Cynical Theories: How Active Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity

Cynical Theories: How Active Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity

"It sometimes feels as though any well-intended person, even one who values universal liberty and equality, could inadvertently say something that falls foul of the new speech codes, with devastating consequences for her career and reputation.

About the Book

Cynical Theories is probably the best book you'll ever read about wokeism/postmodernism. I GUARANTEE there is a high probability you'll end up buying - or at least placing - it in your Amazon cart.

This book is wokeism from A to Z! You'll use it to navigate through the fantasy world we are currently living in. You'll learn not only their language  (i.e., postmodernism, gender studies, postcolonialism, LGBTQUI+, political correctness, fatphobia, ableism, Social Justice) but also why they talk about "structural" and "systemic" issues.

Actually, a better title for the book would have been “Understanding wokeism better than woke people do.”

Disclaimer: this topic is long and must be discussed extensively if you really want to understand what we (or they) are talking about. Trust me, it will be entertaining (I wouldn’t have written it otherwise) and at the end you’ll be ready to face a conversation even with a Noam Chomsky.

Key Lessons

  1. Wokeism is a 3-stage process: 1) skepticism; 2) applied post-modernism; 3) Social Justice Movements.
  2. It’s all about power and language: language determines power relations.
  3. It's Identity Politics: it rejects the individual and humanity at large. Only the group is politically meaningful.

Now, just let's dig 3' in the essential framework and then we'll look into each key lesson.

Essential Framework

Why "Woke"?

“Woke” movements or “Wokeism” or "Wokeness" is the process that has awakened people’s consciences and has made them realize our society is full of inherent injustices (so-called "systemic" and "structural" injustices) that tend to marginalize specific categories of people (black, disabled, Latinx, transgenders, etc.). Woke is the name which identifies the political movement.

From The Wretched of the Earth (1961) by Franz Fanon

Why "Post-modernism"?

Postmodernism is the intellectual movement. It is the rejection of both modernism (as intellectual movement) and modernity (as historical period) as characterized by the use of just one kind of rationalism, that is Western rationalism. It's looking at things from an extremely relativistic and skeptic perspective.

What are postcolonialism, gender studies, etc.?

These are the new fields that have emerged in those departments where postmodernism has been applied. For example: applying postmodernism (read: radical realtivism and skepticism) in History has resulted in postcolonial studies (the re-reading of history from the standpoint of ex-colonial subjects, the oppressed).

When did it start?

In the 1960s-70s with the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse, at least). They prepared the ground for Foucault and all discourses about power and langauge. They are also called “critical theorists” because they radically criticized their society. Wokeism comes from the headquarters of academia.

PRO TIP: To get a sense of the extreme relativism woke people embrace, read Michelle de Montaigne's "Of Cannibals" (1580), usually in syllabi of Postcolonial History. A more recent sense of wokeism is in Susan Sontag's article "What's happening in America" (1966).

Critical theorists were basically looking at all the changes brought about by the World Wars and totalitarian regimes and saying:

They rejected science, technology, liberalism, capitalism, traditional Marxism because they thought these ideologies produced but only catastrophes such as World Wars and Totalitarianisms. In addition, they considered Western rationalism a very limited ideology which caused conformism. Society became “massified” and lost authenticity as it responded to just one standpoint: Western rationalism. According to David Hardey, this was “The breakdown of the Enlightenment project.”

Where do you find them today?

Humanities, history, literature, gender studies, and linguistics departments, mostly. Increasingly in social sciences. Wherever there is not the imperative of some data and empiricism. (It’s not bizarre that woke people claim that mathematics and STEM fields are inherently racist).

How do woke people see the world?

As the inevitable result of self-perpetuating systems that privilege some groups over others, which constitute an unconscious, uncoordinated conspiracy. They believe, however, that those systems are patriarchal, white supremacist, and heteronormative, and therefore necessarily grant unfair access to straight, white Western men and work to maintain that status quo by excluding the perspectives of women and of racial and sexual minorities.

And now, let's move to the key lessons!

