Critical Theory, especially critical race theory, has become a hot topic in America recently. Parents in Texas and legislators in Oklahoma are trying to get it out of schools. Many discuss the Marxist roots of it, and rightly so. However, there is little understanding of how critical theory and its takeover of academia have fundamentally transformed how many Americans, especially on the left, think about and discuss issues. In their excellent Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay set out to show just what is going on.
To do so, they wrote a book for the common, concerned citizen. Although about academic topics, it’s not a book meant for PhD students or academics. Rather, it’s meant for the person who wants to learn more about the deleterious effects and insidious nature of all the forms of Critical Theory adopted by the left.
Because it’s about that topic and written in the manner it is, it’s a book you need to read. There is one small problem with it, which I will discuss later in this review, but, overall, it’s excellent and is a “must read” for everyone that hasn’t been turned into a mindless CRT robot. So, if you don’t have time to finish this review you should, at the very least, order a copy and read it for yourself. The information in it cannot be ignored any longer. Americans need to learn about the evil nature of Critical Theory and how it’s harming everybody.
Summary of Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay
Pluckrose and Lindsay begin Cynical Theories where they should– by describing it and the social justice movement it has created as “a malicious form of bullying and–when institutionalized–a kind of authoritarianism.” The introduction then shows how the “scholar-activists” of the left represent a whole new culture in America and use power, language, and knowledge to interpret the world in a far different way than the rest of us and use that interpretation as the aforementioned bludgeon of authoritarianism. They then explain how that mindset stems from the postmodernism of the 60s, the era that birthed these malicious concepts.
After the introduction, Cynical Theories utilizes a highly effective, common sense organization to explain the main ideas behind Critical Theory and the new forms of leftist theory that it has spawned. Chapter 1 is about the original ideas of the postmodernists, chapter 2 explains how those postmodernist ideas became politically actionable as they were distilled and solidified, chapter 3 is about colonial theory, chapter 4 is about queer theory, chapter 5 is about critical race theory, and chapter 6 is about intersectional feminism, with chapter 7 covering the even newer critical theories, fat studies and disability studies. Finally, chapter 8 explains the creation of what the authors call “social justice scholarship” in the 2010s.
In chapter 1, the authors do an excellent job of explaining postmodernism ad how it developed in its early days. Their main points, which they make sure to highlight for the reader, are that the main themes of postmodernism are “the blurring of boundaries,” “the power of language,” “cultural relativism,” and “the loss of the individual and the universal.” Additionally, they show how postmodernists are radically skeptical of claims of objective truth and its obtainability and believe that power and hierarchies are what form societies.
Next, in the end of chapter 1, the authors further delve into postmodernism and its ideas. For example, they point out that while postmodernists are opposed to what they see as oppressive power systems and hierarchies, the significant social changes that brought down the Jim Crow, segregationist system and ended gender discrimination took place before postmodernism became a powerful force; liberalism led to those changes, not the radical skepticism of postmodernism.
In chapter 2 of Cynical Theories, Pluckrose and Lindsay describe how postmodernism morphed into what they term “applied postmodernism” as its acolytes tried to make it an actionable ideology rather than a general cry of despair and skepticism. To describe that, they show how the principles and main ideas behind postmodernism were used by the new postmodernists in the 70s and 80s to create actionable ideas regarding tearing down society as it then existed. For example, the idea that there should be “research justice” where the voices of women and minorities are given priority merely because of their identity comes from the applied postmodern theorist. The focus on application of those ideas means that they’re no longer confined to academia and are instead now part of the general view of how the world works.
The next few chapters are just as infuriating and interesting as the first two. They cover how the ideas of the applied postmodernists have morphed into more specific fields of attack on Western civilization.
There’s postcolonial theory, which is about “decolonizing” everything from university curricula to science itself; it’s also the movement that’s largely behind tearing down statues and renaming buildings if the figure represented was a “colonist” like Cecil Rhodes or Cristopher Columbus. Generally, this ideology “constructs the East in nobly oppressed opposition to the West” and is more about tearing down the West than building up formerly colonized areas, which have little use for critical theory.
Then there’s queer theory, which Pluckrose and Lindsay define as “liberation from the normal, especially where it comes to norms of gender and sexuality.” As with everything else in Cynical Theories, it’s a branch of critical theory that stems from postmodernism and deep skepticism of what currently exists. Queer theorists aim to “modify or unmake the concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality” and, despite being intentionally weird, “act with surprising entitlement and aggression” when people disagree with their insane theories.
