Helen Pluckrose, author of Cynical Theories and founder of the Counterweights, joined Jeremy Beer on Givers, Doers, & Thinkers to discuss the rise of critical social justice theory.
You’ve certainly noticed that “critical race theory” and “critical social justice” have been much in the news lately. No longer are these just terms for the ivory tower. Universities, businesses, and even school boards all across the country are wrestling with these ideas and dealing with their impact.
Fortunately, Jeremy Beer sat down with Helen Pluckrose in season two of the Givers, Doers, & Thinkers podcast. Pluckrose is the author of Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity. I think the title says it all—and why her perspectives on this issue are so important.
WHAT IS THIS THING?
At the outset of the conversation, Pluckrose helped to define “critical social justice theory.” She explains that CSJ sees society as divided and stratified by power dynamics and systems of power and privilege. These systems were put in place over time by those in power in order to protect and maintain their power.
The work of critical social justice theorists, then, is to examine the way we talk about things, the way we think about things, and our attitudes and our biases, in order to expose—and ultimately deconstruct—these systems of power and privilege. Institutions all around us, CSJ maintains, are beholden to systems and biases that oppress (even subtly) historically marginalized groups.
LIBERALISM AND CRITICAL SOCIAL JUSTICE
CSJ thus stands at odds with “liberalism” which privileges individual merit and the marketplace of ideas. CSJ theorists contend that liberalism upholds the oppressive systems, privileging certain groups and punishing others. In other words, the alleged neutral meritocracy is a myth, insofar as the systems and structures of merit privilege those in power against those historically marginalized.
Pluckrose charges that CSJ is unfortunately unfalsifiable, which undermines its intellectual credibility. In a world seen through CSJ, there are two groups of people, the oppressors and the oppressed. If someone does not feel oppressed, it is because he is the oppressor, or he is either (a) blind to his own oppression (having internalized the systems of racism that harm him) or (b) trying to appease his oppressor to secure an advantage for himself.
Insofar as those two options for a “complete set,” the theory is unfalsifiable. This logic makes it impossible to debate the credibility of CSJ theory, since any instance can be relegated to one of two options, oppressor or oppressed.
TWO BIG PROBLEMS
Pluckrose worries about the consequences of CSJ. We have long strived for tearing down social and racial barriers, but CSJ reifies and reinforces them, creating barriers in society. The theory leans heavily on the formative and ineluctable role that race plays in forming individuals—again as both oppressors and oppressed. Pluckrose gives the example that people are likely to react badly when told they are “bad” because of their race. This race-labeling is unlikely to improve communities or strengthen society; on the contrary is likely to increase hostility between groups, dividing society and harming communities.
Jeremy, too, pointed out that CSJ forgets the classical Judeo-Christian virtues, like charity, humility, forgiveness, kindness, and empathy. In a sea of zealotry for perfection, these virtues are pushed aside. Instead of cultivating virtue and improving communities, CSJ expect people to be focused on fighting oppression—no matter the cost.
And so CSJ leads to discord and division, with its “tribalism” tearing communities apart and tending toward explosive and dangerous riots. Indeed, it follows from the principles of the theory—that society is beholden to, and dependent upon, oppressive systems and institutions—that a genuine cultural revolution if needful to overturn the systems of power and oppression.
From violence in streets to diversity trainings and “woke policing” in schools and businesses, we see the fruits of CSJ in America today.
WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT THIS?
First of all, Pluckrose suggests, we can be bold in expressing commitment to liberalism and liberal values. In the workplace and elsewhere, she encourages discussion by saying things like, “I don’t believe what you believe. I oppose racism and sexism, but I do not believe what you believe.” She has found that by talking to others openly, we create dialogue, and often find others who share our concerns about the culture.
That is why Pluckrose founded Counterweights, which is specifically dedicated to encouraging liberalism’s dialogue. Counterweights works as a consulting service to help those under distress caused by CSJ. An individual is connected to an advisor who creates a customized plan to help fight “woke” culture. Things like legal advice, letters, and document templates are provided to help the individual overcome whatever “woke” obstacle they may be facing.
The key to this approach is diplomacy. Pluckrose wants to help organizations react positively by showing that conversation is possible and that the mandatory trainings and other “woke” programs tend to exclude a majority of viewpoints and worldviews. Her goal, then, is just to create space for all viewpoints.