Who can push back when wokeness overreaches?
The search for restraint amidst a hurtling crusade
Wokeness — a catch-all term for the collection of social justice movements, discourse, and attitudes that has risen to prominence in America since around the mid-2010s — provokes profound feelings of ambivalence in me. In general, I’m a believer in historian Ian Morris’ dictum that “each age gets the thought it needs”. There were reasons that wokeness emerged when it did; it was not an external imposition or a communist infiltration or any of the other nefarious plots its inveterate opponents accuse it of being.
In two earlier posts, I tried to lay out my theories of what those reasons were. In the first, I observed that by the early 2010s, America had become a country where the general social respect afforded to minorities of all kinds was out of step with the country’s increasing diversity and material equality. Wokeness, I posited, arose as a leveling movement for the upper rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy — a sort of socialism of respect. In the second post, I drew a connection between wokeness and Protestant Christianity, especially the Congregationalist abolitionism of the early 1800s. Seen from this perspective — which others are now picking up on — wokeness is a fundamental, recurrent part of the American nation. It’s also something that gives a sense of meaning and moral purpose to many young Americans for whom older creeds had lost their appeal.
In other words, I believe that wokeness was a thing whose time had come. And I believe that the movement has done a number of positive things in America. Even soe conservatives are starting to agree with me about this. But like many movements — not all, but most — it is beginning to overreach. The pent-up anger over decades (centuries, really) of systematic disrespect has generated an anger that will not be rapidly quenched by reasonable reforms and cultural evolution. And the quasi-religious nature of many White Americans’ approach to wokeness carries with it all of the inherent drawbacks of faith-based crusades in any time period.
So I thought I’d do a post listing a few examples of places where I think wokeness has gotten a bit over its skis, and then talk about how these excesses might be restrained.
Examples of woke overreach
How do I know that these are examples of overreach, instead of legitimate activism toward positive ends? Well, first of all, I’m a Humean, meaning that I believe that humans are guided by our moral sentiments, and that our ethical principles are generally just our attempts to make theories about our own innate senses of right and wrong. In other words, things are wrong because they feel wrong. Also, people disagree about tactics and effectiveness.
Each of these ten things feels wrong to me. Why? Either A) because it violates my own principles of liberal humanism and my own sense of what it means to be anti-racist and anti-sexist, or B) because it’s an ineffective praxis for combating racism and sexism in society. I want a society free of racism and sexism, and you should too. But that doesn’t mean that every piece of activism that believes itself to be combatting those forces is doing a good job of it. You may have a different opinion on one or all of these, and that’s fine.
Anyway, here’s the list:
1) The anti-police movement
An overwhelming amount of evidence, as well as expert consensus, says that police reduce crime, mostly by deterrence. The anti-police movement — first the “abolish” movement, and then later the “defund” movement — arose precisely at a time when violent crime has spiked in the U.S., with dozens of videos of Asian people being brutally attacked on the street. Not only has “defund the police” proven to be a political liability for the police reform movement, but it’s simply bad policy, period; to change the toxic culture of policing in this country will probably require budget increases, rather than budget cuts. Meanwhile, the idea of abolishing the police died when self-appointed “security” at a Seattle anarchist protest zone gunned down two innocent Black teenagers.
2) Inadvertent glorification of whiteness
In recent years, purportedly anti-racist literature and other materials have started to appear that associate various positive traits — punctuality, logic, and so on — with whiteness. Whatever the intent behind these materials (which seem to be mostly produced by White women like Tema Okun and Robin DiAngelo), they are almost certainly a terribly misguided approach to reducing racism. In fact, as many have noted, the approach itself is effectively racist.
3) The Boston MFA protests and the prom dress
In 2015, a group of protesters protested an exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that encouraged attendees — of all races — to wear kimonos. The protesters, who were themselves mostly (maybe entirely?) non-Japanese, alleged that this was a form of White appropriation of Asian culture. They were promptly opposed by a group of counter-protesters: the Japanese women who made and sold the kimonos to the attendees! In other words, non-Japanese American protesters had appropriated kimono culture for themselves and threatened to deprive Japanese people of their livelihood selling their country’s cultural products.
The episode showed how ridiculous the discourse around cultural appropriation had become. Three years later, an even sillier event clinched it. A Chinese-American Twitter user castigated a White girl in Utah for wearing a Chinese-style dress to prom, declaring “My culture is not your goddamn prom dress.” This explosion was widely — and quite correctly — ridiculed. A future America where daily life is defined by cultural segregation and gatekeeping is not one that most people would want.
4) Performative White silliness
In the years since wokeness first came to prominence, there has been a very large amount of rhetoric from White people that I can only describe as performative silliness. Here is an example from one of my earlier posts:
Anyone with young progressive White friends on Facebook or other social media is almost certainly aware of this variety of rhetoric. It’s hard to see how this sort of passionate but inchoate quasi-religious testimonial is helpful to the cause of ending racism. I think I’ll just leave it at that.
