Cynical Theories are tearing us apart


This new book by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay is essential reading for anyone struggling to make sense of the self-contradictory ‘woke’ ideology that’s spread divisive cancel culture like a mind virus through our workplaces, public policy and social lives.

The authors have done an admirable job of tracing the development of these ideas, from the early insights of postmodern scholars with their kernel of truth, to critical theory, and finally to Social Justice activism that sees invisible power structures and hidden oppression as unquestionable Truth.

With each iteration, the various ‘studies’ drifted further and further from empirical reality — but that doesn’t matter, because Theory doesn’t recognize empirical truth. It’s just a ‘white, Western, male construct’. Their Truth is whatever the most oppressed identity group says it is.

This is an obvious problem.

If someone is going to claim that the country I grew up in, Canada, is systemically racist — not just that racist assholes exist, but that the entire structure of the country, from our laws, our educational institutions, our news and entertainment media, and our economy, are deliberately designed to discriminate against ‘non-white’ people, then they’re going to have to provide some sort of verifiable evidence to make such a tall claim.

It isn’t enough to say someone felt ‘unsafe’ or emotionally upset. But we’ve been asked — and even bullied — to accept such claims on faith.

Unfortunately, Theory is — by its own terms — impossible to debate, and impossible to refute.

Asking these ‘scholars’ to provide evidence or backing for Theory — to discuss it in the marketplace of ideas — is interpreted as a power grab, thus proving Theory true.

The only acceptable alternative, according to that same Theory, is to confess your endless litany of biases, privileges and racism (hidden or invisible, real or imaginary), or keep filling your head with this stuff until you do.

It’s a collective insanity of competing oppressions that robs individuals of agency by turning everyone into a victim or oppressor.

Critical theory began in ethereal realms of literary theory and the social sciences, but it has made its relentless way into math and the physical sciences, and spread outwards into the everyday world.

If this doesn’t seem threatening to you, ask yourself if you would trust your life to a bridge built by an engineer who doesn’t recognize mathematics because it’s a racist white Western construct.

This book is highly recommended for anyone struggling to understand how making everything about race is supposed to end racism — and how we went from judging people based on the content of their character rather than superficial inherited characteristics to assuming racism is present everywhere, always, forever.

Critical Race Theory does not recognize complex causes for social problems. Instead, the only question which must be asked — ad nauseam — is “How did racism manifest in this interaction?” Not ‘did it’, but ‘how’. Keep digging until you find something you can indict.

Granted, it might be difficult to uncover racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression in situations where they don’t exist. But don’t worry, they’re there anyway. You just need to be trained in Theory to see them.

They’ve created an entire arsenal of invisible transgressions for the Theorist to draw on, from ‘microagressions’ to ‘dog whistles’. Your compliance is demanded. Your guilt is assured.

I struggle to comprehend how any of this stuff does anything except turn people against one another. And that’s a shame, because the world is a fascinating place, full of interesting people and cultures who see things differently from us.

We’re better off forming real connections with others through travel than stoking the fires of hatred, entitlement and resentment with this mental poison.

This book is high recommended for anyone struggling to understand how words could be interpreted as actual violence, justifying the most extreme censorship to protect against hurt feelings and feeling offended.

I’d rather read more great writers from more cultures than ‘decolonize’ the Western canon of the wonderful works of the past simply because something was written by a person with white skin or male genitalia. I fail to see how demanding mass literary culls based on so-called ‘whiteness’ is anything but another form of racism — and we need more racism in this world like we need 43 arseholes.

Finally, this book is highly recommended for anyone who is profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that to disagree with someone is a form of oppression, and an act of dominance.

It’s impossible to live together in a peaceful society — or a family, for that matter — if we can’t discuss difficult topics in a quest for mutual understanding.

To quote the authors of this very important book, “By seeking to divide humans into marginalized identity groups and their oppressors, Social Justice risks fuelling our worst tendencies—our tribalism and vengefulness.”

Pluckrose and Lindsay are optimistic that our society can find its way out of this collective madness and back to a place where ‘diversity’ refers to a diversity of ideas, and not just to a prescribed list of identity group quotas.

I’m not so sure. It looks to me like this will have to burn itself out first.

Critical Theory contains the seeds of its own destruction, but it’ll involve all these competing identity groups turning on each other, just as the leaders of the French revolution and the Bolsheviks were taken down by their own guillotines and gulags.

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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • TLDR: you can’t play chess with a pigeon, because it will shit all over the board and knock pieces over, then claim to have won.

