Social Justice Cynicism
by Mike Young
Essay originally from Counterweight.
There is a type of cynicism that you cannot fight against, the sort of cynicism which makes engagement impossible. Let me give you an example by way of a hypothetical conversation:
Man: Would you come to my place to watch a movie?
Woman: You’re just trying to sleep with me.
Man: I wasn’t implying that; perhaps we could go to the theater?
Woman: You’re still just trying to sleep with me.
Man: I can take a hint, maybe I’ll see you around sometime.
Woman: I’m still not sleeping with you!
Man: Never mind, obviously you do not trust my intentions, so I’ll take the hint and stop contacting you.
Woman: Oh, so now you’re ditching me because I won’t sleep with you!
As you can see by this admittedly clumsy and exaggerated back and forth, there is a certain type of cynicism that is simply impossible to deal with. There are some people who are going to read the worst intentions and the most absurd implications into what you say regardless of how well-intentioned you are or how carefully you say it. That person always thinks you have motives which you do not have and will interpret you in a way you did not intend while accusing you of attempting to do things you are not trying to do. In such a situation there is nothing that you can say or do that will matter in the slightest, as any answer that you give will be interpreted as an attempt to cover up your hidden motives or pull one over on the person you are speaking to.
It is exactly this sort of cynicism which bedevils us today in the form of Critical Social justice (CSJ).
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Postmodernist philosophical/sociological ideas fused with Critical Theory to form the backbone of what we now know as Critical Social Justice. The issues here are two-fold. The first is the inherent cynicism, nihilism, and pessimism of Postmodernism, the second is the cynicism inherent to Critical Theory. When those two things are combined there is a sort of synergism that creates a deep cynicism that overrides any real possibility of engagement.
The cynicism of Postmodernism can be seen most clearly in the work of Michel Foucault. Foucault held that claims to truth are ultimately a matter of power; as such, those with power get to decide what is to be considered as ‘truth’. That is, Foucault thought of truth as a purely social phenomenon where certain statements and descriptions of reality are given the status of truth by people in society that are given the power to bestow that status. According to Foucault, truth is not a set of accurate descriptions of how things are or how they should be; rather, truth is a status that society gives ideas, statements, or propositions which elevates them such that they can be used to justify certain choices, decisions, actions, behaviors, laws, policies, and so on. That is not to say that a true statement never corresponds to reality, but it does mean that whether or not a statement corresponds to reality is not a necessary condition for a statement to be designated as true.
This means certain institutions or groups have the power to elevate particular ideas, propositions, or views, to the status of “true”. For example a church may have the moral authority to decide what is ethically right or wrong within a society. Scientists have scientific authority which gives them the power to say what is true and what ideas we ought to believe. Again, Foucault thinks what is true is not a matter of which statements describe reality accurately, what is true is a matter of which statements society elevates to the status of “true” according to the standard set by whatever process a given society has for elevating statements to the level of “truth.”
This means the things that we know, or claim to know, are the result of power that has been exercised by people or institutions. Thus, Foucault argues, power and knowledge are two features of the same object and consequently cannot be separated. Foucault is not arguing “knowledge is power” in the sense that if you know more about the world you can accomplish more, Foucault is arguing that knowledge and power are two aspects of the same thing, and each is a necessary condition for the existence of the other. It is for this reason that Foucault coined the term “power-knowledge.”
The resulting philosophy is a highly cynical view which claims that all the things we claim to “know” are really the product of truth and power mutually reinforcing and recreating each other. Power is used to create truth which is then used to create power. All of this is done in a way which is both contingent and done to serve the purposes of those who are able to exercise power. As Foucault puts it:
… in a society such as ours, but basically in any society, there are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterize and constitute the social body, and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated nor implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation and functioning of a discourse. There can be no possible exercise of power without a certain economy of discourses of truth which operates through and on the basis of this association. We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth.
In sum, this is the Postmodern side of woke cynicism: the one who determines what is true is the one who has power, and they use that power to their own benefit and for their own purposes, regardless of what reality might have to say about it.
The Critical Theory side of it is every bit as cynical, but it comes from a slightly different direction.
