Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

The perils of applied postmodernism

The sad truth about political reality of the 21st century is that left-wing people are insufferably annoying and right-wing people are just plain dumb.

Progressive left ideas are often confusing and incomprehensible (statements like there’s no reverse racism, or that censorship helps to advance freedom), but what we cannot deny is that these ideas at least come from the intellectual, mostly academic circles. They’re based on an intellectual foundation, primarily philosophical (very peculiar one, but still). On the other hand, the discourse of conservative crowd is intellectually underwhelming (just look at Ben Shapiro or Bret Weinstein). So it seems to me that the main problem of opponents of the left is that they don’t even try to understand the ideas behind the progressive left ideology, and therefore fail to compete with these ideas on the appropriate level, failing to gain any credibility or respect in the ‘intellectual’ spheres: from media to universities.

That’s why I was quite happy to find a book that does a proper job of critically addressing progressive left ideology from the standpoint of its philosophical foundations: ‘Cynical theories’ by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. Yes, these are the same people who made left-leaning academic magazines publish their articles about rape culture among dogs, as well as an excerpt from ‘Mein Kampf’ rewritten using feminist buzzwords (‘the struggle of my sisters is my struggle’).

So let’s go through philosophical foundations of the theories that gave us such precious concepts as toxic masculinity, white supremacy, cisnormativity, ableism, heteronormativity, and fatphobia, and we’ll soon see, as Steven Pinker noted, that ‘their intellectual roots turn out to be surprisingly shallow’.

The origins of critical theory

Pluckrose and Lindsay examine a whole bunch of ‘progressive’ academic fields, from post colonial theory and gender studies to critical race theory and intersectionality. They argue that all these fields (later referred by an umbrella term of Critical Theory) originated from the post-modernist thought of the 20th century. The post-modernist thought is based on two fundamental tenets:

Epistemological principle: absolute truth is impossible to reach (objective truth is unattainable). The truth is always subjective, contingent or culturally constructed.

Political principle: society is governed by a complex system of power structures that manifest themselves through privilege and oppression.

Pluckrose and Lindsay identify the following topics constantly recurring in the critical theory: blurring of boundaries, cultural relativism, obsession with language, and rejection of the universal.

It’s easy to track origins of these topics and principles in the philosophy of Michel Foucault. Foucault was a radical skeptic: influenced by Kant and his critical stance towards human knowledge, Foucault concluded that absolute truth is unreachable, therefore all knowledge in the society is determined by those who happen to be in power. Every epoch has its own dominant discourses, which he called epitomes – that manifest narratives and beliefs that the powerful groups normalize and propagate.

For example, in the ‘The Birth of the Clinic’ Foucault studied the history of mental health institutions and attitudes towards insanity, claiming that the idea of a mentally healthy person was a social construct from the age of Enlightenment. In ‘Discipline and Punish’ he conducted a similar analysis of the ideas of punishment and confinement developing throughout the history of European penal system. In ‘The History of Sexuality’, Foucault analyzed what’s considered sexually normal and how the idea of splitting people into heterosexual and homosexual originated in the society. Given that Michel Foucault was an anarchist and homosexual himself, his criticism of normativity is quite understandable. The idea of opening up prisons might go a bit too far, but treating homosexuals and mentally divergent people in a humane way is something everyone is likely to agree with. In fact, it’s not too far from the present-day libertarian thought with its principle of non-violence: if an insane person doesn’t impose a threat of violence on society, there’s little reason to constrain him in a specialized institution.

Anyway, ideas of Foucault have been widely adopted by academics and scholars in the past decades, and became sort of an intellectual mainstream of the 21 century that now spans though nearly all academic fields, from literature to gender studies. Each of these fields aims to address its subject ‘critically’ to identify the discourses of power embedded in it. So far so good.

The problem comes up when principles of critical theory escape from a merely academic realm and spread from books to political activism: Pluckrose and Lindsay call it Social Justice activism with capital letters, as it shouldn’t be confused with the liberal social justice movements of the 20th century. When descriptive post-modernism became normative, and ‘is’ became ‘ought’, it created an ultra-confusing system of thought that somehow started to be called progressive.

In line with post-modernist tenets, the social justice activism born out of critical thought is obsessed with power, privilege, and language.

