This essay is my third post interacting with Pluckrose and Lindsey, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity and Why This Harms Everybody. I advise taking a look at the first two parts before you read this one.
Today I want to address this question: Is reasserting classical liberalism the best way to the challenge the activist, reified postmodernism of contemporary race-gender-identity theories? Lindsey and Pluckrose, Cynical Theories, think so. And in part I agree with them.
Social Justice Theory versus Classical Liberalism
As previous posts documented, Social Justice Theory values marginalized identity, experience of oppression, and equity. In contrast, classical liberalism, as articulated by John Locke, the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, and John Stuart Mill, values reason, truth, freedom of expression, civil liberty, common humanity, debate, and evidence-based knowledge. Lindsey and Pluckrose juxtapose them in the following ways:
Knowledge—liberalism asserts that knowledge of objective reality is to some extent attainable. Theory asserts that knowledge claims are merely constructions designed to justify privilege and power.
Identity—liberalism values unique individual identity. Theory prizes group/intersectional identity.
Universal Values—liberalism measures human behavior against universal human values. Theory denies universals and replaces them with the interests of marginalized groups.
Debate and Truth Seeking—liberalism encourages debate, evidence-based argument, and submission of private and group interest to truth. Theory rejects the notion of truth as an illusion designed to support the status quo; it asserts that language is a means by which we construct “our” truth, that is, a narrative or ideology that supports our interests.
Progress—liberalism is self-correcting because it believes in objective reality, truth, and knowledge but admits that human beings can never achieve perfect knowledge. Theory does not accept criticism because it rejects the idea of objective reality, truth, and knowledge. Hence it treats every criticism as a power play to which it responds not with self-examination but with suspicion and outrage. It does not accept the obligation to listen to its critics.
Liberalism’s Rhetorical Advantage
When the positions of these two approaches are placed side by side most people in the Western world—even most university professors, including me!—will choose liberalism over postmodernism as the best available political philosophy for creating and maintaining a just society. And I think this popular preference may be the ground of Pluckrose’s and Lindsey’s hope that exposure of Theory’s irrationalism, intolerance, censorship, and potential for violent suppression of its opponents to the light of day, will encourage those who have been intimidated into silence by Theory to speak out. If nothing else, you can say, “No, that’s your ideological belief, and I don’t have to go along with it” (p. 266). Even though there are some places—university faculty meetings and classrooms, for example—where advocating liberal values in opposition to Social Justice Theory will get you shouted down, in most public spaces you will have the rhetorical advantage.
Two Twists on Freedom
Pluckrose and Lindsey consider classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory “almost directly at odds with one another” at every point (p. 237). And as documented in the list above there is much truth to this assertion. However I think they share a common view of freedom that animates their political activities. Liberalism and Theory both view freedom as removal of external limits that keep people from becoming and doing what they want. This view of freedom is the core value that has animated Western liberation movements from the seventeenth century until today. This understanding of freedom possesses a negative and a positive side. On the negative side, freedom negates every boundary and limit outside the self as a potential oppressor. On the positive side, the self—its desires and will—is the force that determines itself and its world and is the sole animating principle of its activity.
Clearly, this type of freedom can never be fully realized in its pure form. It is extremely individualistic and it views the self as a self-creating god. It is nihilistic in that it negates all values and structures outside the self—other people, moral law, nature, and God—to clear space for the realization of its own will. The debate in liberal politics, however, centers not on the nature of freedom in itself but on how and to what extent it must be restricted to keep it from destroying the community and itself. In this way, classical liberalism contains within itself an unrealizable ideal as its animating principle, which it must always compromise in practice. Theoretical idealism combined with practical realism is an unstable mixture that will produce wave after wave of radical movements intent on rejecting compromise and realizing the ideal no matter what the cost.
Social Justice Theory is the latest wave of idealists who, dissatisfied with the compromises made by liberal politics, think putting into practice their theories will create a better world. Don’t let the word “justice” distract you from Theory’s the quest for freedom. In the lexical world of Theory “justice” is indexed to liberation. In fact, the traditional meaning of justice can have no place in Theory, because “justice” means conformity to the way things ought to be, and in Theory, there is no objective way things ought to be. Theory’s use of the word “justice” is a cynical rhetorical ploy. In both classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory the world is divided into the oppressed and their oppressors, and liberation from oppression, that is, removing restrictions on liberty so that one can to do as one wishes, is the goal in both. The difference between the two theories lies in the differing lists of oppressive forces and victims of oppression and the places where liberty must be restricted in favor of the victims.
Classical liberalism views centralized government power as the greatest threat to liberty and it works to enshrine equality of civil rights into law. And over the last two and a half centuries it has viewed progress as the advance of individual liberty and the retreat of government sanctioned inequality. Liberal politics attempted to ameliorate the worst negative effects of unfettered economic freedom—that is, concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few families and corporations—by instituting inheritance taxes, graduated income tax rates, regulations of all sorts, and creating a quasi-welfare state. Theory’s list of threats to freedom includes religion, moral law, objective truth, biological nature, and God. Its list of oppressors includes white people, men, and heterosexuals. It flips its prized intersectionality of marginalized groups on its head by making white, heterosexual men into the evil twin of the intersectional victim. It works to free people from restrictive notions of gender and identity and liberate people of color from the systemic racism of contemporary American society.
For all their differences, classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory are animated by the same definition of freedom: freedom in its pure form is the state wherein there are no restrictions on doing what you wish to do. In practice, both viewpoints restrict the freedom of some people so that others can enjoy a freedom of their own. Liberalism restricts government power so that everyone can enjoy equal civil rights and equal economic freedom. Theory wishes to use the power of government and woke social institutions to restrict the freedom of white people, men, and heterosexuals—which, taken together constitute the oppressor group in society—to do and become whatever they wish in the name of greater freedom for people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and all other marginalized groups to do and become whatever they wish.
Hence both classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory adhere to a nihilistic, anti-Christian, anti-nature, and anti-human vision of freedom. The logical implication of their view of freedom is the dissolution of everything human, natural, divine, good, and right in the name of the arbitrary will of the self-defining self to become and do whatever it wishes. Social Justice Theory is just one more step in the progressive movement wherein a false view of freedom works itself out toward its logical end, that is, self-conscious nihilism and anarchy.
Next Time: What is freedom understood in a Christian way?