Belling the cat

The Tyranny of Big Tech
By Josh Hawley
Regnery, $42, 194 pages, ISBN 9781684512393

Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody
By Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay
Swift Press, $23, 296 pages, ISBN 9781800750326

There was a time when tech companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook were like cute little puppies, happily knocking over the furniture and offering the prospect of a cheery future. But at some point they turned into snarling attack dogs, snapping at any criticism and enthralled by their own muscle.

They need a leash, and a strong one, says Republican US Senator Hawley. They have become the censors of our age, making apparently arbitrary decisions about who gets a gold star and who gets ‘cancelled’. It is always conservative figures that are de-platformed, according to Hawley, and he gives plenty of examples of people from the left that have said things that are incitements to violence, defamatory or just plain crackers, yet remain untouched.

Hawley notes that the book was itself almost cancelled. The original publisher, Simon & Schuster, reneged on their contract due to comments that Hawley made questioning the veracity of some aspects of the 2020 election – comments that look pretty innocuous. In any case, the attempt at censorship backfired badly, and the book has become a best-seller (through Amazon, ironically).

Hawley began his crusade when he was attorney-general in Missouri, his home state. He suggests that existing anti-monopoly legislation could be used to break up the behemoths, probably by splitting them by function. He also has interesting things to say about removing the liability protection that applies to social media platforms. None of this will happen while the Democrats hold the levers of power, says Hawley, because the leading tech figures donate billions to them. In many cases the key company figures share the ideological attitudes of the left (although they are usually laissez-faire libertarian when it comes to making money).

The problem with the book is Hawley’s tendency to undermine his case through speculation and hyperbole. In some places the book reads more like a partisan diatribe than a considered analysis. This is a pity, because the issue is an important one and his proposals for reform are sound. The idea of ‘cancelling’ is bad enough: that it can be done by mega-corporations that have shown themselves to be manipulative, aggressive and paranoid is profoundly disturbing. How did Zuckerberg and his kin get to decide who could enter the arena of public debate?

Which brings us to Cynical Theories. Pluckrose is an editor and former academic (she describes herself as “an exile from the humanities”), and Lindsay is a mathematician and writer on politics and religion. This is a good combination to examine how critical theory became so important so quickly, devouring much of the old left in the name of identity politics.

Pluckrose and Lindsay trace it back to philosophers like Foucault and Derrida, who hypothesised that social reality was a construction designed to entrench the interests of the powerful and oppress everyone else, mainly by the control of discourse. The theory had been around for a while but it got a new lease of life when traditional Marxism collapsed in the 1990s. The left needed something new to talk about, and when the idea migrated to America identity politics fitted the bill. The essential premise was that all people were defined solely by group characteristics of race, gender, sexuality, and so on. Every minority was by definition oppressed by white, male, heteronormative culture.

For a time this was limited to a few universities and academic journals but it began to go mainstream in numbers and influence around 2010. Pluckrose and Lindsay sort through the key essays and articles, noting the increasingly militant tone. Significantly, the new movement saw their enemies as not only conservatives but also liberals – Pluckrose and Lindsay are clear that they are writing from a liberal perspective – who were seen as defenders of an irredeemable system.

The crucial mechanism for putting the Theory (deliberately written with a capital by the authors) into practice was social media. It was culture, not elections, that would be battleground. Infiltration into corporations, schools, and cable television were the follow-up tactics.

It began with Critical Race Theory but it soon metastasised. It became Critical [INSERT GRIEVANCE HERE] Theory. There is now even Critical Fat Theory, which argues that doctors who advise obese patients to lose weight are actually oppressing them.

There was an equivalence of virtue with victimhood, with extra points for anyone who could claim membership of several minorities. At the same time, academic achievement and self-betterment through hard work were deconstructed and dismissed as inherently oppressive. Even maths was attacked as racist. The Theory became a meta-narrative.

Pluckrose and Lindsay let much of this silliness speak for itself but they are entirely aware of the dark undertone. Social Justice Theory soon became intolerant, tribalistic and vicious, endlessly finding new complaints and targets. There was a particular emphasis on language. A misplaced word, even if spoken years ago, could end a career. It turned into the Spanish Inquisition, and nobody expected it.

In fact, Social Justice Theory now bears the hallmarks of a religion: the True Faith of the Woke. They know what they know and will not be moved. There is no room for discussion. Dissent is heresy.

Pluckrose and Lindsay believe that liberals need to fight this, with reasoned arguments, reliable data, and personal courage. Not easy but it can be done. Someone has to bell the cat, they say.

Or have the claws gone too deep, the rot too far? We will have to wait and see, perhaps – and do whatever we can to ensure that it does not take full root on Australian shores. In the meantime, Cynical Theories is a good explanation as to how America got to its current parlous state.

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