Language is given paramount importance thanks to the theories of yet another post-modernist philosopher – Jacques Derrida, who had allegedly claimed that there’s nothing outside of text. Reality is being constructed through one’s speech (or discourse), therefore ‘speech acts’ have to be treated as actions shaping the physical world and therefore examined with careful attention.

The failure to understand this complex system of post-modern philosophical thought, as well as activism born out of it, leads to being labeled as uneducated. Alas, the majority of population cannot comprehend the critical theory because of its difficulty but see its weird consequences nevertheless: worried that everyone’s now called racist, celebrities being ‘cancelled’, etc. Perhaps this was even one of the reasons that led to the election of Donald Trump in 2016: people don’t understand progressive left, therefore they want someone who would actively oppose it.

To understand the Social Justice activism better, let’s go through the main ideas embedded in its underlying Critical Theory, as well as its implications in the real world.

Invisible power structures and oppression by means of prejudices

What’s crucial to understand is that what post-modernist Social Justice activists are fighting with is not legal inequality. This one has been abolished long ago thanks to the laws promoting equal opportunity and universal human rights. What they’re fighting with are prejudices that allegedly constitute the oppressive power structures that somehow remained in the society. Implicit biases, underlying assumptions and other ‘problematic’ parts of discourses. This is why there’s an obsessive attention given to language and speech: when there’s nothing existing outside of text, and language dictates the reality, hate speech becomes a legitimate crime. Therefore the language has to be ‘scrutinized and cleansed’.

Invisible power structures manifest themselves through prejudices and govern all parts of the society. That’s why the entire academic fields like critical race theory are built on the core tenet that racism is ‘present everywhere and always’ and that racism is ‘not an aberration, but rather a fundamental, endemic and normalized way of organizing society’ (as defined by an activist professor Christine Sleeter). Or, as Robin DiAngelo, a key scholar in ‘whiteness studies’ and author of the ‘white fragility’ concept, says: ‘Being good or bad is not relevant. Racism is a multilayered system embedded into our culture. All of us are socialized into the system of racism. Racism cannot be avoided.’

But how can such a strong claim be verified? If power structures are invisible, how can we even prove their existence? Unfortunately, there’s no way to know. According to post-modernists, all knowledge is relative (there’s no objective truth), therefore only the testimony of an oppressed party can be taken as evidence. Victim cannot lie (more about post-modernist epistemological principles later).

What’s important is that existence of invisible oppression is impossible to verify or falsify objectively – as it doesn’t present criteria for falsification.

For example, another author criticizing Social Justice activism – Gad Saad, in his book ‘The Parasitic Mind’ (which was not nearly as intellectual as the book by Pluckrose and Lindsay, but still) refers to the following two studies that prove the unfalsifiable nature of the progressive left’s worldview. A doctoral student from the Cornell University, Tal Nitzan, conducted research on the behavior of Israeli Defense Forces in Palestine and their treatment of local women. She was searching for instances of rape – and found none. What she concluded though was that Israeli soldiers dehumanized Palestinian women thinking they’re unworthy of rape – all because of the inherent racism of Israelites towards Palestinians. Another study with somewhat similar outcomes was conducted by Anisa Rawhani from the Queens University. As an experiment, she wore hijab for 18 days to analyze the attitudes of people around and detect instances of hate or bigotry. What she found instead was that people were generally nice and polite. In her paper, Rawhani concluded that polite behavior was an ‘overcompensation for the concealed bigotry’, and claimed that Islamophobia is everywhere – in its invisible and internalized form.

Indeed, it seems like the invisible power structures can only be detected by a trained eye. That’s why people who disagree with the postmodernist methodology and deny existence of oppressive power structures are invited to ‘educate themselves’. For example, an activist Virgie Tovar writes: ‘Sexism has become a deeply coded set of behavior that are difficult to unlock if you don’t know how to see them. It can take special access to education and language in order to unveil sexist behavior.’

In simple words: only trained people can judge if someone’s behavior is considered sexist or not. And I’m afraid they have every incentive to claim it is. As Abraham Maslow noted: ‘If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.’

