This essay begins the “All We Are” series where I 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”.
Table of Contents:
I. Beyond Cynical Theories
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: The Problem of Group Identity Essentialism
Part 3: How Chloé Valdary’s “Theory of Enchantment” Transcends Cynicism
Part 4: Training Ourselves and our Communities in Cynicism
Part 5: Can Cynical Theories Really Help Us?
Part 6: How We Got Here: Theory and Practice of Applied Postmodernism
Part 7: The Impact of Reified Postmodernism (and Concluding Thoughts)
II. Carrying a Message Further:
Part 1: Introduction
In the fall of 2020, Helen Pluckrose and Dr. James A. Lindsay released a book that addresses the underlying ideas that are fueling the current social and political climate. The book is aptly titled Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody. It explores the world view and theoretical foundations of a very specific ideological framework called Critical Social Justice (CSJ). In their book, Pluckrose and Lindsay refer to Critical Social Justice as simply “Social Justice” (note the capitalization) to distinguish CSJ from the general aims of what some call social justice and others call civil rights—movements dedicated to human rights, fairness and a just society in which all people have the potential to thrive free from bigotry, oppression, tyranny and unfair treatment.
In 1848, the term social justice was coined by Sicilian Jesuit scholar Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, who was greatly influenced by the teachings of Thomas Aquinas. Over the years the originally Catholic term was adopted by various secular movements related to human rights, climate change, anti-war efforts, racial and gender equality and economic justice. Since, the middle of the 20th century, and especially during the first decades of the 21st century, the term social justice has come to be defined by the specific set of doctrines of Critical Social Justice (CSJ), which has specific ideas about the world, the nature of humanity, and even the nature of knowledge itself (the study of which is sometimes referred to as epistemology).
At the core of the CSJ ideology is an approach to analyzing and responding to reality that is called “Critical Theory”, which has been broken down into several sub-theories or “studies” such as queer theory, fat studies, critical race theory, intersectionality, and other critical theories. The authors of Cynical Theories group these theories/studies together throughout the book and apply to them the simple label of “Theory”.
My Orientation to Social Justice
Before attempting to explore some of the ideas put forth in Cynical Theories, it will help the reader to understand my orientation to the authors’ public personas, the overall thematic thrust of this book, and the tenor of its critiques of the ideas that fuel contemporary social justice scholarship and activism. In the current era in which people who question orthodoxies are often punished with false and stigmatizing labels and risk getting fired, mobbed, humiliated, bullied, and publicly ostracized for perceived (or actual) social wrongs, it is wise to openly state my own beliefs and positions from the outset. It will also be wise for me to include throughout this essay hyperlinks that center the voices of a widely diverse array of people from all walks of life who, like me and many others, are worried about the fierce identitarianism of contemporary activism and the culture of public humiliation and cruelty that has spread throughout our society in the names of social justice and what some are calling “wokeness”.
It is my belief that the culture of contempt that has arisen on the “side” I have always identified with—human rights/social justice—actively fuels the reactionary anger and defensive attacks from the “other side”, which has created a dangerous state of affairs. It is in the interest of slowing down the acceleration of the hyper-partisan culture war that I am offering perspectives which I dearly hope people who identify themselves as being on “the left” or as social justice advocates—the side I feel the most affinity for—will deeply consider with open hearts and minds. Accelerationism may provide a sense of purpose and meaning for many of us, and it may even be exciting and exhilarating for some, especially young people, but when we take away the romanticism of “revolution,” we are left with the severity and suffering of large scale social and physical violence.
I know that my friends, associates, and colleagues who care about social justice and human rights do not really want this suffering.
Social change often needs to happen quickly, and this, too, needs to be acknowledged. When a strong and undeniable need for immediate change arises, the appropriate collective action is to initiate strong and powerful campaigns, and often without compromise. The muckrakers did this in the early 1900’s to turn back the exploitation of the meat industry. The Civil Rights activists did this when they would no longer go with the “separate but equal” laws of the Jim Crow era. The Stonewall rioters—led by transgender women of color—did the same for LGBTQ+ rights. And the abolitionists pushed hard to end slavery.
