Beyond Cynical Theories • Part 5: Critical Thinking, Critical Theory, and the Episteme

The problem of viewing the world solely through the lenses of hatred, bigotry, selfishness, and oppression.

This is part 5 of my “All We Are” series. These writings explore theories of ideological conditioning, ideas in the book “Cynical Theories”, the doctrine of “lived experience” (in which I explore my own lived experience of losing a close sibling to a tragic death), and reflections around Dr. Erec Smith’s argument for using empowerment as a basis for teaching, as laid out in his book, “Critique of Anti-racism in Rhetoric and Composition: the Semblance of Empowerment”.

One of the principle questions raised in Cynical Theories is: what is the value of our being trained to see the world and human nature through a cynical lens?

This is an important question that the CSJ framework might seek to address in different terms, but which lies at the heart of the foundation of this ideology. CSJ explicitly teaches its adherents that the entire world is structured by, infused with, and founded upon hatred, bigotry, selfishness, and oppression— including every system, institution, structure, law, policy, and cultural norm designed by the “dominant culture”—and that the only correct response to this terrible reality is for adherents of CSJ to constantly search for and coercively root out this all-pervasive evil wherever it is perceived to arise.

For those who haven’t yet been trapped by the rigidity of this ideology, it’s not hard to see how unproductive, pessimistic, and ultimately destructive this way of seeing the world can be when held to so tightly that all other variables and realities of life are not considered. This is what is addressed in the book Cynical Theories.

It is important that we understand the mechanics of the ideologies that drive such cynicism so that we can stem the tide of social violence that is sure to worsen in the coming years without a large scale nonviolent intervention by well-informed people who share the same goals for creating a just world with a desire to do so in a way that does not foment a new cycle of violence and hatred.

Critical Thinking vs. Critical Theory

Before I start discussing this book, I want to explain what is meant by the word “critical” when we hear the phrases Critical Social Justice, Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory and other phrases like critical consciousness, critical pedagogy, critical literacy, and critical studies

It will be helpful first to introduce leading Critical Thinking scholar Richard Paul’s heuristic for distinguishing between “fair-minded” critical thinking and what he called “sophistic” critical thinking. As the reader will later see, there are key differences between the CSJ iteration of “critical”, which often descends into sophistry and self-interested reasoning and the fair-minded approach to discovering Truth as outlined below as fair-minded.

Fair-minded Critical Thinking:

  1. Skilled thinking which meets epistemological demands regardless of the vested interests or ideological commitments of the thinker

  2. Skilled thinking characterized by empathy to diverse opposing points of view and devotion to truth as against self-interest

  3. Skilled thinking that is consistent in the application of intellectual standards, holding one’s self to the same rigorous standards of evidence and proof to which one holds one’s antagonists.

  4. skilled thinking that demonstrates the commitment to entertain all viewpoints sympathetically and to assess them with the same intellectual standards, without reference to one’s own feelings or vested interests, or the feelings or vested interests of one’s friends, community or nation.

Sophistic Critical Thinking:

  1. Thinking which meets epistemological demands insofar as they square with the vested interests of the thinker

  2. Skilled thinking that is heedless of assumptions, relevance, reasons, evidence, implications, and consistency only insofar as it is in the vested interest of the thinker to do so

  3. Skilled thinking that is motivated by vested interest, egocentrism, or ethnocentrism rather than by truth or objective reasonability 

Readers may find the above rubric useful in determining whether sophistic tactics or fair arguments are being employed by adherents of Critical Social Justice when attempting to defend some of the more questionable aspects of group identity theories that do not hold up empirically—or even morally—under intense scrutiny or even casual observation.