Strange epistemologies & victimhood

According to post-modernist thought, there’s one more way to attain an accurate view of reality – it can be done through subjective private experiences. In a world full of illusions, the only things certain are feelings and mental states that constitute our subjective experiences. That has widely become the epistemological criteria for learning whether something is true or not.

Indeed, what is even the foundation of human knowledge? This question has a long history – for example, it was one of the most famous themes in the philosophy of Rene Descartes. In the world full of delusions, deception, and mistakes, the only thing certain is the mental state of the self. Descartes proposed that the very fact that we can think and doubt reality of our own existence is the only undeniable fact of reality available to us – which proves that at least our mind as a thinking entity is real. I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.

But in the 21 century, we somehow shifted from ‘Cogito ergo sum’ to ‘Sentio ergo sum’ – I feel therefore I am. The fact that we feel hurt is the source of knowledge that proves our ultimate existence.

Oppressive power structures are therefore visible not only to those who’re trained in critical theory, but also to those who’re hurt, abused and oppressed by these structures. That’s why a victim has a special status in the system of invisible power beliefs: the status of a prophet, a clairvoyant, someone with a clear unspotted vision in the world where everyone else is blind.

It seems like being a victim is the only way of legitimizing one’s existence in a world where social justice is claimed to be the number one virtue that the society should strive for. In a similar way, in communist regimes, barely anyone wanted to present themselves as oppressors or bourgeoisie. The Marxist system of ‘equality and justice’ was designed to empower the oppressed and demonize the oppressors. Since then, the world has shifted from preoccupation with economic injustice (since it was significantly improved in the past century) to social injustice. The new oppressors are not bourgeoisie with their evil capitalist system but people who discriminate against others on the basis of prejudices and implicit biases.

But is it correct to say that the victim is always right? How reliable are the subjective experiences and a personal testimony?

In fact, the research shows that subjective experiences are not entirely reliable. For example, people often mistake heartburn for a heart attack, or experience somatic hallucinations. There’s even a condition of cenesthopathy, when people feel certain they experience sensations that are objectively impossible to experience: such as weird feelings in their internal organs like movement of kidneys or tickling of liver, or even the feelings of deflation or contraction in their veins. The same can be applied to mental states and the ways people interpret them. The way we talk about our mental states is essentially just an empirical theory that gives us tools to verbally describe what we feel. Sometimes such explanatory frameworks expand over time to incorporate new concepts or change meanings of the existing ones.

This is what seems to be happening now with the discourses around experiences of trauma, prejudice and abuse. If you’ve been on Twitter long enough, you must have seen an infinite number of threads from women confessing their personal abuse stories: many authors not being aware that a situation or a relationship were abusive before they got familiar with the concept. Often the reported abuse has been caused by the fact that their boyfriend may not have shared enough money, didn’t allow the purchase of alcohol, or suggested going somewhere by bus instead of a taxi (here’s my favorite story about this sort of abuse, alas it’s in Russian).

To explain this phenomenon, psychologist Nick Haslam proposed the idea of a ‘concept creep’ and argued that ‘what constitutes harm and pathology has been massively expanded’. He also noted that this trend manifests itself in the spheres such as bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction and prejudice. This led to a disproportionate ‘pathologizing of everyday experience’ and a spreading narrative of a faux victimhood. Just to illustrate the extent of inflation of what constitutes the concept of trauma these days, here’s a wonderful story about a woman who got ‘deeply traumatized’ after a store employee didn’t let her use a proper toilet.

And while it’s perhaps fine when someone seeks sympathy by sharing their private feelings and emotions, it becomes problematic when emotions leak into spheres that require reason and logic (such as universities, courts, and politics).

Application to wrong fields

The main tenet of postmodernism is that truth is conditional: it’s created through discourses common to certain social and cultural groups. ‘There’re no facts, only interpretation’. This theory got the name of cultural relativism.

But the recent developments in critical theory claim that knowledge is determined not only by culture, but also by a whole bunch of other group identities: including sex, gender and sexuality. For example, according to feminist epistemology, the knowledge is always situated: contingent on the viewpoint of ‘knower’. This may include his or her experience of a physical body, internal mental states, specific social experiences common through one’s lifetime, etc. The things a person sees as true are therefore contingent on his or her background.

