Have you read that language is violence and certain people should not cook tacos? Has someone told you that there is no such thing as biological sex? Were you aware that helping people to lose weight is “fatphobic”? If so, you’ve been exposed to critical theory, which is the subject of a new and important book.
Cynical Theories, by political writer Helen Pluckrose and mathematician James Lindsay, will be released around the world next week. But already the book, subtitled “How activist scholarship made everything about race, gender and identity — and why this harms everybody” is creating a stir.
The two authors have written this book because they believe that “liberalism” or “social democracy”, the core political philosophy of modern Western democracies, is under threat.
For the past two centuries, Western governments have ruled according to liberal principles about political democracy, limits on the powers of government, universal human rights, legal equality for all adult human citizens and freedom of expression, they write. On top of this, countries such as Australia have passed laws that allow for the value of viewpoint diversity and honest debate, respect for evidence and reason and the separation of church and state.
Pluckrose and Lindsay write that “liberalism is best thought of as a shared common ground, providing a framework for conflict resolution and one within which people with a variety of views on political, economic and social questions can rationally debate the options for public policy”.
However, around the world, liberalism is being attacked from both sides, they write. Far-right populist movements are on the rise, while far-left progressive social crusaders “seek to establish a thoroughly dogmatic fundamentalist ideology regarding how society ought to be ordered”.
This culture war has come to define political — and increasingly social — life throughout the beginning of the 21st century. Although both extremes are bad for civil society, this book is written about the far-left.
One of the characteristics of identity politics is cancel culture, which decrees that someone with an opposing view on can be vilified, doxxed and even fired. Concerns about this have become so great that in July, 150 prominent authors and thinkers including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and Noam Chomsky signed a letter called for a return to tolerance and open debate.
Pluckrose and Lindsay say that cancel culture has a chilling effect on free speech and can be a malicious form of bullying.
But how did this all begin? The authors go back to the 1960s and ‘70s, when postmodernist thought emerged from the universities. These new theories rejected old narratives such as Christianity, Marxism, science and reason. According to postmodernism, objective knowledge is unattainable, everything is culturally constructed and our societies are formed of systems and hierarchies which decide what can be known and in what form.
Under postmodern thought, Pluckrose and Lindsay write, there is no individual, only a group defined by race or sex or some other category. The individual’s experience is therefore defined by the experiences of this group alone.
These ideas have shaped an approach to philosophy that the authors call “Theory”. Various chapters in the book explain how these ideas developed into post-colonial Theory, queer Theory, critical race Theory and intersectional feminism. More recent concepts include disability studies and fat studies.
Critical race Theory, as set out in an eponymous text by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, ascribes profound failures of morals and character to white people as a consequence of being white in a white-dominant society. It states that white people are inherently racist; because racism is “prejudice plus power”, only white people can be racist.
The theory states that only Black people can talk about racism and that white people need to just listen. Not seeing people in terms of their race is in fact racism and an attempt to ignore the pervasive racism that perpetuates white privilege.
Unsurprisingly, the application of these theories has led to some resistance. Accusing people of racism rarely leads them to become less racist; it’s also extremely difficult to convince poor whites that they have “white privilege”.
When Hillary Clinton described a group of Americans as “a basket of deplorables”, it wasn’t hard to see why they didn’t vote for her. And many people believe that the current looting and rioting in American cities, perpetrated by the outer fringes of the Black Lives Matter movement, will end up benefitting Trump.
The newest form of Theory is fat studies, which teaches that being fat is an identity rather than a health issue.
“Within fat studies, it is common to address negative attitudes towards obesity alongside racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disableism and imperialism, even though there is strong evidence that obesity is a result of consistently consuming more calories than are needed and carries significant health risks,” Pluckrose and Lindsay write.
One of the areas of study most affected, however, is feminism, where postmodern theory has overlaid the concept of intersectionality. This looks at interlocking axes of social division such as race, sex and class in addition to gender identity, mental health and body size etc.
It is through intersectionality that self-described “Black fat cultural producer” Hunter Ashleigh Shackelford can describe her writing as illustrating the relationship between “Blackness, fatness, desire, queerness, afrotechnology and popular culture”.
There’s one obvious problem here; the biggest issue for women and many racial and sexual minorities is not their identity but their economic class, and this is being neglected.
Pluckrose and Lindsay write that “this shift away from class and towards gender identity, race and sexuality troubles traditional economic leftists, who fear that the left is being taken away from the working class and hijacked by the bourgeoisie within the academy”.
“More worryingly still, it could drive working-class voters into the arms of the populist right. If the group it has traditionally supported — the working class — believe that the political left has abandoned them, the left may lose many of the voters it requires to attain political power.” Brexit, anyone?
Around the world, authoritarian right-wing parties are gaining ground. Far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) is now the third-largest party in the Bundestag. This book gives a good insight into some of the causes of this cultural shift. Will Joe Biden be able to bring Americans together to defeat the personality cult of Donald Trump? In 53 days, we will find out.