MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, November 11th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. WORLD commentator Janie B. Cheaney now on how dogma replaced discipline.
JANIE B. CHEANEY: Two years ago, three liberal professors decided to test the limits of academic credulity. They wrote 20 spurious papers (with subjects like “Rape culture in dog parks”) and submitted them to academic journals. Four were actually published, three were awaiting publication and five were under consideration when the project was exposed as a hoax.
The stated purpose behind the hijinks was to expose the sophistry of so-called “grievance studies,” which track all social problems to oppression by white males. Quote, “a culture has developed in which only certain conclusions are allowed … and puts social grievances ahead of objective truth.”
Could social grievance, critical theory, and cancel culture all be related? Two of the hoaxers, James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, connect the dots in their new book, Cynical Theories.
According to the authors, it began in the 1960s with the acceptance of postmodernism as an academic philosophy. Postmodernism claims that objective truth can’t be known, that knowledge is socially constructed, and that dominant forms of knowledge always favor the dominant. So, for example, the only reason to study Shakespeare is to “deconstruct” him, to expose how he enables white male privilege.
The problem with postmodernism was that it led nowhere. If nothing is objectively true, then nothing is objectively good. But beginning in the 1980s, academics repurposed the major tenets of postmodernism. If knowledge was a social construct benefiting the powerful, we must make room for other “ways of knowing.” If science was a tool of the white patriarchy, it couldn’t be trusted. If indigenous groups, people of color, and LGBTs had been kept down, it was time for them to step up.
That’s how a theory became Capital-T Theory—not an academic discipline, but dogma. It marched through the social sciences and eventually invaded the hard sciences as well. And two decades after indoctrinating graduates who now occupy the highest ranks of culture, corporation, and government, Capital-T Theory is everywhere. Corporations sponsor retreats for white males only, where participants write apology letters to female colleagues. American schoolchildren learn that their country was built on racism and owes its wealth to slavery.
President Trump issued an executive order meant to purge Critical Race Theory from federal agency training programs. That’s a step in the right direction, but it took decades for an inert academic philosophy to resurrect itself as activism, and will take decades more to defeat it. Lindsay and Pluckrose hope for a return to the classic liberal disposition that welcomes all opinions to the public square and privileges none.
But societies need absolutes and moral standards. The spinelessness of postmodernism is exactly what allowed activists to hijack it, and now prevents them from moderating their own radicalism. The blunt narrative of oppressor and oppressed won’t stand the test of time, but can wreak a lot of havoc before it falls.
I’m Janie B. Cheaney.