Here is all you need to know. Society is made up of invisible force fields, handed down by history and keeping oppressed groups in their place. The Force, designed by oppressor groups, in particular white men, controls you through the words you use, and the meanings attached to those words. Constructed by the evil Force in a bid to control your thought, what we think of as “knowledge” makes you accept and reproduce hierarchies of race, sexuality, gender, disability, even weight. The “real world” and science are illusions created by the Force to maintain the hierarchical system. Reality doesn’t exist, only perception.
But help is on the way, for we now have the cure for this problem: Critical Theory. The goal of “Theory” is to overthrow the Force, liberating the disadvantaged from their mental slavery to usher in an epoch of perfect equality, or even — dare we hope — turn the tables on the white cis-het male oppressor. If you fall into a hegemonic category, you must repent of your privilege and become an ally to the oppressed. If from a victim group, you must wake up and fight against lies about “objective truth”, “free speech” or universal standards, which are oppressing you and erasing your identity.
If you have the temerity to disagree with this conspiracy theory, or demand evidence for its sweeping claims, you’re part of the problem, helping to reproduce the Force and uphold the System. Time for your re-education, otherwise known as diversity training.
Critical Theory is the philosophy which underlies Wokeness. It consists of layers of assertions, built up over time, with each new generation of theories building on the inventions of previous theorists. Using moral self-righteousness and the leftist monoculture of the soft social sciences to shield them from scientific scrutiny, its practitioners have founded a series of fields such as queer theory, critical race theory, fat studies and critical gender theory.
Gradually, these have intersected and morphed into an all-encompassing Theory, which today’s identity politics activists use to justify a ratcheting programme of language policing, Twitter mobbing and re-education. When challenged, they wheel out Theory buzzwords like “white fragility”, “heteronormative” or “microaggression”.
Critical Race Theory, in particular, has become such a concern that last month the US president issued an executive order barring its use in federal institutions, while yesterday in Parliament Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch condemned it as a “dangerous trend” in race relations.
Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories is the most thorough attempt yet to unmask this Social Justice religion, or, to use postmodernist lingo, to “deconstruct” its “metanarrative”. It tracks the genealogy of critical race, gender, queer and fatness theory, painstakingly pointing out logical leaps and flaws. The two authors, along with a third figure, Peter Boghossian, came to well-earned prominence in October 2018 when they revealed the scandal that they were able to get seven hoax papers published in established gender studies, fat studies and queer studies journals.
These included a purported participant observation study of a dog park alleging that canines engage in rape culture and a paper on the penis as social construct. Though designed to be ridiculous, these studies passed peer review because they ticked the right ideological boxes and demonstrated proficiency in postmodernist jargon. One even won an award. Like Alan Sokal’s similar hoax in the 1990s, Pluckrose and company exposed the fact that these studies trafficked in ideology and faux-knowledge, and could thus be manipulated in a way no scientific journal dedicated to understanding the real world can be.
As a Masters student in Sociology at the London School of Economics in the early 1990s, I encountered the prelapsarian world in which high theory and activism were still separate. Coming from an economics background, I was stunned to find myself in a sociological theory seminar that felt like a séance, in which participants riffed off each other, tossing in morsels of jargon or fragments from canonical thinkers like Michel Foucault, Claude Levi-Strauss or Homi Bhabha, while shedding little to no light on the workings of the social world beyond our classroom.
The big thing was still postmodernism, the idea that modernisation and progress are a myth, along with its bigger sister, post-structuralism, which holds that language is just a bunch of words which gain meaning from each other and have no relationship to anything in the real world. Postmodernism was an art rather than a science, a play on words instead of a serious attempt to improve our knowledge of society.
Of course, there may be a grain of truth to Foucault’s untested idea that knowledge affects power relations, or to the post-structuralist claim that context has some effect on the meaning of words. Phrases like “astral world of signs” or “liquid modernity” really are a lot of fun. Yet, rather than make such claims measurable and modest, its contemporary practitioners have elevated the idea of knowledge as oppression onto the plane of sacred values, with reality and theory two non-overlapping magisteria that science cannot solve. Relativism insulates Theory from scientific scrutiny.
After the seminar, I noticed one especially humourless classmate dressed in proletarian gear flogging the Socialist Worker in the quad, having swapped his postmodernist theory for Marxist practice. Nowadays, his high theory and activism would be better coordinated, united in the form of a strident intersectional identity politics which manifests in the form of open letters to cancel professors, Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility training or the New York Times’s 1619 Project. Indeed a key theme of Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book is that the political radicalism of the 1960s-80s has commandeered the pretend-expertise of postmodernism, invested it with seriousness and pressed it into action as Cancel Culture.
Just as Salafi Islam was a quietist form of fundamentalism that ignited when mixed with Marxist theories of action, Theory has now entered its activist phase. It has migrated off campus into government, the media and the corporate world. This is why the sane mainstream can no longer afford to ignore its abstruse nonsense and why, whatever we think of Trump, we should applaud his executive order banning Critical Race Theory in the US government.
The book’s intellectual history is vital, and I commend its plea for a return to what Jonathan Rauch terms “liberal science”. This said, the authors fail to grasp the liberal roots of Theory, and how Left-liberalism’s well-intentioned and sometimes protective attitude to minorities has overreached and helped make the problem worse.
