(Anti-)Wokeism as a Rorschach Test
Liberal speech norms and deciding which ideas are worthy of engagement.
Yesterday,took me to task for an offhand criticism of Andrew Sullivan’s views on trans people.
I want to use this critique to talk about a broader problem I see with a lens centrists often use when framing and talking about those issue bundled into the “culture war” or “social justice.” (On the short point of whether one should tag the target of one’s criticism, I tend to lean against, on grounds that we criticize people and their ideas all the time without walking up to them and saying those criticisms to their face, which is what tagging looks like in practice, and that this is especially true of people whose profession is arguing about ideas in public.)
Linker is an important and thoughtful critic of the illiberalism of the contemporary right. He’s a great interlocutor, too, as evidenced by his appearance on my podcast a while back:
But his writings on the illiberalism of the contemporary left I find less persuasive—and the call to “actively engage with Andrew’s arguments” is bound up in why.
A policy of blanket disengagement with political and social opinions we don’t share isn’t a virtue, of course. Nor is unfairly characterizing others’ positions as a way to deflect the challenges they present to your own. Our political culture has a tendency to declare positions unworthy of discussion much too quickly, and often with very little effort put in to understanding those positions in the first place. To take just one example, most of the people expressing concern about the dangers of critical race theory in fact know next to nothing about it.
At the same time, however, there are clearly ideas that can be criticized without active and deep engagement, and uncontroversially so. I can call flat earth theory nonsense, and don’t owe the flat-earther an extended debate. I can call Westboro Baptist Church members protesting a gay wedding bigots, and it would be odd to respond that actually I should give their “God hates fags” ideas a fair shake.
The issue isn’t whether we should always criticize ideas without active engagement or instead never criticize ideas (or their speakers) without actively engaging then, because no one is staking out either position. Instead, all of us believe that some ideas are worthy of engagement and others aren’t. The question is which ideas are which.
This was, I should note, my reaction to Linker’s inaugural essay on his new newsletter about illiberalism on the cultural left. I didn’t write them out at the time because I didn’t have a blog for such things. But now I do, so consider what follows a rather late response prompted by the question of whether Andrew Sullivan’s anti-trans opinions are of the sort worth taking intellectually seriously.
The debate regarding speech norms, including norms of criticism, is typically presented by people who warn of rising illiberalism as a question of whether speech is more restricted now than it used to be—i.e., whether ours is an increasingly censorious culture. On the one side are liberals with a commitment to free speech and open inquiry on principle. On the other wide are illiberals, often of the woke sort, who oppose principles of free speech and open inquiry.
While that divide is part of it, a great deal of what gets presented as hinging on that divide instead is a matter of which ideas and opinions deserve respect and engagement, and which ideas and opinions it is permissible to harshly criticize or dismiss out of hand.
We can see this latter play out in Linker’s essay. He defines “wokeism,” which he places in opposition to liberalism (in the open society and open inquiry sense), as, to paraphrase, young progressives using social pressure to advance their non-mainstream values—in the broader culture, but also within corporate and educational institutions. The thing is, whether such behavior is illiberal depends quite a lot upon what those values are.
The civil rights protests of the 1960s were largely young progressive and comparatively left-wing activists pushing their values hard by applying heavy social pressure. And those values were well outside the mainstream. Further, their activism was disruptive, shaming those who disagreed, challenging the media to revise how it covered the issues, calling for an end to racism on television and among political commentators, and so on. But few outside of the fringes of the contemporary right would label the civil rights movement—or the movement for women’s rights, or gay rights—“woke” or “illiberal” because the values the civil rights movement strongly pushed were the correct ones.
Going back to Linker’s essay, the behaviors he calls out as problematic and examples of wokeism run illiberally amok—specifically Netflix employees upset about a show Netflix put out and New York Times employees upset about the way their paper has been covering a particular issue—seem to be of the sort most liberals would find perfectly acceptable in many circumstances. If Netflix had paid for and released a comedy special by an avowed white supremacist making jokes about the inferiority of Blacks, or if the Times were publishing countless think pieces about how maybe we should be worried about what the Jews are up to (or at the very least be asking a lot of leading questions), my guess is few would see a problem with employees demanding change. Thus the central issue is less about whether young progressive employees exercising pressure is necessarily a problem, and instead about whether anti-trans beliefs and jokes specifically—Linker’s examples of woke activism focus on trans issues—rise to the same level of unacceptability as racism or antisemitism.
It’s not an accident that so many critiques of wokeism focus on transgender issues. Many Americans, even liberal Americans, are skeptical of trans identities, worried about transitioning, or just believe transgender people aren’t a persecuted class in the same way as Blacks or Jews or gay people. (Though Americas are far more accepting of trans rights and identities than the mainstream press makes them out to be, or than conservatives want you to believe.) And it seems to me that’s much more the core of the debate about wokeism, particularly in the way Linker frames it, than is the broader issue of liberalism versus illiberalism. That the woke side argues that positions still within the mainstream nonetheless fall within the category of bigotry doesn’t by itself tell us a lot, either, because American history is full of widely held opinions that later generations recognized as hateful, bigotry, or otherwise unacceptable.
