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Wokeism's Assault on the Enlightenment
with John McWhorter and Mark Goldblatt
Debates about wokeness often frame the issue as one of identity, identitarian groups, and representation. How central to our personal identity are racial, gender, and ethnic categories? What role ought those categories play in determining how we apportion public resources and benefits? To what degree should the historical experience of groups determine identity in the present?
These are all relevant questions, but they don’t address a more essential problem underlying these identity-based questions: Should we credit the subjective experience of reality as much as we do objective, empirical fact? In some sense, it depends what we make of these terms. Of course, subjective experience is “real.” Our emotions are real, and most of the time the accounts we give to others of these emotions are sincere. A problem arises only when we try to treat those emotions, impressions, and feelings as equivalents to or substitutes for objective facts. I may feel in my gut that, say, a given policy is racially biased. I may be sincere in that stated belief. But unless I can demonstrate through reasoned argument and the presentation of evidence that the bias is objectively real and demonstrable, I will have given an account of my own emotional state, and nothing more.
My guest, Fashion Institute of Technology Professor Mark Goldblatt argues that wokeness prioritizes those accounts of subjective states over and above objectivity and reason. In doing so, he says, wokeism is chipping away at the basic principles of the Enlightenment on which so much of modern society—from science to democratic governance to the justice system—is premised. In that sense, the woke obsession with identity is the product of a troubling epistemological position that, if it goes unchecked, threatens some of the basic tenets of how we—all of us modern Western humans—live our lives.
Normally, I would tell you that, if you want more, you can watch our entire conversation here. But you can’t. YouTube, which hosts all of our video content, has declared that the full episode violates their community standards, and they’ve pulled it down. We appealed the decision, but we’ve just been told that the appeal was rejected. We’ve reuploaded the video directly to Substack. I have more to say about this outrageous act of censorship in that post.
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JOHN MCWHORTER: Hey Mark. You have written a really interesting book, and it's a book that is going to make a lot of people mad. Frankly, it's a book that's going to make a lot of people madder than they should be. And I just wanna lay out what the basic premise is and ask you to give a specific example or two of what is meant by what is actually.
The back jacket copy of this book is better than on most books. Whoever did this may, maybe it was you, but somebody really ...
MARK GOLDBLATT: I suspect it was me.
JOHN MCWHORTER: The summary of the book is this. This works perfectly.
People often grouped under the umbrella term “woke” share more than a perpetual sense of grievance and attraction to street theater and an intense dislike of straight white guys who drink cheap beer and wear their baseball caps backward. They share a devotion to subjectivism. Their gathering principle is the idea that subjective belief, if it's heartfelt, trumps whatever objective, verifiable evidence may be brought against it. For these social justice warriors, if you sincerely and passionately believe and injustice is being done, then the effort to determine whether that belief corresponds with reality is a further injustice.
So this sounds like people who are clinically insane, and yet you're not referring to people who are clinically insane. They are thoroughly sane, usually highly intelligent. What are these people? What do they do?
MARK GOLDBLATT: You know, a couple of weeks ago there was a woman, a conservative author, who was out on a book tour about wokeism and who was asked to define woke, and it just stumped her. So I've been working on a generous definition of “woke.” I want to give the people who advocate it the benefit of the doubt, insofar as I can. I think wokeism, in generous terms, is a cluster of advocacy positions that are designed to promote an understanding of and equity for historically marginalized people, historically marginalized communities.
I think on that level, it's impossible to object to it. It's the methodology by which that promotion proceeds that is the problem with wokeism. Because wokeism is a religion. I completely agree with you on that. The first time I heard it referred to that way, I think, was Andrew Sullivan talking about “the Great Awokening,” which I think sets it in its past well.
JOHN MCWHORTER: I think that's [Matt] Yglesias who came up with that, but now everybody uses it.
MARK GOLDBLATT: That could very well be. The first time I heard it was with Andrew Sullivan. But fundamentally the methodology employed by the woke is a direct assault on Enlightenment values of rational inquiry, socio-religious tolerance, and individual rights. Doing that puts it in a kind of position of bullying, for lack of a better term, when you have decided that reason, that evidence—objective evidence—and rational inquiry and standard modes of logic are not decisive in public discourse. And you are in a position of “I'm more powerful than you are, therefore I can take what I believe to be true and impose it upon you.” I think that that's the sort of underside of woke. It's the problematic side. The far more problematic side.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Folks, we're talking to Mark Goldblatt, who teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology, has written so many books it's embarrassing, and has written for every media organ in the business. Notice I say that as if this is a TV show 40 years ago where somebody might be just tuning in.
MARK GOLDBLATT: I'm appearing here with the supporting cast of the Bill Maher show now, so I feel honored about that.
JOHN MCWHORTER: I just like the idea of pacing it that way. But Mark, this is the thing: Why are these people fighting the enlightenment? Who does this? What makes them feel like they're on the side of the angels, these parishioners, which is indeed what they are? Why are they doing this?
MARK GOLDBLATT: I think because arguing on the basis of empirical evidence and logic is hard, and your side will not win if you don't have the best evidence and if you don't have a coherent, logical approach. On the other hand, if sentiment is raised as a methodology to counter empirical evidence and standard logical modes, anybody can play. And more importantly I think what the wokeist position does is it changes the nature of the search for truth. That is, it posits that the identity of the person making a truth claim not only influences but can guarantee the truth of the claim itself. That the truth-value of a proposition is related to or a function of the identity of the speaker makes the claim.
JOHN MCWHORTER: But—and I'm gonna do the Glenn thing here, I'm gonna play the role of that kind of person—what about my felt experience? I'm sitting here walking around behind my own eyes with my own memories, and I have felt the slings and arrows of outrageous microaggression, and I have listened to my forebears talking about experiences they had, and so in a very essential way, I am what I feel, because it would be unempirical for you to tell me that my feelings were not valid, especially since you haven't walked behind these eyes, you haven't been within this body and felt what I felt.
And so couldn't we say, Mark, that this is an advance on cold-hearted Enlightenment thinking, that I have my own take on things based on what I have seen, and you can't fully understand it because you're not walking around behind my eyes? Even if it's understandable, you might have a certain resistance to understanding what it's like to walk around behind my eyes because you're white and you want to resist the guilt that might ensue if you acknowledge the sorts of things which I experience and see fully.
MARK GOLDBLATT: Yeah, I think that's a perfect summary of the counterargument. Here's how I would respond to that, because it has been brought up. If you tell me that there have been, I don't know, six violent crimes on your block over the last year, I have no basis from which to doubt that if you make that claim, because I haven't been on your block, I haven't been tracking these kind of things, and just in conversational goodwill, I'd be inclined to accept it.
On the other hand, if you go beyond the observation level, and you start to interpret and analyze your experience, then I think it is the right of your interlocutor to begin to question that. So that if you say, well, there have been six violent crimes in my neighborhood, and the police would not stand for that if my neighborhood were a different kind of neighborhood.
That, I think, gets beyond just you are speaking from your experience. It involves you stepping out of your experience and making a comment on the world, which may not be justified on the basis of what you're seeing. In some ways, being up close and personal to six violent crimes may make you a worse analyst of the causes and effects of it than somebody who's looking at it from the outside.
And again, the reason that's a direct assault on the enlightenment intellectual tradition is you want to step outside of your subjectivity insofar as you can in order to arrive at solutions to collective problems. I think that that is obviated by a woke position.