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The Michael Shermer Show

The Michael Shermer Show is a series of long-form conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 163

Helen Pluckrose — Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why This Harms Everybody

Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody (book cover)

Have you heard that language is violence and that science is sexist? Have you read that certain people shouldn’t practice yoga or cook Chinese food? Or been told that being obese is healthy, that there is no such thing as biological sex, or that only white people can be racist? Are you confused by these ideas, and do you wonder how they have managed so quickly to challenge the very logic of Western society?

In this wide-ranging conversation Helen Pluckrose recounts the evolution of the dogma that informs these ideas, from its coarse origins in French postmodernism to its refinement within activist academic fields. Today this dogma is recognizable as much by its effects, such as cancel culture and social-media dogpiles, as by its tenets, which are all too often embraced as axiomatic in mainstream media: knowledge is a social construct; science and reason are tools of oppression; all human interactions are sites of oppressive power play; and language is dangerous. Shermer and Pluckrose discuss:

  • liberalism vs. illiberalism,
  • Enlightenment/Scientific humanism vs. theism/authoritarianism/anti-humanism,
  • modernism/modernity vs. postmodernism,
  • social justice/wokeism vs. social justice,
  • critical theory: revealing hidden biases & assumptions, inequalities,
  • political correctness,
  • cancel culture,
  • identity politics,
  • postmodernism,
  • postcolonial theory,
  • queer theory,
  • critical race theory and intersectionality,
  • feminisms and gender studies,
  • disability and fat studies,
  • social justice in action, and
  • an alternative to the ideology of social justice.

Helen Pluckrose is a liberal political and cultural writer and speaker. She is the editor of Areo Magazine and the author of many popular essays on postmodernism, critical theory, liberalism, secularism, and feminism. A participant in the Grievance Studies Affair probe, which highlighted problems in social justice scholarship, she is today an exile from the humanities, where she researched late medieval and early modern religious writing by and for women. She lives in England.

Quoted in the podcast episode:

Open Letter to Independent Editors by Todd O’Keefe, Wed Feb 17, 2021

I am a local Santa Barbara songwriter and musician. Last week, the Independent had planned to publish a conversation with me about my new song, “Indian Wedding.”

After I did the interview, I was told that the title “Indian Wedding” might be offensive, so before the Independent could run a picture of the artwork with the song title, I was asked for my racial background. Let me repeat that: Before the Independent would publish the artwork for my single, I was asked what my race was. Apparently, if I answered with what they considered the correct race, then the album art could be posted. If I answered with what they considered the wrong kind of race, then a picture of the artwork would not be printed so as not to offend its readers. Of course, I refused to answer the question, seeing how it was not only irrelevant but also clearly inappropriate.

I just wanted to inform the staff of the Independent that there is a large country in Southern Asia called “India.” In this country, they occasionally have “weddings”. Also, I believe that the editorial staff at the ironically titled “Independent” have lost their minds.

Editor’s Note: As O’Keefe correctly asserts, members of our staff raised concerns his song title could be construed as cultural appropriation. Out of an abundance of caution when it comes to such charges, he was requested to provide another image if he were not of Indian or Native American descent. We regret that he’s chosen another route, as we believed our readership would enjoy the new song.

Here is a link to the song and artwork.

From Nick Gillespie’s video OpEd Libertarian Postmodernism: A Reply to Jordan Peterson and the Intellectual Dark Web

Famously in the 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition by Jean-François Lyotard, he defined postmodernism as ”incredulity toward metanarratives,” which means that, you don’t take knowledge, or assertions of knowledge, as a given, but rather you understand that knowledge and wisdom, and even scientific understanding of things, is not something that you’re walking around and you discover in the backyard that you stumble across like you stumble across the Grand Canyon, or a mountain, or something. Rather it’s something that produced by humans, and, as a result, it’s contingent, it’s limited. Incredulity toward metanarratives means that you are skeptical of these big stories that we tell about, “Well this is the why the world is the way it is. This is why it’s always been that way. This is why it always will be that way.” Or, alternatively, “This is why the world should be this way, which just happens to comport with what I want.” I see that phrase, incredulity toward meta narrative, as very simpatico with libertarianism, and it’s very simpatico with something like public choice economics, which James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, the founders of it, called ”politics without romance.” What it does is it looks at what is being said, why it is being said, who benefits, and whether or not it actually holds up to scrutiny from a kind of 360-degree angle.

