Beyond Cynical Theories • Part 7: The Impact of Reified Postmodern Cynicism
Concluding thoughts on cynical theorizing.
This is part 7 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”.
As mentioned in the part 6, we are now in the phase in which the original deconstructive spirit of postmodernism has morphed into a collection of works that have come to represent a kind of canon of secular religious texts. The authors of Cynical Theories have named this period the Reified Postmodernism period.
Reification is the process by which abstract ideas become concretized, made into the flesh, brought into reality, etc. When something is reified, it becomes, in a sense, as real as a hard stone. Put another way, to reify something is to transform it from something vague or insubstantial into something solid with hard boundaries. In the realm of theory or conceptual frameworks, reification takes its ultimate form as the process of turning once-fresh insights and once-fluid processes of deliberation around abstract ideas and large scale patterns into permanent, hardened dogmatic truths.
Conceptual frameworks are frequently built upon the lived experiences and empirical observations of the people who created those frameworks, and are usually lent more credibility if they have the additional component of research, industry knowledge, and professional expertise of the creator. Once the credential of credibility is established, conceptual frameworks can be especially appealing to us when they can confirm our identities as intelligent people who are in the know and who believe we are doing good in the world in accordance to these conceptual frameworks.
Admittedly, the above paragraph is written with a slightly cynical tinge. It presumes that those of us who have adopted a conceptual framework have done so with the base motive of shoring up our dominance and supremacy with little regard for the actual substance of the goals the conceptual framework seeks to address.
But, while it may be true that such a pattern of thought and behavior exists among some who have adopted a specific conceptual framework to make sense of their world, it’s not the whole picture.
According to the authors of Cynical Theories, many, if not all, of the critical theories that have been mainstreamed in recent years have their basis in clear patterns of oppression that can be observed on all scales of society across time. These theories are not delusional. They are based in realities that are not always clearly visible to people who live outside the lived experiences of those who are directly impacted by oppressive policies, rules and even entire societies.
The interesting phenomenon that I want to explore in this final section on the exploration of Cynical Theories is the enormous power that people have when they can take a concept and stretch its meaning (and attendant practices) so far beyond its original meaning that an entire “shared social reality” can be redefined.
There is much to admire in the deconstructive analysis of colonialism and the urge to dominate. And there is great value in questioning our own motivations when we stand in support of policies, norms, and ideas that directly benefit ourselves and our loved ones at the expense of those who don’t benefit from those policies, norms and ideas we support.
But, the urge to apply deconstructive analysis to everything and to create entire new theories—models of reality—based solely on that deconstructive analysis can also become distorted. Below, we will explore some of the theories that have become most influential in modern society and ways in which they have sometimes succumbed to cynicism to such a degree that reality becomes not only conflict-heavy but nearly unrecognizable.
Postcolonial Theory and Standpoint Theory
One of the most influential theories covered in Cynical Theories is Postcolonial theory which operates from many of the same postmodernist principles as Queer Theory. In Postcolonial Theory, the traditional values mentioned above and many other normative values or ways of life are considered “hegemonic” (unfairly dominating) because these values are considered to have been installed in our societies by cisgendered, straight, white males. Although many of these values can be verified to have been promoted in ancient societies, including matriarchal societies and empires controlled by people of color, Postcolonial Theory authors insist that these values are essentially “bad” and that they were manufactured by whiteness, maleness, straightness, and cis-ness (non-transgender-ness).
As a recording artist, filmmaker, writer and educator, I have always appreciated deconstructive experimentation, and as a queer and as a liberal who has been around non-conformity all of my life, hanging out and playing live music at queer bars where trans people, drag queens, and drag kings did their thing while we rocked it out in the basement, and canvassing for non-profit organizations seeking to protect the environment and to promote the passage of progressive public policies in local and State governments, I’ve always been attracted to the idea of “sticking it to the man” and flipping the bird at cultural authorities who grab their pearls when we are just “doing our own thing”.
But, the problem identified in Cynical Theories —and one that I have been able to verify in my own experience and studies— is that the attitude of transgression and non-conformity against traditional categories, structures, norms, values and whole demographic groups of people deemed “privileged” has taken on the pathological intensity of extreme nihilism and contempt towards all of normativity. Thus, we see a fiercely held-to tribalism that vilifies Whiteness, maleness, traditional families, straightness, non-transgender-ness (cisgendered-ness), normative religious affiliations and customs (e.g. Christianity in the West) and all other things deemed to be normative—which are pre-supposed to be fundamentally oppressive, dominant, exploitative, colonizing, rapacious, and cruel.
According to the authors, much of Postcolonial Theory, Queer Theory and other Theories in reified postmodernism is heavily influenced by the feminist Standpoint Theory . This theory was developed by Sandra Harding and Nancy Hartsock in their book, “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism” and was partially influenced by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s study of how people from different backgrounds have correspondingly different perspectives and beliefs (standpoints) about the world.
