Book Review: Cynical Theories by James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose.
Updated: Apr 12, 2022
The Origins and Philosophy of "Woke"
We live in a really weird time. Society seems very confused and conflicted. Historically, peoples' social values and norms came through religious tradition or through other local cultures. But now, the influencer class in our society (the ones who set the trends, the ones who write the books, the ones who run the companies) all filter through the academic system where their ideas about society are shaped by the ideologies in social sciences. James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose's book, Cynical Theories, is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the ideas being inculcated into our influencer class as they pass through the academic system. Ideas that were once confined to esoteric discussions amongst intellectuals have now gone mainstream as more and more influencers become "woke".
Woke is a euphemism that denotes being awakened, and in this case, awakened to the underlying power structures of society and the injustices that become manifest with that understanding. What the authors end up showing through this book is that our ruling class are being handed a new lens through which to see the world during their formative years. It’s the lens of critical social justice (hence the glasses on the cover of the book). Much like how a fundamentalist Christian will suddenly start seeing God in everything he looks at, a person who is woke will begin to view all of society as a landscape of socially constructed power dynamics. A notion rooted in something called Critical Theory: a theory which came to dominate the social sciences over the past 50 years.
Critical Theory emerged from the Frankfurt School's neo-Marxists as a lens which views the world in terms of power dynamics between groups. It should also be noted the power in this worldview is not limited to political power but any form of social power generally, any ability for someone to get what they want. This line of social analysis draws on the Marxist tradition that viewed society as a class struggle between the economically oppressed vs their oppressors. But the neo-Marxist's expanded the scope beyond economics and critically examined all social systems, even the most mundane for more subtle and hidden systems of power.
The neo-Marxist frames all social systems, even the most mundane, as the interplay between the oppressed and the oppressor, the privileged and the marginalized, those with more power vs those with less. As neo-Marxist Max Horkheimer said, critical theory "...seeks to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them", the circumstances created by social systems.
Thus, the world is broken up into various groups (and more recently into intersections of those groups) with different levels of power. To be "woke" is to adopt a "critical consciousness", or way of seeing all of society and social interactions as this landscape of competing power dynamics.
Lindsay and Pluckrose go into excellent detail showing how this "woke" movement we see today is largely a combination of neo-Marxist ideas (see Marcuse, Horkheimer, Adorno etc.) merged with postmodern philosophy (see Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard). The authors show how in the 1980s-2000s activist academics began drawing on the ideas of the neo-Marxists and Postmodernists in order to inspire activism in their students to create social change. While at one time these ideas were largely confined to the academy, in the past 10-20 years we have seen this new way of viewing the world and its corresponding call to activism go mainstream. Lindsay and Pluckrose emphasize recurring paradigms that undergird this "woke" movement.
Critical Social Justice (aka The Woke Movement) Key Paradigms
Society Groups and Power: Society is fundamentally comprised of different groups of people with differing levels of power. Within social systems these groups have very different outcomes due to the interplay of the power dynamics within the system. Systems favor some groups over others.
Intersectionality: the notion that a person can exist at the intersections of multiple oppressed or privileged groups. For instance a Black, lesbian, woman is a part of 3 marginalized group where a white straight male is a part of 3 privileged groups.
Social Constructions: The power dynamics of society are not inherent, but socially constructed by those with power and thus can and should be changed in the direction of equity.
Language: Language is a social construct employed to control discourse and thought to the advantage of those in power. Altering language helps alter discourses and social power structures.
Liberation: The lack of oppressive power dynamics preventing one from being their authentic self.
Identity: Human beings free to construct their own identity free from the constraints of any externally imposed categories. (See Queer theory)
Positionality: Humans are the products of their socialization and thus are incapable of knowing things outside their group identity. (IE, "I am a white male, therefore I need to shut up and listen to the experiences of people of color")
Skepticism: All encompassing narratives like religion, nationalism, etc. are tools of those in power.
Moral realignment: The greatest social good is the elimination of inequitable power dynamics (equity). The just society is the society where power dynamics are equitable.
Praxis and Activism: Critical Social Justice is not about theory, it’s fundamentally about putting into action ideas that create equity.
In summary, Critical Theory is the notion that society should be analyzed as as interplay between oppressed and oppressors. A world in which the language we use, the institutions we create, the laws we enact, even our personal preferences, are socially constructed by the groups who hold power over language, institutions and all aspects of our socialization. To adopt “critical consciousness” (the academic word for being woke) is to awaken to this reality and then, under the principle of praxis, we are called to do something about it. Social justice activists are called to do this though direct social/institutional activism and by helping others adopt critical consciousness, thus creating new activists, especially students (see critical pedagogy). Activists are to be hyper-aware of the power dynamics between groups at all time and to problematize and deconstruct anything that contributes to existing power hierarchies in order to create equity. Lindsay and Pluckrose named their book “Cynical theories” because of the way this new “consciousness” causes people to see even the most mundane human relations in the most cynical way possible. For instance, racism (defined as unequal power between racial groups) is to be assumed in all interactions.