But, as I hope to adequately convey, these moments of fierce advocacy and collective action on the behalf of desperately needed social change are not what the book Cynical Theories addresses.
It addresses ideological extremism.
Throughout history, the moral and tactical error of short-sighted extremism in the name of large ideals or legitimate threats has always left in its wake destruction upon destruction, as extreme partisans on all sides have often chosen to “burn it all down” for their noble causes, not always aware of the damage they have done in the service of an exciting moral vision or drive for social change. Like many others who hold less extreme views and wish to contribute to the great task of stitching society back together, I hope I can convince people that we can find another way to raise awareness of injustices and to achieve a equality of opportunity and a benevolent society so that we can avoid the destructive outcomes that our current trajectory is heading towards.
Although it is now a cliche to refer to “witch hunts'', it’s important to note that the Salem Witchcraft Trials and pandemonium of 1692 were conducted without due consideration for the damage that would eventually come to the community after more than 200 people were falsely accused of witchcraft and 20 of the accused were executed. Even some of those who were most caught up in the fervor of that time would come to course-correct after a period of contemplation, in which the community reflected upon the outcomes of their behavior and had to grapple with a lot of guilt over that.
Since the beginning of recorded time, people of wisdom have always warned humanity to take up the boring discipline of looking deeply into reality and its complexities and to embrace the task of serving the greater good with an un-romanticized moral vision that is compassionate and at times slow. It may be tedious and unexciting to embrace sobriety and maturity and to practice the deep democracy of being in true communion with life’s complexities and the realities of human nature in all its glory, depravity, and mundaneness. But, the unaccelerated life of commitment, humility, and open-hearted engagement has often been the most sustainable and least destructive way for societies to make progress.
It is in that spirit that I write these words.
My Orientation to the Authors of Cynical Theories
James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose came into international prominence in the fall of 2018 when they released, along with philosopher Peter Boghossian, a hoax study in which they got 7 papers they had authored accepted into peer-reviewed academic journals dedicated to various cultural studies including Critical Race Theory, intersectional feminism, fat studies, queer studies and others. According to Atlantic Magazine, these papers used “fashionable jargon to argue for ridiculous conclusions”—some of which, so outrageous that it’s hard to believe that they were published.
The point of this experiment was to shine a light on the lack of intellectual rigor in some of these fields and the ethical implications of some of the theories and practices that have been coming out of the scholarship in these fields over the past few years. One of the accepted papers included a revision of a section of Adolf Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, in which Hitler’s grievances and references to groups he was targeting were substituted with buzzwords from contemporary 21st century social justice theories. All of the other papers, including the 13 that were rejected, were intentionally absurd (dog parks contribute to rape culture), and in some cases, some included proposals for social change that were so unethical (white college students should be forced to sit on the floor with chains around their necks), that even the progressive magazine Mother Jones admitted of the hoax that “this one stings”.
The “Grievance Studies Affair”, as it came to be known in many circles, has its share of critics, including critical papers written by academics, mainstream media outlets, and popular cultural critic blogs, and it also led to professional setbacks for one of its authors, due to questions around the research methods behind the project. But, it did offer the public a small glimpse into the academic subculture of “Theory” that has exploded into the mainstream in recent years, and which was explored in greater depth by Helen Pluckrose and James A. Lindsay in their book, Cynical Theories.
I think it’s important to make a clear distinction between the ideas presented in the book Cynical Theories and the public life of the authors, both of whom have considerably different approaches to raising awareness around what they consider harmful excesses of Critical Social Justice (CSJ). For clarity, I will address my orientation to each author separately.
Regarding James A. Lindsay:
James A. Lindsay is a philosopher and political commentator with a Ph.D. in mathematics. He has written for Time Magazine, Areo Magazine and other outlets, and has published a book with Peter Bogghosian called “How to Have Impossible Conversations”. He is also the founder and President of New Discourses, which has a website that publishes his own material and the writings of other authors that cover the various aspects of Critical Social Justice ideology and its impact on society, media, institutions, and the social-political realms.
