At one point in Winnie-The-Pooh, Pooh and Piglet start to follow footprints in the snow. The pair think they belong to a creature called a “Woozle”. The tracks keep multiplying, and the two become increasingly confused, until — finally — Christopher Robin explains they’ve been following their own tracks in circles around a tree, and that Woozles aren’t real.
These days, if you go to university to read humanities and some social sciences — notably psychology and sociology — you’ll find yourself retracing Pooh and Piglet’s steps, hunting for Woozles that aren’t there.
You will encounter radical scepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable, along with a commitment to the notion that real things — like sex and race — are culturally constructed. Your lecturers will impress upon you the idea that society is formed into identity-based hierarchies and knowledge is an effect of power. Your position on a league-table of oppressed identities determine what can be known and how it is known. If you disagree you will at least be marked down, and sometimes formally disciplined. Worse, there is no Christopher Robin to save you. It’s Woozles all the way down, and don’t you dare dissent.
In Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why this Harms Everybody, British Medievalist Helen Pluckrose and American mathematician James Lindsay set themselves the task of explaining how this came about, and how to fight it off. They argue that postmodern thought over the last half century has evolved in such a way — meanwhile spilling out of the academy, into activist circles, to the public at large — as to constitute a threat not only to liberal democracy but to modernity itself.
Today’s activist dogma is recognisable as much by its effects, such as cancel culture and social-media dogpiles — which Pluckrose and Lindsay document — as by its tenets, which are treated as axiomatic. These include the claim that knowledge is a social construct; science and reason are tools of oppression; all human interactions are oppressive power-plays, and speech is harmful.
I can confirm — before I took myself off to be a lawyer and so pay the bills — what I’ve set out above in abbreviated form has been standard for years. I started university in 1990 and thought I was reading Latin and Greek. And while, then, that was still true (I retain the ability to translate both public school mottoes and Roman smut), I also encountered the arrant nonsense Cynical Theories outlines for popular consumption.
I remember reading in Volume One of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality how “one day in 1867, a farm hand from the village of Lapcourt … was turned in to the authorities. At the border of a field, he had obtained a few caresses from a little girl, just as he had done before and seen done by the village urchins round about him; for, at the edge of the wood, or in the ditch by the road leading to Saint-Nicolas, they would play the familiar game called ‘curdled milk’.”
At the time it struck me Foucault was making an excuse for kiddy-fiddling, and I said so. I was called a prude. No, I countered, I think you’ll find this is a serious offence and people who try to explain it away need to look in the mirror. I was then told Foucault’s French had been mistranslated, and the class moved on. I borrowed a French edition from the university library and took it to my father, a fluent French-speaker. “No,” he said. “That’s what it says; the whole book is an attempt to make the age of consent less salient. M. Foucault may not be a paedophile, but he doesn’t have a problem with it”. This is a famous instance of the blurring of both conceptual and physical boundaries — such as those between health and sickness or truth and belief — that forms a core component of what Pluckrose and Lindsay capitalise throughout as Theory.
Contemporary social justice activism thus sees theory as reality, as though it were gravity
Some bits of the postmodernism taught to me appealed. I liked the notion that language could construct reality. I was writing a novel at the time and every author wants access to a form of word-magic, one where storytellers can make the world. However, I thought this applied only to fiction, not the real world my Statistics II textbook delineated. Once again, I made the mistake of saying so; another argument ensued. This is a sure-fire way to get a reputation as a pain in the arse, so I buttoned my lip. The fact I won a university medal (equivalent of class valedictorian or starred/congratulatory first) was entirely down to (a) being creative (b) doing the reading (c) taking many, many bong hits before I wrote my papers and sat exams. Yes, I turned up to central examination venues smelling like weed and stoned out of my tree.
Other aspects of the crudely simplified postmodernism Pluckrose and Lindsay discuss were still forming in 1990. One of these is cultural relativism, which takes in the notion that imaginative entry to another culture for a person from a “privileged” background is impossible. When this was put to me in argument — by a postcolonial theory academic — my response was to perpetrate an enormous literary hoax to falsify the claim. Since I did, in fact, succeed (my first novel won every award in the country worth having, was a major bestseller, and even people who hated me and the horse I rode in on accepted I could write) no-one attempted to argue that I’d somehow pulled off the impossible. Instead, I was told I was an immoral person for doing what I’d done. I’d told a story that wasn’t mine to tell.
The shift from “it’s immoral to tell another culture’s story” to “it’s impossible to tell another culture’s story, but in any case, one shouldn’t try for moral reasons” is part of a process Pluckrose and Lindsay describe as “reification”, which emerged after I’d left the ivory tower and commenced moving companies around and drafting commercial leases for a living. Once reified, postmodern abstractions about the world are treated as though they are real things, and accorded the status of empirical truth. Contemporary social justice activism thus sees theory as reality, as though it were gravity or cell division or the atomic structure of uranium.
The correspondence theory of truth holds that objective truth exists and we can learn something about it through evidence and reason. That is, things are knowable and we gain reliable information about them when our beliefs align with reality. It’s termed “the correspondence theory of truth” because a statement is considered true when it corresponds with reality and false when it doesn’t. Reality, of course, is the thing that does not change regardless of what you believe.
While advanced civilisations going back to classical antiquity employed this reasoning in selected areas (Ancient Rome to civil engineering and law, for example, or Medieval China to public administration), it’s only since the Enlightenment that it’s been applied consistently to nearly everything, at least in developed countries. It forms the foundation of modern scientific and administrative progress and accounts in large part for the safety and material comfort we now enjoy.
Reified “Theory” is no more and no less than a rejection of the correspondence theory of truth. There are no universal truths and no objective reality, only narratives expressed in discourses and language that reflect one group’s power over another. Science has no claim on objectivity, because science itself is a cultural construct, created out of power differentials, and ordered by straight white males. There are no arguments, merely identity showdowns; the most oppressed always wins.
And, because language makes the world, attempts by scholars in other disciplines and from across the political spectrum to do what I did and falsify Theory’s empirical claims are met not with reasoned debate but an accusation that those individuals are harming the oppressed or silencing the marginalised, because all someone higher up the hierarchical food chain is supposed to do when confronted by someone lower down is listen. That’s the point of telling people to “check their privilege” before they open their mouths.
Pluckrose and Lindsay make a compelling argument that this is a religion, and not in the glib, observational sense that its adherents are taking knees, engaging in call-and-response, or washing each other’s feet. Rather, contemporary social justice asks us to believe things that aren’t proven in the same way that “Muhammad ascended to heaven from the battlements of Jerusalem on a winged horse” or “Christ rose from the dead on the third day” aren’t proven.
It’s also a genuine case of what policy wonks have long called “The Woozle Effect” (yes, there’s a reason for my Winnie-the-Pooh reference). In wonk-world, a Woozle occurs when frequent citation of previous publications not grounded in evidence misleads individuals, groups, and governments into believing there is proof for something. In this way, invented claims become accepted factlets and then feed into policy. Think, for example, of the so-called “gender-pay-gap”. In reality, the observed gap has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with sex, and does not arise as a result of discrimination. You would not know this from watching the BBC, however.
Enacting legislation and developing national strategies on the basis of false claims is the policy equivalent of theology. We may as well sacrifice virgins on mountaintops Aztec-style for all the good Theory is doing to address problems about which everyone — not just social justice warriors, as Cynical Theories notes — cares.
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