Why wokeness is bad for the soul and dangerous to our civilization

With Daniel Bessner

This is another segment from the four-part conversation I had with Daniel Bessner about my “intellectual origins.”

Here, we talk about why I think “wokeness” is problematic—to summarize quickly, I think (1) it’s bad for the soul, and (2) it endangers civilization.


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BESSNER: Maybe something that emerges from this—which is a bit more general, maybe a bit more intellectual, but I think it’s been very much in your wheelhouse recently—is a criticism of wokeness or so-called wokeness or woke discourse. 

This is of course something that everyone listening to this probably knows about has really exploded, particularly in elite academic circles in the last five, six years even though there’s been percolations of it for 50 years, if not longer, emerging from the ’60s, particularly ’68. 

I would just like to hear, what do you find problematic or offensive about wokeness as a way of approaching the world? What is it about this intellectual disposition that doesn’t work for you?

Tell me what you mean by wokeness, just briefly.

The racial justice discourse, like attributing everything to identitarian politics that you find problematic. Probably that’s the best way to do it. I think wokeness is often used to basically talk about identitarian politics. 

And so, in academic circles, what do find problematic about it?

And it’s related to questions of free speech. I would hope to talk about also cancel culture.

Yeah, it is related to free speech. And it is related to cancel culture. And those two things are connected with each other although they have an independent aspect.

This is the age of identitarianism, I mean you could almost call it. You’re the intellectual historian, but it does seem to me something quite characteristic of our time…

This is very true, and it’s because it relates the neoliberal individualist terms.

So in that larger political economic structure, the individual becomes a focus of politics—this was the conservative critique of the New Deal—but now it’s transmogrified because in that language of individualism, this is the type of politics that it promotes ultimately. So it’s not disconnected from the larger political economic structure, in my opinion. 

This is the irony, I think, of the conservative critique of identitarian politics: this is what people were arguing in the ’70s and the ’80s, you need to organize politics more around the individual and less around the group. And this is ultimately an outcome of that. Not the only outcome, but an outcome of that.

Okay, I’m going to try to answer, I’m thinking here. It’s bad for the soul—and I’ll defend that, I’ll say that I mean by that and I’ll defend that. It’s bad for the soul. 

It threatens civilization—and I’ll say what I mean about that. 

Bad for the soul. 

I am not my race.

To have the historical accident of identity define me is spiritually—and this is not a scientific claim I’m making here, people will take strong issue with it—spiritually stultifying. It surrenders way too much. 

We are the authors of our being. We are yet to be completed. There’s so much to learn. There are so many places to go. There’s so much to do. 

Of course, I’m a college professor, so I think of this in terms of kids coming in at 18 years old and they want Afro studies and they want to be whatever they are, they want to be these things, and I’m saying, “Man, you haven’t read a damn book yet! 

You haven’t listened to an opera yet. 

You haven’t seen kabuki theater yet. 

You know… You haven’t done anything. 

I understand that you come packaged a certain way. I know that you have sexualities and ethnicities and religiosities, but for crying out loud, the challenge here is to take these things—the external givens which are the raw material—and to construct a life!

And that project, that constructive project of starting somewhere and then being in the world is a universal human challenge. 

The reason that I can read Pasternak or Tolstoy or somebody and learn something about my life is because they are also facing that challenge.”

The narrowness, the solipsism, the reductive kind of sophomoric… It’s too small. This is too small of a way to live. You are missing it if you live like this. 

So it’s bad for the soul. 

They tell me that it’s a dead white male and I shouldn’t read the book. It’s Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas and—

Augustine.

Augustine, thank you. Or Maimonides. It could be Maimonides, okay?

“Don’t read the book, it’s a bunch of dead white men. I don’t see anybody in the book who looks like me.” That’s a stupid thing to say, “I don’t see anybody in the book who looks like me.” 

You don’t even know what you look like! You look in the mirror and you think you know who you are?..

I’ve already done the soul part. Now to the danger to civilization part…

They are threatening the integrity of these precious institutions. 