Critical Theory: A Background

Here is a brief background behind the use of the word “critical” in the context of the CSJ ideology that is discussed in Cynical Theories

During the period between World War I and World War II, a group of German intellectuals formed a school of thought called the Frankfurt School, which was originally known as the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), a part of the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, and devised a “tool for analysis” called Critical Theory. The basic approach of Critical Theory—not to be confused with critical thinking, which relies more on reasoning, empiricism, dialogue and thorough investigation than it does on speculation and theorizing—is to engage in “structural analysis” into all phenomena with the express aim to reveal injustice and oppressive structures and policies that hurt people. What separates Critical Theory from critical thinking is that it begins with a foregone conclusion (oppression and abuse of power is present everywhere) and searches for evidence in any specific context that is being interrogated that the oppression and abuse of power that are presupposed to exist can be discovered, revealed, and eliminated.

Put in a simpler way, Critical Theory is an approach to analyzing the world that involves picking apart everything (deconstructing) and to be skeptical of everything, especially the predominant narratives, ruling paradigms, language, discourses, and epistemology (ways of knowing) perceived to be propagated (both consciously and unconsciously) by those groups considered to be in “power” by Critical Theorists.Critical Theorists are more interested in what is perceived to be power; it is their ideological purview of the world, neatly divided into a one-dimensional standard of oppressor and oppressed, regardless of reality, and it is simply enough to feel so.  

The search for problems (injustices) is an essential ingredient in Critical Theory. This search can be hugely beneficial to society, if it includes the approach of open inquiry and multivariate analysis without a foregone conclusion. But, there is a dilemma with anything that uses the word critical as its principle engine for discovering truth. The adjective as it is used in Critical Theory demands that you look for fault. If you do not find something to criticize, the entire endeavor is a failure, so in order to continue applying the theory, there must be an automatic assumption that something wrong is happening and that there is a problem to be found in any situation or scenario that is submitted to critical (or structural) analysis.

This is why Critical Theorists often use the words “problematize”  and “problematic” to describe the world they perceive. To problematize objects of analysis—or to look for what is problematic—means to look for problems related to injustice and the abuse of power, which are presupposed to exist everywhere, no matter what the context and circumstances are, and no matter who is involved. 

And power is the most essential thing to consider in Critical Theory. 

The Episteme: Michel Foucault’s Concept of Power Relations

One of the most influential figures in the lineage of thinkers that have been canonized as the founding framers of Critical Social Justice ideology, Michel Foucault, believed that all human relationships—both individual and communal—are structured entirely around power. With this belief as an axiomatic foundation, followers of Foucault are trained to search relentlessly for those who have the power that is pre-supposed to be the very essence of all human situations, relationships, and systems. In essence, power equals oppression. They are also trained to believe that language and discourses are used by power-holders for the sole purpose of maintaining their power in all of those contexts and that practitioners of Foucaultian analysis must learn to recognize the patterns of that power and its discourses (ways of speaking) so that all of it can be dismantled.

To be fair, this approach to analyzing the world was originally set up to answer one of the most important questions related to human rights, fairness, and freedom from harm: what’s really going on here, who is in control, who benefits from the current state of affairs (status quo), and are people being treated in a fair and truthful way by the society around us? In other words, Critical Theory’s original mission was to keep us from falling into what traditional Marxists called  false views—or, to be more specific with a Marxist phrase, false consciousness—within the context of our social and political settings by analyzing all knowledge claims made within those settings and how they impact us.

Nevertheless, it’s helpful to keep in mind that the preoccupation with power, who has it, and how we can grab it away from perceived power-holders is something that has always been foundational to the original aims of the Critical Theorists of the Frankfurt School, and to the adherents of contemporary Critical Social Justice theories. The Foucaultian belief that power is the foundation of all human relationships on all scales has a powerful effect on how we see ourselves, others and the world, and, as we learn in Cynical Theories, the uninterrupted, continuous search for wrongdoing, injustice and power—and the accompanying belief that the entire world is structured by power itself—can take on some dangerous and disturbing turns.