Liberalism means embracing freedom of expression, but freedom of expression also includes robust critiques of viewpoints, even within private associations such as workplaces or schools. Freedom of expression doesn’t just mean writing measured, competing think pieces. It includes activism and social pressure, disruptive marches, boycotts, sit-ins, and employees demanding their employers change. That we can think of countless examples where such behaviors weren’t merely acceptable, but were just and praiseworthy (the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement), even in the face of mainstream disagreement, tells us that the debate we need to be having is about which views rightfully belong within the cultural Overton Window, and which are deserving of being dismissed or shamed.
This doesn’t mean the woke left is entirely correct in their assessment, or that all concerns about transgender surgery are outright bigotry, or that anyone who differs on values should be shunned. But my worry is that a lot of conversations about what values ought to be treated with respect or priviledge get lost or papered over as a way to dismiss the challenges social justice presents to beliefs and values the mainstream still considers acceptable—but perhaps shouldn’t.
I'm troubled by your characterization of Andrew Sullivan's recent posts as anti-trans. I think they take a fully liberal position with regard to people who identify as transgender. His concerns, as I understand them, are with (1) the ideology that some highly visible trans advocates have adopted and the impact it has had on the gay and lesbian communities (and I have heard from members of those communities that they have indeed begun to feel marginalized in this way); (2) the element of that ideology that denies the relevance of child/adult and family/non-family distinctions. I don't know whether the issue is that you are reading Sullivan differently than I (in which case I may have missed something), or whether you are listening to Sullivan selectively (I think that would be a problem).
But I want to focus on a more general aspect of left illiberalism, which I (like many others) see as the power of articulate progressive activism to simultaneously alienate natural allies and so weaken the Left, and strengthen the far Right, which I, like you, see as far more dangerous, both in ideology and in the tangible threat to our society.
In the midwestern college town where I live, a dark blue spot in a red sea, there was four years ago an inflammatory incident concerning the doxxing of some local farmers as white nationalists, affiliated with a now-defunt organization called Identity Evropa (or American Indentitarian Movement). The news generated a large and well organized response in the form of an anti-hate group that adopted both strident progressive rhetoric and a no-tolerance stance towards the white nationalists. The details aren't relevant, but the effect of the well-organized, aggressive, and relentless activism by this progressive group (full of bright and talented people) was actually to alienate a large segment of the liberal population (including the all-Democratic city government) and to create a startling and alarming degree of sympathy for the white nationalist individuals (as well as providing their organization with terrific grist for national recruitment). The substance of the issue--the dark natureof white nationalism--was overwhelmed by the social form of the encounter, which fit the narrative of marginalized individuals being persecuted by a powerful group. It was political theater that completely misunderstood the dynamic of audience perception. (In our case, the curtain was brought down suddenly by the pandemic, so we were spared several acts and what was likely to have been a bad resolution.)
This on-the-ground experience--not a reaction to illiberalism in the abstract--makes me alert to the warnings that Damon Linker has formulated in his discussion of how best to respond to the issues of transgender rights and the dangers of conflating opposition to transgender ideology and positions on responding to transgender issues of minors with opposition to transgender rights.
I don't personally know what to think about transgender ideology (as I understand it) or proper treatment for gender dysphoria, and I don't think I ought to know--the entire set of issues is very new, based on a first-draft of ideas and relatively sparse and conflicting medical/sociological data. I feel it's a given that the basic rights of transgender people should be as robust as those of cisgender people, there are also sensitive and complex issues that seem to have no simple resolution (gendered sports being an example), and I'm suspicious of anyone who claims that solutions are simple and obvious. What is obvious to me is that these issues have provided a powerful platform for those who view the Left as an enemy, those who wish to return to sexual puritanism, and those who wish to control or destroy public education--all part of the toxic threat to the American liberal tradition that has become our everyday political environment.
As a final note, I'd like to add that as a veteran of 1960s activism, it seems to me that the most ideologically strident aspect of that was not the civil rights movement but the anti-war movement. And while I was part of both and hold the same view of the war I did then, I also recall that the manner in which we went about our activism brought us Nixon, five out of six presidential elections with GOP wins, the end of the long era of Democratic dominance in Congress, and the Rightward shift of working class voters. If I could go back to, say, 1968, I'd be telling those I was marching with that we were right, but needed to rethink our approach because we were not actually doing good.
Sorry to be so longwinded as a visitor to your blog. I've been reading you on Notes and today's just hit me the wrong way.
I've always believed that professional "social commentators" are so far removed from the actual-personal-on-the-ground reality of the societies on which they are commenting, as to be essentially worthless. For them, it appears to be nothing more than a academic game, an exercise in debate in which they have zero skin in the game... in fact, it rarely seems as if they have ever even been in the stadium. Of course, they are free to expostulate as much as they'd like, but I choose not to buy what they're selling.