- Postmodern Theory and liberalism do not merely exist in tension: they are almost directly at odds with one another. Liberalism sees knowledge as something we can learn about reality, more or less objectively; Theory sees knowledge as completely created by humans—stories we tell ourselves, largely in the unwitting service of maintaining our own social standing, privilege, and power…. Liberalism values the individual and universal human values; Theory rejects both in favor of group identity…. Liberalism encourages disagreement and debate as means to getting at the truth; Theory rejects these as ways of reinforcing dominant discourses that suppress certain perspectives [and] promotes the idea that truth is a “language game”…. Liberalism accepts criticism, even of itself, and is therefore self-correcting; Theory cannot be criticized
- —Helen Pluckrose and James A. Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody
Helen Pluckrose and James A. Lindsay (PL) depict the intellectual journey that led to a movement many of us find baffling and disturbing. Their book Cynical Theories seeks to explain how the mindset that underlies Social Justice activism emerged. That mindset has been given many other labels, including Woke and intersectionality, but in describing its intellectual framework, PL generally use the term postmodern Theory, with a capital T.
PL’s analysis can help us to understand some otherwise bizarre phenomena that took place this year, after the book went to press but prior to its publication date of August 25, 2020. Consider these two examples:
—On July 4, 2020, hundreds of professors and administrators at Princeton University signed and sent to the President of Princeton what they called a Faculty Letter. The letter’s long list of “demands” included
- • Implement administration- and faculty-wide training that is specifically anti-racist
- • Establish a core distribution requirement focused on the history and legacy of racism in the country and on the campus
- • The Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity should collaborate with individual departments on discipline-specific action plans for anti-racist research, teaching, hiring, and retention
- • Reconsider the use of standardized testing (SAT, GRE, etc.)
- • Substantially increase the University’s financial contributions to community organizations in central New Jersey that are directly involved in the work of rectifying racial and socioeconomic inequality
- • Fund a chaired professorship in Indigenous Studies for a scholar who decenters white frames of reference
- • Enforce repercussions (as in, no hires) for departments that show no progress in appointing faculty of color
- • Acknowledge, credit, and incentivize anti-racist student activism
- • Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty
The letter provoked a sharply critical response by a classics professor, Joshua Katz. His essay was in turn denounced by leaders at Princeton, including its President.
—Later in July, The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture unveiled, as part of a portal called “Talking About Race,” a description of “Whiteness.” This virtual exhibit originally included a chart that described White culture as including, among other things: the scientific method; the Protestant work ethic; delayed gratification; English common law; protection of property; competition; and being polite.
This chart was construed by critics as implying that people with black skin either could not or should not share such values. Although the museum removed the chart to quell the controversy, it nonetheless reflects what PL depict as Theory.
PL trace the Theory deployed by Social Justice activists to express their viewpoint to postmodern philosophy. This is a fraught exercise. In my observation, before academic ideas reach the broader public, they are refracted by at least two processes: popularization and implementation.
The popularizers of an academic idea make it accessible to a wider audience. Often, but not always, the popularizer is another academic, as when Paul Samuelson published his textbook which popularized Keynesian economics. Once an idea has been popularized, influential disciples take the ideas into the real world for implementation.
For example, in the late 1970s, some economists, most notably Martin Feldstein, undertook research on the economic impact of the incentive effects of various taxes. This was popularized as “supply-side economics,” most notably by Arthur Laffer with his eponymous curve. It was implemented by the Reagan Administration, working with a Democratically controlled House of Representatives. At the time, Feldstein was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, where he reportedly differed sharply with the policies that emerged in practice.
In fact, it is not uncommon for the implementation of an idea to disappoint the academics who spawned it. They are often unhappy with the modifications that have taken place during popularization and implementation.
In the case of postmodern philosophy, the academic originators include Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and many subsequent thinkers. The popularizers of what PL call Theory include Ibrahim X. Kendi (How to be an Anti-Racist) and Robin DiAngelo (White Fragility). The ideas have been adapted for use in real-world situations by those who composed the Princeton faculty letter and the Smithsonian Whiteness chart, as well as administrators who promulgate rules and policies in K-12 schools, higher education, government, and corporate personnel management.
