The Roots Of Wokeness

It’s time we looked more closely at the philosophy behind the movement.

Andrew Sullivan

(A young protester holds a sign in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, on June 10, 2020. By Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images.)

In the mid-2010s, a curious new vocabulary began to unspool itself in our media. A data site,, which measures the frequency of words in news stories, revealed some remarkable shifts. Terms that had previously been almost entirely obscure suddenly became ubiquitous—and an analysis of the New York Times, using these tools, is a useful example. 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.

Language changes, and we shouldn’t worry about that. Maybe some of these terms will stick around. But the linguistic changes have occurred so rapidly, and touched so many topics, that it has all the appearance of a top-down re-ordering of language, rather than a slow, organic evolution from below. While the New York Times once had a reputation for being a bit stodgy on linguistic matters, pedantic, precise and slow-to-change, as any paper of record might be, in the last few years, its pages have been flushed with so many neologisms that a reader from, say, a decade ago would have a hard time understanding large swathes of it. And for many of us regular readers, we’ve just gotten used to brand new words popping up suddenly to re-describe something we thought we knew already. We notice a new word, make a brief mental check, and move on with our lives.

But we need to do more than that. We need to understand that all these words have one thing in common: they are products of an esoteric, academic discipline 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. Most normal people have never heard of this theory—or rather an interlocking web of theories—that is nonetheless changing the very words we speak and write and the very rationale of the institutions integral to liberal democracy.

What we have long needed is an intelligible, intelligent description of this theory which most people can grasp. And we’ve just gotten one: “Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender and Identity,” by former math prof James Lindsay and British academic, Helen Pluckrose. It’s as deep a dive into this often impenetrable philosophy as anyone would want to attempt. But it’s well worth grappling with.

What the book helps the layperson to understand is the evolution of postmodern thought since the 1960s until it became the doctrine of Social Justice today. 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—whether the Enlightenment version or  even the ancient Socratic understanding—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 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, to coin a phrase, 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. There is no distinction between objective truth and subjective experience, because the former is an illusion created by the latter. So instead of an argument, you merely have an identity showdown, in which the more oppressed always wins, because that subverts the hierarchy. These discourses of power, moreover, never end; there is no progress as such, no incremental inclusion of more and more identities into a pluralist, liberal unified project; there is the permanent reality of the oppressors and the oppressed. And all that we can do is constantly expose and eternally resist these power-structures on behalf of the oppressed.

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.

Language is vital for critical theory—not as a means of persuasion but of resistance to oppressive discourses. So take the words I started with. “Non-binary” is a term for someone who subjectively feels neither male nor female. Since there is no objective truth, and since any criticism of that person’s “lived experience” is a form of traumatizing violence, that individual’s feelings are the actual fact. To subject such an idea to, say, the scrutiny of science is therefore a denial of that person’s humanity and existence. To inquire what it means to “feel like a man,” is also unacceptable. An oppressed person’s word is always the last one. To question this reality, even to ask questions about it, is a form of oppression itself. In the rhetoric of social justice, it is a form of linguistic violence. Whereas using the term nonbinary is a form of resistance to cis heteronormativity. One is evil; the other good.

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.

My view is that there is nothing wrong with exploring these ideas. They’re almost interesting if you can get past the hideous prose. And I can say this because liberalism can include critical theory as one view of the world worth interrogating. But critical theory cannot include liberalism, because it views liberalism itself as a mode of white supremacy that acts against the imperative of social and racial justice. That’s why liberalism is supple enough to sustain countless theories and ideas and arguments, and is always widening the field of debate; and why institutions under the sway of Social Justice necessarily must constrain avenues of thought and ideas. That’s why liberalism is dedicated to allowing Ibram X. Kendi to speak and write, but Ibram X. Kendi would create an unelected tribunal to police anyone and any institution from perpetuating what he regards as white supremacy—which is any racial balance not exactly representative of the population as a whole.

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, or seeing misogyny as somehow embedded in “white supremacy”. 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 this 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.

This is very good news—even better to see it as the Number 1 Amazon best-seller in philosophy long before its publication date later in August. The intellectual fight back against wokeness has now begun in earnest. Let’s do this.

Tiburon, California, 3.48 pm

The President vs The Election, Once Again

He was the first candidate in the history of the United States to say openly in the 2016 campaign that he would not commit in advance to honoring the result. This staggering assertion was one core reason I found him unfit for office in the first place. Such a stance from a major party candidate is an attack on the legitimacy and viability of democracy itself. It’s outside the zone of policy difference, or forgivable rhetorical overkill. It’s a direct hit on the stability of the entire system, and, in a time of intense polarization, an extremely dangerous one.

