James Lindsay is an American-born author, mathematician, and political commentator. He has written six books spanning a range of subjects including religion, the philosophy of science and postmodern theory. He is the co-founder of New Discourses and currently promoting his new book “Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity–And Why This Harms Everybody” co-authored with British Academic and Areo Founder Helen Pluckrose.
TCS writer Georgia L. Gilholy recently sat down (virtually) to talk with him about his latest projects, and the current climate in academic and politics in America and beyond. Here is part 1 of 2, of their discussion:
GLG: In 2018 you, along with your colleagues Peter Boghossian and Helen Pluckrose shot into the public eye for your roles at the heart of the “Grievance Studies Affair”. Could you explain what this affair entailed? What were the ramifications?
JL: The intention was to cast the public’s eye towards the scholarship and say ”wait a minute something’s wrong there”. Beginning in October 2017, we submitted around 20 papers to the highest-ranking journals. Many of the papers now are quite famous for what they did. So rehashing that again and again maybe it is an old story. But we, of course, had the ridiculous dog park paper with inspecting of dog genitals and concluding that we can learn something about rape culture this way and that the solution to rape culture is to train men the way that we train dogs to derive. We deliberately rewrote a chapter of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” with intersectional feminist jargon, claiming that solidarity was what was needed. It’s the chapter where he explains what would be needed for this movement, which went on to become the Nazi party. What kind of sacrifices would need to be made? What kind of values could the enemies wear?
And we just transliterated that and added scholarship that was taken up by a feminist social work journal which has its own extra little bit of scandal. We had a paper there and there are several, of course. But one other paper that really bears mentioning where we argue that social justice type scholarship should not be criticised and cannot be ethically criticised using humour. So you’re not allowed to make fun of social justice with social justice is allowed to make fun of you. And this paper was very enthusiastically taken over by the leading feminist philosophy journal, Hypatia. And moreover, the last part of the paper literally included a criticism of the project. We were saying that writing academic hoaxes would be one of the most severe infractions against this rule. So we made the argument against our own work from their perspective and got one of their journals to accept it with the title of the paper being on “The Joke’s on You”.
I was proud of that!
So, as for the ramifications, it’s hard to say.
I mean, it wasn’t pleasant. And we got a lot of publicity, obviously, if you like that kind of thing. I guess that’s good. But it didn’t seem to do much, at least not within academia. It stirred up some controversy. I’m told that there’s a very quiet base of support within academia. It’s bigger than I expected.
So what we did really showed something important. But because of the culture and academia being so repressive to anything that goes against these ideas, nothing much happened. The journals themselves decided they were going to vet the authors more closely and which is not to actually improve their academic standards.
So they did exactly the wrong thing. They accused us of being too aggressive or of being white men. And the other being a white woman. And terrible that it was they tried to downplay it and claim that we didn’t do our due diligence. We didn’t have a control group. We didn’t have this. We didn’t do that. You know, little detail that’s not actually relevant to what we’re attempting to do in the first place.
GLG: Also, given that they accepted those papers without those research standards in the first place, surely they ought to admit that the humiliation is still on them?
JL: Exactly. Anyway, So not much happened, although time will tell. I predicted at the time that it would take two to three years minimum before the academy would lurch into action around it.
And there are just now beginning to appear academic papers that are grappling with what we did, which means about two years out of the academy, starting to pay attention to it. Now, of course, everything’s a little bit different after society decided to rapidly and radically change in June. And as I think I’ve indicated, our claims rather substantially. So I don’t know what the future holds, but so far, not much has happened. The academy has more or less doubled down and put its head in the sand. And that’s where it stands.
GLG: As someone who studies in a humanities department, I’ve definitely experienced many of these issues. I started at university in 2016 and I haven’t seen much positive change. Maybe one plus side of what is happening with the economy right now is that it could force universities to maybe narrow down what they’re actually doing at some point. But I think it really depends. And there are these people that have that kind of ideology ingrained. They’re in a position where they didn’t really get to these opinions through reason or logic, so those tools can’t really be put to use to make them change their minds either.
Could you define critical social justice theory in layman’s terms? How does it exhibit itself in contemporary political discourse?
