The "Woke" Revolution and the Threat to Liberalism

Hyperbole doesn't help, but the causes for concern are real

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My Arc Digital colleague Nicholas Grossman’s recent entry in the Great Wokeness Debate is a thoughtful and useful contribution in several ways. It doesn’t discount the existence of left-wing illiberalism, or the fact that it creates genuine problems—it just questions whether the scope of these problems amounts to a crisis. Specifically, it warns against comparing the problems of free societies to totalitarian atrocities like the Cultural Revolution. And, for what it’s worth, I agree with many if not most of the statements Grossman makes at the end summarizing his perspective.

That said, Grossman’s piece understates the problem—and glosses over some cultural and social developments that should be genuinely troubling.

Unlike some other would-be “cancel culture” debunkers such as blogger Michael Hobbes, Grossman does not seek to minimize various “cancellation” episodes. He argues, however, that the critics have still failed to demonstrate that these episodes amount to a “crisis” or a pervasive problem as opposed to a scattering of bad incidents and that evidence of a resulting “chilly climate” is unclear.

The problem, of course, is that the chilly climate related to the cultural shifts of the last decade—specifically, heightened sensitivity to inequities and insults related to race/ethnicity, sex, sexuality, gender identity, etc.—is extremely hard to measure. Some have cited polls showing that conservatives feel more inhibited than liberals about expressing their opinions; others have said that these polls show nothing useful. Grossman suggests that skittish conservatives are more intimidated by reports of “cancel culture” in the right-wing media than by “cancel culture’s” actual existence. No doubt this is sometimes true. By the same token, one could argue that women and racial minorities who say that sexism and racism are serious problems are reacting more to the mainstream media’s constant litany of alarm about sexism and racism than to their own “lived experience.” This is also sometimes true.

In addition, the problem is much bigger than conservatives feeling there is a hostile climate for their opinions. As I noted in my recent piece on “cancel culture” in The Bulwark, many “cancellation” episodes are directed at liberals and progressives who have transgressed against “woke” orthodoxy—whether by failing to embrace a newly required opinion or by transgressing against new social codes. Grossman points out that according to a Cato Institute survey, the increase in people agreeing that “the political climate these days prevents me from saying things I believe because others might find them offensive” from August 2017 to July 2020 was largest among self-proclaimed “strong liberals” (from 30 percent to 42 percent) and smallest among “strong conservatives” (from 76 percent to 77 percent); among all other groups, the increase was seven percentage points. Grossman suggests that the growth in “political climate”-related self-censorship among “strong liberals” is likely due to Trumpism; but this shift could also be primarily among liberals who have reservations about some aspects of progressive dogma—e.g. the Black Lives Matter movement, or transgender issues.

“Cancellations” may also target nonpolitical people who unknowingly violate those new social codes—e.g., by wearing a “culturally insensitive” Halloween costume, or making a 911 call deemed to be racist, or using a racial slur in the style of a rapper.

I’m not sure there is any way to measure the impact of these trends. But it would be interesting to do a survey asking people if they have been wrongly accused of some form of bigotry in the past 12 months (or 18 months, to cover the racial “reckoning” of the summer of 2020) and whether they have suffered personal damage as a result. A broader survey could ask whether this has happened to the respondent’s friend or family. “Are you worried about being wrongly accused of racism, sexism or other forms of bigotry, with negative repercussions? Are you more worried, less worried, or equally worried about it now than you were two year ago?” would be useful questions.

Obviously, the results wouldn’t be conclusive: the person worried about being wrongly accused of bigotry may be an actual bigot, or may be worried for no reason. But such subjectivity is a factor in many other surveys on various social problems.

Absent convincing evidence from surveys, when does the plural of anecdotes become data? Grossman, like other critics of the “cancel culture” narrative such as Liberal CurrentsAdam Gurri, sees evidence of the relative rarity of the problem in the small number of disinvitations and other “targeting” or “cancellation” incidents in academia as chronicled by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the National Association of Scholars. But for one thing, the NAS list is far from complete. It does not include, for some reason, the high-profile case of Laura Kipnis, the Northwestern University film studies professor who was the target of a drawn-out Title IX complaint for writing about sexual harassment charges. It also leaves out some minor cases that I know of: for example, the 2019 incident at Doane University in Nebraska where a library exhibit of photos from student scrapbooks and yearbooks was shut down, and librarian Melissa Gomis put on leave, because of two 1926 Halloween party photos that included blackface costumes.

