Cynical Theories is essentially a literature review of and historical summary of the ideas that have been incorporated into what is now known as Social Justice. The authors are avowedly very left-leaning, for instance, being supportive of LGBTQ+, so their critique of Social Justice cannot be simply dismissed as right-wing opposition. No, the authors are opposed to the Social Justice value system on the basis of its complete lack of scholastic merit and even more serious, it’s opposition to Enlightenment liberal values of the past 500 years. They are also very academic, having read voluminously on the subject—having upwards of 50 citations in the endnotes for many chapters—and having thoroughly understood the key sources and traced the thread of the ideas from 1960 to 2020 when the book was published.
Some definitions are required. The authors use “liberal” and “liberalism” to mean the Enlightenment values of equality of opportunity, that reality is knowable via public debate, that science being a public debate of falsifiable theories is particularly useful in creating knowledge. This does not correspond to the American political left or right; in fact, traditionally both the left and the right were liberal in outlook. “Knowledge” appears to be that which is known about the world. When used in the context of liberalism “knowledge” also implies models of reality that most correctly predict what we experience in reality. “Theory” is the set of postmodern propositions that are accepted as given, and is distinguished from “theory” which is a falsifiable model of reality. “Social Justice” is the postmodern Theory and values in its third and current form, distinguished from “social justice” which is a societal state of liberal equality of opportunity, lack of oppression, racism, and bigotry, etc.
Postmodernism started in the 1960s with disillusionment with Modernity (that is, rationalism and science) to solve human problems in the aftermath of the two World Wars. The complete failure of Marxism / Communism also factored in to the disillusionment. In reaction, people such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida advocated radical skepticism that truth could be known or even that it existed. Instead they believed that what is “known” by society is determined by power structures, which use language to create “discourses” that maintain what is known. As a result, they advocated four themes. The first is to intentionally blur boundaries to demonstrate that there is no absolute truth and to disrupt the systems of power. The second is that language determines what is perceived as true, Derrida going so far as to claim that the intention of the author or speaker of the words does not matter, but only how the recipient receives it (“death of the author”). The third is cultural relativism: truth is a construct created by a culture and no culture is better than another. The fourth is that only local groups have any importance in producing truth; both individuals and humanity as a whole cannot produce truth. The result was either playfully deconstructionist or nihilistic, depending, but not actionable.
Around the late 1980s postmodernism became less radically skeptical, but as a result, more actionable. This was also about that time that the major gains in civil rights had been accomplished. Equal treatment for races, gender had been more or less achieved, and homosexuality had been decriminalized. The easy gains were finished, so one had to look harder to see problems that needed rectifying. Also, radical skepticism is not stable, and it eventually settled on something like Descartes’ solution: “I am oppressed, therefore I am, and therefore also is oppressors and oppression.” Theory by some (not oppressed) white guys also does not good unless applied. So Theory became focused on political change, and feminism, gender studies, disability studies, and other postmodern streams moved together toward a Theory that provided political action. Of particular use was intersectionality, the idea that one’s experience as, say, a black woman is different than either one’s experience as a woman or one’s experience as a black person; a black woman might have a very different experience from either a white woman or a black man.
By about 2010, Theory had converged onto some accepted truths, and the postmodern streams became more confident and strident in their activism (having overcome the self-doubt of radical skepticism) and largely merged into Social Justice. The focus since then has been on language, since that is what creates “truth”, so any language deviating orthodox Theory must be extinguished. The moral aspect of Theory has also been emphasized, and with it, an imperative for merging teaching with scholarship, to the point where discussion and dissent in the classroom is not tolerated—the purpose is not to determine truth, but to learn how to see the operation of the power through language and how to disrupt it. Likewise, it became acceptable to require the student to accept the teacher’s position.
The first stream of postmodernism discussed Postcolonial Theory, Edward Said claimed that the West made the East out as a foil to itself, projecting barbarism, primitive society, shamanism etc. onto the East in contrast to “our” liberalism, advanced society, science, etc. Since history is written by the victor, we need to recover “lost voices”, and therefore we need to prioritize non-Western voices and “knowledges”. “Research justice” and “decolonialization” are the process of subjugating the Western voices of power and prioritizing the oppressed non-Western voices. Ironically, this still leaves the East defined as “not-West”, so it has not solved the problem it claimed to solve.
Queer Theory posits that categorizing people creates oppression, particularly in the realm of sexuality and gender. “Queer” is just non-binary, not necessarily gender-related, and “to queer” is to blur the lines of binary categories, especially politically. Queer Theory views the expression of a “normal”, as well as binary categorization, creates oppression, so it rejects the idea of binaries like male and female, and intentionally blurs the binary categories. Gayle Rubin advocating ignoring reality because it was harder to politicize. Judith Butler was very influential, arguing that gender and sex have no correlation and with the result that “gender performativity” is when you accept the dominant narrative of for your sex and gender. Interestingly, Queer Theory is opposed to the LGBTQ+ agenda, because it sees those categories as non-existent and oppressive, with Eve Sedgwick arguing that everyone is on a spectrum between hetero- and homo-sexuality.
