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Beyond Cynicism • Part 6 – How We Got Here: The Practice of Applied Postmodern Cynicism
Theory and Practice of Fashionable Meanness
This is part 6 of my “All We Are” series. These writings explore theories of ideological conditioning, 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”.
The Early Postmodern Thinkers
In the Spring of 2020, Helen Pluckrose gave a talk called The Evolution of Postmodern Thought. I found this speech extraordinarily helpful in developing an understanding around the specific philosophers and thinkers who each developed a single idea that eventually became canonized as part of a nearly fixed pantheon of unquestioned, sacrosanct ideas that combine to form the beliefs and practices of the ideology that Robin D’Angelo and the authors of Cynical Theories has called Critical Social Justice.
After re-watching this talk several times, I decided to write a transcript (which took three days!) and posted the transcript and the video link on my Ground Experience website. While the rest of this essay explores Cynical Theories in some detail, it also offers my own reflections and additions. For a more concise and information-rich breakdown of the history of postmodernism and the influential ideas in contemporary social justice scholarship that have now broken out into the mainstream, I highly recommend watching this talk and/or reading the transcript.
In the meantime, as we move further into our exploration of Cynical Theories, I will outline below the early “rock stars” of the postmodernist influence on Critical Social Justice, and include the most basic descriptions of their fundamental contributions in lay terms. While there are now thousands of scholars and thinkers who have made their own contributions (some of whom I mention later), it’s important to understand that the very basic overarching principles that each of these people promoted have provided the increasingly abstract foundation upon which theory after theory after theory has been built.
One of the founding members of the original Frankfurt school, Max Horkheimer is credited with having created the approach to social analysis known as Critical Theory.
He once stated that "every part of [Critical] theory presupposes the critique of the existing order and the struggle against it along lines determined by the theory itself."
He was an Italian Marxist who was a founding member and one-time leader of the Communist Party of Italy. He was imprisoned by Mussolini's fascist regime.
Gramsci was attempting to understand why the proletariat weren't delivering the worker's revolution that Marx had prophesied–and his answer culminated in his most well-known concept, "cultural hegemony," which states that capitalism is able to maintain its power over the workers through control of all cultural institutions: schools, universities, the media, religious organizations, etc.
Rudi Dutschke was a German Marxist sociologist who, after studying Gramsci, advocated a "long march through the institutions of power" to create radical change from within government and society by becoming an integral part of the machinery.
Herbert Marcuse corresponded with Rudi Dutschke in 1971 to agree with this strategy, "Let me tell you this: that I regard your notion of the 'long march through the institutions' as the only effective way..."
The popular phrase attributed to Gramsci’s ideas is “politics flows downhill from culture.” Thus, seizing control of the cultural means of production becomes a vital task in the long march through the institutions.
One of the most influential members of the Frankfurt School often referred to as the “Father of the New Left”. Marcuse focused on the repression and unhappiness even of the most affluent and privileged in modern, industrial societies, and the self-medicating of the masses through consumer culture.
He was highly critical of capitalist modes of production and thus was strongly influenced by Marxist ideas.
He coined the term “repressive tolerance”, which enjoys a massive influence in the contemporary activist scene in both social media and on the streets. The basic idea of repressive tolerance is that the overly permissive and compassionate “liberal” approach to tolerating views that are not perfectly aligned with the Left must never be allowed to surface or to be platformed or even heard. Marcuse and his acolytes believe that giving even an inch to ideas considered right wing would be to concede too much room for that side to “win” could interrupt the progress of human rights, especially the rights of minority groups.
Marcuse was a much beloved mentor to Black Feminist activist and CSJ proponent, Angela Davis, and his idea of Repressive Tolerance can be heard in Davis’ writings and many others who have chosen to follow this ideology.
Contemporary human life is no longer real. It is a “simulation”, in which reality has been replaced with signs and symbols, which includes meaningless popular culture trends.
The lack of authenticity was a strong overarching theme.
Developed a “deconstructive”, “post-structural” approach to analyzing texts, literature and culture.
His basic point was that the original intent, meaning or structure of the creator of something doesn’t mean anything and that it only matters what the reader/audience/listener reads into the text and takes away from it.
