By Helen Pluckrose & James A. Lindsay, Pitchstone, May 5, 2020, 1634312023
This is an intense book. Pluckrose and Lindsay argue ferociously for the case against Critical Social Justice, which is distinct from the everyday social justice of liberal society. They are secular liberals who contend that Postmodern Theory is illiberal, and inhibits progress towards racial, gender, sexual, etc. equality.
The authors take a deep dive into Theory and its roots in postmodernism, which I found very interesting and enjoyable. They include lots of examples of Theorists both in the past and today. Their case is strong, because the clearly understand what Theory is.
This book is a good antidote to White Fragility. I am now even more convinced that the DiAngelo’s approach is unhelpful.
[k71] Liberalism is thus best thought of as a shared common ground, providing a framework for conflict resolution and one within which people with a variety of views on political, economic, and social questions can rationally debate the options for public policy.
[k84] Though the problem to the right is severe and deserves much careful analysis in its own right, we have become experts in the nature of the problem on the left. This is partly because we believe that, while the two sides are driving one another to madness and further radicalization, the problem coming from the left represents a departure from its historical point of reason and strength, which is liberalism.
[k91] It is this problem that we have dedicated ourselves to learning about and hope to explain in this volume: the problem of postmodernism, not just as it initially arose in the 1960s but also how it has evolved over the last half century.
[k98] This movement nominally pursues and derives its name from a broad goal called “social justice,” which is a term dating back almost two hundred years.
[k101] Perhaps most famously, the liberal progressive philosopher John Rawls laid out much philosophical theory dedicated to the conditions under which a socially just society might be organized. In this, he set out a universalist thought experiment in which a socially just society would be one in which an individual given a choice would be equally happy to be born into any social milieu or identity group. Another, explicitly anti-liberal, anti-universal, approach to achieving social justice has also been employed, particularly since the middle of the twentieth century, and that is one rooted in critical theory.
[k108] Postmodernism, in some sense, was an offshoot of this critical approach that went its own theoretical way for a while and was then taken up again by critical social justice activists through the 1980s and 1990s (who, incidentally, very rarely reference John Rawls on the topic).
[k113] Social Justice, as a proper noun with capital S and capital J, refers to a very specific doctrinal interpretation of the meaning of “social justice” and means of achieving it while prescribing a strict, identifiable orthodoxy around that term.
[k118] Let us make clear our own social and political commitments: we find ourselves against capitalized Social Justice because we are generally for lowercase social justice.
[k153] That is what we set out to provide in this book: a guide to the language and customs that are presently widely promoted under the pleasant-sounding moniker “Social Justice.”
[k159] Postmodern ideas have shaped what has since mostly been called Theory–the entity which is, in some sense, the protagonist of this book.
[k162] Of note, throughout this book, Theory (and related words, such as Theorist and Theoretical) with a capital T will refer to the approach to social philosophy that stems from postmodernism.
Cynical Theories explains how Theory has developed into the driving force of the culture war of the late 2010s–and proposes a philosophically liberal way to counter its manifestations in scholarship, activism, and everyday life.
[k186] We can see its impact on the world in their attacks on science and reason. It is also evident in their assertions that society is simplistically divided into dominant and marginalized identities and underpinned by invisible systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, ableism, and fatphobia. We find ourselves faced with the continuing dismantlement of categories like knowledge and belief, reason and emotion, and men and women, and with increasing pressures to censor our language in accordance with The Truth According to Social Justice.
[k230] A fundamental change in human thought took place in the 1960s. This change is associated with several French Theorists who, while not quite household names, float at the edges of the popular imagination, among them Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-Francois Lyotard.
[k239] It is probably most useful to understand postmodernism as a rejection of both modern__ism__–an intellectual movement that predominated through the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth–and modern__ity__–that epoch known as the Modern period, which began after the end of the Middle Ages and in which we (probably) still live.
[k248] Postmodernism raised such radical doubts about the structure of thought and society that it is ultimately a form of cynicism.
[k269] Italian postmodernists tended to foreground its aesthetic elements and viewed it as a continuation of modernism, while American postmodernists leaned toward more straightforward and pragmatic approaches. The French postmodernists were altogether more focused on the social and on revolutionary and deconstructive approaches to modernism. It is the French approach that will be of most interest to us, because it is primarily some of the French ideas, especially about knowledge and power, which have evolved over the course of successive variants of postmodernism’s central occupation, that which is often simply called Theory.
[k282] These include skepticism about objective reality, the perception of language as the constructor of knowledge, the “making” of the individual, and the role played by power in all of these. These factors underlie the “postmodern turn,” which is primarily a product of the 1960s and 1970s.
[k304] This, in turn, sparked fears that society was degenerating into an artificial, hedonistic, capitalist, consumerist world of fantasy and play.
This reaction often took the form of the pervasive pessimism that characterizes postmodern thinking, fueling fears about human hubris on one hand and the loss of meaning and authenticity on the other. This despair was so pronounced that postmodernism itself could be characterized as a profound cultural crisis of confidence and authenticity alongside a growing distrust of liberal social orders.
[k319] At the end of the sixteenth century, treatises against atheism also began to appear, which clearly suggests that disbelief in God had begun to circulate.
[k321] The Scientific Revolution was the result of widespread questioning of received wisdom and the rapid proliferation of different kinds of knowledge production. The development of the scientific method in the nineteenth century was centered on skepticism and the need for increasingly rigorous testing and falsification.
[k325] These concerns were especially acutely expressed by Jean Baudrillard. For Baudrillard, whose nihilistic despair at the loss of the “real” drew heavily on the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, all realities had become mere simulations (imitations of real-world phenomena and systems) and simulacra (“copies” of things without an original). Baudrillard described three levels of simulacra: associated with the premodern, modern, and postmodern.
[k330] In the modern period, this link broke down because items began to be mass-produced and each original could therefore have many identical copies. In the postmodern period, he concluded, there is no original and all is simulacra, which are unsatisfactory imitations and images of the real. This state Baudrillard referred to as the hyperreal. This evinces the postmodernists’ tendency to seek the roots of meaning in language and to become overly concerned with the ways in which it shapes social reality through its ability to constrain and shape knowledge–that which represents what is true.
[k339] In a typical expression of the despair at the heart of postmodernism, he diagnosed a waning of affect–the idea that there is no longer any heart to anything. For Jameson, surface aesthetics preoccupy our attention and distance and distract people from caring too deeply.
[k352] Ultimately, these thinkers are referring to a general feeling that the scientific and ethical certainties that characterized much thought about modernity had become untenable, and the loss of their preferred analytic tools rendered the situation completely hopeless. Their summary of this state took the form of an extremely radical skepticism and profound cynicism, particularly about language, knowledge, power, and the individual.
[k379] The perception of society as formed of individuals interacting with universal reality in unique ways–which underlies the liberal principles of individual freedom, shared humanity, and equal opportunities–was replaced by multiple allegedly equally valid knowledges and truths, constructed by groups of people with shared markers of identity related to their positions in society.
[k405] * The postmodern knowledge principle: Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.
- The postmodern political principle: A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.
[k408] The four major themes of postmodernism are
- The blurring of boundaries 2.The power of language
- Cultural relativism
- The loss of the individual and the universal
[k424] The scientific method, in particular, is not seen as a better way of producing and legitimizing knowledge than any other, but as one cultural approach among many, as corrupted by biased reasoning as any other.
[k428] Instead, it is the position that humans are so tied into their cultural frameworks that all truth or knowledge claims are merely representations of those frameworks–we have decided that “it is true” or “it is known” that the Earth goes round the Sun because of the way we establish truth in our current culture. n [k441] In this sense, postmodernism rests upon a broad rejection of the correspondence theory of truth: that is, the position that there are objective truths and that they can be established as true by their correspondence with how things actually are in the world.
[k453] Dominant discourses are extremely powerful because they determine what can be considered true, thus applicable, in a given time and place. Thus, sociopolitical power is the ultimate determiner of what is true in Foucault’s analysis, not correspondence with reality.
[k461] Foucault didn’t deny that a reality exists, but he doubted the ability of humans to transcend our cultural biases enough to get at it.
[k466] The principle of skepticism common among postmodernists is frequently referred to as “radical skepticism.” It says, “All knowledge is constructed: what is interesting is theorizing about why knowledge got constructed this way.”
[k471] In postmodern thinking, that which is known is only known within the cultural paradigm that produced the knowledge and is therefore representative of its systems of power.
[k475] Ultimately, Lyotard feared that science and technology were just one “language game”–one way of legitimating truth claims–and that they were taking over all other language games. He mourned the demise of small local “knowledges” passed on in narrative form and viewed the loss of meaning-making intrinsic to scientific detachment as a loss of valuable narratives.
[k481] It did, however, fail to appreciate that scientific and other forms of liberal reasoning (such as arguments in favor of democracy and capitalism) are not so much metanarratives (though they can adopt these) as imperfect but self-correcting processes that apply a productive and actionable form of skepticism to everything, including themselves.
[k487] Postmodernism is characterized politically by its intense focus on power as the guiding and structuring force of society, a focus which is codependent on the denial of objective knowledge Power and knowledge are seen as inextricably entwined–most explicitly in Foucault’s work, which refers to knowledge as “power-knowledge.”
[k496] Because of their focus on power dynamics, these thinkers argued that the powerful have, both intentionally and inadvertently, organized society to benefit them and perpetuate their power. They have done so by legitimating certain ways of talking about things as true, which then spread throughout society, creating societal rules that are viewed as common sense and perpetuated on all levels.
[k507] Thus, a society, social system, or institution can be seen as in some way oppressive without any individual involved with it needing to be shown to hold even a single oppressive view.
[k510] Instead, they regard it as the inevitable result of self-perpetuating systems that privilege some groups over others, which constitute an __un__conscious, __un__coordinated conspiracy inherent to systems involving power. They believe, however, that those systems are patriarchal, white supremacist, and heteronormative, and therefore necessarily grant unfair access to straight, white Western men and work to maintain that status quo by excluding the perspectives of women and of racial and sexual minorities.