Max Horkheimer in his 1937 essay “Traditional and Critical Theory” said that a Critical Theory must do three things:
- It must explain what is wrong with society as it is.
- It must be practical.
- It must have a moral vision for society.
Now, Critical Theory cannot have just any direction or moral vision, the moral vision must be geared toward the emancipation of all human beings, what Critical Theory often refers to as “liberation.”
Thus, a properly critical Theory is not content to describe the way the world works the way the laws of physics or chemistry do. A properly critical Theory looks at the world as it is and seeks to “fix” the way things are in order to emancipate people. By now, the clever reader will have asked “emancipated from what?” And this is where the trouble begins.
The underlying assumption of Critical Theory is that we are being dominated or oppressed by our society. Consequently, questioning the legitimacy of every single aspect of our civilization is deemed necessary to achieve emancipation. This means that the assumptions and presuppositions that our society rests on will also be criticized ruthlessly. It follows from this that the frameworks, reasoning, logic, beliefs, traditions, presuppositions, practices, and ideas of every single thing in our society need to be ruthlessly critiqued and questioned.
We can see it clearly in this comment from Geoffrey Bennington who at a conference on Critical Theory said:
Critical theory taught me that the first indispensable critical gesture and the prerequisite for any critical practice is to look carefully at the terms of the question to which one is being asked to respond. That means that before trying to give answers to the questions about environment or framing we need to ask what kind of environment or frame do the questions themselves propose for our discussion here and what kind of answers do they more or less secretly program in advance.
This is the cynical eye of the Critical Theorist at work. The assumption is that questions themselves “secretly program” answers. It is not enough to say that a bad question will yield an unsatisfying answer, or that the wrong question cannot get you the right answer. They argue that the question is in some way secretly programming an answer.
Since Critical Theory looks at the assumptions and presuppositions of everything, it ends up always questioning the assumptions of both whatever it is critiquing, and the terms of engagement regarding the critique of that thing. If for example they are critiquing politics, they will question both the assumptions of politics, and the assumptions about how to critique politics and the terms on which politics can be critiqued. As such there is always an undercurrent of suspicion that both the terms of engagement and the existing conceptual playing field of whatever topic is at hand are themselves chosen to reinforce the status quo and thus prevent the re-ordering of society along the lines that the Critical Theorist wants. You might say that the Critical Theorists are worried that the conversation game is rigged.
Once you realize that CSJ has both Critical Theory and Postmodernism in its foundations you realize why it is that having a conversation with individuals taken in by CSJ can prove to be nearly impossible. This is because if every debate begins by asking “why are you privileging such and such, what standards are you using, by what authority do you make judgements, why should we use your concepts, why should we discuss this according to your rules, what are your motives and who benefits?” Nothing can survive that line of critique when it’s brought with an unrelentingly cynical eye.
Utilizing questions about people’s motives and what they stand to gain when you examine a claim is bad enough when it comes to discerning the truth value of that claim. Adding the Postmodern view of subjective and socially constructed truth leaves you in further disarray as correspondence to reality is no longer a viable technique to judge between competing claims. Unless you can appeal to objective truth, there is no way to fend off charges of bias and self-interest. This leaves people in a place where they are no longer able to appeal to reality as the ultimate arbiter of whether an idea is good or not.
This is why CSJ drives people to distraction. Every attempt at conversation merely devolves into a cynical meta-level struggle for control of the overarching terms of the debate and the conceptual playing field on which the debate will take place. At this point the topic that was supposed to be up for discussion quickly takes a backseat to the struggle to determine what the rules of engagement will be.
This sort of situation is not good for conversation. In fact, it is dangerous. If people are unable to have substantive discussions about their differences with an eye to resolving them, those differences will only deepen, increasing the likelihood of conflict. Yet this is exactly what CSJ does, sowing suspicion, distrust, and cynicism into the very discussions and conversations that are supposed to allow us to problem solve and build relationships. For this reason, we ought to jettison the CSJ movement and instead focus on a liberal approach, grounded in principles of fairness, empathy, equality, and truth, so we can debate, discuss, and disagree properly.
Mike Young is a Canadian thinker, writer and essayist. Follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/wokal_distance.