5) The college cafeteria firing
Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on a story from Smith College about a cafeteria worker who was threatened with firing for informing a Black student that she wasn’t allowed to eat in a space that had been reserved for young children. Later, a janitor called security to talk to the student, following a procedure forbidding janitorial staff from interacting with students on their own. Accusations of racism erupted, and the university apologized, even though its own investigation found that both employees were following procedures correctly and were not motivated by racism.
6) The degradation of the ACLU
Another, more recent Times story details how the American Civil Liberties Union has, in recent years, moved away from its traditional mission of defending civil liberties. Prominent figures within the organization have argued that the First Amendment is a tool of oppression, since it’s more easily used by the powerful than by the oppressed. New guidelines suggest that the organization avoid taking cases on behalf of hate groups, out of concern that this would cause “offense to marginalized groups”. In response to a Trump initiative that strengthened Title IX protections for people accused of sexual assault on campus, the ACLU protested that these new guidelines “unfairly favor the accused” — quite a reversal from its original ideology. If you believe that civil liberties are an important principle worth defending in its own right, these developments should be of concern.
I don’t personally have any problem with the word “Latinx” — I will call Hispanic or Latino or Latinx people whatever they choose to be called, and so should you. But the term is extremely unpopular among Hispanic/Latino Americans themselves:
This doesn’t necessarily mean that people despise the term, of course. But in a political environment in which Hispanic voters may be shifting toward the GOP, it seems like a bad idea for woke White activists to go around demanding that everyone use a word to describe Hispanics that Hispanics do not use to describe themselves.
8) Explicit racial discrimination
A recent Pride event in Seattle charged White attendees — and only White attendees — a $50 attendance fee, which the event called “reparations”. The Capitol Hill Pride organization promptly protested the explicit discrimination to the Seattle Human Rights Commission.
This sort of explicit discrimination seems like it might be illegal. Courts have been striking down Biden relief programs that explicitly exclude White recipients, so it seems reasonably likely that they could strike down Whites-only fees for private events if anyone ever bothers to sue. In any case, this sort of discrimination, whether it makes a useful point about history or not, is undoubtedly divisive and seems like a bad hill to die on.
9) Language craziness
Woke activism often focuses on trying to change the English language to expunge the perceived taint of racism. But these efforts often rely on false information. For example, there’s a false allegation that the word “picnic” originated with lynchings. There’s a false allegation that the phrase “rule of thumb” originated with wife-beating. The falseness of these ahistorical stories has not stopped offices at various colleges from trying to stamp out the use of these terms.
Meanwhile, a now-withdrawn plan to rename various San Francisco schools made various egregious mistakes. It tried to rename Sanchez Elementary, which the committee claimed was named after a Spanish conquistador who committed atrocities against Native people; instead, the school was named after a completely different innocuous Sanchez. Another targeted name turned out not to correspond to a real figure.
10) Creepy racial sensitivity trainings
Racial sensitivity trainings, done right, hold out the promise of creating more inclusive workplaces. However, they are often not done right. Jewish employees of Stanford University are accusing the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion program of creating a racially hostile work environment by forcing them into a “Whites-only” training group, where they were forced to read the book “White Fragility”. The complainants seem to have a reasonable case, as Jews were not considered White until relatively recently in history, and still suffer discrimination and often murderous attacks by White supremacists who claim that Jews are not White. But beyond that, the entire practice of ensuring equity and inclusion by forcing people of a certain racial group to read literature that is harshly critical of their racial group seems like a dubious practice for creating an equitable and inclusive work environment.
Anyway, there are ten examples of what I consider to be woke overreach. There are many more I could have named. (Update: Some of the ones that my Twitter followers named include the unfair cancellation of Aziz Ansari and the calls for the firing of a professor for using a common Chinese word that happened to sound slightly like an English racial slur.)
Like I said, your mileage may vary on each of these. And also, I don’t think most of these examples represent critical threats to the nation — we have far bigger problems than creepy diversity trainings and annoying language policing. The most serious threat is that a cultural backlash to this overreach will end up putting Republicans in power.
Still, ideological overreach does need to be pushed back against, otherwise it can grow into a serious problem. The question is: Who in America has the moral standing to push back?
The anti-wokes are probably not helping
A new “anti-woke” movement has arisen to combat wokeness. This includes, roughly speaking:
Republicans who want to ban “critical race theory” in schools and government
James Lindsay, Quillette magazine, Chris Rufo, the so-called “intellectual dark web”, and other online critics of critical race theory
Fox News and other conservative media, and especially Tucker Carlson
Each of these bastions of anti-wokeness is probably not helpful for pushing back against the overreaches listed in the previous section. Republicans, by taking up the cause, simply turn it into a partisan issue, making it politically more difficult for Democratic voters to speak up. Conservative media is like this too, but worse. And bans on teaching certain subjects are not just blatantly heavy-handed and authoritarian, but likely to be ineffectual.
