Thinking In Public

September 2, 2020

Critical Theory and the Cynical Transformation of Society: A Conversation with James Lindsay

Transcript

Albert Mohler:
This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I am Albert Mohler, your host and President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Dr. James Lindsay is a public intellectual, a notable author on a range of subjects. He holds a doctorate in Mathematics in the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, but his academic in intellectual output expand well beyond the fields of Physics and Math. His six books span a variety of fields from philosophy and science to religion and contemporary thought. He's also the co-founder of New Discourses. His most recent book, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity and Why This Harms Everybody, he co-wrote with Helen Pluckrose. It's an important critic of critical theory and contemporary culture. It's a tour de force looking at the intellectual landscape that we confront today. I'm looking forward to this conversation with James Lindsay. Dr. James Lindsay, welcome to Thinking in Public.
Dr. James Lindsay:
Yeah. Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.
Albert Mohler:
Yeah. The title of your new book is Cynical Theories with the word critical crossed out, the subtitle, How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity and Why This Harms Everybody. He wrote the book with Helen Pluckrose, and it's making quite a splash, not only perhaps in academic circles, but also in a larger reach. My guess is that was a part of the intention behind your writing of the book.
Dr. James Lindsay:
Yeah. The goal of writing the book was actually to try to get these ideas outside of the academy. It's nice if we can get the academy to reckon with the argument that we've made, but it's more important from our perspective for average people to understand this very academic language and to understand where these ideas have come from.
Albert Mohler:
Yeah, because as we'll get to in your argument, the problem is that what happens on the campus doesn't stay on the campus, and that's something we're witnessing right now in many ways on the streets of America.
Dr. James Lindsay:
That's right. That's right. A lot of people believe that the university is just this removed place where peculiar professors go and they teach their ideas, their theories, and then young people go and they have their college experience, whatever that all entails. Some of which is academic, and a lot of which is probably growing up for the first time away from home, and that it doesn't really matter much what happens in the university, but this is not true. Ideas have consequences, and ideas are concentrated, and they're explored, and they're developed, and then they're taught within the context of the university, and they're taught to people who are going to be our professionals, they're taught to people who are going to be our teachers and so on. So, ideas definitely do not stay in the university.
Albert Mohler:
Yeah. Now, I want to come back to that a bit later because I want to engage you in an argument about why certain ideas follow certain trajectories from the campus into popular culture, but holding that back for a moment, we've got our own metanarrative to deal with here. Your book is not only a book about ideas and analysis. It's also, I think cleverly constructed around the narrative. There's a timeline to this as well. You have to work through the book to get that timeline, but that timeline has a great deal to do with my life.

I'm age 60. So, I arrived at the university campus just about the time a lot of this hit on the shores of the United States. I was in a particular place where I got full boar when I was 17, 18, 19 years old trying to figure some of these things out. The language came about postmodernism. That was really interesting to me because as a teenager trying to deal with intellectual ideas and very interested in philosophy and theology, apologetic, just trying to figure this out. It was clear that modernity was not what the founders of the modern age had intended and that was the end of Francis Fukuyama, the end of history in their own sense. They had arrived at this permanent moment in the aftermath of the enlightenment.

Clearly by the 1960s, things were unraveling. That was not it, and they had unraveled more quickly probably due to the crucible of war for one thing in Europe, but Europe had landed in the United States in a big way. To let the metanarrative come a little bit further, by the time I was doing graduate work, the entire academy was in a postmodern moment, not every academic, but the academic mood. Then came the declaration about 19, oh, I don't know, '99, 2005, postmodernism is over. I think one of the best arguments you make in your book is that postmodernism is not over. It was never over.
Dr. James Lindsay:
That's right. In fact, I think where we had the postmodern philosophers, particularly Jean-François Lyotard saying that we live in the postmodern condition and he wrote that in 1979, I think we now actually live in the postmodern condition. I think the internet has a lot to do with that. The internet is postmodernity's playground, if you will. So, the argument or the arc of the book is to actually disabuse academics of the belief that postmodernism died and convinced them that what happened is that it mutated or it changed. It became something different and that we earmarked the three-year span between 1989 and 1991 for when that transformation really took place.
Albert Mohler:
Yeah. Just looking at this in the timeline, the problem with postmodernism all along was asking what comes after postmodernism, but in every one of these big intellectual movements, there's been no retreat to a status quo antis. In other words, postmodernism didn't mean that modernism ended. It was I think Habermas and others are speaking of a hypermodernity. Of course, Habermas didn't like it in a lot of ways, but it was an unfolding of the next stage. It was no retreat to a premodern condition. That was unthinkable in the academy. Then with postmodernism, even though it was declared to be over, it was over because it won. A lot of the discourse, a lot of the intellectual environment or the American academy, it didn't return to enlightenment rationality. It dived deeper into politics.
Dr. James Lindsay:
That's generally the trajectory, that's right. You mentioned Habermas. You could bring up Zygmunt Bauman and his Liquid Modernity as the next evolution, and he makes the argument that the rationalist project slowly dissolved all of the foundations of society into everything that had solidity became liquid and that what people call postmodernism is an extreme variation on that. He rejects the idea of postmodernism and says that this is just very late stage modernism. My argument would be, to answer much of what you just say, that the people and maybe even the people who were the architects of liberalism in the first place, which is the philosophical foundation that gave rise to modernity, maybe didn't understand exactly what they were creating, and I don't think most people who support the free and advanced societies that we live in now fully understand that liberalism was always meant to be, whether the architects of it meant that or not, it functions. Functionally, it's always been a means of resolving conflict between people who disagree

In the political realm, we solved those with democracy in the economic realm, we solved those with the market and with knowledge we resolved those with rational discussion, rational debate, the ability to try to get away from our biases to minimize our influence, to check one idea against another. So, you and I may disagree on many things, and I'm sure we do. We can do so in certain ways that are pro-social and productive or we could do so in ways that are less good, antisocial or destructive.

