Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay

Reviewed by Clare Brook

Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay provides a comprehensive guide for the layperson through a fraught social/political landscape.  A setting that is populated by an ever-widening abyss between the left’s Postmodern Theories and Social Justice activism, and the reaction of the far right harking back to an untenable past.  Each side sees the other as an existential threat.  As the authors comment: The two sides are driving one another to madness and further radicalization.

 Although the material covered is dense, Pluckrose and Lindsay’s writing style is often humorous and always accessible.  This allows the reader to understand the driving forces behind this cultural war in our midst.

The authors provide the reader with a brief historical account of early postmodern theory of the 1960s through to Critical Theory and the current activism of the Social Justice movement, (currently referred to as ‘wokeism’).

The work of Critical Theory is to reveal hidden biases of society’s systems particularly, the relationship between power, language, and knowledge. The two core principles being:  1. The knowledge principle: Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.  2.  The political principle: A belief that society is formed via systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.  The four major themes of the two principles are: 1. The blurring of boundaries and categories generally accepted as true. 2. The power of language within discourse. 3. Cultural relativism, whereby all cultures hold their own truth and all are equally true. 4. The loss of the individual and the universal, both being products of powerful discourses and culturally constructed knowledge.

The authors reiterate these principles many times to demonstrate how rigorously they are being applied within postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory and intersectionality, feminisms and gender studies, and disability and fat studies.  Each of which they discuss in separate chapters mainly repeating the same examples of poor reasoning.  I found ‘Critical race theory and intersectionality’, which is briefly discussed here, of particular interest

The authors’ main point of contention is clearly stated:

 The left represents a departure from its historical point of reason and strength, which is liberalism.  Is now aligned with postmodernism rejecting objective truth as fantasy of bigoted Enlightenment thinkers.

They detail the core beliefs of liberalism and modernity as supporting a political democracy that places limitations on powers of government and opposes authoritarian politics on the left or right. The development of universal human rights, legal equality for all adult citizens, freedom of expression, respect for the value of viewpoint diversity and honest debate, respect for evidence and reason, separation of church and state, and freedom of religion.  So, Liberalism provides a shared common ground, a framework for conflict resolution and one within which people with a variety of views on political, economic, and social questions can rationally debate.  This attempts to remove the social significance of identity by treating all equally.

In contrast, Social Justice propositions are not assessed for their truth, but to teach a specific understanding of Social Justice.  Any attempt at taking an opposing opinion, the authors say, is treated as systemic bigotry, a strategic refusal to understand with the goal of reinstating white power knowledge.  Social Justice then appears to take on an authoritarian stance silencing critic by attaching labels of racism and ignorance.  Their framework interprets the world only through the dynamics of power, language, and knowledge for all interactions.  As the authors astutely observe:

… these preposterous attitudes are completely human.  They bear witness to our repeatedly demonstrated capacity to take up complex spiritual worldviews, ranging from tribal animism to hippie spiritualism to sophisticated global religions, each of which adopts its own interpretive frame through which it sees the entire world.

It is not hard to see why the authors find the above principles and themes problematic.  Believing there are no objective truths that all truth is subjective, a function of power exerted by white, middle class males.  This requires a faith of epic proportions.  Western success is predicated on falsifiable evidence that was centuries in the making. Enlightenment liberal thinking openly debated ideas, sought evidence, and came to a conclusion, until further evidence was available to re-debate.  So knowledge expanded within an evolving system of self-criticism.

We have all profited from this system and continue to rely on the results.  When seeking the skill of a surgeon, readers might privilege the variables, highly trained and skilled, and not bother too much about colour, class or gender!  But of course, there is always work to do, as the authors comment: There is a need to consider where scientific research is biased in its aims or methods concerning race or gender.

