Critical Theories Exposed

Normally, I just pop a short review on whatever websites when I’ve read a good book that should be widely read (in my view at least). Sometimes I write something about a book in more detail on this blog – normally theology or some such. ‘Cynical Theories – How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody’ is one of those books that although is not theology, is excellent at charting our cultural waters, and evaluating and assessing various trends over the decades and centuries.

Here’s a taster of what is proving to be a very important book. In articulating the morph from “original postmodern’ thought to the new Theorists, we read,

“While the original postmodern thinkers dismantled our understanding of knowledge, truth, and societal structures, the new Theorists reconstructed these from the ground up, in accordance with their own narratives, many of which derived from the means and values of New Left political activism…” p.48

The reconstruction based upon their own narratives are now seen as the “lingering prejudices”, that they see,

“…embodied in attitudes, assumptions, expectations, and language.” p. 47

The authors, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, highlight two principles and four themes as they helpfully show what the “lingering prejudices” look like in the real world.

  1. The Postmodern knowledge principle: Radical scepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.
  2. The postmodern political principle: The view that society is formed by systems of power privileging especially the white Western male, in a system that decides itself what can be known and how.

The four key themes following this are:

  1. The Blurring of Boundaries: This blurring gives rise to what we call intersectionality, and bolsters its view by mixing of the evidenced with the experiential. Here the subjective experience of the individual is elevated to the status of evidence, and almost impossible to call into question without the charge of exercising white privilege.
  2. The Power of Language: Here, Discourse analysis is deployed in a rather cynical attempt to strip one discourse of meaning, whilst claiming your own is fully invested with all meaning. This theme in our culture would be mindful of the self-refuting manner in which it uses language. One can’t deny truth, then use truth claims to make a cynical point about someone else being false!! The hermeneutical theory of Professor Anthony Thiselton destroyed this perspective years ago, and he’s previously featured on this blog, just check out his ground-breaking work in Hermeneutics.
  3. Cultural Relativism: Decries the West as “the pinnacle of an oppressive power structure” that has already organised how knowledge is produced, recognised and transmitted.
  4. The Loss of the Individual and the Universal: Applied postmodern theory regards mainstream liberalism as complacent, naïve, or indifferent about deeply engrained (they say) prejudices, assumptions and biases that limit and constrain people with marginalised identities.

I am finding this book superb in providing the reason and rationale behind the massive cultural forces that seem to engulf us at the moment. Obviously, those who neither understand nor are interested can therefore avoid it, can do what they like, but their children and grandchildren with be living with these realities, as much as my dad lived with the post-WW2 British reality – i.e. a global event that tore the world apart that he neither experienced nor participated in, and yet he lived through the post-war years of rationing and the grim task of nation re-building; the same metaphor holds true in the world of ideas too. One event has implications for another time and place. In the same way, one thought, can have serious consequences for future generations. It is our responsibility to understand these things.

Therefore, “the liberalism and modernity at the heart of Western civilisation are at great risk on the level that sustains them.” The authors cite two factors, “one revolutionary the other reactionary”, and these two views are at war in the lived reality of millions of people, in what we call postmodernity.

The Critical Theories espoused, that the authors expose and debunk, can sound so well meaning. They are concerned with revealing the hidden biases and underexamined assumptions people, systems and cultures have (p.13-14). On this premise, who cannot escape the Thought Police, and how will anyone know whether you have examined your personally hidden, sick and twisted prejudices? And who decides? And when is enough enough? It is an unforgiving scenario to be in, for it knows no limits, and knows no bounds; therefore it will always require more repentance from those it targets, as a false god of the ancient world always demanded more and more.

Hence they write, “At best this has a chilling effect on the culture of free expression….At worst, it is a malicious form of bullying and – when institutionalised – a kind of authoritarianism in our midst” (p.15), a way for its proponents to “interpret all our sociological interactions in the most cynical way possible” (p.16).

Pluckrose and Lyndsay add, “It is also evident in their assertions that society is simplistically divided into dominant and marginalised identities and underpinned by invisible systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, ableism, and fatphobia.” And it is precisely in these ways that we find, in our national discourse on the media and political level especially an “increasing pressure to censor our language in accordance with The Truth According to Social Justice” (p.18).

The introduction concludes with an explanation that articulates the goal of the book, that it is:

“…written for the layperson who has no background in this type of scholarship but sees the influence of it on society and wants to understand how it works. It is for the liberal to whom a just society is very important, but who can’t help noticing that the Social Justice movement does not seem to facilitate this and wants to be able to make a liberal response to it with consistency and integrity. Cynical Theories is written for anyone from any part of the political spectrum who believes in the marketplace of ideas as a way to examine and challenge ideas and advance society and wants to be able to engage with Social Justice ideas as they really are” (p.19).

The book then goes into the specific, looking at categories such as: Postcolonial Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality, Feminism and Gender Studies, Disability and Fat Studies, Social Justice Scholarship and Thought, Social Justice in Action, and An Alternative to the Ideology of Social Justice.

Writing this post nails my colours to the mast regarding these issues, their subversive means, and their destructive ends. It is the least I can do and I am totally happy (and free – for now) to write this brief post about what I think is and will prove to be a very important book, as the culture of ideas and the culture wars continue.

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