As a means of conflict resolution, liberalism allows you to forward your idea, me to forward my idea, you check my ideas, I check yours, and ideally, we would be carving away wheat from chaff by that process. So, my thinking at this point is that the postmodernists in particular, but also the critical theorists who were working alongside them in some respects historically speaking, not directly, misunderstood liberalism, and now that we find ourselves in a very postmodern condition, most people seem to misunderstand what liberalism is. Again, just to be very clear because we're Americans, we don't mean democrats or anything. We mean the philosophical underpinnings of the declaration of independence [crosstalk 00:09:28].
Albert Mohler:
Classical liberalism.
Dr. James Lindsay:
Even the Magna Carta, Thomas Paine, all of these, John Locke and so on. Even the reformation, as a matter of fact.
Albert Mohler:
Yeah. Lots to talk about here. As we're thinking about postmodernism and having this conversation, we need to define the terms just in general terms of rejection of the metanarrative you mentioned Lyotard and that's the idea. There no all-encompassing narrative to which all human beings are ultimately accountable and gives the world meaning. So, that would mean in one sense the eclipse of Marxism and Christianity, the metanarratives of the West in particular, but that gets me to another point that I intuited as a teenager trying to look at this. And it's been demonstrated again and again to me as I look at the history of thought in the West.

After the enlightenment, people put these, and the enlightenment itself, they put these extraordinary hopes for human liberation in some new way of thinking, but liberation never comes. So, one of the things, you look at Derrick Bell. So, he's extremely critical of the Civil Rights Movement because it didn't bring about the liberation that they thought would come. The philosophers of the enlightenment, well their grandchildren thought the enlightenment didn't deliver. So, postmodernism said, “All the metanarratives of the modern age didn't deliver.” Now, you've got what you call reified postmodernism in which case you've got the grandchildren of the postmodernists saying, “Postmodernism didn't deliver.” There's a lot of frustration here.
Dr. James Lindsay:
That's right, and that's in fact why we called the book Cynical Theories. Our understanding of what you've just described is that the theorists, especially the postmoderners who were very frustrated, to characterize a postmodernist very briefly as a set of people who are working in a particular time and place, they were Marxists who saw Marxism failing. So, they couldn't believe in liberalism, they couldn't believe in Christianity, they couldn't believe in capitalism, and now, the thing they did believe in had also failed them. So, they were very, very pessimistic. What we constantly see with this rejection of metanarratives and so on is this tendency to look at these ideals like there's a faith that they are supposed to deliver everything perfectly. It's very easy to become cynical when reality slaps you upside the head and says, "Things aren't that simple."

My co-author, Helen is very eloquent at saying that the postmodernists would have had a more reasonable case if it were true that the moment liberalism arrived on the scene then everything was supposed to be liberal. Of course, that's absurd. There's a very strong feeling that that's almost how they think about the world, "Oh. So, now, we have the civil rights act. So, racism is supposed to just go away." That's not realistic. The question and the reason, and we saw this particularly in Foucault genealogies, but you can see it in The 1619 Project today. You can see it in essentially any of the analysis that we talk about. There's this assumption. Also, I should bring up the idea of positivism with science, that there is this belief that science is very a scientistic era in the 1940s and 1950s. Now, you can even think of those television and radio programs where they have that voice, the 1950s voice. I even say that, and you know what I'm talking about.
Albert Mohler:
Absolutely.
Dr. James Lindsay:
“We have science that we're going to go to the moon.” It's got this very self-certain thing. If we had the expectation that that now meant that all the problems were going to be solved and maybe the tones of voice and the attitudes of the spokespeople gave that impression, then there would be something more reasonable in postmodernism, but this is mostly a cynical read of one step from another. You can take, say, Michel Foucault's history of sexuality and he says, "Oh, Christianity got it wrong." Then we moved into sexology, and that got it wrong, and then we moved into this criminal thinking about it, and that got it wrong. So, we're always going to have it wrong.

But at no point do you ever see this, well we're still not perfect, but we got it better. You never have that kind of an ambition, which I think is core to the liberal project, which is why, I mean they always say that it's supposed to be radicals or whatever revolutionary is up against the status quo. In liberalism, if you understand what it does, there is no status quo. There's always a perpetual state of learning and using that learning to reflect on society, and hopefully do better by it.
Albert Mohler:
Yeah. The postmodernists, and here I'm talking about the ones who were self-consciously a part of postmodernism, especially in the '70s and '80s. They were filled with enormous frustration. I think a part of that is because you had the failure of Marxism as a communist revolution on the part of the proletariat over economic issues. It didn't happen in Western Europe. I was just reading the other day, Rosa Luxemberg, and reminding myself that frustration came really early, so early that Lenin had to deal with it. Why was there no revolution in the most industrialized city on the planet, which was London at the time, and in particular, why was there no Marxist revolution in Germany because it would have made philosophical sense that it would have happened there.

So, you have this enormous frustration with the communism not working, and then I want to fast forward just for the sake of clarity and time here. I arrived on a college campus in 1977. It was secular university. I spent a year as a faculty scholar at a university in Florida. Florida was doing a pretty clever thing back then. They thought you still had mandatory retirement for academics in 1977. So, the state of Florida basically set teams up to places like Harvard, Yale, Brown, and went to professors about age 65 and said, "Hey, why don't you come work in Florida, join this new university faculty? You can basically end up retiring in Florida. We'll pay the bills." I got all these professors from the Ivy League, in particular and other places who ended up in this university. It was the first time I heard this, James.

They were saying, "Look, here's the deal. It is clear that the consumer suburban society of the rationalized West is never going to allow Florida facilitate the rising up of the proletariat in a Marxist revolution as in classical Marxism, but that's okay because there's another way for this to happen. It won't be from the bottom up like the proletariat. It's going to be from the top down through the institutions." I had not heard the name of Gramsci at that point, but it was basically Rudi Dutschke and the long march through the institutions. So, they were saying, "Look, what we're going to do is take Marxist analysis and run it through all the disciplines in the academy, and then through all the institutions." I think they thought that that was going to bring an immediate to revolution in society.