He introduced the analysis of binaries and “violent hierarchies” into everything, which eventually gave rise to the moral commandment of his followers to “flip” all hierarchies that are perceived to contain power imbalances.
His major contribution to postmodern thought is the belief that all of social reality and all human relationships and endeavors from the individual to the collective, from moment to moment, and in all large scale projects is fundamentally structured by, made of, and motivated by power.
Perhaps the most powerful area in which Foucault’s ideas influenced CSJ is in the area of language. He believed that the way we speak, write, label people and things and think about people and things (discourses) is the primary mode through which power is gained and defended.
He advocated seizing the means of knowledge production so that the power to produce and reproduce knowledge would no longer be in the hands of oppressors.
Lyotard is best known for his famous 1974 book, The Postmodern Condition, though scholars mostly agree with Lyotard himself that his other “real books” and longer works before and after were much further developed.
Two main themes emerge in Leotard’s works: how our knowledge is externalized by the social order and technology (relativistic epistemology) and the hegemony that is inherent in all societal phenomena, including the hegemonic (dominant) place that computers have over the lives of individuals.
Bell taught at Harvard University and contributed many ideas and works that came to eventually form part of the canon of what is now known as Critical Race Theory.
One of his most influential ideas that we can now see widespread throughout activist communities is interest convergence.This is the belief that white people will never be motivated to help Black people or to become allies for their causes unless this help serves the self-interest of white individuals or groups in some specific way.
Dr. Crenshaw comes from the Black Feminist tradition and is best known for coining the term Critical Race Theory and developing the framework known as Intersectionality.
An avid student of Derrick Bell’s at Harvard, Crenshaw was one of the first CSJ scholars to openly advocate for embracing specific postmodernist ideas and selectively applying them to some areas of life while explicitly rejecting them in other areas.
For example, we can accept the postmodern idea that there are no meta-narratives or objective truths because all knowledge is partial, self-serving and relative to socio-cultural-economic circumstances. But, when it comes to oppressed/marginalized people, there very much IS such a thing as an overarching story (meta-narrative) of the oppression certain groups of people have faced. There very much IS an objective reality in which oppressive systems are real and can be verified by the “lived experience” of those who are suffering under the oppressive systems.
Butler’s 1990 book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity went on to become one of the foundational texts of Queer Theory, LGBTQIA+ rights, and Gender Studies.
The modern transgender rights movement has been influenced by her work. One of the most popular postmodernist ideas that Butler’s influence helped to mainstream is that gender is a social construct.
This is the belief that our conception of ourselves in the realm of gender is entirely constructed by our social interactions, society’s expectations of us, “cisheteronormative” values imposed upon us by society, and our own need to conform. One of the chief practices coming out of the influence of Queer Studies is the moral imperative to embrace transgressive politics and to “queer” (blend) all boundaries, including sexual/gender boundaries and other categories of human experience. It is interesting to note here that, as with all totalistic thought systems, there is a built-in presumption that the Theory possesses exclusive, unique access to an insight or practice. But, when one considers the Zen practice of transgressing against rigid structures and norms to help produce nondual awareness—a practice some Zen practitioners and religious anthropologists, like Victor Turner call “anti-structure”—the idea that breaking up structures and transgressing against unhealthy types of boundaries is unique to Queer Theory begins to lose its reality-ness.
Interestingly, this satirical video released by the Onion of a Trump supporter who regrets his vote after reading Queer Theory, does a delightful job in summarizing the basic tenets of this sub-thrand of Theory.
Postmodernist Principles and Themes in Critical Social Justice
In the beginning of the book Cynical Theories, an important distinction is made between social justice with no capitalization—which is a general commitment to equality and fairness for all people— and the capitalized version of Social Justice, which is a simplified stand-in for the very specific ideology known as Critical Social Justice that has been heavily influenced by postmodernist ideas.
In addition to making that important distinction, the authors explain the two postmodernist principles and four postmodernist themes that they have identified as foundational to Critical Social Justice scholarship and practice:
The Postmodernist Knowledge Principle is described as “radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism;”
The Postmodernist Political Principle is described as “a belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.”
