Andrew Sullivan on “The Roots of Wokeness”

There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.

—Quirrell quoting Voldemort, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

For those not familiar with him, Andrew Sullivan is a controversial political/cultural commentator from the more libertarian end of the spectrum. For perhaps a decade now, I have followed his writing on-and-off—not because I agree with everything he writes, but because I find his perspective generally interesting and useful. He enlarges my own understanding. It’s the same reason I like to read other intelligent right-leaning columnists like David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and David Frum.

In any case, since college, I’ve considered myself a “Social Justice Warrior” of sorts, and yet, I have become concerned in recent years about the exclusiveness, self-righteousness, punitiveness, and puritanical tendencies among many fellow activists. I’m a “big tent” person. I believe in forgiveness and reconciliation. I believe that “social justice” is basically good for everyone, that injustice is at the root of the violence and fear and lack of social cohesion and belonging plaguing our society. I’d rather be middle class in Denmark than be rich in the United States any day. I mean that! Perhaps my vision for Social Justice is thus simply a more traditional, all-inclusive one than that of my peers. I don’t know. But it’s partly for this reason that I have found Sullivan’s regular critiques of the far left over the years to be useful, if challenging.

He recently resigned from his post at New York Magazine and started blogging again on his own terms. Last week he posted a fascinating article called “The Roots of Wokeness,” which provides a clear overview of postmodern critical theory and attempts to explain how it has informed the contemporary hard left. While I think he caricatures postmodernism and critical theory a bit in places, his overview serves as a useful critique and one which resonates with me at several points. Although I generally hesitate to post anything so embedded in the culture wars, I trust you dear readers to sift the wheat from the chaff in good faith. Here’s the abridged version of Sullivan’s article:

In the mid-2010s, a curious new vocabulary began to unspool itself in our media… Looking at stories from 1970 to 2018, several terms came out of nowhere in the past few years to reach sudden new heights of repetition and frequency. Here’s a list of the most successful neologisms: non-binary, toxic masculinity, white supremacy, traumatizing, queer, transphobia, whiteness, mansplaining. And here are a few that were rising in frequency in the last decade but only took off in the last few years: triggering, hurtful, gender, stereotypes…

[A]ll these words have one thing in common: they are products of an esoteric, academic discipline [that began in the 1960s] called critical theory, which has gained extraordinary popularity in elite education in the past few decades, and appears to have reached a cultural tipping point in the middle of the 2010s…

Beginning as a critique of all grand theories of meaning—from Christianity to Marxism—postmodernism is a project to subvert the intellectual foundations of western culture. The entire concept of reason… is a myth designed to serve the interests of those in power, and therefore deserves to be undermined and “problematized” whenever possible. Postmodern theory does so mischievously and irreverently—even as it leaves nothing in reason’s place. The idea of objective truth—even if it is viewed as always somewhat beyond our reach—is abandoned. All we have are narratives, stories, whose meaning is entirely provisional, and can in turn be subverted or problematized.

During the 1980s and 1990s, this somewhat aimless critique of everything hardened into a plan for action. Analyzing how truth was a mere function of power, and then seeing that power used against distinct and oppressed identity groups, led to an understandable desire to do something about it, and to turn this critique into a form of activism. Lindsay and Pluckrose [authors of the new book, “Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender and Identity”] call this “applied postmodernism”, which, in turn, hardened into what we now know as Social Justice. 

You can see the rationale. After all, the core truth of our condition, this theory argues, is that we live in a system of interlocking oppressions that penalize various identity groups in a society. And all power is zero-sum: you either have power over others or they have power over you. To the extent that men exercise power, for example, women don’t; in so far as straight people wield power, gays don’t; and so on. There is no mutually beneficial, non-zero-sum advancement in this worldview. All power is gained only through some other group’s loss. And so the point became not simply to interpret the world, but to change it… an imperative which explains why some critics call this theory a form of neo-Marxism.

The “neo” comes from switching out Marxism’s focus on materialism and class in favor of various oppressed group identities, who are constantly in conflict the way classes were always in conflict. And in 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 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.

Just as this theory denies the individual, it also denies the universal. There are no universal truths, no objective reality, just narratives that are expressed in discourses and language that reflect one group’s power over another…

Truth is always and only a function of power… 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…

Becoming “woke” to these power dynamics alters your perspective of reality. And so our unprecedentedly multicultural, and multiracial democracy is now described as a mere front for “white supremacy.” This is the reality of our world, the critical theorists argue, even if we cannot see it. A gay person is not an individual who makes her own mind up about the world and can have any politics or religion she wants; she is “queer,” part of an identity that interrogates and subverts heteronormativity. A man explaining something is actually “mansplaining” it—because his authority is entirely wrapped up in his toxic identity. Questioning whether a trans woman is entirely interchangeable with a woman—or bringing up biology to distinguish between men and women—is not a mode of inquiry. It is itself a form of “transphobia”, of fear and loathing of an entire group of people and a desire to exterminate them. It’s an assault…

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.

The gay rights movement, the most successful of the 21st century, succeeded in the past through showing what straights and gays have in common, rather than seeing the two as in a zero-sum conflict, resolved by prosecuting homophobia or “queering” heterosexuality. The women’s rights movement has transformed the role of women in society in the past without demonizing all men… As we have just seen, civil rights protections for transgender people—just decided by a conservative Supreme Court—have been achieved not by seeing people as groups in constant warfare, but by seeing the dignity of the unique individual in pursuing their own happiness without the obstacle of prejudice.

In fact, I suspect it is the success of liberalism in bringing this kind of non-zero-sum pluralism into being that rattles the critical theorists the most. Because it suggests that reform is always better than revolution, that empirical truth is on the side of the genuinely oppressed and we should never fear understanding things better, that progress is both possible in a liberal democracy, and more securely rooted than in other systems, because it springs from a lively, informed debate, and isn’t foisted on society by ideologues.

The rhetorical trap of critical theory is that it has coopted the cause of inclusion and forced liberals onto the defensive. But liberals have nothing to be defensive about. What’s so encouraging about [Lindsay and Pluckrose’s new] book is that it has confidence in its own arguments, and is as dedicated to actual social justice, achieved through liberal means, as it is scornful of the postmodern ideologues who have coopted and corrupted otherwise noble causes.

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