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 of as liberal, being concerned with the material experiences of expectations about work, unequal pay, etc. However, after these gains were achieved, 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 a 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 not 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.
Ch. 1: Postmodernism
- Postmodernism arose in Europe, especially France, as a disillusionment with Modernity (the idea that science, rationality and order will bring about a better future) as a result of the two World Wars.
- Two fundamental assertions:
- Radical skepticism that knowledge/truth can be determined, and a commitment to cultural constructivism
- Politics: the power hierarchies determine what is “known”.
- Four themes:
- Blurring boundaries: intentionally blurring boundaries (objective | subjective, science | art, man | animals, man | machine) to demonstrate that lack of objective truth and to disrupt the systems of power.
- Power of language: language is what enables a perception of “truth”
- Jacques Derrida: words do not refer to things in the real world, but are chains of signifiers
- Derrida: “death of the author”: the author’s original intentions do not matter, what matters is how the recipient receives it
- Cultural relativism: cannot critique another culture’s values because truth is only culturally created, and no culture is better than another.
- Loss of the individual and universal: the only unit that has any importance are localized groups in the production of “truth”, not individuals nor humanity.
- The book calls the two assertions and four themes, “Theory”
Ch. 2: Postmodernism’s Applied Turn
- The original Postmoderns were either playfully deconstructionist or nihilistic, but neither produced anything actionable (or easily understandable), so it never made it out of academia. Nihilistic despair is not sustainable.
- Between about 1990 and 2010, Postmodernism underwent a moral mutation. The obvious inequalities between races, men/women, and sexualities had largely been addressed. So Postmodern Theory was used as a means specifically to change the hierarchies of power, and Theory was used to create ought instead of is, which is a moral dimension.
- Descartes’ search for a bedrock of meaning landed at “I think, therefore I exist”. A similar search for meaning among activists—since radical skepticism and constant deconstruction are not stable—landed at “I am oppressed, therefore I am, and therefore also are dominance and oppression”.
- Gloria Watkins (writing as “bell hooks”) had a problem that Postmodernism was tailored for the experience of white males and did not allow for identity politics. She saw Postmodernism as having no value unless it got into society and affected change.
- Intersectionality (the idea that one might be oppressed by being black, and/or by being a woman, but a black woman could experience a unique oppression) also fed into it. Kimberlé Crenshaw argues that identity categories are objectively real.
- Thus, identity and power had been made objectively real
- Since 2010, the focus has been on language, since language and discourse is what creates “truth”. So any language that does not accept the orthodoxy that identity and power are objective truth is not acceptable.
- This has led to blurring the line between activism and scholarship. So where once teachers sought to teach objectively (one measure being if their students could not tell what their teacher’s opinions were), now it has become acceptable to require students to take the teacher’s position.
Ch. 3: Postcolonial Theory
- Edward Said is the most prominent thinker. He claimed that the West constructed the East as a foil to itself: we are advanced, they are primitive; we are liberal, they are barbaric. (70) He called this “Orientalism”.
- His ideas owed a lot to Foucault.
- Thinks that history was written by the victor, so tries to recover “lost voices” (generally a positive thing) and rewrite history from a local perspective (not positive). Said tended to be literary, so would analyze literature for Orientalism, deliberately reading it in.
- Ironically, in an attempt to remove Orientalism, he creates a framework where the East is still defined as not-West
- Gayatri Spivak took his ideas from Derrida, since Foucault was too politically oriented. This results in his writings being deliberately hard to understand
- Different mindsets:
- Western colonial: the West is scientific while the East is not, so the West should rule the East for its own good.
- Liberal: all people have the capacity to be scientific, but ability has wide variances, so we should give all people equal opportunities.
- Postmodern: “the West constructed the ideas of rationality and science in order to perpetuate its own power and marginalize nonrational, nonscientific forms of knowledge production from elsewhere.” (76)
- Applied postmodern: the West constructed the ideas of rationality and science to perpetuate its own power, so “therefore we must now devalue white, Western ways of knowing for belonging to white Westerners and promote Eastern ones (in order to equalize the power imbalance).” (76) This is “decolonialization” and “research justice”.