    My curiosity is piqued and I most definitely want to read this. There’s plenty about woke culture that bothers me, as I’m sure we’ve discussed before. However, yours is not the only review I’ve read, and all the book’s fans seem to love that the book champions a return to the marketplace of ideas.

    “How, then, can such ideology be combatted? The solution, beautifully expressed in the book’s final chapter, is simply to champion a philosophical liberalism in which free speech and debate in the marketplace of ideas are the guiding norms.”

    It seems abundantly clear to many of us, however, that trusting everything to “the marketplace” (both literally, in economic terms, as well as in terms of ideas), presupposes a level playing ground that simply isn’t there. Which is why a third vaguely authoritarian force is needed to regulate.

    Too often the marketplace of ideas is forced to revisit long-debunked ideas because powerful, money-backed regressives refuse to accept that the conversation is over. They often weaponize disinformation in order to bypass the requisite of facts and evidence and to thereby attempt to control the dsicussion. At some point surely, the conversation (if it can be called that) can only really be met with a cancel culture?

    • Hey Andrew,

      Good to hear from you. I hope you’re keeping well in these strange times.

      The book is definitely worth reading. I thought the authors did an admirable job of tracing the development of these ideas from the early postmodernists to the present. It was beginning when I was in uni, but the postmodern stuff was still a collection of confusing but vaguely interesting word games back then. It hadn’t yet shifted from attempting to understand the world to training students to impose an ideology on the world.

      I think ‘marketplace’ of ideas is a bit misleading. The term seems to pull the discussion onto a capitalism vs anti-capitalism tangent, which is a different debate altogether.

      ‘Agora’ would be a better term. An open forum where ideas can be debated and judged on their merit. 

      The author’s critique is that critical theory is unfalsifiable. To ask the Theorist to offer support for their ideas, some sort of empirical backing, is to prove Theory true. Theory frames empirical proof — for lack of a better term, the scientific method of investigation — as merely a ‘white Western male construct’. In their terms, ‘other ways of knowing’ are equally valid. And so an extreme claim like systemic racism can be made based on someone’s so-called ‘lived experience’, and it must be accepted as ‘a truth’ because they really really want it to be so. To disagree with the claim, or to doubt it, is to commit an act of violence against that person. The only acceptable alternative is to remake society along the lines that the Theorist wants to impose. 

      There is a strange internal consistency to Theory. The authors did a really good job of making that understandable. But it drifts further and further from any sort of recognizable reality over time.

      I don’t agree with you that authoritarian force should be used to regulate ideas. Who decides which ideas should be accepted, and which ideas suppressed? Theory would say ‘the oppressed’ should decide. Theory also claims that ‘the oppressed’ are anyone who feels they’re a victim, and ‘the oppressor’ is always heterosexual white men, and anyone who is in a position of power over anyone else, because such positions are inherently oppressive.

      The problem, as I see it, is that their baseline description of the world isn’t accurate. And so the solutions they want to impose are based on a badly skewed understanding. Of course hierarchies of power exist, as do hierarchies of competence, to take one example. I’m very low on the hierarchy of competence when it comes to math or engineering, but reasonably high on the hierarchy of competence when it comes to writing. Am I oppressed by engineers, and oppressing others who write less well than me? Such a worldview falls apart very quickly when questioned. While it may have ideas to contribute, it isn’t a sane basis for regulating a society. There’s also something vindictive about it that concerns me.

      I do share your view that regulations are needed to ensure a fair, functioning society. It seems to be human nature that anyone who can game the system in their favour will attempt to do so. I’m particularly concerned about social media. These companies have taken on a role far larger and more pervasive than anyone anticipated when they were created. I don’t see any vast conspiracy in this. Simply unintended consequences. It seems that anytime we invent a new technology, it solves one problem while also causing many new problems. Who could have imagined that a website we used to look up people we went to elementary school with would become what it has today? The ad based revenue model of something like Facebook has also contributed to its spread and its decision making process in unintended ways, and they’re alarming. We’ve seen how easy it is to game that system to control public opinion. Such companies should be regulated, but I fear the people in government are too out of touch to understand how they work.

      I also agree with you about long-debunked bad ideas that just keep coming back like zombies. Take Marxism, for example. I can’t understand why it wasn’t cast into its own mass graves of the 20th century alongside nazism / fascism. It was an utter failure in every country that attempted to impose it on its citizens, and yet it keeps festering away in odd corners of academia and coming back in different guises. 

      That being said, I’m completely opposed to cancel culture.

      Who polices the police? Who decides which views get aired and which get cancelled? Deplatforming someone because their ideas are disagreeable is cowardly. It’s akin to the Vatican burning heretics for supporting ideas that contradict their doctrine, or that might cause believers to doubt their faith.