I agree that cultural relativism is relevant to social sciences. Humans are quite creative in inventing (‘constructing’) abstract concepts which may indeed differ from one culture to another. Gender lens could perhaps be applied to some specific fields of social sciences too: for example, it’s legitimate to analyze art or literature from such a perspective (even though it’s quite boring and already overly analyzed).

The problem comes up when methods of ‘relative epistemology’ (or standpoint epistemology) spread to the fields where they cannot be applicable.

For example, what all humans share in common, regardless of their culture and gender, is that human mind is faulty, always fallible, organs of perception are imprecise. So, in order to overcome this deficiency in the comprehension of reality humankind has invented a miraculous thing – a scientific method, with its scrupulous methodologies, orderly research designs, and the use of precise instruments. Cultural relativism doesn’t play a role here: physics labs in modern China are similar to the ones in modern Germany (perhaps apart form the degree of ethical concerns). CERN hires scientists from Spain and India, from Denmark and Turkey, and even if they don’t speak languages of each other, they all understand the common language of particle physics.

Science is so efficient exactly because it disregards personality of the scientist: the knowledge it creates is supposed to be universal and applicable to anyone. If math was subjective, we won’t be able to agree on formulas to solve equations, let alone discover neutrinos and launch rockets into space.

Yet, ‘research justice’ movement is based on the postmodernist idea that epistemology is situational: research produced by various people leads to different results (‘multiple truths are possible depending on who’s asking’). For example, medicine and nutrition might be ‘fatphobic’ because they’re produced by non-obese people. Of nutrition studies were conducted by obese people (as in the field of ‘critical dietetics’), there won’t be correlation established between obesity and heart disease. ‘Critical orientation rejects the notion that it’s even possible to produce knowledge that is objective, value-free, and untouched by human bias’.

‘Epistemic justice’ therefore claims that knowledge is linked to identity, therefore ‘emotions, cultural tradition and life experiences’ of knowers play a crucial role. A white cis-gendered male will never have access to the knowledge available to a trans-woman of color, therefore it’s advised to avoid citing white cis-gendered males in science and prioritize research by scholars belonging to marginalized groups. According to the standpoint theory, they cannot produce objective knowledge anyway because they’re blinded by their own privilege. This is not too different than saying that knowledge can only be produced by a member of proletariat (the rest is bourgeois lies), an adept of Christian faith (the rest is heresy), or an Aryan-blooded person (the rest is a degrading nonsense).

To add more, the post-modernist view considers even the reason itself faulty. Binaries are always flawed and oppressive, therefore the West is recommended to abandon its socially constructed binary of ‘reason/emotion divide’ (as Allison Wolf calls it) to obtain more reliable knowledge. Feelings, life experiences and ‘other ways of knowing’ have to be incorporated into Western science alongside the scientific method. Even the math itself is being criticized as it ‘focuses on objectivity and proof’, which manifest an oppressive, dominant discourse. This paper, for example, proposes to reconceptualize math in favour of mathematx, arguing ‘for a movement against objects, truths, and knowledge towards a way of being in the world that is guided by first principles – mathematx.’

I would understand if activist efforts were at least targeted at how research results are being interpreted and applied (say, men would be more supportive of applying some technology for a military use, while women may oppose it). But this is not what the current discourse is about: it’s only about methods, and whether they’re equitable and just for everyone. Decolonizing entire fields of science or scientific tools (such as math) is counterproductive: even if a scientist comes form the background of a dominant social group (say, white cis-males), the only thing that matters is his reason, diligence, and a cognitive capacity – which isn’t determined by gender or ethnicity in any significant way.

To finish it up, here’s a precious (and rather ill-famous) extract from of a paper about feminist glaciology (completely non-ironic!) that just says it all:

‘Merging feminist postcolonial science studies and feminist political ecology, the feminist glaciology framework generates robust analysis of gender, power, and epistemologies in dynamic social-ecological systems, thereby leading to more just and equitable science and human-ice interactions.’

Relation to liberalism and the mapping on political compass

It’s important to understand that one of the central tenets of post-modernist Social Justice activism is the rejection of liberalism (and I don’t think enough people see the danger of such a political positioning).

