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Monday, November 28, 2022

Has ‘The Great Awokening’ Gone Too Far?

Photo by Jerome on Unsplash

Several years ago I did the training to become a Seattle Urban Nature Guide with the Seattle Parks Department. Most of the training was run by the naturalists at Discovery Park. But there was a “diversity training” segment for which a different team of trainers was brought in. I think they worked for the City of Seattle, but they might have been outside contractors.

As part of the workshop we completed a series of questions about our age, race, gender, sexual orientation, relationship status, education, place of residence, home ownership (or not) etc. There was some way in which our answers resulted in a diagram or map. I can’t recall the specifics. We were working in small groups.

At some point one of the trainers came to our group and peered over our shoulders at our forms. When she looked at mine, which showed me to be older, white, male, heterosexual and whatever else, she said in a light-hearted, joking way, “Oh, wow, you’re everything we’re against.” It was said both off-handedly and playfully. But it was one of those times when behind the jest, there was some pinprick of truth. I was the problem. Not me personally, but the type or identity indicated by my answers to the questionnaire.

I was a little startled by her words, but continued on with the workshop where we learned that outdoor education was not sufficiently diverse and inclusive, and what our role was to be in changing that.

I recalled this experience as I read Andrew Sullivan’s recent post titled “The Roots of Wokeness.” As I mentioned in a blog, Sullivan, who recently left his job — under pressure — as a regular columnist with New York magazine and has resumed his popular blog, “The Daily Dish.” I have been reading him, online or in books, for years and found him to be a excellent and provocative writer whose contrarian bent appeals to me.

In his post Sullivan gives extended attention to what is known as “Critical Theory,” how it evolved from postmodernism into today’s Social Justice Movement. (Note: to be critical of this philosophy is not be against social justice in the normal understanding of those words. It is be critical of the underlying philosophy suggested by the capitalized and more ideological version of “Social Justice.”) One feature of Critical Theory, which recalled my experience in the Parks Department training, is that no one is an individual. Everyone is the intersection of a variety of social identities. Here’s Sullivan on that.

“[I]n this worldview, individuals only exist at all as a place where these group identities intersect. You have no independent existence outside these power dynamics. I am never just me. I’m a point where the intersecting identities of white, gay, male, Catholic, immigrant, HIV-positive, cis, and English all somehow collide. You can hear this echoed in the famous words of [Congress member] Ayanna Pressley: ‘We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need any more black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.’ An assertion of individuality is, in fact, an attack upon the group and an enabling of oppression.” (italics added)

That is how in the Seattle Parks Department Diversity Training I could be “everything we’re against.” My identity or identities indicated that I was at a certain social location by virtue of which I was, in the world of Critical Theory, an oppressor.

As I’ve said before, we are all shaped by our experience and our social location is important. But there’s a way in which Critical Theory and the Movement it has spawned have become so rigid, in the name of Social Justice, that it is itself oppressive.

A related feature of Critical Theory, derived from post-modern philosophy, is that there is no truth, only power. This shows up today in interpretation of biblical texts, as well as in analysis of other forms of literature. All such analysis of texts looks at them in terms not of the truth they may convey about life, the eternal, or the human condition, but in terms of power. Whose interests are being served by this text?

Here’s Sullivan, again:

“Truth is always and only a function of power. So, for example, science has no claim on objective truth, because science itself is a cultural construct, created out of power differentials, set up by white cis straight males. And the systems of thought that white cis straight men have historically set up—like liberalism itself—perpetuate themselves, and are passed along unwittingly by people who simply respond to the incentives and traditions of thought that make up the entire power-system, without being aware of it. There’s no conspiracy: we all act unknowingly in perpetuating systems of thought that oppress other groups. To be ‘woke’ is to be ‘awake’ to these invisible, self-reinforcing discourses, and to seek to dismantle them—in ourselves and others.

“There is no such thing as persuasion in this paradigm, because persuasion assumes an equal relationship between two people based on reason. And there is no reason and no equality. There is only power. This is the point of telling students, for example, to ‘check their privilege’ before opening their mouths on campus. You have to measure the power dynamic between you and the other person first of all; you do this by quickly noting your interlocutor’s place in the system of oppression, and your own, before any dialogue can occur. And if your interlocutor is lower down in the matrix of identity, your job is to defer and to listen.

“That’s partly why diversity at the New York Times, say, has nothing to do with a diversity of ideas. Within critical theory, the very concept of a ‘diversity of ideas’ is a function of oppression. What matters is a diversity of identities that can all express the same idea: that liberalism is a con-job. Which is why almost every NYT op-ed now and almost every left-leaning magazine reads exactly alike.” (italics added)

I realize that I have gone on, already, at length and that this is all pretty heady stuff. But I agree with Sullivan that the philosophical commitments that are driving this body of thought, analysis and activism need scrutiny. I look forward to reading the book which he recommends for that.

Here’s one more excerpt from Sullivan in which he contrasts the Social Justice Movement approach to oppression with that of late John Lewis. In doing so, he suggests what is at stake here.

