When Helen Pluckrose contemplates the buzz created by her new book, she almost can’t believe it.
“I am astonished,” Pluckrose admits, adding, “You just wouldn’t expect that enough people would be interested in a book on the evolution of postmodern social thought to put Jim and me into the bestsellers category, would you?”
Jim is her coauthor, James Lindsay, and the book is a page turner.
A page-turner about the evolution of postmodern thought? It sounds weird. I know. But I speak the truth.
The book is Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody, which came out in August. If it sometimes seems to you that proponents of Critical Theory speak another language, they do. Fortunately for us, Pluckrose and Lindsay have decoded this arcane language. Their surprisingly readable book is a window into the ideology that currently dominates universities, and our culture, and even spills into our private lives (not to mention spilling into our streets).
Pluckrose, who lives in London, is editor of a magazine called Areo, which takes its name from the Areopagitica, Milton’s famous defense of free speech. (How high-brow is that?) Areo specializes in articles rooted in “humanism, reason, science, politics, culture and human rights.”
Lindsay, who lives in Tennessee, is a mathematician who writes about authoritarianism and the psychology of religion—he and Helen are stalwarts of the New Atheism. They met via an intense Twitter discussion. The book idea evolved from there.
Several years ago, Pluckrose and Lindsay joined with American philosopher Peter Boghossian to perpetrate an academic hoax that came to be famous as “the Grievance studies affair.”
Cynical Theories is not their first foray into headline-grabbing. Several years ago, they joined with American philosopher Peter Boghossian to perpetrate a hilarious academic caper that came to be known as “the Grievance studies affair.” To expose the poor quality of scholarship of academic journals, the hoaxers wrote absurd articles on gender, race and fat studies and submitted them to high-brow, peer-reviewed academic journals. Several were accepted and published.
One of their articles that was published was entitled, “Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon.” It explored dog on dog rape and probed implications for human beings. “Because of my own situatedness as a human, rather than as a dog, I recognize my limitations in being able to determine when an incidence of dog humping qualifies as rape,” “Helen Wilson,” affiliated with the non-existent Portland Ungendering Initiative, opined. “In particular,” she continued, “from my own anthropocentric frame, it is difficult if not impossible to ascertain when canine sexual advances are un/wanted, or when they are rapes rather than performances of canine dominance, which introduces considerable unavoidable ambiguity in my interpretations of this variable.”
Another article that was published refashioned Hitler’s Mein Kempf in feminist terms.
If Helen is so far coming across as some madcap Oxbridge intellectual, nothing could be further from the truth—by her own choice. Her father was a successful businessman, and her mother a writer and comedian. She grew up in a big house “and had all the advantages,” but she rejected the normal course of continuing onto university after a private school education. “I wanted to be independent, and I wanted to do my own thing,” she admits. “So, I spent quite a few years just earning minimum wage and thoroughly enjoying life. I’m not a very ambitious person at all. I still don’t earn much.”
She worked as a caregiver for elderly people for 17 years. At the age of 34, Pluckrose had health problems that prevented her from working and so she went back to school. She studied at the University of East London and pursued postgraduate work at Queen Mary University of London. “And that was really my second life. I started getting much more into political and cultural issues as I went back to university and I saw what was happening, what was in the pipeline,” she says. While at university, Pluckrose, though an atheist, delved deeply into the writings of Medieval Christian women such as 15TH century mystic Margery Kempe. Pluckrose asserts that Kempe was able to use her claim that God spoke directly to her to “override” what Pluckrose sees as a patriarchal Church.
Pluckrose lives in London with her “lovely” husband David, a forklift driver, and their 16-year old daughter, Lucy, “an anime geek.” “She’s lovely, too, but she doesn’t want to hear about postmodernism ever,” Pluckrose says. “She finds it all extremely boring. And she tells me that if I make her listen to postmodernism, she will make me listen to stuff about anime. So, we have a kind of understanding.”
Postmodernism, as Pluckrose and Lindsay portray it in Cynical Theories, is the result of the breakdown of the “Enlightenment project.”
As befits the author of a spoof on canine power relationships in urban dog parks, Helen and her family live with two dogs—and other assorted animals. “We have a house full of animals,” she says, “because I’m very much a dog lover. So, I have Nero here, who’s now licking the phone, a Labrador, and Miley, who is also a Labrador, and a cat, and a boa constrictor, and a turtle, and a rat.”
In addition to explaining postmodernism, Helen has another passion: proper English tea, properly brewed and properly served. Once the topic is mentioned, she is off and running. “I’m afraid I have to get quite assertive about tea because you Americans are just not doing it right,” she says, adding, “Now, your accent suggests to me that you might even be one of those Americans who has iced tea with sugar in it. Do you put sugar in it?”
Guilty as charged, I admit. Is sweet, cold iced tea really so wrong?
“Yes. Yes, that is deeply unethical. If I ever solve this problem of critical social justice I will have to go and set up a mission in the American South and teach the joys of proper tea making,” says Helen, assertively.
Helen continues, “It’s just that it’s a very British thing and I kind of realized how much of a British thing it is, how many rituals we have. I don’t remember ever not drinking tea. And then, everybody is very particular about the way they drink tea. People have wars over whether or not it’s ever okay to use teabags, and when the milk should go in, and how you should warm the pot. And it’s really – it really is just a very silly British thing. And I realized how intense it was when I started ted visiting my colleagues and things in the U.S. So, it’s become a kind of standing joke with American friends now, that I will lecture them about tea.”
As Pluckrose tells it, her second career as a public intellectual seems just to have happened. “It is very strange,” she says. “I just started writing blogs and running a Twitter account, and then more and more people turned up. And then they started asking me to write things for them, and somehow, I, over the last few years, I’ve become somebody people go to understand what’s happening in universities and in the whole sort of social justice thing. So, I’m still a bit bemused by it, to be honest.”
