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How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity — and Why This Harms Everybody
by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay
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Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay are two young, liberal, exceptionally well-informed, open-minded scholars. So naturally they are exiles from the modern university. Both have immersed themselves in their respective fields of scholarship and have found themselves hitting against the wall of “social justice theory”, postmodernism and much more. Unlike most of their contemporaries, they have decided to try to break down that wall.
Two years ago they made headlines when they helped to prank a number of scholarly journals by submitting deliberately ridiculous pieces dressed up in the necessary academese of the age. Their successful incursions past the peer reviewers included a piece published in a journal of “feminist geography” titled: “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon.” In another titled “Our struggle is my struggle” the authors reproduced excerpts of Mein Kampf with a smattering of feminist social-justice theory thrown in. It was duly published in a feminist journal.
The success of their hoax may have been amusing, but their point was deadly serious. A vast sewer has flowed through the modern academy because all the intellectual sluices were up. Bogus scholarship has intimidated real scholars. Frauds and fools have consistently pushed out their peers. Meaningful research has been stigmatised in favour of “social justice activism”. In Cynical Theories Pluckrose and Lindsay go to the root of this poison tree, exposing its origins and its consequences.
If there is a reason this book needed to be co-authored it is probably due to the amount of effluent the authors have had to wade through to gain their full view of the terrain. They begin by outlining the tenets of postmodernism, which at its start provided an undeniable revolution in academic thinking. They do so with a clarity that was once admired in academic writing. I have rarely read such a good summary of how postmodernism evolved from the 1960s onwards. The authors describe how, in the demoralised and ruined landscape of postwar Europe, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard and others developed what was originally known simply as “theory”. This system was sceptical of all truth claims and in time evolved a language as well as habits of its own. Narratives became “meta-narratives”. All boundaries had to be blurred. Language principally existed to be interrogated for its revelations about power. Truth became wholly relative and essentially unobtainable. Both the individual and the universal became lost in a system intent on endless discussions about hierarchy.
All this was refreshing for some. For others it was an opportunity not to re-evaluate language or historical power paradigms, but to push a specific political agenda. As the authors say: “Theory couldn’t content itself with nihilistic despair. It needed something to do.” From the 1990s onwards we therefore got “applied postmodernism” — an attempt to restructure society from the academy outwards in the name of an ideology that would become known as “social justice”. Where the old theorists were happy with language games, the new theorists were intent on the reordering of society.
By this time “theory” had given birth to postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory, feminism and gender studies, disability studies and fat studies. All were aimed at the same target (postcolonial, capitalist, western democracies). They also sought to become unified under the theory of intersectionalism, a worse than half-baked idea developed at a number of American universities that stated (never argued) that all oppression in capitalist societies is interlocked and that to address one form of oppression one must address all others as well. Intersectionalism progressed by assertion, intimidation and an increasing desire to disguise its highly contestable claims by making them inexplicable.
Pluckrose and Lindsay have waded through all the core texts that I and other critics of this school have had to read. They have also contended with many less familiar ones. What they reveal is essentially a self-sustaining academic Ponzi scheme. Where good writing might once have been seen as a successful effort at rendering complex ideas understandable, researchers in these studies have become virtuosos at nothing other than making highly contestable ideas incomprehensible. Take Homi K Bhabha in full flight: “If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to ‘normalise’ formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.”
Nor is this rot limited to the humanities. The social justice movement has Stem in its sights too. One recent book, Engineering and Social Justice, claimed that “getting beyond views of truth as objective and absolute is the most fundamental change we need in engineering education”. Any bridge constructed by an engineer who believes that should have a large warning sign attached.
It is too easy to just laugh at such nonsense. In the universities this school stopped being a laughing matter as it advanced through intellectual intimidation. Now on the streets of America its protégés have broken out in physical violence. Pluckrose and Lindsay rightly show how critical race theory (among others) has fractured the liberal world view, with real-world consequences playing out on the streets of Portland and other American cities. This world view long ago evaporated the possibility of society having an agreed way of living. Instead of sexual, racial and other differences becoming unimportant, critical, cynical theories have rendered them the only things of importance. And so a new generation has been taught to hate not just the societies from which they come, but whole races (presently white people, but it could be someone else next). For many people — Pluckrose and Lindsay among them — this does not seem like progress.
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