Since the summer of 2020, Critical Race Theory, and Critical Theory in general, have come out from the academic world and moved into popular culture. Helen Pluckrose, a self-described "exile from the humanities" and James Lindsay, have co-authored a detailed assessment of these Critical Theories. Join Scott and Sean as they interview Helen and she makes a complex subject accessible for those unfamiliar with the topic.
About our Guest
Helen Pluckrose is Editor in Chief of Areo Magazine, devoted to free speech, reason and the western tradition of human rights.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, Think biblically conversations on faith and culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your cohost Sean McDowell professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: We're here with our guests today. Her name is Helen Pluckrose. You may detect from her accent that she's from across the pond in the UK. She is the editor in chief of what's called Areo Magazine. It's a digital opinion and analysis magazine focused on current affairs in particular having to do with humanism, reason, science, politics, culture, and human rights committed to the defense of free speech. And so Helen, you'll be pleased to know that Sean and I've just subscribed to it-
Sean McDowell: Yes.
Scott Rae: Just in the last few minutes and have found it to be very insightful. We're here interviewing Helen today because she and her colleague, James Lindsay have provided a very helpful new book called critical but really slash through Cynical Theories, subtitle, How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity, and why this harms everybody. It's a fascinating book, a terrific read, very insightful in a lot of the current cultural trend of the philosophical underpinnings of a lot of current cultural trends that we're dealing with today. Helen, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate you taking the time because I know it's significantly later in the day, over there than it is for us here in the US.
Helen Pluckrose: No, it's lovely to be here and talk to you across the Atlantic.
Scott Rae: Now you described yourself at the beginning of your book as an exile from the humanities. Can you tell our listeners a little bit more what you mean by that? I suspect there's quite a backstory behind that.
Helen Pluckrose: Yeah. I'm interested in late medieval and early modern women's religious writing. I want to look at the way women negotiated the Christian narrative within their time in order to have autonomy and authority in their own lives and to make their own arguments. And I found this increasingly difficult with the imposition of various kinds of a theory.
It becomes quite hard to look at issues of gender, which essentially if I'm looking at women's experiences in the terms of social history, there's a particular kind of feminism that I'm expected to use. There's a particular kind of analysis, which incorporates things like queer theory and post-colonial theory, and that isn't the kind of historian or literary analysts that I want to be. I want to look at how women were thinking and feeling at the time and how they were using the beliefs of the time to live their lives. And it just got in the way I couldn't do work that I could be proud of in the end so I stepped away from academia.
Scott Rae: So you essentially you felt like there was an overriding ideology that was inhibiting you from doing the kind of academic work that you wanted to do in order to be part of the Guild in the humanities. Would that be a fair way to put it?
Helen Pluckrose: Yes. There are certain suggestions that you simply can't make. So I was penalized for example, by saying that sexual selection exists, that there could be a reason why women are attracted to men with resources and men are attracted to women who are with the youth and beauty, so that this was in an argument to do with Shakespeare's play Othello. And there are good evolutionary explanations for this, but this was considered to be conservative and it was considered to be destining women to some terrible beauty myth-
Scott Rae: Interesting.
Helen Pluckrose: As though we can just reprogram men and women and make them identical psychologically. And it's ridiculous. And I just can't speak about anything unless I use the right language that assumes that I live in a patriarchy. I don't believe that I do. And that there is always constantly this gender power imbalance going on, which I haven't found there is.
Sean McDowell: So you and I share different religious commitments. When we chatted before described that you would be in the category of kind of the new atheists. And yet we share the same concern for free speech, academic freedom. Are you noticing a movement of people across religious persuasions, across political persuasions, kind of resisting what you call Cynical Theories in your book?
Helen Pluckrose: Everything is always so very messy. Now who was the ... you'll probably remember his name, the theologian who wrote, who's afraid of Foods Co. And it had taking Foods Co and Dairy Delta church. There's a movement-
Scott Rae: It's Jame Smith.
Helen Pluckrose: That's him, that's him. So there's been Christians who have been keen to take on the original postmodern ideas. Then there is also a kind of woke Christianity, which seems to be rising in America and among some of the Baptist and Evangelical branches. But I find common ground often with liberal Christians because I consider myself philosophically liberal. I don't mean left, although I am left, when I say liberal, I mean that belief in freedom of speech and belief. So sometimes I certainly find myself in having common ground with liberal Muslims, liberal Jews, liberal Christians, and even sometimes with conservative Christians, I don't generally agree with them, but I often find myself where I'm in a position that I need to defend their right to hold and express the beliefs that they have.
