interior of tower of used books

Just Because You’re Cynical Doesn’t Mean People Aren’t Self-Interested

I finally broke down and bought this book, when I saw it for “half price.” [Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t, but that’s what the bookstore claims.] According to the back cover, it is “… a brilliant book, offering an incisive and much-needed critique of the cult of social justice” and featuring “clear prose and a fair-minded spirit…”

cover of the book Cynical Theories

I disagreed with those descriptions.

That may mean, and probably does mean according to the authors and their fans, that I disagree with objective reality.

I don’t know whether I have the kind of evidence for my disagreement and counter-assessment that these authors would credit as evidence. I don’t know whether what I know about the book, that underlies my distaste, qualifies as “knowledge” in their view. I suspect it has the taint of things like “standpoint” and “experience,” which makes it suspect. On the other hand, I think we could come up with some operational definitions and third-party observations that would operate to position my take as a bit more factual, so maybe I’d squeak by.

What got me riled up, near the beginning, was the way the authors presented some things that to me seem empirical as articles of faith:

… one central belief in postmodern political thought is that powerful forces in society essentially order society into categories and hierarchies that are organized to serve their own interests. They effect this by dictating how society and its features can be spoken about and what can be accepted as true (37).

I wondered what part of that “belief” they thought was false.

I also found it curious, but telling, the way they talked about “truth” and “belief” as contrast categories:

Radical skepticism as to the possibility of objective truth and knowledge, combined with a belief in cultural constructivism in the service of power, results in a suspicion of all boundaries and categories that previous thinkers widely accepted as true. These include not only the boundaries between objective and subjective and between truth and belief, but also those between science and the arts …, the natural and the artificial …, high and low culture …, man and other animals, and man and machine …, and between different understandings of sexuality and gender as well as health and sickness … Almost every socially significant category has been intentionally complicated and problematized by postmodern Theorists in order to deny such categories any objective validity and disrupt the systems of power that might exist across them (39 – my emphasis).

Normally, I think, people contrast “truth” with “fiction” or “falsehood” or “lies.” But the way these authors use the term “belief” makes it equivalent to the opposite of truth and knowledge. A consequence of that way of thinking, it seems, is that if a person has ideas they have concluded correspond to objective reality, after having been presented with certain kinds of evidence, they do not think they “believe those ideas,” but that they “have knowledge.”

That is probably why, I came to think, the authors frequently characterize postmodern theorists as “believing” things. Wrong things, according to them. Because, as far as I was able to gather from reading this book, they believe people can’t “know” wrong things. Maybe people can think they know those things, but they would be mistaken. That would not be knowledge. That would be belief.

Although I got the impression that they rejected the longstanding working definition of knowledge as “justified true belief,” too. That confused me, because it seems to me we’re required to have some understanding of that kind if we’re to go along with the idea that false things can’t be known. That is, if we refuse to grant the status of “knowledge” to subjective states like certainty or “full persuasion,” in the absence of the underlying truth of what we’re certain or persuaded about.

But I may have been mistaken. They may simply have rejected some kinds of reasons for believing things, as not being proper justifications. That is, as not being good enough reasons.

I gathered that their way of referring to “religion” and “church” was another consequence of what I took to be their implicit understanding of truth. For instance,

[Applied postmodernism] undermines public trust in the academy, which is generally considered a guardian of what is, by making it more like a church, which conveys that which people ought to think and believe. (99-100 – emphasis in the original)

And

… no matter what evidence about reality (physical, biological, and social) or philosophical argument may be presented, Theory always can and always does explain it away. … It is therefore no exaggeration to observe that Social Justice Theories have created a new religion, a tradition of faith that is actively hostile to reason, falsification, disconfirmation, and disagreement of any kind. (210)

I suspect my identity as a former teacher of religious studies makes me particularly sensitive to this use of the concept of “religion,” as roughly synonymous with “a set of fixed ideas.” I have spent long hours working to demonstrate to students that the kind of religion we study in the academy involves more than “what people believe,” or even “what people believe without empirical evidence.” [These are things students have said in class. More than once. Maybe this was the root of my persistent sense that these authors write like undergraduates.]