In Postcolonial Theory, the belief that our demographic makeup determines our interior life, our morality, values and “ways of knowing” goes much further. In a subchapter called “Decolonize Everything”, Pluckrose and Lindsay elaborate on the decolonization movement as described by the volume editors of Decolonizing the University in the following passage:
“Decolonization can refer to the study of colonialism both in its material manifestations and through discourses, and it can also offer alternative ways of thinking. This is a form of standpoint theory—the belief that knowledge comes from the lived experience of different identity groups, who are differently positioned in society and thus see different aspects of it. For decolonial scholars, both ‘Eurocentric forms of knowledge’ and ‘the epistemological authority assigned uniquely to the Western university as the privileged site of knowledge production’ are problems, and ‘the point is not simply to deconstruct such understandings, but to transform them.”
When proponents of decolonization speak of “transforming” a system, a curriculum, a policy, or cultural norm, they are speaking of dismantling those things into non-existence and in many cases actively replacing them with a new paradigm that centers other voices that have been colonized either materially (e.g. a continent being conquered and subjugated by the British Empire) or through discourse (e.g. leaving minority voices out of a literature curriculum or invisibilizing the through non-representation in popular films) or both.
What’s important here is the epistemology that informs these theories—the most problematic aspect of all Theories and sub-theories within Critical Social Justice. While Hegel’s study of standpoints and the original impetus of feminist standpoint theory sounds reasonable—who isn’t influenced by her surroundings, background and lived experience?—the totalistic claim (and genetic fallacy) that all knowledge comes from our demographic makeup, including gender, racial, sexual identities and other aspects of our socio-cultural identity dismisses all possibility that anything can be known objectively through reasoning, empirical investigation, and the gathering of evidence.
And most troubling of all, as the authors of Cynical Theories repeatedly warn us, the idea that there are no universal human experiences and that we cannot develop empathy for people who are different from us or the capacity to learn from their experiences and understand them better precludes the possibility of peaceful and just co-existence in a pluralistic society.
So, based on the idea that we must decolonize everything to free the world from the hegemony of cisgendered, straight, male, and white “ways of knowing”, there is a consistent drive in the postcolonial mindset to uproot all institutions and customs, re-educate the populace into “unlearning” the traditional “ways of knowing” represented by these institutions and customs, aggressively push perceived privileged identities into the background and onto the margins, and pridefully place the bodies, experiences, voices, and “alternative ways of knowing” of people who have been categorized as being traditionally marginalized front and center at all times.
There are many proponents who advocate the foregrounding of “indigenous ways of knowing” in a way that doesn’t necessarily repudiate “Western” epistemology but that simply offers a larger toolbox to humanity for seeing the world from the variety of modes of perception experienced by indigenous cultures around the world so that we can relate to the world and one another in ways that can open us up to perceiving the world with more dimensionality. Tyson Yunkaporta explores this elegantly in his book “Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World” and in a Rebel Wisdom interview that came out in August of 2020.
It needs to be pointed out, however, that the movement to foreground the wisdom and experiences of indigenous people and other groups that have been deemed marginalized is not considered sufficient in the view of many social justice advocates who base their activism on the axioms of Critical Theory and its commitment to reversing the imbalances of power this theory perceives to exist in all contexts. For these advocates, the process of foregrounding the voices and experiences of the marginalized is considered much more effective and justice-oriented when this foregrounding explicitly involves the transfer of real-life resources, political positions of decision-making power, and other material and social advantages from privileged groups to marginalized groups. This is a project of flipping (or inverting) what can be called hierarchies of resources, hierarchies of power and privilege, hierarchies of visibility, hierarchies of status, hierarchies of opportunity, and all other hierarchies that have traditionally placed some groups at the top of the heap at the expense of other groups.
And when we consider the study on the connection between group identity essentialism and the endorsement of social hierarchies I referred to earlier in part 2 of the All We Are Series, the potentially harmful outcomes of the flipping of perceived hierarchies without an endpoint becomes clear.
Equity as Social Hierarchy Endorsement
The most common word used for this hierarchy-flipping form of activism is equity, which has both positive and negative aspects, depending on the ideological commitments of those who seek to implement policies based on equity.
Although this word is similar to the word “equality”, it is fundamentally different. Equality under the law is about the creation of equality of opportunities, while equity, policies and measures are intended to enforce equality of outcomes. In practice, equity is about looking for perceived hierarchies and disparities of outcomes between groups who have different positions on those hierarchies and the creation of specific policies, laws and procedures that seek to invert those positions so that those who were traditionally on the lower rungs of a hierarchy will be given more resources and power on a temporary basis until equality of outcomes between groups is finally achieved.
An example of equity when practically applied can be found in an article published in a December 2020 issue of The Nation, in which the writer argued that “The Votes of Black Americans Should Count Twice”. The subtitle explains that the proposed law would count as “vote reparations” and would “empower us to replace oppressive institutions with life-affirming structures of equality”.