For a sitting president to say the exact same thing takes things up a further notch. It seems to me to be a clearly impeachable offense. It openly violates the president’s core obligation to “take care” that the laws be “faithfully executed”—because he is openly subverting the Congressional statute that determines the date of the election. Those who dismiss his tweet yesterday as some kind of attempt at a distraction from the awful Covid19 and economic news keep missing the point. So too are those who say it is merely an indication that he believes he is going to lose. This is not a normal president operating within the usual bounds of sanity, propriety and responsibility.  He is not rationally calculating distraction, or signaling some kind of analysis of his own campaign. This is a dangerously unwell person who is now and always has been incapable of conceding defeat in anything. He is merely prepping arguments in advance to justify holding on to power as long as he possibly can.

Yes, he cannot actually do anything about it—only the Congress can postpone an election and they won’t. Yes, no Republican official has supported him, and several have come right out and insisted such a change will not happen. But a president’s words are also actions. They mean something. They change things. And what president Trump has just done is what no previous president has ever done: he has called the 2020 vote in advance the most “INCORRECT AND FRAUDULENT” election in American history. He is claiming that mail-in ballots are somehow intrinsically corrupt (even though they are very common and Trump has used them himself), and would render any result null and void. And an election during a pandemic requires a big increase in mail-in voting.

If you wanted to ensure a smoother process, you’d provide federal funds to those states requesting help to get their mail-in, virus-free act together. The current Covid19 relief bill backed by the Democrats has that in it; but the Senate version doesn’t. Either way, Trump’s tweet suggests he’d veto any such bill to make voting easier and smoother.

A lesser problem is how to count all the mail-in ballots in time for a speedy result, something Trump alluded to in his press conference yesterday. If you wanted to avoid any glitches, you would make sure the US Postal Service has plenty of resources to expedite mail-in voting. Instead, Trump’s postmaster-general, through “cost-cutting measures”, has engineered a small crisis in the prompt delivery of mail. Any cuts should be postponed until after November. It would also make a lot of sense, for example, if election officials could start counting mail-in ballots a day before election day, so they’re not overwhelmed on the day itself, and thereby delay the results. Jon Ward notes that in the critical swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, it’s currently against the law to do that. That should be changed by the state legislatures, to avoid any dangerous suspense in the days after the election. But if we know one thing, it’s that Trump will be of no help.

What he’s doing, it seems to me, is simple. He’s muddying the waters so he can claim fraud if he loses by a small or even not-so-small margin, and try to delay handing over power. If that fails, he has a classic stab-in-the-back narrative that can serve as the basis for his post-presidential media experiment. He managed to come up with such a narrative even after he won the last election—claiming that millions of votes had been cast fraudulently in 2016. Can you imagine what he’d do if he loses? And this nightmare scenario comes to pass even if the GOP in Congress abandons him. Trump’s base will follow him wherever, and an allegation of an elite theft of the election is not a hard sell. The chance of civil conflict and violence in such a scenario cannot be dismissed in this fraught and tense and increasingly violent time. And if it happens, we know that Trump will not attempt to calm it down. He is likely, in fact, to stir it up.

He will not care. The stability of the country and the viability of our democracy are meaningless compared to his psychic need to concede nothing. His entire life is littered with the collateral damage of countless others that he has left in his malign and narcissistic wake. We have to do all we can to ensure that among that collateral damage, we do not find the lost legitimacy of elections themselves.

Montopoli in Val d’Arno, Italy, 6.30 am

Dissents of the Week

Most of the reader criticism has been over my tweeting, not my writing for The Weekly Dish. At least one TWD subscriber, “disappointed in the shallow, insipid tweets,” unsubscribed. Another writes, “I find myself cringing at the tone of some of your tweets, which seem needlessly reductive and combative. Can’t you see that by the nature of Twitter, where there is no context, it just looks like you are sneering at protestors?” A long-time Dishhead is also disappointed:

Your openness to opinions opposed to your own (even extremely controversial opinions) was one of the things I loved the most about the Daily Dish. That, and the fact you almost always argued in good faith and had a genuine interest in trying to get to some semblance of truth.

That’s why I was so utterly disappointed to see the series of tweets you put out a few days ago about Black Lives Matter. I’m sure you know the ones I’m talking about. Saying anyone and everyone who supports BLM also supports an atheist and Marxist agenda is disingenuous. This is the opposite of arguing in good faith.

Maybe you’ve just spent too much time among far-left, social-justice media folks and you genuinely believe what you’re saying because those are the types of people you’re interacting with. Or maybe Twitter is just bad for the brain. Or maybe you were deliberately being provocative. I’m not sure. But the idea that everyone at these protests is (knowingly or unknowingly) supporting an atheist, Marxist movement is a complete straw man.