In their book, Pluckrose and Lindsay quote a paragraph form the black feminist thinker Kimberle Crenshaw who argues that there must be a ‘distinction between the claims ‘I am Black’ and the claim ‘I am a person who happens to be Black’. ‘I am Black’ takes the socially imposed identity and empowers it as an anchor of subjectivity. ‘I am a person who happens to be Black’, on the other hand, achieves self-identification by straining for a certain universality (in effect, ‘I am first a person’) and for a concomitant dismissal of the imposed category (‘Black’) as contingent, circumstantial, nondeterminant.’

Yes, belonging to a certain social group is considered more important than being human (I don’t even want to elaborate which ethical implications this statement leads to). But this is the precise nature of identity politics. Let’s recap. Power is everything. Invisible power manifests itself through prejudices. Prejudices can be only targeted at certain social groups, not individuals. Therefore group identity is the foundation of everyone’s personality. It’s naive, unjust (and even oppressive) to treat everyone as equal individuals when it comes to education, legal system or economy, because such treatment would ignore the problem of implicit biases in society. ‘Liberalism benefits the dominant’. It’s a ‘imperialist universalizing’. Therefore, liberalism is bad.

Needless to say that under such an approach diversity of viewpoints and individuality are not valued at all. Unlike in liberalism, the individual is replaced by a group. The worth of a person is thus determined solely by his group belonging and his positioning on the intersected grid of oppression.

Moreover, the standpoint theory argues that all members of the oppressed social group are expected to essentially have the same perception of the world (all women or all ethnic minorities). If they don’t, they’re accused of internalizing their oppression. ‘Legitimate disagreement is not an option’. Once again, any individual intellectual diversity is renounced. Knowledge is situational and positional, therefore only the viewpoints of marginalized and oppressed groups are unique (as they offer an alternative to the ‘hegemonic, dominant and powerful’ discourses of the privileged), and only amplification of their voices contributes to real diversity (not, say, the diversity of individual thoughts, ideas and political opinions – like in a liberal society).

If it’s not liberal, where exactly does the post-modern Social Justice activism belong on the political compass? Undoubtedly, on the left. But it’s a peculiar type of the political left. As Francis Fukuyama highlighted in his essay about identity politics, left-wing political parties have traditionally supported workers rights and focused on economically disadvantaged parts of the population. Currently, the left shifted their focus from economic inequality to social inequality examined through intersectional lens and based on race, gender, and sexuality. However, could such a theory find much understanding among the working class people? Perhaps not, especially if they’re being constantly accused of white privilege and implicit racism. To working class, all of this seems like bourgeois concerns and ‘luxury beliefs’ of highly educated upper-middle-class people. So what’s currently happening is the gradual shift of the working class from left to the right, towards the populists who take advantage of their frustration.

As Pluckrose and Lindsay rightfully note, instead of acting on the basis of empathy (like liberalism does), the applied post-modernism aggressively divides people, encouraging tribalism and hostility. It could trigger a counter-revival of right-wing politics leaving us ‘at the mercy of nationalists and right-wing populists, who pose an even greater potential threat to liberalism’. As already noted, this was perhaps one of the reason behind Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Moreover, this was exactly the reason why Nazism gained so much support in Germany of the 1930s: it was primarily a reaction against the spreading popularity of Marxism. Seems like something similar might be happening now, and that’s definitely a scary trend to witness.

Postmodernism has become a metanarrative of its own

Original ‘academic’ postmodernism was radically skeptical and doubtful of any objective truth possibly available to humans, let alone any higher moral principles. The key words at its core were nihilism, ambiguity and doubt. The essence of postmodernist method was therefore to question all metanarratives, from Marxism to Christianity, that may claim that there’re universal and unshakable dogmas that define the world. It was a quest to deconstruct, dismantle and disrupt everything.

But deconstruction can only destroy: it cannot assert any truth claims of its own. And that’s where the problem comes up. If we say that there’re no metanarratives, how can we claim that liberty and equality, let alone justice must be universal human values without creating a whole new metanarrative?