- Historians actually do try to minimize the effect of winners writing history by checking other types of sources (e.g. military payments to estimate actual army sizes to exaggerated sizes in written records of the middle ages).
- Decolonializers push to ignore any scientific standards for submission of entries in favor of previously-oppressed status. This does not actually help former colonies develop, since science is about discovering reality.
- Decolonialization also perpetuates the very distinction they are decrying: that of “East” being defined as opposite to “West”, it is just that they want to invert the power dynamic.
- Decolonization is part of “Social Justice” but it specifically has no interest in, for instance, women being oppressed in Islamic countries, by people who are openly saying they are doing it because of their beliefs (so, not because of colonization), because that does not fit the narrative.
Ch. 4: Queer Theory
- “Queer Theory presumes that oppression follows from categorization, which arises every time language constructs a sense of what is ‘normal’ by producing and maintaining rigid categories of sex (male and female), gender (masculine and feminine), and sexuality (straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and so on) and ‘scripting’ people into them.” (89)
- “Queer” is something that is non-binary. To “be queer” means that you present as whatever gender (or none) you want, whenever, or even deny that such a concept even exists in the first place. Queer Theory seeks to challenge the whole concept of normality, so “to queer” is a political action casting doubt on the idea of normality of the verb’s object.
- Michel Foucault said that science was just a construct for use of power, and that discourses in this vein because seen as “true”.
- Gayle Rubin contributed the idea that any reality should be ignored because it’s harder to politicize and demand change: “It is impossible to think with any clarity about the politics of race or gender as long as these are thought of as biological entities rather than as social constructs. Similarly, sexuality is impervious to political analysis as long as it is primarily conceived as a biological phenomenon or an aspect of individual psychology.” (99, quoted from Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality”, The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, Taylor & Francis 1993, p. 9) This puts her idea as an ought (something more like religion) than an is.
- “Thus we see in queer Theory a rejection of science when it returns results that deviate from Theory, of liberalism when it puts universal humanity first, and of feminism when it regards women as a class of people oppressed by another class of people—men—and, instead, the prioritization of ‘queerness.’” (101)
- Judith Butler contributed the idea that gender and sex are uncorrelated, which required the creation of the idea of “gender performativity” to rationalize it. Gender performativity is not acting out another gender, but when someone internalizes a narrative and values about their gender and acts out of their internalization. For Butler, people are socialized into their sex and gender-role.
- Eve Sedgwick preferred Derrida over Foucault, and she claimed that everyone is on a spectrum between hetero- and homo-sexuality.
- Queer Theory is intentionally and especially opaque due to a distrust of language.
- In addition it ignoring basic biology, Queer Theory is opposed to LGBQ generally-articulated goals, since it denies that homosexuality as a concept even exists (since that is part of the binary pair)! It is also poor activism to tell people (homosexual or not) that their (binary) sexuality is wrong, since that really turns people off.
Ch. 5: Critical Race Theory
- Until about the 1500s, people did not appear to think of “race”, but rather individual qualities. The Mediterranean, in particular, had people of various skin colors intermingling during the Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages, a “black” person appeared to mean “a European who has [white skin and ] black hair”.
- Race as a biological and inheritable trait identifying people groups appears to actually have been a socially-constructed concept, used to justify enslaving people by claiming they were an “inferior race”. This tendency was bolstered by science.
- Critical Race Theory was started by an African-American law professor at Harvard Law School, Derrick Bell. His view is that whites only allowed blacks power when it was in their (whites') interest to do so; thus racial progress was a mirage. In fact, progress was impossible, because “whites continue, consciously or unconsciously, to do all in their power to ensure their dominion and maintain their control.” (115, quoting And We Are Not Saved)
- Kimberlé Crenshaw and others moved racial inequality from being about material concerns to the postmodern idea of pervasive power systems. It also embraced group identity, saying that ones knowledge comes from the group(s) that you are members of.