The four major themes are described as:
1. Blurring of boundaries
2. The power of language
3. Cultural relativism
4. The loss of the individual and the universal.
At first glance, some of these ideas might appear to be the products of the typically indulgent intellectualizing that often occurs when academics come together in the rarefied spaces of their ivory towers, but as the chapters move forward, Cynical Theories explores in great depth just how far down the rabbit hole of cruelty and absurdity this ideology goes once these principles and themes are put into practice. One of the most important things to understand about this ideology is that Theory—the canonical ideas that strictly inform Critical Social Justice scholarship—tolerates no dissent.
In the chapter titled “Social Justice Scholarship and Thought”, the authors state this fact plainly:
“Social Justice scholarship does not merely present the postmodern knowledge principle—that objective truth does not exist, and knowledge is socially constructed and a product of culture—and the postmodern political principle—society is constructed through knowledge by language and discourses, designed to keep the dominant in power over the oppressed. It treats truth as The Truth, tolerates no dissent, and expects everyone to agree or be “cancelled”. We see this in the obsessive focus on who can produce knowledge, and how, and in the explicit desire to ‘infect’ as many other disciplines as possible with Social Justice methods. This is reflected in a clear wish to achieve epistemic and research ‘justice’ by asserting that rigorous knowledge production is just a project of white male and Western culture and thus no better than the Theoretically interpreted lived experiences of members of marginalized groups, which must be constantly elevated and foregrounded.”
Three Distinct Phases of Postmodernism
One of the most helpful framings offered in this book is the way the authors detailed the slow roll-out of different phases of Postmodern Theory and application and how these phases impacted the real world. Lindsay and Pluckrose lay out very clear fault lines and specific timelines in the mutations of Postmodern thought as it continued its “long march” through our academic institutions and other arenas of society from the 1960s on through the early 2020s.
Phase One: High Deconstructive Phase
The first major phase according to the authors is a period in which meta-narratives were deconstructed and stripped of their mythical importance, revealing a more naked reality that is harsher and devoid of any essential meaning. This phase, they have called the high deconstructive phase.
The high deconstructive phase began with French intellectuals who had grown disenchanted by Marxism in the 1960s and involved a radical deconstruction of all meta-narratives. Though they didn’t focus specifically on American meta-narratives, it’s helpful to point to an easy example of a meta-narrative, such as the American myths of the self-made man, the flawless goodness of the Founding Fathers, and the meritocratic, individualist fantasy of the hard work that entitles us all to achieving the American Dream.
The combination of these myths can be seen as major contributors to the overarching story (meta-narrative) that depicts America as a heroic nation that champions liberty, freedom, agency and an ever-forward march towards greatness. It isn’t hard to see how such a meta-narrative can be deconstructed (taken apart) to reveal the narrative and lived experiences of marginalized groups, conquered peoples, and subjugated minorities throughout the history of the nation.
Phase Two: Applied Postmodernism Phase
The second phase is called applied postmodernism, which began in the 1990s and found its zenith in the mid 2000s with the installment of postmodern concepts like Privilege Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory and other offshoot theories that began to be applied to real world activism.
Phase Three: Reified Postmodernism Phase
The third phase began in the 2010s and is called reified postmodernism. In this phase, the deconstructive ideas, concepts and practices that began to be applied in the second phase began to become reified, which means that they have become extremely solidified and no longer experimental or inquisitive—concretized into a rigid framework of beliefs, ideas and practices that have essentially become a secular religion.
We are currently in the third phase, which, according to the authors, has become contradictory and incoherent while at the same time, shrink-wrapped into a tightly organized secular religion with a complete canon of “sacred texts” and moral pronouncements that have energized increasingly large numbers of people to engage in activism on its behalf.
