We have reached a point in history where the ideas that sustain the liberalism and modernity at the heart of western civilization are at great risk. The precise nature of this threat is complicated. It arises from at least two overwhelming pressures, one revolutionary and the other reactionary, that are at war over which illiberal direction our societies should be dragged.
Far-right populist movements claim to make a last desperate stand for liberalism and democracy against a rising tide of progressivism and globalism. They are increasingly turning toward leadership in dictators and strongmen who can maintain and preserve ‘western’ sovereignty and values.
Meanwhile, far-left ‘progressive’ crusaders portray themselves as the sole and righteous champions of social and moral progress.
They not only advance their cause through revolutionary aims that openly reject liberalism as a form of oppression: they also do so with increasingly authoritarian means, seeking to establish a thoroughly fundamentalist ideology of how society ought to be ordered. Each side in this fray sees the other as an existential threat, and thus each fuels the other’s greatest excesses. This culture war is sufficiently intense that it has come to define political — and, increasingly, social — life through the beginning of the 21st century.
Though the problem on the right is severe and deserves careful analysis in itself, we have become experts in the nature of the problem on the left. This is partly because we believe that, while the two sides are driving one another to madness and further radicalization, the problem coming from the left represents a departure from its historical point of reason and strength: the liberalism essential to the maintenance of our secular, liberal democracies. The progressive left has aligned itself not with modernity but with postmodernism, which rejects objective truth as a fantasy dreamed up by naive or arrogantly bigoted Enlightenment thinkers who underestimated the collateral consequences of progress.
Postmodernism has, depending upon your view, either become or given rise to one of the least tolerant and most authoritarian ideologies that the world has had to deal with since the end of colonialism and the Cold War. Postmodernism was developed in relatively obscure corners of academia as an intellectual and cultural reaction to all of these changes and, since the 1960s, it has spread to other parts of the academy: into activism, through bureaucracies and to the heart of schools and colleges. It has, from there, begun to seep into broader society to the point where postmodernism and backlashes against it — both reasonable and reactionary — dominate our sociopolitical landscape.
This movement nominally pursues a broad goal called ‘social justice’. The term dates back almost 200 years. Under different thinkers at different times, its various meanings have all concerned addressing and redressing social inequalities, particularly where it comes to issues of class, race, gender, sex and sexuality, and particularly when these go beyond the reach of legal justice. Perhaps most famously, the liberal progressive philosopher John Rawls laid out a philosophical theory of the conditions under which a socially just society might be organized. In this, he set out a universalist thought experiment in which a socially just society would be one in which an individual given a choice would be equally happy to be born into any social milieu or identity group.
Another explicitly anti-liberal, anti-universal approach to achieving social justice has also been employed, particularly since the middle of the 20th century. This one is rooted in ‘critical theory’. Critical theory is chiefly concerned with revealing hidden biases and under-examined assumptions, usually by pointing out ‘problematics’, the ways in which society and the systems that it operates upon are going wrong. Postmodernism, in some sense, was an offshoot of this critical approach.
The movement that takes up this charge presumptuously refers to its ideology simply as ‘social justice’ — as though it alone seeks a just society, with the rest of us all advocating for something entirely different. It is increasingly difficult to miss the influence of the Social Justice Movement on society — most notably in the form of ‘identity politics’ or ‘political correctness’. Almost daily, a story comes out about somebody who has been fired, ‘canceled’ or subjected to public shaming on social media, for having said or done something interpreted as sexist, racist or homophobic. Sometimes the accusations are warranted, and we can comfort ourselves that a bigot — whom we see as entirely unlike ourselves — is receiving the censure she ‘deserves’ for her hateful views.
Increasingly often, however, the accusation is highly interpretive and its reasoning tortuous. It sometimes feels as though any well-intended person, even one who values universal liberty and equality, could inadvertently say something that falls foul of the new speech codes, with devastating consequences for his or her career and reputation.
This is confusing and counterintuitive to a culture accustomed to placing human dignity first and thus valuing charitable interpretations and tolerance of a wide range of views. At best, this behavior has a chilling effect on the culture of free expression, which has served liberal democracies well for more than two centuries: good people will self-censor to avoid saying the ‘wrong’ things. At worst, it is a malicious form of bullying and, when institutionalized, a kind of authoritarianism.
These changes, which are happening with astonishing rapidity, are very difficult to understand. This is because they stem from a very peculiar view of the world — one that even speaks its own language, in a way. Within the English-speaking world, proponents of social justice speak English, but the ‘woke’ (that is, those awakened to the vision of social justice) use everyday words differently from the rest of us. When they speak of ‘racism’, for example, they are not referring to prejudice on the grounds of race, but rather to, as they define it, a racialized system that permeates all interactions in society yet is largely invisible except to those who experience it or who are versed in the proper ‘critical’ methods that train them to see it.
Not only do these scholar-activists speak a specialized language — while using everyday words that people assume, incorrectly, that they understand — but they also represent a wholly different culture, embedded within our own. People who have adopted this view may be physically close by, but intellectually they are a world away. They are obsessed with power, language, knowledge and the relationships between them. They interpret the world through a lens that detects power dynamics in every interaction, utterance and cultural artifact — even when they aren’t obvious or real.
This is a worldview that centers on social and cultural grievances and aims to make everything into a zero-sum political struggle revolving around identity markers like race, sex, gender and sexuality. To an outsider, this culture appears to have originated on another planet, whose inhabitants have no knowledge of sexually reproducing species, and who interpret all our human sociological interactions in the most cynical way possible. But, in fact, these preposterous attitudes are completely human. They bear witness to our repeatedly demonstrated capacity to take up complex spiritual worldviews, ranging from tribal animism to hippie spiritualism to sophisticated global religions, each of which adopts its own interpretive frame through which it sees the entire world. This one just happens to be about a peculiar view of power and its ability to create inequality and oppression.
Interacting with proponents of this view requires learning not just their language — which in itself is challenging enough — but also their customs and even their mythology of ‘systemic’ and ‘structural’ problems inherent in our society, systems and institutions. As experienced travelers know, there’s more to communicating in a completely different culture than learning the language. One must also learn idioms, implications, cultural references and etiquette. Often, we need someone who is not just a translator but also an interpreter in the widest sense, someone savvy about both sets of customs, to communicate effectively.
Cynical Theories explains how social justice theory has developed into the driving force of the culture war of the late 2010s — and proposes a philosophically liberal way to counter its manifestations in scholarship, activism and everyday life. We tell the story of how postmodernism applied its cynical theories to deconstruct what we might agree to call the ‘old religions’ of thought — which include conventional religious faiths like Christianity and secular ideologies like Marxism, as well as cohesive modern systems such as science, philosophical liberalism and ‘progress’ — and replaced them with a new religion of its own, called social justice.
It is helpful that social justice theory has become increasingly confident and clear about its beliefs and goals. This development is, however, alarming: it has made theory so much more easily grasped and acted upon by believers who want to reshape society. We can see its impact on the world in social justice attacks on science and reason. It is also evident in believers’ assertions that society is simplistically divided into dominant and marginalized identities and underpinned by invisible systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, ableism and fatphobia.