Social Theorist and Philosopher

Misunderstanding Michel Foucault

A Critique of Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay ‘Cynical Theories’

The authors Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have a reputation as individuals prepared to challenge postmodern hogwash in the academy, exposing its poor scholarship and the appalling erosion, even corruption, of its academic criteria. Their book Cynical Critical Theories: How Universities Made Everything About Race, Gender and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody promises a further act of iconoclasm, by demonstrating that postmodernism underpins the current social justice movements. The authors suggest that the political significance of social justice movements, above and beyond the wrath they direct at non-believers and apostates, is the damage they wreak to liberal democracy and thus their failure to improve the lives of the Black and LGBT minorities they purportedly represent.

Pluckrose and Lindsay set up a contest in a philosophical boxing-ring: In the right-hand corner is their own philosophically liberal form of reasoning. Central to liberalism is the abstract, rights-bearing universal liberal subject on whose behalf a progressive politics can be waged against the racism, sexism and gender identity bigotry that suffuses our society. In the left-hand corner, are critical cynical theorists and postmodern reasoning (and its off-shoots critical race and queer theory). Postmodern reasoning analyses the alleged universal subject as constructed by hierarchical power and specific knowledge that benefit the dominant groups in society and therefore, according to the authors. Foucault is denounced as a quintessential cynical theorist, the very epitome, even source, of the problem the book seeks to address. Indeed, it is Foucault’s legacy which the authors argue is responsible for the current strident, almost religious social justice activism around LGBT rights. 

The book reads as if it is leading a sensible backlash to the current subservience to postmodern ideas, daring others to speak out and providing the rationale for them to do so. I relish the book’s iconoclasm: There is something heartening about writers who have the chutzpah to put two fingers up to the prevailing orthodoxies about how we should think and what we can say, particularly in the current climate of fear and retribution. 

But I urge the reader to discount the authors’ reductionist cardboard cut-out caricature of Foucault. He is neither a postmodernist nor a queer theorist, indeed he proves to be more than a worthy contestant in the philosophy stakes, turning the tables back on Pluckrose and Lindsay’s liberal universalism as ineffectual at upholding equality and human rights and contributing to their derogation.

Liberal Reason Versus Postmodernism

Although they give only a cursory nod to it, Pluckrose and Lindsay’s thesis is firmly placed in the arena of political philosophy about government, power and rule. Since Ancient Greece the following questions have been asked: “Who has authority to rule?” “What or who legitimates the ruler’s power?” “On what grounds should the ‘ruled over’ be obedient?” After the 18th century Enlightenment belief in human reason, liberal political philosophy has answered these questions in the following ways: The sovereign power of the Church and Monarch should be transferred to the sovereign Will of the People. That Will is made up of the collection of individual sovereign Human Subjects.

Pluckrose and Lindsay describe the main tenets of liberalism as: “limitations on the power of government, the development of universal human rights, legal equality for all adult citizens, freedom of expression, respect for evidence and reason, the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion” (p.11) Pluckrose and Lindsay are keen to demonstrate their credentials as progressive thinkers grounded in philosophical liberalism. The main thrust of their argument is that a politics founded on liberal universalism is the best means by which social injustice against minorities can be countered. By universalism, they mean variations and combinations of the following: a biological universal based human nature; a knowledge universal based on science, reason and objectivity; and an ethical universal based on human rights and equality regardless of race, gender or sexuality.

Whether or not activists know it, the authors say that postmodern theory conceived in the philosophy departments of the university in the 1960s and 1970s underpins their identity politics. A range of iconic postmodern philosophers (now dead) deconstructed the universal tenets of liberal reason, in particular the universal Human Subject. Foucault is denounced as one of postmodernism’s founding Bêtes Noir. The two core principles shared between him and other postmodern philosophers are that “knowledge is socially constructed” and that society is really a system of powerful hierarchies in which “decide what can be known and how” (p.31). 

Pluckrose and Lindsay argue that social justice scholarship-activism does not further equality aims but wreaks havoc, not only for the people whose interests they ostensibly represent but on liberal democracy itself. Rather than coherent argument, logic, reason and real evidence, social justice movements believe ethnic, sex and gender minorities are oppressed by systems of power and knowledge which they must deconstruct and fight against. Activists scrutinise language texts, events, culture, activities, places, spaces and every other conceivable cultural artefact for hidden bigotry. Their only political vision is to tear down liberal democratic institutions and culture and to purge them of prejudice and discrimination. These movements have an authoritarian, one-directional approach that dictates what people must believe and the language they must use. Their strategies are counterproductive in that they are beginning to arouse in the general public resistance to identarian illiberalism.