I think if my professors in 1977 saw America in 2020, they'd be very frustrated. Isn't there just that kind of frustration that every generation thinks they're going to deliver on this?
Dr. James Lindsay:
I think that's probably right. Ever since especially the failures in the 1920s and 1930s that you're speaking of has been a repeating cycle, where various academics who, to put it flatly are very bourgeois class of people have decided that they're going to figure out the right way. They appoint themselves like philosopher kings and they're going to figure out the right way to teach everybody to think. They're going to give them a critical consciousness, and that will change everything. So, there's these cycles of very bourgeois theorists that don't really connect to reality because even with Marx, which was not, well, maybe you could say it's bourgeois or not, there's this analysis, which points at some truths and some things that are incorrect.

And then there's this gray area, where nobody knows how it works, and then all of a sudden we have the communist Utopia. Nobody's ever solved for the how it works part. Meanwhile, of course, academics that are opposed to this have figured out why there will be no making it work. So, it is a self-frustrating philosophy. Again, the cynicism because it then focuses on its own failures and blames the system for those failures, it can't say it's our own shortcomings that prevent us from getting to where we want to go. It has to be the nefarious powers. It has to be the false consciousness. It has to be the ruling classes. It has to be these people instilling ideologies in all of us.

They are unable to understand that the source of their own frustration is themselves and then they are able to project that outward, and so the frustration mounts and it goes in these cycles, where then eventually, it bursts out onto the scene as we're seeing in 2020, as we saw in 1968. I think that this is a pretty cogent analysis of the genus of the problem as opposed to just the species that we're dealing with at present.
Albert Mohler:
One might argue in retrospect that the most surprising aspect of all of this is that critical theory itself would emerge as the conversation, rather necessary conversation, in the United States and necessitates your book because critical theory, as it began, we talk about the Frankfurt School and all of those figures, it didn't get so far politically even in Germany, for instance. Now, all of the sudden, it's been revivified and now it shows up as this explosive intellectual solvent working its way through the academy. How did that happen?
Dr. James Lindsay:
The thing is that critical theory started off, I would even argue, I don't agree with it, but it started off responsibly. You had Horkheimer laying out this concept that traditional theories, meaning rationality, philosophy, empiricism science are not necessarily sufficient to deal with the moral implications of ideas that come out of that line of inquiry. So, you need the second dimension to analysis this critical theory. In particular, we want to be as charitable and generous to their cases as possible. They're literally were staring at fascism and saying, something is causing fascism, something is causing genocides, mass scale, the holocaust and so on.

It is the rejection of any sense of morality, the understanding that with science and technology maybe we can do this. So, the question of should is utterly removed, and this leads to true horse. But their original formulation, and you can even find Herbert Marcuse in the 1970s complaining about this in a very famous interview he did on television. They believe that it should be done in a very intellectual way. Critical theory and traditional theory should be combined. Now, I don't want to rescue critical theory or even any of these particular critical theorists from the consequences of their ideas.

The truth is that they at least tried to be more responsible with it. Now, I mentioned Herbert Marcuse. Herbert Marcuse is a transformational figure, and the United States becomes a transformational context. Why didn't it take off in Germany? Well, I can't say for sure, but I can guess at why it was successful taking of in the United States. There was a very variant strain of leftist activism that arose around the Civil Rights Movement. If you read One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse is very clear that racial minorities are an avenue to tap for this conflict theory based oppressor versus oppressed resentment to try to wake up and achieve liberation.

Now, you have this move from let's look at the production of culture, mass culture, elite culture, high culture, middle culture stealing away the revolutionary will, popular culture, Theodor Adorno at that point, saying things like that. Now, it shifted to, let's get the others. Let's gather the others. Let's gather, in particular, the racial minorities and let's combine them. This is explicitly a quote from One-Dimensional Man, “Let's combine them with the radical intelligentsia in the university.” Now, you have this very willful move to make it about identity politics, which obviously, in the 1960s, were extremely relevant in the United States, but they've never lost their relevance.

Then, what happened was that they started to become less and less important as the echoes of the civil rights era and civil rights legislation came down through history so that by the 1980s, and going into 1990s, they were seriously having diminishing returns. So, that's where you start to have the analysis of their fell, critical race theorist number one, along with Kimberlé Crenshaw, with critical race theorist number two. Literally, they're named as the two founders, mentor and mentee at Harvard Law, laying out this new vision that clearly somehow the oppressor-oppressed dynamic has never been resolved, that this wasn't a success.

It didn't bring total racial reconciliation, or total racial equality. So, something is missing, and they devised Critical Race Theory, for example. The race issue is an extremely touchy one, but we could of course, talk about the way that the feminist used it for that issue. We could talk about the way that the LGBT, I think it was just the Gay Lesbian Alliance at that time, used it in terms of what became the Gay Pride Movement. So, you can start looking at all the different identity factors. We could even get into the aspects of the social model disability. Eventually, fad activism arose out of feminism.

You get all of the various pieces of the puzzle coming for, where it became about identity politics. I think the vector there- was it Herbert Marcuse? Herbert Marcuse intentionally made it about identity politics. Then he trained the generation of radicals, including most obviously, and openly, Angela Davis, the Black Feminist, who then with the Palestine had further radicalized herself.

Then came back with this whole new of thinking that founded the black feminism movement in that liberationist paradigm. So, that really set the stage for how critical theory retained its relevance. So, Helen and I have a discussion and we've decided it doesn't matter at that crucial point at the end of the 1980s and end of 1990s, was it that postmodernism mutated into a critical theory that uses postmodern tools, or was it the critical theory picked up postmodern weapons? Which one is the main object? What we finally decided over months and months, and months and months of discussion about this back and forth, she said, “It was postmodernism picking up critical theory.” I said, “It's critical theory that has learned to be postmodern.” We decided that they fused. They just fused. They cherry picked these activists in the ‘90s, cherry picked from both traditions, very anti-intellectually.
Albert Mohler:
Yeah, it's very easy to do because they're amazingly parallel in their hopes and aspirations and they're amazingly similar in the fact that everything has to fit into oppression-oppressor kind of a matrix. And by the way Marc Hauser comes to the United States. He arguably had his greatest influence in the United States. And so the hot bed of a lot of this shifted from Frankfurt to Berkeley and right here in the United States, Americans largely unaware of all of this. You point to the trajectory of, so let's assume these movements have fused, but now it's being driven through every single discipline. And in chapter by chapter, you really very helpfully lay out … And I think, again, it's somewhat sequential with post-colonial theory and then queer theory and critical race theory, intersectionality, feminism, and gender theory, and then disability and fat studies.

