Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody
Cynical Theories explains how “Critical Theory”— a way of looking at the world — moved from a little-known scholarly pursuit in academia to a driving force in today’s culture wars over race, class, sexuality, and other issues. Critical Theory, the authors say, has co-opted the stumbling but 200-year-old mainstream force of social justice into a narrow, dogmatic ideology called Social Justice (note capital letters) that sees the world as dependent on systems of power, cultural identities, and “lived experience” as opposed to objective reality or universal values. They trace how Critical Theory has affected efforts in feminism, racial justice, LGBT rights, and other areas, and turned them toward rejecting science, individualism, human dignity, and open debate and discussion.
The authors say they are writing from a “philosophically liberal” perspective, which they believe encompasses all but the extreme “right” and “left ” of social/political thought.
One Review for “Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody”
If you want to understand where ideas such as “systemic racism,” “cultural appropriation,” “white privilege,” and “micro-aggressions,” come from, and why the crusaders who use them feel obligated to tear down traditional American symbols, beliefs and values, this book may help you begin to understand.
The authors trace what is known as Critical Theory from its beginnings as a little-known pursuit primarily in academia to a crusade that has co-opted virtually all social justice movements, including racial justice, feminism, LGBT rights, as well as educational practice, corporate decision-making, current thinking in many churches, and our national conversations and social practices. The Theory is so complex it’s difficult to tease out all that it means, but the authors identify two major principles and four themes found in all its iterations, including:
There are no real truths, and even if there were we couldn’t see them because we are all inextricably tied into our own cultural ways of seeing–and some cultural ways, particularly those of minority groups, are “better” than others.
Systems of power and hierarchy permeate all levels of society, intentionally or inadvertently determining what can be known and how. They must be challenged and deconstructed to rescue those not in power, who must be considered oppressed.
Since there is no objective reality, personal interpretations of “lived experience” replace objective evidence. Language and particular words can be problematic and equivalent to a kind of violence. The notion of an autonomous individual is largely a myth because we are all products of our cultures. Nor are there universal values outside those of the groups we are socialized in.
If the preceding paragraphs seem mind-boggling, that’s just what I felt. Because critical theorists insist on specialized meanings for everyday words—racism, homophobia, oppression, violence—and the meanings often change according to the situation, “this bewilders people,” the authors write, “and, in their confusion, they may go along with things they wouldn’t if they had a common frame of reference to help them understand what is actually meant by the word.”
The authors believe Critical Theory has created its own version of Social Justice—a dogmatic, fundamentalist ideology that would prescribe the proper way society ought to be ordered. They feel it threatens the ideals of democracy, science as a way of knowing, individual and universal human values as opposed to group identity and identity politics, and dignity as opposed to a sense of victimhood. Their final chapter offers an alternative to Critical Theory, whose ideas they see as “demonstrably bad and ethically incoherent.”
Though the authors say this book is for laymen, there was more information than I wanted about the finer points of philosophical issues and the extensive history of how Critical Theory and postmodernism developed. Thankfully those sections, which add great depth for those who are interested, are relieved by frequent succinct and clearly worded statements that show how Critical Theory distorts many present-day efforts toward social justice, including racial justice, disability awareness, feminism, and gender issues. It was a pleasant surprise to discover a section in the final chapter entitled “Why Freedom of Debate is So Important.” Hello there, Braver Angels!
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