I first discovered James Lindsay in 2018 when I read his sprawling essay, Postmodern Religion and the Faith of Social Justice. This essay introduces the idea that the framework known as Critical Social Justice (CSJ) has strong religious components and a religious-like organizational structure, which includes a canon of collected works by revered thought leaders, who are treated as a kind of clergy that essentially hands down doctrines and decrees that devotees listen to, adhere to, and hold as sacred and beyond all reproach and questioning.
Lindsay’s perspectives around the CSJ ideology can be thoughtful and illuminating, and his podcasts and writings have understandably found a fairly wide audience across the internet. While the tone of the writing is often intellectually dry and academic, his capacity for conceptualizing his critiques of Critical Theory and other ideological artifacts of CSJ is impressive and can be helpful for those who are experiencing serious challenges in environments where this ideology and its practices have been imposed upon people.
It needs to be said, however, that the tone and style in Lindsay’s online engagement has changed in recent months, and I think it’s something I need to address in this essay to orient the reader in where I stand on this development.
On both his Twitter account and Facebook page, Lindsay appears to have intentionally adopted a confrontational style that does not align with the sober tone and seriousness of his writings, speeches and podcasts. A sizable gap between the disciplined tone of his essays and podcasts and his online social media persona has widened to such a degree that some fellow critics of extreme social justice activism are faced with the choice of distancing themselves from him. Although Lindsay can still be informative on these platforms, the brash style he has recently adopted has become a point of difficulty for some people who might otherwise be in near complete alignment with his critiques of CSJ.
And it has been difficult for me personally.
After spending several months studying Cynical Theories and related literature for this essay and nearly six months in drafting it, it has become necessary for me to clarify my position regarding Lindsay’s social media persona so that I can confidently separate the substance of the book from the online musings of one of its authors. I am doing this so that I can move forward with the task I have dedicated myself to in this writing project — exploring the ideas that Cynical Theories has tried to makes sense of for a confused and worried public.
The style of Lindsay’s social media output pivots between Churchill-esque rallying of the troops to straight out “trolling”, which Lindsay has explained in a podcast is a clear-eyed, strategic decision he has made to draw people's attention to what he considers the absurdity of Critical Social Justice theory and its attendant practices. In a sense, Lindsay appears to have chosen to conduct rhetorical and mimetic warfare in the hope that he can help to stem the tide of what appears to him and others to be the rise of a Maoist style Cultural Revolution in the United States and other countries.
Lindsay’s turn from clean communication to provocative taunts has been challenging for some of his friends and supporters, and there is a possibility that this could cause some hemorrhaging of public support for his work— a state of affairs that could potentially turn people away from considering the substance of his (and Helen Pluckrose’s) output, which I believe would be an unfortunate outcome.
It’s important to note that Lindsay is openly aware of the role he has chosen to play and that he has strongly signaled a lack of interest in playing the “credibility” game. He even alludes to this in an essay he has written on the importance of being “based” (i.e. speaking frankly in a world of lies and absurdities). It’s also worth noting that traditionally, people who sound the alarm and who support other alarm-sounders, almost never do so as a way to achieve high status or entry into the higher echelons of “polite society”. It’s often the case that they have chosen to “nuke” old territory and to engage in narrative warfare head-on with no hesitation because they feel they have cycled through all the other options.
Like many people—both public intellectuals and private denizens—Lindsay appears to have embraced the disillusionment he has been experiencing and has chosen to move through it, out in the open, for all to see.
Whether he has has gone "balls to the wall" as an authentic ass-kicking, shit-kicking truth-teller, “jumped the shark”, fallen prey to compulsion and mania, or simply lost all sense of proportion or balance, it remains to be seen whether Lindsay will have succeeded in drawing attention to important truths or whether he will succumb to the obsession and alienation that alarm-sounders have always been vulnerable to. It’s possible that staring into the abyss and becoming an expert on the ideology of “the other side” may eventually get the best of him. And it's also within the realm of possibility that the sacrifices he feels he has to make could eventually come to provide yet another cautionary tale for what happens when we focus too diligently and gaze for far too long into the dark shadows of our adversaries.