Pluckrose and Lindsay explain how different meanings have been attached to familiar terms.  For instance, the concept of ‘racism’ has taken on a wider term of reference causing some confusion:

When they speak of ‘racism’, they are not referring to prejudice on the grounds of race, but rather to, as they define it, a racialized system that permeates all interactions in society yet is largely invisible except to those who experience it or who have been trained in the proper ‘critical’ methods that train them to see it. 

This never-ending inspection of power, language, and knowledge has produced a mass of social and cultural grievances that orbit around identity markers.  Apparently, only identity, lived experience, and cultural knowledge can be considered true. According to theme 3 (cultural relativism) all cultures are equally true.

It must be said that postmodern theories are justifiably reacting to the legitimizing power of the social sciences within universities that marginalized many from early colonial times in discourses of ‘inferiority’.  These discourses were value judgments, not scientifically based and served only to justify colonial control.  And I can’t help but think that postmodernists make a valid point; if unequal treatment is experienced daily in social interactions and within institutions, regardless of antidiscrimination laws, there is a need for further action.

It is clear that cultural knowledge deserves to be respected and investigated for the truths it holds.  Australia, for instance, would do well to heed Australian Indigenous systems in a variety of areas particularly fire management.   On the other hand, one would think that some cultural beliefs are problematic.  Believing the properties of some wild animals to be medicinal causes some species to be hunted into extinction; so upsetting a balance in our biodiversity.  Surely only objective knowledge and research can deliver the truth about cultural practices. A considered appraisal judging whose knowledge best fits the context in hand might be best, rather than the all-too-common pendulum swing from one extreme to the other.

Readers might think that the idea of identity and lived experience could be at odds with the ‘truth’ of cultural knowledge.  Better the liberal approach – an overarching belief in human rights.  Particularly concerning is the status of women.  Many would like to be free from culturally held ‘truths’ that consider women to be inferior and the property of males, suffering female mutilation, domestic slavery and any of the many cruelties women are forced to endure in the name of cultural tradition.  (In footnotes, p.300, I learnt that postcolonial and intersectional scholars view this opinion as Imperialist and universalizing.)

It is true that Women have a different lived experience from males within the same culture, as does a low status male.  A single culture then can hold opposing ‘truths’ within the lived experience of gender and class.  And here post-modernist, Kimberlé Crenshaw, has provided a useful framework as discussed in Chapter 5, Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality.

Crenshaw reframes the postmodern knowledge principle as knowledge as positional.  This takes into account differing group identities that experience complex layers of discrimination and systems of power within race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status intersecting at the micro level of personal experience.   Working class, or black women will experience added layers to gender discrimination because of their ethnic and/or socioeconomic status.  This framework is the foundation of Social Justice that aims to end racism by bringing it to the attention of everyone at all times; a continual process of identifying, analyzing and challenging.  It seems that Intersectionality could be useful as an analyzing tool that aids delivery of social services such as health or housing.   The authors make the point that it puts too much significance on social categories with the effect of causing racism.  Also, it causes many people to identify as victims, which is psychologically unhelpful for any kind of personal development.  However, readers might agree that Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality has done a good job in unpacking a tangle of issues. It is clear minority groups within Western culture need space to speak, to explain where their experience is negative, to be given space within the dominant culture.  And, there is much more to be done to give working class, the mentally ill and homeless a voice, the ability to be heard and included.

The final three chapters offer a well-considered and reasonable analysis of combating authoritarian approaches, in whatever form.  Although Pluckrose and Lindsay are most critical of universities disseminating postmodern ideology, they condemn any ideas of banning Critical Theory studies in universities, rather advocating open rigorous debate.  They honestly admit there are issues raised that deserve attention and that there are no quick fixes.

Pluckrose and Lindsay have done an excellent job in identifying how Social Justice is imposing a new framework that seeks to realign Western culture away from its roots in rational liberal thinking that is the basis of Western success.  They expose how Social Justice operates within society and how it has evolved into an authoritarian system. This is a must-read guide that sets out the issues thoroughly and fairly.

Highly recommended.

Cynical Theories

By Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay


Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978 18007 5006 7

$29.99; 352pp


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