JL: Layman’s terms are hard. But I will reiterate that it is the combination of three things that have been mixed into a very specific kind of activism and activism that come Lacerda that it causes. That activism that comes out of academia and it is informed by and legitimised by these academic theories. And of course, that then gets out into the public and does its own thing, you know, kind of wildly and organically as activists and young people and people in social media take it up and let it mutate into an organic social ways that tend to happen. So those three elements are something that is actually called social justice, which I would normally indicate with a lower case S and J as opposed to a justice movement, which I tend to capitalise the S and J for the movement.
It makes us a self with critical theory and I’m listing these in chronological order that they evolved in our society. Social justice actually stems back to the I think even into the I have to remember the exact dates, but I think it goes back into the 18th century. It started with just with priests who had the idea. So it started in a religious context that we should make society fairer. Critical theory evolved in the 1920s. Going forward as a means to try to explain why the Marxist revolutions didn’t take place as Marx had predicted, and to shift the analysis from economics to culture to try to figure out why they didn’t occur, and b how to make them occur by a changing culture, rather than screwing around with trying to just wake up a proletariat that didn’t want to be working up. And then the third is postmodernism, which is a very complicated and messy thing that touches lots of aspects of thought and art and pretty much everything.
So we very specifically see various tenets that came up. Within the French school, postmodern social philosophy, particularly, although its many thinkers as fans, a lot of different ideas, particularly you have the three French thinkers, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan. So in going to layman’s terms, what happened in the 80s and 90s as you had this weird academic theory of postmodernism that sort of just taken root in English departments, got called “fashionable nonsense” later for good reason, and it was burning itself out. Meanwhile, you had the activists who had led the civil rights movements and liberal contingents among them. So we’re talking, you know, the civil rights movement as it was called in the United States. We’re also talking about liberal feminism and the second wave primarily.
And we’re also talking about the gay pride and gay rights movements with the marriage equality movement as it moved forward in the present even decade. I guess those things were primarily finished winning their legal battles. They were moved into social battles and the liberal contingents of them were becoming more and more satisfied that they could achieve their goals and kind of dropped the activism. While the more radical activists obviously were not so keen to drop what they considered to be those single most important aspects of their activism. And so they actually were talking about the same kinds of ideas.
Now, in terms of social justice, and then they used post-modern tools to start making their arguments. So those three things came together into a single movement in the early 1990s. That has now evolved into this very bizarre, very self-certain, almost religious movement that we see today calling itself social justice. If you read in their literature, you occasionally find authors like Robin D’Angelo, who is very famous now and awesome sensory writing that it’s best not to call it social justice should be called the critical social justice instead. And they even argue that people call it social justice to try to reclaim its true commitments.
But this is something very different. It, in fact, relies on critical theory and it uses postmodern tools. So they’re very, very clear. Anybody who wants to can read this genealogy of the movement explicitly in their book titled Is Everyone Really Equal? First Edition came out in 2012. So it’s now become very concrete, very clear, very, very simplified. It’s no longer just fashionable nonsense. It’s very activist driven and factual nonsense. So that doesn’t really give you a layman’s explanation of the layman’s explanation of the critical social justice movement is is that the various ideas in the neo-Marxist school of critical theory and the weird postmodern philosophy where people played around with words in funny ways, got packaged up and useful for activists who wanted to talk about fairness and equality using very rigid ideas of identity politics. And so they became the tools for doing a new kind of identity politics that seeks justice, whatever that’s supposed to mean, rather than individual justice.
GLG: That was an excellent explanation in terms of the genealogy of the philosophy itself, and how it exhibits itself in the political sphere currently. A lot of time when you talk about these issues with friends or family, they kind of dismiss them as just a fringe minority of cloistered academics with no real influence, who simply shouldn’t be entertained and then they will go away. But I think especially in the past year or even in the past few months, really, we’ve seen this kind of erupt even more than it previously had into the political realm, which affects normal people. I mean, obviously, in the U.S., you have a presidential election coming up. There is definitely the potential for some of these things to influence or are already influencing policy proposals. Trump-ism, for example, is to an extent a reaction against these radical leftist theories. These theories are seeping into not just adult political discourse, but the education of young adults and children. A few days ago, you tweeted a section from a new mandatory policy in Californian schools. Could you summarise what these new proposals were, and why they are a dangerous choice for the educational system?