“I’m afraid I have to get quite assertive about tea because you Americans are just not doing it right,” Pluckrose insists.
Postmodernism, as Pluckrose and Lindsay portray it in Cynical Theories, is the result of the breakdown of the “Enlightenment project.” The Enlightenment created liberalism and modernity, which as values are “at the heart of Western civilization” and now are “at great risk” because of the rise of postmodernism—or what Pluckrose dubs Theory. There are various schools of Theory—Post Colonial Theory, Queer Theory, Race Theory, Gender Theory, and Disability and Fat Theory, to name a few prominent ones.
People who are not initiated on Theory may find it difficult to even understand what postmodernists are saying. This is because they speak a specialized language; indeed, they “obsess” over language, power, knowledge and the relationships between them. They believe that language creates inequality, and forcing people to see and acknowledge inequality is at the heart of the postmodern project. But what future is there in acknowledging inequality upon inequality? Is there an endgame? Certainly, it can’t go on to reveal new forms of oppression for the rest of history? There must be some philosophical endgame, right?
On this score, Helen says, “There’s this very vague aim of social justice, isn’t there? So, yeah, there are lots of mini aims, but what the focus most of all at the moment is getting people to see white supremacy, whiteness, to stop being fragile, to acknowledge the problem, and to essentially believe everything that the critical theorists tell us, and then they think that sort of gradually this will then lead to a change in society, where these invisible systems of power have less control over everything and we can dismantle it and make things fairer. But it is all very, very vague. It’s not like with Marxism, for example where there’s this clear end goal of proletariats owning the means of production.”
Pluckrose notes that Individuality is irrelevant in Theory. “Well, identity is always very much a group thing,” explains Helen. “There’s not a lot of respect for individuality, as there was in the liberal system that wanted all to be treated as individuals, to be judged according to their individual worth and not by their identity. Identity politics, a product of postmodernism, wants to have a kind of essentialism—of race, of gender, of sexuality—and a specific knowledge tied to it, and experiences, and a unique voice of color, or of trans people, or whatever. So, it’s all about power systems running through people. There’s no individual identity, as such.”
At the beginning, Theory rejected the notion that there is something that is truth that truth can be pursued, and however partially and imperfectly, objectively known. In this, Theory differs from Enlightenment liberalism, Christianity, Marxism, and Islam, all of which recognize an objective reality. Later, around the 2010s, Theory began to somewhat diverge from the notion that there is no truth. Pluckrose and Lindsay call this the “reification” of postmodernism. Crudely stated: Theory is truth. Postmodernism continues to reject science, and its refusal to recognize sexes as intrinsic stems from this.
Both Marxists and Enlightenment thinkers believed in the concept of truth, something early postmodernism rejected. “The original postmodernists,” Helen explains, “were very much just taking everything apart, but then in 1989, when the next wave came about—Critical Race Theory, intersectionality, and queer theory, and all the rest of it—they said that postmodernism is good, but you can’t do a lot with it. An example of this is an essay of Kimberle Crenshaw’s Mapping the Margins. She says we want to take these postmodern ideas about power clustering around certain groups, about knowledge being a social construct, about race and gender all being socially constructed in the service of power. But we need to say that something is true. So, they stepped back a bit towards accepting an objective truth, but that objective truth is that society is socially constructed in these oppressive ways.”
Pluckrose and Lindsay propose a solution to our perilous position: the old liberalism bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment.
It is worth noting that Black Lives Matter can and does use Theory, but it also includes Marxists.
Postmodernism has, in a way, gone pop culture. “We’ve got books like Being White, Being Good, White Complicity in Education, and White Fragility, and How to Be an Antiracist,” notes Helen. “And those last two are bestselling books. They’re popular. They appeal to people who want to make the world a better place, and they couldn’t do a lot with the original postmodernism.” Ironically, if people want to make the world better, postmodernism, a pessimistic ideology without a real endgame, might not be the best way to do it.
Pluckrose and Lindsay propose a solution to our perilous position: the old liberalism bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment.
For example, they deny Critical Race Theory, the idea that racism is hard-baked into who we are, but recognize that racism and prejudice exist. Liberalism is the better way to overcome this. She says that liberalism has made it possible for society to move beyond feudalism, imperialism, and slavery. “We’ve done this by being able to have access to our own minds, to make arguments, to formulate arguments, and to have that marketplace of ideas out there. So, this relies on the individual being able to make an argument and another individual being able to evaluate that, and then consensuses change, and then society changes. The liberals had confidence that humans argue things out, that they could evaluate ideas, use reason, and evidence, and update knowledge, whereas the postmodernists believe everything comes down to power, and dominant discourses, and there isn’t really an objective truth or a morally better or worse. It’s always what the people in power are constructing as the dominant system and the moral imperative is to disrupt that.”
She sees signs of hope. “Your president has now banned critical race theory in federal training, and I’m pleased that he’s done that. I’m a little bit concerned that he’s not possibly doing this for reasons of liberal freedom of belief, but we have the benefit of the doubt. This is a good thing that people, federal employees are no longer required to affirm beliefs in a belief system which they may or may not believe in. We, over here in the U.K., we’re speaking to the government about various issues like this. The Department of Education has just changed its guidelines to teachers, in which it said that cancel culture is a form of bullying and that people must allow different viewpoints to exist. So that’s certainly a step in the direction.”
If you’d like to take a step in the right direction for your intellectual life, here’s a recipe: brew a proper pot of English tea and open Pluckrose’s book. Savor both.