And look, a lot of Americans are going, be shocked by that last part because as you say, it's actually more at the current moment in England, Britain. Nonetheless, this is the world we live in now. What is shocking to me as a theologian and cultural analyst is that that, this is showing up explicitly now. That's what's different. All these ideas were behind what was coming out of Hollywood, where Marc Hauser, by the way, had enormous influence. It was always a subtext. It was only in the background, but now it's being foregrounded in ways that I think are actually shocking. Walk us through the chapters.
Dr. James Lindsay:
Okay. Yeah. The book is organized to explain what postmodernism is, to derive its core principles and themes. So, it's identifiable so that we can track it through history. And then it moves into describing what we call applied postmodernism which is where the critical theory infused itself into postmodernism or vice versa and it became packaged up for activists. And the way that that happened was that they chose for various reasons that I think I described well enough already, to use identity in systemic oppression based on identity as an objectively real thing that is obviously only subjectively experienced and only can be communicated in terms of subjective terms.

The applied postmodernism continues those themes and those various principles of postmodernism, but now has them in a very activist oriented way where it's no longer the goal to deconstruct everything, because it's believed that you can't deconstruct a system of oppression without having, I'm sorry, you can't deconstruct the lived reality of systemic oppression without having the privilege of being outside of it. So, this was the observation that changed the course. It came from the black feminists in particular. Then it goes into these various theories. Post-colonial theory fell mostly from Edward Said, who combined Frantz Fanon, and the very radical, I guess, psychoanalyst who analyzed the post-colonial context; Wretched of the Earth, Black Skins, White Masks. You could even say the Antifa is the combination of Herbert Marcuse and Frantz Fanon's philosophy. And you can get that by reading their books where they cite them all the time and say that that's the case.

Post-colonial theory wanted to explore this oppressor-oppressed dynamic in terms of the East versus the West or the West as setting up its own goodness and power over Eastern cultures as being barbaric and backwards and superstitious. Whereas the West is enlightened and rational and scientific and civilized, and it used a very both, Foucauldian and Derridean analysis to try to flip that around, Edward Said's book was called Orientalism. And he said that this construction is orientalism, which was a very rhetorically and politically savvy move because the people who studied outside of the Western context called themselves orientalists in a very neutral way before that. He therefore rendered all of his critics branding.
Albert Mohler:
The United States State Department had an entire department basically known as the Orientalist.
Dr. James Lindsay:
Yeah, exactly. Very savvy move. And then the goal there then is to deconstruct the colonial mindset. And then once you start to say that things like using the postmodern aspect of this, that thought, knowledge, systems, language, those are actually products of the Western culture. And science is usually one of them that's named as a product of the Western culture, that anybody who takes those things up has now been colonized by the West and so they have to be decolonized. You're allowed to now use post-colonial theory to take apart literally anything that resembles rational or scientific thought. With queer theory, the object, this is mostly going to be Judith Butler. We could name other characters as well, of course. The object became to take apart stable categories of sex, gender, and sexuality in order to liberate people from the violence of categorization, as it's called that they happen to be who they are and that's an intolerable thing.

And so queer theory was born out of a desire to examine the ideas of normal and abnormal and to remove or even reverse the ideas of whether normal and abnormal are good or not. Critical race theory came out of critical legal studies. We mentioned that a moment ago with Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw took on postmodern tools and it took on a very explicitly identity first approach. Kimberlé Crenshaw, very famously, Mapping The Margins. This is her 1991 paper, where she says that intersection … She doesn't introduce intersectionality here, but she defines it the most clearly to lay it out a few years earlier in another paper. In this paper, she says that intersectionality is provisional concept. That's used to link contemporary politics to postmodern theory and what she means by contemporary politics, she says at the beginning of the paper is the liberationist radical.

In other words, Neo Marxist critical theory, Paradigm. And she says that we're now going to recognize that a statement I am black is more important and more valuable than a statement like I am a person who happens to be black because the second of these forwards universal humanity first, and as you talked about with the pessimism here that liberalism had failed, that approach had failed, colorblindness had failed. So, now we have to focus on race all the time in everything in order to try to remove the stain of racism, if you will. It's like they have this idea like the fabric of society itself in every dimension is stained with racism. And the only way, this is an indelible stain. You read Derrick Bell, he says it has a permanence to it.

You read any of the core critical race theory texts, and they start off by saying that the racism is the ordinary state of affairs in society. You read Robin DiAngelo's distillation of this from 2013. And she says, “The question is no longer did racism take place, but how did racism manifest in this situation for it to be assumed that it's in every situation?” And the analysis is to find it, which is again, a very cynical way to read human interactions, phenomenon, or organizations. And so this is a very kind of cynical way to approach the idea of race, but it's also a very divisive way that forwards the ideas that race has to made relevant, more relevant and more relevant and more relevant in order to overcome the problem of racism, which they see as kind of a permanent stain on the fabric or society.

And they see no way to remove this stain so that the fabric itself has to be unmade and remade in a critical fashion in order not to have it. This is a pretty nasty way to approach this. Gender theory came out of kind of feminism going into women's studies, that's kind of a very complicated history. Lots of branches of feminism. It turns out none of them get along. We started out the chapter by chronicling something. Poor Helen had chronicled something like 25 different branches of feminism. And I said, “Helen, we can't do 25. We have two and three, and this is way too many. We have to group them up. Somehow nobody's going to pay attention to this.” Yeah, gender studies came out of women's studies by trying to say that the object of relevance of seeing gender as being socially constructed and to advance that idea as far as humanly possible, of course, queer theory spun out of this idea.

