The Soft Totalitarianism of Social Justice: A Tale of Two Books

Two books that have been recently published that are helpful in understanding the transition our culture has been experiencing regarding Social Justice, the overthrow of traditional sex and gender norms, critical race theory, and the like are:

Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay

Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher

Having written fairly extensively about the danger of Critical Race Theory for the church in my post “”Woke’ or ‘Broke’ Theology,” and its popular expression in Social Justice, these two books have recently been published concerning these issues as well. One is more theoretical and academic and addresses the implications for a classically liberal democracy. The other is practical and historically rich with details provided for Christians in how to dissent against the impending soft totalitarianism that is forthcoming.

They are unlikely bedfellows to say the least. James Lindsay is an atheist having written multiple books on the non-existence of God, while Rod Dreher, a senior editor and blogger at The American Conservative, is an Orthodox Christian.

Nevertheless, as the old adage goes: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This is becoming more the case as Critical Theory is gaining influence in popular culture and politics. For example, the militant atheist Peter Boghossian was interviewed (along with Lindsay) by Michael O’Fallon exposing the dangers of Critical Race Theory and Social Justice not only for the church but for society at large. Lindsay is also a keynote speaker for the conference The Great Awokening: Halting the Infusion of Critical Theories, Postmodernism, and Progressive Politics in the Christian Church alongside pastors and ministers.

A Critical Analysis of Critical Theory by the Grievance Studies Scholars

Cynical Theories looks at the development of postmodern thought and the effects of critical theory in scholarship and activism by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. Pluckrose is a self-described “exile from the humanities with research interests in late medieval/early modern religious writing by and about women.  She is editor-in-chief of Areo.” Lindsay, authoring multiple books about atheism and the non-existence of God, has a doctorate in math and background in physics. His essays have appeared in TIME, Scientific American, and The Philosophers’ Magazine.

Live Discussion: Cynical Theories Book Launch

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay gained wide attention with the ‘grievance studies‘ affair along with Peter Boghossian. They highlighted the pseudo-scholarship in several academic fields by submitting bogus academic papers to academic journals in cultural, queer, race, gender, fat, and sexuality studies that where published regardless of being passed by the peer review process of those journals.

In there book Pluckrose and Lindsay provide a guide in understanding the rise of Critical Theory from the postmodern turn of the 1960s to the present. Theory (with a capital T) refers to the social philosophy that stems from postmodernism. While many believed postmodernism died, they assert that it has “mutated into a handful of Theories – postcolonial, queer, and critical race” which aims to “reconstruct society in the image of an ideology which came to refer to itself as ‘Social Justice.'”

A chapter is dedicated to each mutation of postmodern theory: postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory and intersectionality, feminism and gender studies, and disability and fat studies. They round out the book with a look at how these studies and theories have been applied in a Social Justice context and propose a better way forward with liberalism without identity politics. They define liberalism as a political democracy, limitations on the powers of government, universal human rights, legal equality for all citizens, freedom of expression , and value for viewpoint diversity and debate, respect of evidence and reason, separation of church and state, and freedom of religion.

Learning From the Past to Fight the Future

Rod Dreher’s Live Not by Lies was inspired by individuals who suffered under the totalitarian communist governments during the Cold War. For several years Dreher began to talk to men and women who had once lived under communism and began to see a pattern emerge. Similarities between what happened to those individuals under the Soviet bloc of communism is beginning to happen in America. Namely, “Elites and elite institutions are abandoning old-fashioned liberalism [see Pluckrose and Lindsay’s definition of liberalism above], based in defending the rights of the individual, and replacing it with a progressive creed that regards justice in terms of groups. It encourages people to identify with groups – ethnic, sexual, and otherwise – and to think of Good and Evil as a matter of power dynamics among the groups. A utopian vision drives these progressives, one that compels them to seek to rewrite history [such as the 1619 Project] and reinvent language to reflect their ideals of social justice.”

Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents - The Thinking  Conservative

Dreher warns that this is difficult to realize because we live in America, “the land of liberty, individual rights, and one nation under God.” While what is occuring in the America is not identical to the Society Bloc countries, the threat to liberty is in the attitude of liberating victims from oppression.

Dreher differentiates what is happening here to the old Soviet Bloc with the expression: “soft totalitarianism.”

Hard vs Soft Totalitarianism:

Dreher explains the difference between the two in this interview:

Hard Totalitarianism is when an authoritarian government expands its claim to power to cover every aspect of life – including the inner life of its citizens. Stalinism (a common expression of hard totalitarianism) achieved that through terror and pain. This kind of system is what every American high school student read about in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I wouldn’t say it could never come here, but I don’t really think it will.

Instead, we are building a kinder, gentler version. What awakened the Soviet-bloc emigres is the way political correctness has jumped over the walls of the universities and is both intensifying and spreading through society’s institutions. The forms it takes, the language that it uses to justify itself, and the way that it tolerates absolutely no dissent – all of this is truly totalitarian.

What makes it soft? A couple of things. First, it is emerging within a democratic system, within the institutions of liberal democracy, without a state monopoly on power. Second, and more importantly, the emerging totalitarian system will not coerce compliance through pain and terror, but more from manipulating our comforts, including status. It will be more like the dystopia in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. That’s more pleasant to live through than Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it’s still totalitarian, and it will still have major long-term effects.

Dreher explains the advance of this soft totalitarianism in identity politics, woke capitalism, the surveillance technology of big tech, cancel culture, critical theory, and social justice.

The latter half of the book is Dreher’s suggestion in surviving a culture in which we live not by lies. Drawing off of the experience and stories of the Christians who survived the hard totalitarianism of the communist countries, he finds avenues in living in the truth in order to survive the soft totalitarianism he sees coming: value nothing but the truth, remembering the past, strength found in the family and religion, and learning to suffer well.

These avenues will be difficult to cultivate in a post-Christian America, but it is what sustained the faithful under the hard totalitarianism of communism. May we understand the times and be faithful under the impending soft totalitarianism that is coming.

Other Resources for Understanding Our Cultural Shift

Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth by Thaddeus Williams

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman

Why Social Justice Is Not Biblical Justice: An Urgent Appeal to Fellow Christians in a Time of Social Crisis by Scott Allen

Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture by Gene Edward Veith Jr

By J. Steve Lee

J. Steve Lee has taught Apologetics for over a decade at Prestonwood Christian Academy. He also has taught World Religions and Philosophy at Mountain View College in Dallas. With a degree in history and education from the UNT, Steve continued his formal studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary w/ an M.A. in philosophy of religion and has pursued doctoral studies at the UT-Dallas. He is finishing his dissertation at South African Theological Seminary. He has published several articles for the Apologetics Study Bible for Students (B&H Publishing, 2010) as well as articles & reviews in various periodicals including Philosophia Christi, Hope’s Reason: A Journal of Apologetics, and the Areopagus Journal.

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