That was one of the strongest criticisms of Foucault’s philosophy. It came from a German philosopher Juergen Habermas. After one of Foucault’s lectures in Paris, Habermas asked how come Foucault selectively attacks some social constructs and ignores the others (such as morals in general). Philosophy of Foucault creates a powerful nihilism, no doubt. But for some reason Foucault doesn’t go far enough: he doesn’t make any negation in moral judgement: he still thinks freedom is morally good and oppression is morally bad. If Foucault was truly consistent, both liberation and coercion would be equally acceptable to him.

Foucault didn’t find anything to answer. His philosophy couldn’t provide a solution to this question.

Since the times of Foucault, post-modernism made a drastic turn. Instead of being merely descriptive, it became prescriptive: describing what ‘ought’ to be rather than what ‘is’. Invisible power not merely exists, but has to be overthrown. Somehow postmodernism bas become an assertive belief system, stating its tenants with absolute certainty, something ‘that would have never been possible for the original postmodernists’.

Pluckrose and Lindsay call this process ‘reification’ – treating academic concepts, once abstract and self-doubtful (such as epistemological and political principles of the postmodernist thought) as real, factually true and taken for granted. That’s when postmodernism becomes applied, reified – and transformed into a new ideology of its own.

‘It’s therefore no exaggeration to observe that Social Justice Theorists have created a new religion, a tradition of faith that is actively hostile to reason, falsification, disconfirmation, and disagreement of any kind. Indeed, the whole postmodernist project now seems, in retrospect, like an unwitting attempt to have deconstructed the old metanarratives of Western thought – science and reason along with religion and capitalist economic system – to make room for a wholly new religion, a postmodernist faith based on a dead God, which sees mysterious worldly forces in systems of power and privilege and which sanctifies victimhood. This, increasingly, is the fundamentalist religion of the nominally secular left.’

The main tenet of post-modernist Social Justice ideology is the deconstruction of all oppressive power. However, this methodology is inconsistent: the radical quest to deconstruct power structures inevitably leads to creation of new power dynamics. This is what had happened to communism in practice, and seems like this is what’s happening now. For example, consider the case of Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of BLM movement, who had collected donations for the movement only to later buy a USD 6 mil mansion in Los Angeles for herself. Saying that it helps to overthrow oppression and achieve greater good is the same thing as saying that it’s moral for Orthodox priests to own golden watches, villas and large SUVs because they have a mission of providing greater good for the Christian people. From the moral standpoint, was buying a mansion a just thing to do? Well, the liberal thought would say no. But under the applied post-modernist concept of justice, it’s not guaranteed that meritocracy, personal talent and achievement are supposed to be rewarded – economic justice might equally be guided by something else, such as belonging to a right group. Ethical standards might also be applied in uneven way – for example, according to one’s identity, not a universal human dignity.

It’s also endlessly entertaining to me to observe how thinkers usually described as very anti-liberal and right-wing, like Alain de Benoist in France or Alexander Dugin in Russia, are taking full advantage of the post-modernist tools in their discourse (without denying it!). The main tool they use is perhaps denial of the universal human nature, including human rights. Liberalism and individualism are just a manifestation of Western globalism and American hegemony. Values of an American are infinitely alien to someone from Russian. So they apply the post-modern trick of saying that truth is a social construct and reject Western values like universal human rights. And this is totally fitting into the Theory.

Oversimplification of complex social problems

I tend to believe that the narrative of oppression is a poor explanatory framework for the complex phenomena of social inequality. It’s too simplistic and fails to recognize the true reasons why injustice still exists.

The discourse of power and oppression seems to me like an utter oversimplification of social phenomena: when you take one problem (like a gender pay gap) and explain it by one single reason (oppression in the form of sexism) targeted at a certain social group (women). This approach explains the issue by bigotry and ignores a whole lot of other (often more tangible) factors behind the actual problem. What if women tend to make choices in favor of outcomes that lead to lower compensation? What if they don’t have access to affordable childcare? What if they cannot work flexible hours? What if their husbands can’t dedicate enough time to the family? What if women actually like being with family more than working extra hours? Here the discussion becomes more productive. Or, let’s take the problem of overrepresentation of Afro-American and Roma people in the prisons of USA and Slovakia, respectively. Is this fact caused by racism, or a whole bunch of other material factors including economic disadvantage, drug abuse, or the lack of access to education?