So, those are related, but the idea that went so far as even within queer theories to say that sex is also socially constructed, everything's socially constructed. And so the idea is to interrogate the social construction of gender, and thus try to render it deconstructed and less meaningful. Fat and disability studies apply the same line of thinking, especially the identity first thinking we see in critical race theory, got adopted into these … Many of the methods of queer theory got adopted. They see being disabled as abnormal, being fat as abnormal as society views things and therefore we have to do the normal-abnormal queer analysis. They're kind of these late comers to the party, very hodgepodge sticking together of ideas that the other theories had already developed. The one that people will find most alarming of course is, I've run into this and it surprises me. I've lost touch a little bit. People say, “Fat studies, what's that? Is that like studying obesity?” It's systematic rejection of the idea of obesity as oppressive discourse generated by medicine to control fat people. It's a conspiracy theory.
Albert Mohler:
And that's a real argument. I came across this when I was in London just before COVID-19. And on university campuses, that's a much more vibrant, I'll say discussion of there where the norms of medicine are now being rejected as being a part of a capitalist consumerist conspiracy.
Dr. James Lindsay:
Right. Yeah. It goes so far as to even say that if we were to come up with say the pharmaceutical companies finally have their, I think found their, if you will, Holy Grail, pardon the metaphor. But if they found the pill that cures being overweight, that brings people to their ideal weight that, that would actually be a fat genocide. They perceive it that way.
Albert Mohler:
That same argument is being on this side of the Atlantic used increasingly. And I confronted it pastorally in the last year by people who say, “If deafness could be cured or blindness could be cured, that would be the genocide of deaf people and blind people.”
Dr. James Lindsay:
Right. Which is alarming, but I'll give you an even more alarming one. Imagine that same pill I just mentioned with regard to fat actually existed. And it were to bring people to their ideal weight. They're actually communities called Pro-Ana, which refers to pro-anorexia. Anorexia Nervosa itself, severe eating disorder that's extraordinarily dangerous and unhealthy, especially to young girls as an identity, as an identity to be leaned into, as an identity to embrace. If a pill were to be invented, that brought people to their ideal weight, which is a healthy weight, which is not an anorexic weight, you would then have that being a genocide of the anorexic identity.
Albert Mohler:
But that gets me to a huge question that, you don't resolve really in your book, but it's in the background to everything. And that is that if you take the Western conception of humanity and I'm going to say a biblical conception of humanity, there are three different contexts. It starts with every single human being made in the image of God and situated within a particular context to family. And then you do have, on the other side, you might say the largest category is humanity, as what we share in common, every single one of us made in God's image, regardless of race, creed, ethnicity historical placement, et cetera. In between is social man or social humanity the critical theorists and especially by the time you get to identity politics, everything's the group, the individual largely disappears and Western liberalism. And by that, we mean the Western experiment and ordered liberty is in the declaration of independence is built upon an understanding of the importance of the individual and the concern the individual's going to be crushed by the society, but now individual disappears into these group identities.
Dr. James Lindsay:
That's right. Yeah. The fourth of the four themes that we outlined in cynical theories of postmodernism is the denial of the universal of humanity, the denial of the individual and favor of group identity in this school of thought, they call it positionality. The individuals to be understood in terms of their, almost like an ambassador for their group identities, which are to be understood intersectionally. And so all of your relevant group identities, which mix and match are relevant, and you have to recognize as an ambassador of those groups that you're not an individual, but rather you're a spokesperson.

You would have to say things, like say you were a black man, you would have to come out and say, “Well, as a man, I have to remain silent and listen to my female compatriots. As a black person, I can say that this has been my lived experience of oppression.” This gives me unique insight, which is the intersectional derivation of what the feminists earlier had come up with called standpoint epistemology or standpoint theory. You have this issue now where you always have to speak as an identity, and it's because the notion that came from, I think it originated in feminism…
Albert Mohler:
The slogan did.
Dr. James Lindsay:
… and personal is political has gone one step further, where there is is now kind of both directions. The person is their politics. This is why for example, you see someone like Kanye West put on a Make America Great Again hat. Then the next thing you know, you have Ta-Nehisi Coates coming out and saying, he's not really black. He's disqualified himself and this of course was explained more explicitly later by our friend at the New York Times, Nikole Hannah Jones, who did The 1619 Project. And she said, “Well there's a difference between being racially black and being politically black.” Which if you want to play it clearly what this tells you is that the ideology thinks only in terms of people that it agrees with. And that's the only people that speaks for it.
Albert Mohler:
Absolutely.
Dr. James Lindsay:
It doesn't speak for say, black people or gay people or women. It speaks for socially constructed groups. And those people who speak authentically to the way, the theory conceives of those are the ones who are the authentic representatives. And that's what intersectionality demands of people.
Albert Mohler:
Most readers realize that every time you read a book, you're effectively having a conversation with the author or authors, that's particularly true in a book like this. And now I have the opportunity for a conversation with one of the authors, and that's an incredible privilege. But reading is a privilege, just the opportunity to pick up a book and engage with another's mind, that's a rare privilege and to take ideas seriously and charitably, but always critically in the best sense, reading a book, reading a newspaper article or anything, consuming any artifact of our consumer culture. It requires us to think carefully about what we're doing while we're reading and to think about thinking as we're thinking. And that's the fun of it.

Intellectually critical theory is something like an acid. And it reminds me of a parable that Daniel Dennett at Tufts University has used. And that's the parable of the universal acid. He talked about being a teenager and imagining an acid that would dissolve everything, including the container that held it and including the table in which it sat until eventually the entire cosmos is destroyed by this universal acid. And I think that parable plays out here because we see it in real time. I mean, the headlines this week are about to Ellen DeGeneres on the wrong side of history because you can't stay on the left.
Dr. James Lindsay:
That's right. This is exactly what it is.
Albert Mohler:
You can't stay on the left. Betty Friedan, the prophetess of second-wave feminism. By 1977, she's threatened with being kicked out of the movement because she's anti-lesbian and sees it as the lavender menace. Martina Navratilova is now on the wrong side of history because she believes that biological women ought to compete in women's sports at the highest level. You can't stay all current on the left for long.
Dr. James Lindsay:
That's, right. Yeah. This is not an ideology that can be compromised with. A lot of people want to try to introduce a soft version of it or whatever. They think, “Oh, well, we can bring it in a little bit. We can use it analytically,” but the centerpiece of the ideology is complicity with systems of oppression. That is the object at the very center. It started off earlier saying ideas have consequences. That idea has a consequence, is that if anything that is complicit with systemic oppression is bad. It's only a matter of time until they figure out a way that you are also complicit with systemic oppression. You can't compromise with this ideology. You can't bring a little bit of it in because if they compromise with you, if you try to have a compromise with them, and it's very important. Somebody asks me on Twitter just a little while ago, what treaty, what truce, what compromise could we make to just get this to stop?