In contrast to the tactics of these movements, Pluckrose and Lindsay say that social justice would be far more achievable if activists utilised the empirical and rational concepts of knowledge that have previously been so remarkably effective in bringing about equality. In order to fight for the rights of “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people” for example, the authors posit that LGBT activists should appeal to the “developing science around trans issues” which demonstrates that just like homosexuality trans is “a biological reality” (p.110).

The liberal approach is first and foremost to see one another as humans and only secondarily as members of certain races, or as men or women, or as sexual or gender minorities. Liberalism respects people both as individuals and as members of the human race; it values the “individual and the universal”, “the human and humanity.” (p.245). It is this liberal approach which has broken down traditional “hierarchies of class, race and gender” (p. 245).

Instead of queering identity and tearing at the very universal tenets that would eradicate discrimination, achieving equality for same-sex attracted or transgender people is best served by pointing to the sheer normalcy of “variations on sexuality and gender identity” (p. 268). Homosexuality and transgenderism are “naturally occurring … like red hair and left-handedness.” Like other naturally occurring variations, these are “found in a minority of humans who are regarded as completely normal human individuals and valued members of society” (p.268). Discrimination against transgender people or homosexuals can be seen as bigotry. “Homophobia and transphobia are intentional acts which are undertaken by individuals who should be expected to do otherwise” (p.268).

Foucault’s Reasoning

Foucault was deeply engaged with questions of liberal philosophy, liberal democratic government, power and the state (1978). He engages with a conundrum that has exercised liberal political philosophy since its inception, namely the limits and possibilities of liberal democratic forms of government. He argues there are complex issues that need addressing that go beyond a simplistic view of the universal subject and whether power is either present or absent, legitimate or illegitimate. In the 19th century, the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that it is necessary to consider “Social Liberty as well as so-called Liberty of the Will.” The “vital question” for liberal democracy, Mill argues, is “where to place the limit – how to make the fitting adjustment between individual independence and social control” (1929, pp. 1,6).

Foucault did not classify himself as a postmodernist. In the early 1980s when he was asked to comment on “the hold-all concept postmodernity” he replied: “What are we calling post-modernity? I’m not up to date” (1983, p. 33). He describes his work as an “historical analysis of how, in our culture, human beings are made subjects” (1982, p. 208). He suggests that liberal democracies, in order to maintain social control of human beings who understand themselves as subjects with rights to be free from any external illegitimate power, are helped by exercising normalising, bio-power rather than “power-over.”

In the History of Sexuality, Volume1, Foucault demonstrates how, in the 19th century and the beginnings of liberal democracy, the social control of “illegitimate” sexual activity changed from the previous theocratic regime. The human sciences of medicine, psychology and psychiatry took over from religion and the crimes were no longer conceived as sins against God but abnormal crimes against nature. Clinical diagnoses and medical practice brought certain “feminine” and “masculine” subjects into being according to historically pre-existing patriarchal hierarchies in which the heterosexual married man was taken as the “norm” against whom all other sexual subjectivities were contrasted: The sexually active woman was made into “the nymphomaniac”; the woman who disliked heterosexual sex was made into “the hysteric”; the good wife was made into “the asexual mother and wife”; and the man who preferred sex with other men was made into “the pathological homosexual.” These subjectivities were made possible because of the reality of dimorphic sex and by investing “what is most material and most vital” in female and male bodies with cultural meaning (1979, p152).

Although Foucault described heteronormative power as constructing subjectivity, his theory is not allied with current queer theory. Firstly, his political strategy for liberty is not to affirm identity but to refuse it. Secondly, Foucault does not agree with the queer nomenclature that sex is “assigned at birth.” The cultural meanings attached to male and female bodies are a product of culture and it is gender, not sex, which has been assigned from birth! In addressing how biological men and women are “made into subjects” Foucault argues that women and men are not abstract humans first and men or women second since power is already interior to their subjectivity as women and men. 

Contrary to the impression given by Pluckrose and Lindsay, Foucault had nothing to say about natural science. He was only concerned with the human sciences which, in the name of objectivity and reason, made human beings into subjects for social control. Nor was Foucault driven by the cynical motivation to tear down the Enlightenment idea of human reason and liberty. On the contrary, he understands his analysis of the power-knowledge relations that make the subject to be rooted in, not rejecting of, the Enlightenment ethos of using reason as a way out of the conditions that circumscribe individual liberty. “The pathological homosexual” was made a subject for incarceration by normalising power: He became an object for medical practice, psychological labelling and the criminal law which protected the population from his “pathology.” The repeal of the law in the late 1960s was made possible by a Foucauldian style deconstruction of the power-knowledge which had produced the Truth, and by homosexual men’s collective resistance to identity. 

