A recent debate between Christina Hoff Sommers and Roxane Gay left quite a mark in my corner of Twitter. I read many comments from those who attended, but the footage was not released for a number of weeks after the debate took place. This was on account of prolonged legal negotiations regarding whether the footage would be released at all. In the end it was made available on YouTube. After hearing all the hoops jumped through just to release it, I knew I had to see it for myself.

The reports I originally read from Twitter and heard from Hoff Sommers on her podcast, The Femsplainers, were correct: it did not go well. Within the first few minutes, I could see why—Gay clearly subscribes to the rhetoric held by the social justice left, an ideology which I knew did not compliment open, good faith debate. During the question and answer time, an audience member asked whether sharing a stage or platform with someone constitutes a defacto endorsement of what they have to say. To this she replied no, but went on to highlight that she did not know who Hoff Sommers was when she agreed to debate, and said that this was a fair question. 

I was not surprised by this. I have heard of the fear of “adjacency” and “guilt by association” many on the left have been called out for. Gay specifically pointed to the fact that she did not know who Sommers when she agreed to debate her, and she had already signed a contract.

But what was the reason the debate went so poorly? To understand why, I needed to look into the ideology held by gender scholars and critical race theorists on a much deeper level.

After speaking with grievance studies scholar Dr. James Lindsay and documentary filmmaker Mike Nayna, I was able to form a clearer picture as to why engaging with the opposition is such a taboo within the worldview of the social justice left, or as Lindsay calls them, applied postmodernists.

Last year Lindsay along with scholars Helen Pluckrose and Peter Bogosian who conducted an experiment that has come to be known as the “grievance studies affair.” They familiarized themselves in subjects like gender studies, critical race theory and fat studies, wrote papers in those subjects, and submitted them to respected peer reviewed journals. Out of twenty papers, four were published, three had been accepted, and seven were under review.

Nayna is a documentary filmmaker, and is currently working on a film about the journey of the grievance studies trio. He was connected to the group via a search to understand the changes he was witnessing within social justice activism, particularly in the type of language being used. Terms like cisnormativity did not seem like typical activist lingo.

As someone who can represent the audience, an outsider looking in, Mike used an analogy that resonated with me during our interview. He looks at things like transgender women competing in sports, or the fallout surrounding the debate between Gay and Hoff Sommers as “arguing about the dishes” so to speak, like a married couple who have deep rooted issues, adultery perhaps, where something foundational shifts in the relationship. “The assumptions that are embedded in these top level political ideas are actually a different view of reality.” Yet the arguments and bickering centre around daily grievances. 

According to Nayna, these arguments hold more emotional weight than they should, and I agree. I am seeing examples of misplaced arguing displayed on platforms like Twitter. The reaction to this past winter’s Gillette ad comes to mind. It was much more than “just an ad” to both sides. Yet arguing over these surface level issues seems to be the wrong place to focus attention and energy. We must go through the layers down to the core of what applied postmodernists actually believe.

Lindsay says he began in a similar place as Nayna, hearing different vocabulary and definitions used by activists that seemed “terribly academic.” He and his colleagues looked at grievance studies scholarship such as found in third wave feminism, but mostly critical race theory to find the divergence of applied postmodernism from traditional postmodern thought.

The following is a brief summary of what I learned from my interview with Lindsay and Nayna. It is by no means exhaustive, rather it is a brief outline of what most informed my understanding of the Applied Postmodern worldview.

The basics of applied postmodernism

The majority of people in the west hold a worldview that consists of an enlightenment, liberal understanding, seeing the world in terms of evidence based claims and objective reality. We presume that facts can indeed be falsified and that objective truths exist, independent of our subjective experience. This is not so with applied postmodernism. They completely reject this worldview. Everything that can be characterized as knowledge is based on subjective experience, rendering objective knowledge completely inaccessible. Language is used to legitimize knowledge, and subsequently used to marginalize certain groups within the pre-existing power structure.

Divergence from postmodernism

Postmodernism became popular during the mid-to-late twentieth century. This was a time when many scholars saw prominent explanations for how humans should orient themselves in the world—or metanarratives—such as Christianity or Marxism as failures. Skepticism was radical and widespread. Postmodernists created analytical tools which deconstructed and dismantled these metanarratives. However, humans need a metanarrative as a means to understand the world. Applied postmodernists are essentially creating their own—that the entirety of human history is a kind of power struggle. This assertion is where we see the divergence from the original postmodernists.

The grievance group were able to identify that starting in the late 1980s, the movement became extremely invested in nailing down which groups are marginalized and why. It was critical race theorist Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectionality that seems to have ushered in this shift in seeing the world as built and run by systems of power. 

At the end of her paper “Mapping the Margins,” Crenshaw states that intersectionality is a framework through which we can apply postmodernism to solve problems in the world and it begins with the acknowledgment that demographic identity is real and oppression based on identity is real. The old postmodernism couldn’t achieve the kinds of goals that she wanted. 

The applied postmodern metanarrative

The objective within applied postmodernism is to overthrow all binaries—a Derridean concept which states that one side of every binary is superior, leaving the other inferior. The goal is to liberate ourselves from these power dynamics entirely and not reproduce them. The problem is that these systems of power are set up to perpetuate legitimize and reproduce themselves. You could call this the applied postmodern metanarrative. They see society in terms of systems of power pushed through identity. The most important aspect is that each system of power is built to always maintain itself.

For example, science proceeds specifically not to find truths about objective reality, but instead to find what truths can be legitimized within the political system that created science. Therefore, it excludes the possibility of other truths discovered in non-western cultural or political systems. The science that we use is problematic because it only exists to reinforce the existing power structure.

Equity above all

In this world view everyone must do their due diligence, in a sense “take up their anti cis-hetero patriarchal cross daily.” If you are not actively fighting against the system you are for it. This is where these lower level philosophical shifts can be found manifesting themselves in everyday life.

Living your life as you see fit, going about your business is reinforcing the dominant power dynamic, because you are using the language of that power structure. This is how not fighting racism IS racism, not fighting sexism IS sexism, not fighting transphobia IS transphobia etc.

The master’s tools 

Scholar Audrey Lorde coined the phrase, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” The idea being that slaves could never tear down the house of the master, the master would not allow that. In application, debate, discussion, reason, evidence and so on are part of the master tools. These rhetorical tools are perpetuating the master’s house which is a white cis-hetero patriarchy. 

In looking back at the debate between Gay and Hoff Sommers, I can see why it went so poorly in light of this ideological framing. There is a belief by progressives that you can’t participate in the system by the system’s rules and undo that system at the same time, that you are in fact perpetuating the problem rather than fighting against it even if you are on the stage debating your point of view.

Gay perceived herself to already be at a disadvantage; the cards were “stacked against her” in a system where reasonable debate is a symptom of the current system of oppression. This could have been the source of the contempt I detected. It also could be why (and I am speculating), it appears that Gay regretted her decision to debate Sommers, cut the tour short, and did not want the footage to be released.

After my interview with Lindsay and Nayna, my understanding changed, not only of the way in which I saw the Gay-Sommers debate, but of how I viewed all of the applied postmodern rhetoric I had seen coming out of academia. I truly believed it was ridiculous foolishness. It is a deeply problematic way of viewing the world yes, but no, it is not foolish. These scholars are intelligent. It is not in our best interest to dismiss them as nonsensical. I believe it is imperative to understand this scholarship in order to know what we are disagreeing with in the first place.