Scott Rae: Helen, you described, some of the things that your book describes, they are so relevant to what's going on here in the last four or five months in the US with all the racial tensions. And I noticed on your magazine, you've had several pieces on the racial issues in the United States, but some of these things that you described, philosophically are now coming to where people in the general culture at large are starting to recognize elements of what you described more philosophically in the book.
And so what I'd like, you weaved together three different themes in your book and they sort of run throughout the book of the theme of postmodernism, critical theory particularly critical theory as applied to race and gender and what you call social justice scholarship. Can you just briefly without, I mean, we'll get into some of the rest of the argument of the book, but can you just briefly tell our listeners how you are connecting those three things?
Helen Pluckrose: Okay, so brief will be difficult, but I shall do my best. In postmodern thought there were three particular ideas which had a lot of influence ideas around knowledge, power, and language. This is a belief that knowledge is a construct of power, powerful members of society, powerful groups, get to decide what is legitimate knowledge and what isn't. And then they legitimize this as knowledge for society. And then the rest of society speaks into these discourses of power and they uphold them as though they are true. This was the postmodern discourse analysis when I then spoke of critical theories. This is to be separated from the Frankfurt school and its approach, critical theory, which is a very particular thing. And not precisely what I'm looking at the moment, when I'm talking about critical theories, it's the branches of theory that led off these ideas.
So post-colonial theory, queer theory, Critical Race Theory, intersectional feminism, disability studies, fat studies. They all took these ideas of dominant discourses that are entirely culturally constructed, and they're constructed to oppress people and they need to be unpicked by theorists with the right kind of critical consciousness. The colloquial word for this critical consciousness is woke. That's quite useful to sort of describe how they see themselves as having become awakened to systems of power and privilege that most of the rest of us can't really even see. And this, when it all comes together into a form of activism and applied scholarship, we refer to that generally as a social justice scholarship or social justice activism, because it could be calling on all or any of the theories, although dominant at the moment is Critical Race Theory and queer theory.
Sean McDowell: One of the game-changing thoughts in your book for me, Helen, is you describe how so many people would say that postmodernism was dead. And you're saying, "No, it went from being deconstructive to applied theory today." Which is what we see in, for example, Critical Race Theory. Can you make that connection between the two of those for us?
Helen Pluckrose: Yeah, certainly. People who say postmodernism died, they are referring very specifically to the proliferation of work that came from people like Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida in the 60s and into the 80s. That was the pure, post-modernism the pure deconstructive approach. Now, some philosophers have taken this work in other directions. They're not aware sometimes of how they've been taken into cultural and identity studies. If you speak to them about postmodernism, now they will look at you as though you're mad and say, well, these ideas died in the, maybe in the 80s, maybe in the 90s, maybe in the turn of the century. There's disagreement about when postmodernism died, but we argue that he didn't die. These very central features about how power works, how language works, how knowledge works and how these systems of discourses permeate, all of society have carried on.
And with them some core ideas about the need to focus intensely on language, the need to break down categories and boundaries, cultural relativism and standpoint epistemology. Thinking that knowledge is tied to your identity and your position in relation to power, the loss of the individual and of our shared humanity in favor of group collective identity. Now all of this came from those original postmodernists. Now they would not be huge fans of the social justice theory today. Identity politics, as we know it today, and the very simplistic work of people like Robin DiAngelo, they would quite rightly point out is a meta-narrative and the original postmodernists, they were above all against meta-narrative those grand overarching explanations for how the world works and what the meaning of life is.
It's become quite clear that the social justice approach is a meta-narrative those first postmodernists would not approve of it. I have some sympathy with academics who liked the postmodernists, but don't like social justice when they say to us, but this isn't postmodernism, because they see, as we do, that it's a corruption of it. It's a bastardization and a simplification of it. But to deny that these ideas are core features of postmodern thought, it just doesn't wash it. The connection is too direct.
Scott Rae: The idea that a knowledge could actually correspond to what really is out there is something that the original postmodernist debunked, but yet as you pointed out in your book, so much of social justice scholarship is a set of rigid absolutes that we are a hundred percent sure about and are treated almost as tenants of faith that you described. Kind of an ironic shift.
