Reviewed in Australia on 22 October 2020
Of all the secular parables our culture has produced, the one most relevant to our current cultural situation is The Emperor's New Clothes, made famous in the version told by Hans Christian Anderson. It shows how, in a society of individuals who lack confidence and live in fear of censure, even something blatantly contradicted by evidence can gain social traction and cultural dominance. In the story it is fear of being thought stupid or incompetent. In our situation it may more often be fear of being thought to be bigoted in some way. But it is also a hopeful story. Even the smallest, least powerful individual can save the day by speaking the dreadful truth, because a lie needs to be maintained with effort while an obvious truth, once the culture of fear about acknowledging it has been dispelled, argues for itself.
Are you “woke”? Have you been “red pilled” into recognising that we live in a Matrix called “the white supremacist patriarchy”?
The problem with such grand explanatory frameworks of interpretation for the world is that they lend themselves to our natural tendency toward confirmation bias. It is easy to find evidence for such an interpretation. It is all around us, just as it tends to be pretty easy to find evidence for a conspiracy theory. The way to assess the accuracy of any theory is to sincerely attempt to falsify it - to prove it wrong. The more we try to do that and fail, the stronger the credibility of the theory.
Critical Social Justice Theory, the field of scholarship which underlies the cultural expressions we label “woke”, is founded on the assumption that any inequality of outcome for groups who have historically been discriminated against can be accounted for by systemic oppression, a continuing form of universal prejudice pervading our society, particularly as expressed through language, i.e. “discourse”. This is just as unfalsifiable as the existence of that other omnipresent and invisible entity - God. If someone acts in a bigoted way, that’s evidence of systemic racism. If they don’t, that’s because they benefit more by hiding their racist feelings.
This worldview reduces the complexity of human social interaction to simple formulas. A person’s situation is to be understood by their membership of identity groups. Each group is then seen to be in a more or less advantaged position. The fact that we are all individuals with a unique mix of talents and challenges can be lost. The answer to improving society is to change the discourses (eliminate “problematic” terms and invent new ones), to educate or re-educate (i.e. indoctrinate) and get the “enlightened” into positions of power.
They are not wrong that discourse can oppress. Just ask anyone who has had a malicious lie spread about them. And there are examples from both past and present where religious or political systems of discourse have oppressed populations. But this is really an argument against rather than for their approach. If the idea were to open up greater opportunities for the expression of diverging discourses, or to test belief systems against objective data taken from science, that would make sense. But to try to install one’s own discourse while discouraging that of others, is to more or less guarantee that it will become a source of oppression.
As Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay argue, we already have a strategy for improving society, and it is the one which brought us the end of slavery, the establishment of universal suffrage, the dismantling of colonialism, the end to racial segregation, the legalisation of homosexuality and the banning of discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexuality, disability, etc. That strategy is liberalism - the belief in democracy, reason, free speech and science. This allows us to target problems specifically, come to understand them through reason and research, and rally the support to make the necessary changes. It doesn’t require us to adopt a shared dogmatic way of interpreting the world. And if we have a divergent viewpoint, it doesn’t punish us as heretics.
While the Critical Social Justice Theory worldview may be unfalsifiable, we can see evidence against it from observing whether it has a positive or negative effect on the behaviour of those who adopt it. It doesn’t seem unfair to say that a tree which produces rotten fruit is not a healthy tree.
Cynical Theories is an indispensable book for anyone navigating the troubled waters we find ourselves in as a society. We’re a little like Odysseus sailing between the Scylla and the Charybdis. We need to steer away from the whirlpool of “woke” madness which could tear our society apart, but we mustn’t pull so far over to the other side that we lose the ship of liberalism to the snapping mouths of rightwing authoritarianism. This is the beauty of what Pluckrose and Lindsay have achieved with this book. It empowers us with a deep understanding of the “woke” mindset and how it evolved, while exuding a calm, sane and generous spirit. There is always a danger that we might take a reactionary approach which mirrors those we have set ourselves to resist. On the contrary, the authors take an approach which is in stark contrast to the cynical, ungenerous and aggressive zealots of “wokeness”. This book is an act of love towards the “enemy”. The authors have listened and understood and provided that which is most necessary for the wellbeing of those whose ideology they oppose.