Last Friday, Luke Ashford told Victoria’s Hotel Quarantine Inquiry how — when seconded from Parks Victoria and put in charge of quarantine operations at Melbourne hotels — he was given an hour’s training in ‘Equity and Diversity’, but no training in the use of PPE or on infection control.
A clip of his deadpan responses — propelled by the transparent honesty of his answers, the absurdity of the situation and his admission that he resorted to ‘intuition’ — went global.
In Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why this Harms Everybody, British medievalist Helen Pluckrose and American mathematician James Lindsay set themselves the task of explaining how we’ve reached the point where public health in the midst of a pandemic plays second fiddle to woke nonsense.
Equity and Diversity courses teach one that society is formed into identity-based hierarchies, knowledge is an effect of power and one’s position on a league-table of oppressed identities determines what can be known and how it is known. Certain abstruse ideas have burst their intellectual banks. They’ve poured out of the academy, flooded activist circles and are now lapping around the public’s knees in such a way as to constitute a threat not only to liberal democracy but to modernity itself.
Today’s woke dogma is recognisable as much by its effects, such as cancel culture and social-media dogpiles, as by its tenets, which are treated as beyond questioning. These include the claim that knowledge is a social construct; science and reason are tools of oppression; all human interactions are oppressive power-plays and speech, particularly free speech, is harmful and hateful.
I can confirm — before I took myself off to be a lawyer and pay the bills — what I’ve set out above in abbreviated form has been standard for years. I started university in 1990 and thought I was reading Latin. And while that was still true (I retain the ability to translate both public school mottoes and Roman smut), I also encountered the arrant nonsense Cynical Theories outlines for popular consumption.
Some bits of the postmodernism that were taught to me appealed. I liked the notion that language could construct reality. I was writing a novel at the time and every author wants access to a form of word-magic, one where storytellers can make the world. However, I thought this applied only to fiction, not the reality my Statistics II textbook described. I made the mistake of saying so; an argument ensued. This is a sure-fire way to get a reputation as a pain in the arse, so I buttoned my lip. That I won a university medal was entirely down to (a) being creative (b) doing the reading and (c) taking bong hits before I wrote papers and sat exams. Yes, I turned up to central examination venues smelling like weed and stoned out of my tree.
Some aspects of the crudely simplified postmodernism Pluckrose and Lindsay document were still forming in 1990. This includes the claim that imaginative entry to another culture for a person from a ‘privileged’ background is impossible. When this was put to me in argument — by a postcolonial theory academic — my response involved perpetrating an enormous literary hoax to falsify it. Since I did, in fact, succeed (my first novel won every award in the country worth having, was a major bestseller and even people who hated me and the horse I rode in on accepted I could write) no critic argued I’d somehow pulled off the impossible. Instead, I was told I was an immoral person for doing what I’d done. I’d told a story that wasn’t mine to tell.
The shift from ‘it’s immoral to tell another culture’s story’ to ‘it’s impossible to tell another culture’s story, but in any case, one still shouldn’t try for moral reasons’ is part of a process Pluckrose and Lindsay describe as ‘reification’, which emerged after I’d left the ivory tower and commenced moving companies around and drafting commercial leases for a living. Once reified, postmodern abstractions about the world are treated as though they are real things and accorded the status of empirical truth. Contemporary social justice activism thus sees theory as reality, as though it were gravity or cell division or the atomic structure of uranium.
This creates a doctrinal paradox. There are no universal truths and no objective reality, only narratives expressed in discourses and language that reflect one group’s power over another. Science has no claim on objectivity, because science itself is a cultural construct, created out of power differentials and ordered by straight white males. There are no arguments, merely identity showdowns but — because theory is now reality — in any disagreement, the most ‘oppressed’ always wins.
And, when language makes the world, attempts by scholars in other disciplines and from across the political spectrum to do what I did and falsify some or all of these claims are met not with reasoned debate but an accusation that those individuals are harming the oppressed or silencing the marginalised. All someone higher up the hierarchical food chain is supposed to do when confronted by someone lower down is listen. That’s the point of telling people to ‘check their privilege’ before opening their mouths.
Pluckrose and Lindsay make a compelling argument that this is a religion, and not in the glib sense that its adherents are taking knees, engaging in call-and-response, or washing each other’s feet. Rather, contemporary social justice asks us to believe things that aren’t proven in the same way that ‘Muhammad ascended to heaven from the battlements of Jerusalem on a winged horse’ or ‘Christ rose from the dead on the third day’ aren’t proven.
Enacting legislation on the basis of false claims is the policy equivalent of theology. We may as well sacrifice virgins on mountaintops Aztec-style for all the good it is doing to address problems like, I don’t know, running pandemic quarantines in Melbourne hotels.
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Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, and read law at Oxford. Her latest novel is Kingdom of the Wicked.
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