[k521] Because they focused on self-perpetuating systems of power, few of the original postmodern Theorists advocated any specific political actions, preferring instead to engage in playful disruption or nihilistic despair.
[k538] Progress occurred fastest of all in the 1960s and 1970s, when racial and gender discrimination became illegal and homosexuality was decriminalized. This all occurred before postmodernism became influential.
[k543] Because of its rejection of objective truth and reason, postmodernism refuses to substantiate itself and cannot, therefore, be argued with. The postmodern perception, Lyotard writes, makes no claim to be true: “Our hypotheses, therefore, should not be accorded predictive value in relation to reality, but strategic value in relation to the question raised.”
[k551] 1. The Blurring of Boundaries
[k556] Almost every socially significant category has been intentionally complicated and problematized by postmodern Theorists in order to deny such categories any objective validity and disrupt the systems of power that might exist across them.
[k558] 2. The Power of Language
[k561] In postmodern thought, language is believed to have enormous power to control society and how we think and thus is inherently dangerous.
[k564] Few thinkers exhibit the neurotic postmodern fixation upon words more explicitly than Jacques Derrida, who, in 1967, published three texts–Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and Speech and Phenomena–in which he introduced a concept that would become very influential in postmodernism: deconstruction.
[k571] This unreliability of language, Derrida argues, means that it cannot represent reality or communicate it to others. In this understanding, language operates hierarchically through binaries, always placing one element above another to make meaning.
[k578] Consequently, since discourses are believed to create and maintain oppression, they have to be carefully monitored and deconstructed.
[k580] The most common postmodernist response to this derives from Derrida’s proposed solution: to read “deconstructively,” by looking for internal inconsistencies (aporia) in which a text contradicts and undermines itself and its own purposes when the words are examined closely enough (which is to say, too closely and, especially since the 1990s, with an agenda–Theory’s normative agenda).
[k584] 3. Cultural Relativism
[k587] For postmodernists, any meaningful critique of a culture’s values and ethics from within a different culture is impossible, since each culture operates under different concepts of knowledge and speaks only from its own biases.
[k597] 4. The Loss of the Individual and the Universal
Consequently, to postmodern Theorists, the notion of the autonomous individual is largely a myth. The individual, like everything else, is a product of powerful discourses and culturally constructed knowledge.
[k602] The postmodern view largely rejects both the smallest unit of society–the individual–and the largest–humanity–and instead focuses on small, local groups as the producers of knowledge, values, and discourses.
[k606] The prevailing view among many thinkers today is that postmodernism has died out. We don’t think it has.
[k608] Theory is intact, although the ways in which its core principles and themes are presented, used, and interacted with have changed significantly over the last half-century.
[k616] In that sense, postmodern Theory’s high deconstructive phase burnt itself out by the mid-1980s.
[k618] For this reason, we call the next wave of activism-scholarship applied postmodernism, and it is to this development we now turn our attention.
[k627] The postmodernists sought to render absurd our ways of understanding, approaching, and living in the world and in societies.
[k629] Endless dismantling and disruption–or, as they call it, deconstruction–is not only destined to consume itself; it is also fated to consume everything interesting and thus render itself boring.
[k633] After its first big bang beginning in the late 1960s, the high deconstructive phase of postmodernism burnt itself out by the early 1980s.
[k636] But, in fact, it simply mutated from its earlier high deconstructive phase into a new form. A diverse set of highly politicized and actionable Theories developed out of postmodernism proper. We will call this more recent development applied postmodernism.
[k640] During this turn, Theory mutated into a handful of Theories–postcolonial, queer, and critical race–that were put to work in the world to deconstruct social injustice.
[k646] These are centered on a practical aim that was absent before: to reconstruct society in the image of an ideology which came to refer to itself as “Social Justice.”
[k651] Theory therefore explicitly aims to critically examine discourses. This means something specific. It means to examine them closely so as to expose and disrupt the political power dynamics it assumes are baked into them so that people will be convinced to reject them and initiate an ideological revolution.
[k654] Between the late 1980s and roughly 2010, it developed the applicability of its underlying concepts and came to form the basis of entirely new fields of scholarship, which have since become profoundly influential. These new disciplines, which have come to be known loosely as “Social Justice scholarship,” co-opted the notion of social justice from the civil rights movements and other liberal and progressive theories.
[k662] The new forms of Theory arose within postcolonialism, black feminism (a branch of feminism pioneered by African American scholars who focused as much on race as on gender3), intersectional feminism, critical race (legal) Theory, and queer Theory, all of which sought to describe the world critically in order to change it.
[k668] Some of the new Theorists therefore criticized their predecessors for their privilege, which they claimed was demonstrated by their ability to deconstruct identity and identity-based oppression.
[k671] As a result, while the new Theorists retained much Theory, they did not entirely dispense with stable identity and objective truth. Instead, they laid claim to a limited amount of both, arguing that some identities were privileged over others and that this injustice was objectively true.
[k678] During its applied turn, Theory underwent a moral mutation: it adopted a number of beliefs about the rights and wrongs of power and privilege. The original Theorists were content to observe, bemoan, and play with such phenomena; the new ones wanted to reorder society.
[k715] Whether we call it “postmodernism,” “applied postmodernism,” “Theory,” or anything else, then, the conception of society based on the postmodern knowledge and political principles–that set of radically skeptical ideas, in which knowledge, power, and language are merely oppressive social constructs to be exploited by the powerful–has not only survived more or less intact but also flourished within many identity-and culture-based “studies” fields, especially in the so-called “Theoretical humanities.” These, in turn, influence and often hold sway over the social sciences and professional programs like education, law, psychology, and social work, and have been carried by activists and media into the broader culture.
[k733] The correction to this problem required grasping upon something both radically actionable and real, and Theory and activism therefore started to coalesce on a new idea in parallel to Descartes’ most famous meditation. For him, the ability to think implied existence–that something must be real. For the activist-scholars of the 1980s, the suffering associated with oppression implied the existence of something that could suffer and a mechanism by which that suffering can occur.
[k741] Among them, queer Theory is the only field that exclusively applies postmodern Theoretical approaches, but all these fields of study have come to be dominated by applied postmodernist thinking. The Theorists who took elements of postmodernism and sought to apply them in specific ways were the progenitors of the applied postmodern turn and therefore of Social Justice scholarship.
Postcolonial studies was the first applied postmodern discipline to emerge.
[k745] Edward Said, the founding father of postcolonial Theory, drew heavily on Michel Foucault, and his work therefore focused on how discourses construct reality.
[k748] In his ground-breaking book, Orientalism, he argues that “history is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and rewritten…so that ‘our’ East, ‘our’ Orient becomes ‘ours’ to possess and direct.”
[k774] In her most influential work, Gender Trouble, published in 1990, Butler focuses on the socially constructed nature of both gender and sex. For Butler, “woman” is not a class of people but a performance that constructs “gendered” reality.
[k786] However, this is not a disparagement of postmodernism, since incoherence and indefinability are central to Butler’s queer Theory. In her 1995 essay, “Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of ‘Postmodernism,’” Butler writes, in her usual semi-incomprehensible prose, that the point of postmodernism is to understand that oppressive power structures form as a result of firm definitions and stable categories and that recognizing this enables queer political activism. Therefore, rather than denying postmodern assumptions or methods, Butler argues that–just as it is better not to define sexes, genders, or sexualities–it is better not to define postmodernism.
[k810] For hooks, the problem was not that postmodernism was useless; it was that it was tailored to the experiences of white male intellectuals and did not allow for identity politics. hooks claimed that postmodern thought erred in destabilizing the concept of identity, which led it to exclude the unified voices and experiences of black Americans–particularly black women–and their aspirations to disrupt dominant narratives for the purposes of pursuing racial equality.
[k821] hooks’ ideas arose in parallel with critical race Theory, which originated with critical legal scholars, most notably Derrick Bell. One of Bell’s students was a legal scholar much influenced by black feminists like hooks: Kimberle Crenshaw. Crenshaw makes a similar critique of postmodernism in her groundbreaking 1991 essay, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” which developed the groundwork for the hugely influential concept of intersectionality, which she had introduced two years earlier, in a more polemic piece (see chapter 5).
[k852] Following Crenshaw’s recommendation, these rapidly emerging fields of critical studies of culture all rely heavily on social constructivism to explain why some identities are marginalized, while arguing that those social constructions are themselves objectively real.
[k858] They have become part of the intersectional framework and adopted much of the applied postmodern Theoretical approach, in which the disabled and the fat are believed to have their own embodied knowledge of disability and fatness, which is worth more than scientific knowledge. This is not simply about the obvious truth that disabled and fat people know what it is like to be disabled or fat in a way that able-bodied and slim people do not. Scholars and activists in these fields insist instead that the understanding of disability or obesity as a physical problem to be treated and corrected where possible is itself a social construct born of systemic hatred of disabled and fat people.
[k879] Their common concern with what they call “disrupting binaries” follows from Derrida’s work on the hierarchical nature and meaninglessness of linguistic constructions. This theme is less evident in critical race Theory, which can be quite black-and-white (double meaning intended), but, in practice, the intersectional feminist element of critical race Theory encompasses many identity categories simultaneously and tries to be inclusive of “different ways of knowing.”
[k888] Additionally, the idea that words are powerful and dangerous has now become widespread and underlies much scholarship and activism around discursive (or verbal) violence, safe spaces, microaggressions, and trigger warnings.
[k896] The intense focus on identity categories and identity politics means that the individual and the universal are largely devalued.
[k904] By losing the ironic playfulness and despair of meaning characteristic of high-deconstructive postmodernism and by becoming goal-oriented, Theorists of the 1980s and 1990s made postmodernism applicable to institutions and politics.
[k907] Theory therefore turned from being largely descriptive to highly prescriptive–a shift from is to ought.
[k909] This ambition would come to fruition in the early 2010s, when a second significant evolutionary mutation in postmodernism occurred.
[k911] If knowledge is a construct of power, which functions through ways of talking about things, knowledge can be changed and power structures toppled by changing the way we talk about things.
