Critiquing the Critical Theories
Seeking to better understand our contemporary moment, I’ve been looking at a variety of intellectual sources that help to make sense of our nation’s polarizing state of affairs.
Some of you have probably discovered the sociologist Jonathan Haidt (NYU), whose research and publications (e.g., The Righteous Mind, The Coddling of the American Mind) strive to explain the increasing divisions in our society. Haidt’s Heterodox Academy is an organized effort to bring greater diversity of thought to institutions of higher education.
Others like the political theorist Danielle Allen (Harvard) have channeled their scholarship into efforts designed to explain the shape of democracy in a digitally mediated society—an area needing particular attention in the Age of Big Tech.
This weekend, I picked up Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody (Pitchstone, 2020). While the title is less than subtle, the books arguments are extraordinarily helpful in understanding the relationship between postmodernism (itself deserving definition), postcolonial theory (another leading influence), critical race theory, and the promotion of social justice. As I see it, the importance of Pluckrose & Lindsay’s work is in explaining these arcane theories, in layman’s terms, and outlining with real-world examples how such theories translate into everyday practices.
The most chilling aspect of these Critical Theories (which I have seen up-close in higher education), is there outright rejection of the rules of argument and the contest of ideas that lies at the heart liberal education. As Lindsay explains on his website:
One of the biggest mistakes we keep making as liberals who do value debate, dialogue, conversation, reason, evidence, epistemic adequacy, fairness, civility, charity of argument, and all these other “master’s tools” is that we can expect that advocates of Critical Social Justice also value them. They don’t. Or, we make the mistake that we can possibly pin Critical Social Justice advocates into having to defend their views in debate or conversation. We can’t.
Pluckrose & Lindsay do have suggestions for how to respond to the regnant theories, which would be worth discussing in our ranks, even as we move forward in these trying times.