A similar, positive vision of equity came into being when in 2019 the city of Evanston, Illinois became the first city in the U.S. to pass a resolution to fund reparations, committing $10 million to the city’s Black residents “for the wrongs and accumulated losses incurred by generations of racism.” Given the red-lining tactics that kept Black families from acquiring property and accumulating intergenerational wealth, as well as the many forms of overt and covert forms of racism and disenfranchisement they faced historically, this resolution can be fairly pointed to as an example of the highest moral representation of equity in practice.
But, equity doesn’t stop at the the transfer of resources and opportunities to historically oppressed groups. When policies, community practices, and individuals base their equity goals on the ideologically conditioned assumptions of Critical Social Justice theory, they go much further.
A powerful example of how far people can go with hierarchy flipping can be found in the infamous social media event in which a young Black “woke” woman staged a takeover in a conversation room on the Clubhouse app. At the two-hour mark of the Clubhouse discussion on the problem of “anti-wokeness”, Brooklyn (her social media moniker) engineered a hierarchy reversal by getting herself invited to be a co-moderator of the discussion space under the premise that there needed to be more diversity on the panel. Due to the way the Clubhouse app works, Brooklyn was able to immediately remove the original white moderators and active participants from the group and to replace them all with people of color.
As the reader can confirm in both the Youtube video and the automated transcript, Brooklyn gloats about this coup while asking to get paid for doing so by white audience members— a form of individual “reparations” that is practiced in some activist subcultures.
“So, um, yeah, I came up, someone made me a moderator, another Black person, and I took over the room and now we have Black moderators and we're talking and redistributing some money that has been sent to my cash app. Venmo's the same white people. Non-black people. If you're in here, you should be sending a cash to my cash app in the bio.”
From that point on, the conversation completely changed and morphed into a Maoist style struggle session, in which evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein was called up to the “stage” 45 minutes later and subjected to an inquisition of sorts with a variety of unfounded and even bizarre accusations. It’s important to note the nearly exact parallels between Weinstein’s attempts to reason with unhinged student protestors at Evergreen State College in 2017 to adopt “a stable state of equity… a real one” and his attempts to defend his progressive outlook against the machine-gun rapid interrogation tactics thrown at him by Brooklyn and other moderators in this struggle session.
Nine minutes later, extreme anti-white rhetoric began to erupt, eventually leading to the collective cheering of the Haitian Revolution in which Haitian enslaved persons murdered French men, women and children, including those who were not involved in slavery. By the 4:24 mark, Brooklyn offered declarations of solidarity with the enslaved Black man, Nat Turner, who may not have wanted to “kill a white baby” or to “think about killing children at all”, but knew that he had to “kill the white people who was going to fucking keep him enslaved”. After speaking of the need to set the world on fire and to burn it all down and the lack of ability for redemption for white people, Brooklyn states unambiguously the need for Black people to abandon their morality and “even spirituality” and to embrace violence to achieve “transformation”.
“I think...the rage that lives in my body is that, what it demands is...that Black people have to be put into these moral...situations to determine...how we now have to respond to people who don't have morality for our being...where it's like, now we have to be violent because you were violent.
Like Bret Weinstein and many other fellow post-progressives, I believe in a “stable state of equity”, which is why I support different forms of reparations and policies that can help to make up for intergenerational disadvantages and oppressive policies that clearly and undeniably have hurt specific communities of color. But, I wanted to draw attention to this event, not to cherry-pick one “bad apple” to make all equity proposals look bad, but to draw attention to the ways in which the extreme rhetoric of hierarchy-flipping and contempt for normative, “privileged” or majority groups can lead young people to adopt dangerous and malevolent world views.
It’s vital for us to understand that these radicalized subcultures of activism are no longer fringe, but are fast becoming the mainstream culture of social justice activism, and that we have to exercise wisdom and discernment when addressing the rise of extreme ideas because the language and rhetoric is often appears similar to the positive and more reasonable versions. Thus, when we hear terms like “equity”, “White Supremacy”, “white silence”, and other terms, we need to take on an intentional approach to separate the dangerous from the helpful.
Given the likelihood that some readers might see the extremist as either non-existent or not widespread enough to merit our attention, I will end this brief foray into ideological madness with a link to an article written in 2016 for a progressive magazine called The Indypendent, social justice activist Nicholas Powers. In a piece called “In Praise of Allies: Wherever we’re going, we’re only going to get there together”, Powers, who is a gay Black male, asks for social justice movements and activist spaces to embrace allies who possess privileged identities as partners and to abandon the practices of “brow-beating”, shaming and hierarchy reversals.
In his compassionate appeal to all of us to re-embrace our humanity, he writes:
“We are the Left. We try to reverse the values of a self-destructive world. To treasure those who’ve been thrown away. To see those who have been hurt be healed. All true. But left unsaid is that we who’ve been injured sometimes forsake liberation for spite.
