By Rejecting Wokeism, Let’s Be Clear About What We Actually Reject
Putting the Classical Liberal vs Postmodern Conflict in a Historical Context
In recent years, many ideas rooted in postmodern critical theory have been mainstreamed by activists. These ideas have been deeply divisive, because they challenge the long-standing classical liberal consensus at the heart of Western society. Some time in the past few years, these ideas became collectively described as ‘woke’, and those opposed to them described as ‘anti-woke’. However, the term ‘woke’ has now become overused, with ideas that are not postmodern or criticalist lumped into the same broad umbrella. I have been very concerned about this development, because it makes ‘woke’ (and hence ‘anti-woke’) essentially meaningless. It takes the focus of the debate away from the worldview of postmodern critical theory, and turns the whole thing into a tribalist culture war. Polls and surveys in America, Britain and Australia have demonstrated that the general public don’t have a common understanding of what ‘woke’ is supposed to mean, which provides strong evidence to support the aforementioned concern. To fix this problem, I propose that we clearly spell out what we are actually objecting to, and why we object to it. Therefore, in this article, I will outline my case against the postmodern critical theory worldview.
If you look at the history of Western philosophy, there is a clear split between those who want to pursue the truth, and believe that our lives are made better by knowing the truth, vs those who believe that superstition and dogma are ways to lead us to utopia. In every age, the superstition and dogma is different, and there might even be competing versions of superstition and dogma, but the basic split remains the same. This split is important to note, because it has flow-on effects on how people believe society should be organized. Those who believe in pursuing the truth would logically want a society that is conducive to pursuing the truth. On the other hand, those who believe that superstition and dogma is the road to utopia would logically want society to be organized around their superstition and dogma, and use whatever means possible to prevent people from straying from their faith. This, of course, would also inevitably mean preventing, or at least hampering, people finding out the objective truth using their own means.
If you look at the history of Western society and its politics, you would see that it has played out this way throughout history. Those who believed in pursuing the truth supported free speech, independent thinking, experimentation, non-conformity, and scientific discovery. Those who believed in maintaining superstition and dogma were generally skeptical of the aforementioned things, and preferred using moral panics, threats of ostracization and other forms of punishment to keep people in line. Throughout Western history, the superstition and dogma upheld has generally been some kind of organized religion. The Roman Empire had its own official religion, and those who disagreed with it, like the early Christians, were severely persecuted. Later on, when Christianity became the official religion of the West, heretics, many of whom were themselves Christian, but disagreed with the official teachings, were similarly persecuted. Excommunication, arguably the earliest form of cancel culture, was an important tool used to keep people in line. Like the cancel culture of today, it was justified on the sins of those being excommunicated. Moral panics also have a long history, there is a reason they are still called ‘witch hunts’ today.
The Enlightenment was the most important turning point for Western philosophy, and hence for Western society as a whole. It tipped the balance firmly towards those who believed in pursuing the truth. The classical liberal consensus that arose during the Enlightenment was basically a social structure that enabled people to freely discover the truth. It was the replacement of medieval society with classical liberal society that allowed science to flourish, and ended religion’s monopoly on power. Still, those who prefer to cling to superstition and dogma remain, and they resent liberal society and its values. Religious fundamentalism is still a problem in today’s politics. Not that long ago, in the aughts to be exact, a wave of Religious Right politics swept through parts of the West, especially America under the Bush-43 administration. The crusaders of that wave created a moral panic around gay marriage, which was promptly pre-emptively banned before proper debate could be had, in the majority of states in America, and also in Australia. They also encouraged moral panics over everything from hip-hop music to video games, which justified their pro-censorship views. They even tried to push for the teaching of Creationism in schools. Those of us who were paying attention during that period will never forget how anti-freedom and anti-science the Religious Right can get, when they are in power. Indeed, the recent rise of movements like Integralism and so-called ‘common good constitutionalism’ have made us really concerned, that a new Religious Right wave could soon be upon us.
However, superstition and dogma can come in other forms too. While religious fundamentalism is still the dominant form of dogmatism on the Right, over the past six decades or so, the thoroughly secularized Left has developed a new, non-religious form of dogmatism, in the form of postmodern critical theory. Many of those who opposed the Religious Right back in the aughts have noticed a lot of similarities between the Religious Right and ‘wokeism’. Like most religions, it promises utopia to those who believe in it, and more importantly, there is no way to utopia (or justice) outside it. And like some fundamentalist Christians’ belief that objective facts that disagree with biblical teachings are the work of the devil, postmodern critical theory insists that knowledge and discourse are products of power relations, that objective truth is unknowable, and that almost everything you know is a social construct that serves to empower the oppressors against the oppressed. Even its social impacts are similar to religious fundamentalism: there are regular witch hunts, there is plenty of censorship, and cancel culture is basically the modern form of excommunication. There is also an anti-science attitude, especially around any suggestion that male and female brains might be different in any way, even when it wouldn’t have sexist implications (which makes it difficult to argue the scientific case for trans acceptance, for example).
Hence, from a historical point of view, postmodern critical theory basically plays the same role in culture and politics that fundamentalist Christianity has played for many centuries (and still plays to some extent). Thinking about it, it is actually logical that, in a time when more and more people are not religious, superstition and dogma has transformed into a non-religious form, while retaining its substance. The important thing is to understand that postmodern critical theory has the same substance as fundamentalist religion, and its triumph would mean the doom of science, and the end of the age of Enlightenment more generally. I certainly do not favor returning to the middle ages. Nor should any rationally thinking person. This is why we must make the case against postmodern critical theory, and argue our case forcefully in the public square.
Finally, I want to talk about those who are arguing for the return of religion as a way to combat ‘wokeism’, given that postmodern critical theory is basically a replacement for religion in some ways. If what you are talking about is personal religious belief, then I am fine with it. I am all for religious freedom. However, if what you are talking about is allowing the return of a quasi-theocratic politics, then it would be a self-defeating ‘solution’, even if it can defeat ‘wokeism’ (and that itself is not likely, given the unpopularity of religion among the young, but that’s another thing). We need to remember why we oppose ‘wokeism’ in the first place. Many of us oppose ‘wokeism’ because it is basically superstition and dogma. We certainly have no interest in replacing the newer form of superstition and dogma with the older form. Remember I said that, in some ages, different forms of superstition and dogma might be in competition with each other? I think we are in such a situation now. The correct approach to this would be to oppose them all, and insist on being committed to pursuing the truth.
Originally published at https://taraella.substack.com on December 13, 2022.
TaraElla is a singer-songwriter and author, who recently published her autobiography The TaraElla Story, in which she described the events that inspired her writing.
She is also the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which argue that liberalism is still the most moral and effective value system for the West.