Critical Race Theory was started by an African-American law professor at Harvard, Derrick Bell, who asserted that whites only allowed blacks rights when it was in their interest to do so, so any idea of progress was imaginative; furthermore progress was impossible because white people will unconsciously act to maintain their dominance. Kimeberlé Crenshaw, among others, moved racial inequality from being about material concerns like equal treatment, and poverty to be focused on the maintenance of power systems. Crenshaw also added intersectionality, and focused on the importance of one’s group identity. It is important to view “I am black”, because it resists the power system, instead of “I am a black person”, which accepts the dominant narrative and perpetuates the power system. However, the experience of individuals in an identity group is expected to be the same; experiential differences due to one’s local context are explained away as incorrect interpretation of one’s experience. Intersectionality also creates a sort of minority caste system: being a woman is better (more oppressed) than being a man, but being a black woman is even better (more oppressed), and a lesbian black woman even more so. In fact, a straight black man is almost as bad as a straight white man.
Feminism started off as liberal, being concerned with the material experiences of expectations about work, unequal pay, etc. However, after these gains were achieved, then it took on a focus on power systems in the late 1980s as well. Feminism became dominated by looking for how everyone in society oppresses women by subtly enforcing a gender expectation. Lorber identified four tendencies: gender become primary, not sex; both gender and sexuality being seen as a societal construct; projecting power onto those constructions; and a focus on one’s “standpoint” or group identity. The latter made it difficult to write papers if you were not a member of that group identity, since you had to spend a lot of time “problematizing” yourself. The authors assert that adopting postmodernism allowed feminists to continue hating men, but in a unfalsifiable way, now that society was obviously fairly equal.
The streams mostly merged into Social Justice, which became a “reified” (become-truth) postmodernism. Now Theory had become known as known, and now that it is known to be truth, it is sacrosanct; divergence from Theory is punished, frequently with threats and sometimes even with mob violence. The Social Justice themes from the merged streams are now simply stated, and with confidence: “all men are sexist”, “all white people are racists”, “racism can exist even if all individuals decry racism”, etc. The question is now not if oppression occurred, but where, since the privileged cannot even see how they maintain power even if they want to. However, it ignores economic class, so poor white males are just as privileged as the wealthy, highly educated Social Justice promulgators who fail to notice this. Minority voices are prioritized and non-privileged ways of knowing (for example, tradition, folkore, and emotion) are prioritized over the power-maintaining ration, evidence-based knowing. José Medina asserts that members of the privileged group are “epistemically spolied” and are incapable of understanding other ways of knowing, while oppressed groups see in greater “color” since they have to operate in several worlds simultaneously. Basically privileged groups can do nothing except listen and accept the voices of oppressed groups. Dissent is not tolerated, and minority experiences that are divergent from Theory are classified as erroneous or as experience misinterpreted.
Postmodernism has unfortunately escaped the university, and while the general population does not understand or even necessarily agree with Theory, a lot of its precepts are accepted, particularly in universities and in large corporations. Many corporations have a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) officer who acts as a soft enforcer of these ideas. Universities have “bias response teams”, where bias is defined as a mindset and so could be anything and numerous students have reported being reported for small infractions. But in addition to being a witch hunt, the postmodern ideas in Social Justice are destructive to society by intent—the goal is to disrupt the omnipresent power systems maintained by privileged “knowledges”. Once enough people buy into some of the Social Justice assertions, then any accusation of racism/sexism/etc leaves the institution with no perceived moral option but to capitulate to the accusation.
One example of this is Evergreen State College. A biology professor objected to a request for all the white people to leave campus for a day, and asked for evidence of racism. None was provided and he was shouted down by the students. The students rioted all over campus, aided by the president telling the campus police not to interfere, forced themselves into the president’s office and demanded he capitulate to their demands, barricaded doors against the police, took some faculty members effectively hostage, and roamed around with baseball bats looking for the car of the biology professor. At the same time they complained that they did not feel safe on campus. The institution’s tuition has dropped by over 40% in the five years since.
The authors identify several fatal failings of Social Justice. First, it is sophistry, not scholarship, to assume your outcome, then look for proof, and either flatly reject criticism or claim that controverting experiences were misinterpreted by those experiencing them. Second, it exacerbates the problems it claims solve: it transgresses human decency and fairness to by defining privileged groups on immutable characteristics and then saying that individuals cannot act virtuously even if they want. This alienates the majority and has a high risk of creating an opposing racists/sexist backlash. An upset majority has never had good results for minorities. Third, it empowers a fundamentalist, authoritarian backlash from the hard right, which the authors view as at least as bad. Fourth, Social Justice is a fundamentalist (that is, those who know the truth should make the laws), totalitarian ideology that is destructive and fundamentally opposed to the liberalism which has brought 500 years of increasing flourishing. As a solution they advocate resisting the fatal temptation to politically force out this idea (which is not a solution because it is itself illiberal), but instead to courageously stand up and defeat it in the marketplace of ideas. At the end they offer several concrete statements of values that can be used as templates when courageously standing up for liberalism.