There is something amiss in modern progressive political movements. As progressive politics has become increasingly consumed by “identity politics” and a politics of grievance, right-wing social movements have gained in influence, and it’s easy to see why: modern progressives provide plenty of ammunition and opportunity for mockery. Modern progressivism, which rightly aims to alleviate inequalities in society, inevitably ends up dominated by mostly ludicrous debates about the nature of gender identity, or whether we should aim to decolonise hair-cuts. And the right doesn’t miss a trick. Right-wing pundits routinely poke fun at these absurdist elements of modern progressive thought, ultimately labelling them “woke ideology” or “wokeism”.
Anyone unfamiliar may well ask what “woke” politics is. If they did, politicos of varying political hues would likely all answer differently. The term is overly vague and generalising, and provides ample opportunity for dismissing harmless and, in some cases, laudable, social movements that strive for equality.
Clarity, therefore, as to what constitutes wokeism, has been lacking – or it has, until now. Cynical Theories aims to explain what this school of thought really constitutes, and why promoting woke ideas does not necessarily lead to positive or genuinely progressive outcomes. Delving into the history of ideas debated in US University settings for the last few decades, Pluckrose and Lindsay find a coherent, unifying philosophical antecedent of all modern woke and identity politics. All these ideas originate from one school of thought, they argue: applied postmodernism, which took the groundbreaking work of Western (primarily French) philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida from the 1960s, and applied them to the pursuit of social justice.
At that time, many leftist academics in Europe had grown cynical. Their circles had previously been dominated by Marxist thought and analysis – until it had become clear that communism was a failed experiment. Lacking in purpose, and growing increasingly cynical about humanity’s potential for social progress as they considered what modern advancements in technology had brought to the world: the atomic bomb, railways used to facilitate concentration camps and genocide, and the creation of modern factory worker exploitation, they aimed to shed light on the power dynamics within society. Foucault and Derrida found their answers to the problems of society in one important idea: that society was governed by discourses (ways of talking about things) and grand narratives (overarching ideas to which all people unwittingly subscribe).
While these concepts may not seem particularly harmful – it’s true, after all, that our perception of the world is shaped by the societies we grow up in – these ideas were, by the 1990s, being applied to the pursuit of social justice. And in this shift, modern Social Justice scholarship was born. Instead of scrutinising the grand narratives that govern society with a deep undercurrent of cynicism, as Foucault and Derrida had done, these new Social Justice scholars (whose areas of study covered topics as diverse as racial inequality, queer theory and fat studies) began to assume that grand narratives of discrimination, such as white supremacy or toxic masculinity, exist eternally throughout all societies. The questions being asked by Social Justice Theory adherents changed as a result. No longer were questions such as “is racism present in modern society?” asked: now, the solely permitted question would be “in what way is racism present in modern society?”.
For most left-wing people, this shift in thinking may seem relatively innocuous. As someone on the left myself, I would mostly agree with the notion that Western civilisation was founded on elements of racism, and that racism is a real and ingrained problem that should be opposed. But this shift in academic thinking has had important consequences when it comes to research. Social Justice scholarship inevitably involves academic study in which the conclusion has been determined before any research has even been conducted. This is antithetical to most academic fields of study, which would aim to test hypotheses instead of reaching a conclusion before any debate or experimentation has taken place. In fact, some Social Justice scholars view empiricism and scientific thought as purely Western (or, by their logic, “white”) constructs that hence must be derided. In other words, Social Justice scholarship deals a hammer blow to enlightenment, evidence-based thinking.
Knowing this, Pluckrose and Lindsay submitted hoax papers to academic journals in the hope that, by their acceptance and publication, the peer review process would be exposed for what it had become. They were highly successful in doing so, even managing to have an article accepted for publication in a feminism journal that was almost entirely a mildly doctored excerpt from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. While this is not discussed in their book, their subsequent understanding of the Social Justice peer review process is central to their discussion of Social Justice scholarship in Cynical Theories.
Social Justice ideas about grand narratives and deconstruction may seem hypothetical, and perfect fodder for left-wing intellectuals residing in ivory towers far away from the general public. But these ideas have not remained solely in academia. In fact, the jargon that has developed over these last three decades in Social Justice journals has seeped into common parlance. The terms “white fragility” and “toxic masculinity”, both rooted in Social Justice Theory, are commonly discussed by activists on social media, and form a large part of the right-wing “culture war” being waged in the mainstream media.
The natural conclusion of Social Justice scholarship, Cynical Theories argues, is a disregard for (or even opposition to) empirical evidence (read: factual statements and truth), and a preference instead for anecdotal evidence. Personal offense and the analysis of “microaggressions”, small and often unintended slights that may indicate a broader culture of discrimination, necessarily become prioritised in such a system over statistical analysis or scientific study. This is not an exaggeration, as can be demonstrated by many examples from just the last few years. In just one example, Social Justice activists, influenced unwittingly or otherwise by Social Justice publications, have openly criticised public health messaging relating to obesity on the grounds of “fatphobia”: in 2019, Cancer Research UK was accused of “fatphobia” after it had launched an advertising campaign that linked obesity to cancer. In 2017 a tutor at Evergreen State College, Bret Weinstein, was forced into resigning after opposing an initiative to force all white people off campus for one day a year. In Weinstein’s case, the college’s principal at first refused to fire him for his comments, which led to a stand-off as young Social Justice activists held the principal hostage on college property on the grounds that his very presence would be a danger to at-risk minorities. And while these incidents may seem bizarre, there is a strong intellectual tradition underpinning these actions, which nudges activists towards a refusal to engage with dissent. In the Social Justice world, promotion of diversity never means embracing intellectual or ideological diversity. That should not be underestimated, argue Pluckrose and Lindsay.
Cynical Theories is not for the faint-hearted. It tackles complex philosophical ideas that perhaps should never have found popular support outside of a university classroom. But it is a necessary and timely addition to modern critiques of Social Justice ideas: and, most importantly, it is the first mainstream book to argue against these ideas from a left-wing standpoint. At the heart of Cynical Theories is a rallying cry for left-wing liberals, because the book’s message isn’t simply one of cynicism. It also serves as a warning: the populist right will only contincynicue to gain popularity if these ideas are not scrutinised by people who believe in fairness and equality (that’s, importantly, why the book distinguishes between social justice – the fight for equality – and Social Justice – a very specific set of ideas promulgated since the 1990s). The left can do better, it claims – and it will be better for all of us if it does.
Cynical Theories is available now. Click here to view the book on Amazon.