More importantly, the recorded cases involving formal complaints, investigations, and sometimes sanctions are likely the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of schools, for instance, have “Bias Response Teams” that investigate often anonymous reports of bias incidents, which have at least sometimes targeted professors and students for opinions on sensitive issues, not just actual expressions of bias such as a science professor telling a female student that as a woman, she might find the material too difficult. No one knows how many of these incidents are minor enough to fly under the radar but nonetheless intimidating. Consider the bizarre recent saga at Yale where an associate dean and a diversity director tried to strong-arm a law student, Trent Colbert, into apologizing for a supposedly “racist” and “triggering” party invite which mentioned the phrase “trap house” and fried chicken—and made thinly veiled threats of career repercussions if he did not comply. Is this a rare aberration, or does the school officials’ behavior suggest that this is a “new normal” for them? This case came to light because Colbert secretly recorded the conversations and made them public. How many other incidents of such bullying go, as it were, unrecorded?

Academia aside, I’d say that the sheer number of “cancellations” from all walks of life suggests a pattern. Some have suggested that the frequent recycling of the same “cancellation” incidents in “anti-woke” accounts show that their range is extremely limited. But there are plenty of other incidents that don’t get mentioned, and may not even be on the radar of what Grossman calls “the anti-woke beat.”

I haven’t, for instance, seen any “cancel culture” articles mention several disgraceful episodes I documented in my recent Bulwark piece, such as the savaging earlier this year of Bachelor contestant Rachael Kirkconnell. Kirkconnell was mobbed on Tik-Tok for various “racist” crimes such as attending a “plantation-themed” party in college in 2018 (i.e. one where women wore Southern antebellum-style gowns), wearing a Native American Halloween costume on another occasion—and, I kid you not, having an overly dark tan in some social media photos, which her accusers call “brownfishing.” (Kirkconnell was browbeaten into a self-flagellating apology, and Bachelor host Chris Harrison was forced out for suggesting that she deserved some “grace” for her past mistakes.) Or the destruction of Kindness Yoga, a Denver, Colorado yoga studio chain driven out of business by a social media campaign in the summer of 2020 after getting “called out” for insufficiently quick and enthusiastic expressions of solidarity with Black Live Matter. Or the often-nasty campaign against science journalist Jesse Singal, accused not only of “transphobia” for questioning the tendency to steer gender-dysphoric adolescents into transitioning, but of having a “creepy” obsession with transgender women.

(There are many more: for instance, the pillorying of a Portland, Oregon woman nicknamed “Crosswalk Cathy,” who had to scrub her entire online presence after her call to a parking hotline about a car partially blocking a crosswalk turned into a viral video that accused her of making a racist call to the police since the car’s owners happened to be black. “Cathy” was doxed, and some “anti-racist” Twitter warriors tried to get her fired.)

Another reason “cancel culture” episodes should not be seen as merely random incidents: they usually have mainstream, respectable backing. Progressive media outlets, and progressive journalists on social media, often participate in and amplify the witch-hunts—or at least defend them as “accountability.”

Lastly, I agree with Grossman that the use of government power to target speech—such as the move in Florida to stop state university professors from testifying against the state in a voting rights case as paid experts—should be alarming to all free speech supporters. (Ditto for the apparent use of state laws to curtail the teaching of critical race theory at the university level.) But one also shouldn’t underestimate the danger of illiberal orthodoxy within cultural institutions and professions.

The stories keep coming. Earlier this month, for instance, astronomer John Kormendy withdrew a preprint paper that sought to examine how human-resource evaluations of astronomy Ph.D.’s correlate with the later impact of their work. The paper drew a fierce backlash from those who claimed it did not give enough consideration to racial and gender bias in evaluations and could therefore undermine diversity efforts. Kormendy not only retracted the paper (which had passed peer review and, whatever its flaws, could have simply been debated) but issued a typically abject apology. Among other things, this sends a strong signal to young scholars that research which could displease the “social justice” set is best avoided.