Perhaps the most foundational contribution that Foucault has added to the canon of Critical Social Justice concepts is the single controlling idea that all of society is structured by an episteme—an invisible grid that contains all of the knowledge and the mechanics of how that knowledge is operationalized in the service of those at the top of dominator hierarchies, the oppressor groups of society. In Foucault’s conception, the episteme is like an all pervasive malevolent force that flows through all experience, destroying, oppressing, and marginalizing some groups while empowering, enriching and lifting up the others at their expense. 

What makes the episteme so insidious, according to those who adhere to Foucault’s world view, is that even while the oppressor group is complicit and parasitic in reaping the benefits of the episteme, individual members of the oppressor group are often unconscious of this state of affairs and must awaken to (become “woke” to) the underlying reality that has hypnotized both oppressed and oppressor alike so that they can finally begin to dismantle the episteme in service to a vision of a socially just world. And when the newly awakened people work together to apply the structural analysis tools of Critical Theory to the different group identity categories of society, they begin to see the episteme operating throughout them all. 

In the realm of race, the episteme shows up as a “System of White Supremacy'', “Whiteness”, or as “Systemic Racism".

In the realm of male and female binaries, the episteme shows up as “The Patriarchy”. In the realm of sexual orientation, the episteme shows up as “Heteronormativity”, which is the all-pervasive grid of behaviors, beliefs and discourses that continue to present heterosexuality as the “normal”, good, natural, or “default” orientation, which is said to “erase” the experiences and identities of groups who identify as homosexual, bisexual, or other non-conforming sexual identities.

In the realm of gender and gender identity, the episteme shows up as “Cisnormativity”, which operates in the same way by marginalizing those whose gender identities do not conform with the female/male gender binary.

To summarize, this worldview informs us that the episteme shows up in all areas of human life where some identities are raised up while others are crushed, and its invisible social grid of rules, codes, values, and moral truths continually establish and re-establish an empirical order that functions in the service of those who are privileged to be at the top of that order.

The Bleak and Cynical Worldview of Critical Social Justice Theory

By putting Cynical Theories out into the world, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have undertaken the task of revealing the mechanics of Critical Social Justice theories to a general public that largely lives outside of the academic world—people who know that something is happening to their communities, their families, and their relationships, but don’t quite understand just what that something is

This book seeks to educate the reader about what is at stake in a society that embraces Critical Social Justice (CSJ) as its default belief system and that puts its tenets into practice in our communities, our public policies, the curriculum taught in our children’s schools, and ultimately in our relationships with our fellow human beings. Cynical Theories takes the reader through a journey into the dark, cavernous world of Critical Social Justice (CSJ) and ends that journey with a statement of principles that offers a strong and compassionate defense of liberalism, open inquiry, and reason in the hope that we might all come to our collective senses and put a stop to the ideologically induced spread of inter-group suspicions and potentially wide-scale hatreds that this ideology and others have been creating for some years now.

Not everyone is convinced that the world view and practices of Critical Social Justice ideology (as described in Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book) merit the level of alarm that is presented in the book, and in this section on the bleak and cynical world view of CSJ, I think it’s important to make space for critiques that specifically address this sense of alarm.

Like several critiques of the Grievance Studies Affair, Cynical Theories has received some strong criticism from people who have formally studied many of the ideas described in the book—including people who have been trained in philosophy itself. The best critique of the book was written for the online magazine Arc Digital and was written by Oliver Traldi, a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. In a piece called “Postmodernism Unbound?”, Traldi examines the intellectual lineages of postmodern thought and its sub-theories as proposed by Pluckrose and Lindsay and questions some of their assertions round those lineages, while maintaining fairness around the ideas that they get right. This piece is well worth a read, because, in spite of the fact that Traldi clearly believes that Cynical Theories has done our society a great good in “provoking interesting questions”, he points out the places where the book could have been more clear—and in some places more accurate. I cannot recommend this review highly enough.

