Explaining what Critical Social Justice (AKA woke) activists believe is hard, partly because wokeness pulls ideas from so many different thinkers that often it looks like a pile of contradictions.
So, let's talk about how wokeness got cooked up in universities.
Many woke claims appear to contradict each other.
To give just two examples: they claim to be anti-racist but focus on intensely race, They say not to force your views on them, and then demand everyone accept their worldview and ideology.
For most people this looks incoherent
Part of the reason why wokeness can make use of all these seemingly contradictory ideas is it based on postmodernism. Wokeness uses postmodern standards rather then the standards of reason, rationality and formal logic of the enlightenment liberal tradition of rationality.
This means the academic environment in which wokeness developed made use of different academic and intellectual standards than most of us are used to.
The reason for this is wokeness developed in humanities departments in Universities, where the blame for much of this lies.
In Critical Race Theory, Women’s Studies, Gender Studies, English literature, Fine arts, Postcolonialism, and Queer Theory, activist scholars were all making use of postmodern ideas. The result is an ecosystem of academic postmodernism working toward what we now call wokeness.
Wokeness comes out of an environment of academic postmodernism in which ideas from all over the spectrum of academic disciplines were fused together, not because they fit together intellectually, but because they were useful for the political goals of activist scholars.
These Activist scholars were not disinterested academics trying to seek truth in as neutral a way as they could manage, these were political activists who were seeking to assemble a set of ideas that they could use to achieve their social and political goals.
Physics, math, logic, engineering, technology, philosophy, and biology proceed by studying the world and trying to describe it accurately. Using the facts which can be established intellectuals seek to correct past errors and create better explanations of how the world works.
The process is not perfect, or linear; there are starts and stops as old errors are discovered and need to be corrected, but that is the general shape of what is going on.
The academics who developed Critical Social Justice (AKA wokeness) were operating in a different way.
Kelly Oliver said “feminist theories should be political tools, strategies for overcoming oppression in specific concrete situations. The goal, then, of feminist theory, should be to develop strategic theories, not true theories, not false theories, but strategic theories.”
Kelly Oliver was a feminist working in academia, and she wrote that in an academic journal of feminism, and she is saying the goal of her theorizing is not aimed at truth, it is aimed at overcoming oppression.
In other words, the goal is social justice, not objective truth.
As such these academic activist scholars are not like builder building a building, attempting to build true theories on a strong foundation of truth. They are like cooks in a kitchen cooking up theories that help them acheive their political aims.
You can imagine a chef of wokeness saying “take a cup of Marx, add 2 cups Critical Theory, A gallon of Foucault, 10 ounces of Derrida, a pinch of Gramsci, bake in the universities for two decades and then you get a delicious stew of wokeness!" This is how wokeness developed.
Now, the question remains “how do these academic activists resolve all the apparent contradictions?” This is a question that deserves it’s own essay. However, a brief answer is twofold:
First, the ideas are repeatedly re-theorised in a way that allows them to be put together so they can be used to achieve their political aims. The second is that because wokeness makes heavy use of a postmodern view of the world, judge their ideas with postmodern standards.
As their main standard is “is this idea useful in our struggle to achieve our vision of social justice?” they will often judge the validity of an idea by how useful it is for them to achieve their aims, rather then by the traditional standards of reason, logic, and evidence.
In practice this looks like different standards in different situations and appeals to different theories depending on what is useful at the time, refusal to engage on fair terms, changing the rules of debate, and making use of language games and shifting definitions.
The way to combat this is to make sure we always make sure that in every debate with a social justice advocate we assert the importance of clear arguments and objective truth.
Have the conversation on the ground of objective truth rather than interests, biases, and feelings
Every time it looks like there is a contradiction, a shift in terms, or some other move, ask them to get clear about what they mean and then measure their claims using the standard of objective truth.
Do this well and you'll push back in a persuasive and effective way.
I wrote a whole essay on this over on substack (the link is below). All my substack essays are free for everyone to read.
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Thank you for reading!!!