Cynical Theories: Review

When you come of age, you start to encounter deep and challenging philosophical questions; ones that don’t necessarily admit of simple straightforward answers.

How do I prove I’m not in The Matrix or a Boltzmann Brain?

How do I prove the Earth is round or that the moon landing wasn’t faked?

If a tomato is a fruit, why do they put it in the vegetable section? Who decides what words mean anyway?

Does practicing tolerance mean supporting people who are intolerant of others?

If all generalizations are false, but that’s a generalization so isn’t it also false?

If human senses are fallible and the only way we can learn about the world is through our senses, doesn’t that make knowledge impossible?

These are the sorts of things you might encounter in a first year philosophy course, or discuss around a campfire with friends assisted by various mind altering chemicals. Anyone who has started down the rabbit trail of answering a six year old who asked WHY? and then after your explanation immediately asks WHY? again knows that you can only go through so many rounds of this before even the most learned adult has to resort to Because it is. Now go to bed. What’s truly surprising, when you think about it, is not that this is true. What’s surprising is that we’re able to get through 99% of life without caring and it doesn’t seem to matter.

Quite mysteriously, there’s an intellectual-metaphysical underpinning to our world that all of us take for granted; that we vaguely understand but have no ability to explain, yet somehow are able to use to great effect to get through life pretty well. Or…

There’s a Socratic acceptance of the limits of one’s knowledge and there’s ignorance. I’m not saying which is which.

Stephen Fry

Thinking like an adult means, in some sense, being aware of and accepting this fundamental uncertainty in the universe without letting it grow into a debilitating skeptical neurosis. But in those moments of forced reflection — philosophy seminars, campfires enriched with pot smoke, lonely depressed solitary nights when you have nothing to think about but the meaning of it all — you reach a point where you’re forced to be the adult to the Why-asking-six-year-old inside yourself and say ‘Because it is’ and you don’t like that.

At that point you have a few options. The simplest way out is to adopt some stripe of religious faith. It is the way it is because that’s the way god made it and we can know this true because it’s been revealed to us. This is a kind of certainty placebo.

The other option is just to abandon the possibility of ever knowing anything. “Knowledge” is nothing but a language game where the popular and the powerful decide what’s true and we all kind of go along with it. Nobody really “knows” anything, everyone is entitled to their own “truth” and nobody ever really has the power to say that anyone else was wrong about anything factual or moral. That style of thinking is called postmodernism and its history and development is the subject of Cynical Theories.

As a brief aside so you aren’t consumed by uncertainty as you read about the book: religious fundamentalism and postmodernism are not the only two ways out. There’s a third way but most people don’t know what it’s called or how to explain what it is. It’s known by many names: rationality (from the word “ratio” where you apportion your level of conviction to the evidence), the enlightenment (a loose collection of ideas that postulate that reason and critical thinking can lead to increased knowledge and human flourishing), science (although not the yucky Baconian caricature of science taught in middle school, but the idea of conjecture and refutation — that any given idea is most likely false so we should viciously scrutinize ideas trying to prove them false, then the ones that remain standing we can consider “true for now”), and for the nerdy Bayesianism. They do mention this at the end of the book as a way to uplift you following several depressing chapters that descent into madness, but it’s not the focus of the book.

A Growing Concern

The internet did wonders for atheism. It brought people together and showed them they weren’t alone. They could be the only atheist they knew in real life and part of a community. But over the past ten years, enthusiastic atheists noticed some strange things happening. Religious apologists were shifting away from arguments based on evidence and moving towards arguments based on wordplay (“If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, he exists in every possible world”) and on a general skepticism of reason in general (demanding people provide a “moral standard” they know Hitler was wrong, or justifying the use of the logical absolutes). They crafted the spectacularly ambitious term Islamophobia which allowed criticism of a set of ideas to be conflated with racism against people with a particular skin colour. (The most famous, but not the most significant instance of which is probably Ben Affleck calling Sam Harris a racist on Bill Maher.) Feminists couldn’t decide whether religiously enforced face and body covering for women was a form of oppression or empowerment. The rise of terms like microagression and lived experience accompanied a rise in victimhood culture where getting people to feel sorry for you became a means to elevating your social status. We started hearing criticisms that “new” atheists were just a bunch of privileged old white men. Jordan Peterson, the Christian analog to Deepak Chopra, somehow became a respectable intellectual in some circles.

Something weird was definitely going on! We had names for it, “the regressive left” and “cancel culture” and “snowflakes”. The linguist and Columbia University professor John McWhorter is working on a new book likening the phenomenon to a “new religion”. But these were labels applied after the fact. It didn’t give you anything you could type into a search engine to research what this was or where it came from.