Another piece of criticism that comes to mind is a book review called “The Cynical Theorists Behind Cynical Theories”, which was written by Samuel Hoadley-Brill, a doctoral student in the Department of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center. 

Hoadley-Brill’s review merits our attention because while his criticism is, at times, unflinching and (in certain moments) perhaps harsh and uncharitable, some of his insights offer helpful clarifications around specific theories/theorists that he believes are not presented adequately—or even accurately—in different parts of the book, specifically in Chapter 8. Samuel Hoadley-Brill’s examination of the ideas presented in Chapter 8 is an important read, as he clearly demonstrates a command of the ideas behind the theories of the authors criticized in Cynical Theories, including social justice theorist Barbara Applebaum, philosopher Kristie Dotson and others. 

It’s interesting to note that Samuel Hoadley-Brill demonstrates a sincere dedication to open dialogue and epistemic humility in his podcasts, including a recent podcast with Benjamin A. Boyce, where he himself mentions the importance of epistemic humility. This is also evidenced in this Wiki Letters exchange with Gretchen Mullen, where he demonstrates the same. But, there seems to be a reluctance on his part and on the part of other critics to acknowledge that the authors of Cynical Theories—like so many others, including myself—are sincere in their sense of alarm around the runaway accusation-ism, moral panic, and totalitarian thrust of CSJ, and I think this reluctance represents a growing edge for him as a philosopher and even as a skeptic—and this, despite my own is givings around James Lindsay’s sometimes combative Twitter persona, which has made things difficult for many of us who wish to sound similar alarms with less antagonism against “the other side”.

I am not a professional philosopher (though I acknowledge that I could possibly be classified by some as an “intellectual”) and so I won’t argue the finer points of philosophy. None of this is an abstract philosophical disagreement for me. The practices behind the theories of Critical social Justice have impacted my personal and professional life, and so I have felt compelled to weigh in, beyond the realm of intellectual disagreement.  My choice to produce this series of writings (“All We Are”) around these issues is more of an imperative labor—an absolutely required act of labor. A labor of love, yes, but more so a moral obligation as a citizen invested in the well-being of our communities than academic analysis and intellectual arguments can solely provide. 

This is not to say that I am not laying out arguments. Of course I am. However, I’ve chosen to combine academic style writing with hyperlinks and block quotes instead of citations because I want to reach an audience that is not necessarily academic, but one that leans progressive, reads the New York Times, and listens to NPR. Like John McWhorter, who stated the same intent in the first installment of his new book, “The Elect”, I believe these people are the gatekeepers of culture and that they could help to move the social justice needle towards a more benevolent vision that acknowledges and makes real, practical adjustments for historic and present oppressions while also seeking to create harmony and a cooperative spirit between and among all demographic groups. 

So, this writing is personal for me. The project was naturally born out of the intersecting experiences of my teaching life in public schools and colleges, some personal tragedies, including the fatal shooting of a close sibling, and a commitment to promoting the practice of approaching social issues with epistemic humility and open-hearted immediacy instead of through the lens of the stereotype and caricature that is propagated by group identity theories. Unless we can set aside the ideological commitments that create perceptual and morally compromised filters between people, I’m afraid things will get worse for a while for many people, and from all walks of life.   

Ideology does that. And like the authors of Cynical Theories, I believe Critical Social Justice ideology is doing that now.

To be sure, it’s unreasonable and even ridiculous to presume that Critical Social Justice is the cause of society’s ills, especially when we view the years of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. There is no question that President Trump’s shadow has dominated the landscape and that he bears responsibility for fanning the flames of hostility and confusion. Although the authors of Cynical Theories acknowledge the shadow side of President Donald J. Trump’s communications and the impact of his personal brand of “trolling” on the United States and other countries, they pull no punches in holding CSJ adherents accountable for their role in corroding public discourse and social trust, especially in the years after roughly 2014. They describe in great detail the ways in which “Theory” has influenced institutions and conditioned the minds of individuals and groups, causing many to embrace beliefs and practices that are not only cynical, but actively hostile, paranoid, and bigoted; allowing them to feel perfectly justified in dehumanizing demographic groups that are disfavored in this ideology

