A Handbook for Liberals

(A Summary of the 2020 book, Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay)

From the Introduction:

“The main tenets of liberalism are political democracy, limitations on the powers of government, the development of universal human rights, legal equality for all adult citizens, freedom of expression, respect for the value of viewpoint diversity and honest debate, respect for evidence and reason, the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion.” (p. 11)

After defining liberalism, the authors go on to describe “far-left progressive social crusaders” as those who seek to advance their cause of social and moral progress through “revolutionary aims that openly reject liberalism as a form of oppression…seeking to establish a thoroughly dogmatic fundamentalist ideology regarding how society ought to be ordered.”

These are the “Social Justice Warriors”, those who consider themselves to be woke: awake to nature of societal injustice.

The authors contend that liberalism and “modernity at the heart of Western civilization are at great risk on the level of the ideas that sustain them,” due to the rise of the far left, progressive, Social Justice Movement.

So why is this happening? That question is best answered by realizing that this Movement is based on two principles that underpin its entire ideology (known as Theory, or Critical Theory):

1. A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known, and how.

2. Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable.

Objective knowledge or truth is unobtainable, because of Theorists’ commitment to cultural constructivism.

Cultural constructivism is a belief that whatever it is we call truth, is nothing more than a construct of the culture calling it that, with one important proviso: Identity and oppression based on identity are treated as known features of objective reality. (p. 59)

To re-cap: the only things that are objectively real are your outward identity, the identity group(s) you belong to, and whatever rung(s) your identity group occupies on society’s ladder(s) of oppression.

To a Social Justice Warrior, everything is a “zero-sum political struggle revolving around identity markers like race, sex, gender, sexuality and many others.” (p.16) These markers have continued to splinter into ever more specific identity groups that tend to overlap (also known as intersectionality).

If the power differential or oppression cannot be detected in whatever is being considered, the evidence of oppression WILL be found by critically searching for it. Hence the name, Critical Theory. For example, when Social Justice activists speak of “racism”,

“They are not referring to prejudice on the grounds of race, but rather to, as they define it, a racialized system that permeates all interactions in society yet is largely invisible except to those who experience it or who have been trained in the proper “critical” methods that train them to see it.” (p. 15)

Critical Theory has its origins in 1960s Postmodernist thought as described by French social Theorists Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Francois Lyotard.

What is Postmodernism? Encyclopedia Britannica defines Postmodernism as “a late 20th century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.”

Academics built Critical Theory out of Postmodernist concepts, and by the 1980s there was a substantial body of written work on Critical Theory.

Critical Theory has been endlessly analyzed and expanded upon within the confines of academia for decades. There are now many branches on the Critical Theory tree available for study, such as Critical Race Theory, Postcolonial Theory, Queer Theory and Gender Studies (which has replaced Women’s Studies at some colleges).

The freedom to disagree and argue that reality is not 100% based on ever widening circles of power struggles cannot exist in the Social Justice Movement. This is because its entire ideology rests on this belief. Doubt or disagreement is not allowed and often met with hostility. The authors write,

“This is confusing and counterintuitive to a culture accustomed to placing human dignity first and thus valuing charitable interpretations and tolerance of a wide range of views. At best, this has a chilling effect on the culture of free expression, which has served liberal democracies well for more than two centuries, as good people self-censor to avoid saying the “wrong” things. At worst, it is a malicious form of bullying and–when institutionalized–a kind of authoritarianism in our midst.”

Critical Theory inverts Martin Luther King’s axiom, “Judge others not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Left-wing progressive Social Justice Warriors do the opposite of what Dr. King preached. This is why the old 1960s civil rights-era, liberal goal of remaining “colorblind” when assessing a person’s character, or ability to do a job, upsets Critical Theorists. Your outward identity markers (such as the color of your skin) are the MOST (and arguably the only) important and real things about you, and you MUST be judged by them.

Critical Theory has spread way, way out from where it originated at the colleges and universities. Having entered society at large, its illiberal ethos informs public education, law and government policy. An ideology which questions the existence of objective reality has entered the realms of medicine and scientific research.

In addition, people who consider themselves “liberal” may drift toward social justice causes without fully realizing that their fellow social justice warriors may not be reading from the same playbook.

Thus, a handbook is necessary to understand the far-left, progressive Social Justice Movement and the Critical Theories that underpin it.

Cynical Theories is that handbook.

Relevant viewing: Author Naomi Wolf speaks about her sense of dislocation as a liberal today in the video on the About page of this blog.

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