Critical Theory Exposed

This book is (as far as I know) the ultimate deep dive into the history of a set of confusing and misleading ideas. They are confusing and misleading because it’s a branch of “scholarship” that prides itself on its ability to use words in misleading ways. In school you learned about “critical thinking”? Well this is “critical theory” and it means almost the exact opposite. You’ve heard of “inclusion”? Well, this is a philosophy that believes you can only be inclusive by purging ideas that go against the grain. They’re not quite prepared to say “up is down” but after the book was sent to press, an educator in Seattle put out a call for help on Twitter to see if she could find ways of showing that two plus two could equal five to help validate her new proposed math curriculum. Had she done so a few months earlier, that would easily have made an entire chapter in the book.

The movement grew out of postmodernism, which came to prominence in the 60s and 70s and then vanished (or so we thought). It was, in fact taken up by a group bent on radical social reform around areas of race, gender, sexuality then later disability and body shape. Of course as children grow older and think it uncool to be seen with their parents, the origins of the movement became obscure. Some of it was just neglect of history, some of it intentional to hide the fact that the ideology is constructed from the work of privileged western white men like Foucault and Derrida. But the blurred history does help to hide some of the many blatant contradictions in the belief system. It’s also useful, for branding reasons, to hide the fact that a large part of it is Marxism but with economic class replaced various identity categories like race and gender.

The obvious question is, “Why doesn’t anyone just point out the contradictions and put a stop to this?” It turns out that if you get enough people together to form a field that eschews the conventional concepts associated with critical thinking, even if they can’t get their ideas published, they can form their own journals and if you wait long enough, they start to seem legitimate, even if their entire discipline is what Douglas Murray calls “a collection of unsubstantiated assertions.” And whether intentional or not, they’ve built themselves a tremendously effective marketing department piggybacking on phrases that sound positive. Inclusion, equity, Critical Theory (designed to sound like Critical Thinking), anti-racism. They also hide most of their “scholarship” behind dense incomprehensible prose. So the rank and file in the movement only needs to know slogans without actually being able to explain what any of them mean in the specialized and obtuse jargon of the field. It may well be that Lindsay and Pluckrose are the first people outside the field to actually try wading through this stuff and for this we owe them a great debt.

Deeply disturbing

I found the book hard to get through, because the content was so upsetting. In the same way that watching a debate between a scientist and a creationist, they always let the creationist go first and they launch out of the gate with a string of assertions you already know are false and your blood pressure just gets higher and higher waiting for the scientist to have their turn. I found myself having to stop several times a chapter just to avoid wanting to throw my iPad against the wall. As someone who has been indoctrinated into White Western Hegemonic Discourses of knowledge like the value of the scientific method and rational skepticism, it’s almost hurtful to contemplate that people could call this kind of thinking “scholarship”.

As I read, I also recognized the kernels of all of the silly ideas I’ve seen over the past several years from the radical skepticism of Christian presuppositionalists to people trying to to Jordan Peterson’s inability to answer basic yes-no questions about what he believes. So much of internet stupid now seems to have a common thread.

So far as I can see their treatment is fair and honest. They don’t try to hide the fact that they think that these belief systems are contradictory harmful nonsense. But I see no indication that they are reporting anything other than what they thought leaders of this movement actually believe. Although they have certainly found some of the quiet parts that they would rather wish were not said out loud and they’re quoting them. It’s a short textbook on Critical Social Justice that had to be written by its detractors, because the academics behind the movement don’t believe in expressing their ideas clearly enough to be able to write it themselves. (And I know that sounds like a rude insult to multiple entire academic fields, but from what I understand I feel like there’s at least a 40% chance they would see it as a compliment.)

A Message of Hope

The free and open exchange of ideas is supposed to make it harder for bad ones to survive. Whether it’s this book, The Coddling of the American Mind, or the forthcoming book by John McWhorter are pulling back the curtain on dangerous ideas. Hopefully sunlight is the best disinfectant and they won’t bee around for that much longer.

I wish I didn’t feel like I needed to be reading this book. But after reading it, I feel like these ideas finally make sense (in as much as they can make sense given that they explicitly embrace contradiction.) I was always afraid to engage with what sounded like ridiculous statements. Take, for example, “Gender is just a social construct.” I never wanted to say anything because I was giving the other side the benefit of the doubt figuring that there was some academic research behind it that went against everything I understood about biology and history. I was intimidated because I thought if I opened my mouth, I might be humiliated (as the kids say “get schooled”) for not knowing something I should have. Knowing it’s a faith claim adopted for political purposes means that I can take a deep breath and politely say “I disagree with that,” and maybe have a conversation and maybe I can do my small part to move these ideas in the general direction of the garbage can.

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