Cynical Theories Review
Updated: Dec 20, 2020
What do you get when you cross a Twitter-obsessed writer with an academic axe to grind, and a chronically online edgelord LARPing as a serious intellectual? The answer of course, is this book. Cynical Theories is a text that tries to make the case for the pervasive threat that Postmodern Academia represents to us all. However, the authors are not very good at making this case.
Even though this is not a work that comes even close to meeting its stated intentions, it’s not entirely meritless. After a bit of a haphazard introduction, we get into a history of Postmodernism, which is on the whole rather good. The authors are at their best in these moments where they simply recount the rise of Postmodernist thought, and they are even driven to the extremes of regularly supporting their points with evidence (we will talk further on this point!) They build a particular case for drawing a line from Postmodernist thought to the contemporary trends of Identity Politics, and they do so convincingly enough. They give overviews of various academic trends in Social Justice, and these too start out as reasonable, factual histories. Their hatred of Postmodernism is even an asset in these sections, allowing for a rather measured approach that is dispassionate in its telling. However, this cool blood does not last long.
Soon we are confronted with the case against Postmodernism, and one has to assume that the great rushing of blood to the fingers as they pounded passionately against the keyboards took resources away from the authors’ more rational faculties. In the heat of the moment they appear to have forgotten such basics as ‘quoting the relevant passage’ or ‘providing evidence’, even as they tut-tut the Postmodern maniacs for much the same thing.
In the historical sections, the authors are channeling the spirit of Oprah Winfrey. “You get a citation! And you get a citation! Everyone gets a citation!” But once we arrive as the meat and potatoes of criticism, we suddenly see them transform into the gruel-master from Oliver Twist. “Please sir! Can I have some more?” the reader cries, waving a mostly blank bibliography page. “More!?” cry the authors, incredulous. Citations are in short supply suddenly. In pages 89 to 105 we get an atrocity exhibition of the sins of Postmodernism. Whose sins? We have no specific examples, and no citations. This refusal to make and support their case systematically haunts the entirety of this book. Theory claims that helping deaf people hear is genocide! we are told. Does it? Says who? No citation. “Many disabled people probably disagree with the view that having a disability should be celebrated” ‘Probably’ is a funny word to use here, don’t you think? Did the authors’ meagre research resources prevent them from speaking with disabled people? “Social Justice texts... express, with absolute certainty, that all white people are racist, all men are sexist, racism and sexism are systems that can exist and oppress absent even a single person with racist or sexist intentions or beliefs (in the usual sense of the terms), sex is not biological and exists on a spectrum, language can be literal violence, denial of gender identity is killing people, the wish to remedy disability and obesity is hateful, and everything must be decolonised.” Do they? Despite appearing towards the end of the book, these claims are mostly new. And whose claims are they? No citations. Nor any direct challenging of the central claims being mocked (the trans suicide statistics here sneeringly alluded to, are nowhere to be seen). No evidence. It’s really a very poor showing.
Even the evidence we are offered is frequently hazy and ambiguous. "These social changes exemplify the postmodern principles and themes in action. Though perhaps less than 10 percent of the population holds such ideas", we are told at one point. They cite a PDF, though the specific information gleaned is unclear. Who these 10% are, or what specifically they believe is ambiguous. Do they mean progressive activists? Who even knows? We can play a similar game when they suggest that the American Psychological Association thinks "traditional masculinity should be treated as a psychological illness." They cite this document - if you’re good at Where’s Wally, you might enjoy trying to find where the APA make this claim! I couldn't!