[k919] This belief increased the aggressiveness of identity politics to such an extent that it even led to concepts like “research justice.” This alarming proposal demands that scholars preferentially cite women and minorities–and minimize citations of white Western men–because empirical research that values knowledge production rooted in evidence and reasoned argument is an unfairly privileged cultural construct of white Westerners.
[k924] As these methods can be applied to virtually anything, a vast body of work drawing on any (or all) identity-based fields has emerged since roughly 2010. It asserts the objective truth of socially constructed knowledge and power hierarchies with absolute certainty.
[k936] Such people can both be disadvantaged as knowers, when they are forced to operate within a “dominant” system that is not their own, and also enjoy unique advantages, because of their familiarity with multiple epistemic systems. They can alternately be victims of “epistemic violence” when their knowledge is not included or recognized or of “epistemic exploitation” when they are asked to share it.
[k942] Teachers could consider their attempts at objectivity successful if their students did not know what their political or ideological positions were.
[k944] Teaching is now supposed to be a political act, and only one type of politics is acceptable–identity politics, as defined by Social Justice and Theory.
[k947] Now, scholars can openly declare themselves to be activists and teach activism in courses that require students to accept the ideological basis of Social Justice as true and produce work that supports it.
[k963] Activism and education exist in a fundamental tension–activism presumes to know the truth with enough certainty to act upon it, while education is conscious that it does not know for certain what is true and therefore seeks to learn more.
[k978] What has happened is that applied postmodernism has come into its own, been reified–taken as real, as The Truth according to Social Justice–and widely spread by activists, and (ironically) turned into a dominant metanarrative of its own.
[k1014] Then, with surprising rapidity, European colonialism faltered and collapsed in the middle of the twentieth century. Following World War II especially, decolonization efforts proceeded quickly on both the material and political levels, and, by the early 1960s, moral concerns about colonialism were prominent in both the academy and among the general public, especially on the radical left.
[k1029] Then, his 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth, set the stage for postcolonialism and postcolonial Theory. Its thesis marked a profound change in thought on the subject. To Fanon, by 1961, colonialism represented, above all else, a systematic denial of the humanity of colonized people: so central is this theme to Fanon’s analysis that he speaks throughout of the literal erasure of people’s identity and dignity.
[k1034] Writing in 1961, however, Fanon was hardly a postmodernist. His approach is usually understood to be modernist because–while it is profoundly skeptical and clearly both critical and radical–his criticisms draw mainly on Lenin’s Marxist critiques of capitalism, his analysis relies heavily on psychoanalytic theory, and his philosophy is essentially humanist. Nevertheless, later thinkers, including Edward Said, the father of postcolonial Theory, took inspiration from Fanon’s depiction of the psychological impacts of having one’s culture, language, and religion subordinated to another.
[k1049] Said presented his new ideas in the book Orientalism, published in 1978.6 This book not only laid a foundation for the development of postcolonial Theory, but also brought the concept of applicable postmodern Theory to an American audience.
[k1060] Said argues that at the core of Orientalism lies a Western discourse, and it was this discourse that constructed the East, by imposing upon it a character that both denigrated and exoticized it.
[k1082] Explicitly activism-oriented, postcolonial Theory is thus the earliest category to arise within the applied postmodern school of thought.
Two other scholars are, with Said, held to be foundational to postcolonial Theory: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi K. Bhabha. Like Said’s, their work is thoroughly and explicitly postmodern in both derivation and orientation but, due to a greater focus on Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of language, it is linguistically and conceptually difficult to the point of obscurity.
[k1096] Colonizers justify their oppression of the subordinated group by regarding it as a monolithic “other” that can be stereotyped and disparaged. Strategic essentialism applies this same sense of monolithic group identity as an act of resistance, suspending individuality and in-group diversity within the subordinated group for the purpose of promoting common goals through a common identity.
[k1102] For example, she writes,
I find [Derrida’s] morphology much more painstaking and useful than Foucault’s and Deleuze’s immediate, substantive involvement with more “political” issues–the latter’s invitation to “become woman”–which can make their influence more dangerous for the U.S. academic as enthusiastic radical. Derrida marks radical critique with the danger of appropriating the other by assimilation. He reads catachresis at the origin. He calls for a rewriting of the utopian structural impulse as “rendering delirious that interior voice that is the voice of the other in us.”
Impenetrability and impracticality were the Theoretical fashion at the time, especially among postcolonial Theorists.
[k1170] By the early 2000s, the concept of decolonizing everything had begun to dominate scholarship and activism, and new scholars were using and developing the concepts in different ways, with more actionable elements. They retained the postmodern principles and themes and extended the focus beyond ideas and speech about literal colonialism to perceived attitudes of superiority towards people of certain identity statuses.
[k1178] What it means to decolonize a thing that is not literally colonized varies considerably. It can refer simply to including scholars of all nationalities and races: this is the primary focus of the United Kingdom’s National Union of Students (NUS) campaigns, “Why is My Curriculum White?” (2015) and #LiberateMyDegree (2016). Such campaigns focus on reducing reliance on white scholars from former colonizing powers and replacing them with scholars of color from formerly colonized regions. However, we also see a drive for a diversity of “knowledges” anzd epistemologies–ways of deciding what is true–under Theory often described as “(other) ways of knowing.” This comes with a strong inclination to critique, problematize, and disparage knowledge understood as Western.
[k1193] To elaborate, in the introduction to Decolonising the University, volume editors Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial, and Kerem Nisancioglu explain that decolonization can refer to the study of colonialism both in its material manifestations and through discourses, and it can also offer alternative ways of thinking. This is a form of standpoint theory–the belief that knowledge comes from the lived experience of different identity groups, who are differently positioned in society and thus see different aspects of it.
[k1205] For the Theorist Kehinde Andrews, critical race Theory is more influential, and knowledge is more closely related to skin color: “The neglect of Black knowledge by society is no accident but a direct result of racism.” We must, Andrews tells us, “forever leave behind the idea that knowledge can be produced value free. Our politics shape our understanding of the world and the pretence of neutrality ironically makes our endeavours less valid.”
[k1218] This leads to a belief that rigor and completeness come not from good methodology, skepticism, and evidence, but from identity-based “standpoints” and multiple “ways of knowing.”
[k1231] For example, medieval war historians often advise naive readers of accounts of battles to divide the number of soldiers claimed to have been present by ten to get a more realistic figure. This tendency to massively overstate numbers (probably to make the story more exciting) was discovered by empirical historians seeking out records of soldiers’ pay. Similarly, empirical feminist scholars have used legal and financial records to reveal that women played a much more active role in society, law, and business than had long been assumed. Our knowledge of history is skewed by the biased records that survive, but the way to mitigate this is to investigate such claims empirically and reveal the falsity of biased narratives, rather than include a greater range of biases and declare some of them immune to criticism.
[k1251] Postcolonial Theorists insist European philosophy must be entirely rejected–even to the point of deconstructing time and space as Western constructs.
[k1266] Research justice acts upon a belief that science, reason, empiricism, objectivity, universality, and subjectivity have been overvalued as ways of obtaining knowledge while emotion, experience, traditional narratives and customs, and spiritual beliefs have been undervalued. Therefore,
[k1288] The normal expectations of scholarly “research” do not apply when pursuing research justice. This is alarming, and it is justified Theoretically. In the words of professor of indigenous education at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, Linda Tuhiwai Smith,
[F]rom the vantage point of the colonised, a position from which I write and choose to privilege, the term “research” is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism. The word itself “research” is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary.
[k1305] These scholars criticize the postmodern approach to postcolonialism. Perhaps the most outstanding critic is the Indian postcolonial scholar Meera Nanda. She argues that, by assigning science and reason to the West and traditional, spiritual, experiential beliefs to India, postmodern scholars perpetuate Orientalism and make it very difficult to address the many real issues that can best be tackled using science and reason.
[k1331] When Winston Churchill, Joseph Conrad, and Rudyard Kipling become nothing more than symbols of racist imperialism and their achievements and writings are too tainted to be acknowledged, we lose not only the potential for any nuanced discussion of history and progress but also the positive contributions of the men themselves.
[k1341] For example, when feminists from Saudi Arabia, secular liberals from Pakistan, and LGBT rights activists from Uganda have attempted to raise the support of the English-speaking world by using hashtags in English on social media to draw attention to human rights abuses, they have received little response from the applied postmodern scholars and activists who might otherwise be assumed to be in their corners.
[k1355] Since they look at oppression only in terms of colonialism, colonialism is all these scholars and activists are equipped to find. As a result, not only do they hamstring their ability to understand–and therefore ameliorate–the problems they are seeking to solve, but they also tend to make them worse.
[k1365] This is not a bug, but a feature. It is what the critical approach in Theory means. There is always more to interpret and more to deconstruct, and, with enough motivation and creativity, anything can be problematized.
[k1375] There is little reason to believe that previously colonized people have any use for a postcolonial Theory or decoloniality that argues that math is a tool of Western imperialism,48 that sees alphabetical literacy as colonial technology and postcolonial appropriation,49 that views research as the production of totalizing meta-texts of colonial knowledge,50 or that confronts France and the United States about their understanding of big black butts.
[k1383] Queer Theory is about liberation from the normal, especially where it comes to norms of gender and sexuality. This is because it regards the very existence of categories of sex, gender, and sexuality to be oppressive.
[k1388] Queer Theory presumes that oppression follows from categorization, which arises every time language constructs a sense of what is “normal” by producing and maintaining rigid categories of sex (male and female), gender (masculine and feminine), and sexuality (straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and so on) and “scripting” people into them. These seemingly straightforward concepts are seen as oppressive, if not violent, and so the main objective of queer Theory is to examine, question, and subvert them, in order to break them down.
[k1395] In doing so, it exhibits an almost unmodified manifestation of the postmodern themes of the power of language–language creates the categories, enforces them, and scripts people into them–and the blurring of boundaries–the boundaries are arbitrary, oppressive, and can be erased by blurring them into apparent absurdity
[k1410] In both cases, however, homosexuality was something that people did rather than who they were. The idea that one could be a homosexual only began to gain recognition in the nineteenth century, appearing first in medical texts and within homosexual subcultures.