- Critical Race Theory borrowed from Postcolonial Theory and Queer Theory, and spread to all the Social Justice disciplines. It’s assumptions are that racism is embedded in the culture and cannot be avoided; since racism is power + prejudice only white people can be racists (because they have all the power); only non-whites can talk about racism and whites must listen (but they do not have the stamina to do so); liberalism’s color-blindness is actually racism because it ignores the structural racism in society and therefore furthers white privilege.
- Crenshaw developed the idea of intersectionality, that you being, say, a black woman exposed you not only to potential oppression as a woman and as a black person, but also potentially exposed you to unique oppression as a black woman. Thus, you cannot solve racism just with legislation for women or for black people, since a black woman experiences different things than a white woman or black man.
- Creshaw thought it was important to identify with your group. “I am Black” resisted the power structures but “I am a person who happens to be Black” just passively accepts the imposed category.
- Liberalism emphasizes the individual: equal opportunity for each individual. Crenshaw rejects this, seeing it as impossible to view life other than through your group identities. However, despite the fact that each individual will have a unique set of identity groups from which they got their knowledge, you must not treat them as an individual.
- Intersectionality has created a “caste system” within minorities. Homosexual white men are not viewed as oppressed by Critical Race Theory, and straight black men are the “white people of black people” (129).
- Viewing racism as everywhere, permanent, in every human interaction (due to power imbalance), which must be rooted out, but can only be identified by minorities and cannot be challenged by whites is not only bad scholarship, but destructive to social fabric.
- It also does not win people to your cause by telling people that they are inherently racist and that cannot be changed. In fact, it tends to drive people away, which is bad because there are actual systemic problems that do need to be addressed.
Ch. 6: Feminisms and Gender Studies
- Feminism started off as liberalism: equal opportunity for women in societal roles. The liberalists worked to expand opportunities to all women.
- The materialist feminists focused on how the patriarchy and capitalism oppress women, particularly in the workplace and in the home. They tended to pull from Marxist ideas.
- Radical feminists had a binary, male-oppressing-female view of society, and sought to overthrow the patriarchy, and remake society without gender (but with sex).
- Starting in the late 1980s there was a rapid change where feminism applied postmodernism wholesale and basically became gender studies. The authors think this is because by that time society provided fairly equal opportunity for women and the narratives of oppression by society and the patriarchy were not very tenable. The postmodern framework allowed feminists to continue hating men but with a framework that was not falsifiable, since the power imbalance outright assumed (as a tenet of faith, if you will).
- Judith Lorber identified four main tendencies: 1) gender, not sex, became central; 2) gender and sexuality were seen social constructs; 3) power was read into those constructions; and 4) one’s standpoint (that is, identity) became the focus. (138)
- Knowledge became “situated” from one’s “standpoint” in society. (139) This made scholarship difficult, because only minority women could do scholarship; white women (and men) had to spend lots of space in their papers “problematizing” themselves to the point where it was hard to do any useful work.
- “In other words, throughout the applied postmodernism phase, uniting various minority-status groups under the single flag of oppression came to be seen as the only ‘right’ way to do feminism.” (141) But because of the emphasis on gender and the rejection of the idea of a universal class (of, e.g. women), feminism turned into gender studies.
- This led away from materialist concerns and “What had previously been seen as legally mandated roles and restrictions and overtly sexist expectations of adherence to gender roles imposed by men, was, after the applied postmodern shift, attributed to more subtle, interactional, learned, performed, and internalized expectations, perpetuated by everybody. This is in keeping with the postmodern view of power promoted by Michel Foucault.” (144)
- Lorber called this approach “more sophisticated”, but the authors note that “We often observe this kind of shift to a more ‘sophisticated’ and nebulous model when people are highly personally and ideologically committed to a theoretical approach that is clearly failing” (145) and cite Festinger’s study of UFO cults where people did not abandon the cults when the aliens did not appear, but rather decided that the event had occurred in some unverifiable way (e.g. God spared the planet because of the cultists’ devotion). “The Foucauldian idea of a diffuse grid of power dynamics that constantly operates through everyone through their unwitting use of language fit the bill perfectly.” (146)
- Liberal feminists thought their job would be done when society had equal opportunity for men and women. The new feminism rejected that idea entirely. “The ‘increasingly sophisticated’ new Theory is actually overly simplistic—everything is problematic somehow, because of power dynamics based on identity. It is also functionally impossible [to do], a characteristic that is misinterpreted as extreme complexity.” White women, for example, have to include non-white experiences, but also not appropriate them; amply their voices without exploiting them or being voyeristic. Which is basically impossible.
