Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Guide For The Age Of Conformity

A deep dive into the woke left shows us how to navigate our brave new world, but it leaves questions about how it got this way.

Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, (Pitchstone Publishing: August 2020), 352 pages.

In reading Cynical Theories, by dissidents Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, one gets the feeling of gliding with a steamboat into an intellectual Heart of Darkness. Going north up Intersectionality River, creeping on ominously into an ever-thickening woke flora, hearkening roaring SJW fauna. Allyship and disrupting binaries, research justice, lived experience, dominant discourse, normativity, biopower, positionality, hegemonic masculinity, healthism, epistemic violence. It is not long before your boat gets enveloped by a white fragility fog. Eventually, you come face to face with the “exceptional” Kurtz DiAngelo. 

You may read Cynical Theories the traditional way, or, you may use it as your guide up the corporate ladder—Woke Dad, Poor Dad sort of material. Master the vocabulary, delve into the maddening rationalizations, and fiddle plenty with circular logic, and head of human resources is the least you can expect. Pluckrose and Lindsay had the opportunity to became experts in what we may call woke or social justice “scholarship.” Along with professor Peter Boghossian, “beginning in August 2017, the trio wrote 20 hoax papers, submitting them to peer-reviewed journals under a variety of pseudonyms.” The submissions were sent to academic journals of the woke, social justice—what the authors call the grievance studies—variety. They had spent some time learning the necessary rhetorical and intellectual tricks. Seven of the papers written were accepted, and four got published before the Wall Street Journal uncovered the hoax.

One of their papers, published in Gender, Place and Culture, a journal of feminist geography, was about the dog rape culture prevalent in dog parks in Portland, Oregon. It was a thorough examination of the “oppressive spaces that lock both humans and animals into hegemonic patterns of gender conformity that effectively resist bids for emancipatory change.” In the journal Sexuality and Culture, they published the paper “Going in Through the Back Door,” which argued that if heterosexual men practiced anal penetration to themselves they would be “better attuned to issues of social justice, including ‘potentially greater awareness about rape.’” In another paper, accepted by the journal Affilia, the authors used chapter 12 of Hitler’s Mein Kampf “in which Hitler describes the origins of the Nazi party, and reworked it so that it was instead describing the rise of ‘solidarity feminism’ …. The editors of Affilia did not notice, with one praising its ‘potential to generate important dialogue for social workers and feminist scholars.’”

Anyone who has even glanced over a genuine social justice paper understands that what was created by Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian is not far from the norm. There is an account on Twitter that specializes in woke “scholarship”, the New Real Peer Review, which exposes the absurdities published in all varieties of social justice studies. You couldn’t tell the difference between the genuine article and the hoax papers by the trio. What could explain these obscene levels of ludicrousness? 

Pluckrose and Lindsay place the intellectual origins of the social justice scholarship in what is broadly known as postmodernism. A “radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism,” and “a belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.” In the course of time the theory became simplistic, goal-oriented, and actionable. Pluckrose and Lindsay call this applied postmodernism. Radically skeptical, if not hostile, about what those who oppose may know, ridiculously doctrinaire about all it claims to know.

Applied postmodernism is a set of radical conclusions supported by a convoluted web of rationalizations and rhetorical ploys. Its modus operandi goes something like this:

  1. Create an extreme, unfalsifiable and all-revealing theory. 
  2. Attach this theory to sacralized race and victimhood categories. 
  3. Condition the authenticity of these sacralized race and victimhood categories to the degree of conformity to said theory. 
  4. Denounce anyone who criticizes the theory as an attacker on all of those who can be grouped in the sacralized race and victimhood categories.

Social justice, as any illiberal revolution of the past, has become a parody of the system that it aims to overthrow. Social justice is a “regime of truth,” imposed by ever stricter social controls, where no error is admitted or even conceived possible. Control of the discourse, manipulation of language, otherizing whole groups of people, cancelling and doxxing anyone who steps out of the line. Conformity to the social justice dogma is the supreme public virtue.

Authoritarianism is not just an impulse of the woke, it is their primary one, and at times it seems to be the only one. And what a better way to hide that base impulse than under a veil of care and sensitivity for those most vulnerable amongst us. Pluckrose and Lindsay quote how some social justice academics react to dissent. “Robin DiAngelo calls anything except deferential agreement ‘white fragility….Alison Bailey characterizes disagreement as ‘willful ignorance’ and a power play to preserve one’s privilege; Kristie Dotson characterizes dissent as ‘pernicious’; Barbara Applebaum dismisses any criticism of Social Justice Theoretical methods as ‘color-talk’ and ‘white ignorance.’” It’s no coincidence that you get that Nurse Ratched vibe every time you listen to Robin DiAngelo.

In woke America, one is expected to believe that racism is the dominant, all-pervasive, and all-controlling force in the structures of power, and if you dare to object to that idea, then the corporations, the bureaucracy, and the media will come down and wreck your life. The social justice dogma has become a substitute religion for America’s managerial class. It is a faith pursued with puritanical zeal by those who most often delude themselves that they belong in the secular strata of society. Cult seems a much more suitable word for the phenomenon than the word faith. I say cult because it requires a blind adherence to an “infallible” dogma, because ends justify the means, because unquestioning obedience to authority is elemental and dehumanizing individuals and groups is a credal necessity. 

Pluckrose and Lindsay are what we used to call mainstream liberals. In the book they emphasize that there is a clear cut distinction between their liberalism and social justice. Early on they clarify that “we find ourselves against capitalized Social Justice because we are generally for lowercase social justice.” But thinking about the account Pluckrose and Lindsay give of the development of this applied postmodernism, is that distinction and separation so clear? 

Lionel Trilling in his preface to The Liberal Imagination, wrote that “in the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” On the right, Trilling could only find something that could mostly manifest itself “in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Although many things happened in the intellectual space in the following decades, it is also true that where Trilling was situated, in the academy, liberalism remained the dominant intellectual tradition. The same dominance was evident in the government bureaucracy, the media, the entertainment industry and over time in the corporate world. 

This dominating creed was what we used to call mainstream liberalism, or what the authors of Cynical Theories may call lowercase social justice. It was manifest, for instance, in President Johnson’s 1965 speech at Howard University where he proclaimed that “This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.” This “equality as a result” was not because President Johnson or his speechwriters had probed into postmodernism and extrapolated from it an upcoming applied postmodernism where equality of results was a legitimate goal. No, equality of results was already baked into the cake of lowercase social justice. 

When Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in Grutter v. Bollinger submitted that “we expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [in student body diversity] approved today,” it was not an applied postmodernist perspective that convinced her and the majority of the court to give basic constitutional rights a long sabbatical for the sake of a deeply questionable policy. Nor was it an applied postmodernism that flooded popular entertainment over the last couple of decades with a belief in the irredeemable villainy of anything of a European origin. 

Namely, the social justice warriors of every kind did not storm the institutions only in the last couple of years. The doors were open, the red carpet had been rolled out, justifications had been made, rationalizations had been socially embedded, long-held principles and values had been trounced in the name of what the nation’s liberal establishment called progress. Today, we may associate the madness at hand with a small number of politically active millennials on the left; nevertheless, the truth of the matter is that though some of the millennials may be the protagonists of our present drama they are not the authors of it. 

Someday, if all goes well, liberty-friendly leftists, centrists, and conservatives will have to grapple with this question. In the meantime, we will have to face the common foe, the authoritarian left, and Cynical Theories by Pluckrose and Lindsay is an invaluable guide to this purpose.

Napoleon Linarthatos is a writer based in New York.