The most fascinating mutation from the first phase of high deconstructive postmodernism to the most recent iteration of reified postmodernism is the re-institutionalization of meta-narratives as a central component of the ideology. The earliest postmodern writers (e.g. Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard and others) were strictly deconstructionist in the sense that they broke down and de-legitimized all narratives—not allowing any of them to become sacralized as “The Truth About History and Reality” and believing strongly that all overarching stories (meta-narratives) are constructed and maintained in order to consolidate power and to control the perceptions (and language) of the populace—but in the current phase of postmodernist philosophy, as it is now expressed through Critical Social Justice, is what Dr. Lindsay and Pluckrose have termed “The Truth According to Social Justice”.
The authors argue that the current phase of reified postmodernism is in some respects the mirror opposite of the classical version of postmodernism—the high deconstructive phase—in that it puts forth a powerful and unmistakably simplistic meta-narrative that revolves around current and historic oppression of groups of people. In this overarching meta-narrative, the country called America (and the West in general) is built solely on oppression, and nearly all of the discourses, policies, norms, cultural artifacts, values and laws are intentionally designed to favor (i.e. to privilege) some groups over others.
No room is allowed for acknowledging the many other variables of human life that contributed to building the world we see today such as:
...the search for belonging and love, the need for meaning, the entrepreneurial spirit, scientific curiosity and discovery, creative artistry, inspirational awe at the magnificence of the cosmos, the lust for sex, the urge to innovate and invent, the natural instinct for protecting children, the fear of death, the quest for truth, the need to organize resources, the drive to avenge wrongs, the search for food, the call to adventure, religious inspiration, and all the other complex inner and outer realities and truly universal human traits that make all of us much more alike in the present moment and across time than these newer oppression-oriented meta-narratives would have us believe.
The authors put it this way:
“In this new incarnation, postmodernism is no longer characterized by radical skepticism, epistemic despair, nihilism, and a playful, though pessimistic, tendency to pick apart and deconstruct everything we think we know. It now seeks to apply deconstructive methods and postmodernist principles to the task of creating social change, which it pushes into everything. In the guise of Social Justice scholarship, postmodernism has become a grand, sweeping explanation for society -a metanarrative- of its own.”
And we see the intrusion of CSJ’s extreme group-identity ideologies and oversimplified metanarratives happening all around us, from the influence of these ideas on the climate change movement, the contribution of this ideology’s divisive practices to the fracturing of the Occupy movement, and the introduction of racialized theories into K-12 Math curriculum and teacher training sessions. Most troubling of all, we see the impact of unbalanced and ideologically-driven approaches to social critique and activism on the education of children in the kindergarten to high school years and on students introduced to fixed dogmatic approaches to human rights in colleges and universities. Over the past few years, there has been an alarming rise in incidents of emotional abuse meted out on students on all grade levels in some school systems, as different social change programs have been increasingly imposed onto their learning lives. With the increase of compelled confessions about students’ presupposed privilege and unconscious bigotry in front of their peers, the pressure on students to reveal their racial makeup, sexual orientations and gender identities, and other Maoist style struggle sessions in which students must admit their “complicity” in the continuation of “systems of white supremacy”, “patriarchy”, and “cisheteronormativity”.
It should be noted that one of the foundational ideas of the Cultural Revolution that “Chairman” Mao Zedong imposed on China beginning in the late 1960’s was the separation of the populace from all that came before, which he called the “Four Olds”—old ideas, old customs, old culture, and old habits. When considering some of the ritualistic ways in which American students in recent years have been coerced into self-denunciations of their disfavored group identities in front of their classmates, the case can be made that there are some parallels between the Cultural Revolution and what we have been seeing in the American classroom. And, while there may be valid reasons, for example, to question the foregrounding of the “old culture” of white male musical composers at the expense of other groups, the sincere project of inquiring into the lack of representation of non-male and minority voices and talents in society and its institutions has now begun to crystallize into a hardened, reified, rigid, and unquestioned dogma.
It is for this reason that the authors of Cynical Theories have called the current phase of postmodernism, reified postmodernism.
The greatest irony of reified postmodernism, according to the authors, is that this new secular religion deconstructs and devalues everything considered “normal” in our society, including normative gender roles (the male and female binary), biology of sex differences, the nuclear family, the principles of responsibility, hard work, being on time, earning one’s status (meritocracy) and politeness while rigidly reinforcing a new oversimplified meta-narrative that we are never allowed to question or deconstruct.