Key Lesson #1: Wokeism is a 3-stage process

1. Skepticism & Relativism

The Frankfurt School guys were good guys, some of them had great insights about how society worked and how people behaved, and they wrote interesting books. The dangerous part of their theory was the excessive skepticism and relativism. Their questioning the status quo would have not been bad per se (it’s always good to question the status quo!), but it soon transformed in questioning objectivity and reality as such. From a critical approach it soon became a cynical approach to everything.

But that's it. At this stage skepticism was innocent and merely “descriptive.” No prescriptions or imperatives were coming along. No censorhip and no political correctness. They were analyzing society with skepticism. Stop.

From skepticism to relativism, it's immediate though. Since we need to be skeptic about each ideology, no one set of cultural norms can be said to be better than any other. Knowledge, truth, meaning, and morality are therefore, relative products of individual cultures, none of which possesses the necessary tools or terms to evaluate the others.

2. Applied Post-modernism

You now may wonder: Ok, I follow you, but what's the point of continuing to question society, problematize minorities, and challenge the status quo once totalitarian regimes have fallen and civic struggles for equal rights have been achieved?

Indeed, “questioning society” was soon replaced by “questioning all academic disciplines.” Are they inclusive enough? Do they consider group and identity struggles seriously?

BONUS: Between 2015 and 2016 two interesting student movements emerged across UK and US academia: Why is My Curriculum White? (2015) and #LiberateMyDegree (2016).

If degrees and curricula are not inclusive enough, we need to apply cultural relativism in those fields!

Since postmodernism is about analyzing society from any different perspective, it started to be used by scholars who were interested in myriad aspects of identity, including race, sex, gender, sexuality, class, religion, immigration status, physical or mental ability, and body size.

‌Most popular examples of postmodern academic fields ⬇️⬇️:

  • postcolonialism
  • queer theory
  • intersectionality
  • feiminism
  • disability and fat studies

3. Social Justice Movements

We’ve arrived at the final (hopefully, for now) stage of wokeism. The stage of faith. But an intolerant faith, an imperative one. The stage of Social Justice.

Social Justice is an imperative. It is about taking action and change the status quo. It is not just about introducing some classes on gender, identity, colonialism, and race. It is no longer  radical skepticism or destruction of what we think we know. It's about changing the curricula. It's about affiramtive action and introducing compulsory DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) training in all US universities.

And you realize that a process that started as innocently descriptive (Frankfurt School and critical theories) ended up in a series of prescriptions and imperatives (Social Justice Movements).

If you disagree with the imperative of Social Justice scholarship you are either:

  • Color blind, gender blind, or race blind. And this is a "privilege" (read: not good, you want to avoid this by all means!);
  • Insincere;
  • Simply trying to preserve unjust power structures.

The only way to be a virtuous person under Social Justice is to assume that these power imbalances and prejudices exist everywhere at all times, masked by the egalitarian false-promises of liberalism, and assiduously seek them out, using the right kind of theoretical analysis.

Fun Fact: Social Justice Movements care less and less about "economic class" unless combined “intersectionally” with some other form of marginalized identity. It is therefore no surprise that many working-class and poor people often feel profoundly alienated from today’s left.

Key Lesson #2: Language is Power

Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

To understand why language is power (bizarre, isn't it?) you need to keep always in mind that for postmodernists objective reality does not exist.

Since objective reality does not exist, only subjective reality exists. Language – the way we talk, the words we use – creates this (subjective) reality. And since the language we’ve always used in this part of the world is somehow "Western" (again, very bizarre, isn't it?) we must have created a Western society which works just for Western people and marginalizes all other groups and identities. Only Western people are empowered here, since other groups cannot speak their own language.

The powerful have, both intentionally and inadvertently, organized society to benefit them and perpetuate their power. They have done so by legitimating certain ways of talking about things as true, which then spread throughout society, creating societal rules that are viewed as common sense and perpetuated on all levels. Therefore, they necessarily grant unfair access to straight, white Western men and work to maintain that status quo by excluding the perspectives of women and of racial and sexual minorities. This must be an unjust society, postmoderns argue.

Solution: As langauge creates reality and power relations, by changing langauge and words, society will change.
Thus, applied postmodernism focuses on controlling discourses.

Control of language epitomizes in political correctness: the intense scrutiny of language and development of ever stricter rules for terminology related to identity.

