This past weekend, I finished a book called Cynical Theories. It is the best and most complete accounting I’ve seen to date of the falsity of Critical Theory. While columnists like Andrew Sullivan, Bari Weiss and others do a great job telling stories about how Theory (capitalized as the book’s authors do to ensure specific reference to these ideas) is killing debate on college campuses and “cancelling” those who defy its norms, this book goes far deeper, walking through the history of Critical Theory and detailing how each sub-strand – e.g., Race, Gender, etc. – has evolved to its position in the present day. I have struggled to understand my own feelings about “wokeness,” and this book helped me clarify my position and provided me with language to use in pushing against it.
The essence of the book’s message is that Critical Theory as evolved negates the progressive history of the Western World by asserting that liberalism – and its premise of individual rights based in a shared universal humanity – is false. Instead, Theorists believe we belong to specific identity groups and have no right to assume we can understand the experience of any group of which we are not a member. Theorists also believe that all language and communication is clouded by power struggles between identity groups, and so we can never escape the biases of our identity groups unless power is equalized (which, because language embeds power dynamics, is impossible).
If the idea that social change is impossible because we cannot empathize with one another sounds ludicrous, it is because it is just that. There has been so much social progress in our world – and while of course we have more to make, minority groups are far more empowered in our society today than ever, and the prevailing sentiment of most Western societies at least is that all humans should be treated equally. Still, Theory has become incredibly powerful in our world today, and its influence goes far beyond academia. It manifests in education more broadly: in school board debates about whether to teach Critical Race Theory in high school or gender identity in kindergarten, in the resentment female college athletes feel, yet do not openly protest, about rules that allow transgender females (with mature male musculature) to compete as females, and in the way students who don’t believe in Theory feel silenced in classes and in social settings. We also see it’s influence in broader society, when actors, politicians and even mid-level employees are branded as racists or misogynists when upon deeper examination, the facts of the situations were misreported, or the individuals just have not chosen their words carefully enough. And even if these individuals show genuine remorse for their statements and admit they might have offended, there is no forgiveness allowed.
I have personally felt the effects of Theory many times. When I attended racial equity training, I felt dismissed when I identified as Jewish and suggested I could empathize with others who had felt discrimination. When I joined a White Caucus after George Floyd was killed by the police, I didn’t feel I could voice my reservations about the idea that I am considered innately racist just because I am White. And when, just last year, I questioned the decision of a Board I was on where leadership had decided to split us into White and Non-White groups to talk about our discussion dynamics, I was told that power dynamics suggested non-Whites might not feel they could voice their opinions in a mixed session. When I dared suggest during the breakout that it was only through mixed discussion that we would ever be able to understand how to change such feelings, I feel fairly certain the only reason I wasn’t admonished for my statement was that I wasn’t in a mixed group. I spent eleven years on that Board, a non-profit focused on educational access. I had led the retreat where we rephrased our mission to highlight our belief that there are systemic and structural issues needing address if we are ever going to make the educational system one of equal opportunity. After the above referenced meeting, I resigned from the Board. (For full disclosure, while I had planned to step down as part of moving to a new city, this occurrence hastened my departure.)
I worry a lot that stating one’s position relative to Theory seems to pervade so much of what I hear and read. Last month, I listened to Condoleezza Rice assert in an interview that she would like people to see her as an individual first, who just happens to be Black. Last week, listening to a podcast about Dolly Parton (yes, Dolly Parton!), I listened to her assert that she embraces all people whatever their choices about their identity because they are human. Almost every day, I face news about how divisive our country has become, and while the far right’s tribalism is a clear and dangerous factor, the far left’s progressive positions so often based in the identity politics of Theory are also damaging.
Recent world events have been full of proof that we can empathize outside our identity groups because of our common shared humanity. Witness the outpouring of support for the Afghans now terrorized by the Taliban since our departure from their country, especially for women who have lost fundamental rights they had gained while the US maintained a presence. Further, those Afghans who helped the US military, along with their families, have been celebrated by all in the US. So many have stepped forward to help these refugees settle in as fully accepted members of our society. And since the Taliban closed off access, former soldiers have even travelled to Afghanistan to try to bring those they worked with back to the US.
And now, I see the same empathy for the Ukrainian people. Every night, the news reports stories of human kindness – the couple that drove to Poland from Holland because they have room for six in their home, the groups all over Europe and the US collecting, packing, and sending boxes of household goods, the donations of Airbnbs in Poland or the renting of them in Ukraine as a way to send money to citizens. Whether Afghanistan or Ukraine, these acts of welcome and support are based in a belief that we share the human experience and that we all deserve dignity as individuals. It’s proof that Theory which says we cannot empathize with anyone outside our identity group is wrong because our first identity is as humans.
Theory, if allowed to continue to invade our society, will kill our society. Cynical Theories ends with a plea to question Theory wherever it manifests in your world. It does not seek to stifle it, as that would be illiberal, but to force it into debate wherever it is used. The book provides language for its readers that acknowledges what is valuable about the ideas embedded in Theory, while condemning what it does to prevent debate and refute liberalism. Read and share this book. It’s a tough but incredibly worthwhile read.