[k1415] Over the second half of the twentieth century, this attitude shifted again until a dominant liberal discourse around homosexuality–which still holds the moral high ground today–evolved. This attitude is best summed up as “Some people are gay. Get over it.”
[k1418] It is Theorized as a problem both because it presents LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans) identities as stable categories and because it does not foreground LGBT statuses as social constructs, built by the powerful in the service of dominance and oppression.
While there have been dramatic changes in how we regard homosexuality over the last century and a half, our understanding of sex and gender has changed much less. We have generally always understood our species as overwhelmingly consisting of two sexes, and gender as mostly correlated with sex. Gender roles, however, have changed considerably.
[k1424] Women were therefore considered suited to subservient, domestic, and nurturing roles and men to leadership, public engagement, and assertive managerial roles. These attitudes, which are referred to as biological essentialism, represent a largely cultural requirement, which dominated society until roughly the end of the nineteenth century, when feminist thought and activism began to erode them.
[k1444] In all fairness, these scholars and activists are rightly concerned about the cultural power dynamics that naturally come along for the ride when such categories are considered real, meaningful, and normative. It was in this context that queer Theory arose,3 and its founders, including Gayle Rubin, Judith Butler, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, drew significantly upon the work of Michel Foucault and his concept of biopower–the power of scientific (biological) discourses.
[k1458] “Queer” refers to anything that falls outside binaries (such as male/female, masculine/feminine, and heterosexual/homosexual) and to a way of challenging the links between sex, gender, and sexuality.
[k1470] Normativity is considered pejoratively by queer Theorists and is often preceded by a prefix like hetero- (straight), cis- (gender and sex match), or thin- (not obese).
[k1473] This project is understood to be liberating for people who do not fall neatly into sex, gender, and sexuality categories, along with those who wouldn’t if they hadn’t been socialized into them and weren’t constrained by social enforcement. It produces a de facto coalition of minority gender and sexual identities under the appropriately unstable set of acronyms that tend to begin with LGBTQ.
[k1480] Queering is about unmaking any sense of the normal, in order to liberate people from the expectations that norms carry. According to queer Theory, these expectations–whether explicit or implicit–generate a cultural and political power (“the personal is political”), which is referred to as normativity, and which constrains and oppresses people who fail to identify with it. This phenomenon may not have anything to do with gender or sexuality, and has even expanded to include time and space6 and queer Theory itself.
[k1494] Papers that use queer Theory usually begin by examining an idea, problematizing it in queer (or “queering” or “genderfucking”) ways, and eventually concluding that there can be no conclusions. As Annemarie Jagose, the author of Queer Theory: An Introduction, puts it, “It is not simply that queer has yet to solidify and take on a more consistent profile, but rather that its definitional indeterminacy, its elasticity, is one of its constituent characteristics.”
[k1502] As most people now acknowledge, many of our ideas about sex, gender, and sexuality–and particularly about their associated roles–are social constructions that are somewhat malleable, since culture changes over time. Very few people are strict biological essentialists anymore–and, those who are, are shown to be wrong by scientists.
[k1507] This is not the prevailing view of queer Theorists, however.
[k1509] There can be absolutely no quarter given to any discourse–even matters of scientific fact–that could be interpreted as promoting or legitimizing biological essentialism.
[k1512] The existence of intersex people is pointed out only to obfuscate the facts that an overwhelming proportion of Homo sapiens are either male-or female-sexed and that gender expression in humans is overwhelmingly bimodal in nature and strongly correlated with sex. These undeniable facts are summarily problematized as supporting normativity and are therefore suppressed by queer Theory.
[k1527] As scientists began to study and categorize sexuality, Foucault claims, they simultaneously constructed it and created the sexual identities and categories that accompany these constructions.
The society that emerged in the nineteenth century–bourgeois, capitalist, or industrial society, call it what you will–did not confront sex with a fundamental refusal of recognition. On the contrary, it put into operation an entire machinery for producing true discourses concerning it.
[k1536] The view from Foucault, thus Theory, is that power is a system we’re all constantly participating in by how we talk about things and what ideas we’re willing to consider legitimate, a system into which we are socialized. The prime culprit for legitimizing knowledge–and thus power–in Foucault’s view was science, which held prestige in society for exactly that purpose.
[k1543] “Power is everywhere,” Foucault writes, “not because it embraced everything, but because it comes from everywhere.”
[k1545] This leads people to learn to speak in these discourses, which further reinforces them. Power works like this, for Foucault, “not because it has the privilege of consolidating everything under its invincible unity, but because it is produced from one moment to the next, at every point, or rather in every relation from one point to another.” This Power works like this, for Foucault, “not because it has the privilege of consolidating everything under its invincible unity, but because it is produced from one moment to the next, at every point, or rather in every relation from one point to another.” This view has gone on to become one of the core beliefs of applied postmodernism and Social Justice activism today: unjust power is everywhere, always, and it manifests in biases that are largely invisible because they have been internalized as “normal.” Consequently, speech is to be closely scrutinized to discover which discourses it is perpetuating, under the presumption that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or other latent prejudices must be present in the discourses and thus endemic to the society that produces them. (This is circular reasoning.) These “problematics” need to be identified and exposed, whether they manifest in a president’s address or in the decade-old adolescent tweet history of a relative nobody.
[k1566] Her essay made a foundational contribution to queer Theory by rejecting what she saw as “sexual essentialism”–“the idea that sex is a natural force that exists prior to social life and shapes institutions.” For Rubin,
It is impossible to think with any clarity about the politics of race or gender as long as these are thought of as biological entities rather than as social constructs. Similarly, sexuality is impervious to political analysis as long as it is primarily conceived as a biological phenomenon or an aspect of individual psychology.
This is a highly pragmatic, even agenda-driven, argument. Rubin asserts that we should believe sex, gender, and sexuality to be social constructs, not because it’s necessarily true, but because it is easier to politicize them and demand change if they are social constructs than if they are biological.
[k1576] It undermines public trust in the academy, which is generally considered a guardian of what is, by making it more like a church, which conveys that which people ought to think and believe.
[k1592] Rubin therefore took aim at the dominant form of (radical) feminism at the time–which was very negative about sex and sexuality and focused on the material harms of sexual objectification–and (not wholly wrongly) likened its approach to socially conservative, right-wing views.
[k1598] Thus, we see in queer Theory a rejection of science when it returns results that deviate from Theory, of liberalism when it puts universal humanity first, and of feminism when it regards women as a class of people oppressed by another class of people–men–and, instead, the prioritization of “queerness.”
[k1603] Butler’s chief contribution to queer Theory was to question the links between sex–the biological categories of male and female–gender–the behaviors and traits commonly associated with one sex or the other–and sexuality–the nature of sexual desire.
In the 1990s, Butler was phobic about any whiff of biological essentialism. She argued extensively that gender and sex are distinct and that there is no necessary correlation between the two. For Butler, gender is wholly socially constructed–a claim so ridiculous that it required much Theorizing to establish it as believable. Butler did so primarily by employing her most well-known concept: gender performativity.
[k1618] Gender, for Butler, is a set of things a person does, not something to do with who they are.
[k1626] It is, for her, only by taking up these roles and “performing” them according to those social expectations (performativity), that people create the (oppressive) illusion that the roles themselves are real, stable, and inherently meaningful.
[k1638] Butler Theorizes this by using the Derridean notion of phallogocentrism–the idea that social reality is constructed by language that privileges the masculine–and by expanding upon Adrienne Rich’s concept of compulsory heterosexuality–wherein heterosexuality is taken as the natural state of being, and homosexuality is therefore scripted as a perversion, to enforce compliance with “doing straightness.”
[k1644] Butler’s proposed solution to this intractable problem had a profound influence upon the activists who followed in her wake: she advocated the politics of parody, a “subversive and parodic redeployment of power.”
[k1649] To achieve this, Butler advocated deliberately “subversive repetition” that “might call into question the regulatory practice of identity itself.” This is often achieved by “genderfucking,” which Wiktionary defines as “the conscious effort to subvert traditional notions of gender identity and gender roles,” through the employment of drag, say, or the “queer-camp” aesthetic.
[k1658] In Gender Trouble, she writes,
If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called “sex” is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.
Butler directly challenged the prevailing forms of feminism by asking, rather incomprehensibly, “Is the construction of the category of women as a coherent and stable subject an unwitting regulation and reification of gender relations?”
[k1668] For Butler, activism and scholarship must disrupt these discourses to minimize the apparent harms of this “violence.”
The focus on breaking down categories by rendering them apparently incoherent is also central to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, whose work lies at the foundations of queer Theory. Her contributions to Theory are ultimately about resisting the temptation to resolve contradictions and finding value in plurality–accepting many perspectives all at once, even when they are mutually contradictory–and in incoherence–not attempting to make rational sense of anything.
[k1673] She writes,
In consonance with my emphasis on the performative relations of double and conflicted definition, the theorized prescription for a practical politics implicit in these readings is for a multi-pronged movement whose idealist and materialist impulses, whose minority-model and universalist-model strategies, and for that matter whose gender-separatist and gender-integrative analyses would likewise proceed in parallel without any high premium placed on ideological rationalization between them.
Here Sedgwick is saying that a productive movement could incorporate all the ideas to be found in LGBT scholarship and activism–even mutually contradictory approaches–without needing to resolve ideological differences. She argues that the contradictions themselves would be politically valuable, not least because they would make the thinking behind the activism very difficult to understand and thus to criticize.
[k1687] The Epistemology of the Closet spells this out from the beginning:
The book will argue that an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition.
For Sedgwick, then, a binary understanding of sexuality forms the basis on which all binary thinking rests. Furthermore, all such thinking is false.
[k1709] Sedgwick finds it useful to generalize from this understanding of binaries that apply to sexuality to other binaries in society, as a way to destabilize hierarchies of superiority and inferiority.