When we are given clear cut information though, the authors waste a great many pages giving us tours of mild inanities. If Postmodern thought really is the great threat we’re assured it is, the authors should surely be able to give the dastardly Postmodernists enough rope to hang themselves. Instead, this dynamic duo form a barely competent lynch mob, grabbing anything they can get their hands on, hanging it from the rafters and calling it Postmodern villainy. On very slight examination though, it proves to be a poor villainy indeed. We have complaints that Lady Dr Who is too perfect. Something about a movie poster. Some people complained about Game of Thrones. There’s a boggling passage where we hear about an insane Gucci garment that looked like something from a minstrel show, and some lame plates encouraging diet restriction being pulled off the shelves, along with a brief acknowledgement that these shops were probably more motivated by losing customers than a true dedication to Social Justice. We meet Google Bro a few times, we hear that the comedian who called the royal baby a monkey was fired, the way some schools teach math is slightly different, and one poor chap was fired, then rehired for saying the wrong thing. This is a far cry from the apparent emergency of thought we are plunged into. The question has to be asked - were the authors too lazy to find actual serious examples of the urgent seriousness of Critical Social Justice? Or are they reduced to this pitiful example grabbing because the case they wish to make is built out of sand? After all, we are apparently discussing the “fundamentalist religion of the nominally secular left” not ‘the varied inconveniences of a handful of corporations and Twitter users.’
This inability to distinguish between the frivolous and the serious is not the only muddling mishap that has gone on; the distinction between academics, activists, and people who complain on the Internet is never made - all three may as well be melded into a leftist homunculus with a PhD in one hand, a keyboard in the other, and Mao’s little red book tucked under its mutant chin.
Sometimes the authors give up on facts altogether, and simply indulge their own rhetoric. A less dignified reviewer might characterize their repeated assurance that Postmodernist thought has become a kind of insane religion as the type of hack cliché that betrays intellectual laziness and imaginative bankruptcy. Of course, this review will do no such thing; we will simply point out that phrases such as doctrinal interpretation, strict, identifiable orthodoxy, a new religion, or rather hysterical expressions such as describing modern academic trends as “a wholly new religion, a postmodern faith based on a dead God, which sees mysterious worldly forces in systems of power and privilege and which sanctifies victimhood,” are not factual or even terribly original, and are probably half as clever as the authors think they are.
At their worst, the authors engage in storytelling that borders on outright academic malpractice. At one point, they claim, “Some activists insist that their disabilities—including treatable mental illnesses, like depression, anxiety, and even being suicidal—are positives and liken them to other aspects of identity.” This extraordinary claim is in fact referenced, supported by the quote, “It became part of my identity to be suicidal.” That quote comes from an article about detransitioning women, and is taken from one woman’s recollection of her teenage years. Now hold on - read that quote again from Cynical Theories - doesn’t it make it sound like the quote might come from an activist insisting that their disability (depression) is a positive, likening it to other aspects of identity? Does a quote from a detransitioning woman (not an activist or academic) recalling her difficult teenage years actually support this reading? Please.
One of the key arguments that the authors attempt to make (albeit with rather less reliable evidence than the case merits), is that none of the potential harms of Postmodernism can be justified, because Postmodernism itself is a cure for a disease that doesn’t exist. The Cynical in ‘Cynical Theories’ really is integral to the authors’ argument: Postmodernism is bad because it posits the cynical view that we live in a world where an awful lot of things are very, very bad, and this simply isn’t true! The authors cite the work of scientist Stephen Pinker eight times to support this view. (As an aside, the guy who says ‘things are good actually’ being someone who rubbed shoulders with serial rapist and human trafficker Jeffery Epstein, is a wonderful illustration of the utter uselessness of this position.) The thought that the structural issues raised by ‘Postmodern Social Justice’ might have merit, is apparently not even worthy of serious discussion. The tools of Postmodernism are reduced to mere pettiness. Deconstruction for example looks “very much like nitpicking at words in order to deliberately miss the point”, and the concept of the Death of the Author is simply a tool to find new ways to be offended. In the view of the authors, Postmodernism 'problematizes’ things to make new problems, because the actual old problems have all been solved. By Liberals, of course.