When we, minorities, enter a leftist space, we go through a dizzying role reversal. The qualities about us that were a target are suddenly celebrated. Skin color, hair texture, body type, foreign accent, sexual orientation are all evidence of the Struggle. Narrating our pain can, at its best, lead to enlightened identity politics. At its worst, identity chauvinism.”
This essay is similar to one written by Frances Lee, an Asian transgender cultural studies Ph.D student who argues that there can be No Justice Without Love: why activism must be more generous.
People across all genders, colors, ethnicities and other identities are beginning to question where all this is leading to.
Further Dimensions of Hierarchy Reversals in CSJ Theory
In a cultural sense, equity can take the form of intentionally transgressing against traditional cultural norms (e.g. saying “gentleman and ladies” in opposition to the traditional order of “ladies and gentleman” or using “folks” or “folx” to eliminate the binary gender categories altogether). In the practical sense, equity is pursued by enforcing new procedures, customs, laws, rules, policies, and cultural norms in communities where these regulating influences are perceived to unfairly advantage those who come from “oppressor” groups or identities that have been categorized as privileged.
So, the simple way to achieve equity, according to those who follow Critical Social Justice, is to use the strategy of privileging groups deemed to be marginalized or disadvantaged at the expense of groups deemed to be privileged. It is an approach that historian Ibram X Kendi has advocated in his book How To Be an Anti-racist when he asserts that “the only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”
And the practical applications of hierarchy-flipping and the overturning of normative values and policies in decolonization efforts can be extended to all areas of life. For example, we can see the throwing away of grammar and mechanics in writing in linguistic justice movements led by students of color, public academics, and even spiritual teachers of color to counter the hegemonic supremacy of “whiteness”. Thus, we have Postcolonial/Critical Race Theory authors like bell hooks and ordained radical dharma Buddhist teachers like angel Kyodo williams choosing to un-capitalize their names in order to resist the hegemonic values of White Supremacy or white male patriarchy. These counter-hegemonic experimentations are often linked to the practice of rejecting dominant (hegemonic) cultural values that constrict our rights to free expression and non-traditional gender and sexual roles, and this experimentation is something that should be encouraged in a society that values equality, human rights, and the freedom of speech, thought, and expression.
What matters in the commitment to decolonize the world is the consistent embrace of the Derridian approach to subversion of authority and hierarchy-flipping, so that a kind of rebalancing can be achieved to offset the asymmetrical power that has been held and wielded by traditional oppressors through their control of language, law, cultural norms, linguistic rules, policy, and indeed, the very lives of the bodies that are also under their control.
Evening the playing field, raising up the voiceless, and bringing resources into communities that have been traditionally left out are laudable goals. But, taken to the extreme, there can be troubling consequences for society. That is, with the reification of these anti-normative attitudes into a kind of dogmatic approach to life and policy, we run the risk of creating the conditions for an increasingly balkanized and conflict-ridden society.
Nowhere has this risk been more visible and alarming than in the abuse of the concept of group identity privilege.
The Privilege Problem: Unhelpful Weaponization of a Helpful Theory
Cynical Theories explores the rise of Privilege Theory and its applications, documenting the history of the concept and the many new additions to the theory from CSJ thought leaders, including Peggy McIntosh (who wrote the now-classic essay, “Unpacking the Knapsack”), Alison Bailey (“Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback”), Barbara Applebaum (who coined the phrase “White Complicity”), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak(“Can the Subaltern Speak?”), Robin D’Angelo who coined the term “White Fragility”, and many other theorists.
What I found most useful about the book’s coverage of the history and development of Privilege Theory and its related concepts was how arbitrary many of them are and how easily they came to be regarded as authoritative text—or even sacred texts— handed down from what can reasonably be called a sacred secular priesthood. A true and clear picture arose for me throughout these chapters that I want to emphasize in a numbered list:
Human-created theories are created by fallible humans. These concepts and theories are not at all sacrosanct or stemming from the DNA of cosmic unquestioned universal Truth. More often than not, these concepts and theories have been the products of continuous, unbroken closed feedback loops of academic-discourse that consisted of the musings and ideological experimentations of individual fallible human beings who had already made an ideological commitment to seeing the world through the single lens of Critical Theory. To put it simply, people played around with ideas that rested on the unquestioned (and uncritical!) Foucauldian premise that all of life and all relationships are predicated solely on the pursuit and acquisition of power and domination and came up with the sacred texts of a faith.
And, yet they are only human, not at all mystics.
If we believe in mysticism, then it’s fair to say that Foucault was no mystic, no deity. If we believe in a purely material secular reality where some are smarter and more enlightened than others, then it should also be fair to say that in a world of no mystics or deities, Foucault could not have been either. The same can be said for Lyotard and Marcuse and all the other lineage-holders who came out of the deconstructive traditions, including historian Ibram X. Kendi, who has been criticized by other scholars of color for promoting oversimplified, extremely binary perspectives about racism and policy ideas that can be reasonably summed up as boldly totalitarian in their spirit and in their execution. This is not to say that some of these ideas and frameworks do not have merit or applicability to social problems.