[k1711] Like other Derridean thinkers, this leads her to highlight and exploit what she sees as the tension that arises from holding two seemingly contradictory views at the same time. In sexuality, for Sedgwick, these views are the “minoritizing view” and the “universalizing view.” In the minoritizing view, homosexual is seen as something that a minority of people are, while the majority are heterosexual. Meanwhile, in the universalizing view, sexuality is considered a spectrum in which everybody has a place. That is, everybody is a little bit (or a lot) gay. These two ideas seem contradictory, yet Sedgwick believes that the contradiction itself is productive. As she puts it,
The book will not suggest (nor do I believe there currently exists) any standpoint of thought from which the rival claims of these minoritizing and universalizing understandings of sexual definition could be decisively arbitrated as to their “truth.” Instead, the performative effects of the self-contradictory discursive field of force created by their overlap will be my subject.
[k1734] Queer Theory avoids the self-destructiveness of the original postmodernism, however, by making the blurring of boundaries into its preferred form of political activism and calling it “queering.”
[k1745] Universality is therefore queer-impossible, as this would require a common human nature–a concept that queer Theory utterly rejects.
With its focus on deconstructive techniques and its conception of knowledge as a construct of power, queer Theory is, arguably, the purest form of applied postmodernism.
[k1748] The conceptual framework of intersectionality formed part of the foundational texts of queer Theory, and although the name “intersectionality” is more associated with critical race Theorist Kimberle Crenshaw, Butler also spoke of “intersections” with other forms of marginalized identity at the same time as Crenshaw and, seemingly, independently.
[k1753] Perhaps most significantly, queer Theory differs fundamentally from the liberal feminism and LGBT activism that preceded it.
[k1755] Pre-Theory liberal activism and thought focused on changing prejudiced attitudes towards people of a certain sex, gender, or sexuality by appealing to our many commonalities and shared humanity, and to universal liberal principles.
[k1758] Queer Theory aims, instead–very unhelpfully–to modify or unmake the concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality themselves and so tends to render itself baffling and irrelevant, if not positively alienating to most members of the society it wishes to change. Queer activists reliant on queer Theory tend to act with surprising entitlement and aggression–attitudes which most people find objectionable–not least by ridiculing normative sexualities and genders and depicting those who recognize them as backwards and boorish. People generally do not appreciate being told that their sex, gender, and sexuality are not real, or are wrong, or bad–something one would think queer Theorists might appreciate better than anyone.
Further, the idea that heterosexuality is a social construct completely neglects the reality that humans are a sexually reproducing species. The idea that homosexuality is a social construct neglects the plentiful evidence that it is also a biological reality. Despite idea that homosexuality is a social construct neglects the plentiful evidence that it is also a biological reality. Despite any “liberation” this may achieve, it threatens to undo the considerable progress made by lesbian and gay activists in countering the belief that their romantic and sexual attractions are a mere “lifestyle choice” that could, in two manifestations of the same principle, be Theorized into existence or prayed away.
[k1769] It does not tend to make for productive activism to be dismissive, ironic, antiscientific, and largely incomprehensible by design.
[k1779] Critical race Theory holds that race is a social construct that was created to maintain white privilege and white supremacy. This idea originated long before postmodernism with W. E. B. Du Bois, who argued that the idea of race was being used to assert biological explanations of differences that are social and cultural, in order to perpetuate the unjust treatment of racial minorities, especially African Americans.
There are good reasons to accept this claim.
[k1806] Third–and perhaps most importantly–this was done by emerging forms of scholarship in what we would now call the social sciences and natural sciences although they had neither separated clearly into the disciplines we would now call “anthropology,” “sociology,” and “biology” nor formed what we would now consider rigorous methods.
This is important because naturalism and science were rapidly becoming a knowledge-production, thus idea-legitimizing, methodology the likes of which the world had never seen. It is the legitimatizing authority of science that, ultimately, postmodernism rails against most vigorously. The rise of the sciences–and of an intellectual and political culture that accepted science as legitimate–together with the horrors of colonialism and the Atlantic Slave Trade, led to new social constructions of race. This, we hear from Theorists today, is the “scientific origin” of racism, which can be taken to mean that these discourses that misapplied very preliminary results from science allowed the first socially constructivist racists to come into existence. In other words, with this oversimplified, overreaching, and self-serving scientific categorization came social constructions associated with extremely low-resolution categories: being black (“blackness”) and being white (“whiteness”), to which value judgments were soon attached. Enter racism as we understand it today.
The earliest contributors to the effort to challenge the assumptions underlying racism were former American slaves, including Sojourner Truth3 and Frederick Douglass,4 in the nineteenth century.
[k1824] Even after the victories of the Civil Rights Movement under Martin Luther King, Jr., when discrimination on the grounds of race became illegal and attitudes about race changed remarkably fast in historical terms, these longstanding narratives didn’t disappear. Critical race Theory was designed to pick at, highlight, and address them.
[k1828] The word critical here means that its intention and methods are specifically geared toward identifying and exposing problems in order to facilitate revolutionary political change.
[k1834] As their designation implies, materialist race critics theorize about how material systems–economic, legal, political–affect racial minorities. Postmodern Theorists, by contrast, were more concerned with linguistic and social systems and therefore aimed to deconstruct discourses, detect implicit biases, and counter underlying racial assumptions and attitudes.
[k1841] As described by critical race Theorists Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic,
Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.
As Delgado and Stefancic further note,
[C]ritical race scholars are discontented with liberalism as a framework for addressing America’s racial problems.
[k1849] This is true–and the illiberal nature of critical race Theory is among the strongest and most enduring criticisms against it.
[k1856] Bell states this explicitly in his 1987 book, And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice: “progress in American race relations is largely a mirage obscuring the fact that whites continue, consciously or unconsciously, to do all in their power to ensure their dominion and maintain their control.” This cynical pessimism pervades Bell’s analysis.
[k1865] His contemporary, Alan Freeman, was similarly cynical and pessimistic, and wrote a number of legal papers arguing that antiracist legislation actually supported racism.
[k1871] The materialist critical race theorists frequently advocate Black Nationalism and segregation16 over universal human rights and cooperation.
[k1874] Materialists dominated the critical race movement from the 1970s to the 1980s; but, from the 1990s, postmodernists were increasingly in the ascendant. Over time, the postmodernists came to focus on microaggressions, hate speech, safe spaces, cultural appropriation, implicit association tests, media representation, “whiteness,” and all the now familiar trappings of current racial discourse.
[k1888] At the same time, critical race Theory invested heavily in identity politics and its supposed intellectual justification, standpoint theory–roughly, the idea that one’s identity and position in society influence how one comes to knowledge. These developments, together with the blurring of boundaries and dissolution of the individual in favor of group identity, reveal the dominance of postmodern thought in critical race Theory by the early 1990s.
[k1898] There is, of course, validity to the applied postmodernist argument that it is much harder to rectify societal imbalances without first addressing prejudiced attitudes and assumptions, which, the Theorists rightly observe, often manifest in ways of speaking about things–discourses.
The best practical use of this recognition would be rigorous (rather than purely theoretical and interpretive) scholarship into social attitudes around race. For the applied postmodernists, however, the focus on discourses is primarily concerned with positionality–the idea that one’s position within society, as determined by group identity, dictates how one understands the world and will be understood in it.
[k1917] Indeed, the frustratingly obscure and ambiguous postmodern language of postcolonial and queer Theories is conspicuously absent from critical race Theory, probably because of its genesis in legal studies.
[k1933] These core tenets unambiguously assert what is going on in critical race Theory–racism is present everywhere and always, and persistently works against people of color, who are aware of this, and for the benefit of white people, who tend not to be, as is their privilege.
[k1970] Critical race Theory has become very much a part of campus culture in many universities and, interestingly, is most evident at the most elite institutions. Intersectionality is central to this culture and has also taken on a life of its own outside it.
[k1976] Critics making this argument have a point, and are within their rights to insist on only recognizing the first postmodernists as “true” postmodernists, but it is nevertheless true that, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, critical race Theorists took some core postmodern ideas from the radically deconstructive first phase and adapted them to a new, intentionally politically applicable project.
[k1987] The critical race scholar who references postmodernism most explicitly in her work and who most clearly advocates for a more politicized and actionable use of it is Kimberle Crenshaw, a founder of critical race Theory and the progenitor of the concept of intersectionality.
[k2074] These all have to be understood in relation to one another so that the positionality each intersection of them confers can be identified and engaged. Moreover, this doesn’t just make intersectionality incredibly internally complex.
[k2078] However, there is nothing complex about the overarching idea of intersectionality, or the Theories upon which it is built. Nothing could be simpler. It does the same thing over and over again: look for the power imbalances, bigotry, and biases that it assumes must be present and pick at them. It reduces everything to one single variable, one single topic of conversation, one single focus and interpretation: prejudice, as understood under the power dynamics asserted by Theory.
[k2082] Thus, it always assumes that, in every situation, some form of Theoretical prejudice exists and we must find a way to show evidence of it.
[k2105] All this “sophistication” keeps intersectionalists busy, internally argumentative, and divided, but it is all done in the service of uniting the various Theoretically oppressed groups into a single meta-group, “oppressed” or “other,” under an overarching metanarrative of Social Justice, which seeks to establish a caste system based on Theorized states of oppression.
[k2122] However, by this method, the “unique individual” is not really understood as an individual at all. As noted, the number of axes of social division under intersectionality can be almost infinite–but they cannot be reduced to the individual.
[k2134] Hancock writes, “As a result, intersectionality as an analytical framework is in the process of reaching maximal salience across academe, the nonprofit sector (including global philanthropy), and politics.”
[k2138] Applying critical race Theory, Hancock argues that the mainstreaming of intersectionality is itself problematic because it whitens and “memeifies” intersectionality.
[k2144] In 2017, Crenshaw herself observed that intersectionality had both expanded beyond her intended scope and also become a way of talking about complicated intersections of marginalized identity, rather than doing anything to alleviate oppression. Thus, in addition to the confusion that stems from its highly interpretive Theoretical approach, which is rooted in the postmodern principles and themes we’ve outlined, critical race Theory and intersectionality are characterized by a great deal of divisiveness, pessimism, and cynicism.
[k2153] Critical race Theory’s hallmark paranoid mind-set, which assumes racism is everywhere, always, just waiting to be found, is extremely unlikely to be helpful or healthy for those who adopt it.