The project being embarked upon here is as much a redemption of Liberalism as a condemnation of Postmodernism. Liberalism is thus best thought of as a shared common ground, providing a framework for conflict resolution, we are told. The case is made that only Liberalism can allow for the type of worthy debate that will eventually reveal the great truths that we should build our society upon – and because stinky old Foucault’s theory that truth is a function of power can be summarily dismissed, we needn’t concern ourselves with trifles such as ‘who gets to contribute to this debate?’ or ‘whose voices, opinions and ideas are treated with merit?’ As always, Liberalism posits a space where the Adults in the Room get together to make responsible decisions, because the unwashed masses would only stuff it up.
To defend Liberalism, there must be someone to defend it from. Of course, this enemy takes the form of the radical right, whose combination of radicalization, descent into terrorism and well-funded collapse into an alternative reality is of great concern… I’m sorry, I’m clearly messing with you. The authors mention the right offhand, and even acknowledge their tendency to occasionally do murders, but it’s the left and this gosh-darned Postmodern malarkey that really affects the most people. Indeed, the authors waste no time blaming the left for the right! “The two sides are driving one another to madness and further radicalization,” we are told. This is all because naughty lefties have stopped listening to Mother. "The problem coming from the left represents a departure from its historical point of reason and strength, which is liberalism." Their final chapter is about Liberalism and is a kind of appeal to common sense - which is a polite way of saying they don’t see the need to actually prove their premise that Liberalism is the path of light. To borrow their own tired cliché, we are asked to accept on faith that reasoned debate is the path to truth, which is why their final advice to fellow liberals is to confront Social Justice Activists in the marketplace of ideas. Riveting stuff, surely.
One of the great flaws of this text is the way that the authors embody most of the sins that they point out in Postmodern academia, and yet they are perfectly prepared to cast the first stones. The problem with ‘reified Postmodernism’ is that it “happens to be about a peculiar view of power and its ability to create inequality and oppression." But so is Liberalism – it too is characterized by its view on power, and the nature of equality and oppression. Then we hear that Postmodernism is bad because it is not scientific - but neither is this book! If the standards of evidence in this text were applied to the hard sciences, the authors would be rightfully laughed out of town.
If one was to be uncharitable in their estimations (as Pluckrose and Lindsey frequently are), we could focus in on one of their more aggressive assertions - that Social Justice scholarship is acting out of self-interest, and attacks science purely because it sees science as a threat to its unscientific methodology - and apply the same logic to the authors. After all, it would be very convenient to both if their suppositions were to be true. As liberals who uphold debate as a way of reaching truth, it would be terribly inconvenient if it turned out that truth was indeed a function of power, and not the natural outcome of rigorous discussion. Or, let’s assume you were a successful author with international reach, who enjoyed telling transphobic jokes on Twitter. Isn’t the assumption that all this woke nonsense is just academic gobbledygook terribly convenient in how it lets you off the hook? And while the authors dismiss ‘ways of knowing’ such as ‘emotion’, isn’t it possible that these two intrepid but Extremely Online explorers have simply become caught up in the casual derangement of #woke politics, to the point of confusing Twitter trolls with significant real-world movements? Of course, this is all a terribly uncharitable analysis, but I cannot say it is less charitable than the authors’ own approach.
To finish; the project of Pluckrose and Lindsey is not entirely ridiculous, but their own biases and willingness to take ridiculous shortcuts produces a work that falls far short of any of its promises. It is not perhaps a waste of time to ask questions of the strategies and tendencies of Social Justice, but the authors’ view of the problems Social Justice tries to solve as being hallucinations of a bored and childish left mean that their analysis is superficial at best, outright dishonest at worst. We should ask if the strategies of Social Justice work, or if they alienate the working class base they purport to help. We should question why billion dollar companies are so willing to embrace the rhetoric of a better world, while continuing to wreak environmental destruction and economic cruelties on millions. To the authors’ credit, they do explore the possibility that the discourse of privilege has replaced the discourse of class, but not with the level of rigor and detail it deserves. We should ask what so-called ‘Cancel Culture’ emerges from, why it emerges, if it helps us, and what might be even more effective. A book that asks these questions and is academically rigorous would be a timely and valuable challenge to some of the base assumptions of the current trends in Social Justice activism and thought.
Someone should write it - because Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsey have not.