To borrow an argument often made in my home city of Hong Kong by pro-establishment types: That the pro-democracy protests were explicitly in favor of independence and secessionism (or even worse, in favor of a return to British colonialism). After all, a number of the most prominent leaders of the protest movement are in fact explicitly in favor of total independence from China. Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, two of the most well-known faces of the protest movement, tried to set up a pro-independence party in Hong Kong. And colonial flags have certainly been used in a number of different ways by the protestors. The ones who broke into the HK legislature, for example, prominently displayed the colonial flag while camped there.

However, the truth is, the majority of HKers and the majority of those who protested aren’t pro-independence. The protests were about the extradition law, plus the wider issue of narrowing freedoms and the lack of true democracy. Most HKers are in fact very proud to be culturally Chinese and aren’t in favor of full independence from China, regardless of how they feel about the current regime. It’s almost as if large-scale protests like the ones we saw in Hong Kong and the ones we’re experiencing in the U.S. are organic movements, and are largely untethered to the stated viewpoints of the small organizations and leadership groups that they’re ostensibly “led” by.

Here’s the thing: as my first item today tries to show, I’m concerned by the implications of the philosophical roots of the BLM movement. They are deeply illiberal, wedded to critical theory, rooted in an atheist worldview (as all critical theory is) and dedicated to the overthrow of liberal democracy. I’m worried that the genuine concern for mistreatment of African-Americans by law enforcement can be coopted by this kind of extremism. Take the slogan “White Silence = Violence”. The phrase is meaningless without the underpinnings of critical theory. Yet protesters chant it and wear t-shirts proclaiming it.

But, yes, tweets that simply mock or provoke without context are dumb and counter-productive. I’m done with them. I’m a little mad at myself for being unable to resist. The great advantage of this space is that I can air serious dissent and address it in proper context. I’m still going to read Twitter for the nuggets of information I get from following some smart and serious people, and I will occasionally like or retweet. But I’m otherwise engaging in Twexit. Come at me here instead: [email protected]My Dish colleague, Chris Bodenner, selects the toughest dissents, as he did for years, to put me on the spot.

This next reader puts me on the spot a little bit regarding my view that Confederate statues should be removed:

I get it. The monuments to the Confederacy offend African-Americans (and now many others), so by all means the city or state should remove them from their pedestals. But about the monuments to the Confederate dead? Many, many small counties throughout the South display a memorial to the soldiers who died in the Civil War. These monuments were put up by widows and other family and community members when they could finally afford to do so, not in an attempt to glorify the “lost cause.”

Please keep in mind that the vast majority of Confederate soldiers were not slave holders—estimates vary that slave owners constituted from 15 to 30 percent (this PolitiFact piece says 4.9 to 24.9 percent—individuals in the South vs. households, respectively). Read the letters from Confederate soldiers to their families; they don’t reflect the idea that most of them were fighting to perpetuate slavery. Now we must abhor them all, and the names of their leaders should be forever erased from history. Sad, but it is also sad that huge numbers of Americans feel the need vanquish the memory of these people. It is not possible for me to put myself in their shoes, though I know I should try.

In discussions about the Reconstruction Era, recall that one of the goals of the national government was to bring the country back together again; reconciliation and healing was paramount. Said Abraham Lincoln in conclusion to his Second Inaugural Address, “With malice toward none and charity for all … to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan … ” A worthy goal today amid all the finger pointing and rancor in these horrifically divided times.

Mental Health Break

The ‘90s grunge anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—in Latin:

(Hat tip: Jonah Goldberg—fellow Substacker)

In Defense of J.K. Rowling, Ctd

In response to my item last week about the legendary author and free thinker, a reader writes:

Thank you for the defense of Rowling. I am a “closet transsexual.” That is, I transitioned over 30 years ago and have integrated in to my better life pretty quickly and well enough that I just sank in to the woodwork. (Yay, me.) I generally prefer to stay closeted, but I feel the need to reach out to specific people on a one-on-one basis, given recent circumstances. I am shocked to see how contemporary “trans activists” have been behaving, even before the COVID madness.

Nasim Taleb, in his book, Skin in the Game, illustrates the problem and models it using “renormalization.” Cell by cell, the drunkest person of each cell is dominated by the drunkest guy in each group of cells, which then are dominated by the drunkest guy among all cells.  The loudest, drunkest, most obnoxious party pooper ends up dominating the entire arena of conversation.

