Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody (Swift: London, 2020)
United States President Donald Trump will chant back “Fake news” to any journalist who asks a question that does not align with his conception of the world. The left ridicules the President’s absurd protests as he presents what advisors call his “alternative facts.” His dismissal of global warming and the COVID-19 virus are examples of this trend. A new book, Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody, suggests that some of his fiercest critics are not exactly innocent of the same charge. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have written an analysis and critique of the critical theories in universities and it is not a complimentary one.
The focus is on the postmodernist movement, which began in the 1960s, from the writings of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and others. While it had no consistent theme, the movement questioned anyone’s ability to reach objective conclusions as it was impossible to transcend language, and since language reflected the power structures, the truth could not be obtained.
Postmodernism has always had its critics, particularly from conservatives, but also from figures from across the political spectrum. Its dense and often impenetrable writings have left many angry or plain confused. Among others, in 1987, the Australian conservative academic Keith Windschuttle published an over the top attack on postmodernism and history in The Killing of History. A world away from the conservatism of Windschuttle, the fire breathing Camille Paglia, writing for The New York Times, on 5 May 1991, described the followers of Lacan, Derrida and Foucault, as “fossilized reactionaries,” and “the perfect prophets for the weak, anxious academic personality.”  A more measured stance was taken by Richard Evan’s In Defence of History, in 1997, which was a historian’s response to the postmodernist challenge. It was a careful examination of postmodernism, and it set out its strengths and weaknesses. Evans’s critique of postmodernism was part of a broader move away from the theory’s more quirkier aspects. The book was so popular; it was re-released in 2000 with an extensive afterword. At the turn of the century, postmodernism appeared to be collapsing under the weight of its contradictions, and its intellectual impact was in decline.
Yet the movement had transformed and flourished into what Pluckrose and Lindsay have called “applied postmodernism”, which draws on some ideas from the Frankfurt School. While the first generation used the tool as means of dismantling ideas about knowledge, the second generation use it to create their own narratives and critical theory began to emerge. In general terms, critical theory rejected overarching explanations, to replace them with subjective, relative accounts of the experiences of an individual or sub-cultural group. Its proponents could – and did – dismiss any argument against it as a construct. Consequently, it became contemptuous of criticism – along with the people who gave it. Rejecting even evidence-based research, which it also regarded as a social construct. While scientific theory needed to be supported by facts, these theories requied no such support.
Some have noted the growth of the impact of the theory with disdain. In 2018, Paglia concluded: “The silence of the academic establishment about the corruption of Western universities by postmodernism and post-structuralism has been an absolute disgrace.”  Paglia might be reassured that not all academics have remained silent. In 2020, feminist historian Pluckrose and mathematician James Lindsay began to criticise the school in earnest. The two writers have put together a systematic discussion of critical theory and its impact in this book. The authors make it clear in criticising critical theory and the twenty-first century’s various identity politics, they are not attacking rights for gay people, people of color, or any progressive cause. They are liberals who find their enlightenment values under assault from critical theory.
Pluckrose had become frustrated with academia and the constraints being applied to her work. Along with philosopher Peter Boghossian, Pluckrose and Lindsay wrote under the name: ‘Helen Wilson’. The three submitted 20 articles containing self -evidently absurd concepts to various peer-reviewed journals. An article about “rape culture and queer performativity in urban dog parks” was the one that gave the game away. The Wall Street Journal wrote about it under the headline “Fake News Comes to Academia.” The trio had four published papers, of which three were accepted, but not yet published, and seven were reviewed. Some in the academic community were not impressed, as it lifted the lid on the dubious thinking and the poor reviewing standards in this sector. The trio were following in the footsteps of the physics professor Alan Sokal, who presented a hoax paper to a postmodernism journal in 1996, arguing that gravity was a construct – and this paper was published. Sokal would eventually write: Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science.
The trio believe that postmodernists are more interested in supporting conclusions that validate their views, rather than examining contrary evidence – the academic equivalent of Trump’s fake news. While the book has noble intentions, it has some flaws. Postmodern theories about science are ridiculous. Yet some examples of how critical theory has opened intellectual doors would have been useful, perhaps following the model of the historian Richard Evans, who gives praise when it is due. The trio are on the attack from page one – albeit a calm and measured attack. The individual chapters on Queer Theory, critical race Theory, Gender and so on are useful, but highly repetitive. The authors spend a great deal of time explaining the theories, but too little space on their impact. Indeed, the book’s primary contribution is to explain these critical theories’ in detail – something its proponents appear unable to achieve. In this regard, it is readable and scholarly.
