Cynical Theories: Is AUC Engaging in “Anti-Science”?

By Koko Christiaanse

Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race,  Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody: Pluckrose, Helen,  Lindsay, James: 9781634312028: Books
The cover of Cynical Theories

This opinion analysis is written in conjunction with an article titled: “An Internal Letter and Leaked Emails: Faculty Clashes with AUC Diversity Plan Statements

— In an open letter sent to Dutch right-wing blog “Geen Stijl”, a faculty member described AUC’s new diversity plan as follows: 

“The whole plan is based on Intersectionality. I just read Cynical Theories and knew that it was bad, but after reading it appears to be worse than bad and pure destruction of trusting relations.”

The author of the letter says, “I find it scandalous that at a Scientific Institute, a training is going to be given based on Anti-science. Cynical Theories clearly shows how anti-scientific and nonsensical the whole thing is. And also how cynical the whole story is.” 

How does Cynical Theories do this? How has this book convinced a faculty member of AUC, an institution that prides itself in promoting Diversity, that Intersectionality is “worse than bad”?

Cynical Theories, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, is a book centered around criticizing the “progressive left” and its alignment with Postmodernism. It claims that the rise of postmodernism, and the subsequent Critical Theories that followed, such as Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory, Postcolonial Theory, and Intersectionality have caused society to shift away from “science, reason, and the pillars of post-Enlightenment Western Democracy.” According to the authors, Postmodernism malevolently disregards these values and replaces them with a “mythology of systemic and structural problems inherent in society systems”, and a radical cynicism towards truth.

Cynical Theories applies its view of Postmodernism to critique “Social Justice” and “Scholar-Activism”. The book says that Social Justice has become “pervasive in our lives in the forms of ‘Identity Politics’ or ‘Political correctness’”. This is argued to have a “‘chilling effect on the culture of free expression’. In the Cynical Theories narrative, Social Justice is a “malicious form of bullying, […] when institutionalized a kind of authoritarianism.” Scholar-activists, according to the work, are those who teach as a political act that furthers the ideology of Social Justice. According to the book, “Scholar activists are obsessed with power, language, knowledge, and the relationships between them.”

Cynical Theories purports that scholar activists are bent on finding problematics through the lens of power dynamics, even when “they aren’t obvious or real.” It argues that Postmodernism looks “very much like a conspiracy theory” due to a “radical skepticism” of objective knowledge. And this is what lies at the core of the book; insisting that the Postmodern framework is fundamentally at odds with science and democratic values. 

When it comes to Kimberle Crenshaw’s Intersectionality, the book, seemingly in support, states that Crenshaw “accurately recognizes that it is possible to uniquely discriminate against someone who falls within an intersection of oppressed identities”, and that “Crenshaw makes some important points.” However, the author then makes a turn in stance to say, “Intersectionality is the axis upon which the applied postmodern turn rotated and the seed that would germinate as social justice scholarship some twenty years later”, and that “It is a tool designed to flatten all complexity and nuance so that it can promote identity politics”.

It is not surprising that a scholar who accepts the claims of this book at face value, that is, that Intersectionality can be interpreted as an enemy of science and reason, stands to express “extreme concern” about any kind of a Diversity Plan that references Intersectionality. Regardless of whether Crenshaw made “important points” or not.

However, it is strange that this faculty member sees AUC as an institute where Intersectionality is unwelcome; it has been welcomed for many years. Intersectionality is taught to every single AUC student in the mandatory first-year course “The Global Identity Experience”. Kimberle Crenshaw herself even spoke at the UVA to a full lecture hall of Students in 2019, which was attended by numerous AUC students on their own accord. Furthermore, the vast majority of students at AUC graduate with a Bachelor of Arts (67% of students in 2019 according to AUC’s annual review), rather than a Bachelor’s of Science. And even then, AUC is a Liberal Arts programme with convergence of disciplines as one of its core intentions.

It is also worth pointing out that Michel Foucault and Jaques Derrida, scholars that the authors of “Cynical Theories” consider two of the fathers of Postmodernism, are widely read in core Humanities courses such as Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Other authors covered at AUC that “Cynical Theories” questions — at times even ridicules— include Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, and Judith Butler, who are all well integrated in a number of AUC courses. If the new Diversity Plan is based on “anti-Science”, AUC was plenty Anti-scientific already. 

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