As Yoda, the famous spiritual teacher of the Jedi, once said, “Do not underestimate the power of the Dark Side”. Hopefully, in time, Lindsay will have succeeded in his quest to go toe to toe with the Dark Side—satisfied and relieved enough to allow himself to return to the conciliatory path laid out by the likes of Ayishat Akanbi, John Wood Jr. and Chloé Valdary. After all, their perspectives on human rights, gender equality, racial harmony and compassion are similar to the perspectives he himself has expressed in his own writings and alongside his colleague Helen Pluckrose in the luminous final chapters of Cynical Theories.
We will see.
Regarding Helen Pluckrose
Helen Pluckrose and I have been talking for a few years now, mostly in online groups and in private online messages, and more recently in private Zoom sessions, where we have been discussing the philosophy and mission of Helen’s project, Counterweight Support. Counterweight seeks to be a support network that helps people work through the challenges in workplace environments and other communities in which the beliefs and practices of Critical Social Justice have been implemented. Helen has asked me to become a foundational member of Counterweight as an Academic Affiliate, and I have accepted.
I first heard of Helen in the spring of 2017 when I conducted an online search around the topic of political cultism, which had become a great concern for me as I observed the increasingly extreme tribalism in the United States and other Western countries. This search ultimately led me to several articles in Areo Magazine, an online opinion outlet that has been described by media watchdog groups as left-of-center, and which has never failed a fact check.
Areo Magazine was founded by 23-year-old Malhar Mali in November, 2016 while he was still in graduate school. In his departure letter a year and a half later, in which Mali announced that he was passing the torch to Pluckrose, he described the inspiration of the magazine as coming from English poet John Milton’s famous speech, Areopagitica which promoted the freedom of thought and expression and “condemned pre-publication censorship”. From the outset of the online experiment that became Areo Magazine, Mali’s purpose was to explore various themes that were “loosely related” to Milton’s writing with the following mission statement:
“We’re an opinion and analysis digital magazine focused on current affairs — in particular: Humanism, Culture, Politics, Human Rights, Science, and, most importantly, Free Expression. We believe in the unfettered freedom to explore, think, and challenge ideas and concepts, and we’re intent on taking part in the conversations that will shape our tomorrow.”
I had been following Helen’s contributions to Areo Magazine since she began publishing there, and was elated to learn that she would take over as Editor-in-Chief of an online platform that I described in a comment under this departure letter as “an important contribution to the world’s conversations” and “a model of civil discourse and freedom of expression that is sure to expand its readership and influence.” At the time of this writing, Helen has now handed the reins of Areo to Iona Italia, who is a writer and copyeditor of the magazine.
The first piece of Helen’s that I read is called “How French “Intellectuals” Ruined the West: Postmodernism and Its Impact, Explained”. While I don’t currently agree with the entirety of Pluckrose’s thesis—I lean towards a post-postmodernism perspective that includes the insights of both modernist and postmodernist approaches to Truth, along the lines of developmental theories that posit a transcend-and-include model, but more on that later—I was quite awe-stricken at the time by her grasp of the theoretical foundations of contemporary social justice activism and theories. I felt relieved at the time because I felt that Pluckrose was really getting at something that could more adequately explain the changing behaviors and attitudes I had begun to witness in the social media environments I was involved in, including the surprisingly hateful and bigoted behaviors and attitudes of people I had known for more than 20 years.
Over time, I had begun to follow Pluckrose’s work and eventually we became online allies, exchanging ideas in various online groups, including a group I administered called “Towards Peaceful Engagement” (originally called We Are the Center), and private message exchanges on Facebook, where we sometimes had mild, light-hearted disagreements. In one amusing exchange, Helen responded to my revelation of being influenced by Buddhism and other forms of Eastern spirituality by jokingly saying that she would likely “wander away” if I started to talk about spiritual things but would come back if I became “sensible again”. In this moment, we were able to find common ground in which my attraction to the metaphysical (spiritual) side of things and Helen’s strictly secular worldview could peacefully coexist in the cauldron of light-hearted mutual disapproval.
At the end of this conversation, Helen teasingly said that she thinks “we can get on with people we think get one thing wrong.”
That’s an attitude that I consider to be as right as rain.