Helen Pluckrose: Yeah, it would be except that the theorists address this very explicitly. Something happened in 1989 where a load of theorists from different disciplines wrote papers saying this postmodernism stuff is good. It's useful the cultural construction of everything, the deconstruction of things it's great. We want to carry it on, but we have to accept some objective truth to exist, or we can't do anything. We can't fight racism for example, unless we accept that people of a certain race have certain experiences, which are oppressive and that we should address them.
The second wave of what we call applied postmodernism saw something of a return to an acceptance of objective truth. But the objective truth is accepted was that these systems of power and privilege really do exist in society and really do affect people in consistent ways. Then as that solidified over the next 30 years and the scholarship built on itself, it became more clearly expressed, more simpler, more certain. So now, if you read the work of somebody like Robin DiAngelo, you will find words of absolute certainty. She will say it is impossible for a white person not to be racist. And that level of certainty just wasn't the thing for the original post-modernist.
Sean McDowell: One of the chapters that I found super helpful in your book was on Critical Race Theory. You gave a little bit, a background of it kind of philosophical underpinning in some way we see it kind of manifesting itself today. Would you agree that it's helpful when it's descriptive, but not when it's prescriptive and why?
Helen Pluckrose: What we're calling Critical Race Theory, I would not agree is helpful either as a description or a prescription. Some of the antecedents to it, particularly the Liberals sort of civil rights movement with Martin Luther King, some of the work of W.E.B Dubois, and then going right back to people like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglas, then we're looking at people who addressed racism as a system in society that cast black Americans as inferior subhuman, and to be mistreated. Now that description of what was happening, it is absolutely accurate. And the need to recognize that and to overcome that and any aftermath of that, that continues. Racism has still hasn't entirely gone away. That kind of approach Martin Luther King's kind of approach is wonderful, but Critical Race Theory is not that. There are two kinds of it. There is the materialist kind, which is really quite radical.
It considers itself empirical because it looks a lot at data, but this is where we get the black separatists, the black nationalists, the idea that racism is permanent, that it's ordinary, that it's everywhere, that it will never go away, that it hasn't improved at all over the last 50 years, but they're not likely to talk to you too much about discourses and bias and microaggressions. They're likely to talk to you about disparities and have cynical explanations for them. That's the kind of work of someone like Derek Bell who argued that white people only ever allow rights to black people when it's in their own interests to do so. He'd actively deny that there has been any moral progress at all. But we see this, the descendants of this, it comes out really in somebody like Ibram X. Kendi. He's not really a postmodernist.
He takes much more from that materialist approach. That is still a problem. But the postmodern approach that came in with Kimberly Crenshaw, the idea of intersectionality, which was contemporary politics linked to postmodern theory. Now this is where it became a problem because the politics she's talking about, whereas the quite radical politics of the new left, much more Malcolm X, Black Panthers, then Martin Luther King, and connecting this to postmodern ideas of social constructionism. This is when Critical Race Theory took its turn towards applied postmodernism. And she said, her mapping the margins is the single most useful essay for looking at how this change happened. This idea that we want to keep some of postmodernism, but we want to make it actionable.
I would agree that there's always a kernel of truth in everything. And if the kernel of truth in even the worst Critical Race Theory that I'm seriously concerned about is that we can have biases and those biases can be racist and that we should actually give some thought to them and think if we do harbor any kind of assumptions about the worth of another human being, because of their skin color, that we ought to rethink that, but that isn't something I think we need these complex ideas of systems of whiteness and white fragility and white ignorance and white speak and all this complex theory, which does not really correlate with reality, all that well, I don't think that's helping the issue.
Scott Rae: Helen, one of the things that I think would be maybe breaking news to some of our listeners that comes out in your book is that this the postmodern grounded, Critical Race Theory has as part of its goal to dismantle what we call the classic liberal, small L, liberal tradition of free expression, universal human rights equality under the law, things like that, things that we've taken for granted in democratic societies for a long time. Is that true? And if so, why is that? Because it would seem that based on what you've said already, historically, that the consistent application of the classical liberal tradition might actually be the best hope for minorities and women to recognize the full range of rights that they have.