“As scholar-activists Heather Bruce, Robin DiAngelo, Gyda Swaney (Salish), and Amie Thurber put it at the influential National Race and Pedagogy Conference at Puget Sound University in 2015, “The question is not ‘Did racism take place?’” for that is to be assumed, “but rather ‘How did racism manifest in that situation?’” That is, we are to assume that racism is always taking place and our job is to examine situations for evidence of it.”
Critical Theory's Many "Academic" Manifestations
After laying out the roots of general critical theory Lindsay and Pluckrose explore how the critical theory lens was adopted and applied to different activist movements via the social sciences departments of America's universities from the 1960's to present.
Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality - See race in everything
Critical race Theory holds that race is a social construct that was created to maintain white privilege and white supremacy…Theoretical approaches hold that reason is a Western philosophical tradition, which unfairly disadvantages women and racial minorities.… We are told that racism is embedded in culture and that we cannot escape it. We hear that white people are inherently racist. We are told that racism is “prejudice plus power,” therefore, only white people can be racist. We are informed that only people of color can talk about racism, that white people need to just listen, and that they don’t have the “racial stamina” to engage it. We hear that not seeing people in terms of their race (being color-blind) is, in fact, racist and an attempt to ignore the pervasive racism that dominates society and perpetuates white privilege.
Feminism and Gender Studies - Gender is Only a Construct
(Feminism) began to change in the late 1980s and 1990s, when a new crop of Theorists successfully packaged a more “sophisticated” approach—postmodern Theory—for a new generation of activists. This approach was applied postmodernism, which accepted identity oppression as “real” and thus made postmodernism relevant to feminist activism... The resulting “third-wave” approach to feminism tended to neglect class issues and focus on identity in the form of race, gender, and sexuality. Rather than rallying around the shared identity of women, understood as a “sisterhood,” intersectional and queer feminisms denied that women had common experiences and complicated what it even meant to be a woman. … As the influence of applied postmodernism crept into feminism, however, the focus switched from material disadvantages within social structures like law, economics, and politics to the oppressive nature of discourses. In 2006, Judith Lorber, professor (now emerita) of sociology and gender studies, summarized the four main tendencies of this “paradigm shift”: 1.Making gender—not biological sex—central; 2.Treating gender and sexuality as social constructs; 3.Reading power into those constructions—power that acts in the Foucauldian sense of a permeating grid; and 4.Focusing upon one’s standpoint—that is, one’s identity.5
Queer Theory - Categorization is Oppression.
Queer Theory is about liberation from the normal, especially where it comes to norms of gender and sexuality. This is because it regards the very existence of categories of sex, gender, and sexuality to be oppressive. Because queer Theory derives directly from postmodernism, it is radically skeptical that these categories are based in any biological reality. Instead, it sees them quite artificially—wholly as a product of how we talk about those issues. It thus ignores biology nearly completely (or places it downstream of socialization) and focuses upon them as social constructions perpetuated in language. This does little to encourage its accessibility with most people, who rightly see it as being quite mad. 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. These seemingly straightforward concepts are seen as oppressive, if not violent, and so the main objective of queer Theory is to examine, question, and subvert them, in order to break them down… Queer Theory(s) ultimate purpose.. is to identify and make visible the ways in which the linguistic existence of these categories create oppression, and to disrupt them. In doing so, it exhibits an almost unmodified manifestation of the postmodern themes of the power of language—language creates the categories, enforces them, and scripts people into them—and the blurring of boundaries—the boundaries are arbitrary, oppressive, and can be erased by blurring them into apparent absurdity.
Post Colonial Theory- Dismantle The West and The Enlightenment
Postcolonial Theory looks to deconstruct the West, as it sees it, and this ambitious demolition project was undoubtedly the first emanation of applied postmodernism…An applied postmodern mind-set says: “The West has constructed the idea that rationality and science are good in order to perpetuate its own power and marginalize nonrational, nonscientific forms of knowledge production from elsewhere. Therefore, we must now devalue white, Western ways of knowing for belonging to white Westerners and promote Eastern (or indigenous) ones (in order to equalize the power imbalance).”
Disability and Fat Studies.- Disability is a Social Construct.
As Theory has developed, it has become increasingly obsessed with identity and positionality. The postmodern knowledge principle insists that objective knowledge is not possible and favors specialized “knowledges” that arise from the lived experience of individuals of a certain identity, positioned in a specific way by society. .. The changes to “dis/abled”1 scholarship and activism in the 1980s can be best understood as a shift from understanding disability as something that resides in the individual to viewing it as something imposed upon individuals by a society that does not accommodate their needs. Before this shift, disabled people were considered to be people with some form of disability; afterwards, disability was viewed as a status imposed upon them by a relatively unwelcoming and uninterested society. For example, a person with deafness was previously considered to be a person who cannot hear, and who is disabled to some extent by her impairment. After the shift, she was seen as a Deaf person, someone who cannot hear and whom society has “disabled” by failing to be equally accommodating to those without hearing as it is to those with hearing (by default). In other words, a person is only disabled because of society’s expectations that people are generally able-bodied and benefit from being so. It is a status imposed upon those with impairments..