They believe a sharp emotional line can be drawn between a nice “left-liberal” who “favour[s] the underdog” and a totalising victim-oppressor worldview. Unfortunately, it can’t. Once your default position is warmth toward supposedly helpless minorities and suspicion of majorities, you have stepped across an affective abyss which sacrifices your objectivity, and this makes it far harder to resist the leftist good guys just trying to protect the meek. After all, the hearts of activists fighting for the underdog are in the right place and you wouldn’t want to be associated with the dark side.
Theory is set up as a form of science but it rarely advances through logical argument, and it can only be countered if it rests on a pre-cognitive base of emotional neutrality.
While the principles of reason and liberalism are opposed to extreme egalitarianism, there is no appeal to the heart in contemporary liberalism to viscerally counter the powerful Woke metanarrative of “defending the weak against the tyranny of the majority”. Until such a thing happens, liberal science will continue to mock Theory the way Sokal did in 1996 — while wokeness barrels on, capturing the hearts of young, educated and “right-thinking” people.
John Ellis’s The Breakdown of Higher Education is a case study of what happened at the epicentre of Theory, the university. It provides a first-hand account of how the cultural revolution that institutionalised critical theory and Cancel Culture began and spread. As a British-born emeritus professor of English at the University of California Santa Cruz who has taught there since 1966, Ellis recalls an exciting time when staff and students learned the western canon, and used it as a jumping-off point to freely discuss ideas without fear of being shamed or disciplined. He recounts how Social Justice ideology has, over the course of his lifetime, driven the pursuit of truth and excellence out of the social sciences and humanities in American universities.
This cultural change began with demographic shifts and was consolidated through political discrimination. In 1969, the authoritative Carnegie faculty surveys found that 45% of the professoriate leaned left, 28% right and 27% in the middle. By 2004, a study of party registration data for Berkeley and Stanford university faculty showed an 8:1 left-to-right ratio, rising to 49:1 among junior faculty. Trend-setting California offered a clue as to what was happening. By 2016, another study found that the modest 2:1 left-to-right nationwide faculty ratio of 1969 had given way to a yawning 12:1 tilt. By 2018, Mitchell Langbert’s study of the party registrations of faculty in the top 50 US liberal arts colleges discovered that 39% had zero Republican registrations, with most of the rest in single digits.
Ellis remarks on the confluence of chance events that allowed this capture to take place. In effect, during the sixties, a combination of baby boom demographics and rising affluence resulted in the universities undergoing massive expansion. This occurred at precisely the moment that the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement delegitimated the country’s traditional narrative, a conjunction that created an opening for radical students to enter the professoriate in large numbers, transforming it.
Once in post, the new generation deepened their ideological grip by controlling recruitment. Instead of being inculcated into the dominant truth-seeking culture of the university, the radicals now possessed the critical mass to escape Rauch’s “liberal science” and transform the entire mission of academia. Now truth-seekers would have to bend to orthodoxy instead of the other way round. Instead of their traditional motto of veritas, the university now stood for radical activism, with a focus on disadvantaged race, gender and sexuality groups.
Ellis draws on John Stuart Mill’s argument that “the opposition of the other… keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity” — bad ideas on the extremes are sidelined. Once academia becomes a monoculture, however, with conservative voices excluded or suppressed, there is no longer a battle of ideas at the centre, but rather a climate which empowers “the most extreme and exciting positions of the left”, in Ellis’s words, a group who come to exemplify the shared outlook of the campus. The result has been ever-more strident campus radicalism, culminating in disasters like the Evergreen State and Middlebury affrays, shoutdowns and no-platformings. Professors who fail to conform to campus orthodoxy face open letters, chanting students and Twitter mobs trying to end their livelihoods.
Meanwhile, says Ellis, the university is failing its students. A succession of studies show that graduateliteracy levels and general skills have slipped compared to past generations. In one study, 45% of students showed no skills development over their entire university course. Meanwhile, implicit racial quotas at leading universities have resulted in minority students with weaker results being improperly allocated to universities that don’t match their aptitude, producing high dropout rates or transfers to less rigorous courses — with their relative lack of success in prestige fields then blamed on a racist curriculum rather than a flawed admissions process.
Universities have stonewalled attempts to obtain data on graduation rates for preferentially-admitted students, Ellis writes, because “they don’t want anyone to know the damaging results of these policies…the harm they do to black students”.
The mushrooming of equity and diversity bureaucracies in recent decades has both increased the chilling effect on conservative and centrist scholars and replaced an ethos of excellence with one of “diversity”. Diversity training using Theory-inspired materials is now mandatory across most American universities, and some University of California departments are requiring job applicants to complete “diversity statements” outlining how they are advancing orthodoxy. Administrators, not scholars, weed the pile of applications, which is only then sent on to academic departments.
Ellis believes that universities have passed the point of no return and cannot be saved from within. The only hope is for outside intervention, from donors, trustees or the Government. However, time is short, for Social Justice is now taking root outside the campus, from K-12 schools to corporations. As new generations are raised to prioritise sensitivity to minorities (as interpreted by Theory) over truth, the common sense of the off-campus majority may no longer exist in sufficient strength to resist dogma.
Pluckrose and Lindsay, inhabiting the more intellectually plural world of commentary and journalism, believe good ideas will win out over bad. Ellis, who has seen the face of repression first-hand within the American university system, is, in my view, more realistic.
Conservatives and traditional liberals naively expected the political correctness and speech codes of the 1990s to fade away. They wasted their energy on economics and foreign policy, neglected the culture and are now in danger of losing it altogether. Only an active mobilisation, involving the intervention of elected governments, can hope to reverse Theory’s capture of elite institutions, the current slide toward collective unreason and the emergence of a truly Orwellian public culture.