Whatever the combination of the identities of the targeted enemies, those deemed as “normative”, “dominant”, or “privileged” in any way (e.g. any combination of white female, white male, straight, non-transgender, Christian, etc.), all of them are established as problematic, which means that these people must be marginalized and that the systems that privilege them must be dismantled. This idea has resulted not only in a culture of hyper-vigilant moral panic, but an over-reactive trauma response—often involving online and in-person bullying and mobbing disguised as protest—to even the slightest perception that an injustice has been perpetrated against individuals or groups who have been deemed marginalized or vulnerable. The response time of these attacks has become so fast and reflexive that very little time is spent investigating a situation before the average member of the public, journalists and celebrities gang up on unsuspecting, innocent targets or rush to the defense of someone who has staged a hate crime hoax.

This bigotry inherent in what some have called “privilege reductionism” is not only prevalent in social media, but can increasingly be seen in mainstream media outlets and Hollywood films. An example of this can be found in the popular online site, The Cut, which released a video in November, 2020 called “What Exactly Are White People Superior At?”. In this video, people of color stand in front of a camera and answer this questions by openly promoting stereotypes that denigrates and demonize white people in ways that are reminiscent of previous eras in which other demographic groups were targeted for dehumanization with the strategy of assigning monolithic—and often nefarious—one-dimensional characteristics to them.

One of the most troubling aspects of this ideology is that it has caused formerly rational, empathetic and thoughtful people to support laws, policies and antagonistic forms of activism that take away individual rights in the service of a shallow moral vision that seeks to redress imbalances by mistreating those who belong to demographic groups that are considered to have been privileged, simply by being born into disfavored immutable socio-cultural characteristics. There have been many examples of this pattern over the past few years, from public declarations by college professors of their hatred for men in major newspapers, Black university professors of debate and rhetoric openly calling for white “colonizers” to be sent to outer space to heal the planet Earth, to student activists seizing campus buildings for “queer and trans” safe spaces after blocking white students from entering the campus.

As I mentioned in part 1 of this reflection on Cynical Theories, ideological totalism is the larger pattern that offers some explanation for these behaviors, and one of the most influential components of a mind that has been captured by a totalist framework is the use of pre-packaged, rigid and scripted thought-terminating cliches that actively tighten the closure of already-closed minds to such an extent that a whole other reality is perceived and even experienced far away what is perceived and experienced by those whose minds have not been similarly conditioned. A salient example of the prevalence of thought-terminating cliches in the ideologically captured mind can be found in this video clip, in which freelance Egyptian-American journalist and CSJ activist Mona Eltahawy performatively broadcasts indignation against people she deems “privileged”, an attitude of breathtakingly naked contempt for all men (who she is tired of seeing “raping us and killing us”), and her disdain for “cisgender” people. Throughout the repetitive calls for us all to “kill” patriarchy, and her indulgent incantations of misandry (hatred of men), she speaks so much Critical Social Justice (CSJ) jargon that it’s fair to say that an artificial intelligence program could have generated the exact same speech on its own. The content of what she had to offer was completely devoid of human sincerity, empathy, originality and insight—a clear indication of severe ideological conditioning.

A particularly distressing example is a public statement made by social justice activist and college professor Jessica Krug at a conference in which she glorified the machete hacking death of a 15-year-old boy, Lesandro ‘Junior’ Guzman-Felizby, by Dominican gang members as a “revolutionary moment” because the boy had participated in the NYPD’s Explorers youth program. Krug went on to say that as a ‘collaborator’ with law enforcement, the victim went against his “own community, and, therefore, had it coming to him. In Jessica Krug’s political view of the world, Lesandro ‘Junior’ Gusman-Felizby “wanted to be a cop” and “snitches get stitches”. Although unrelated, it’s worth noting that Jessica Krug, former Associate Professor of African Studies at George Washington University, revealed in 2019 (after threats of being “outed”) that she was a white, Jewish woman from Kansas City, Missouri who had been posing as a Black woman activist and social justice scholar for years.