In fact, many of them do.
Privilege is real. One can easily ascertain that American whites, for example, have had the experience of seeing people who look like them represented in history books, art, politics, music, television, and entertainment for 400 years, so there is something deeply valuable in recognizing that seeing your own group consistently represented and recognized is clearly an advantage at least psychologically. Not to mention the added advantages of easier acquisition of wealth, resources, property, public respect, and power due to the high visibility that is afforded by constant representation in the public sphere.
To put it in contemporary parlance, privilege is a thing.
Privilege Theory can be used in bigoted ways. We need to be honest about how this word and its related concepts have been repeatedly weaponized over the past several years. As the authors of Cynical Theories note, there is something almost obscene and corrupt about the way Privilege Theory is often abused by activists and educators in the service of shutting people down, stereotyping dissenting voices who belong to identity groups that are disfavored by Theory, and intentionally stigmatizing any form of dissent by accusing dissenters of bigotry (both conscious and “unconscious”) while ignoring the substance and actual arguments of the dissent.
Privilege Theory can be used to presume bad faith in disfavored identities.
One of the most important concepts that has helped to justify shutdown of conversations is what Social Justice educator Alison Bailey has called Privilege-preserving epistemic pushback. This one single concept has had such a massive impact on conversations around advantages and disadvantages faced by groups that it deserves a separate section for analysis. I mention it here as one of the four privilege-related ideas from Cynical theories that really stood out for me.
Privilege-preserving Epistemic Pushback: A cynical, manipulative tactic
As noted earlier, the word epistemic, like the word epistemology, regards the nature of knowing and knowledge, which in the context of Critical Social Justice scholarship and practice involves a very specific take.In the following passage included in Cynical Theories, Bailey describes in the leading feminist journal Hypatia the way she uses the concept of privilege-preserving epistemic pushback to intentionally shut students down.
“I focus on these ground-holding responses [dissenting opinions] because they are pervasive, tenacious, and bear a strong resemblance to critical-thinking practices, and because I believe that their uninterrupted circulation does psychological and epistemic harm to members of marginalized groups… Treating privilege-preserving epistemic pushback as a form of critical engagement validates it and allows it to circulate more freely; this, as I’ll argue later can do epistemic violence to oppressed people.”
The authors further describe Bailey’s belief that critical thinking (which includes free thought) should be replaced by Critical Pedagogy, which in Bailey’s words:
“…regards the claims that students make in response to social-justice [sic] issues not as propositions to be assessed for their truth value, but as expressions of power that function to re-inscribe and perpetuate social inequalities. Its mission is to teach students ways of identifying and mapping how power shapes our understandings of the world. This is the first step toward resisting and transforming social injustices.”
Pluckrose and Lindsayargue that while this particular essay of Bailey’s hasn’t yet become widely influential, it serves the purpose of giving us a window into the ways the concepts of epistemic justice, epistemic harm, epistemic violence, epistemic privilege, and epistemic pushback can be used to justify the shutting down of dissent. Followers of this line of thinking believe opposing viewpoints must not be allowed to be expressed because these viewpoints are seen as only serving to protect the “power and privilege” of the person who possesses the opposing (dissenting) viewpoint. In other words, the dissenting person’s “way of knowing” (epistemic outlook) is entirely structured by her privileged standpoint, which means there is no reason to regard anything she says as valid or objectively true.
A further application of the concept of epistemic pushback is the belief that a dissenting voice that is protecting their own epistemic position is actively “harming” oppressed people by violating the oppressed people’s sense of knowing (their epistemic well-being). Most astonishing of all, write Pluckrose and Lindsay, Bailey’s aim in the above passage and indeed the aim of all who believe in Theory is “not to seek truth, but to teach a specific understanding of Social Justice, for the purposes of activism”.
Activism on the behalf of human rights and social justice is, of course, worthy of support. The difficulty for Pluckrose and Lindsay, as well as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is that in the abandonment of the principle of truth—which they contend includes the commitment to open inquiry and debate unrestricted by ideological commitments and presuppositions—we risk not having enough diversity of thought and information to come up with the best solutions that can achieve the ideals we have dedicated ourselves to.
The authors of Cynical Theories acknowledge the worthiness of social justice ideas and explicitly affirm this throughout the book and in the following passage:
“Many of the ideas generated even by the reified postmodernism of Social Justice scholarship—including the basic idea of intersectionality, that unique injustices can lie in ‘intersected’ identities that require special consideration—are insightful and worthy of submission to the marketplace of ideas for evaluation, adaptation, further study, refinement, and potentially eventual application.”
But, they rightly contend that objective truth and the cognitive and moral autonomy of the individual must also be respected, stating that insights, ideas, political movements, and ideologies should not be regarded as “the authoritative position of any identity group, since such groups are composed of individuals with diverse ideas and a common humanity.” Most importantly, they deny “the worth of any scholarship that dismisses the possibility of objective knowledge or the importance of consistent principles,” contending further that to deny these things is the product of “ideological bias, rather than scholarship”.