“For me, these theorists do something less forgivable than abuse the English language. They claim that their worldview is the only way to advance social progress, especially the rights of minorities, and that liberalism fails to do so. This, it seems to me, is profoundly untrue. A moral giant like John Lewis advanced this country not by intimidation, or re-ordering the language, or seeing the advancement of black people as some kind of reversal for white people. He engaged the liberal system with non-violence and persuasion, he emphasized the unifying force of love and forgiveness, he saw black people as having agency utterly independent of white people, and changed America with that fundamentally liberal perspective.”

I am concerned about these issues, less for myself than for my grandchildren, and perhaps most of all, my grandsons. It is hard enough these days being a boy. Critical theory, which has become hugely popular in elite educational institutions, adds another layer for boys trying to find their way.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinsonhttps://www.anthonybrobinson.com/
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.

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  1. I read the Sullivan piece the other day, and have been having an involved discussion about it with some friends online. While I agree with the overall thrust of his argument and many of his observations about the current identitarian cultural shift on the left, there were also several points where he seemed off the mark.

    To begin with, his description of this identitarian turn towards “wokeness” as being rooted in “critical theory” seems terminologically imprecise. Sullivan is not an academic so I’m inclined to cut him some slack on this, but “critical theory,” understood in its narrow sense, is associated with the ideas developed from the 1930s on by neo-Marxist philosophers of the “Frankfurt school” — Jurgen Habermas, Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno et al — who attempted to develop theories of social and political organization that were explicitly intended to free human beings from the structures that enslaved them (and were thus “critical” in that sense), and which shifted Marxist thinking from a reductionist and mechanist reliance on material economic interest and instead looked to how culture and political ideas and structures complicated class identification and solidarity. To be fair to Sullivan, the phrase “critical theory” does sometimes tend to get deployed in the broader way that he is using it, as an umbrella term encompassing a wide range of liberationist -isms, but from what he wrote in the piece the intellectual lineage he really is invoking the ’60s era turn to “postmodernism” associated with thinkers like Foucault and Derrida, and also to the emergence in the academic world in the late 1980s and 1990s of what is called “critical race theory,” which is a different set of ideas — and people — from the Frankfurt School critical theory crowd.

    Because Sullivan is mixing up and mashing together some fairly distinctive (and incompatible) schools of thought, he ends up proposing that identitarianism is a form of neo-Marxism. But describing identitarianism as a progeny of Marxism is really strained and unconvincing. There is some overlap between the analytic structures of the two, but it’s much more accurate to argue that wokeness or identitarianism or intersectional culture (or whatever you want to call it) is really better described as a form of anti-Marxism (or perhaps even better, anti-liberalism), which is why within the latter day intellectual left the Marxists and the identitarians are often at each others throats (“Class!” “No, damn you, race!”).

    The impetus for the rise of identitarianism – arguably its foundational premise – is the belief that efforts guided by the principles of enlightenment or traditional liberalism to raise up historically oppressed communities and to empower the marginalized have been an abject failure. Therefore the liberal order, complicit in structures of oppression, must be overthrown and replaced by an “equity” (between identity groupings) model of social organization and power mediation rather than the old (liberal) “equality” (between individuals) model.
    The real intellectual movement antecedents for identitarianism, I would argue, are anti-colonialism (Frantz Fanon’s radical justification of revolutionary violence to overturn structures of colonial oppression) and radical feminism of the Dworkin and MacKinnon variety (which postulated that liberalism was too corrupted by patriarchy to ever deliver women from bondage and subservience to men, and therefore the existing order needed to be razed to its foundations and rebuilt on new principles). And, yes, also the fixation on zero sum power dynamics and the epistemic relativism associated with postmodern thinking.

    All of that said, Sullivan’s overall point stands: that some intellectual trends within the academy since the late-‘80s signaled a turn away from traditional liberalism towards a newly emergent identitarian worldview. His terminology and his intellectual lineages may not be exactly correct, but that doesn’t change the reality that our current woke cultural moment is very much a spillover from an illiberal or anti-liberal shift within academia that began in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s.

    • Thanks, Sandy, for this thoughtful and instructive comment(ary). While there’s no need to defend Sullivan he has, in other pieces, made clear the distinction between the Frankfurt School and contemporary identitarianism, seeking a link but also differences between the two. As I understand that link, it is that philosophy/ analysis must be in service of liberation, which sounds great in theory, but can, as I suggest, become a new kind of oppression.

      It is also interesting the way in which Trump (“false news,” “alternative truths”) is also an inheritor of some strands of post-modern philosophy, which I don’t imagine he has ever read. But it’s in the air, isn’t it?

  2. I am attempting to understand all this . but as I do so, Pol Pot keeps visiting my nightmares. Start over –

    I hope these ideas are fads and not calls for meaningful actions. That a conversation cannot be “valid” with participants admitting their bias while trying resolving the issues of our time is just bizarre. i do hope that our educational system doesn’t celebrate the lack of validity from either side based on their background and circumstance – disadvantaged or advantaged, black or white, etc. Hey were all in this together no matter how we got here.


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