As for the self-appointed online anti-woke crowd, they have the problem of being permeated by bad actors. For example, James Linsday has moved steadily toward explicit antisemitism, accusing Jews of bringing hatred upon themselves for being too woke:
Other members of the anti-woke movement, like Quillette founder Claire Lehmann, have finally realized this, and have turned decisively against Lindsay:
This is a good development, and it holds out the hope that sanity and reasonableness may yet prevail among a faction of the anti-wokes. But the fact that it took this long for them to realize what was bubbling in their midst is a bad sign. Either it indicates poor judgment, or an unwillingness to examine honestly the motives of their allies.
It stands to reason that any movement formed explicitly to fight against anti-racist activism would attract some number of people who think racism is actually a pretty good idea. There are a number of these in the anti-woke movement, and many of them have so far been neither purged nor denounced nor shunned.
The anti-woke people have managed to bring various woke overreaches to light — including some of the ones I mentioned above. But because they tend to view every woke activity as an appendage of a far larger permeation of American culture by woke ideology, their exposés tend to lack proportionality; they shout just as loud about the small stuff as the big.
So some other critics of woke overreach are needed.
The true force of restraint
If anyone has the moral standing in America to criticize woke overreach, it’s people who A) are committed to the goal of getting rid of racism and sexism, and B) have little or no vested interest in preserving the systems of oppression that wokeness claims to be fighting against.
One such person whom I know personally is Mansa Keita, the author of the above tweet criticizing the bizarre racial theories of Tema Okun & co. He’s normally a staunch defender of wokeness from the likes of James Lindsay, but is willing to call his own side out when they do the wrong thing. Another is the avowedly leftist and anti-colonial philosopher Liam Bright, whom I previously interviewed for this blog. In that interview, he wrote:
I just hope that people come to see that corporate diversity trainings, which seem largely to turn white people into insufferably anxious sycophants that I wouldn't want anything to do with, are not going to do much for black people. It's just etiquette training which companies presumably hope will make it less likely they get taken to court on workplace discrimination. Let's focus more on how it is we decide who it is that gets to be in rooms where decisions are made, and less on the etiquette norms that govern their speech while they are there. And while I am all for diversifying reading lists, I can't help but think that, as was once said by Femi Táíwò, if people want to talk about decolonising this and that why don't we start by decolonising Africa. Amidst all our cultural squabbles let's not forget who still owns what and why on the African continent. And so on. I hope that this sort of reorientation of our focus would be consistent with still being compassionate to people's genuine difficulties, and standing up for the rights of marginalised groups to civic equality, as justice demands.
A third is Darrell Owens, who has been one of the most effective police reform activists I know of, but who also does a great job pouring cold water on some of the more ridiculous aspects of woke culture.
(Update: A fourth is India Walton, a socialist Black woman who’s running for mayor of Buffalo, and who says that “defund the police” is politically unhelpful rhetoric. New York State Assembly member Diana Richardson may be a fifth example.)
Those are just a few, but there are more. Every movement needs people like this — people who support its overall goals, and who defend it against its worst critics, but who also work to restrain its excesses. If wokeness is going to ultimately be remembered as a movement that made America enduringly better instead of devolving into exhausting silliness, it needs a lot of people like this.
I think there's a lot of interesting things going on in the merging of corporate culture and woke culture, especially as an 'etiquette' for the professional class – I think a lot of the harm of woke excess comes from that merger. Even before the woke movement, corporate trainings were creepy and humiliating, and the current language policing really reminds me of having to say 'challenges' instead of 'problems' and generally contort my speech in a professional context.
I think a lot of this is out of a corporate desire to ensure obedience in employees to minimise risk for the company, and adding wokeness to it gives it a moral underpinning that is harder to rebel against. I always went for a 'cigarette break' (I don't smoke) during energisers at conferences, but you can't do that at a DEI training. Students protesting professors for ridiculous reasons is nothing new; the dominance of HR risk-aversion in university administrations causes those protests to be threatening.
This kind of corporate-approved woke behaviour is becoming a class marker for professionals, and since upper class markers by definition need to exclude the lower classes, I worry that the excesses will become stronger to keep the class barriers high.
Excellent post, as always. My one piece of criticism, though, is about the ACLU bit. Yes, they have had some internal debate about the way forward in an era of wokeness. It’s surely true that “Prominent figures within the organization have argued that the First Amendment is a tool of oppression, since it’s more easily used by the powerful than by the oppressed.” But also, the ACLU literally won the biggest Supreme Court First Amendment case in years yesterday, less than 24 hours before you posted this. Criticisms of the ACLU for going too woke often fail to acknowledge that they are still out there doing great work on the First Amendment every day. That they’re having debate over the scope of their work shouldn’t let us lose sight of the fact that they’re still the most effective defenders of the First Amendment in the courts that we have.