JL: Yeah, another complicated thing. This is actually happening in a number of states, California was just the most recent example. Washington already was starting to do it. New York is doing a similar thing. From what I understand, I’ve only read in detail parts of the Washington parts of the California policies. So the California ethnic studies program is now mandatory. I think it’s for all public schools. I don’t think, you know, private schools. If they did, the way that they would do it is by requiring certain levels of certification from schools to be accredited or something. Testing for the students, but. The program seeks to instil a very radical way of thinking about especially history, but all almost all of the other subjects will be touched by this. In fact, they don’t even refer to what they want to talk about. They refer to it as her story, I guess, mostly at the time. Female H.E.R. But then they thought that that goes too far into the binary. So it’s now HXRSTORY.
So I see where I can go and back in, and that is not pronounced woman that is pronounced WOMXN. And yeah, it was like an animal story with an axis is still pronounced “herstory“. They’re just making stuff up. Is that how it works? They also say that the ethnic studies program is X disciplinary where X I don’t think it probably sidled Heinies means cross-disciplinary and it also probably means X like a variable in algebra, as they seem to like to do because it refers to interdisciplinary trans-disciplinary on disciplinary dialogue. Ways to not have rigorous methodology is what it boils down to. My favourite is, um, disciplinary. So there’ll be no discipline applied to the teaching whatsoever. It primarily wants to teach history in a way that’s going to be…I don’t know if it will import the 1619 project directly, but it will be consonant with that. It would be consonant with Howard Zinn’s very critical “People’s History of the United States. So the objective will be to tell the history of the United States, for example, or the world in a way that critical theorists believe is our power structures were created and how they’re maintained. When you see in the ethnic studies applied to literature, it’ll be a study of how power structures are perpetuated in literature and the choices of what people read, whether it’s out of that so-called Western canon or whether it’s, you know, the lifting up of marginalised voices where you be allowed to read books that contain racially prejudicial, prejudicial language, even though they’re telling the story of a racially prejudicial time.
Will you be able to cite white authors on Shakespeare? Probably not. there will be this just bending of literature and English classes away from using the usual canon. They may even draw off of the idea that standardised grammar or dialect of English is somehow racist. And so there’ll be no correct way to spell things.
GLG: Who can disagree when it gets into subjects like mathematics?
JL: I did not see what the California program is using for mathematics. I did see what the Washington program is using for mathematics. And it is explicitly to use mathematics as a vehicle to set up discussions about social justice, relevant topics. So you see math being used for us or to liberate people from oppression instead of learning, say basic algebra. Let’s write an essay about that and then discuss it in class. How statistics can be used to support or manipulate statistics to our advantage.
These programs are not teaching kids what the world is about, they are teaching them how to be mad about it. To put it as plainly as possible. It is an education in grievance is what it is, rather than an education and practical skills that are necessary for navigating the world in a modern advanced economy. And so not only are you intellectually crippling students by not teaching them something critically your learned skills, but you’re also teaching them to be socially aggrieved about things that they don’t actually agree about and misunderstand things in a way that makes them mad at their society with the critical theories goal is to make people dissatisfied with the state of their society and those systems and institutions that define it. And so that they will want to revolt against them and overthrow them. I mean, I don’t know how. I think it just to say what it explains why it’s a bad idea to most normal people.
GLG: I mean, when I was in school, I would have loved to be able to write an essay for maths because I suck at maths. But, erm these decisions are not great for, you know, the fabric of society. We need to have people who can do basic mathematics! Yeah. I mean, I think in the 1920s had a run rate, like a seminal essay about truth in politics. And she talks about how factual truths and doesn’t like historical philosophical truths are, you know, always prone to personal manipulation, etc. Such about. She kind of goes on about how like scientific facts, mathematic proofs are not so much prone to distortion for political gain. But I think that she might’ve updated her essay. She’s been living now. But also, I think that it does kind of also then maybe prove her point because it’s like that. They’re not actually letting people do do the mathematics or the scientific proofs that kind of just change and get into something different entirely. Which is kind of the story of social justice on definitions of things set up.
