Cynical theories: how universities made everything about race, gender, and identity - and why this harms everybody, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, hardback, 351 pages, ISBN 978-1-80-075004-3, Swift Press, 2020, £20.
This is an excellent study of the postmodernism and its offshoots Critical Race Theory and Social Justice.
The authors state that this book "is born of our commitment to gender, racial and LGBT equality and our concern that the validity and importance of these are currently being alarmingly undermined by Social Justice approaches. Nor will this book attack scholarship or the university in general. Quite the contrary, we seek to defend rigorous, evidence-based scholarship and the essential function of the university as a center of knowledge production against anti-empirical, anti-rational and illiberal currents on the left that threaten to give power to anti-intellectual, anti-equality, and illiberal currents on the right."
In the USA, there are more and more equality, diversity and inclusion officers, and they earn three times as much as the average American, and often more than the academic faculty. In the UK, these posts proliferate in professional bodies, large companies, the Law Society, trade unions, schools and universities, local authorities, the police and the civil service.
Postmodernists deny that there can be any objective criteria of truth or objectivity; there are only claims that have been privileged and those that have been marginalised. This is to deny truth and professionalism in research.
Judith Butler, one of the pioneers of Queer Theory, wrote of the "reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains." Social Justice educator Barbara Applebaum contends that "language constitutes our reality ..." So words produce things - classic idealism.
We are told, "getting beyond views of truth as objective and absolute is the most fundamental change we need in engineering education." Again, "Drawing upon Indigenous worldviews to reconceptualize what 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." We are told that 'Western mathematics' is 'the secret weapon of cultural imperialism', that 'alphabetic literacy' is 'colonial technology and postcolonial appropriation'.
In sum, "the postmodernist project … is overwhelmingly prescriptive, rather than descriptive. An academic theory that prioritizes what it believes ought to be true over the aim of describing what is - that is, one that sees personal belief as a political obligation - has ceased to search for knowledge because it believes it has The Truth."
Critical Race Theorists assert that evidence-based research, reasoned arguments and science belong to the West, while experiential, irrational, and contradictory 'knowledge' belongs to colonised or indigenous people. But, by assigning science and reason to the West, and traditional, spiritual, experiential beliefs to the East, postmodernists perpetuate Orientalism, and make it very difficult to address the many real issues that can best be tackled using science and reason.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, a founder of critical race theory, wrote that "We all can recognize the distinction between the claim 'I am Black' and the claim 'I am a person who happens to be Black'. 'I am Black' takes the socially imposed identity and empowers it as an anchor of subjectivity. …'I am a person who happens to be Black', on the other hand, achieves self-identification by straining for a certain universality (in effect, 'I am first a person') and for a concomitant dismissal of the imposed category ('Black') as contingent, circumstantial, nondeterminant." This makes race primary, determinant.
If a white person asserts 'I am White', would Ms Crenshaw say that 'takes the socially imposed identity and empowers it as an anchor of subjectivity'? Denying our common humanity is itself a form of racism.
Critical Race Theory holds that white students must accept their ongoing complicity in perpetuating systemic racism simply by being white. So, to be white is to be racist; skin colour determines belief and behaviour. To judge people by their skin colour is surely as racist a position as one can take?
Critical Race Theory sets up double-binds, telling white people that if they notice race, that proves they are racist, and if they don't notice race, that is because their white privilege affords them the luxury of not noticing race, which is racist. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
This is a mirror-image of the the old days of slavery, when a slave had to be submissive: if he was submissive, that proved his inferiority, if he wasn't submissive, that also proved his inferiority, because he hadn't realised his inferiority.
Social Theory is all about privilege. At first, social theorists focused on white privilege, but they soon stretched this concept to other identity categories - male, straight, cisgender, thin, able-bodied, etc.
As the authors conclude, "we now have Social Justice texts - forming a kind of Gospel of Social Justice - that 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 needs to be decolonized."
What are Social Justice's effects? "It allots social significance to racial categories, which inflames racism. It attempts to depict categories of sex, gender, and sexuality as mere social constructions, which undermines the fact that people often accept sexual minorities because they recognize that sexual expression varies naturally. It depicts the East as the opposite of the West and thus perpetuates the very Orientalism it seeks to unmake."