Or, my favorite example: a documentary about AI that claims that image recognition algorithms are racist because they sometimes cannot recognize faces of African Americans. Well… this problem is totally explained by the evil bigotry of AI: not by the sensitivity of algorithms to brightness and contrast of an image and its background.

One interesting thing noted by the Pluckrose and Lindsay is that despite the fact that postmodernist Social Justice activists look at an increasingly complex intersected grid of marginalized identities, including ‘sex, gender identity, race, sexuality, immigration status, indigeneity, colonial status, disability, religion, and weight’ (thus: interesectionality), surprisingly they exclude economic status from their analysis of oppression.

Yet, I see the economic status as one of the main reason why some groups remain disadvantaged in the modern society and why prejudices still exist. Poorness is correlated with a myriad of negative traits: from criminality to the lack of culture and education, which in turn are likely to cause negative attitudes and prejudices. On the other hand, economic advantage creates mostly favourable reputation for various social groups. For example, Jewish and Chinese people currently tend to be excluded from the definition of marginalized ethnicities and people of color because they’re predominantly economically well-off.

Another problem that contributes to the wrong treatment of real social problems is the fact that accusations of racism and sexism are often made because correlation is being mistaken for causation, and rather rational behavior interpreted as a manifestation of oppression.

For example, in his book, Gad Saad discusses the practice of profiling (such as subjecting people from Middle East to more thorough security checks at airports). Is this racist? Being from the Middle East himself, Saad justifies profiling, claiming it’s not racist but rather rational behavior. There are indeed race-based patterns of criminality found in aggregate statistical data. Similarly, gender-based statistical patterns show that the most likely candidate behind murder of a woman is her husband. Probability theory and statistics cannot be bigoted, racist or hateful, concludes Saad. Otherwise, the entire reality can be called racist.

I was once talking to a colleague who used to work in a bank department that assigned credit scores to private borrowers. The formulas applied by the department involved dozens of statistical factors including gender, age and nationality of the borrower. For instance, a Russian citizen would have a harder time obtaining loan from a Czech bank than a Bulgarian or Polish citizen: according to the database of the bank, there’s a higher correlation between being Russian and defaulting on a loan.

Is statistics racist? Well, correlation doesn’t mean causation. Being Russian is merely correlated with being less economically advantageous. Russianness on its own would not make you automatically default on your loan: being a financial crook is not a part of Russian nature or mentality. In fact, a liberal approach would treat each individual independently, not as a part of the group and thus a necessary bearer of all group characteristics. That’s not the case of identity politics though – which obligatorily assigns group traits to each of its members.

The weirdness of identity politics and its omission of economic status manifests itself in the criticism of ‘color-blind’ policies.

In his famous speech from 1963, Martin Luther King said that race shouldn’t define worth of a person (‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character’). We should all strive to be color-blind. On the contrary, the adepts of identity politics often argue that liberal policies benefit only dominant groups. For example, consider the case of a court that determines how much money the parent should pay in child support in case of a divorce. If the court is blind to gender of the parent, both mother and father would be obliged to pay a similar alimony sum. But according to feminists and other opponents of ‘gender-blindness’, this is unjust because it’s far more likely that mother would be making less money as she was more likely to have her career progression staled by the maternity leave. Similarly, in case if the education system is blind to one’s race and gives children from any ethnic background equal access to free education, opponents of color-blindness claim that some ethnic groups are still less likely to access it: for example, when children coming from poor families have to contribute to running the household or take care of their siblings instead of going to school.

Once again, I claim that it’s not gender or ethnic identity that causes inequality (including the situations from above), but economic performance correlated with such an identity. Women are not paid less because they’re women (a sexist approach), but because there’s correlation between being a woman and making choices that don’t maximize earning potential. Afro-American or Roma people don’t have harder time sending children to school because they’re ethnic minorities, but because there’s a higher correlation between being Roma and being less economically well-off. Injustice is driven by economic status much more than by prejudices towards one’s identity. So the target of social justice movement should be fixing economic inequality, not ephemeral bigotry and invisible oppression.

Does anyone benefit from the applied postmodernism?

Pluckrose and Lindsay argue that Social Justice activism built on the basis of postmodernist critical theory doesn’t really bring many benefits to the oppressed and marginalized groups.