I felt impelled to point out that churches, and related institutions like mosques and synagogues and ashrams and monasteries, also position themselves as “guardians of what is.” The kind of religion people like to study in the academy is materially and practically and socially embodied: in sustained forms of religious practice, ritual, symbols, material productions, institutional arrangements (priesthoods, e.g.), sacralized spaces and times, as well as, typically, purity codes. They are ways of life, shared and inhabited by the people who make them what they are.

They are, for that matter, eminently social constructions. It’s hard to see how we’d be able to see what is going on in human religious life if we had to jettison our “belief” in the social construction of reality. It’s probably not a coincidence that the scholar who (to my knowledge) invented that term – “the social construction of reality” – was the prominent sociologist of religion, Peter Berger.

“Postmodernism” does not look much like a religion to me.

Certainly, no more so than “science” does.

[Apropos of which: it’s hard for me not to laugh when people make claims about the transcendent objectivity of “science,” in the wake of the worldwide experience with COVID, and the litanies of “trust the science.” Do you-all hear yourselves? I say this as someone who got all the vaccinations, too. Just because something has an ideological element doesn’t mean it’s all wrong about reality.]

My spouse reminded me that I don’t have to keep reading books I don’t like. I could just pitch them into the bin to take back to the half price book store.

I did keep reading this one, though, because I had delusions about writing up a point by point critique of the authors’ presentation. Once I began working on that, however, I realized it would take more time than I really have. I don’t care that much.

And I did sympathize with what I took to be the authors’ core project: an effort to challenge a way of thinking, a set of ideas, that seems to them to lead people too easily to advocate forms of authoritarianism, bullying, and willful ignorance, in ways that can hurt people.

I took a course in queer theory in graduate school a long time ago, and I remember vividly the time one of our classmates said, in the middle of class, “I can’t afford to think this way.” [We were talking about health, I think, at the time, and how the line between health and illness is less bright than people think.] “I can’t afford to think this way. I used to be a meth addict. This is bad for my recovery.”

I want to be on the side of people getting free from meth addiction.

So I’m on board with the part of these authors’ project that is on the side of that kind of freedom, from meth addiction, and from all the other kinds of addictions and abuses in our world.

I’m less on board with the way they fail to recognize their own assumptions. As a result of that failure, I think they manage to illustrate the reality critiqued by the Theory they deplore. I doubt they do this intentionally. The fact that they have not taken sufficient pains to airbrush their own opinionated and ideological statements out of the text suggests to me that they don’t perceive those statements as opinionated and ideological. My guess is that the folks who regard the work as “brilliant” don’t perceive that, either.

My other guess is that “standpoint theory” gets more support from this fact than they would like to acknowledge. [Well, I’d call it a fact.]

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Near the beginning of the book they present, as something to decry, what they dub the “postmodern political principle:”

A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how (31).

Near the end of the book, they defend the system they consider more desirable, the one they say postmodernism undermines, this way:

People in liberal systems are free to believe anything they wish, and they’re free to argue for anything they want, but to claim that such beliefs are knowledge and demand they be respected as such is another matter (250 – emphasis in the original).

I had to LOL. Cynically, I suppose.

WORKS CITED

Berger, Peter L. and Luckmann, Thomas. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Anchor Books, 1966.

Pluckrose, Helen and Lindsay, James. Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody. Pitchstone Publishing, 2020.

[An installment of the Read Me Project.]

A tower of books with a almond- or vaginal-shaped opening
“Yes, I am going to read all these books.”

Images: “Book Tower,”Deror_avi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; By VitVit (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

2 responses to “Just Because You’re Cynical Doesn’t Mean People Aren’t Self-Interested”

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