When we contrast these examples with this video clip of a Black woman judge offering mercy to a white woman defendant who was held in criminal contempt of court after her daughter’s drunk-driving sentencing, it’s interesting to ponder what might have transpired had this judge taken on the Derridean table-turning, hierarchy-reversal practice against a member of an identity group that is disfavored in the ideology of Critical Social Justice.

By now, the public has become more aware of the many instances of distorted forms of social justice advocacy, especially  after 2014, when the culture wars virtually exploded into the mainstream, but most people don’t understand that there are very specific ideologically induced beliefs about the nature of humanity, the development of civilization, and what constitutes morality that actively encourages these kinds of malevolent behaviors. What make makes Cynical Theories so powerful is that it effectively reveals the rabbit in the hat, the human-manufactured theories and ideological commitments, and rhetorical tricks that offer a cloak of academic legitimacy that serves to justify immoral behavior and the reinforcement of a profoundly mean and cynical view of the world.

Cynicism as Foundational in Critical Social Justice Theory

In Cynical Theories, Pluckrose and Lindsay argue that the active ingredient in Critical Social Justice is cynicism: the belief that there is no such thing as goodness in the world and that the very essence of individuals is badness, which cannot be redeemed and must constantly be exposed and punished in service of a moral vision that is based on the belief that we live in a society made entirely of bigotry. Critical Social Justice actively promotes the idea that not only do we live in a society that has policies that hurt people of color, but that we live in a “system of White Supremacy” where a dark and mysterious metaphysical force called “Whiteness” has hypnotized all people into being “complicit” with racist systems and psychologically coerced into actively participating in the functioning of racist systems, which are seen as the expected outcomes of the principles that are said to drive Western society. Believers of this ideology are also committed to the belief that we live in a society that is completely structured by an all-pervasive, almost supernatural force of male domination called “The Patriarchy”, which means that we live in a “rape culture” where misogyny, sexism, and physical/sexual violence against women can be found literally everywhere, leading fervent believers to lead an Inquisition style campaigns to punish all wrong-doing. 

But, according to Pluckrose and Lindsay, “Theory” doesn’t stop there. 

Every possible group identity is covered by Theory and each group identity has a group identity “Theory” to go along with it that ends with the word “studies”: fatness studies, disability studies, gender studies,whiteness studies and so on. In all of these disciplines, a one-dimensional “us” is positioned against a one-dimensional “them”, and the entire social world is viewed through the binary of the oppressed fighting against the oppressors. What makes this fight so meaningful and even exciting for young people whose minds have been captured by this ideology is that the oppressors are almost always characterized as having an extremely powerful, ubiquitous, and diabolical power that the oppressed are trained to believe they will never be able to overcome without participating in a glorious revolution replete with scorched-earth policies. It is an interesting paradox to observe this when Queer Theory itself purports to be all about the breaking down of binaries.

It should be easy to see what can happen when people who are young and impressionable are trained to see the world in this way. Pluckrose and Lindsay sum it up perfectly when they note that Critical Social Justice educators “teach students to be skeptical of science, reason and evidence; to regard knowledge as tied to identity; to read oppressive power dynamics into every interaction; to politicize every facet of life; and to apply “ethical” [emphasis and quotes mine]  principles unevenly, in accordance with identity.”

And when college students and young post-grads then go out and see through this lens a world so dark, and seek the excitement of fighting a perpetual spiritual war against ever-pervading enemies, it’s only a matter of time before society begins to fall apart.

Continued in Part 6: How We Got Here: The Practice of Applied Postmodern Cynicism