That’s why it’s important to distinguish liberal social justice movement from the postmodernist Social Justice activism. The first one included liberal feminism, Civil Rights Movement and Gay Pride, all of which focused on material conditions of minority groups, and sought to achieve ‘racial, gender and LGBT equality on a legal and political level’. As a result, racial discrimination is now criminalized, both males and females have equal rights to voting and employment, and homosexuality is no longer considered a crime. The extent of social injustice has been significantly reduced: yet activism has become even more active, this time focusing not on material, but on invisible oppression.

For example, let’s consider feminism. Feminists of the first and second waves fought against patriarchy and treatment of women as inferior to men. They focused on material life of women and sought to extend their rights. As a result, today’s women benefit from legal, social and professional equality, as well as affordable childcare and flexible working hours. As there’s not much inequality left to fight, what modern day third-wave feminists focus on are gender roles, sexist attitudes, and implicit biases – in other words, gender stereotypes.

When it comes to stereotypes, as Pluckrose and Lindsay note, it took a long time to persuade society that women should be given equal employment rights, that they can be ‘intellectually rigorous and psychologically tough, and not prone to hysteria and emotional thinking, being too sensitive to cope in the public sphere and in need of protecting from difficult ideas or people’. Similarly, Civil Rights Movement defeated stereotypes that non-white people are ‘unintelligent, irrational, emotionally volatile, and unscrupulous’ that existed in the American society during the Jim Crow era.

But it seems now that the Social Justice activism is doing exactly the opposite: reversing the achieved progress and ‘reinscribing negative stereotypes’ to women and racial minorities. Women are being infantilized ‘by suggesting they’re fragile, timid, lack agency, and require much of the public sphere to be softened for them’. Similarly, postmodern activism reinstates stereotypes that science and reason are perhaps not suitable for non-white people – while traditional and religious beliefs, as well as lived experiences are.

Does it help anyone? I doubt it. As I’ve already argued, the disadvantageous status of minority groups often comes not from prejudices but from economic misfortunes. Which are not likely to be fixed through scrutinizing discourse.

Whom the new post-modernist ideas are hurting the most are their adepts themselves, who tend to see the world in a negative light through the lens of oppression, hostility and trauma. Pluckrose and Lindsay quote Gregg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, authors of ‘The Coddling of American Mind’ who compare this mindset to a reverse cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), ‘which makes its participants less mentally and emotionally healthy than before. The main purpose of CBT is to train oneself not to catastrophize and interpret every situation in the most negative light, and the goal is to develop a more positive and resilient attitude towards the world, so that one can engage with it as fully as possible. If we train young people to read insult, hostility and prejudice into every interaction, they may increasingly see the world as hostile to them and fail to thrive in it.’

Conclusion

Is the whole problem of irrational and intellectually regressive nature of the left-wing Social Justice activism perhaps exaggerated by right-wing thinkers, and progressive left discourse is merely propagating on Twitter but not outside? Or are we at the early stages of another Marxist revolution? It’s hard to say. Perhaps we’re witnessing yet another manifestation of an eternal struggle between two virtues: freedom and equality. I guess it’s important to find some sort of a balance between the two, without falling into excess of any. Take the first one in absolute, and you’ll get a libertarian nightmare (unrestricted markets and society where no one thinks of common good). Take the second, and you’ll get Soviet Union where everyone’s getting same equal outcome regardless of individual contribution.

Maybe Socrates was right when saying that every virtue requires moderation, otherwise it negates its own benefit (excessive courage leads to recklessness, etc). Perhaps the same can be applied on political level to the virtues of freedom and equality: and democracy is good because it serves as a mediator between different viewpoints, harmful when elevated to an absolute principle, by softening and moderating them.

Anyway, Pluckrose and Lindsay claim that anyone has a right to believe into progressive left theories, and this right should be respected under the free speech protection. What they cannot do is enforce such views on others (like being punished for not believing that whiteness is evil or that knowledge is a social construct). So the authors propose that we should reclaim the principles of secularism in the society and oppose any attempt at ‘institutionalization’ of post-modernist belief system. People should have a right to disagree and disbelieve without punishment. On a personal level, such resistance can start with a phrase as simple as ‘No, that’s your ideological belief, and I don’t have to go along with it’.

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