Why I'm Tired of Hearing About "Wokeness"Roundup
tags: Cancel Culture, critical race theory, Wokeness, Moral Panic
Regina Rini is a professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto. Her most recent book is The Ethics of Microaggression (Routledge, 2020).
Superhero movies offer plenty of drama: big personalities, colorful explosions, the fate of the world hanging on the contest between good and evil. Thrilling as they may be, these movies don’t provide much practical guidance about saving the real world, where our problems demand more grappling with ambiguity than derring-do. Yet you can see the influence of superhero theatrics in public discourse about the culture wars. On Twitter and in podcasts, everything now seems to be an epochal struggle between two factions, the “Wokeists” and the “anti-Wokeists,” whose battles over social justice will doom or save us all.
I find this “final battle” framing less socially enlightening than, say, a video on air-conditioner repair. Air conditioners are complex systems that can fail in many ways. Fixing one is a delicate process — one that is not enhanced by identifying ideological enemies. Imagine a team of repair technicians falling into dispute over allegations that some are “Coldists” who secretly aim to turn the entire building into a frigid wasteland. Their bitter enemies, the “anti-Coldists,” refuse to install another wire until their opponents’ plot has been exposed and halted.
This would be a terrible approach to air-conditioning repair. It’s also a terrible approach to social justice. Our political and economic systems are incredibly complicated, packed with moving parts that no one entirely understands. And they are damaged by centuries of inequality and prejudice that still leave their mark on marginalized groups. Repairing all of this is hard; we are going to make mistakes, and some of these mistakes will be unjust. And so we ought to operate carefully.
That’s why I’m tired of hearing about “Wokeism,” especially from people who describe it in supervillain terms: a clandestine agenda of authoritarian Marxism, ending free speech, and extinguishing the Enlightenment torch of Reason. That framing certainly gets the blood pumping, but it does nothing to fix things.
Social-justice debates routinely descend into Manichaean fantasies. Writing in Commentary, the journalist Bari Weiss claims that Wokeists have already nearly realized their plot to suborn America’s cultural institutions, aided by the “cowardice” of right-thinkers who fail to flock to ideological battle stations. Considering those who unwisely traffic in nuance, Weiss says:
Each surely thought: “These protesters have some merit! This institution, this university, this school, hasn’t lived up to all of its principles at all times! We have been racist! We have been sexist! We haven’t always been enlightened! I’ll give a bit and we’ll find a way to compromise.” This turned out to be as naïve as Robespierre thinking that he could avoid the guillotine.
Weiss refers to a long list of people purportedly canceled or bullied by Wokeists. Some of her examples are overblown Fox News outrage bait, but in others someone really has been treated unjustly in the name of progress. Mixing indisputably troubling cases with tendentious examples is an old rhetorical trick, conjuring the appearance of overwhelming crisis from a few anecdotes. Add in Weiss’s Jacobin imagery and it feels almost prissily unsporting to respond: Yes, some of those are serious mistakes that need to be fixed, but let’s not lose our heads.
It would be bad enough if such rhetoric lived only on Twitter and Substack, but it has begun to creep into how we talk about academe — and into the founding ethos of the new university/publicity stunt Weiss has helped engineer. Pano Kanelos, who will lead the envisioned University of Austin, refers to himself and colleagues as “the cavalry” in what evidently must be a war.
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