In reified postmodernism, traditional roles and values are considered normative values and are collectively grouped under the heading “normativity”. And we must come to accept that normativity is something that should never be allowed to stand, as normativity is considered to be intrinsically oppressive. Anything that can be said to be “normal” must be turned on its head, and in some cases, actively transgressed against. So, in a country that is majority white, the term “whiteness” is used to stigmatize the group and is assigned labels such as “insidious”, “dominant”, “hegemonic”, and “oppressive”, while other identities are foregrounded as intrinsically good or wise, which often takes the form of romanticizing “indigenous ways of knowing”. Heterosexual relationships are boldly declared to be “harmful” by sex “researchers”, and the word “woman” as a category is sometimes replaced with terms such as “person with a uterus” to make room for those who do not identify with traditional gender categories. Even members of the United States Congress have formally proposed a norm to eliminate gendered language from Congressional documents, including “familial” terms such as boy, girl, mother, father, uncle, sister and other categories of gender.
What matters is that the traditional racial, gender, and sexual hierarchies, ways of knowing, norms, and values be shaken up, dismantled, and transformed so that oppressive structures and patternings can be broken down and reconstructed into something new, moral and just.
Thus, we have the blurring of boundaries in Queer Theory, which involves “queering” spaces, “queering” relationships, and “queering” all categories of human experience, including entire religious traditions. While there is still an element of playfulness and a positive spirit of inclusive experimentation in the queering of boundaries (e.g. the casting of women of color or transgender people in major roles in plays and films that have been traditionally centered around characters who are cisgendered (non-trans) straight white men and women), the reification of postmodernist experimentation has begun to turn the Derridian flipping of perceived hierarchies and the aggressive centering of maginalized groups into a crystallized dogmatic imperative from which we must never deviate.
So, we go from questioning the unfair over-representation of “dead white males'' in college literature lists and the advocacy for the gradual inclusion of other voices—positive steps towards diversity and inclusion—to the active denigration of “dead white males'' to such a point that their works are not only de-centered but outright condemned, mocked, devalued and dropped entirely from the curriculum. And, when this denigration is not happening in the curriculum, it is happening in the media where even the head of a high-status gender studies department is able to unflinchingly declare that we all have the right to hate men in her 2018 Washington Post column.
To illustrate what this Derridean table-turning (hierarchy-reversing) looks like in practice, I direct the reader to a speech that was given by Assistant Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta of Princeton University at a 2019 classics conference that was held by the Society for Classical Studies. In the speech, Peralta explicitly announces his commitment to displacing and decentering not only the abstract immoral categories of “white privilege and supremacy” but “white men” themselves, who must “surrender their privilege” in almost all situations “in practical terms” such as no longer being published in academic journals.
Throughout the speech, Peralta speaks in highly doctrinaire terms about not only the decentering of white scholars in academic publishing but about his belief that the visibility and prestige of white scholars has always been—and continues to be—intentionally perpetrated against scholars of color with the explicit aim of keeping them down.
Below, I highlight several statements he makes in this speech with words and phrases in boldface to highlight the eliminationist spirit behind his words as well as the rigid and dualistic, us-against-them worldview that his ideological commitments have reified in his mind.
In the following passage, he speaks of how white scholars:
“...impoverish knowledge production in the field of classics by perpetrating the epistemic and hermeneutic injustice of denying a space and a place to scholars of color.”
And reminds the audience:
“If one were intentionally to design a discipline whose institutional organs and gatekeeping protocols were explicitly aimed at disavowing the legitimate status of scholars of color as producers of knowledge, one could not do better than what The Classics has done.”
After speaking about the “complicity” of academic journals in closing all doors to scholars from marginalized groups, Peralta raises the following questions about “the future of knowledge production in [the] Classics:
“How do we recognize, honor, and repair the silencing of the knowledges that people of color carry? How do we perform and validate and support the reparative epistemic justice that the discipline so sorely needs?”