Which is the fear because people will want the mayhem to stop. And the answer is there's not one because if they said, “Okay, here's …” If you sat down with one of them, for example one of these very radical activists, maybe Angela Davis, I don't know, we'll just pick a name. And you said, “This is as far as I'm willing to go, but I'm willing to bend on X, Y, and Z, but I'm not willing to bend on R, S and Q.” And she signed to that. That would mean that she's being complicit in the oppressions of R, S and Q, which is exactly the opposite of what is possible within their ideology.

So the only way that they can compromise, the only way that they can have anything short of total acceptance of their critical view, liberation from oppression being the key and only moral value is by having all of the power, having all of the say, anything else, betrays their ideology, anything else betrays their one core value. It would be like turning your back on God, which as a Christian you'll understand is something you could be compromising about. There's no room for our compromised partial position. You will, I think know about the fake papers we wrote a couple of years ago, the fake academic papers, and one of them was a translation of a chapter of Hitler's Mein Kampf. And the phrase from that, that really stuck out to me was, “There will be no half measures.”

And that's how this works, there are no half measures. Meanwhile, because it can find oppression in anything. Remember, the question is not, did racism take place, but how does racism manifest in this situation? Because it can read into it any way that it wants and it's anti-intellectual, and it's now postmodern, and it's all about subjective truth and not objective reality. It can attach to anything. It can attach to Christian faith, it can attach to education, it can attach to national governments, it can attach to our nuclear labs apparently, it can attach literally to anything and make a critical theory of anything even math. There's been a summer-long argument that I think I started about two plus two, and whether or not it equals four or five, it can attach to anything.
Albert Mohler:
Yeah. When I teach philosophy and worldview, I use the two plus two equals four. You're a mathematician. Your graduate work is in math and I think what you define as abstract math at some level.
Dr. James Lindsay:
That's right. Enumerative Combinatorics more specifically if you want to play dorky times.
Albert Mohler:
Well, I'm really appreciate you saying that, but I must admit I'm not able to engage that particular branch of mathematics.
Dr. James Lindsay:
We'll sit down and I'll show you the basics sometime. It'll be fun. You'll appreciate it. And we don't have to go very far.
Albert Mohler:
I would appreciate that. When you say two plus two equals four, the fact is that there are people who on the one hand will say, “Two plus two equals four is obvious.” And for instance, when they point to their contract they want to make clear that two plus two equals four, but they want to argue that the entire project of Western civilization is based upon an oppressive limitation of knowledge, to the privileged who exercise their privilege by applying two plus two equals four in such a way that it represses people and groups in particular. But you point to something and I just want to get to this, there can be no resolution, or in other words, the revolution has to continue. Always, there can be no resolution. This is where it differs from classical Marxism, at least Marx had an eschatology. There is no end game.
Dr. James Lindsay:
Have you read your Paulo Freire?
Albert Mohler:
Yes.
Dr. James Lindsay:
The Brazilian educator and his remark on revolution?
Albert Mohler:
Pedagogy of the oppressed. Yeah.
Dr. James Lindsay:
For a revolution to be authentic, it must be perpetual, for the second it stops being revolutionary, it is the status quo. Yeah, perpetual revolution.
Albert Mohler:
Two big questions I want to address to you. One of them is, and I would have been glad to have had the time to walk through every one of these chapters because I actually think you trace the genealogy, there's Foucault, of all of these ideas extremely well. You lay them out very well. But where is this headed? So there's a sense in which I think the American people, and I'll say American Christians, for example, who are deeply aware of the reality of injustice and very concerned about the humanity of every single human being, know they're supposed to be. They understand that things need to be fixed. And I'll call that reform. There's a reform impulse, but what most of them don't understand is that what's going on and especially, I want to say the people on the streets, but the people who are driving that dynamic, they're not looking for reformation.

They're looking for top to bottom revolution. And as we said, just in continuing, so what I see, and I appreciate your title, Cynical Theories. I go back to heartbreak, and frustration. What I see right now happening in the headlines is an enormous amount of heartbreak and frustration, the revolution isn't delivering. Where do you see this going?
Dr. James Lindsay:
I don't think that the ideology itself is stable and I don't think that it is popular when people see what it is. I think it will eventually fall. You have to be always wary when you see something like this arising that it will gain enough institutional power to do some real damage before it collapses. Even the Marxist experiments collapsed, but they did some serious damage along the way, with China not withstanding, we'll see what happens. North Korea, I suppose also. I think where this is going is that we're in a moment actually of moral panic. We do have, and of course I share these profound concerns about the humanity of every individual, every person, regardless of race, sex, gender, sexual identity, as Judith Butler phrase it, that exasperated, et cetera all the different categories of people who've had it harder than others historically in some ways, even today.

But we are concerned about drawing that line between reform and revolution. We're very concerned about applying rigorous methodologies to find out what the genuine problems are, the depths of the problems that causes the problems, likely solutions to the problems. Whereas on the other side, it's a very toddler like mentality that there's a bad thing, get it off of me. Not everything with the police is roses. Abolish the police, that's the mentality. The thing that's not working for me, get rid of it completely which is a completely different mindset. Where I see this going is using this moral panic, using the narratives that are being spun. We can look at the Black Lives Matter situation. And of course the three word slogan, not the movement itself is a truism. It's something that virtually everybody, we can't get everybody, but virtually everybody agrees with in the world today.