Social Justice vs. Critical Social Justice:
An Important Distinction
There is something wrong about contemporary social justice. And that is the thrust of Cynical Theories and one of the overarching themes of the three-part series of essays I am calling All We Are. It’s important to make useful distinctions and to be clear about what we mean when we use the phrase “social justice”. In philosophy and law, this is the practice of defining our terms, so I will do so now.
A variety of phrases and labels are used to describe the framework and practices analyzed in Cynical Theories. For the purposes of this essay and in alignment with the language used in the book, I will use the term “Critical Social Justice” (CSJ) that has been used by many of CSJ’s own adherents. Sometimes, I may also use the term “Theory” as the authors do, which is shorthand for Critical Theory, the underlying ideology that informs the practices of CSJ.
It will help to briefly mention alternative phrases and labels to help orient the reader.
When describing what we are calling Critical Social Justice, journalist Wesley Yang uses the term Successor Ideology. Yang and others consider this ideology to be the successor to—though not a child of—the civil rights era liberalism that enjoyed wide appeal in the United States and western Europe for the past sixty years.
When journalist Matt Taibbi refers to The New Puritanism, he is naming the same ideology, which he has described as having the same flavor of aggressive purity politics and punishment orientation as the religious Right.
Ayishat Akanbi calls it “”wokeness”.
Jesse Singal has named it “Left Identitarianism”.
Other names are out there, too, such as neo-Marxist Postmodernism, Political Correctness, and Cultural Marxism, which is a term favored more by conservatives than people of other political persuasions.
And, there is the term, identity politics, which needs a moment of thoughtful attention. I want to note here something positive that I learned about the original meaning of the term identity politics from Dr. Erec Smith, a professor of rhetoric and composition at York College and a scholar of political ideology. In his book, A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment, Smith speaks about the originally positive and empowering term identity politics that was coined by Black Feminists in the “1977 Combahee River Collective Statement”.
In the same way that Dr. Erec Smith has chosen to do in this book and in his general advocacy work, I am choosing not to use the term “identity politics” in a negative sense because I support its original meaning—the necessity and the right for people to organize and to engage in collective advocacy for their demographic group, especially if that group has experienced oppression in its history or continues to experience oppression in the present by unjust systems and policies.
So, I won’t be using the term “identity politics”. When I want to speak critically of the extreme preoccupation with our socio-cultural identities and the emerging culture of closing our hearts and minds to people from “outside” groups based on our extreme identification with that identity (e.g. race, gender identity, sexual orientation, political affiliation, etc.), I will use other terms.
It’s never been more important to draw clear boundaries and to make clear and unambiguous distinctions when we are discussing human rights and social justice ideas that people have embraced in their efforts to create a just and benevolent world. And, in the current era in which inaccurate and stigmatizing labels can cause economic and reputational ruin; clarity of purpose, meaning, and belief is absolutely essential.
Basic Goodness as Foundational
As an educator and in other areas of my life, I have been a lifelong advocate for racial justice, gender equality, empowerment, and equal opportunity and rights under the law for all. My support for human rights and the liberal principles that have historically contributed the most to the advancement of those rights is unambiguous and firm. The victories of the Civil Rights era and the gains made in the emerging decades that followed, including the advancement of the rights of minorities, same sex marriage, and the rise of transgender acceptance—and their importance—are self-evident and clearly positive developments for our society. Yet, we have more work to do in the service of creating a society where all people can thrive, especially those marginalized groups that experience themselves beset by a devaluing mainstream culture and denied the means and opportunities are crucial for both survival and thrival.
Compassionate and wise efforts must be made to include the voices and lived experiences of marginalized people when determining public policy. But, building a healthy and fair society is only possible with robust, generative, and symmetrical dialogues between all groups of people—regardless of how they have been ideologically categorized. It’s the best way we can achieve an open, equalitarian society, where the freedom to air a diversity of nonviolent perspectives can give all sides a chance to have their perspectives (and their information) corrected when they are in error.
And I cannot abandon my heart’s connection with the idea that most individuals have the inherent capacity to get in touch with what is fundamentally good in them and to see and treat others with the dignity that is inherent in all people, regardless of the group they belong to.
