It’s critical the West recovers its self-belief
Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay for my video podcast about their new book.
Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian became famous in the 2017-18 grievance studies affair when they manufactured deliberately absurd academic articles and had several accepted by peer-reviewed critical theory journals. The hoax revealed what many academics had known for years — that too many postmodern and critical theory journals are exercises in obscurantist activism as opposed to serious scholarship.
But the new book by Pluckrose and Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity — And Why This Harms Everybody, is no mere academic matter. The book’s subject gets to the heart of two of the problems facing the West today: loss of faith in our culture and its institutions, and hostile social divisions along generational, gender and racial fault-lines.
The story of Western civilisation is essentially an unfolding dialogue between classical culture and Christianity, issuing in modern science, democracy, individual rights, rule of law and economic prosperity.
Certainly, the West has engaged in horrific practices such as slavery, but the abolition of slavery throughout the West was justified along Christian-Enlightenment grounds. In other words, historically the solution to the West’s injustices always comes out of the Western tradition itself. Anti-slavers, anti-colonialists, suffragettes and anti-segregationists did not demand an end to Western ideals; they demanded that the West live up to its own Christian-Enlightenment ideals of human dignity, equality and freedom.
Paradoxically, though, the West has more recently produced ideologies that would undermine its own achievements, namely postmodernism and critical theory.
These are something of an offshoot of Marxism and assert that all of the ideals and institutions of the West are racist, sexist, homophobic and need to be overthrown.
According to Pluckrose and Lindsay, postmodernism and critical theory “rejected Christianity and Marxism … (but) also rejected science, reason and the pillars of post-Enlightenment Western democracy”.
The pair write: “According to critical theory, the only factor that counts is power.” CT sees societies as made up of identity groups, not individuals. Furthermore, you either have power or you don’t. And if you don’t it’s because you’ve been oppressed by someone who does. And the oppressor is almost always the same person — the white, heterosexual male. Then, “Once the ‘victims’ are identified, they are ‘weaponised’, to be used in an assault on the status quo.”
This weaponisation is precisely what we saw recently in the US and the UK with the Black Lives Matter riots. The death of George Floyd was sold to millions of youths as a symbol of Western oppression. While Australia hosted BLM protests, we weren’t marred by violence. Thankfully, it looks like for the time being Australia’s easygoing attitude doesn’t lend itself easily to mass violent fanaticism.
But the recent practice of many of our professional sportsmen tacitly to support CT through the well-meant but misguided gesture of a bended knee against racism must not be left unchallenged. Our easygoing culture, of course, also makes us easily apathetic to the creep of critical theory and identity politics into our schools and universities. Having examined university humanities curricular exhaustively, Bella D’Abrera of the Institute of Public Affairs says Australian students “are being taught a narrow, one-dimensional view of the world seen through the prism of class, gender and race, over a curious and inquiring three-dimensional view of the world which opens the mind”.
The problem with cultivating a victim culture is that it is inherently socially divisive. If women, racial minorities and other minorities are inherently victims, then everyone else is inherently an oppressor. Identity politics can only lead people to see one another not as fellow citizens but as enemies. It creates and perpetuates division among citizens and a loss of faith in the nation and its institutions. This is worrying because critical theory and identity politics, according to Pluckrose and Lindsay, “tend to regard mainstream liberalism as complacent, naive or indifferent about the deeply ingrained prejudices, assumptions and biases that limit and constrain people with marginalised identities”.
No one can deny that young people in the West have legitimate grievances, in particular the massive debt that will be left to them by older generations. In the US, many young people have been saddled with massive university debts without any jobs to walk into. Australia also has the problem of prohibitive house prices in the main cities where most of the jobs are. Perhaps remote working will ease this somewhat, but it has left a generation of young Australians cynical about their future prospects. Add to this the cynical readings of Western civilisation and Australian history emanating from our educational institutions, and we are left with a generation vulnerable to ideologies that erode public esteem of the nation and its institutions. A dangerous state of affairs.
Australia’s future has its challenges, two of which are the rise of a China that is becoming increasingly intolerant of Australia’s criticism of its internal and global policy, as well as our own ever-increasing social polarisation. The last thing Australia needs is an America — still by far the world’s most powerful military force and a historical ally of Australia — so preoccupied with its own divisions that it can’t afford to pay attention to China’s increasing aggression towards other countries.
If Australia is going to put up an effective resistance to China in the future it needs a population that is united by a commitment to the essential goodness of the nation and by a commitment to liberal democracy.
In this respect the more critical theory and identity politics take root among the younger generations, the more divided and less self-confident Australia will be in the future. Among our greatest weapons is a proper appreciation of the history of the West in general, and Australian European history in particular.
Yes, the West most certainly practised intolerance and forms of oppression. But out of the Western tradition came their strongest critics. A correct understanding of Western civilisation shows our history to be flawed but hopeful and far from irredeemable, contrary to what critical theory and identity politics would assert.
About John Anderson
When I stepped down from public leadership in 2005 I did so with a clear and optimistic vision of where this country was headed.By and large, politicians then were men and women of character and principle. READ MORE ABOUT JOHN