As a philosopher Foucault did not aspire to delineate an overall political programme for human freedom, but, more modestly, to offer a conceptual tool-box that might be useful for thought about how, in the name of liberal freedoms, actual human freedom is circumscribed. He declares his method to have been inspired by the 18th-century philosopher Emmanuel Kant who was the first to introduce into philosophy the need for an historical and critical reflection on who we are in the present moment. Kant asks: “What is Enlightenment? Who are we now that we have brought reason to bear on the human subject as historically constructed by religion and tradition”? Foucault says he aims to put Kant’s philosophical attitude “to the test of reflection … on concrete practices.” In applying critical thought to what “makes subjects” Foucault understood himself to be participating with others in “a patient labour, giving form to our impatience for liberty” (1994, pp. 305-319).

The LGBT Making of “The Transwoman”

Stonewall has had a particular hand in constructing firstly the Truth of gender and secondly “the transperson.” Stonewall was previously an LGB lobby group but added the T in 2016. The LGBT acronym has helped make transgenderism identical with sexual orientation, existent in “nature” outside of social and political context. It creates the idea that “transpeople” have existed forever, like lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, and that their interests are homogenous and can be defended by the same political strategies and ethics. 

In order to naturalise transgenderism, gender itself has to be naturalised. Stonewall, and the queer theory that underpins it, reverse the truth: Sex relates to biology—the gametes, chromosomes, hormones, and reproductive organs; gender relates to societal roles, behaviours, and expectations that vary with time and place, historically and geographically. In contrast, Stonewall describes gender identity as “a person’s innate sense of their own gender, whether male, female or something else, which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned at birth.” On the basis of this ephemeral “soul” identity, “the transperson” can then come into existence. Stonewall says that for people whose “innate gender” does not correspond with their biological body there are a number of terms: “transgender, transsexual, gender-queer, gender-fluid, non-binary, gender-variant, crossdresser, genderless, agender, nongender, third gender, bi-gender, trans man, trans woman.” 

Stonewall’s statement “transwomen are women: get over it” is clearly more than an authoritarian statement to silence discussion about the contentious nature of its claims. It is an ontological statement: Men who identify as women are women. The organisation lurches into absurd demands for faith-like compliance to the “truth” that a man with a penis can be a woman if he says he is, and they vilify apostates as nothing but bigots, transphobes and TERFs.

The idea that a male-bodied person can be a woman, or that a female-bodied person can be a man, has not had an equal impact on women and men: The making of “the transman” has not impacted men’s sovereignty over their own bodies, thought and language and has made no difference to the social space men occupy or the laws that protect men; in the name of equality and the human rights of “transwomen” Stonewall and the LGBT social justice movement bifurcate the empirical category woman into “cis women” and “transwomen” and campaign to erase the sex-specific language to name functions for which only female bodies have capacity, namely pregnancy, giving birth and breastfeeding. 

Through its Diversity Championship Scheme, Stonewall provides the ideological “training” to workplaces up and down the country, pushing its unique brand of pseudoscience and compelled speech under the guise of inclusivity and tolerance. The Truth that “transwomen are women” is now making its way like wildfire through our liberal democratic institutions and those organisation for which it important we remain ideology-free. Medicine for example requires an understanding of “the differences between sex and gender categories; untangling them is crucial for safe, dignified, and effective healthcare of all groups … Avoidable harm may result when they are conflated.” Yet the National Health Service (NHS), an alleged practitioner of evidence-based medicine, is a Stonewall Champion and gives children puberty blockers on the alleged basis they have an inner identity different to their “assigned sex.” 

The Equality Act 2010 which sets out specific legislation for women’s sex-based rights is undermined by the pressure from the LGBT social justice movement for the rights of “transwomen” to have access to all previously reserved women’s spaces. The Act is being watered down by various government departments in the guidance they have issued to public bodies, and then public bodies such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and local authorities have gone on to further misinterpret the Act. For generations, women have fought to create sex-based protections in law to make life safe and fair for women. The impacts on women in having their achievements rolled back are proving catastrophic. This includes, but is not limited to, being forced to accept men in sports, changing rooms, fitting rooms, bathrooms, rape and domestic violence refuges, gyms, spas, schools, hospital wards, all-women shortlists, prizes, quotas, political groups, prisons, clubs, events, festivals, and dating apps.

Trans activism is allegedly a grassroots movement but it would not have come into being without organisations such as Stonewall for whom producing Truth and linking it to emancipation has become an extremely lucrative business enterprise. Nor would the Truth have been made without a multi-trillion dollar industry which, in requiring gender identity for profit, has helped shape it. Pharmaceutical and technology giants interface with LGBT NGOs and are driving the normalisation of a biology-denying ideology made possible by the tenets of queer theory. The Researcher Jennifer Bilek says: “The LGB civil rights movement has been subsumed by elites who have added the T to normalise the overriding of our sexed reality as humans, staging a political coup of mammoth proportion.”