This statement could read to some as naive or as coming from the kind of unwarranted idealism that we would expect to hear from people we believe have privileged backgrounds, and it’s an especially hard pill to swallow when we consider the events that occurred over the past few years in the United States alone. During the Trump era, we've witnessed open resurgences of political violence, the continuation of policies that placed young children in detention camps at the Mexican border, a disturbing riot at the Capitol as a revolt against the democratic election of the new President, and people openly flaunting a flagrant disregard for the health and safety of others during the COVID pandemic by actively refusing to wear face masks, even in closed indoor spaces.
While there are many different angles, and diverse viewpoints to consider in some of these events and public policy debates, there is no question that a kind of collective trauma has set in over the years for people across the political and social spectrum, as they experienced the sustained, uninterrupted assault upon their nervous systems from the mounting moral injuries of being lied to, made fun of, mocked, and seeing policies enacted that they considered dehumanizing to people and even actively cruel. On top of this, people from all sides have experienced being gaslighted by the media and being constantly bombarded with propaganda and different forms of disinformation stemming from constricted narratives that leave out disconfirming details and the ignoring of entire events that readers and viewers could only find from non-mainstream news sources. All of these factors—and more— have contributed to a profound sense of cynicism across the entire political spectrum, including those who don’t have any interest in social or political issues. It is perhaps for this reason that a 2018 study on political polarization and tribalism identified the supermajority of fed up people as the “Exhausted Majority”.
But, this cynicism does not necessarily represent an accurate or complete understanding of our shared social reality, nor does it need to become institutionalized as the only authentic way to view and respond to that reality. To put it another way, the cynical after-effect of the past several years of societal chaos does not have to be a station. It can be viewed as a temporary state that we can work to alleviate and eventually overcome, as we go about the difficult work of healing ourselves, healing our broken society, and doing the even harder work of recreating a society that is both just and excellent in what it produces.
As I write this, the current state of polarization has become even more pronounced, where even a writer in the online magazine, The Root, is calling for a permanent separation and other harsh actions against a specific subset of voters and an entire political party that The Root and many other news outlets have declared variously as “enemy combatants'', “domestic terrorists”, and other labels that could potentially justify both civilian and state-sanctioned actions against some members of these cohorts. Given the level of fear and worry that the Capitol riots have created in the minds of many Americans and the exhaustion of many activists who have grown tired of not having their issues respected, heard, and acted upon, these reactions are understandable, at least in the sense that it’s the kind of trauma response we should expect in such a cauldron of stress, uncertainty and antipathy that we call civilization.
In spite of all this, I think it’s important to acknowledge that most people in our society either want to have good intentions or wish to be on the side of “the good”. But, in the postmodern age where there is such a wide diversity of perspectives about reality and so much widespread disinformation (which postmodernism arguably has some serious accountability for), our good intentions and desire to be on the side of “the good” can become distorted as we become more confused about just what the good is. The problem (and the beauty!) of information is that it is prismatic. At best, we can achieve a prismatic understanding of current events in a postmodern age, as we all encounter information as light through a prism. The problem with light, however, is that it bends. This bending could take many forms, from disinformation campaigns, a lack of access to new information that might disconfirm what we think we know, and our own confirmation bias, which causes us to seek information that reinforces what we think we know.
So, we have to be diligent about discovering what the truth is in situations that we want to understand, which requires a certain amount of self-discipline to practice a balanced media diet, where we take pains to take in information (and narratives) from media sources across the political spectrum. But, this may also require a small amount of moral courage. In the current zeitgeist, we are being asked to believe that some groups of people are intrinsically wired to oppress others while others are more intrinsically wired to be wise. In other words, we are being asked to be cynical.
This current zeitgeist of cynicism is powerful, and there are large numbers of people ready to defend the zeitgeist. Nevertheless, I am going to openly declare my allegiance to the idea that individuals from all walks of life possess in the core of their being the potential of what the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa called Basic Goodness, no matter what walks of life they come from. I know this to be true in the bones of my being, and no social pressure of any kind will ever convince me otherwise.
The declaration I just shared about my commitment to seeing the goodness in people would not be complete if I didn’t share the equally important truth about a pattern of belief that I stand firmly against—group identity essentialism.
Continued in Part 2: The Problem of Group Identity Essentialism