From Stephen Beckner’s essay on postmodernism in Skeptic, Vol. 24, No. 1, “Straw Man on a Slippery Slope: The Case Against the Case Against Postmodernism”

A physicist and science historian like Thomas Kuhn uses the dressier term paradigm. Fancier still is Stephen Hawking’s and Leonard Mlodinow’s Model Dependent Realism.

In the history of science we have discovered a sequence of better and better theories or models, from Plato to the classical theory of Newton to modern quantum theories. It is natural to ask: Will this sequence eventually reach an end point […] or will we continue forever finding better theories, but never one that cannot be improved upon?

Here Hawking and Mlodinow are wondering if we will ever discover capital “T” truth in the form of a theory of everything. The pragmatists and the postmodernist say no, because such a theory would essentially be, well, everything. The fact that our maps will always fall short of reality is not an argument for their futility. But it might be an argument for moderation, nuance, and generosity in our dealings with our fellow mapmakers. The great irony in all of this is that in an infamous Waking Up podcast interview Jordan Peterson had this to say:

Truths are always bounded because we’re ignorant. […] There’s no reason to assume that our current scientific view of the world isn’t flawed or incomplete in some manner that will prove fundamentally fatal to us.

So here we have the man who is arguably spearheading this latest campaign against postmodernism, vigorously defending a postmodern-adjacent view of truth, while Sam Harris, a man with a mind supple enough to see free will as a construct of self, found himself digging his heels in on an absolutist position.

In his Reason TV video Nick Gillespie says that postmodernism “celebrates the limits of human knowledge.” I see it like that as well. The hucksters of scientific rectitude and the grievance studies radicals are alike in that they’ve both got postmodernism wrong. It isn’t an ideology, it’s a tool for identifying and investigating ideology. It’s not a path, it’s a light on the path. In its purest form it is anti-authoritarian, anti-essentialist, and anti-dogma. What more could a skeptic ask?

From Dr. Shermer’s essay “A Dream Deferred”, republished in Giving the Devil His Due

Intersectionality theory includes these contrasts of oppression:

White—Non-White, Male—Female, Light—Dark, Cisgender—Transgender, Heterosexual—Homosexual, Gender-typical—Deviant, Young—Old, European—Non-European, Anglophone—English as Second Language, Gentile—Jews, Rich—Poor, Fertile—Infertile, Able-bodied—Disabled, Credentialed—Non-Literate.

As philosopher Kathryn Pauly Morgan explained intersectionality, each of us may be identified and judged on where we fall “on each of these axes (at a minimum) and that this point is simultaneously a locus of our agency, power, disempowerment, oppression, and resistance.” The Chicana feminist activist Elizabeth Martinez worried what such hierarchical assessments might lead to: “There are various forms of working together. A coalition is one, a network is another, an alliance is yet another. But the general idea is no competition of heirarchies should prevail. No Oppression Olympics.”

From Dr. Shermer’s essay “A Dream Deferred”, republished in Giving the Devil His Due

Among its many elements, Dr. King’s dream included his faith that one day “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” Within our culture in general, and on social media and talk radio and television in particular, the jangling discords of identity politics are said to be pulling us into another civil war, this one cultural instead of martial. With discordance arising from these many identities competing for power and influence that have brought out the worse demons of our nature, it is prudent to recall the dream of a civil rights crusader from an earlier century—Abraham Lincoln—as his country was on the eve of a real civil war over the enslavement of millions of people who wanted nothing more than to be treated equally as fully human with the same rights and privileges as those enslaving them. Speaking to the southerners who had already seceded from the union and formed the Confederate States of America, the Great Emancipator implored:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

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