However, if you look at the movement and you look at the claims that they're making about police violence, they just don't hold up to evidence. If you look at the specific cases that they're holding up as martyrs, they're very flimsy. These are not exactly the martyrs that a movement would want on its side. The stories just don't stack up. What's happening is that a narrative has runaway there's narrative privilege with this because of the moral panic. We have institutions taking this stuff on very quickly. I'm hearing more and more from people that it's backfiring, where they've taken it on, and now they want to find their way out. It's like, “Well, buddy, you made a deal with the devil. He's going to collect.” And that's the end of this is that it will infiltrate as many institutions as it can, which may go as high as our federal government. It's not impossible. It could happen here as they say. And every institution that it infects will lose all credibility and collapse within some amount of time that I don't think is terribly wrong.
Albert Mohler:
Yeah, it can't work. I mean, you see American corporations trying to, no pun intended, incorporate this and it doesn't work. For instance, there was a New York Times article the other day about inclusivity officers, and they're 10 years incredibly short and all these Fortune 500 corporations because they can't deliver what's expected. They can't bring about a revolution, as basically their job description. And it doesn't work. I have a conversation with books all the time. I've got a fountain pen in my hand and a red marker at hand. When I read your book, you had one point in your conclusion where you said we have to avoid this being institutionalized. And I just wrote a giant how in the margins.
Dr. James Lindsay:
We were a little more optimistic when we wrote that chapter, before this riot stuff started. And the answer, what we've seen successfully is consistently being able to stand up and say to stand for universal principles and individual principles whether, if it's in say an institutional setting and somebody says, “Well, this institution is racist.” What has worked? And it does not work easily. I don't want to give people this, “Oh, it's just a magic wand and it works,” but is to demand evidence. You say the institution's racist, bring the evidence and we'll evaluate it. And let's see that the totality of the evidence let's weigh it out and let's have, whether it's a conference or whatever we have to have to hear the voices. And we do say in the last chapter that we need to humbler liberalism. We need to listen more.

Liberals throughout history, I think that the big takeaway from this whole movement is when you see this frustration and this anger, there's a legitimate side to it as well, which is people don't feel like they're being heard. We can all learn to listen better. We can all learn to bring people to the table and listen more. But then it has to come down to objective standards. Where is the evidence? we have to have evidence. If we're going to change the organization around your claim of racism, we have to have evidence that the majority of us can agree that a reasonable person, if we use the term from law, reasonable person's standard, would agree that this constitutes a problem. And then let's figure out why that happened, how it happens and what we can do that might actually work to deliver the answer.

When it's kind of an individual context, it's a little bit different where you're not necessarily demand evidence, but let's say that you know, somebody comes to you with this. If the principal ultimately is secularism, which protects faith from state encroachment, and it protects the individual from the encroachment of faith and that they don't necessarily believe. If a Muslim Imam comes to you and they start preaching it to you, you can say, “Listen, brother, I respect your right to believe that. And I'm glad that that's working for you. And I have a different set of commitments that I'm going to uphold.”

In this case, somebody could come and say, “Well what you just did, don't you think that's a little bit racist?” And the reply is, “Well, I have a different conception of racism and I feel like I have every right to have a different conception of racism, just like you have the right to have your conception of racism.” And we start thinking in terms of this very, it's technically secularism. In a sense the beating heart of liberalism is that each person's matters of private conscience get to be the matters of private conscience. If they want to form a community around it, that's a matter of willful inclusion. If you want to form a church, please do. Go practice your faith within limits of the law of course.

Let's not have sacrifices or whatever else, obviously. You get to practice your faith as you will. And so this seen as a faith just conceptually, not necessarily illegally, immediately starts telling you what to do. How do we keep it from institutionalizing? See it as a faith legally, then all of a sudden the entire apparatus of the first amendment and all of the law around that could start to deinstitutionalize it, or just watch some start collapsing. You get a couple of big corps collapse, say Disney takes a lot of this on say they lose a couple of billion dollars, you're immediately going to have a bunch of other corporations firing their diversity officers.
Albert Mohler:
Or at least cosmetically, they may leave them in place, but they'll change the way they do business. Yes. You used the word, this is a footnote, but it gets me to the last big question I want to ask you. I think you misused the term secularism because you're using it … I see the French use of the word there. In the United States it generally, at least in my circles means a more over hostility to religious faith. And I don't think you mean that in the book.
Dr. James Lindsay:
I don't, no. I mean the broader principle of protecting faith from the state and protecting the individuals from the encroachment of faith that don't match the contents of their private conscience, which I think everybody agrees with.
Albert Mohler:
Well, that's part of the American charter. That's part of the American charter. Everyone meaning everyone outside the United States, that clearly is not the fact as you would well know in much of the world.
Dr. James Lindsay:
And I definitely don't mean by secular anti-religion. I definitely don't mean that.
Albert Mohler:
Yeah. All right. Then the final question I want to ask you and in all honesty, because I agree with so much of your book, in fact all the major points of analysis, but you write from a different worldview than my own. I'm an evangelical Christian and you write as an atheist.
Dr. James Lindsay:
That's right.
Albert Mohler:
You've written two books on that. One of the things I appreciate most about this book is your affirmation of truth as a category and your diagnosis of the problem of defining everything is a socially constructed and theorizing everything and problematizing everything. I mean this with all sincerity, where do you ground truth, and by this, I understand two plus two equals four. But in a lot of our disputes right now are moral. Where would you point to the true epistemic authority for morality and adjudicating that in a society?
Dr. James Lindsay:
Right. Morality is a very complicated question. It is very difficult. The broad answer to your question, of course of how do I ground truth, if we want to put it in more familiar terms, I might say, Spinoza's God, but in general, it is the correspondence theory of truth. That if we go out, you and I, we have very different worldviews. We have very different understandings of things, but if we perform the experiment, then a simple experiment or a complicated experiment, we're going to get roughly the same result. And if that's happening, then we can provisionally use that as a truth. When it comes to morality, we are now in a very complicated sphere, human beings psychologically, human beings sociologically are very, very complicated systems. And I believe the sciences, sociology, psychology and so on that study these things are in their infancy.

