By Levi Secord
In Cynical Theories, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay issue a stinging rebuke of critical theory, and its various twisted children, by exposing its reliance on postmodernism. This book is aptly named, as these theories are cynical in the worst ways. These theories spread like the most malignant cancer—leaving desolation wherever they go. Christians who read this book will be struck with varied reactions. The careful reader will feel everything from camaraderie with the authors as they oppose the insanity of modern Social Justice Theory, to being shocked as the authors take several shots at both religious and conservative individuals. Overall, this book rightly points out how these critical theories only bring destruction. The good news is, these theories don’t work and thus they will be eventually defeated. The bad news is they don’t work and therefore bring a lot of carnage as they spread through society.
This is the right book at the right time and is an essential read for any who desire a deeper understanding of the issues we face. Below I offer four praises of Cynical Theories, and then I offer two essential critiques—ones Christians dare not miss.
Postmodernism’s Influence on Critical Theories
The underlying premise of the book is to prove how postmodernism has devolved into what we see in our streets. Pluckrose and Lindsay argue that postmodernism has gone through three phases from its inception in the academy to the totalitarianism in our headlines. In the first phase, postmodernism appeared in the academy through the work of individuals like Derrida, Foucault, and Rorty. At its root, this academic postmodernism was about deconstructing metanarratives, culture, language, etc. Such postmodernism was utterly worthless as it has led to despair and looked more like an ivory tower academic game played by intellectuals than anything useful.
In the second phase comes applied postmodernism, which sought to take the framework of postmodernism and make it useful, to bring its deconstruction and despair to real life. Applied postmodernism took the philosophical foundations of the movement and applied them to politics with the aim of deconstructing Western society so that it may be replaced with Social Justice. In the final phase comes reified postmodernism, which we see in our streets today. Its adherents reify postmodernism as it is now considered the unquestionable truth. It is the given. In this way, reified postmodernism reveals what thinking Christians have always known, that postmodernism, despite its avowed disdain for metanarratives, is its own metanarrative. And as a metanarrative against metanarratives, it will destroy itself. Fundamentally, it is a hypocritical and illogical worldview.”
Christians have written against postmodernism for some time, and yet, many fail to realize its evolution and how much evangelicalism has imbibed it. Pluckrose and Lindsay helpfully breakdown postmodernism into the two principles and four themes that run across these three stages. The first principle concerns how we come to know things. Pluckrose and Lindsay explain the postmodern principle of knowledge as a “radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism” (31). The second principle addresses politics and power: “The postmodern political principle: A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how” (31). Basically, these two principles relativize all of life (except, of course, the principles of postmodernism). They reduce everything to language games in pursuit of power. Such thinking permeates critical theory and its cohorts as it critiques culture.
Such radical relativism leads to the four unifying themes: the blurring of boundaries, the power of language, cultural relativism, and the loss of the individual and the universal. Basically, since all knowledge is merely a cultural construction propped up by language games, all boundaries (i.e., male/female) are arbitrary and made up. To defend these binaries, cultures oppress people through language and justify this oppression through metanarratives (ironically, something postmodernism itself does). Such a view removes the Western and biblical concept of the individual, reducing everyone to being merely a member of different identity groups with no universal significance or rights.
If this sounds insane, that’s because it is, and we see its fruit everywhere. According to postmodern theory, reality as we know it is just a cultural construction. Gone is any attempt to make truth and knowledge correspond to reality. All knowledge is culturally constructed and used to gain or keep power. As Pluckrose and Lindsay quip, “Although the claim that ‘we make reality with our cultural norms’ is not the same as the claim that ‘we decided what is true/what is known according to our cultural norms,” in practice this is a distinction without a difference” (32). Postmodernism wants to play God and decide what is true and knowable in the world.
Pluckrose and Lindsay track these principles and themes across various disciplines showing how postmodernism wrecks everything. From these presuppositions come all the grievance studies that plague our universities—postcolonial theory, queer theory, gender studies, critical race theory, fat studies, disability studies, etc. Christian leaders must reckon with the shifting of postmodernism as it rears its hideous head in our discussions about social justice. This ideology is a ravenous wolf, and it is the job of pastors to beat it off with the most massive stick they can find.
A Proper Lament for the loss of Classical Liberalism
Cynical Theories is a polemic that defends classical liberalism and modernism. The authors ardently defend reason, science, human rights, and other advances of Western Civilization. Their solution to postmodern critical theories is to return to modernism generally, and classical liberalism in particular. To be clear, they recognize the many evils done in the West but they also helpfully remind us that the West overcame these precisely because of its commitment to liberalism.