PL fail to draw this distinction between academic originators, popularizers, and those who implement ideas. I think this leaves them open to the charge that they have misread the academics, regardless of how accurately they have portrayed Theory as it was articulated by those who have popularized and implemented it.
Instead, PL describe postmodern Theory as having evolved in three phases. The first phase was simply the original postmodernism, as developed in the 1960s and 1970s. The second phase, which took place in the late 20th century and early 21st, PL term “applied postmodernism,” meaning that it applied the methods of postmodernism to particular realms, including colonialism, race, and gender. The third phase, which began around 2010, they call “reified postmodernism,” which emphasizes real-world activism.
PL describe postmodernism as a system of thought grounded in two principles and having four themes.
The postmodern knowledge principle: Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.
The postmodern political principle: A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.
The four major themes of postmodernism are
- 1. The blurring of boundaries
- 2. The power of language
- 3. Cultural relativism
- 4. The loss of the individual and the universal
Again, PL have undertaken a fraught exercise. Hardly any school of philosophy can be boiled down to just a few bullet points. It is particularly challenging here, because as PL point out, postmodernism is a reaction against systematizing thought. I suspect that no self-described postmodernist philosopher would sign on to PL’s principles and themes.
Nonetheless, PL’s model fits closely the rhetoric and actions of those who have popularized and implemented postmodernism in the form of Social Justice activism. As a result, Cynical Theories is immensely valuable in helping us to get inside the minds of the people in the movement. While there have been many attempts, by Jonathan Haidt and others, to speculate on the individual psychological needs and broader social conditions that have given rise to the movement, PL’s approach is one of cognitive empathy. That is, their book can help us understand the ideas of the activists on their own terms. The PL model helps to “predict” the Princeton faculty letter and the Smithsonian Whiteness chart.
For liberals, knowledge is a relationship between a human and reality. For postmodernists, knowledge is created by and embedded in a culture, which in turn makes it responsive to the power relationships within that culture. PL write,
- Because of their focus on power dynamics, these thinkers argued that the powerful have, both intentionally and inadvertently, organized society to benefit them and perpetuate their power. They have done so by legitimating certain ways of talking about things as true, which then spread throughout society, creating societal rules that are viewed as common sense and perpetuated on all levels.
For example, in the relationship between the West and the countries that it colonized,
- A liberal mind-set says: “All humans have the capacity to be rational and scientific, but individuals will vary widely. Therefore, all humans must have all opportunities and freedoms.”
- A 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.”
So, while the liberal mind-set rejects the arrogant colonial claim that reason and science belong to white Westerners, the postmodern one accepts it, but regards reason and science themselves as just one way of knowledge and as oppressive
In this context, one can view the Smithsonian Whiteness chart as an attempt to apply postmodernism and to decolonize black Americans. But the chart shocked people with the liberal mind-set, to whom it resembled a return to racist colonialism.
“Social Justice activists are so imbued with outrage over the power structures that influence culture that their postmodernism has morphed from epistemological skepticism to moral absolutism.”
The original postmodernism put a lot of emphasis on what PL call the knowledge principle, which is skeptical of any absolute truth. But the later, “reified postmodernism” leans most heavily on the political principle. Social Justice activists are so imbued with outrage over the power structures that influence culture that their postmodernism has morphed from epistemological skepticism to moral absolutism.
As a consequence, their ideology is incommensurate with liberalism. Professor Katz may have believed he was merely pointing out obvious problems with the Princeton faculty letter. But his essay provoked an outcry from his enemies, while receiving less sympathy than he probably expected from his friends.
If the mission of the postmodernists is to fight oppression by exposing it, then the mission of Pluckrose and Lindsay is to fight postmodernism by exposing what it has become in recent years. I wish that I could arrange that for every reading list that incorporates a Kendi or a DiAngelo, Critical Theories would also be included.