Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay

Cynical Theories
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Cynical Theories is a history of the ideas that underlie what is commonly known today as the social justice movement. Beginning with postmodern skepticism of objective knowledge in tandem with the focus on structures of power, authors Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay show how these coalesced into a critical “Theory” that has been “the driving force of the culture war” in the past decade. In short, Theory says society is undeniably structured into specific but invisible identity-based systems of power and privilege.

Instead of groaning over entertainers canceled or products recalled because of outcries, Pluckrose and Lindsay write for the armchair thinker who wants to understand the ideas behind “cancel culture” and identity politics. They cover the intellectual background: Postmodernism, Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard provide the groundwork for the claims of those such as Robin DiAngelo, Judith Butler, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. They give a chapter each to how Critical Theory has manifested as postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory, and gender studies. Another chapter shows how Theory also has produced disability and fat studies. In this chapter, the authors contend that people with treatable disabilities and mental illnesses are being told they should celebrate these as identities, while health science findings about caloric intake and exercise are to be rejected as fat hatred.

Noticeable are the religious qualities that Pluckrose and Lindsay use to describe the movement. The postmodernism that overthrew the likes of Christianity and Marxism has “replaced them with a new religion of its own.” Theory is a “firm conviction associated with religious adherence.” The ideology has an “orthodoxy.” Social justice has “gospel” texts. The authors compare rejection of disagreement to the religious encountering disbelief: “If you don’t believe, you haven’t read the holy text properly or you just want to sin.”

The authors are careful to acknowledge the ongoing problems of racism, sexism, and homophobia (see their “principled opposition” examples in the last chapter). Nevertheless, they are vigilant critics of “Social Justice” ideology and its underlying Theory. As they put it, “we find ourselves against capitalized Social Justice because we are generally for lowercase social justice.”

The authors are liberals in the classic sense of the word. In their final chapter, they offer “liberalism” as an alternative to Theory and Social Justice scholarship. They value a diversity of ideas and disagreements for testing new theories. Einstein’s relativity could not have superseded Newtonian mechanics if it were forbidden to criticize Newton’s ideas. Labeling disagreement as “fragility” or “willful ignorance” or “privilege preserving epistemic pushback” simply hides the weaknesses of Theory. The authors believe in human progress, individual liberty, attainable objective knowledge, human dignity and rights common to all people. They vigorously oppose the Theory that all knowledge is bound up in power structures, group identities, victimhood, and cynicism of progress.

As Christians, we already have absolute truth in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He will return to bring ultimate justice and righteousness for the whole earth. As such, we are wary of any other theory—Social Justice or classically liberal—expecting absolute allegiance. Cynical Theories will be a helpful read for those who scratch their heads when people claim that math is sexist and racist or that hearing implants are genocide of the deaf. For Christians, Cynical Theories offers a critical look at one Theory that commands absolute allegiance of many in our time. (Pitchstone Publishing)

About the Author

Rev. Aaron Vriesman is pastor of North Blendon Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Mich.

See comments (3)


I consider this book a must read for anyone wanting to get beneath the surface in understanding Critical Theory and it's sub-theories (Critical Race Theory, Critical Gender Theory, et al).

Thanks for the review Aaron. :-)

I'm curious why reviews of books promoting critical theory get no special editorial warning, but this review does.  It's almost as if the Banner is engaged in shadow advocacy.  Last I checked, critical theory has not been adopted in the CRC as a biblically faithful teaching. So, why is it that books promoting critical theory are presented with no disclaimer, but a book challenging that philosophical framework is presented with a special disclaimer and disavowal by the editors?  

Another book one might add for more historical depth is "The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution" by Carl R. Trueman.