The aftermath of the George Floyd protests, the rise of the popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement and the widespread proliferation of diversity, equity and inclusion trainings that have been relying almost exclusively on the reified postmodernist theories discussed in Cynical Theories, have presented significant challenges for those who wish to advance the centrality of truth and debate in the pursuit of social justice.
The question of the extent to which racism itself is the sole cause for all injustices and disparities faced by people of color -and what should be done about it- has come to the very forefront of the public’s consciousness. And with the mainstreaming of the Critical Theory approach to analysis, the public must now accept that bigotry is the only lens through which we are allowed to view events and outcomes.
According to Lindsay and Pluckrose, the abandonment of truth and debate represents a very real crisis that threatens to tear our society apart. For according to Theory, the only truth that matters is the truth of Power.
Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and Anti-racism
Chapter 5 of Cynical Theories covers these theories and begins with the subheading “ending racism by seeing it everywhere.”
Pluckrose and Lindsay affirm from the start that Critical race Theory is “at root” an American creation and that although the theory has been applied in other places, the racial history of the United States heavily flavors this system of ideas and practices.
This chapter acknowledges that race and racism began as social constructions created to justify European colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade, and goes on to explore the rise of Theory’s approach to analyzing and resolving the problem of racism in Western countries and in the United States in particular. We also learn about the beginnings of powerful challenges to White racist ideology, including challenges from the voices of former slaves Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and, later, the work of scholar and reformer W. E. B. Dubois who, alongside Winthrop Jordan “set out the history of color-based racism in the United States…. To expose racism for the ugly and unfounded ideology that it is.”
As they begin to describe the beginnings of Critical Race Theory, Lindsay and Pluckrose make a distinction between the early phase of Critical Race Theory, which was materialist in its approach focusing on equality under the law, economic fairness, and rights to educational and housing opportunities, property tax law, and so forth, and the latest phase of Critical Race Theory which is postmodernist in its approach, focusing on language and discourse, hate speech, safe spaces, “whiteness”, representation in entertainment and media, microaggressions and implicit bias.
Ultimately this chapter argues that the Theory approach to solving racism is a “noble goal” with “terrible means”. As Critical Race Theory grew in influence among Critical Social Justice scholars in the 1970s and beyond, certain ideas became viral among the scholars, which in turn, propagated other new mind viruses which the authors of Cynical Theories call Social Justice memes. As these memes developed in the echo chambers of the Theory treadmills in academia, certain scholars rose above the rest and thus were able to influence the entire field with the powerful ideas we hear all the time in today’s institutions and various media outlets, including traditional and social media.
What follows is a brief bullet point list of common ideas, beliefs, practices, phrases and assertions related to race and racism that come directly from Critical race Theory.
Anti-racism (the specific practice of CRT’s version). This word and its attendant beliefs have become mainstream since the murder of George Floyd and has become a vehicle for transmitting the beliefs and practices that come from Critical Race Theory and has been greatly helped by the publication of Ibrahim Kendi X’s books on anti-racism, including “How to Be an Anti-racist” and “Stamped from the Beginning”. One practice in anti-racist praxis is Maoist style struggle sessions in which one must either engage in self-denunciation for the sin of one’s inner racism, “Whiteness,” or White Supremacy, or engage in callouts and denunciations against those people of color who do not sufficiently follow the beliefs and dictates of theory due to their “internalized white supremacy.”
All white people are racist and will never overcome it, but they can learn to live with it by listening to the “lived experiences” of people of color and take direction from them. This idea has been widely promoted by Critical Whiteness scholar Robin D’Angelo whose book #1 Bestseller “White Fragility” promotes a Theory she designed based on her own inner experience of racism against people of color. At a conference in 2015, D’Angelo and several other Theory scholars made the following statement: “The question is not ‘Did racism take place’? but rather ‘How did racism manifest in that situation?’” This idea stems from the ideological commitment to the idea that the entire world is structured by racism. One of the strongest criticisms I’ve read on white fragility and other ideas related racial essentialism is Racism and Responsibilization in “White Fragility” by Ph.D. Cultural Studies candidate, Cedrik-Michael Simmons. For a shorter and simpler critique of this theory, this short essay is helpful. For additional in-depth critiques of White Fragility, the works of Jonathan Church are exemplary. For another take, here is a piece from Topical Magazine from Spiked! writer, Hana Chelache.
Saying you “don’t see color” (color-blindness) makes you racist. The rejection of color-blindness was defended by Critical Race Theorist Derrick Bell, the first tenured African American professor at Harvard Law School, who the authors tell us, “is often regarded as the progenitor of what we generally call Critical Race Theory, having derived the name by inserting race into his area of specialty: Critical Legal Theory”.