Sadly, many leaders in evangelicalism express apathy or even joy at the prospect of the West’s downfall. Such thinking is short-sighted at best, as the main candidate for replacing it is evil, oppressive, and anti-Christ. Christians need a healthier respect for how blessed we are to be in the West in general and America in specific. What we have inherited is of great value and should not be abandoned by anyone, least of all Christians. Here, Lindsay and Pluckrose put our evangelical leaders to shame as they prophetically speak about the objective goods that mark our cultural heritage. Meanwhile, our evangelical leaders play their fiddles in the name of love and protecting their witness as the world burns around them. Some people really do just want to see the world burn, and social justice warriors are at the top of that list.
Who Really Denies Science?
Christians are often accused of being anti-science, a misconception that even Pluckrose and Lindsay flirt with, but anyone paying attention can see that critical theory is blatantly anti-science. Cynical Theories makes this point several times, “Social Justice Scholarship, therefore, targets science and any other analytic methods that contradict these assumptions or claims made under them” (187). Simply put, Social Justice is prone to undermine and deny science in pursuit of its agenda. The authors expose how critical theories suggest that science, reason, logic, and math, are social constructs used to promote white supremacy. In an age where we are told to “believe the science” by the very people who undermine science to advance their agendas, is it any wonder we have a crisis of knowledge and truth? Our neighbors recite their leftist confession of faith that “Love is love,” and “Science is real,” totally oblivious to the apparent contradictions. Christianity poses no threat to the scientific method, but critical theory does. Critical theory only cares about science as a means to promote its agenda and to gain power over society. Anyone paying attention knows who the real science-deniers are in our society.
Critical Theory, especial Critical Race Theory, is Designed to Fail
If you do not have time to read the entirety of Cynical Theories, be sure to read the first two chapters and the one on Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Intersectionality. These three chapters are revelatory and worth every second. The chapter on CRT exposes how this ideology exasperates the racial problems in our society. Pluckrose and Lindsay summarize and mock CRT as “ending racism by seeing it everywhere” (111). If such a tactic seems counterintuitive and illogical, that’s because it is. They warn, “Critical race Theory [sic] and intersectionality are centrally concerned with ending racism, through the unlikely means of making everyone more aware of race at all times and places” (132). I would be surprised by the illogical nature of such thinking if I had not witnessed it throughout society.
CRT is about more than just seeing racism everywhere, as it assumes the presence of racism in all interactions. Such thinking has obvious, negative implications, “If we train young people to read insult, hostility, and prejudice into every interaction, they may increasingly see the world as hostile to them and fail to thrive in it” (132).
What is shocking is how proponents of CRT fail to recognize that this is itself a form of racism. Not just in its ascribing of guilt to whites based on their skin color, but also by asserting reason, science, and logic are white ways of knowing. In other words, according to CRT, minorities are less logical and rational than whites. Yes, that is as racist as it sounds.
Pluckrose and Lindsay argue that at its root critical theory, CRT, & intersectionality are rejections of classical liberalism. Many theorists will try to argue that because liberalism failed to deal with racism, minorities had to turn to these critical theories. However, this argument is historically untrue. The authors make the important point that the only reason CRT & intersectionality can thrive today, is by focusing on less obvious forms of ‘oppression’ like macroaggressions, because the West and classical liberalism were successful in defeating slavery and racism. If such discrimination had not been mostly eliminated, then social justice warriors would have no need to invent new forms of oppression to combat.
There is one final insight from this chapter all Christians should consider. Wherever this ideology goes, it makes race relations worse. This is true in universities, communities, and churches. Those within evangelicalism, who are purportedly working toward ‘racial reconciliation’ but who parrot CRT, only exasperate the situation. Even if individuals only use these as ‘analytical tools,’ they will get the exact opposite of reconciliation. This ideology only destroys and harms, especially the lives of minorities. At the heart of this worldview is analyzing the world. The analysis is the worldview. There is no way to separate out the ‘analytic tools’ without bringing in the worldview. As such, CRT and intersectionality do not bring actual healing to our wounds. Pluckrose and Lindsay explain:
“Some studies have already shown that diversity courses, in which members of dominant groups are told that racism is everywhere and that they themselves perpetuate it, have resulted in increased hostility towards marginalized groups. It is bad psychology to tell people who do not believe that they are racist–who may even actively despise racism–that there is nothing they can do to stop themselves from being racist–and then ask them to help you. It is even less helpful to tell them that even their own good intentions are proof of their latent racism. Worst of all is to set up double-binds, like telling everyone that if they notice race it is because they are racist, but if they don’t notice race it’s because their privilege affords them the luxury of not noticing race, which is racist…Such an obsessive focus on race, combined with a critique of liberal universalism and individuality…is not likely to end well–neither for minority groups nor for social cohesion more broadly. Such attitudes tear at the fabric that holds contemporary societies together” (134).
