ARE we living through a ‘culture war’? Is there a danger that some of the crankier ideas at the fringes of academia have scaled the walls of the universities and are now running amok through society, threatening liberalism itself? Or is this just a moral panic generated by a few right-wing hysterics?
Douglas Murray’s hugely entertaining 2019 bestseller The Madness of Crowds (Gender, Race and Identity) made a compelling case for the former view, and exposed the ‘woke’ ideology in its myriad forms. Murray’s book was by turns scurrilous and heartfelt, and sweeping in its range of references. (The epigraph featured GK Chesterton alongside Nicki Minaj.)
The authors of Cynical Theories take a drier, more scholarly approach in their dismantling of the woke ideology, but the book is no less enlightening for that. It dives deep into the academic roots of Critical Theory and traces its progress over the decades, through the academy and into other institutions. It’s grim work, but someone had to do it. It helps to understand the intellectual provenance of bad ideas. Otherwise, how will you respond when your child comes home from school and explains that he is an oppressor because he is a white male? What counter-arguments can you summon when your teenage daughter declares that she’s really a boy, and simultaneously that there’s no such thing as biological sex? What do you say when your morbidly obese friend takes a Fat Studies course, claiming the link between obesity and ill-health is a conspiracy of hatred by doctors against overweight people?
Such issues are related, and don’t spring from nowhere. Cynical Theories traces them to the rise of postmodernism. Put simply, Western intellectuals, their faith in the enlightenment shaken by the horrors of the world wars, developed a deep scepticism of meta-narratives, and began to question the notion of objective truth. Then postmodernism mutated to become not just a way of seeing the world, but a politically actionable ideology, Theory, with four key principles:
1. The Blurring of Boundaries
2. The Power of Language
3. Cultural Relativism
4. The Loss of the Individual and the Universal.
For those who think such ideas are a continuation of the civil rights and feminist movements, the authors dissect the mindset of Theory to show how this is something very different. For example, the first principle explains not the belief that gay people should have equal rights, but that gender is itself an oppressive social construct that must be dismantled. The third leads to the ‘decolonisation’ of education and other institutions. Far from being merely a plea for more ethnic minority writers to be included on the syllabus, decolonisation claims:
“The West has constructed the idea that rationality and science are good in order to perpetuate its own power and marginalize non-rational, non-scientific forms of knowledge production from elsewhere. Therefore, we must now devalue white, Western ways of knowing for belonging to white Westerners and promote Eastern ones (in order to equalize the power balance).”
If you’ve been baffled by claims that mathematics is racist, for example, there’s your answer.
A key feature of Theory is the blurring of education and activism. The authors explain:
“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.”
Hence Theory’s hostility to free speech. The authors cite chilling examples of academics explicitly advocating the silencing of students who question Theory.
“What is perhaps most frustrating about Theory is that it tends to get literally every issue backwards, largely due to its rejection of human nature, science and liberalism. It allots social significance to racial categories, which inflames racism. It attempts to depict categories of sex, gender and sexuality as mere social constructions, which undermines the fact that people often accept sexual minorities because they recognise sexual expression varies naturally. It depicts the East as the opposite of the West and thus perpetuates the very Orientalism it seeks to unmake. Theory is highly likely to spontaneously combust at some point, but it could cause a lot of harm before it does.”
There are encouraging signs of such combustion. In the US, parents are taking the legal fight to Critical Race Theory in schools. The British legal establishment appears to be waking up to the harm being done to children by the unquestioning embrace of transgender ideology. Online and increasingly in publishing, brave souls are risking ostracism by pushing back against the most dangerous ideas of our time. This scrupulously fair, diligently researched book is a welcome addition to the fight.