Helen Pluckrose: Yeah. They think that what liberalism is essentially is a form of whiteness. The idea of liberalism is that we would just make black people more like white people, and then they would be acceptable. And so liberalism is seen as a white western idea, and it's also seen as working in the wrong direction. For a liberal, the emphasis is to take significance out of identity categories. I won't assume that because you're black, you should have a manual job. I won't assume that because you're a woman, you should have a domestic job, that is the liberal approach to taking social significance out of identity categories. Now, identity politics wants to put those power dynamics back into it. They want to put significance in there. They want to get race and they want to get gender and sexuality right up front and center, and use that as a source of empowerment.
They see liberalism as a step-by-step incremental process, which it is, it works by discovering problems and making them better, making society more liberal, one at a time. This isn't very satisfactory for revolutionaries who want to just remake the system from the bottom up. And now somebody like me, a liberal feminist, as I often as I called myself for a long time, I would say society is already fairly good. It's not perfect. The main problem, however, is that it's not including everybody. It needs to make sure that includes women, it includes people of all races, it includes gay people. And once we have a society that includes everybody equally, we have a liberal society and we can keep improving that and improving that.
That is not an approach that the critical race theorists think can work, that they want a revolution. It often is a mixed with Marxism within Critical Race Theory often because of the influence of some people like Angela Davis, and many of the other theories don't have much elements of Marxism in there. But quite often, you'll hear from critical race theorists that we need to end capitalism, that we need to end patriarchy, that we need to end white supremacy. We need to end the nuclear family. We need to end everything essentially and remake this utopian ideal from the mess.
Scott Rae: And I think this was one of the things that caught some people off guard in the last few months with the Black Lives Matter organization, that it became clear that they stand for much more than just racial justice, but they also include things like dismantling the normative family, overthrowing capitalism, abolishing a lot of the traditions of the classical liberal tradition like you're speaking to. Now you also maintain in the book that this movement, reason, evidence and science are also downplayed. If not outright ignored. Can you give us some examples of that? Because I think for a lot of our listeners, the idea that there would be a movement that would demonize, reason, evidence, rationality, things like, strikes most people as being somewhat odd.
Helen Pluckrose: Yeah. They would say that because you are stuck in this meta-narrative where you believe that it's purely common sense that science and reason a good things. They wouldn't accept the evidence that actually they do work better than most, than other ways of knowing that they think we should give equal attention to. It's threats to science and reason, they're seen as the developments of white western men and they are therefore naturally suspect they housing because of imperialism because of slavery, of having trampled on and squashed out different ways of knowing that they're belong to black people, to brown people, to women, to people who aren't in the dominant groups. And so there's this idea of justice by bringing in other forms of of knowledge. So you get some really ridiculous examples of this. And you asked me for an example, and I think the one that I find most concerning is, turns up in fact studies.
They will argue for example, that the belief that being morbidly obese is bad for you, is a construct of biopower. Now that's a Foods co word. And biopower just means scientific discourses. And it's his understanding that speaking in a scientific discourse make something knowledge and it makes people believe it. And then it is used to oppress people. The idea that being overweight is bad is one of these oppressive biopower discourses. They will argue that the fat studies reader is wonderful for this. It would be a real eye-opener for anybody who doubts that this problem is happening. It says things at one point, I think it says, rather than looking at medical issues, we want to uncover knowledge that has already been unlocked by fat people.
And we are going to do this in the form of feminist poetry. Well, that's perhaps quite nice, but we do still need to focus on diabetes, on heart disease, on various kinds of cancer, on joint problems and early death, which are associated with obesity. But according to fat activism, these beliefs are just the dominant discourse that has been drummed into people and underlying it is fatphobia and hatred of fat people.
Sean McDowell: Helen, one of the things you and your co-author do so well in the book is you talk about how critical theory appears in, like you just mentioned fat studies and in gender studies and Critical Race Theory and intersexuality and post-colonial theory. And you're explaining the problems here, descriptively, what are a couple of the solutions that you think are most helpful that we should know moving forward?
Helen Pluckrose: I think that we first all, we have to, as a society, apply the rules of secularism to Critical Social Justice beliefs. I think in America, you have an even stronger expectation and law around this, if you were a public employer and you expected people to be trained in Christian belief to recite the Apostles' Creed or something like this before they got the job, this would be seen as a problem. This would be an imposition of a belief system, which an American citizen has the right not to believe in. Now, when we have Critical Social Justice, we see people obliged to go to trainings in which they are told that they must be racist. They must have been socialized into white supremacist ideas. They have to dismantle these, people are expected to write statements of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Which sets out how they are going to ... their acknowledgement of their own privilege and how they intend to address it and dismantle it and use their privilege for the benefit of other people.