[k2162] Critical race Theory and intersectionality are centrally concerned with ending racism, through the unlikely means of making everyone more aware of race at all times and places.
As scholar-activists Heather Bruce, Robin DiAngelo, Gyda Swaney (Salish), and Amie Thurber put it at the influential National Race and Pedagogy Conference at Puget Sound University in 2015,61 “The question is not ‘Did racism take place?’” for that is to be assumed, “but rather ‘How did racism manifest in that situation?’”
[k2182] Therefore, everything the marginalized individual interprets as racism is considered racism by default–an episteme that encourages confirmation bias and leaves wide open the door to the unscrupulous. In scholarship, this leads to theories built only upon theories (and upon Theory), and no real means of testing or falsifying them.
[k2190] 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.
[k2194] Worst of all is to set up double-binds, like telling them 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.
[k2197] Such an obsessive focus on race, combined with a critique of liberal universalism and individuality (which Theory sees as largely a myth that benefits white people and perpetuates the status quo), is not likely to end well–neither for minority groups nor for social cohesion more broadly.
[k2203] Seeking to improve the lives of just over half the population of Earth, feminism has been, for well over a century, one of the most significant social movements in human history.
[k2205] Something, however, changed in feminism around the turn of the millennium.
[k2207] The liberal, materialist, and radical approaches that had characterized feminism for much of the previous century were almost wholly displaced by the new intersectional approach.
[k2215] It does this through calls for the various oppressed tribes to support each another: under the banner of first “allyship” and later “solidarity”–both of which go on to be Theorized as problematic in “centering” the needs of more privileged allies at the expense of oppressed minority groups of ever-increasing specificity. It is hard to escape the impression, which is accurate, that it isn’t possible to do anything right, perhaps by design.
[k2220] In all fairness, feminism has never presented a unified front.
[k2222] Feminist scholarship and activism, however, have always been much more ideological and theoretical, and the dominant ideologies and theories have changed dramatically over time–accompanied by much factional infighting.
[k2228] Clearly, there are far too many branches of feminism to investigate individually in any depth, so we will restrict ourselves to four (highly simplified) genuses of feminist thought here: liberal feminism, radical feminism, materialist feminism, and intersectional feminism.
[k2242] Most important to understand is that the liberal feminist approach enjoyed the most support from society, but radical and materialist (effectively socialist) feminism dominated the academy, especially from the 1970s onwards.
[k2248] The resulting “third-wave” approach to feminism tended to neglect class issues and focus on identity in the form of race, gender, and sexuality.
[k2256] As the influence of applied postmodernism crept into feminism, however, the focus switched from material disadvantages within social structures like law, economics, and politics to the oppressive nature of discourses.
[k2268] In this new feminist paradigm, knowledge is “situated,” which means that it comes from one’s “standpoint” in society, by which they mean one’s membership in intersecting identity groups. This, in turn, renders objective truth unobtainable and ties knowledge to power and both knowledge and power to the discourses that are believed to create, maintain, and legitimize dominance and oppression within society.
[k2272] Most importantly, intersectionality offered activists a renewed sense of purpose, as it provided them with new problems to interrogate and new accusations to make–especially against each other.
[k2276] This led care-oriented scholars to become increasingly “woke” not only to the ways in which others are oppressed but also to the guilt-inducing ways in which feminism itself could be Theorized to have participated in or been complicit with oppression.
[k2280] The academic study of gender emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, mainly from literary theory. At first, it was simply called “women’s studies,” because it looked at women’s issues and advocated the political empowerment of women.
[k2289] In the 1970s and much of the 1980s, feminist scholars looked closely at women’s roles in the family and workforce and at social expectations that women be feminine, submissive, and beautiful, if not sexually available and pornographic.
[k2295] However, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the landscape began to change, as the applied postmodern influence of queer Theory, postcolonial Theory, and intersectionality began to make itself felt.
[k2300] This materialist feminist view presents a metanarrative about men, women, and society, based on a simple oppressive male/oppressed female binary. Such a binary was unacceptable to the postmodern Theorists, who would read it through a Derridean lens that assumes a similar dynamic of dominance and subordination is present in any such “language game.” In response, the new Theorists, who gained much influence over feminist thought in the late 1980s, drew on queer Theory to challenge the categories of “women” and “men” at their linguistic foundations.
[k2308] By the early 2000s, then, a dominant view within feminism was that–because gender has been constructed differently by dominant discourses at different times and places–to speak of “women” and “men” at all is incoherent.
[k2313] This necessitated a shift from feminism to a broader and looser study of gender and gender identity. To try to study “women” or “men” under Theory is to miss the point.
[k2381] The intersectional turn was pushed by scholars and activists, who used elements of queer Theory, postcolonial Theory, and especially critical race Theory to problematize feminism and feminists, in addition to commenting on what they painted as an intractably complicated and oppressive society.
[k2385] We often observe this kind of shift to a more “sophisticated” and nebulous model when people are highly personally and ideologically committed to a theoretical approach that is clearly failing. This phenomenon was first described by Leon Festinger, in his study of UFO cults, and led to the development of the concept of cognitive dissonance.
[k2391] Before the postmodern turn, Marxist, socialist, and other radical feminist theories saw power as an intentional, top-down strategy by powerful men in patriarchal and capitalist societies, but the advances of second-wave feminism made this conception somewhat redundant.
[k2400] Gender studies is so interdisciplinary, its scholars feel justified to study everything that humans typically engage in.
[k2405] In their massively influential 1987 paper, “Doing Gender”26–the most cited work in gender studies, which has contributed to over thirteen thousand other academic papers, articles, and books since its first publication–Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman aimed “to advance a new understanding of gender as a routine accomplishment embedded in everyday interaction.” They write,
We contend that the “doing” of gender is undertaken by women and men whose competence as members of society is hostage to its production.
[k2414] Doing gender means creating differences between girls and boys and women and men, differences that are not natural, essential, or biological.
[k2420] In Judith Butler’s iconic work Gender Trouble, which emerged at around the same time as “Doing Gender” and drew strongly on Foucault’s ideas about the construction of sexuality, gender is made real by being learned and reproduced, like language.
[k2436] Because liberal feminism works in accordance with modernist ideals of secular, liberal democracy, individual agency within a framework of universal human rights, and an Enlightenment focus on reason and science, it has been the explicit, central target of postmodernists.
[k2464] Theory posits that opportunities are more accessible to some (white, cisgender, heterosexual, etc.) women than others, and those same women are complicit in the systems of injustice that Theory seeks to criticize.
[k2469] Pilcher and Whelehan distinguish between three different goals within feminism: equality, difference, and diversity (or equity). The equality approach is favored by liberal (and to an extent by radical) feminists. This approach seeks to “extend to women the same rights and privileges that men have, through identifying areas of unequal treatment and eliminating them via legal reforms.”
[k2475] The diversity Theorists–intersectionalists–advocate a different approach altogether. They want a shift toward “mutual respect” and “affirmation of difference,” that is, a sense of solidarity and allyship among marginalized groups. Note that this is a respect for differences between social and cultural groups–not for individuals with different viewpoints. They do not defend the right to express different ideas, but affirm the value of those ideas that are marked out as belonging to certain groups.
[k2477] The needle Collins expects (white) feminists to thread involves including–but not appropriating–the experiences of women of color, providing space for them to be heard, and amplifying their voices–without exploiting them or becoming voyeuristic consumers of their oppression.
[k2510] One casualty of this “increasingly sophisticated” intersectional model, which focuses primarily on the power of discourses, is the neglect of the most materially relevant variable in many of the problems faced by women (and by many racial and sexual minorities): economic class. This conspicuous neglect has been a matter of grave concern to left-leaning liberal feminists, socialist feminists, and socialists more broadly.
Not altogether unironically, the axis that has replaced class in social theory is privilege.
[k2519] Privilege-consciousness has since nearly completely replaced class-consciousness as the primary concern of those on the academic, activist, and political left, and one’s status as privileged is assessed intersectionally, using the appropriate applied postmodern Theories.
[k2523] This shift away from class and towards gender identity, race, and sexuality troubles traditional economic leftists, who fear that the left is being taken away from the working class and hijacked by the bourgeoisie within the academy. More worryingly still, it could drive working-class voters into the arms of the populist right.
[k2527] New York University historian Linda Gordon has summarized working-class resentment of intersectionality:
Some criticism is ill-informed but understandable nevertheless. A poor white man associates intersectionality with being told that he has white privilege: “So when that feminist told me I had ‘white privilege,’ I told her that my white skin didn’t do shit.” He explains: “Have you ever spent a frigid northern-Illinois winter without heat or running water? I have. At 12 years old were you making ramen noodles in a coffee maker with water you fetched from a public bathroom? I was.”
As intersectionality developed and became dominant in both mainstream political activism and scholarship, it became increasingly common to hear that “straight, white, cisgendered men” were the problem.
[k2543] Nowhere in gender studies can one find men or masculinities being studied through any lens but feminism.
[k2578] The phrase there is no universal woman could be gender studies’ motto.
[k2587] The current analytical framework does not allow for the possibility of a situation in which gender power imbalances do not exist or one in which they disadvantage men.
[k2595] As there is considerable evidence that such differences exist53 and that they actually increase when women are free to make their own choices–and it would be remarkable if we were the only primates without such differences–this also limits the ability to do rigorous and valuable scholarship within gender studies, while undermining the credibility of any rigorous and valuable scholarship that has been done in the field.
[k2628] Disabled activism began in the 1960s, at around the same time as and with similar goals to the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave feminism, and Gay Pride. Its original aim was to make society more accommodating and accepting of disabled people, and thereby improve their quality of life.
[k2635] Disability (including certain treatable mental illnesses) came to be valorized as a set of related marginalized identity groups, and these were placed in contrast to “normal” able-bodied identities. As a result, disability studies has taken on an increasingly intersectional and queer Theoretic approach, which has made it steadily more obscure, abstract, and unsuited to improving the opportunities and quality of life of disabled people.
[k2644] In other words, a person is only disabled because of society’s expectations that people are generally able-bodied and benefit from being so.