Next up is critical race theory and intersectionality, the idea that racism is everywhere and must be called out and attacked every time it is imagined. The result, which Lindsay and Pluckrose do an excellent job of describing in Cynical Theories is that critical race theorists imagine that racism is everywhere and, in the end, evaluate people based on their race, something that is deeply racist.
The next chapter of Cynical Theories is on feminism and gender studies. It’s about what you’d expect; everyone in the modern workforce knows how far feminism has gone and gender study ideology is apparent everywhere. This group of “theorists,” like the others, tend to view everything through a lens that “magnifies potential oppression, bigotry, injustice, and grievance” and act in an accordingly angry manner.
After queer theories, Pluckrose and Lindsay delve into the most bizarre theories in the book, disability and fat studies. These theories are responsible for ideas such as obesity not being a bad thing, it being “deaf genocide” to give deaf people cochlear implants, and other insane ideas. While the other theories are obvious power grabs, these two are just bizarre and seem more about destroying beauty than doing anything that anyone could see as positive or beneficial.
Finally, after briefly delving tinto social justice scholarship in chapter 8, a theory that the authors claim “created a new religion, a tradition of faith that is actively hostile to reason , falsification, disconfirmation, and disagreement of any kind,” the authors jump into showing how social justice works in real life.
Because it escaped the university, people of every stripe now have to deal with SJWs and critical theories. Random people are “canceled” for being accidentally offensive to some critical race theorists, James Damore was fired for drawing the ire of the feminists, and all of us worry about when the SJW mob might come for us. That began in universities, to be sure, but has now permeated most levels of society. Movie plots are changed to make feminists feel better, random books and video games are labeled as problematic, and now we’re being told that morbidly obese women are beautiful. And so on, the examples of how SJW ideology has captured society are near endless.
The ultimate point of Cynical Theories, delivered in the end of chapter 9 and beginning of chapter 10, is that the systems of liberalism and science, systems that are self-skeptical (rather than the self-certain mindset attendant with critical theory) and thus gradually adjust over time, making society better step by step. Such systems are anathema to critical theorists, people who want to tear everything down and create it in their image, but are highly effective at delivering better outcomes over time.
My Take on Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay
Generally, I thought that Cynical Theories was excellent. Pluckrose and Lindsay do a terrific job of explaining postmodernism and its Grendel-like children, accurately show the flaws of it as an ideology, and, most importantly, show how adoption of the ideas inherent in each theory they describe makes society worse off. Critical race theory makes people angry and paranoid, fat studies theory makes people okay with being obese, and postmodernism generally erodes our faith in society as it exists.
The authors pull no punches and the result is magnificent. It’s written for the layperson, so it’s easy to read and each philosophical term is properly explained and only used when necessary, bullet points, bolding or italics, and short paragraphs are used to distill and highlight important information about each theory, and the voice of the writers is neither overly light or intense, but rather a happy medium that shows the serious nature of the information without being a drag.
However, there is one problem I had with Cynical Theories. That is that Pluckrose and Lindsay far too frequently note that the “far right” is also bad or frame their criticism of critical theory as it giving ammunition to the far right. In the context of the book, that makes no sense and, in my opinion, shows they’re still reflexively bowing to the same gods of SJW ideology they criticize in Cynical Theories. The book isn’t about Q Anon or fascism. It’s about the insane ideology of the postmodernist left. It’s a useless diversion at best and a disgusting genuflection in the face of evil at worst to temper the criticism of the evil ideology that is critical theory by continually noting that the right is bad too.
Furthermore, what’s bad about critical race theory, for example, isn’t that it gives people like me an opportunity to criticize the left. What’s wrong with it is that it makes everyone paranoid about race, leads to more racism, creates worse outcomes for everyone involved, and is Marxist in origin. That’s what needs to be said.
But, in the grand scheme of things, Cynical Theories is still quite good. It will teach out about postmodernism and the theories that it spawned and is highly readable and quite interesting, if infuriating at times because of the bizarre and frustrating subject matter.
You should read Cynical Theories. Yes, it’s a bit expensive. Yes, your blood pressure will undoubtedly rise as you read about how the idiotic leftists are ruining our great nation with their postmodernist ideas.
However, the information in it is something you need to know. To effectively and honestly criticize an ideology or theory, you must first understand it. Many conservatives criticize critical theory, yet their lack of understanding when doing so is obvious. Reading Cynical Theories is a good way to get around that and learn about critical theory in one of the easiest and least infuriating ways possible.