[Helen] Pluckrose believes there is an objective truth! She believes in one truth that is rooted in Western, White/European ideologies of a particular scientific method which denounces any other forms of truth. Of course, this is a dangerous assumption
Helen Pluckrose, the founder of the site Counterweight*, has been outspoken in her critique of Critical Social Justice Theory (CSJ). In her article, What do we Mean by Critical Social Justice,” published earlier this year, Pluckrose attempts to explain her opposition to Critical Social Justice. She begins with the assertion that Liberalism and CST are quite similar and have shared goals, followed by an explanation of the origins of CST. Shortly thereafter, however, she states that the opposite is true; CSJ and Liberalism are different.
Both CSJ and Liberalism, she agrees, seek to achieve social justice. Liberalism, however, assumes that the starting point of “truth” is objective and not culturally informed. Pluckrose therefore believes that everyone can attain the same level of understanding of “objective truth” with sufficient critical thinking skills. It is clear that Pluckrose is aligning Liberalism with a universal, grand or objective Truth.
This assertion is not supported by Critical Social Justice theory.
CSJ questions the starting point of “truth” and asks, whose truth: what is the positionality of the person claiming said truth, and further, what are the social structures affecting the power dynamics which then inform what becomes truth?
Reading Pluckrose’s explanation reminded me of my grad school days and the vivacious discussions amongst classical Marxists, neo-Marxists, Postmodernists, etc. I remembered how vehemently opposed classical Marxists were to neo-Marxists and Postmodernists regarding “identity politics” and socio-cultural impact knowledge creation.
Classical Marxists believe that focusing on identity, culture, and positionality is a waste of time; it’s rhetoric that doesn’t touch the core issue of what is most important – class struggle. Neo-Marxists expand classical Marxist theory beyond this grand narrative of class struggle, adding in Max Weber’s broader understanding of social inequalities like status and power; Neo-Marxists incorporated aspects of critical theory into their understanding of the world.
Postmodernists reject or otherwise possess a healthy skepticism of any systems of thought or theory which proclaim to explain the world through a grand narrative or Grand Truth, particularly those that claim class struggle as the only, or most appropriate lens through which we should seek to right inequities. Conversely, they believe we must look at lived experiences and identity, especially that of culture, social roles, positionality, and intersectionality.
“Critical” in this neo-Marxist sense is not about discovering what is true but about uncovering power dynamics […] ‘truth’ is considered to be a social construct created in service of power. Therefore, critical pedagogy is looking for the oppressive power dynamics that are assumed to underlie all claims of truth in order to dismantle them.
In contrast, [CSJ’s] mission is to teach [people] ways of identifying and mapping how power shapes our understanding of the world. This in itself is a form of resistance; it rejects the idea of objective knowledge or objective truth, and regards knowledge as a social construct which is tied to each person’s identity and position in society.
The definition Pluckrose gives of CSJ’s mission versus her murkier outline of the Liberal Humanist approach to truth/Truth and power dynamics is contradictory. What I belatedly realized is that she was arguing from a staunch Liberal Humanist perspective.
Pluckrose believes there is an objective truth! She believes in one truth that is rooted in Western, White/European ideologies of a particular scientific method which denounces any other forms of truth. Of course, this is a dangerous assumption.
She underpins her entire argument against CST on Sensoy and DiAngelo, claiming that by them basing their critique of liberal social justice approaches in “identity groups” or “identity politics”, it is the exact opposite of what she considers to be the best approach at social justice: liberal humanism. She writes:
Sensoy and DiAngelo are referring to identity groups when they speak of “social groups.” They posit a simplistic model of society in which people are divided by their race, sex, class, sexuality and ability and then ranked and allocated resources depending on their identity. This goes against empirical evidence which paints a much more complex picture of society than a straightforward white supremacist, patriarchal, homophobic, ableist system in which people can plot their “positionality” by their identity and expect consistent results from it.
Pluckrose expands by saying, “We know, for example, that the most successful demographics in society are not white but that this does not mean racism has disappeared and never impacts people’s life outcomes.”
I’d like more clarity on who she’s referring to when she says, “most successful demographics in society are not white”. I’m going to assume she means, British or Western society as I don’t believe she’s qualified to speak on behalf of any other societies. Further, what metric is she using to define “success” in this context.
I also question Pluckrose’s interpretation of Sensoy and DiAngelo’s claims that we should “Recognize that relations of unequal social power are constantly being enacted at both the micro (individual) and macro (structural) levels” to mean, “that identity-based power dynamics are constantly in play in consistent ways in every interaction and every system in society”. Prompting her to ask:
Must I ‘understand’ that every time I interact with a man, he has more power than me and is exercising it against me and that every time I interact with a non-white person, I have more power than them and am exercising it against them? Is it that most people fail to ‘understand’ this or is it that most humans who regularly interact with a variety of other humans don’t find it to be true? […] Further, by assuming that all people are socialised into certain beliefs due to their identity they end up placing more social significance on immutable characteristics rather than less. Thus, Critical Theory contributes to the creation of the very social structures it claims to seek to challenge, inadvertently disempowering the people it seeks to empower.
It would seem Pluckrose’s own positionality is steering her away from the poignancy of Sensoy and DiAngelo’s assertion of the need to understand that we live in a white supremacist system that informs power dynamics. This does not mean that every individual, at all moments of their existence and interactions with others has to understand how and in what ways each of our interactions with others demonstrates power dynamics. It is to understand that the power dynamics are abiding.
It is entirely plausible that Pluckrose fails to understand that her experience is not the same as others’ and that she is projecting her experiences of not finding it to be true of every single one of her interactions. This thinking in itself is steeped in power, privilege, and positionality. Are we all to believe Pluckrose’s experiences, and others like hers to be the starting point of “truth”?
Pluckrose in the end writes:
It is only within a liberal framework that multiple viewpoints on social justice can exist and be argued for. It is only within the liberal marketplace of ideas that people’s arguments can be separated from their identities, allowing anybody to subscribe to any viewpoint and challenge any viewpoint and not be confined to the one presumptuously deemed to be appropriate for their race, sex or sexuality.
There can only be a marketplace of ideas when we are all consciously operating from a shared perspective that all lived experiences, social roles, and identities inform how we view social justice, and the arguments we make to ensure social justice can exist.
I understand Pluckrose’s argument as being against CSJ because she and other Liberal Humanists believe in a singular, exclusive Truth; one that can be discovered through objective critical thinking skills, one which everyone is able to accomplish, equally. I cannot agree with this perspective. My entire life experience is a contradiction of this claim, and I would venture further to say that it is not a singular experience, but the reality of the lived experiences of many people of color in Pluckrose’s Western society. Promoting a “colorblind” society in which we ignore our differences rather than one where we embrace the full identity of others is problematic.
Dangerous—dangerous and insidious is the conclusion I came to after reading this piece.
*We have not linked to the Counterweight article or site as we don’t want to drive traffic to them.