I have watched the J.K. Rowling drama unfold and I am left aghast by these erstwhile “allies” of mine. I do not need to yap on about why I am so affected, because you already know. You and certain others, such as Douglas Murray, have spoken for me where I cannot, at least not openly. Heck, I can’t even speak to my “family” without receiving similar, if not worse, treatment. Not only am I a traitor, but I can always be outed.

Another reader takes an opposing view:

I completely agree with you that there are many difficult questions regarding trans issues, and that in many cases the discourse doesn’t reflect that. But I still think you are letting Rowling off the hook. You write, “a transwoman can and should be treated exactly as a woman, even if she isn’t in every single respect a woman.” But that is decidedly not what Rowling writes in her essay. She states that while she might be okay with some transwomen sharing a bathroom with her, she isn’t okay with “throw[ing] open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman.” I find this position (indeed, this whole debate) incredibly frustrating and indicative of the mindset of someone who can’t possibly truly support equality for trans people.

What I find confounding is that everyone seems to lose sight of how utterly theoretical it is. In my decades of existing on this planet, I am yet to encounter a public bathroom with a sex and/or gender checkpoint as a requirement for entry. Rowling and her ilk don’t want predatory men throwing on a wig and dress before entering the ladies’ room looking to rape someone. I think it’s safe to say none of us do. News flash: Nothing material is stopping this from happening to begin with. Transwomen just want to be able to use the bathroom that feels safest to them in public, like anyone else. Again: Nothing material stopping this happening.

I think Rowling’s concern is that simple self-identification as proof of being transgender can lead to abuses. On the restroom issue, I’m with you. Not so much on sports and some shelters for abused women and prisons.

In contrast to the previous reader, this one points to a situation where things are not, in fact, “utterly theoretical”:

My daughter was the founding artistic director of the first trans choir in [a major city in Ohio]. As a result, she educated me on why separate choirs mattered.

Testosterone thickens your vocal chords, so if you went through puberty as a male and then transitioned to female, you would tend have a lower voice—think tenor or bass. If you were a female at birth, and took testosterone (at any age), your vocal chords would thicken, so you would have a lower voice. There are lots of gay men’s choirs, which have arranged choral music for predominantly lower voices, but I’m guessing trans women (who might just sound like the gay man singing next to them) wouldn’t feel welcome there.

My bottom line: people who see no difference biologically between a trans woman who transitioned after going through puberty as a male and a female from birth, don’t actually understand how hormones impact your body. I certainly didn’t understand the nuances of the vocal chord impact.

Me neither—but it makes perfect sense. Critical theory—which is driving trans activism right now—has no patience for biology. They regard all of science as a form of “white supremacy”. This last reader makes sense:

I am a physician and pathologist, and I am confused by the notion that denying biological sex makes one a transphobe. Why would we even need terms like “trans” and “cis” if biological sex wasn’t real? Why would transitioning require hormonal or surgical intervention if biological sex wasn’t real?

When JK Rowling says, “Biological sex is real,” and Daniel Radcliffe says, “Trans women are women,” these are not the least bit contradictory. Using a phrase like “natal male/female” determined by gamete size and karyotype, and “man/woman” based on gender identity are appropriate, true to reality, and don’t diminish the lived experiences of cis women or trans women, which simply aren’t the same. Everything else—rights, recognition, respect for non-binary status or pronoun preference—should be uncontroversial.

Quote For The Week

“Situating the trans subject and the trans body in the contested discursive space the way Rowling does pulls the conversation around transness into the posture of working to locate the legitimate trans subject,” – Chase Strangio, transgender activist and lawyer.

From the Annals of Dishness

In 2017, two years after the blog retired and six months after Trump took office, a reader reminded us of a Dish post from April 28, 2011:

So it’s been a while since I wrote.

Read this.

And weep.

The post he’s talking about is here, in full:

Taking Trump Seriously

Chait [writing for the old New Republicbegins to:

I don’t mean to overstate things here. Trump faces massive barriers. With his long history of liberal position stances and donations to the Democratic Party, he’s a ridiculously easy oppo research hit. And he may well be putting us all on anyway. But the right combination of circumstances could let Trump build momentum and steal the nomination from a divided field. It’s a longshot, but I wouldn’t say anymore it couldn’t happen.

I feel the same way. The more I have observed American politics, the more I am aware that long shots do come true here. And I should say that despite Trump’s manifest unsuitability for high office, I prefer a system where a total outsider has a chance to break in from time to time rather than the more closed parliamentary systems of Europe.

Of course, I should be careful what I wish for. But Trump will only be president if enough people vote for him. And this, in the end, is a democracy. The people decide.


Chait, of course, went on to dismiss Trump’s chances five years later, while I was shitting myself from the moment he rode that escalator. I no longer—ahem—have interest in outsiders in politics. But at least I saw it coming.



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