Key Lesson #3: Identity Politics

What’s bizarre about wokeism is the rejection of both individualism (individual rights) and universalism (equal rights for everyone).

We live in a society where we all have equal rights by law, where discrimination is sanctioned, where people must be treated the same regardless of who they are, their race, gender, political leaning, etc.

This was a major achievement of modernity and liberalism. It is not wokeism which granted women equal access to work. Now that racial and sexual discrimination in the workplace was illegal and homosexuality was decriminalized throughout the West, all that remained to tackle were sexist, racist, and homophobic attitudes and discourses.

Liberalism vs. Wokeism

Now that we've arrived at the end, there is something very interesting the book highlights and that I'd like to bring up in a couple of lines. What do Liberalism and Wokeism have in common? And what do they differ in?

In common: They are both movements that question the status quo and question dogmas.

But how they do it? Well, very differently.

Differences: Liberalism questions dogmas with empiricism (facts by using reason) and provides alternative theories that are not "religious" or based on emotions.

"Liberalism is a system – not just a radical little theory – because it is self-skeptical rather than self-certain, by design. This is a reasoned – not a radical – skepticism. It puts the empirical first, rather than the theoretical. It is self-correcting."

It tries to solve conflicts by guaranteeing equal rights to everyone regardless. Since it applies both to the individual (in the form of mutual respect) and the universal (respect to everyone) it makes the best not to tribalize us in groups, subgroups, identities, or categories fueling some sprit of revenge. Liberalism is not perfect, okay. But woke intolerance doesn't seem to be a good solution.

Desperation? Not at all. Since liberalism is not about imposing an ideology, it is not about faith, but about challenging ideas in the market of ideas, it will take time to win over mainstream wokeism and Social Justice Movements. So if we constantly engage and challenge woke ideas, they will be dismantled sooner or later. Liberalism - and science - have always challenged dogmas. Wokeism is just another dogma to be challenged. Keep going.

My Take Today

Mutual respect vs. Identity Politics

We respect each other neither because there is a law that tells us to do so nor because we started categorizing everyone. Discrimination doesn't end because of race and gender quotas when applying to university. It rather is the result of repeated interactions with people different from ourselves.

Don't make everything about race. Don't decolonize everything! Don't genderize, sexualize, or whaterever, everything. Which means, don't look at things and human behaviors as they were always driven by racist, gender, sexist biases.

Here's an example: If the Board of a private business consists entirely of white males, don't look at it as the company were white supremacist.

Given that wokeism is a political movement that aims at changing society and relations among people politically, racializing and the like just means politicizing everything. If we politicize everything we'll end up disagreeing forever, probably. Because politics is about values and principles and we'll never agree on the values and principles everyone has to pursue. At the end of the day, politics is about imposing some values that are shared just by a group of people (i.e., and absolute majority or a relative majority) at the expenses of someone else. Instead, if we look at relations from a mutual perspective we'll end up genuinely agreeing on much more things than would have happened as a result of a political imposition.

I'll explain better. And hopefully less theoretically.

If we see racism, microaggressions, patriarchy, and gender structures constantly all around us, this means we are politicizing every situation. As it were the structure (gender, race, etc.) which determines individual interaction. Instead, as long as we have self-agency, we should be first individuals who act on the basis of mutual respect, not driven by any structural framework. We interact as equals instead of being driven by the color of the skin of the other person (it will be absurd a decision such as "I'll talk just with people who are white." This is but identity politics). And when we do so, it's not because gender doesn't exist or race doesn't exist, but because we have mutual respect and we respect others' individual rights. It's not about ruling out the differences among people and using the best appropriate pronouns, but it's about genuine mutual respect.

And here's the trick. Notice that mutual respect does not derive from legislation or politics, but it comes from repeated interactions. It's not a law that will change my behavior - as it shouldn't be the goal of laws - but repeated interactions we have with people we meet everyday - new ones and old ones. You don't learn that your gay neighbors are exactly the same of a heterosexual couple because there is a new law or because politics has embraced this battle, but because you talk with them and you yourself clearly realize there is no difference. And probably, you don't even need to talk with them to understand they are the same. Mutual respect is not the result of your last course in gender studies, nor the DEI training I have to take at the beginning of every semester.


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