- The new Theory also moves from economic class—a traditional Liberal voting base—to gender. But it is alienating to tell a white male that he is privileged when he grew up with no heat in the Illinois winter.
- Five tenets of the new Theory: 1) gender is essential to how power functions in society; 2) gender is socially constructed; 3) gendered power benefits men; 4) gender is combined with other identity, and these must be acknowledged; 5) knowledge is relative and attached to identity. (155-6)
Ch. 7: Disability and Fat Studies
- The original goal of disability activism was to make society more accommodating of disabilities, with good success. The mental model used was the medical, or individual model, of disability being something that resides in or affects the individual. In the 1980s, especially as a result of Michael Oliver, disability moved to be something imposed on individuals by an unaccommodating society. “Oliver aimed to effect a conceptual shift: from a binary understanding of disabled versus able-bodied people to the idea of a spectrum of capabilities, whose meanings have been understood differently in different times and cultures” (162), and placed the onus on society to accommodate the individual.
- “Ableism” is the acceptance that it is normal and better (generally speaking) to be able-bodied. “Disableism” is prejudice, considering disabled people outside of “normal” and that normal people are superior.
- Queer Theory has been helpful in this, since it deconstructs what normal is.
- Dan Goodley argued that disability is just seeing through a lens of medical discourse (“discourse” being language that undergirds power structures), and argued that treating and curing people with disabilities is wrong because it perpetuates the power structure enabled by science. Frequently curing or treating disabled people is seen (by activists and “scholars”) as wishing disabled people did not exist.
- He also thinks that disabled people have a duty to disrupt social normals.
- Joseph Shapiro doesn’t think that it is a compliment if an able-bodied person doesn’t think of a disabled person as disabled, that would be like telling a woman “I don’t think of you as a woman.” In fact, he argues that having a disability should be celebrated, like Gay Pride.
- Fat studies came out of queer and feminism Theory, but did not become popular until the 1990s, when body positivity became a movement. In 2010, Linda Bacon wrote a book arguing that bodies of all sizes can be healthy. The authors observe that “the medical consensus opposes this idea.” (172)
- Negativity towards obesity is argued similarly to racism, sexism, imperialism, etc., and make much use of Foucault’s biopower idea (that scientific discourses create a “knowledges” that enable power system)
- “‘Fat hatred is fuelled by capitalism because these companies create products that are all about making fat people skinny,’ and ‘using capitalism as a basis for activism illustrates how, within the gentrification of fat activism it is access rather than social transformation that has become the main motivator.’ [Quoting from Charlotte Cooper]. If this sounds like a paranoid fantasy, it’s because it is.” (175-6)
- Cooper “advocates ‘research justice,’ in which empirical studies of obesity can be swapped out at will for ‘embodied community knowledge’ in order to ‘unlock knowledge that has already been generated by fat people.’” (178)
Ch. 8: Social Justice Scholarship and Thought
- The original postmoderns in the 1960s were born of a radical skepticism and despair, and engaged in playful (although nihilistic) deconstructionism. “From the late 1980s, ... a recovery from hopelessness and a drive to make core ideas politically actionable” formed a second wave. Since about 2010, “scholars and activists have come to take for granted a reification of the once abstract and self-doubtful postmodern knowledge principle and postmodern political principle.” (181) Now the postmodern principles have become known-knowns.