JL: I actually am one of those, I guess, fairly rare people who hold up the truth as rather sacred. And so I’m motivated by the troops. I have trained myself through most of my life to try to defer to the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable for myself. And I think that the truth matters. And so when I see things that are actively distorting the truths and then when I see that they’re doing so on topics that really matter, like, I do think that there are problems with racism.
I do think that there are problems with sexism and misogyny. I do think that there are problems with the treatment of sexual minorities. I think that there are difficult questions around issues like the trans issue that need thoughtful, careful, ethical discussion and debate.
So when I see a movement that’s not at all interested in the truths and that is seemingly to be patently unfair, I can’t really be comfortable with it. And so the broad motivation for me to have gotten interested in this is that I care about the topics that it wants to talk about badly. I think that those topics deserve to be talked about well. But when people start to say this is the only correct way and they shout down any criticism or opposition, that’s when all of a sudden I become very concerned and want to speak up about it. And that’s exactly what has been happening here.
You know, anybody who says, well, let’s try to come out to say the trans issue and specific from a liberal perspective, a rational liberal perspective that defers to science as much as possible, whatever the relevant sciences are. And when that gets yelled at as being transferred back and said that it’s not allowed to be used, that’s a problem. When we start talking about the issues around race and whether it’s finding equity around race. Are the disparities such that we need to take actions to intervene? Fine, let’s have a discussion about that. But then when I say as it happens, white people come to the table and say, well, this is my experience, this is what I see. This is what’s happening in my life. And they say, shut up. Your story has been told, which is a direct quote that I run into quite early on in my book.
That’s when, you know, it’s badly off the rails of trying to solve problems. So if we just focus on Evergreen[state college] for a second, if there was genuinely a problem with racism at Evergreen, which I consider to be unlikely, then there will be some students, I’m sure being young people who are jerks at times that use race insensitive ways or intentionally malicious ways.
But when you say, well, what’s the evidence? What does the racism look like? Let’s get it clear. So let’s try to understand what it is, exactly how it manifests, and then start looking for workable solutions. And they say asking for evidence is more proof of racism. We’re just right. That’s no longer a path toward solving the problems. And so that’s what motivates me, is that I think that any and all problems seem to be solved, that the only way to solve our problems is fairly ruthless honesty about them.
GLG: Yes, I think when it comes to approaching these issues, a lot of the time nowadays, the division, if you’re in a group of people, often isn’t between, oh, this person votes a right-wing party and this person votes a left-wing party. Often the people who will find more common ground are the people who are willing to be reasonable and discuss evidence whether or not, you know, certain discussions wind up underpinning their own opinion. Then there are the people who could correspond to the far left or the far right. But obviously, you know, with young people nowadays, it’s mostly more radical left ideologies. But personally, I see also a lot of the far-right nonsense online. Maybe because it is so taboo, you don’t see them as vocal in person. When you encounter people who are either far-right or far-left- although overwhelmingly I have encountered the far-left in person, they don’t think that they have to explain why. I mean, you trying to have a debate and you have a different opinion and they say, well, you know, it’s not my job to educate you, blah, blah, blah, and it’s just impossible to have a discussion or a productive relationship with the person. So your New Discourses project, which you, I believe started in the wake of the grievance studies affair it’s subtitled “Perceiving the light of objective truth”. Sounds racist to me in subjective darkness. And your piece like videos, of course, criticizing critical statement, criticizing critical social justice. So what are the project’s main objectives and why did you choose to dedicate yourself to it in the wake of what happened in 2018?
JL: So the objectives that president discourses are plain clearly to build a bridge between this weird academic theory and the activism that’s inspiring or justifying and what people already understand. And then to stand up for us, the tag line indicates to stand up for the belief in objective truths and the value of objective truth. And remind people that it is not only OK, but it is it is intellectually and morally superior to value the attempt to be as objective as possible with our standards and our knowledge production and teaching so as to stand up for those things.