While Cynical Theories judgments are often too harsh, the authors have a point. It has contributed to an increasingly shrill and intolerant debate, particularly about race and gender. The authors highlight the highly aggressive way disputes are handled in universities in the United States, where the theories are held by staff and students. Recent debate in Washington University, over a statue of George Washington, has been personal and vindictive, and in other places the debate has become toxic.
The respected linguist Steven Pinker was the focus of rage for expressing unacceptable views. An open letter signed by hundreds of academics demanded that the Linguistic Society of America remove Pinker from its list of “distinguished academic fellows and media experts.” As Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic has shown, the evidence presented by Pinker’s critics was wafer-thin. He writes: “In the first clause of this indictment, the signatories do not accuse Pinker of “scientific racism” with the attendant obligation to substantiate the charge. They merely claim that Pinker tends to “move” in “the proximity” of what one newspaper “called” a revival of scientific racism. These are the same tenuous, abuse-prone, guilty-by-association tactics that the far right has used to tar academics by linking them to communism or Islamism.”He concluded that Steven Pinker would be fine, but “this letter from his critics signalled to less powerful scholars that certain opinions, publicly stated, could result in a professional sanction.” To their credit, the Linguistic Society of America rejected the letter, but the point was made to any academic who wanted to comment on race and gender issues. Without going into details, (See Reason article below) Pinker presented an argument that people did not like. The collegiate atmosphere of universities appears to be a thing of the past.
The book presents the case that critical theorists want to re-establish the victim messages of disadvantaged groups after decades of liberal emphasis on equal opportunity. It is an approach that could lead to disastrous results as their extreme rhetoric provides fuel for the far right’s identity politics. Intolerance breeds intolerance. Right-wing populists, such as Trump, have courted the working class males with great success, yet critical theorists remain largely silent on the growth of right wing populist, preferring the soft targets of left liberal academics.
While prosecuting their case, Pluckrose and Lindsay often overstate the impact of academia in the broader political debate. Yes, academe’s ideas spill over to the media, and White Fragility, which is based on critical race theory, is certainly a best seller – as are many other anti-racist books. In general, academics write and talk to themselves, creating an echo chamber. The central problem is that only one set of views being heard within the academic bubble. Other than a stream of articles, conferences papers, and books – mostly unread even by their colleagues – their actual political achievements are slight. Even with their strident criticisms, Pluckrose and Lindsay do not argue for a move against critical theory at universities, only that there is a real need for a broader range of views and respectful debate. It is a call for evidence-based research, returning to a culture of respect for other views. They present a framework for moving ahead.
Cynical Theories is an engaging and important work, but the book needs to lift its gaze on occasion to more important issues. Critical theory does create an atmosphere of narrow minded debate, but that result is only part of the problem. The book downplays the broader problem of the polarising impact of social media’s echo chamber. Along with the rise of conservative media organisations such as Fox News, it is not surprising the uncivil way political issues are discussed. Entrenched academic intellectual silos are only part of the problem. With belligerent conservatives on the right, allied to aggressive media outlets, discussion in society could disintegrate – if it hasn’t already. Cynical Theories is a necessary call for a change of direction on debate on important social issues in universities. It highlights how critical theories lead to highly polarised debates – bordering on violence. With Donald Trump in the White House and critical theory on the rise in the universities, society needs more than a debate of the deaf.
 Eliana De Castro, “Camille Paglia: “Postmodernism is a Plague upon the Mind and the Heart,” Fausto Mag, 15 December 2012, accessed at https://faustomag.com/camille-paglia-postmodernism-is-a-plague-upon-the-mind-and-the-heart/ accessed on 4 October 2020.
 Claire Lehmann, “Camille Paglia: It’s Time for a New Map of the Gender World,” Quillette, 10 November 2018 accessed at https://quillette.com/2018/11/10/camille-paglia-its-time-for-a-new-map-of-the-gender-world/ accessed on 4 October 2020, quoting
 Helen Wilson, “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon”, Gender, Place & Culture, DOI:10.1080/0966369X.2018.1475346, published online on May 22nd, 2018. Upon discovery of the authors hoax, the article was removed. See Statement of Retraction: Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregonhttps://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0966369X.2018.1475346.
 Conor Friedersdorf, “The Chilling Effect of an Attack on a Scholar,” The Atlantic, 20 July 2020, accessed at: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/steven-pinker-will-be-just-fine/614323/ on 5 October 2020. Bailey, Ronald (July 10, 2020). “Steven Pinker Beats Cancel Culture Attack”. Reason.com. Retrieved August 10, 2020.
 Constance Grady, “Do the soaring sales of anti-racism books signal a true cultural shift? In the wake of the anti-police brutality protests, sales of books on anti-racism are surging,” The Vox, 11 June 2020, accessed at https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/6/11/21288021/anti-racism-books-reading-list-sales-figures, on 5 October 2020.