- Now the themes are expressed with simplicity and confidence, for instance, things like all men are sexist, all white people are racists, racism can exist even if there are no people with racist intentions and beliefs, etc.
- Since Theory has become real (“reified”), Theory is sacrosanct; it cannot be denied.
- Reified postmodernism does not include economic class at all. Naturally this alienates working-class and poor people, who, while members of the supposedly “privileged” class, have experience hardship and no privilege. (Unlike the academics promulgating the Theory)
- “Social Justice scholarship is now heavily invested in identity... All this scholarship starts from the Theoretical premise that society works through systems of power and privilege maintained in language, and these create knowledge from the perspectives of the privileged and deny the experiences of the marginalized. Social Justice scholarship therefore targets science and any other analytical methods that contradict these assumptions or claims made under them. As a result, Social Justice ... demands ‘epistemic justice’ and ‘research justice’ in their place. By this, it means that we should include the lived experiences, emotions, and cultural traditions of minority groups, consider them ‘knowledges’ and privilege them over reason and evidence-based knowledge, which is unfairly dominant.” (186-7)
- This even includes Kristie Dotson voluminously citing Spivak but ignoring his reliance on Foucault, who was a white male. The authors note that this is not laziness or oversight, since she is both thorough, and Spivak constantly mentions Foucault.
- Thus, “tradition, folklore, interpretation, and emotion” are favored over reason and evidence-based knowledge. Allison Wolf explicitly “advocates foregrounding feelings as a way of knowing.” (192)
- Standpoint theory says that all members of an identity will have the same experiences of oppression, assuming they correctly interpret them. Members of oppressed groups see in more “colors”, so a straight white male might see gray, while a woman would see grey + read, and a lesbian woman grey + red + green, and a black lesbian woman grey + red + green + blue.
- Standpoint theory is criticized for being universal: saying that all members of a group experience the same thing.
- “Standpoint theory is at the root of identity politics and it is the main thing that fundamentally differentiates it from liberal civil rights movements.” (195)
- José Medina describes members of privileged groups as “epistemically spoiled”, which makes them unable to appreciate other ways of knowing. But oppressed people in different systems simultaneously and so they appreciate more ways of knowing. (196-7)
- “This line of thought, which grants double sight to the oppressed but not to the oppressor, is often attributed to Marxism, but it’s more accurate to say that postmodernism and Marxism share a common philosophical ancestor in the work of ... Hegel, though Marx may have been a significant conduit of these idea for the postmodernists.” (197) One difference is that Marxists think that oppressed suffer false consciousness because of the abuse of power and the Postmodernists think that the oppressors have the false consciousness.
- Theory cannot be disagreed with.
- Educator Barbara Applebaum argues that all white people are complicit in racism, whether or not they are aware of it, and must accept continued complicity by nature of being white. She says educators should shut down disagreements in the classroom, because otherwise dominant discourses would be perpetuated.
- Alison Bailey argues that criticism of Social Justice does harm to the marginalized. Even critical thinking is a problem, since the goal is not to discover faulty arguments or assess truth, but to teach how to identify the shape of power.
- Robin DiAngelo argues that white people are fragile because their lack of experience racial stress, and as a result they don’t even want to think about the problem. It doesn’t even matter if individuals deplore racism, because it is not about being good or bad, but about the embedded racism in society.
- What happens when people’s lived experiences disagree with Theory? Saying that multiple contradictory experiences can be true at once is sometimes attempted, but more usually a particular experience is defined to be the true, correct experience.
- The authors end the chapter by asserting that Social Justice has effectively become a religion which worships the marginalized and oppressed and sees mysterious worldly forces (instead of mysterious divine forces) of power at work in the world.
Ch. 9: Social Justice in Action
- Postmodern Theory itself is not directly influential, but universities have mandatory “diversity” curricula that teach the concepts. While many have assumed students would grow out of it after being in the real world, what has actually happened is that, since Social Justice masquerades as social justice, which is widely supported, students are re-making the real world to suit the Theory that they have learned.