If it’s not intersectional, it’s white supremacy. The concept of intersectionality was designed by a Black feminist legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw who was a student of Derrick Bell’s. According to the authors, intersectionality began as a “heuristic”—a tool that lets someone discover something for themselves—but has long been treated as a theory and is now described by Crenshaw as a ‘practice’. Crenshaw came up with the metaphor of a “roadway intersection” when she was examining three different legal cases where it was difficult to determine which marginalized identity of the plaintiffs were being discriminated against. Over the past few years, the concept and practices of intersectionality has exploded, giving rise to what some have called the “oppression Olympics” where people from different marginalized groups compete with one another for victimhood status.
We live in a system of White Supremacy. This idea was advanced by Critical Race Theorists Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic in their book Critical Race Theory. In it they assert that “racism is ordinary, not aberrational”, meaning that it is the fundamental ground of all things, not merely something that occurs every so often. According to these Theorists, racism is experienced by people of color every day in the United States which means that color-blind policies “can tackle only the most egregious and demonstrable forms of discrimination.”
White Silence is Violence. This slogan has become ubiquitous and can be seen at virtually all #BlackLivesMatter protests. The concept of white silence stems directly from the concept of White Complicity developed by Theorist scholar Barbara Applebaum who forwarded the idea that just by being white in a white-dominant system and not actively working to “dismantle” systems of oppression, including the “dominant discourses” of “whiteness”, a white person is complicit with the “system of white supremacy”.
Racism = Prejudice + Institutional Power. Therefore only white people can be racist. This idea was proposed by Patricia Bidol who designed the equation for a book she wrote in 1970. Interestingly, this idea predates the development of Critical Race Theory, though it certainly does belong in the category of Critical Theory in that the re-design of the meaning of racism was an attempt not at discovering and promoting “truth” but in exposing the “discourses” that are propagated by those in “dominant groups” so that the systems they benefit from can be dismantled.
White Supremacy Culture. This idea has taken on a life of its own. Based on the belief that the dominance of whiteness is perpetuated through certain “discourses” and privileged “ways of knowing” (such as the use of reason, logic and empirical evidence to discover truth) that keep this identity group in power, certain ideas, attitudes and practices are said to belong exclusively to so-called white supremacy culture and therefore to continue marginalizing people of color and indigenous people who are considered to have their own “ways of knowing” and being.
The following list of white supremacy culture is commonly shared at Critical Race Theory informed diversity, equity and inclusion trainings:
being on time, being polite, attention to detail, “worship” for the written word, the belief in objective truth, scheduling (and the belief in the concept of time), the belief in working hard, rugged individualism, quantity over quality, paternalism, perfectionism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, comfort.
To see an example of how this belief has found its way into governmental agencies, here is a link to a video where the leader of a state office of equity agency describes all white people as having the above characteristics and all people of color as possessing more humanity and kindness-oriented traits. Another outgrowth of this belief is the #ShutDownSTEM movement that seeks to eliminate the hegemonic “white” knowledge systems of Math and Science.A further elaboration of how “white math” forces students to look for “the right answer” can be found in this analysis of an ethnic studies Math program, posted on Twitter.
Progressive Stack. The practice of “centering” marginalized people in conversations and “foregrounding” their insights, experiences, and demands. The more intersectional marginalized identities a person has, the higher up on the stack their status is, which means that they get to have privileged access to being heard, and, in some cases, privileged access to power and resources.
I want to say here that I believe that it is of vital importance that we recognize that many of the ideas, beliefs, practices, assertions and moral claims that have become institutionalized in the framework of Critical Race Theory (and other Theories such as Post-Colonial Theory and Queer Theory) are unfalsifiable. This means that they cannot be proven or disproven and that we are asked to simply accept them as an article of faith. And, when you couple that religious-like edict with the practices of “the progressive stack” and what the authors have called “the new caste system”, in which people considered to belong to “dominant” groups must consistently defer to and surrender their positions, needs and resources to those considered to be marginalized, it’s easy to see how the uncritical and deferential acceptance of these practices could make room for unscrupulous opportunists to rise to the top of situations and take advantage of others for their own gain.
It’s interesting to note that even Kimberlé Crenshaw has noted the religiosity of the way many are choosing to live in accordance with the doctrine of intersectionality.
In her own words:
"Some people look to intersectionality as a grand theory of everything, but that’s not my intention. If someone is trying to think about how to explain to the courts why they should not dismiss a case made by black women, just because the employer did hire blacks who were men and women who were white, well, that's what the tool was designed to do. If it works, great. If it doesn’t work, it’s not like you have to use this concept."
Perhaps no area of Critical Social Justice ideology or intersectional identity theory lends itself more to religiosity and reification than Critical Race Theory.