      I think all ideas should be aired and debated, including really bad ones. Mein Kampf is still in print today, and rightly so. Anyone can pick up that now historical document and — assuming they can get past the bad writing — see for themselves the abhorrent ideas that man was advancing. He said very clearly what he intended to do once in power. Why didn’t we take him at face value rather than make excuses for the worst of his ranting? Would we make the same mistake again?

      Bad ideas that are aired in the public forum — the Agora — can be debunked. But bad ideas that are banished to dark corners fester in those dark corners and become malignant. And bad ideas that are protected as ‘sacred’ or unquestionable lead to ruin. Critical theory is one of those bad ideas that seeks to make itself unquestionable and unfalsifiable, somehow beyond debate. Anyone who disagrees is characterized as a nazi or a racist, or some other thing we all rightly abhor, and banished from public view.

      You’ve summed this up well. It’s exactly what critical Theorists — and in particular, the flavour that calls itself critical Social Justice (in capital letters) — is doing: “They often weaponize disinformation in order to bypass the requisite of facts and evidence and to thereby attempt to control the discussion.”

      Convince me of your ideas, but don’t attempt to bully me into them or impose them on me. I will never tolerate being forced.

      This was really long winded. Sorry about that lol. You raised some interesting questions. I’ll be very curious to hear what you think if you end up reading the book.

  • Great response, and I understand where you’re coming from.

    “I think all ideas should be aired and debated, including really bad ones. Mein Kampf is still in print today, and rightly so” – agreed, although surely you’re not arguing that self-avowed White Supremacists like David Duke deserve to share the stage with, say, Sir David Attenborough?

    It seems naive to suggest Sir David Attenborough didn’t rise to popular acclaim at least in part because of the support of “mainstream media” and similarly, it is clear that Nigel Farage or Steve Bannon would not have gained the traction they did were it not for a helpful combination of unregulated social media and the fact that Farage has appeared on Question Time in the UK more times than any other guest. It didn’t fester in the shadows, it gained strength from the light of disproportionate public attention.

    So while we’re agreed that the morbidly curious should not be prevented from reading Mein Kampf if they so wish, do we not also agree that the insane ramblings of Adolf Hitler certainly should not be platformed at, say, a Current Affairs debate at Oxford? Which is why Steve Bannon should not have been given the space to talk at Oxford that he was.

    If the merits of an idea alone were what determined its popularity, I’d agree with you completely. However, we know enough about the pervasive trickery of behavioural modification and marketing, and the popularity of (surprise surprise) populism, to understand that ideas ride on the power of feelings not logic. And to throw our toys out of the pram about this truth achieves nothing.

    The Enlightenment notion that Reason is distinct from emotions, and that we should govern and rule without listening to the emotional needs of people, is an idea that has also clearly failed. The idea that facts can be separated from our sense of identity and our feelings has been thoroughly debunked in the past 10 years or so in the wake of Brexit, Trump, etc. Insisting that “Facts don’t care about your feelings” (interestingly a phrase taken up by the Alt-right and populists everywhere who do not actually deal in facts) is getting us nowhere. It’s beating a dead horse. The Agora, sadly, is not what it used to be.

    I’ll be sure to read it. In the meantime, could I recommend William Davies’ “Nervous States”? It’s one of my favourite reads this year.

    • Well, I would like to see a David Duke type share the stage with a capable, well-educated debater like Christopher Hitchens. Having his abhorrent ideas eviscerated in a live public forum would be a more effective way of defeating them than refusing to let him speak, IMO.

      While we don’t need to send such people speaking invitations, I don’t think we should ban them either. Given the nature of the internet, such people will always find an outlet for their views, and an audience. I think it’s more effective to refute them in a public forum. Revealing exactly why they’re wrong robs them of a great deal of persuasive power. 

      Their ideas are awful. Show me that, convince me rather than tell me what I can or can’t read or watch.

      I can understand the argument in favour of hosting a talk by Bannon at the time it occurred. Given his standing in the early years of Trump’s tenure, his ideas seemed to be influencing American public policy. That would be of interest to anyone studying politics. I trust Oxford students to be intelligent enough to decide for themselves what they think about them.