- Brian Leach (an elderly, disabled grocery packer at Asda in the UK) was fired for sharing a comedy video on Facebook which a coworker thought was anti-Islamic. This is an application of post-colonial Theory.
- James Demore was fired from Google for responding to a discussion of the difference of men and women in tech with a memo that said men and women differ in psychological temperament which could explain the disparity. This is an application of queer and intersectional feminist Theory.
- Danny Baker (British football commentator) was fired from the BBC for a personal tweet of a photograph of a chimpanzee in smart coat and hat on the occasion of the birth of Harry and Meghan’s child, which was intended to mock royalty but was instead construed as racist. This is an application of critical race Theory.
- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officers exist at many companies, who “are the architects and enforcers of soft revolutions; they are inquisitors, seeking incidents of bias and imbalance” (216)
- Over 200 universities have “bias response teams”, and while some say they cannot directly control speech, giving “education and persuasion” could be Orwellian depending on the definitions. It can also indirectly lead to firing, if the team submits a report recommending firing as part of their response. “Bias” also seems to have a low bar, since “bias” has been defined as “a state of mind” in some places, and students have complained of things like saying “I don’t see color” being considered problematic.
- Many speakers have been uninvited, but there are also “no platforming” policies for certain views, which are not so visible.
- Bruce Gilley spent years carefully researching post-colonial societies, and wrote a paper that said that colonialism was not only bad, sometimes it had positive effects. It was accepted and published. In response there were calls for the paper to be unpublished, accusations to his university, calls for him to be fired, and even to revoke his doctorate. The editors of the journal experience similar, including death threats, and the paper was retracted.
- Because of its refusal to countenance anything that contradicts Theory, postmodern “scholarship” rapidly drives out actual scholarship in a area, which is the fundamental goal of the University (at least in a liberal setting).
- Even engineering and mathematics have been affected. Mathematics has been accused of being sexists and racist because of its focus on proof, and that math education has different outcomes among racial groups. One paper said “Drawing upon Indigenous worldviews to reconceptualize was mathematics is and how it is practiced, I argue for a movement against objects, truths, and knowledge towards a way of being in the world that is guided by first principles—mathematx.” (219)
- Universities have been historically one of the least biased sources of knowledge (compare to companies and political think-tanks); Social Justice ideas threaten this source of historically good quality knowledge. Also, they threaten indoctrination, which is the opposite of knowledge.
- Social Justice activism has led to employees being fired, and products boycotted, as it is more obviously profitable to eliminate side lines of business than to quickly capitulate. Universities have capitulated for similar reasons, being more of a business these days.
- The attempted destruction of someone’s career via a social media mob is not a positive thing.
- It is arguably making more boring characters in film. Films where women experience some form abuse and become stronger because of it provoke outrage, but so do portrayals of women in traditional roles. So how can you make a female superhero, she somehow wins without being hurt? Is a character that never grows from adversity interesting? How do you portray black women—it is problematic to portray them as strong and tough, but surely meek and submissive is at least as bad? How do you write a script if people count the number of words the male and female characters have to make sure they are equal?
- Lukianoff and Haidt argue that three “Great Untruths” (anything that doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; life is a battle between good and evil people) have created a generation of kids unable to cope with adversity because it is essentially reverse Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT normally encourages one to stop catastrophizing, but these ideas encourage it). Campbell and Manning write about the rise of a victimhood culture, which is also the opposite of resilience.
- Social Justice ideas are designed to tear down institutions (deconstruct power narratives), so naturally they are destructive if they get entrenched. Part of the problem is that if too many people accept the premise that it is not a question of if there is racism, etc. but where there is racism, then when an incident occurs (or is manufactured), then there is no feasible response but to cave to the accusation. Evergreen State College is a case study. A biology professor objected to white people being asked to remove themselves from campus for a day. This led to student activist protests and riots all over campus. They beseiged college president, demanding he capitulate to their demands. Activists barricaded doors against police, effectively took some faculty hostage, and searched cars with baseball bats looking for the biology professor. Then they complained about the safety of black and brown people on campus, despite the campus police having been instructed to let the students have their way.