And, here is his answer:
“Holders of privilege will need to surrender their privilege. In practical terms, this means that in an economy of academic prestige defined and governed by scarcity, white men will have to surrender the privilege they have of seeing their words printed and disseminated. They will have to take a back seat so that people of color and women and gender non-conforming scholars of color benefit from the privileges—career, and otherwise—of seeing their words on the page. Again, however, I emphasize that this is an economy of scarcity that—at the level of journal publication—will remain, to a degree, zero sum, until and unless the system of publication is dismantled, which will be fine by me. Every person of color who is to be published will take the place of a white man whose words could have or had already appeared in the pages of that journal. And that would be a future worth striving for. Thank you.”
These statements reflect a crystallized, dogmatic perspective that hinges on the cynical belief that all disparities and outcomes are intentionally designed by nefarious oppressive forces, and that’s an important understanding that can help us to understand why these aggressive measures are being proposed in institutions and public policy on the behalf of a vision of diversity, equity and inclusion.
To be fair, Dr. Peralta is correct to identify the connections between the systems of colonialism, imperialism and slavery that came along with ancient Rome and Greece, and there is no question that there are a large number of people in the world who continue to romanticize European history and accomplishments often confusing those accomplishments with white identity and erasing the negative or at the very least ignoring the unflattering, and in some ways, horrifying aspects of the Western legacy. Rhetoric professor Dr. Erec S. Smith calls this the Rightful King syndrome, the result of a genetic fallacy in which some people confuse the scientific, artistic, and political achievements of Western history—indeed greatness itself— with “whiteness”. One only needs to look to Africa’s empires of color, the ancient empires of the Central and South American continents, Emperor Ashoka of India, and ancient China to see that greatness belongs to no specific identity group.
And, even the ideals of the Enlightenment cannot be said to be a totally unique development of Europe. Though it’s fair to acknowledge that the invention of the printing press made it uniquely possible for Europeans to further develop, refine and spread Enlightenment ideas across Europe and beyond, it’s not at all an exaggeration to say that Enlightenment ideas and philosophies are not remotely unique to Europeans. It should be noted that more than a hundred years prior to the Western Enlightenment, many of the same ideas proposed by Immanuel Kant, David Hume, John Locke and other European philosophers were developed and championed by the 17th century Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob.
So, there’s much to explore and to appreciate about some post-colonialist ideas, especially those that seek to create balance in the curriculum offerings so that the knowledge and culture that we have access to is representative of a wider range of cultures and more inclusive of the very real and undeniably important contributions of non-European demographic groups and across genders and sexual orientations. And the New York Times offers a balanced and fair treatment of these perspectives in a recent article on Dr. Peralta, “He Wants to Save the Classics from Whiteness: Can the Field Survive”?
Saving any collection of knowledge from the supremacy of any demographic group is a noble project that is worthy of support. But, Dr. Peralta, like many other postcolonial thinkers (see below) seems to have taken on an extreme reification of the concept of “whiteness”, and goes much further beyond merely opening up or expanding the Western canon to include other groups. Most people who are rightly committed to advancing the rights of people of color, women, transgender people, the elderly, disabled, LGBTQ+ and other marginalized groups, will have a positive regard for initiatives that can help to even the odds when rigorous analysis leads us to discover clear and unambiguous disadvantages faced by certain groups. But, when an essentialist belief in the nefarious motives and “insidious” character traits that are pre-supposed to exist inside a mono-dimensional adversary group becomes institutionalized in the doctrines and practices of an ideology that purports to be the principle standard-bearer for the lifting up of marginalized groups, something is amiss.
Whether it’s the new popularity of the old practice of burning books written by those we believe are bigoted or backwards, or the retributive justice of an online mob against those who are perceived to have transgressed against the mob’s values, it has become nearly impossible to question any aspects of Critical Social Justice and its tenets without incurring significant damage to one’s mental health, economic prospects and reputation. With such a strong orthodoxy firmly in place—with clearly drawn lines between adherents of the successor ideology and its dissenting heretics—the phrase reified postmodernism is more than appropriate.
We will now turn to the very specific concepts that Cynical Theories describe so that we can better understand some of the examples I have just shared and to get to the heart of why the authors believe these theories—when held too rigidly—are cynical and harmful to us all.