Now that is very, very similar to a religious Creed and an expectation to confirm and affirm a religious system. And this isn't something that Americans should be expected to do. It's not something British people should be expected to do. This is something that doesn't belong in a category of say data protection, training or health and safety. This belongs in a freedom of conscience place where people can hold these beliefs. They can express them. They can live by them. They cannot impose them on anybody else. And then on a longer term level, we need to have the confidence to address these ideas. Now, I don't know if you two consider yourself to be liberal, but James and I do. And we argued for liberals to have a greater confidence in simply saying, I reject the premises of your belief system.
I believe in consistent opposition to discrimination by race, gender, or sexuality, I believe in evidence-based research. And just not following people down those rabbit holes where you are expected to go along with it, but feeling quite confident in saying, no, you are not going to say that I am a racist, just because I'm white, you are not going to tell me. I believe certain things. I will tell you what I believe. I demand the right to my belief. I will respect your right to your belief. To really have the confidence to push back and say, this isn't the only. We all want to get rid of racism. We all want to get rid of sexism. We don't have to do it your way. Your way is neither effective nor ethical.
Scott Rae: Well, I'd say don't sugar coat that response. But I think that's very helpful. Helen, let me ask you one last question before we stop. What gives you hope that the classic liberal, small L, liberal tradition of liberal democracy, free speech, open exchange of ideas, universal human rights, things like that, can overcome some of the divisions in our countries and can counter the ideology that you spend your book critiquing?
Helen Pluckrose: My confidence on this tends to waiver depending on what's happening in the news at any time, because I think the liberal societies that we've developed over the last 500 years are really quite unusual for our species. They're called weird now at Western educated, industrialized, rich and democratic for a reason, because this isn't really what humans do when we get together. Generally, we decided that one set of rules, one set of beliefs is allowed, and then we make people stick to them. We tend to perform hierarchies. This is much more counter-intuitive to humans. I think liberalism is a very fragile thing that needs to be reinforced and needs to be argued to children from a young age, so that people are confident in understanding how it works and arguing for it. However, what does give me confidence that it will continue is that we've had it now.
We have seen how good societies can be when everybody has the freedom to speak. We've seen that science has advanced, we've made huge advances in things like child mortality and life expectancy and such tremendous technological and medical advances due to being able to think and speak as we see fit and not being constrained by any system. And we've done so well at living alongside each other people with different political and religious beliefs. And there have been tensions. There always will be tensions, but it's really remarkable that we have been able to do this. I don't think this is going to disappear into the ether. We have the evidence of it. We have people who remember how well it works. And I think we can have enough people who are willing to fight for it and not let it die.
Scott Rae: Yeah. Thank you, Helen. I think Sean and I share your hope and sense of optimism that the classic liberal tradition, and remember this is a small L liberal, that's not necessarily politically liberal, but the classic liberal tradition on which both of our countries were founded, that's what we're referring to. And it has taken deep roots here. And although I think it is being tested significantly with the level of division that we have in both of our countries today. But I think Sean and I both share your optimism that the classic liberal tradition is durable enough. It's been around long enough. It's been tested with just about everything that a human beings can throw at it.
And it has proven to be, I think the best system in which for people to live peaceably who have passionate differences about things that really matter. I want to commend you for your book, Cynical Theories, How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity and Why This Harms Everybody by Helen Pluckrose and your colleague, James Lindsey. I encourage our listeners to get hold of this. It's not a particularly easy read but it's really clear. I commend you for how clear you have made very complex subjects.
Helen Pluckrose: Well, thank you. What I would say is that it shouldn't be beyond anybody who is prepared to sit down and concentrate. You don't need to have any background at all, or any higher education. We've defined all of our terms, but it's probably not something you could consume easily standing up on the train or something. You probably need to sit down quietly and think about it as you go through slowly.
Scott Rae: I think that's fair to say. I've had the benefit of being able to do just that. And it found it very, very helpful. And again, it's connected a number of dots that I had not been able to connect before. So Helen, thank you so much for coming on with us. We really appreciate your time and your work and all the best to you and to Areo Magazine and in the future.
Helen Pluckrose: Thank you for having me on.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith & Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest Helen Pluckrose and her book, Cynical Theories and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically, that's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app, and please feel free to share it with a friend. Thanks for listening. And remember, think biblically about everything.