The reason that the way that it follows from what we did in 2018 is the same as the way that the book Cynical Theories, which just came out, also follows from that. So what happened in twenty eighteen was obviously we had dug deeply into their scholars to write. Those papers were fairly deeply, as deeply as you can in a short time period. We are conversant in the actual scholarship. We also saw for ourselves how bad the scholarship is, how alarming much scholarship is in the culture that’s producing it forces that. And so we came public. Obviously, we got a lot of attention when the story broke. And then we became international spokespeople for the problem, like more or less immediately. And so Helen and I decided that, OK, we’ve now shown that there is a problem. And now we need to get into the deep nitty-gritty of how it works. And so she and I started to take the research we had done to do the papers, and we extended it to write cynical theory.
With the laborious paper-writing project behind us, we wanted to collect our thoughts and our notes and our assessment of historical roots, at least through the postmodern aspect, a little bit into the critical theory aspect and use that to write simple theories, a summary of what we’re learning as to where this stuff came from.
Well, a book is a static thing. And recognizing that we have lots of information, lots of knowledge that could not make it in the book because it’s also a limited thing. A book is given a word count. And you can exceed it by a little bit, apparently, because we did! And that’s it. That’s all you get to say in the book doesn’t change. The book is now an artefact of the moment it was published. And it doesn’t change. Will, a Web site is different.
A Website gives you the ability to continue to put out new material, whether it’s in article form or video form and audio. You have lots of flexibility, lots of opportunities to do different things, to communicate more about the problem.
In particular, I really got interested in understanding the first sort out the use of language. That’s what led me to write a social justice encyclopedia on new discourses, which I’m still working on. Of course, I’ve been slowed down by the madness of the past two months, three months almost now, because of people’s demanding to understand so quickly that I no longer have the luxury to go quietly, research and explain on my own time. But I wanted to explain the language and I wanted to dove into the intellectual history of it and explain that in a kind of encyclopedia format. And then the others aspects of the discourse to see your articles, podcasts, the videos and so on are just sort of my ability to explain or publish other people explaining various aspects of what we’re learning while we study this material from the perspective of trying to stand up for objective truth against this kind of radically subjective term that we’ve seen with the scholarship.
GLG: Could you give me just an idea or an example of one of the times that is a word that people use in everyday life, but it’s been there’s also a social justice definition. So when normal people encounter people talking about it, maybe they don’t really understand why there’s a different definition.
JL: All right. So, yeah, that’s one of the main things that the and one of the, I guess, three or four main things that the encyclopedia is trying to do, but it in particular, it wants to explore these terms that have more than one meaning. Probably the one we could name lots and lots of terms that have more than one meaning between social justice. It’s their kind of worldview and in lexicon versus everybody else’s. Just to list a few off the top of my head.
We can pick one of these to dig deeper into words like racism, abuse and anti-racism and diversity, inclusion, social justice itself, critical fascism. All of these words and many others have more than one definition that’s more specific within social justice terminology than it is within the average everyday lexicon. I don’t know, maybe racism is the best one to talk about because it’s so easy to understand the difference. So most of us understand racism, maybe a bit vaguely, but as the idea of it somebodies do, we would use somebodies race as a reason to discriminate against them or be prejudiced against them or to judge them by stereotypes associated with that race, or if you get really strict about it, to hold up some race or races as superior while others are inferior. So this is sort of the definition of racism that most of us accept. And we also see it as a matter of individual belief or intention. So, you know, me saying I think could be racist if I intended to do a racist thing in the world when I say it, or I might have racist beliefs about certain groups or something like that. So we see it as beliefs or intentions or with specific actions attached to the intentions.
This critical social justice does not see racism this way at all. It sees racism as a system and it is a system literally of everything. It is a system that touches institutions. It is a system that touches the law. It is a system that touches knowledge, language, the way we think about things, cultural patterns. It is everything that happens. And it is seen as a system that is described in the critical race literature as the ordinary state of affairs in our societies. It’s not aberrational, they say. It is the ordinary state of affairs and it has a certain permanence to it. And it is an idea of a system of power that’s upheld and how we speak about things, how we think about things, what we consider to be legitimate knowledge, legitimate methodologies, legitimate ways to order society down to ideas like loyalty, reliability, punctuality, productivity, civility.