When you shut down somebody from speaking because they made the descendants of the native population of the North American continent feel bad by what they had to say about Columbus;

because they wanted to defend stop and frisk as a way of managing crime in a city;

because they think that rape culture is an inaccurate characterization of gender dynamics in a certain population;

when you tell a scribbler who wants to examine as a scientific proposition the genetic predeterminants, if any, of intellectual performance and you don’t let the lecture happen;

when you assault the teaching of the classics of the western tradition as oppressive colonialization, etc.;

when you turn these places into propaganda mills, when it all comes to be about virtue signaling and banner waving at the university—

you’re throwing away something here.  

And I’m not just talking about statues, I’m talking about books, I’m talking about ideas, I’m talking about disciplines, I’m talking about intellectual inheritance—how is that we know what it is that we know about the origins of the universe? What is the intellectual pedigree of human civilization’s comprehension of the origins of the universe? What’s the pedigree? What foundation does it stand on?—about the origins of the species. 

The demystification of the age of faith by the age of reason happened at a particular time and in a particular place. You want to smash that one too? 

The identitarians run amok threaten to destroy the university. 

So that’s why: I think it’s a bad way of living and I think these people are dangerous.

So I’ve got a couple of quick responses. That was really interesting.

I agree with a lot of what you said, but of course the famous Marx quote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” There still are structures, and even if these things don’t define you, one still enters history at a moment of accretions of various ideological and institutional elements—which I also think is important to take into account even though I do agree with you ultimately about this universalistic element to humans being in dynamic. 

I’ve been listening to you for years, talking famously about the Ray Kelly shutdown at Brown years ago, all those things—I mean, I do empathize and sympathize with your point to a certain degree, but, as a historian, oftentimes a lot of these taboos get worked out in messy ways, right? 

So what is a protest if not the expression of the Democratic will of, admittedly, students who haven’t read everything and don’t know anything, who are working their stuff out—but is that not a legitimate expression of the Democratic will as a society begins to reshape various cultural norms and taboos over time? How does one navigate the dialectic between universities as spaces of free inquiry—but universities are and never have been totally utopian spaces of free inquiry, some things are allowed, some things are not allowed—and the expression of a Democratic will in protest against particular ideas that particular constituencies view as illegitimate. Is it just that the authority, the administrative structure, says, “No, we decide, sorry. Collection of people, you’re wrong”? Or does that collection of people need to be taken seriously because that is what democracy ultimately is?  That is the will of the people expressing itself in a form of popular protest.

Okay, I hear you. I hear you. 

My answer is going to be stark. The university is not a democracy. It really is a hierarchical institution and enterprise, and that’s what disciplines mean. I don’t try to tell the physics department who they’re going to give tenure to or what research is worth going on because they know better than I do, etc. And it’s the tail wagging the dog, intellectually speaking, if the demos is setting the curriculum. 

But that’s too stark, and it’s impractical. 

So I don’t want to cede the normative claim for democracy, but I will cede a pragmatic observation to the extent that it would be deeply unwise to ignore the sentiments that are being expressed through mobilization and protest because, after all, the viability of the enterprise requires the cooperative engagement of all parties concerned. 

That goes at many levels. 

Within a family, parents are presumably the responsible agents, but you can’t just tell the kid what to do, you have to kind of mold a relationship that allows for an influence. It’ll be much more direct at the early stage of development, and it’ll be much more cooperative and accommodating as things go along, and a point will be reached where the parents’ authority will be very different than what it had been. It’s an analogy, but I mean something like that in this case. 

That’s about things like the curriculum or whatever. 

But procedural things like who gets on the faculty, like how is the work of the university conducted, like what are the requirements of members to participate in the enterprise such as to acknowledge and respect the rights of others in the enterprise—I think it’s the responsibility of leadership to affirm those things and to stand by those things, again, wisely.

There can be good and bad leadership. There can be ham-handed leadership and there can be wise and subtle leadership.

But still, the goal should be not responding to the demos because the will of the people. This is not a democracy. This is a structured hierarchy of knowledge production and inquiry and so on that has—you know, not everybody gets to put the book on the shelf in the library. The book on the shelf in the library is curated. Not everybody gets to publish in the journal.  The editors of the journal are gatekeepers for a reason. Et cetera.


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