The following extended passage from Cynical Theories sums up Critical Race Theory in its reified postmodernist iteration:
“The core problems with Critical Race Theory are that it puts social significance back into racial categories and inflames racism, tends to be purely Theoretical, uses the postmodern knowledge and political principles, is profoundly aggressive, asserts its relevance to all aspects of Social Justice, and—not least—begins from the assumption that racism is both ordinary and permanent, everywhere and always. Consequently, every interaction between a person with a dominant racial identity and one with a marginalized one must be characterized by a power imbalance (the postmodern political principle). The job of the Theorist or activist is to draw attention to this imbalance—often described as racism or white supremacy—in order to begin dismantling it. It also sees racism as omnipresent and eternal, which grants it a mythological status, like sin or depravity”.
The above passage ends with the authors’ description of CSJ’s view of racism as an “omnipresent and eternal” metaphysical force that possesses a “mythological status, like sin or depravity.” This is an apt description of how Critical Social Justice in general and Critical Race Theory in particular views race—much like the way in which the most extreme Queer theorists view cisheteronormativity and how some view The Patriarchy.
It will be useful to conclude this section on reified postmodernism by illustrating the extent to which the process of reification can take us with some words from Ibram Kendi X.
Speaking in a Manhattan church, Kendi distinguished between savior theology ("the Christian is to go out and save these individuals who are behaviorally deficient") and liberation theology ("the Christian is to revolutionize society"). This is an insight about the importance of abandoning paternalism and embracing a less oppressive and more humble paradigm.
But, Kendi goes much, much further:
"More white people are finally beginning to realize how white supremacy and how even whiteness itself is killing them...It literally is posing an existential threat to humanity. It always has. And so fundamentally, antiracism is life. It literally is, it can save humanity."
The statement above reveals just how far the process of reification can go. Not only does Kendi reify the metaphysical force of “whiteness” into a tangible “existential threat to humanity” but presents the audience with a theologically based antidote to that threatening metaphysical force: Antiracism as “life” itself.
And, when we can make the claim that our ideology is akin to ontology—to Being, or to Godhood—there can truly be no end to Theory.
Concluding Thoughts Around Cynical Theorizing
In the last chapter of Cynical Theories, the authors present a statement of principles that affirms their belief in universal liberalism and open inquiry, which they contend were chiefly responsible for the successes of the Civil Rights era and later successes like same-sex marriage laws, transgender rights and equal rights for women. They also make clear assertions about what must be denied in order to win back the liberal approach to social justice as opposed to the illiberal approach that has come to dominate the discussions around rights and fair treatment.
All in all, I think they have successfully argued throughout the book for a return to universal social justice, and, given what’s at stake, I hope that others will recognize this, too. Cynical Theories quotes extensively from the thought leaders of Critical Social Justice ideology, with cited sources throughout the book and a comprehensive index of notes and citations at the end of the book, which readers who wish to refer to original source material will appreciate.
There are some elements of the book that I thought could have been more in alignment with their stated intention of appealing to the “layperson” rather than academics in the writing. I would say that the writing is (necessarily!) fairly sophisticated, which, given the subject matter, could not have been avoided, and I do recognize that they did their best to speak clearly without too much jargon and over-explaining. But, I think laypersons like myself (at least in comparison to them) would have appreciated some charts and graphs and maybe a repeating visual representation of the postmodern principles and themes for quick reference and reorientation. This is pretty heady stuff, and I sometimes found myself confused about what was what in regards to their original layout of the themes and phases of postmodernism. It is for this reason that I conducted my own research around people, events and policies that I could hyperlink to throughout this work so that readers of Cynical Theories might have more readily available examples to refer to when reading such highly abstract concepts.
Cynical Theories is not the last word from the authors. Dr. James Lindsay created a foundation and website called New Discourses, which regularly publishes material with the aim of providing readers the knowledge and strategies needed to roll back some of the more extreme elements of Critical Social Justice in their communities and workplaces. Helen Pluckrose has launched a new initiative called Counterweight, which is a network of support that offers advice to people whose communities have been impacted by the introduction of Critical Social Justice ideology and its attendant practices (full disclosure: I am an Academic Affiliate of Counterweight).
With the support of the insights laid out in Cynical Theories, other writers, thinkers and change agents will have a better chance at helping to sew society back together, with a newly invigorated and a hopefully more widespread commitment to the principles of universal liberalism, open inquiry, reason, evidence, and debate that will continue to illuminate the problems we must solve, reduce or even eliminate oppressive systems, cultures, and policies, and create a more benevolent world where all can thrive.
To paraphrase Dr. James A. Banks, the “father of multicultural education”, we can learn to find the balance between both diversity and unity. This balance could help to free us from the pendulous swing between hegemony and submission and from the chaos of endless struggles for power. It could also create an opening for us to understand ourselves and others better if we could approach the human project with open-hearted immediacy, humility, and a commitment to questioning the competing narratives and theories that keep us separate from one another.
And if we can separate ourselves from ideological constraints long enough to see what’s in front of us (and acknowledge what’s happening inside of us), we might stand a chance to find our way back to the recognition that, in the end—in spite of what makes our individual story and collective identity groups’ histories different and unique—we are not really all that separate, nor can we be.
We are One.