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Normals tend to dismiss “woke” rhetoric because it usually sounds so blindingly stupid that we cannot believe it could ever have broad appeal or be persuasive in places and institutions that matter. The ugly truth is that Theory (Critical, Race, etc.) is now the dominant ideology in our universities. It is the dominant ideology in corporate HR departments and while the established leaders of the Democratic Party are too cynical and residually pragmatic to be entirely “woke” themselves they find it increasingly hard to resist demands from those who are.
Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have written an excellent but depressing book, Cynical Theories, that despite its instructive value ultimately disappoints those of us looking for a solution to the ideological pandemic.
The authors are principals in the team that managed to get several utterly ridiculous papers published in academic journals simply by mimicking the patois of Theory, the most famous of which was Helen Wilson (pseudonym) (2018). Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon. Gender, Place & Culture.
The concise history, explanation, and exegesis of Theory and of its various permutations are extraordinarily well-written, especially considering the subject matter. The authors are scholars who have waded through the dense and largely unreadable texts of the founders of Theory, so we don’t have to. (It is amazing that anyone has actually read Judith Butler and Homi K. Bhabha in the original and managed to derive some meaning from the works of two of the worst writers in the entire history of the English language.) They explain the way in which Derrida and Foucault have been used to launch seemingly bizarre undertakings like Fat Studies (not to be confused with the science of diet and nutrition). They show how the influence of Postmodernism continues to shape Theory. They take the reader through the evolution and nuances in each of the various “studies” areas.
I slogged through Derrida 40 years ago and left convinced that no sane persons would ever find any use for the notion that words can only point to other words and cannot really mean ideas or things. I saw no future for the idea that the purpose of philosophy was to find ways to wryly point out that most intellectual endeavors are essentially pointless. Postmoderns at that time wrote books that seemed to say that it was actually impossible to derive any real understanding or meaning from the book you just bought but if you did get the point, then the author was not really wrong about that—it was all still a language game.
Foucault introduced the toxic idea that the language game was rigged. It was all structured to accommodate power and serve the holders of that power. Therefore, from Derrida and Foucault: (1) All knowledge is just a construct, an artifact of language, and (2) Society and language are hierarchies of power which determine what can be known and how knowledge may come to be. From these two statements, all the current evils of wokery flow.
The targeted enemy of this pernicious ideology is the tradition of the Enlightenment, especially science, the notion of a common human nature, and the concept of the individual. In Theory, there can be no universals. There are “identities” but all other categories must be declared meaningless or blurred.
The authors take you through Postcolonial and Queer Theory and explain how feminism is being erased by notions of identity and how disability is seen as an identity. Did you know, for example, that hoping for a cure that will remove a disability is actually a betrayal of one’s identity and advances the false consciousness of “ableism.” The disabled person has a duty born of social justice to disrupt the ableist narrative and reject such treatments.
As language and social justice become the sum of all truth it makes sense for the woke to be “triggered” by words alone. It is a deformative philosophy, highly damaging to the young.
The disappointment I experienced was in the final chapter which purported to be a blueprint to confront Theory on behalf of traditional liberalism. There is a wonderful summary of how Theory differs from our enlightenment heritage but I had hoped for something more. The authors are clearly well to the left of the typical Ricochet member which I did not find off-putting because it reminded me that as the insanity of Theory spreads and threatens all free discourse, a lot of us who used to be political opponents will be sharing the same trenches and foxholes soon enough.
The authors also outlined a model dialogue in which free speech, openness to new ideas, the undeniable truth of progress in human rights wrought by our political and ideological heritage are shown to be vastly superior to the closed loop of Theory. The problem with that approach is that it requires participation in the kinds of exchange that the new masters of Theory do not permit. The very idea of denying the suppositions of Theory, the sheer impertinence of challenging any newly discovered manifestation of systemic racism or heteronormativity would just be an attempt to re-assert the white heteronormative power trip inherent in the use of appeals to fact, evidence, or logic.
Pluckrose and Lindsay’s suggested approach is akin to preaching to the choir: people who understand and appreciate freedom of speech and the societal and legal pre-requisites for human rights already get it. Those assimilated into Theory will not.
Theory was born in the postmodern tradition in which there was no truth but has long since mutated into the central idea is that the only truth is the existence of power imbalance in society and language and the victimization that results from that imbalance. That truth may not be questioned. Theory has no methodology to test or correct itself. By definition, it cannot care about reality external to language and socially constructed knowledge. It mimics the familiar language of human rights and justice but necessarily rejects the notion of our common humanity or the existence of an individual in whom those right inhere. Only identities are real because that is how power interacts with us.
You would have better luck arguing with a bot.
I highly recommend the book as an accessible, concise education in the alien philosophy devouring our culture and society but the antidote for its spread is not yet at hand.Published in