All of these things are given as examples of white supremacy culture within critical social justice. And so it’s racist according to this systemic way of thinking about it, to uphold any of those ideas. If you believe in being on time, you’re actually being racist. According to this systemic way of thinking about it, this is the way that the most important thing for people to understand about the way social justice, the ideology of political social justice thinks about racism is that they look to see if there are any statistical differences in outcomes. And if there is racism is in the systemic, vague sense that nobody can understand racism is somehow the culprit that led to those differences in outcomes.
That’s how they think about racism. So if we look at test scores on average and we see that races that are considered are being privileged over others have average scores that are higher than even one race that’s considered to be less privileged or oppressed, by the way, that they’ve outlined the theories than racism must have been the cause for that. There’s no other possible explanation. It can’t be any other thing. If you say. But wait a minute. If you actually just control for the variable of economic class and they turn around and say, well, economic classes have differences in outcome because of racism. So racism is still a cause. And if you point out and say that, well, this particular minority group, if we will, are nonwhite- which is very specific about how I actually think about the world- outperforms white people.
They say that that that this is actually still somehow a system of racism. Those people are engaged in some different kind of privilege and that maybe they’re a model minority, maybe defying into the dominant system and they’re still upholding the system. So the system rewards them. And so everything that. Somehow racism and this is actually they have this completely different understanding of what racism is, how racism operates. So no longer is racism a matter of action, intention and belief. But racism is a matter of who you are. You are a racist. If you’ve ever said or thought a racist thing or a racially insensitive thing. You are a racist. If you’ve ever done something that contributed even inadvertently to disparate outcomes by race, then you’re a racist and those things could be even made up. For example, if we look at the concept of microaggressions, which is also within their literature, we want to dove into what microaggressions are or anything.
But this came from a scholar named Derald Wing Sue, a critical race scholar. And then the idea originated from a plane trip that he was on and he and another minority individual were on the aircraft before takeoff. And the flight attendant came and said to both of them: “There’s a weight imbalance on the plane. People in these seats need to move the plane to balance out the weight so we can take off safely.” And this person and Derald Sue decided that they were asked us to move because of our race. And the flight attendant said no. In fact, we asked you to move because you were in the relevant seats. Whoever had been in those seats, it still would have been the thing. And they’re the ones who said, well, it doesn’t matter what the real reason is. It is perceived as racist because racial minorities were the ones who were asked to move. This upholds a system of racism. This was a microaggression. You need to apologise. And that’s where the concept came from. That’s how they think about race and racism. So this person, this flight attendant has now inadvertently become racist. And because that person is racist at all. That person is a racist. So the person becomes racist. The action becomes racist. They are irredeemable.
The institution becomes racist. The policy becomes racist. “Racist” becomes an essential part of one’s character. The theory explains that everybody who is complicit in or benefits from a system of racial power as they define these things is complicit in racism and is therefore racist. So all white people by default are racist. All racial minorities who perform well in an allegedly white society for white culture must be buying into prejudice and therefore upholding racism. So, therefore, they are racist. This is actually a gigantic departure from the very individual way of thinking about racism that most of us have that, you know, maybe somebody has racist beliefs, maybe and they can wrestle with those.
Maybe they act upon them and maybe they don’t. They’ve done racist actions. And those things can be named for what they are and they can be dealt with. This is actions take undertaken by an individual or beliefs held by an individual and therefore intervened upon under. Rational discussion or adjudications of law or whatever else, depending on where you are. Now we’ve shifted to “No, it’s all within the system”. So we have decided that the entire system itself has to change. And that’s the only way to get rid of racism. And again, the assumption is racism is ordinary in society. And it has a certain permanence to it. It’s very difficult to make it go away. And the only way to possibly get rid of it would be to completely unmake the existing system and replace it with a new anti actively anti-racist system that does not allow for what is perceived to be racism to be tolerated or even manifested in any way whatsoever.
Look out for part 2 of this conversation coming soon.