Foucault Speaks Back to Pluckrose and Lindsay

Although the “Transwoman” had not yet been invented when Foucault was writing, I bring Foucault’s reasoning to bear on Pluckrose and Lindsay’s rather boastful assertion that only their stance is “liberal, empirical and rational” (p.20). I apply Foucault’s scepticism about whether liberal universalism is a sufficiently robust foundation to prevent us from falling into the unaccountability of truth claims and the deprivation of liberty which can ensue.

There is no basis for Pluckrose and Lindsay’s assertion. For scholars who pride themselves on rationality, they have no scientific evidence that transgenderism is biologically based and will one day be empirically verifiable. In claiming that “transgender people” are naturally occurring subjects (p.110) they do not challenge or undermine postmodern thought and practice but help mobilise it. It may seem that the authors’ reasoning and the queer reasoning which underpins transgenderism are diametrically opposed but they are not: Pluckrose and Lindsay, in using the terms sex and gender erroneously as if they are synonymous, argue that transgenderism is found in nature; organisations, corporations and “the transwoman” himself claim that transgenderism is inherent like a “soul.” Effectively, in terms of power-knowledge, the result is the same: Gender is untethered from its social and political context and “the transwoman” is essentialised as having an authentic female “self.” In naturalising gender, the authors collude with the ridiculous concept that “sex is assigned” and that “women can have penises,” and the consequent erosion of women’s rights that takes place on the basis of such Truth.

Pluckrose and Lindsay assert that the structures and institutions of liberal democracy act as bulwarks against sex discrimination. Nowadays “men and women are human beings of equal value who are equally capable of being discriminated against on the basis of their sex” (p. 267). They deny that “sexism and misogyny are systemic” (p. 267). They assert that liberal feminists are the good type of feminist who “work incrementally to extend all the rights and freedoms of a liberal society to women” (p. 137). Yet liberal feminist organisations such as the Fawcett Society and the Women’s Equality Party are at one with postmodern, allegedly intersectional feminist scholars currently teaching their young students that “Transwomen are Women.” Clearly, women are not held in equal value with men in our society and they do suffer more sex discrimination since liberal democracies not only tolerate the erosion of women (and children’s) rights to agency and bodily autonomy in support of men’s rights but are currently part of the conduit for mobilising discrimination in the name of equality and human rights.

Like the LGBT social justice warriors that they excoriate, Pluckrose and Lindsay affirm that “the transwoman” is an authentic naturally occurring human subject, thus demonstrating that their liberal universalism is not a bulwark against sexism and misogyny but compatible with them. They perform the kind of analysis that Foucault warns us to be vigilant against. The allegedly neutral standards of objectivity and universalism to which they appeal are neither neutral nor apolitical but rely on unrecognised and costly political limitations. When they conceive of an emancipatory politics in terms of the abstract human subject, actual subjects pay the price. In not critically analysing how human beings are made into subjects, they reproduce the concepts that inner gender identity – whether one is “feminine” or “masculine” – is authentic and pre-social and they thus give the current illiberalism of LGBT social justice movements political legitimacy. 

In conclusion, Pluckrose and Lindsay’s characterisation of Foucault as a cynical postmodernist whose ideas contribute nothing to human liberty is simplistic and reductionist: The “good” of their own liberal reason is pitted against the “bad” of Foucault’s critical theory. By the end of the contest, it is Pluckrose and Lindsay’s light-weight reasoning which receives the bloodied nose and it is Foucault’s heavy-weight critical theory that is left unharmed. Foucault, not Pluckrose and Lindsay, helps prevent those concerned with freedom, liberty and social justice from falling with Liberal Feminist Alice right down the LGBT rabbit hole into the “Men Are Women” Mad-Hatter’s Tea Party.

Works cited

Foucault, Michel. (1979) The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge. Penguin: London.

Foucault, Michel. “What is Enlightenment?” in Rabinow, P. (1994) Michel Foucault: Ethics the Essential Works 1954-1984, Vol 1. Penguin: London. Penguin: London.

Foucault, Michel. (1978) “Governmentality” in Burchell, G. et al (eds.) (1991) The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Harvester Wheatsheaf: Hertfordshire. 

Foucault, Michel. (1982) “The Subject and Power” in Dreyfus, H. and Rabinow, P (1982) Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Harvester Wheatsheaf: Hertfordshire. 

Foucault, Michel. (1983) “Critical Theory/ Intellectual History in Kritzman, L.D. (1988) Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984. Routledge: New York and London. 

Mill, John Stuart. (1929) On Liberty. The Thinkers Library, Watts & Co: London.


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