What's Tony Thinking

The Roots of Wokeness


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, 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, on line 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:

“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.



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