Can institutional pressures sometimes silence “undesirable” speech more effectively than government action? In a liberal democracy, government actions are subject to demands for transparency and to public challenges in a way that the decisions and actions of private institutions are not. This is entirely appropriate. But in some cases—for instance, when there is a lack of ideological diversity among private institutions in a particular field—this can mean that non-governmental pressures are harder to counteract.

Enforced Orthodoxy

Analogies between the current cultural moment in America and Maoism, Stalinism, and other totalitarian regimes are obviously hyperbolic. But there is a reason these analogies keep coming up—often from people who have personal experience with totalitarian regimes and revolutions. The “woke” variety of illiberal progressivism does not simply seek to stigmatize and in many cases punish “bad” speech or “wrong” ideas; it tends to demand an active embrace of its orthodoxy. I’m not going to argue that all corporate or academic “diversity and inclusion” training is “woke” zealotry (as I noted over a year ago, a close look at the workshops chronicled by anti-“critical race theory” crusader Christopher Rufo shows that many are far less dogmatic than his cherrypicked accounts suggest). But there’s a reason White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo is in great demand as a diversity trainer. How many corporate employees who disagree with the orthodoxy feel free to push back against it either at workshops or on internal message boards?

Meanwhile, in academia, a new study by the American Enterprise Institute—critique the source if you like, but the research seems solid—shows that one in five job postings include a requirement to demonstrate commitment to “diversity and inclusion.” Take this statement from a recent description of an opening for assistant professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, a position “focused on architectural materials, construction methods and processes”:

The College of Arts & Architecture is working to establish a culture of anti-racism and anti-oppression that embraces individual identities, fosters a culture of inclusion, and promotes equity through curricula, values, standards, ideals, policies and practices. The ideal candidate will provide evidence of their experience with, and interest in, contributing to these goals.

(And please don’t tell me this is simply a commitment to an equitable and respectful learning environment, and not at all to ideology.)

The Cultural Revolution analogies also get a boost from the fact that the so-called “Great Awokening” that began circa 2013 is, in a very real sense, a cultural revolution, lower-case. It demands a constant effort to re-engineer attitudes to “unlearn” and root out racism, sexism, homophobia and other bigotries that are seen as pervasive in our culture. There is, of course, nothing unusual or inherently sinister about social and political movements seeking to change social attitudes. But there are several things that set “woke” progressivism or “social justice” apart from such movements, and invite the totalitarian analogies:

  • The extremely broad (as it were, totalistic) scope of the transformation that is being pursued. This stems from “intersectionality,” which posits that anti-oppression “work” must champion all “marginalized” identities.

  • The insistence that the expression of (broadly defined) opinions and attitudes that “uphold oppression” causes intolerable “harm.”

  • The belief that “oppressive” or bigoted attitudes are subtly and deeply embedded in language, culture, customs, practices, and interactions, which is “harmful” and must be uncovered and purged.

  • The belief that cultural practices which may have a past connection to racism—or other oppressions—must be aggressively “interrogated” and discarded or stigmatized, and that people who have engaged in such practices must express repentance. (See the Rachael Kirkconnell episode.)

I agree that the “woke” capture of mainstream academia, the media, and cultural institutions is sometimes exaggerated. I stress “mainstream” because the existence of right-wing media and other conservative institutions is a separate issue. If all academic, cultural, or news organizations that are not explicitly and consciously conservative or right-wing were completely “woke,” that would be a troubling situation: that way lies the further polarization and fracturing of our culture with very little room for compromise, mutual understanding, neutrality, or nuance. We don’t want ideologically “woke” and ideologically right-wing to be the only available options. (And if everyone’s forced to pick one of those, progressives might not like how many people with left-of-center views on economics or various other issues choose).

Mainstream institutions are full of people who genuinely and zealously believe there should be no room for opposing views, and that’s alarming enough. What’s more, the “capture” has been sufficiently pervasive to skew coverage and analysis of some important issues—from police violence and the 2020 riots to the debates about feminism and gender identity.

Of course there is still room for self-correction; the critiques of “cancel culture” and “wokeness” are part of that. And while excessive hyperbole by the critics may create problems of its own, entrenched illiberalism in ostensibly liberal institutions seems like the bigger problem.