clouded by their religion/spiritualism/culture. They'll thank us after the fact. She even says at one point that all cultures are basically the same anyway, so it doesn't even matter. All the differences between cultures are just surface cosmetic differences, so if we change the fundamental structural/cultural foundations of those cultures those cultures wont be harmed because culture is just ethnic food and silly hats. This is literally what she critiques the postcolonial theorists for worrying about. Helen repeatedly says that their allegations that liberal Western societies want to deconstruct, consume, process, commodify, and sanitise their cultures is unfounded and paranoid... and then goes on to propose doing exactly that because cultures barely exist and will all become Western liberal cultures eventually anyway. In Helen's view, all cultures eventually converge on liberal modernity. Rather than developing their own cultures, systems, and worldviews, all peoples will eventually develop the scientific system (as Helen repeatedly describes it) of 'liberalism.' Her worldview echoes Francis Fukuyama's argument that neoliberalism is the end of history, and that, instead of eras, what we have now is a perpetual ongoing incremental drift toward the perfect society—Helen herself even says that eventually we will reach the perfect society, though she then claims this isn't utopianism because utopianism is unrealistic whereas a religious belief in 'liberalism' bringing about the perfect society is actually scientific and therefore realistic and actually attainable. Actually, much like how she echoes Francis Fukuyama despite him being someone she'd claim to reject entirely, Helen seems to frequently cite many arguments from prominent postmodernists and 'applied postmodernists'. For example, Helen casually mentions, off hand, that the distinction between straight and gay wasn't even invented until the Victorian era; this is an obviously silly concept that Helen seems to believe unquestioningly, unaware that it comes from Foucault's History of Sexuality—a notoriously bad, yet wildly influential, piece of propaganda-scholarship. Helen also agrees with the 'applied postmodernist' idea that race, while being immutable and unchanging, is a purely cosmetic affect, with race being truly nothing more than skin deep. In fact, despite insisting that her worldview is scientific and open to all new data, she avowedly rejects all science of significant racial and sexual differences from the neck up—and claims that E.O. Wilson agreed with her (he did not)—using arguments that sound a lot like a mixture of the standpoint theory that she critiques constantly throughout the book, and textual deconstruction. She claims at one point that because Swedes see Italians as dark skinned or swarthy, then Italians are socially closer to dark skinned Africans than Northern Europeans; it's an incoherent argument. Helen's view on race is actually worth discussing, if only because it shows the religious nature of her 'liberalism.' She states, uncited, that there are no cases of medical differences between the races, ignoring the uncontroversial facts that interracial organ donations have vastly higher rejection rates, that certain organs cannot be interracially transplanted, that black mothers of interracial babies more often need c-section births, and that the gestation periods between different racial groups tend to be different. This isn't even getting into cross racial pain tolerances, different medicines having varying degrees of effect on different ethnic groups, and the whole host of medical differences that doctors in multicultural Western nations are trained to account for, because failure to account for these things can lead to some groups getting worse treatment than others. These are important and acknowledged differences, and yet Helen denies these things exist because just acknowledging their existence starts to break down the fundamental belief structures of her 'liberalism'—a belief which is mostly indistinguishable from the critical theorists' racial social determinism. Helen Pluckrose is not the intellectually honest, open minded, and rational empiricist that she claims she is. On this note, Helen also states, much like the 'applied postmodernists' that European populism is a unique danger because European racism against non-Europeans is a unique evil and a unique danger to contemporary society. While racism against whites can be annoying, it doesn't present a danger, whereas white right leaning Europeans are perpetually on the verge of mass genocide. Oh, and Helen also cites the critical theorist notion that racism didn't exist until colonialism. So much did racism not exist until the colonial era, Helen argues that the Greeks thought a baby born to two Greek parents on African land would be born as a black skinned, black featured African baby—they did not think this; this is either an outright lie or another narrative she has absorbed unquestioningly. Speaking of narratives that are either lies or delusion, Helen has a whole section of her book where she talks about how the left has always been both controlled and embraced by the working class, and that the working class have never embraced the right, and are only doing so now because 'the bourgeoisie have coopted the left' and have created SJWs, which are pushing normal working class people to the right. This concept deserves a review of its own, but it's enough to say that this betrays a complete ignorance of British political history, not to mention an ignorance of wider European and American political histories. That sums up the whole book: unsubstantiated claims about how Helen's worldview is rational, empirical, the natural state of all right thinking people, and the natural endpoint of all politics. It's the political equivalent of a religious polemic. Everything that is good is a product of her worldview, and everything bad is the product of one of the evil others. The ending of the book is literally a few pages of common critiques followed by mantras—it's hard to read them as anything else—which can be repeated in the face of that criticism, so that the criticism itself never needs to be actually considered. It's exhausting. And, on top of that, it's badly written. The book feels like a collection of previously written essays, with no effort made to turn them into a cohesive book. It's so repetitive. Helen repeats the same things over and over and over. She keeps explaining concepts that she's explained dozens of times already. A good editor could easily cut this book down by 100 pages, without losing anything of substance. Cynical Theories is a bad book. Helen Pluckrose is, despite what she claims to be, a Marxist, deconstructionist cultural imperialist with a severely inflated sense of her own intelligence—I haven't even bothered discussing the book's condescending tone; at the start of one chapter Helen spends a paragraph defining the word 'reified' for the reader, as if that's an obscure word. Cynical Theories is a 'liberal' propaganda piece that set out to make me reject the 'cynical theories' of the 'applied postmodernists' and embrace Helen Pluckrose's person brand of liberalism. Instead I came out of Cynical Theories with a newfound respect for some postcolonial concepts and despising Helen's 'liberalism'—which really just seems like the progressive neoliberalism of the mainstream European and American establishments. Bad scholarship. Offensive diagnoses. Laughable solutions. I will not be reading another book by Helen Pluckrose unless I'm feeling particularly masochistic

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