- “Social Justice cannot succeed because it does not correspond with reality or with core human tendencies of fairness and reciprocity and because it is an idealistic metanarrative.” (235)
Ch. 10: An Alternative to the Ideology of Social Justice
- Postmodern Theory and liberalism are opposed to each other; in fact, Theory was designed to tear down liberalism.
- sees knowledge what we learn about reality, and the best way to do this is with public debate. (John Stuart Mill: if a theory is wrong and discredited by evidence in public debate, then humanity has improved its understanding of the world; if a theory is right then the publicly failed attack on it strengthens our confidence that what we know is actually correct. Interestingly, he used Newton’s theory as an example; sixty years later we discovered that Newton was not correct, Einstein came up with a better theory, which is now essential in radiotherapy for cancer as well as GPS systems. Had we disallowed debate on Newton’s theory, we would not have GPS navigation.)
- embraces accurate distinctions in order to more correctly model reality (where Theory blurs the lines)
- values the individual and asserts universal human values (Theory rejects both)
- values human dignity, including the freedom to disbelieve in liberalism (Theory embraces victimhood)
- tolerates differences, which makes it possible for people with diverging views to coexist peacefully (Theory refuses to accept anything besides full acceptance)
- is fundamentally a system of conflict resolution
- is a work in progress that self-corrects and has empirically led to 500 years of increasing human flourishing.
- “Liberalism’s success is due to being goal-oriented, problem-solving, self-correcting, and ... genuinely progressive.” (243)
- “While liberalism might be hard to define, illiberalism is easily recognizable in totalitarian, hierarchical, censorious, feudal, patriarchal, colonial, or theocratic states and in people who want to bring about such states, limit freedoms, or justify inequities. Liberals ... are opposed to all such regimes.” (244)
- Some argue that valuing the Enlightenment lead to slavery, genocide, and colonialism, but those have happened throughout history and so are not the Enlightenment values’ fault. But it was only after the Enlightenment that these were seen as wrong.
- Some argue that the Enlightenment idea of progress is a mirage because of the Nazis, Hitler, the communists genocides, happening just in the last century, but this is in fact showing what happens with totalitarianism, because those societies were totalitarian, not liberal.
- Jonathan Rauch says “liberal science” is a system that applies two rules: “no one gets the final say” and “no one has personal authority”.
- The first says that you cannot fix the outcome in advance, nor can you force the beliefs of others.
- The second says that there is no difference between people in the system.
- He also identifies four statements reliable enough to be called “knowledge” but which fail to be able to resolve disagreements, and contrasts with the “liberal principle”:
- The fundamentalist principle: those who know the truth should decide who is right. (248) Clearly this becomes totalitarian if fundamentalists get the power.
- The simple egalitarian principle: all sincere persons’ beliefs have equal claim to respect. (249) But why should something that is not true get respect?
- The radical egalitarian principle: like the simple egalitarian principle, but special consideration for the beliefs of historically oppressed groups. (249) Even worse, why does oppression make a belief more worthy?
- The humanitarian principle: all of the above, but the first priority is to cause no hurt (249) This justifies censoring ideas because of psychological pain (but who gets to decide?)
- The liberal principle: checking of each by each through public criticism is the only legitimate way to decide who is right.
- Social Justice worked out leads to more racist and sexist attitudes, and it challenges the hard-won gains in gender roles, race, and sexuality. Feminists had a hard road to convince society that the stereotypes about women were incorrect, and equality has only been achieved recently. And these gains were by taking the moral high ground of insisting that all people were equal, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. where he said he had a dream that his children would one day be judged on their character rather than the color of their skin.
- Social Justice reinforces stereotypes. By saying minorities and especially women need “research justice” and are too fragile to handle disagreement, it implicitly suggests that women are not strong enough on their own.
- If transgender acitivists make men (50% of the population) evil then they and probably their sympathetic loved ones (much of the rest of the 50%) will not react well to this. It cannot help transgender people.
