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Guillotines and pitchforks make for arousing imagery, but they won’t solve any problems.
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.
Frightening images abound when anti-Wokeists describe their enemies. Writing in The New York Times (and promoting a new book called Woke Racism), the linguist John McWhorter claims: “There is a pitchfork aspect to how this way of thinking is penetrating our institutions of enlightenment. With an unreachable pitilessness, a catechism couched in an elaborate jargon is being imposed almost as if sacred.”
Here in The Chronicle Review, the philosopher Justin E.H. Smith accuses Matthew Mayhew, an education professor who lengthily apologized for thoughtless remarks, of “renouncing his former standing as a rational individual in order to blend into a mass movement that very emphatically makes no room for his individual rationality.”
Yes, the Mayhew apology reads as cringingly over the top, but that doesn’t mean his very self was plundered. Can’t this just be a thoughtful person getting a bit too publicly excited about a new way of thinking? Otherwise, what must we think of poor old Kant confessing Hume stirred him from “dogmatic slumber” — was the Sage of Königsberg just another Woken shell of an intellect?
First, requiring diversity statements in job materials places responsibility for correcting entrenched historical injustice in exactly the wrong place: on disempowered applicants (often themselves members of marginalized groups), rather than on the top-of-the-hierarchy administrators who can actually make systemic change. Second, requiring these statements as part of the hiring process encourages candidates to think about diversity as just another marketable skill, something to puff up and cynically stage like everything else in one’s portfolio.
Agree with these criticisms or not — but notice they don’t involve ascribing a devious agenda to diversity-statement proponents. I think administrators who impose diversity-statement requirements are doing their best to address a difficult problem, even as I believe they’ve made a mistake. This should be a collegial disagreement over a somewhat technical problem, a careful survey of all those air-conditioner components spread out on the desk.
But we can’t have that collegial disagreement while others keep pulling the Wokeism alarm. Writing in Commentary, the political theorist Jonathan Marks claims, “In the hands of faculty bodies that are already overwhelmingly left-liberal, diversity statements are likely to function as litmus tests that further narrow the ideological range of faculty.” Frank McCormick, a history teacher and author of many impassioned tweets about critical race theory, says diversity statements are “what ideological screening in education looks like. This is how the Woke uses gatekeeping to maintain institutional capture.”
We can’t have collegial disagreement while others keep pulling the Wokeism alarm.
That sounds terrible. But is it happening? Isn’t it more likely that job candidates will tackle diversity statements the same way they do other application materials: look up examples on the internet, change a few details, and render the entire thing in bland inoffensive prose that no one on the hiring committee will want to read?
Yes, you can choose to write a shock-jock diversity statement to invite political combat, but it is sadly easy for anyone, no matter their beliefs, to submit a platitudinous paean to the value of inclusive teaching. We already train our grad students to tailor application cover letters for small liberal-arts colleges, big public universities, and places with eccentric mission statements. This is all just marketing, not grand ideological struggle.
Which, as I said, is why requiring diversity statements in hiring is a bad idea. Correcting historical injustice in academe is too serious to treat as just another PDF upload or entry on a search-committee spreadsheet. That conversation shouldn’t be conducted through job-market materials — but that’s because it is too important, not because it is a stalking horse for angry mob ideology.
Trainings now aim at ends that are not only tendentious but even contrary to one of the chief ends of the university itself, which is the pursuit of truth. The problem is that “training” tends to assume that the truth is already known. It claims expert knowledge of truths about such complex and abstract things as “justice” and “race” and “gender.” But when these “truths” are, in fact, a matter of reasonable disagreement and current political contestation, the trainings become indoctrinations.
That certainly does sound terrible! But isn’t the problem here with trainings as such, not specifically about diversity training? As Corey and Polet go on to say: “Training stipulates the truth of its goal, and thus operates outside the proper authority and function of academic life itself. Educators take nothing to be self evident; trainers take everything to be so.” Understood literally, this view of academe — that its practitioners should take nothing for granted — implies educators should never be trained on anything, not even a payroll interface or PowerPoint. But, of course, that’s unworkable in practice. There is an inevitable tension in requiring academics — people prized for their independent thinking — to sometimes suspend their autonomy for the sake of keeping a large institution manageable. Yet we do it anyway for things like accounting rules and hiring practices. The answer isn’t as simple as that iconoclastic slogan “take nothing to be self evident.”
Perhaps Corey and Polet mean to restrict their views on training to topics of “reasonable disagreement and current political contestation.” But who decides which disagreements are reasonable? When I taught in the United States, I was required to attend an active-shooter training, which said I must hide from a rampaging gunman and physically resist only if I had no other option. Suppose I were a personal-defense fanatic, insistent on my right to carry my sidearm to every lecture and promptly take down bad guys as they appear. Gun rights, of course, are a matter of political contestation in the United States. Would Corey and Polet say this is not a reasonable disagreement? Or must we conclude this don’t-shoot-back training was impermissible indoctrination?
It doesn’t end there. Marxist academics, for instance, are likely to find indoctrination in training sessions on corporate partnerships and copyright regulation. There is no neutral point of view that determines which trainings are pure and which intrude on academic freedom. Every academic will have their own views about the dividing line. And yet institutions must, as a practical necessity, draw the line somewhere.
None of this is to say we must quietly accept whatever diversity training our institutions impose. These are still challenging issues and it’s certainly possible to get them wrong. Like everyone, I’ve heard horror stories of particularly alienating and counterproductive techniques. And like teaching, training can go badly in more pedestrian ways: It can be pedantic, obscure, plodding. Bad training should be fixed or replaced. But it needs to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, with attention to the messy, granular details. It doesn’t help to presume that all diversity training must be suspicious.
This problem extends even to scholarship itself. Anti-Wokeists often accuse their opponents, like the education theorist Robin DiAngelo and the historian Ibram X. Kendi, of massively oversimplifying complex social phenomena. I think there’s something to this critique, but it often comes drowned in an equally oversimplifying story about dastardly assaults on our sacred Enlightenment values. I can learn from thoughtful, point-by-point rebuttals of these views without the rhetorical intrusion of epochal ill winds. I learn nothing from bombast.
Here are two thoughts we ought to be able to hold in our heads at the same time. First: Our institutions are still riven with centuries-old inequalities. Second: Sometimes well-intentioned people respond to this problem by overcorrecting and inflicting unfairness on others. Keeping both thoughts active at once is difficult. Finding actual solutions is even harder. But we make no progress by imaginatively exchanging real life for the superhero Götterdämmerung of Woke vs. anti-Woke. Fight scenes are entertaining; they don’t save the world.