      As for Mein Kampf, I don’t think someone has to be morbidly curious to want to see such a document. I’ve read a great deal of WWII history. In many ways, it was the defining moment of my parent’s generation. I want to understand why it happened. How was a nation of otherwise sane people convinced to turn on their neighbours and commit such atrocities? Why did someone who comes across as a raving lunatic capture a following? I think its important — for historians, at least — to be able to look at such primary documents and try to understand just what the fuck happened. Why did so many ignore what was right there in their face? He said clearly what he planned to do, but people refused to believe it. It’s a bit like the excuses I’ve seen recently for some of the more extreme far left activists (they don’t really mean “abolish the police”; and “kill all white men” was just a metaphor for something else – are you sure? because that’s not what they’re saying, and Theory makes it clear they see words as actual violence). Unless we’re willing and able to look at the ugliest parts of the human past and try to understand them, we risk going down such roads again.

      That’s part of my issue with deplatforming. 

      The other issue I have might be more personal. I fucking hate being told what to do. So I resent the idea of anyone telling me who I can or can’t listen to or read. I’m a reasonably intelligent, well read adult. I can decide for myself that someone’s ideas are shit. And I don’t trust someone else — whether it’s government, or some activist — to dictate that for me. Who gets to decide such things? And how do we know they don’t have an agenda?

      Where someone sits on that spectrum might also be influenced by their politics. The whole ‘nanny state’ idea of traditional liberalism vs ‘minimal government’ conservatism. My own bias leads me to favour solutions that involve empowering the individual.

      I do share your concerns about social media, and the ability to game those systems and manipulate attention. We’ve seen in recent years just how malleable the clickbait driven ad-based attention marketing structure is in that regard. I don’t have any good answers to offer here. Political developments in recent years have made us aware of the problem, but I think we haven’t got a clue how to solve it. I don’t see censorship, deplatforming or cancel culture being a good solution, for the reasons I outlined above. It’s something we need to figure out urgently. It’s tearing our societies apart.

      I don’t know what to think about public attention having given support to such people, but I strongly suspect the answer lies in understanding how to regulate social media and these new technologies. They’re far too open to being manipulated.

      Believe it or not, I’ve never actually encountered anything from Steve Bannon (or Nigel Farage, for that matter) anywhere online. I’ve seen Farage pop up on BBC around Brexit, but I’ve never seen Bannon speak or encountered an article by him. I know the name of course, from his association with Donald Trump, but I’m not sure how mainstream such people are in terms of their platform or views. The thing is, those who want to find them will find them. Deplatforming them, completely censoring them, is one possible response. But again who decides who gets censored? And who’s next? Will a book like Cynical Theories get cancelled simply for disagreeing with woke ideology? 

      I think the solution has to involve educating people, becoming better advocates for our ideas — including understanding how our attention is manipulated, and how we can protect ourselves against it. Censorship and book banning quickly gets out of hand.

      I share your concern, too, about appeals to feelings vs logic. That’s one of the reasons woke —and critical theory — doesn’t sit well with me. As the authors of this book explain, Theory places emotion alongside fact as equal ways to understand the world. While emotions can give us interesting clues to our internal state, and can drive our actions, they aren’t a very good basis for understanding how to build a bridge, create public policy, or understand how society is structured. They’re also easily manipulated, as you’ve pointed out. 

      Some of the most helpful advice I ever received as a young man was not to make important decisions when in the grip of strong emotions. 

      Both the far right and the far left are stoking the emotional fires, using the weaknesses inherent in our social media connected world. The shift we’re seeing of entire populations to the more extreme left and right ends of the political spectrum doesn’t bode well. It’s a problem we’d best figure out very quickly.

      Thanks very much for the book recommendation, I’ll look that up.

      On that note, off to read. The best time of the day!

  • Ryan, I agree. wholeheartedly with your deconstruction of the “woke’ SJW bs smelly pie were’ having our faces pushed into, now. There is no discussion with most of these followers.

    At out local Neighborhood council, some rep from BLM was invited to sit in on a Townhall. Her intro to the residents started with derogatory, aggressive “face slaps” because some of us owned houses and were concerned for our safety because of growing addict occupied encampments in our neighborhoods. The narrative was – We have property therefore we are already lording it over those who do not have and we should be giving up our yards to needles and human waste without complaint. Lol. Pretty nasty display to see. The homeless issue is a whole other grisly can of worms on the West Coast, but, it plays neatly and maddeningly into this class of ideology.

    • I find it interesting how muddled up so much of this stuff is. There’s a Marxist subtext — often exacerbated by a sense of entitlement — that loathes capitalism and believes property rights are a form of oppression. And so those who worked all their lives to buy a home are somehow oppressing twenty year olds who don’t own one. We used to outgrow such ideas as we built careers, started families and built our lives. I suspect we’ll see an exodus of adults and small business owners from the West Coast if this stuff is allowed to fester for much longer. How will the rest of them live when all the taxpayers leave?


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