[k2673] The concept of the individual is also frequently disparaged within disability studies, due to the belief that individualism enables a “neoliberal expectation” to adapt to one’s disabilities and become a productive member of capitalist society.
[k2698] The view of ability status as something that is unjustly constructed as “normal” (able-bodied) or “abnormal” (disabled) has consequently dominated and confused disability studies ever since its adoption of queer Theoretic approaches.
[k2701] Borrowing directly from Foucault, Goodley writes, “Disability is normatively understood through the gaze of medicalization: that process where life becomes processed through the reductive use of medical discourse.”
[k2710] Alarmingly, Goodley considers diagnosing, treating, and curing disabilities as cynical practices, dependent upon corrupt ableist assumptions and upheld by a “neoliberal system,” in which people are forced to be fully autonomous, high-functioning individuals so they can contribute their labor to capitalist markets. Even more worryingly, he claims that “autonomy, independence, and rationality are virtues desired by neoliberal-ableism.”
[k2723] It also appears in Fiona Campbell’s much-cited Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness. Like Goodley, Campbell regards it as problematic that disabilities are seen as problems to be cured, if possible:
[A] chief feature of an ableist viewpoint is a belief that impairment or disability (irrespective of “type”) is inherently negative and should opportunity present itself, be ameliorated, cured or indeed eliminated.16
[k2737] The Derridean view posits that our understandings of disability and able-bodiedness create each other by means of a hierarchical dichotomy–that is, we understand each concept only as not being the other, and the two concepts are not viewed equitably.
[k2745] She writes, “By unwittingly performing ableism, disabled people become complicit in their own demise, reinforcing impairment as an undesirable state.”
These ideas are fairly typical of disability studies.
[k2762] For instance, in his book No Pity: People with Disabilities Forming a New Civil Rights Movement, Joseph Shapiro objects to the idea that it is a compliment when an able-bodied person doesn’t think of a disabled person as disabled.
[k2774] An additional problem arises when activists wish to take on a disability as an identity for the purposes of celebration or political empowerment, but do not wish medical practitioners to label them.
[k2789] Disability studies and activism and the social model of disability started off well.
[k2795] This identity-obsessed approach pressures disabled people to identify with, celebrate, and politicize their disabilities. While disabled people can be constrained by an overuse of medical labels, a deep suspicion of medical science in itself is unlikely to benefit disabled people or anyone else.
[k2799] The use of critical race Theory as a model to insist that disabilities are ultimately social constructions is particularly unhelpful, given that–unlike social categories of race–physical and mental impairments are objectively real and people often dislike having them because of the way they materially affect their lives (and not because they have been socialized to believe they should dislike them).
[k2804] Many disabled people wish they weren’t disabled–which is perfectly reasonable–and seek ways to improve or mitigate their condition for themselves and others. This is their right. Accusations of “internalized ableism” are presumptuous and insulting.
[k2813] Furthermore, focusing on one’s identity as a disabled person can devalue other aspects of an individual, which could lead to greater fulfillment and quality of life.
[k2828] Though it is most popular in the United Kingdom, fat activism probably began in the United States, with the founding of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) in 1969 and the development of the Fat Underground in the 1970s.
[k2834] Fat studies insists that pervasive and societally accepted “fatphobia” prevented it from being taken seriously and regards as fatphobic any study of obesity as a dangerous and (usually) treatable medical condition.
[k2841] In 2010, Linda Bacon, a scholar of physiology and psychotherapy, wrote a popular book called Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, which argues that bodies of all dimensions can be healthy.31 The medical consensus opposes this idea.
[k2856] Within fat studies, it is common to address negative attitudes towards obesity alongside racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disableism, and imperialism, even though there is strong evidence that obesity is a result of consistently consuming more calories than are needed and carries significant health risks.
[k2893] In order to navigate this complex grid of power-laden discourses, one has to first be trained to detect it. This is what critical Theory was invented to do. So, in a circular, self-justifying argument, Theory insists that we need Theory.
[k2901] For Cooper, the forces of “neoliberalism” (approximately: capitalist society) pressure people to adapt themselves to society, instead of requiring society to accommodate them. Cooper is therefore deeply critical of the body positivity movement, which she considers a form of “gentrification” in its “emphasis on individualism rather than collectivity.” Her issue is that body positivity places the responsibility on individuals to love their own bodies and be happy in them, rather than on society to stop viewing obesity negatively–a problematic approach, which is sometimes referred to as responsibilizing them.
[k2911] Biology and the science of nutrition are misunderstood as a form of Foucauldian “biopower,” which constrains and disciplines people. Medical science around obesity is misunderstood to impose an oppressive, disciplinary narrative on people. “[C]alling fat people ‘obese’ medicalizes human diversity”48 and “Medicalizing diversity inspires a misplaced search for a ‘cure’ for naturally occurring difference,”49 Marilyn Wann tells us in the foreword to the Fat Studies Reader, echoing Foucault.
[k2926] By contrast, emphasizing the value of health is cast as a problematic ideology called healthism.
Healthism is bolstered by nutritionism, which is an allegedly excessive focus on the relevance of the nutritional value of foods to the study of nutrition and dietetics (diet and its impacts on health).
[k2941] The book Critical Dietetics and Critical Nutrition Studies, aimed at undergraduates, is therefore extremely troubling. While the Health at Every Size approach stopped short of denying medical science and instead used dubiously interpreted medical studies to claim one could be healthy at any weight, Critical Dietetics describes science as no more useful than any other approach to understanding food, nutrition, diet, and fatness:
Although we do not wholly reject the scientific method as a means of creating knowledge about the world, a critical orientation rejects the notion that it is even possible to produce knowledge that is objective, value-free, and untouched by human bias. A critical orientation similarly rejects the idea that any one way of creating knowledge about the world is superior to another or is even sufficient…. As such, [Critical Dietetics] draws on poststructuralism and feminist science (two other windows) that hold that there is not one truth that can be generated about any single thing, that multiple truths are possible depending on who is asking and for what purpose, and that knowledge is not apolitical even if it is considered positivist (i.e. value neutral or unbiased).
This is as explicit a rejection of objective reality as it is possible to get.
[k2969] Again, a productive form of activism could work against the idea that overeating is simply the result of a lack of self-discipline or of greed and look at the psychological and physiological issues that make this problem hard to overcome for so many people–but this is not the approach fat studies takes.
[k3154] Epistemic exploitation was coined by Nora Berenstain in 2016, for instance, to describe the injustice caused when marginalized people are expected to share their knowledge.11 Thus, it is an act of oppression not to make an effort to understand a marginalized knower on her own terms, and it is an act of exploitation (read: oppression) to ask a marginalized knower to explain her knowledge on her own terms.
[k3199] Allison Wolf calls this the “reason/emotion divide” and describes it as a construct of the Western philosophical tradition. She advocates foregrounding feelings as a way of knowing. This approach is alarming, patronizing, and potentially dangerous. Nevertheless, the underlying concept of experiential knowledge is not entirely without merit. Quite often, it is more important to know how things are experienced than what the facts of the matter are. For example, if a friend’s father has died of a heart attack, we generally want to know how she is feeling and how we can help her through her grief. Factual information about myocardial infarctions is probably of less importance at that time. Nevertheless, there are facts that can be known about heart attacks, and it is important that these facts be accurate. Such knowledge cannot be gleaned simply by the experience of a heart attack or of losing a loved one to a heart attack. Sometimes we need to empathize with the person who has lost her loved one to a heart attack and sometimes we need to consult a cardiologist.
[k3223] Standpoint theory operates on two assumptions. One is that people occupying the same social positions, that is, identities–race, gender, sex, sexuality, ability status, and so on–will have the same experiences of dominance and oppression and will, assuming they understand their own experiences correctly, interpret them in the same ways. From this follows the assumption that these experiences will provide them with a more authoritative and fuller picture. The other is that one’s relative position within a social power dynamic dictates what one can and cannot know: thus the privileged are blinded by their privilege and the oppressed possess a kind of double sight, in that they understand both the dominant position and the experience of being oppressed by it.
[k3252] Standpoint theory is at the root of identity politics and it is the main thing that fundamentally differentiates it from the liberal civil rights movements.
[k3267] Dotson explicitly proceeds from the two postmodern principles. Her argument, which is central to standpoint theory, denies that science and reason belong to all humans and are the same for all humans and, in effect, assigns them to white Western men. Dotson goes further than this. The logical implication of her third-order oppression is that if someone from a dominant group does not agree that her knowledge-producing systems are limited by their failure to include experiential knowledge from outside them, that is because she is unable to step outside of her own culture. In other words, legitimate disagreement is not an option.
[k3283] As always, postmodernism and Marxism exhibit significant and intentional differences. The key difference is whether the oppressed suffer from false consciousness as a result of a hidden imposition of power, as the Marxists believed, or whether it is the oppressors who suffer from false consciousness, due to their socialization into a system of knowledge that benefits them, as the postmodernists would increasingly have it. Theorist Charles Mills states this difference from the Marxist idea,
The racially subordinated–victims, after all, of genocide, expropriation, and slavery!–are often quite well able to recognize their situation. It is not (or not always) that the imprisoned lack the concepts, the hermeneutical resources, to understand their situation, but that the privileged lack the concepts and find them incredible or even incomprehensible, because of their incongruity with white-supremacist ideology. Even if they were to “hear” what blacks were saying, they still would not be able to “hear” them because of the conceptual incoherence of the black framework of assumptions with their own dominant framework. Whites are imprisoned (reversing the metaphor) in a cognitive state which both protects them from dealing with the realities of social oppression and, of course, disables them epistemically.
[k3354] Having already defined the only legitimate form of “disagreement” as putting in more effort to understand (read: agree) and dismissed actual disagreement as refusal to engage with The Truth, Applebaum continues,
Resistance will not be allowed to derail the class discussions! Of course, those who refuse to engage might mistakenly perceive this as a declaration that they will not be allowed to express their disagreement but that is only precisely because they are resisting engagement. (emphasis in original)
Resistance is indeed futile.