- Making a majority upset has never had positive outcomes for minorities. And blaming dominant groups is likely to cause a reactionary movement of anti-minority groups (as we see with many of the Trumpers, for example)
- We cannot defeat illiberalism with illiberalism, so we cannot try to outlaw it in some form. Instead, we must courageously speak out and defeat it in the public sphere of ideas.
- Some principled opposition (quoted from 266-269)
- We affirm that racism remains a problem in society
and needs to be addressed.
We deny that critical race Theory and intersectionality provide the most useful tools to do so, since we believe that racial issues are best solved through the most rigorous analysis possible.
We contend that racism is defined as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behavior against individuals or groups on the grounds of race and can successfully be addressed as such.
We deny that racism is hard-baked into society via discourses, that it is unavoidable and present in every interaction to be discovered and called out, and that this is part of a ubiquitous systemic problem that is everywhere, always, and all-pervasive.
We contend that each individual can choose not to hold racist views and should be expected to do so, that racism is declining over time and becoming rarer, that we can and should see one another as humans first and members of certain races second, that issues of race are best dealt with by being honest about racialized experiences, while still working towards shared goals and a common vision, and that the principle of not discriminating by race should be universally upheld.
- We affirm that sexism remains a problem in society
and needs to be addressed.
We deny that Theoretical approaches to gender issues, including queer Theory and intersectional feminism, which work on blank-slatist theories of sex and gender, are useful to address it as we believe it is necessary to acknowledge biological realities to address such issues.
We contend that sexism is defined as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behaviors against individuals or a whole sex on the grounds of sex and can be successfully addressed as such.
We deny that sexism and misogyny are systemic forces that operate throughout society through socialization, expectations, and linguistic enforcement, even in the absence of sexist or misogynistic people or intentions.
We deny that there are no psychological or cognitive biological differences on average between men and women and that gender and sex are therefore merely social constructs.
We contend that men and women are human beings of equal value who are equally capable of being discriminated against on the basis of their sex, that sexist acts are intentional acts, undertaken by individuals, who should be expected to do otherwise, and that gender and sex have both biological and social origins, which need to be acknowledged in order to optimize human flourishing.
- We affirm that discrimination and bigotry against
sexual minorities remains a problem in society and requires
We deny that this problem can be solved by queer Theory, which attempts to render all categories relevant to sex, gender, and sexuality meaningless.
We contend that homophobia and transphobia are defined as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory acts against homosexual and transgendered people on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.
We deny that dismantling categories of sex, gender, or sexuality or that forwarding concepts of an oppressive “heteronormality” and “cisnormativity"—recognizing heterosexuality and gender identity consistent with biological sex as normal—is the best way to make society more welcoming to sexual minorities.
We contend that sexual minorities are also “normal” and represent naturally occurring variation on sexuality and gender identity and can easily be accepted as such in the same way that other variations (like red hair and left-handedness) are currently recognized as traits found in a minority of humans who are regarded as completely normal human individuals and valued members of society. Homophobia and transphobia are intentional acts, undertaken by individuals who should be expected to do otherwise.
- We affirm that social injustice still exists and
that scholarship on issues of social justice is necessary and
We affirm the value of interdisciplinary theoretical approaches, including the study of race, gender, sexuality, culture, and identity within the humanities.
We affirm that 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.
We deny that any ideas, ideologies, or political movements can be identified as the authoritative position of any identity group, since such groups are comprised of individuals with diverse ideas and a common humanity.
We deny the worth of any scholarship that dismisses the possibility of objective knowledge or the importance of consistent principles and contend that that is ideological bias, rather than scholarship.
We deny the worth of any theoretical approach that refuses to submit itself to criticism or refutation and contend that that is sophistry, rather than scholarship.
We deny that any approach that assumes a problem to exist (say, in a systemic way) and then searches “critically” to find proofs of it is of any significant worth, especially as a form of scholarship.
We contend that, if these methods are reformed and made rigorous, they could be of tremendous scholarly value and significantly advance the cause of humanity—not least the cause of social justice.