So What's The Problem?
These ideas are not new. Hobbes saw the world as a raw battle for power. Nietzsche framed the world as contesting wills to power. Drawing on Hegel, Marx saw history as an unfolding battle between economic classes. Are we really forgetting so quickly the lessons of the 20th century and how dangerous it is to re-tribalize human beings? Is more tribalism the answer? Have we forgotten the liberal project? The project that says we are to be judged by our individual character and not by group identity? Hundreds of millions of bodies have been stacked up from the French Revolution, to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, to the starved Kulaks of the Ukraine, based on the notion that group identity and power struggles undergird the social order. The reality is that most of human history has been tribal power battles. The dignity and liberty of the individual is a relatively new notion that is under threat as we slide away from the classical liberal tradition of individualism back into a world where group identity is paramount. Lindsay and Pluckrose end their book by positing that the solution to the perennial problem of tribal power struggles already exists within the enlightenment notion of "secularism".
In liberal societies, we already have the answer to the problem of how to deal with reified philosophical systems that threaten to impose themselves on society: this answer is called secularism. Secularism is best known as a legal principle: the “separation of church and state.” But this principle is based on a more profound philosophical idea—that no matter how certain you may be that you are in possession of the truth, you have no right to impose your belief on society as a whole...Believe what you will, but, in exchange, you must allow others to believe what they will—or won’t, as the case may be... No one is subject to the ought's of any particular moral group, no matter how strong the conviction of its members.
However, what Lindsay and Pluckrose fail to see is that the “secularism” they describe is itself a moral injunction (an ought) that they expect everyone to be subject to. They also fail to realize that in the west this "secularist" injunction comes from the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. It was actually Jesus Christ’s radical notions of the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of man being being separate that gave rise to the very notion of secularism in the West. It was this notion that created the space in which political equality and pluralism could flourish. The Vikings, the Mongols, the Comanche, The Romans would laugh at the notion that it was wrong to impose one’s will on others and the concept of religion being detached from their social and political enterprises would have made no sense to them. No other significant civilization on earth ever had the idea to separate its political order from its religious and moral order. Toleration may have been granted, but only out of grace. That is quite different than the pluralistic liberal order that arose during the enlightenment in the West. If the world really is a battle for power among groups, why would pluralistic secularism make any sense? In a Hobbesian world a lack of agitation and conflict only preserves the power structures of the status quo. Hence, why those in power wish to conserve the current liberal order. What seems to be happening is the rise of new puritanical religion, a new rigid moral system which, like the pagan tribes of history, seeks to impose its will via the power of the state. However, if we grant the premises that society is ultimately a zero sum power struggle, then this makes perfect sense and should not be seen as irrational.
So is there a better paradigm?
Interestingly, The Lord of the Rings can teach us what really lay at the heart of the liberal tradition. Many don’t realize JRR Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings was an intensely faithful Christian. The story is rife with Christian archetypes and at the center of the novels is “The Ring of Power”. The ring is iconic of the pervasive human will to power. The story is an epic tale of two forces: power and love. It is a story in which we see how love is the key to redeeming the world from the hell (embodied in the character Gollum) that is an eternal struggle for power. It is the story of how humility, love for one another and faith (embodied in the characters of hobbits) are able to withstand the will to power. In the end they cast the ring to hell from where it came and free middle earth from its destructive force.
The Christian mindset frames the world in a radically different way than the jungle mindset. The true Christian says give all power to God. The Christian says all mankind, especially he that is the least like you, is your brother. The Christian says the most powerful of all, gave it all up and descended below all dying out of love for you. The Christian says we too should embody that kind of love. The Christian says as a child of God you have worth and rights that come from a power higher than the powers of this world. The Christian says that there are no groups, only brothers and sisters to care for. The Christian abandons the entire 'dog eat dog' framework.
Like those humble hobbits, the Christian wants to cast the ring into the pit because they think that God, rather than their desires, is the center of the universe and that God is love. Love is more than just cooperation or feelings of affection in the Christian worldview. Love is a willingness to sacrifice for the good of another because the other is seen as an ends just as valuable as oneself. The Christian struggle is a struggle to love as He loved, not a struggle for power against your neighbors. Christians are very often not good at living up to this lofty vision, and perhaps some may think the Christian claims are not true, but that does not change the beauty of the vision or how worthwhile striving for it can be if you want a society worth living in.
So what will it be? A vision of love and cooperation as we strive together to confront the truth and overcome the challenges of human existence or a cynical vision of the Hobbesian nightmare. In the end, this book is an excellent source for understanding the ideology but I think Lindsey and Pluckrose don’t fully grasp what’s at the root of the liberal tradition they want to maintain.