[k3453] DiAngelo sermonizes,
To challenge the ideologies of racism such as individualism and color blindness, we as white people must suspend our perception of ourselves as unique and/or outside race. Exploring our collective racial identity interrupts a key privilege of dominance–the ability to see oneself only as an individual.
DiAngelo’s is probably the purest manifestation of the postmodernist conception of society.
[k3463] Social Justice scholarship does not just rely on the two postmodern principles and four postmodern themes: it treats them and their underlying assumptions as morally righteous known-knowns–as The Truth According to Social Justice. It therefore constitutes a third distinct phase of postmodernism, one we have called reified postmodernism because it treats the abstractions at the heart of postmodernism as if they were real truths about society.
[k3486] Belief in the overwhelming power of language, which must be scrutinized and cleansed, is simply taken for granted.
This has had a number of consequences. Scholars and activists devote tremendous effort to searching for and inflating the smallest infractions–this being the “critical” approach. They scrupulously examine people’s current and past speech, particularly on social media, and punish purveyors of “hateful” discourses. If the person involved is considered influential, the mob may even try to end her career altogether.
[k3503] The difficulty with this sort of Social Justice “way of knowing” is, however, the same as that with all gnostic “epistemologies” that rely upon feelings, intuition, and subjective experience: what should we do when people’s subjective experiences conflict? The overarching liberal principle of conflict resolution–to put forth one’s best arguments and hash the issue out, deferring to the best available evidence whenever possible–is completely eliminated by this approach. Indeed, it’s billed as a conspiracy used to keep marginalized people down.
[k3513] Instead, what Social Justice scholars seem in practice to do is to select certain favored interpretations of marginalized people’s experience (those consistent with Theory) and anoint these as the “authentic” ones; all others are explained away as an unfortunate internalization of dominant ideologies or cynical self-interest.
[k3608] One consequence is that once taken on, Social Justice scholarship and ethics completely displace reliable and rigorous scholarship into issues of social justice by condemning all other approaches as complicit with systemic bigotry and thus unthinkable–or, in practice, unpublishable and punishable.
[k3627] While some scholarship on gender, race, and sexuality is empirical and rigorous and could help redress imbalances in society, it is undermined by that which is not. This creates a crisis of confidence around some of the most important topics of our current political moment. Some scholars mischaracterize criticisms of shoddy and unethical scholarship as motivated by a hatred of minority groups or women. This is astonishing.
[k3634] In no serious discipline do we so plainly see a drive to be morally right (or righteous) instead of factually and theoretically correct. This drive is, perhaps, the most obvious feature of Social Justice scholarship.
[k3643] In the book Engineering and Social Justice, published by Purdue University Press, we read many variations on the same theme and a worrisome recommendation: “getting beyond views of truth as objective and absolute is the most fundamental change we need in engineering education.”
[k3647] One 2018 paper asserts,
Drawing upon Indigenous worldviews to reconceptualize what mathematics is and how it is practiced, I argue for a movement against objects, truths, and knowledge towards a way of being in the world that is guided by first principles–mathematx. This shift from thinking of mathematics as a noun to mathematx as a verb holds potential for honouring our connections with each other as human and other-than-human persons, for balancing problem solving with joy, and for maintaining critical bifocality at the local and global level.
[k3672] In 2019, Macy’s found itself at the center of an outcry that began with one offended person on Twitter. They had to publicly apologize for producing a plate that showed portion sizes in terms of jeans sizes (which was considered “fat shaming”).32 They cancelled the line.
[k3679] It is perhaps not surprising that large corporations have caved in so easily to Social Justice pressure. Their overriding goal is, after all, to make money, not to uphold liberal values.
[k3683] While universities in Western countries are supposed to be ardent defenders of liberal values such as freedom of debate, they are becoming increasingly bureaucratized, with power being taken away from professors and transferred to administrators–and increasingly being run like profit-oriented businesses.
[k3695] viduals who have spoken against Social Justice, often unwittingly, are often referred to as “cancel culture.” This chilling practice often involves the utter destruction of someone’s career and reputation for something she might have said decades ago, or as a teenager.
[k3732] However, sometimes these demands are mutually contradictory, as when J. K. Rowling was condemned for not including people of color among her main protagonists and having no explicitly gay or trans characters in the Harry Potter books,48 yet was also criticized for including Native American wizarding lore.
[k3737] Even black artists are not immune: Rihanna has been accused of appropriating Chinese culture51 and Beyoncé of appropriating Indian Bollywood styles.52 This clearly obstructs the production of art. This is what Theory looks like when put into practice.
[k3746] This uncharitable approach is particularly common in gender analysis. Feminist scholars and activists have measured the number of words spoken by women in comparison to men in certain films, for example,and critiqued the sexualized portrayal of women.
[k3753] Similarly, there has been criticism of the Game of Thrones character Sansa Stark for saying that having experienced rape and abuse made her stronger. Some feminists felt that this played into rape culture by somehow justifying rape. If you are not a perpetual victim, in this view, you are complicit with the powers of evil.
[k3770] Others have pointed out that complicated Social Justice rules about language, bias, and social interactions are often particularly difficult for autistic people to follow and that the neurologically atypical, who tend to be overrepresented in careers like technology, engineering, and physics, are particularly vulnerable to running afoul of such rules.62 James Damore, the autistic Google technician–who responded literally to a request for feedback on how to get more women into tech and was subsequently fired–is a good example.
[k3779] Some have advocated a deaf identity politics, which regards those who wish to try to restore their hearing as deserters.
[k3790] The body positivity movement promotes morbidly obese models as beautiful and healthy, despite the abundant evidence that obesity is linked to diabetes, heart disease, polycystic ovaries, joint and respiratory problems, and several forms of cancer.64 Fat activists campaigned against the organization Cancer Research after the charity informed people of the risks on their billboards.
[k3937] It isn’t going to work. Social Justice is a nice-looking Theory that, once put into practice, will fail, and which could do tremendous damage in the process. Social Justice cannot succeed because it does not correspond with reality or with core human intuitions of fairness and reciprocity and because it is an idealistic metanarrative.
[k3942] The postmodernists got that right. What they got disastrously wrong is mistaking effective and adaptive systems for metanarratives. Religions and many theoretical constructions are metanarratives, but liberalism and science are not. Liberalism and science are systems–not just neat little theories–because they are self-skeptical rather than self-certain, by design. This is a reasoned–not a radical–skepticism. They put the empirical first, rather than the theoretical. They are self-correcting. Liberal systems like regulated capitalism, republican democracy, and science resolve conflicts by subjecting human economies, societies, and knowledge-production to evolutionary processes that–over time, and with persistent effort–produce reliable societies, governments, and provisionally true statements about the world. The proof is that almost everything has changed over the last five hundred years, especially in the West.
[k4082] Therefore, liberalism is expansive, but it is not weak. For Fawcett, the four themes of liberalism are “acceptance of conflict, resistance to power, faith in progress, and respect for persons.”9 Liberalism accepts that it will always be fighting unjust and oppressive powers and mediating between different ideas. It is opposed not to conservatism in general but to the kind of conservatism that seeks to conserve hierarchies of class, race, or gender. Postmodern movements fight oppressive power systems too, but they have no faith in progress–and neither do they believe that we can continue to make progress by persisting in those things we do well and reforming what we do badly.
[k4096] Gopnik stresses the need for conversation and debate. This is the marketplace of ideas, in which better ideas eventually win out, allowing society to advance. This stands against the conservative position that some ideas are sacred (literally or otherwise) and must not be challenged and against the postmodern position that some ideas are dangerous and must not be spoken. Liberalism is optimistic and humanism has confidence in humans.
[k4101] Writes Gopnik, “What liberalism has in its favor are the facts. Liberals get nothing accomplished–except everything, eventually.”
[k4132] As Pinker argues in Enlightenment Now, “The data show that more liberal countries are also, on average, better educated, more urban, less fecund, less inbred (with fewer marriages among cousins), more peaceful, more democratic, less corrupt, and less crime-and coup-ridden.”
[k4200] Each of the postmodern principles and themes has a kernel of truth and points to a problem that needs to be dealt with, but none of these problems are effectively addressed by postmodernism.
[k4219] Confidence in science is not naive–we have evidence that science works–and it is certainly neither racist, sexist, nor imperialistic. Science and reason are not white, Western, masculine ideas, and it is racist and sexist to suggest that they are. Science and reason belong to everybody. Indeed, they would be useless if they didn’t.
[k4224] The postmodern knowledge principle exhorts us to do a better job of listening and considering and listening and investigating.
[k4245] The postmodern idea that people are born into certain discourses that shape their understanding is worth considering; the idea that they learn to parrot these discourses from their positions within a power structure, without even realizing what they are doing, is prejudicial and absurd.
[k4370] Authoritarian attempts to dictate what people must believe about gender and sexuality and the language they must express those beliefs in in the name of Social Justice are rapidly creating a hostile resistance to mainstream acceptance of trans people in particular.
Secondly, the critical approach to Social Justice encourages tribalism and hostility by its aggressively divisive approach. Whereas the Civil Rights Movements worked so well because they used a universalist approach–everybody should have equal rights–that appealed to human intuitions of fairness and empathy, Social Justice uses a simplistic identity politics approach which ascribes collective blame to dominant groups–white people are racist, men are sexist, and straight people are homophobic.
[k4411] Secularism is best known as a legal principle: the “separation of church and state.” But this principle is based on a more profound philosophical idea–that no matter how certain you may be that you are in possession of the truth, you have no right to impose your belief on society as a whole.
[k4416] This is accompanied by the inalienable right to reject the moral injunctions and prescriptions of any particular ideology without blame.
[k4430] With this attitude in mind, we advocate two approaches to the problem of reified postmodernism. First, we must oppose the institutionalization of its belief system.
[k4436] We must object to any requirement of an orthodox Social Justice statement of diversity, equity, and inclusion, or mandatory diversity or equity training, just as we would object to public institutions that required a statement of Christian or Muslim belief or attendance of church or mosque.
Second, we must do fair battle with the ideas in Social Justice.
[k4440] Defeating postmodern Theory in the marketplace of ideas is entirely possible–in fact, inevitable–if we engage it head-on and arm ourselves with stronger reasoning.