They're almost, if we look historically, science is like geology, they were arguing literally with cancel culture, they're arguing over whether the sea floor basalt rock was a product of volcanism, or whether it was a product of something precipitating out of the ocean. It was the Volcanist versus the Neptunians, which sounds almost like a cartoon now. There was this is a very violent conflict between academics before geology became an actual science and then Lyell very famously said, “Look, we're just going to go look at the rocks.” And they spent 20 years, they formed a conference that were going to set aside their biases, and they're going to do the best that they can. They're going to look at the rocks and see what the rocks tell them. And then the more mature science of geology was born and has matured ever since. Well, psychology and sociology are extraordinarily immature science still.

We barely, barely understand what's going on. And we're still caught up in ideas, like is the point of learning about the world to understand it or to change it to echo Marx's. And without having a very robust science of psychology and sociology, we do have to do a lot of approximating. And that's part of why I think that the principle that we just discussed of secularism is so important is that you are perfectly entitled to your beliefs that morality comes from, say the Bible, for example, I think is the right answer for you or your relationship even with Christ, as you understand him through the Bible and through the other theological writings. And I can say that I derive it from my experience with other human beings and what leads to positive outcomes and what leads to negative outcomes.

And I admit that's in a very blurry way and that we can sit down and communication with one another because we believe that there is something that is moral. We believe that there are generally right answers to moral questions and your views can inform mine. And my views can inform yours maybe it helps you deepen your understanding of theology to talk about something from neuroscience. And maybe it helps me deepen my understanding of humanity by listening to a theologian and to even read the gospel, for example.

And so I think that this is the dividing line, that on the one side of this, we have this attitude where we can say that … We do believe that there are answers to these questions. We believe that there may be easier or harder to get to or there are different ways to get to them. And we can use them to mutually inform one another. Versus everything is almost relative, which is what we see with this critical social justice ideology. Within postmodernism, of course it was more or less that everything is relative. And then as it took on the critical theory of the liberationist paradigm came into play where that which upholds depression is immoral, and that which facilitates liberation, which basically means Marxism is moral and that's of course, one moral view. And if people want to believe it, a matter of private conscience, good for you.

Let's have a conversation. Maybe you're going to point to things that I'm not seeing, and we can round out a better understanding of human interaction and human flourishing. That's a very broad answer to the question. I don't have something to just say, well, God is the objective standard and I can point to that, but I'm also definitely not a subjectivist. Spinoza's God is pointing to the world to try to understand it the best we can
Albert Mohler:
Fascinating discussion. We look forward to having further discussions with you as that becomes possible, but you're an intellectually honest man. I think you've made an incredible case in this new book you've written with Helen Pluckrose, Cynical Theories. James Lindsay, thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.
Dr. James Lindsay:
Yeah, thank you so much. It was a great conversation, Al. I appreciate it.
Albert Mohler:
As I said to James Lindsay, I am shocked, frankly, at this point in my life that the incursions of critical theory and the reified form of postmodernism, and by now you know what we're talking about there, that these have made such headway in American culture, not just in the academy where quite honestly these forms of thought have basically been dominant for the better part of the last several decades. But also in popular culture and in the headlines coming from what's happening on the streets of America, this is a very interesting development. It reminds us of the fact that ideas do have consequences, title famously made by a conservative writer, Richard Weaver. James Lindsay affirmed that very statement today, ideas have consequences. They always do.
Ideas also have a history and ideas have future consequences that it's our responsibility to try to trace out. And another thing about ideas is that they are themselves always developing, that's always true. You have one book on one idea, the next thing you know, there are 10 books and then it's 150 books, but the conversation changes with every one of those books in some way or another and as time goes forward, it's very interesting that just talking about traditional Western liberalism, James made the very good point that it's not one thing in the sense that it's continuing to develop as a way of adjudicating conflict and dealing with ideas as Christians. We look at this with a particular concern, because it's not only about understanding the consequences of ideas and the intellectual context of our day. It's understanding how we see all of these things as measured against the totality of a Christian worldview.

One of the things that comes up to me again and again in this book is the fact that there's the frustration of the eschatology that never comes. But if you are operating from a secular worldview the eschatology is going to have to come now or you're never going to see it. Of course the true communist man, true communism, never emerged. Utopia, never comes. And that's where Christians have a very different worldview, a very different timeline. We are looking forward to the kingdom of Christ in its fullness, but that also means that we don't expect all issues to be adjudicated and every eye to be dry and every tear to be wiped away. Until then, we do believe we're here to do good and to glorify God and to make a difference and to engage our culture in such a way, but we have to engage our culture with truth. And that gets back to the last part of the conversation with James, our understanding of truth it's not just based on the correspondence theory of truth.

That's the first test of truth by the way for Christians, but it's that when we talk about morality and when we talk about issues of our ultimate theological concern, we actually believe that they correspond to objective reality, the objective reality, the self-existing God. This takes us down to the authority of scripture. Christians are going to read this book and should read it very sympathetically and very appreciatively as an incredible indictment of a what's happening in intellectual culture, on both sides of the Atlantic. And it needs to inform how we think, how we observe. It needs to inform our church life. It needs to inform our engagement with the political and moral and cultural issues of the day. It needs to inform how we think about the academy and sending our kids to college. It needs to alert us how we talk and how we hear other people talk. We'll also realize that that this particular book is written from a defender of not only Western liberalism in the more historic sense, but also of issues that are more contemporary than anything.

The founders of historic modern classical liberalism would have imagined, LGBTQ issues, for example. And so Christians are going to have a very interesting conversation with this book, but it's really important. I meant what I said, I think it's the best analysis of the contemporary intellectual scene written by someone or by two authors in this case, who really do understand what critical theory is. They understand what it means that postmodernism never went away and just continuing. What it means that this is translated into the most, not only seemingly unbelievable, but dangerous forms of thought and why it matters because we care because of love of God and love of neighbor. We care about what thoughts systems are shaping the thoughts and minds of our neighbors and what thoughts are establishing the society that we share with our neighbors. We understand all of this matters.

And again, I'm very thankful for this conversation with James Lindsay, hope for more conversations in the future. If you enjoyed this conversation, you'll find more than 100 of these programs at albertmohler.com under the tab, Thinking in Public. I want to thank you today for joining me for Thinking in Public. And until next time, keep thinking.

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