Yes, such thinking tears society apart. Worse yet, as Christians take this in, it is used to tear apart what God has objectively united. CRT is from the pit of hell, and it is anti-Christ. Wherever it goes it sows disunity and chaos, and never brings reconciliation. Only the blood of Christ can do that.
Pluckrose and Lindsay fall prey to a common trap of academics—snobbery. At several points, they socially distance themselves from those on the political right. They want it known that they are not like those conservatives. I’ve seen this attitude, even within the evangelical movement that opposes CRT. The desire to not be seen as one of those unclean simpletons is strong in evangelical circles. The problem is, it was precisely those conservatives who got it right while the ‘respectable’ ones dismissed them. Besides this, there are two critiques of Cynical Theories that Christians should consider.
Misunderstanding Postmodernism’s Relationship to Modernism
As stated above, Cynical Theories is basically an appeal to reject postmodernism and to return to modernism and classical liberalism. While postmodernism is, in many ways, a reaction to modernism, it is wrong to view it as solely a rejection of it. Some have identified postmodernism as the logical progression of modernism and dubbed it hyper-modernism.
Why? Fundamentally, modernism was a turn to the self, as it exalted human reason. The subject determined what was true through reason. Modernism cut off the universal God and exchanged him with man. The reason modernism had such success was it it lived off of the borrowed capital of Christendom. The problem is, as humans sought universal truth through the means of limited human reason they couldn’t agree on anything. It became clear that when untethered from God, human reason becomes unreasonable. In other words, modernism failed. And it failed because no one could agree on what reason actually dictated as true.
How then, is postmodernism a continuation of the modernist project? Since human reason could not provide the necessary universal standard, postmodernism rejected reason but still clung to the self, making experience and culture the arbiters of truth. Now the self gets to determine truth through experience, and all knowledge becomes relative and constructed. In other words, postmodernism is the logical fruit of modernism’s turn to the self. In this postmodernism is correct—without an actual universal, everything is relative.
Now, this realization shows how Pluckrose and Lindsay’s solution is insufficient. There is no way to return to modernism because it is bankrupt. Human reason is an inadequate god, and modernism is just as flawed as postmodernism. Don’t get me wrong, I could very happily live in a modernist society, more so than a postmodern one, but in the end, they are members of the same family. It turns out that humanity does not make a very good god. Whether it is human reason or human experience, the end is the same.
Classical Liberalism Cannot Exist Without an Adequate Foundation
Postmodernism’s relationship to modernism leads to my second critique—classical liberalism is no savior. Classical liberalism—the belief in human rights, free speech, the exchange of ideas, and limited government—is the product of the Christianized West and its biblical presuppositions. Pluckrose and Lindsay call for a return to liberalism but their hope is ignorant at best because they reject the true foundation of all morality.
Every worldview has a god of the system. All worldviews are, at some point, are a matter of faith. Modernism’s belief is in humans, especially human reason. Postmodernism’s faith is in humans, especially culture, experience, and the inviolable self. We cannot find the foundation for universal human rights, reason, or morality without the Creator God. The limited abilities of man cannot produce the needed universal. Lindsay and Pluckrose fail to recognize this, and this dooms their project to failure. Postmodernism’s cynicism is correct because without a universal truth, this life is all just a language game in our struggle for power.
Cynical Theories is a significant work that all Christian leaders should carefully read. I highly recommend this book to those who want to better understand what is going on in our society. Christians can view Lindsay and Pluckrose as our limited allies as we oppose critical theory. They offer a strong and insightful diagnosis of the problems with Critical Race Theory. However, a careful read of this book shows how Cynical Theories does not overcome the cynicism and despair of postmodernism. It offers no real hope to redeem and change the culture of our day. This should remind Christians that the gospel and lordship of Christ are the only hope in the cosmos. Without that, we are cynics hopelessly trapped in despair.