In the previous essay I promised to complete my description of Theory (or Critical Theory), which is the framework that makes sense of the “crazy talk” about race, gender, and identity we often hear emanating from the modern university. The original postmodernism, with its two principles and four major themes—discussed in the previous post—takes a playful, skeptical, and ironic stance toward all truth claims. It affirms nothing and criticizes everything. Pure postmodernism cannot function as a philosophy for political activism. For it deconstructs everything and constructs nothing. Whereas science aims to describe the world and radical politics wants to change it, postmodernism wishes only to criticize it.
Social Justice Theory as Applied Postmodernism
According to Pluckrose and Lindsay, Cynical Theories, between the 1980s and 2010 race, gender, and identity theorists drew on postmodernism for the critical parts of their activist theories. Theory uses postmodern knowledge principle to create suspicion of the knowledge claims and narratives of the dominant groups in society. And it uses the postmodern political principle to expose the pervasive presence of power in society and its control over what counts as truth and justice. However, in contrast to the original postmodernism, Theory uses postmodernism’s critical tools only against ideologies and narratives it deems supportive of the oppressive forces in society. It does not turn them against the narratives of society’s oppressed and marginalized.* The latter are treated in practice as true and expressive of justice. The former are treated as false and expressive of injustice. Postmodernism’s universal deconstruction of all truth claims, every power center, and each assertion of stable identity, was transformed into a binary order–a new metanarrative–defined by the division between oppressor and oppressed.
*I don’t have space to define the “marginalized.” As the term indicates, the marginalized are defined by what they are not. They are not the dominant group. Look up Cynical Theories in your favorite search engine.
Social Justice Theory as Reified Postmodernism
After 2010, Theory (Social Justice Theory or Critical Theory) confidently asserted the truth of its critique of knowledge and the political order. The mood is no longer skeptical and playful but cynical and dogmatic. Pluckrose and Lindsey speak of this shift as the “reification” of postmodernism. Within the world of contemporary Theory it is presupposed that any moral or scientific justification of the status quo (the oppressors) is merely an ideology originating from desire to maintain dominance over people with marginalized identities. In contrast, narratives that free and empower marginalized people are by definition true. Social Justice Theory is a strange combination of cynicism and dogmatism, which makes sense only as an arbitrary decision to apply postmodern cynicism to the narratives of one group and superstitious credulity to the other. What motivates this seemingly arbitrary decision? Lust for power, guilt, resentment, and envy or passion for justice?
Ironically, because of Theory’s dogmatic assertion that truth and right are always on the side of the marginalized, a marginal identity has become a coveted possession within the Social Justice universe. And the more marginalized your identity, the higher your status in the new order will be. A person’s identity as marginalized is enhanced when it is constructed by the intersection of two or more marginal identities. In a reversal of postmodernism’s universal suspicion of power, contemporary Theory uses its claims of truth and right to demand submission from the heretofore dominant group. Theory, then, flips the social order on its head. The oppressors become the oppressed, truth becomes falsehood, good becomes evil, and right becomes wrong. And there is no arbiter, via media, no common ground. There are only winners and losers.
Classical Liberalism as the Response to Applied and Reified Postmodernism?
As their response to the irrationality and socially destructive effects of Social Justice Theory’s activist and reified postmodernism, Pluckrose and Lindsey urge a return to classical liberalism, that is, to reason, truth, freedom of expression, civil liberty, common humanity, debate, and evidence-based knowledge.
Next Time: I will explain my partial agreement with Pluckrose’s and Lindsey’s proposal and offer a Christian response to the view of freedom common to both postmodernism and liberalism.