Reader Paul called my attention to a “newsletter” on Arc Digital by journalist Cathy Young; it started in April and I overlooked it, though a) she writes very well and is thoughtful and b) it covers topics that many of us are concerned with (check out the list of columns here). Some of the content is free while other stuff requires a subscription. As always, if you’re a frequent reader you should subscribe.
Young’s column, “Defining Wokeness”, is free, and answers a challenge posed by a senior correspondent on the wokey Vox site:
Have any of the writers who use the term "wokeness" or "wokeism" as if it is an ideology actually bothered to define the term?
— Ian Millhiser (@imillhiser) September 21, 2021
Click to see her column:
Young takes up the challenge and lists what she sees as the defining characteristics of wokeness, many of which are also the defining characteristics of Critical Race Theory. She expands on each of them, but I’ll just give the list. If you want a reference post on what “wokeness” really is, this is a pretty good one.
Her “core tenets”:
Modern Western societies are built on pervasive “systems of oppression,” particularly race- and gender-based.
Everyone who belongs to a non-oppressed category in some core aspect of identity (white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, Christian, non-immigrant) possesses “privilege,” enjoys unearned benefits at the expense of the oppressed, and is implicated in oppression.
Because various oppressions are so deeply embedded in everything around us, all actions that do not actively challenge it actively perpetuate it.Challenging oppression and inequality requires not only combating injustices and reforming or dismantling oppressive institutions, but eradicating the unconscious biases we have all learned.
Challenging oppression and inequality requires not only combating injustices and reforming or dismantling oppressive institutions, but eradicating the unconscious biases we have all learned. Language plays a key role in perpetuating oppression, and must be reformed and controlled to achieve equality.
Language plays a key role in perpetuating oppression, and must be reformed and controlled to achieve equality.
Social justice advocacy must be intersectional—that is, must support all movement-approved forms of advocacy for oppressed identities.
Moral judgments of virtually any situation should be based primarily on where the people involved stand in the power/privilege hierarchy.
All claims and accounts of identity-based oppression, abuse, or prejudice must be accorded the presumption of belief; to challenge or deny them is oppressive.
The privileged can easily harm people with marginalized identities by “appropriating” their voices or aspects of their culture such as dress or food.Institutions and cultural products are irrevocably tainted by historical connections to oppressive practices or bigoted beliefs, whose effects remain deeply embedded.
Western civilization (loosely defined as Europe and the “Anglosphere” of North America and Australia) is uniquely brutal and oppressive.
I would add two more tenets here, which are really subtenets of the ones above:
Science and its methods are not better at arriving at truth than are personal “lived experiences”. If data contradicts one of the tenets above, the data are to be ignored.
Freedom of speech is overrated, and in fact should be suppressed if it causes harm to those seen as oppressed. One form of “harm” is simple offense.
If you have other tenets to add, by all means list them below.
Young then discusses at length the consequences of these tenets, and not all are bad. As she says:
One reason “wokeness” or “social justice” has fairly wide appeal, at least in its more moderate guises, is that many of its ideas contain partial truths. Racism, sexism, and other bigotries have an ugly history and are still with us, and we should strive to overcome them. If you advocate for a minority group, you should also favor human rights for other groups. Small indignities based on membership in a traditionally disadvantaged group can have a damaging effect, especially if they accumulate. Entertainment, literature, and everyday language can normalize insidious biases, accidentally or not. Humor that feels innocuous when directed at the majority (“All these white girls look alike!”) can become odiously bigoted when it “punches down” at a minority that has been the target of prejudice and discrimination.
This is correct; the sentiments behind most (not all) social justice initiatives are admirable. What I decry is when they are taken to such extremes that they become counterproductive: moving people right into the clutches of the Right—and perhaps another Trump victory. And that’s what Young spends the rest of her piece on:
However, Social Justice takes such ideas to bizarre extremes increasingly detached from common sense and reality.
There’s a long list of examples of the extremes; I’ll give just one:
But perhaps the most alarming aspect of Social Justice, as far as its effect on a liberal society, is the extent to which this ideology provides a justification for pervasive, quasi-totalitarian policing of speech, thought, and private behavior.
The language seems hyperbolic, since “wokists” are not throwing anyone in the gulag. But Social Justice is totalitarian in spirit in the same way that Trumpism is authoritarian: at least for now, both, fortunately, lack the power to enforce their will.
For one thing, Social Justice demands de facto banishment of “wrongthink” from the public square. Plenty of political movements seek to silence critics and dissenters; but Social Justice makes such silencing a moral imperative, since “bad” ideas and words are seen as inflicting “harm” or “violence.” For instance, during the 2020 controversy over the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” published in Harper’s magazine, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp essentially argued that views such as Rowling’s are too detrimental to transgender people to be allowed in mainstream venues. (Rowling has written that while transgender people should have full respect and equality, the reality of biological sex should not be denied and debate on difficult issues—from access to single-sex spaces to transition for minor children—should not be suppressed.)
The Social Justice view of the harms of speech was even more starkly stated three years ago by activists who tried to shut down an event with Christina Hoff Sommers, a feminist who critiques feminist claims about “rape culture” and the wage gap, at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. In their statement, the activist students wrote with the certitude of zealots who have found Truth:
We now understand how language works, and how it can be used to reproduce the systems of oppression we know we must resist at all costs. … Free speech is certainly an important tenet to a free, healthy society, but that freedom stops when it has a negative and violent impact on other individuals. There is no debate here.
The column well repays reading; I’m impressed with Young, whom I haven’t read before. Here’s her ending, dealing with an issue I’m accused of not infrequently:
Many will say that it’s frivolous to focus on the “woke left” when we face an authoritarian menace from the Trumpian right. But you can be against two forms of illiberalism at the same time—especially when they reinforce each other. If nothing else, the fact that the social justice left demonizes Western liberalism as a cover for racism at the very time that liberalism is under attack from the equally grievance-obsessed populist right should give us pause.
If you want her analysis of a specific woke fracas, read her other recent piece (click on screenshot below), about an incident I’ve mentioned in passing:
One of our readers has started a new website on Substack, “Roseland, Chicago, 1972“. It’s a gemisch of a few components. One is an eponymous novel, of which a little more will appear each week (first chapter here). Another bit is a weekly compilation (from 50 years ago) of the columns of legendary Chicago journalist Mike Royko, who wrote for all three major Chicago newspapers over 30 years, producing about 7,500 columns and nabbing a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. There’s also a summary of what was happening in Chicago newspapers 50 years back from the day of the post. Finally, there’s also a social media presence:
Meanwhile, I will take to social media, and hope you’ll follow for new features there. On Twitter, and soon on Facebook and Instagram, I will post two items daily: THIS CRAZY DAY IN 1972, and MIKE ROYKO 50 YEARS AGO TODAY. The first one will cull interesting items from all five of Chicago’s major daily papers in 1972—technically in 1971 until we reach January 1. For the second item, any day 50 years ago that Mike Royko wrote a column for the Chicago Daily News, you’ll find a short synopsis and snappy quote.
Why? Because 1972 was still part of the ancient times when everybody read newspapers, even kids. More on this in Chapter Three. Steve’s family read the Daily News, and the Daily News meant Mike Royko. Also, it’s both infuriating and funny to read about 1972, in real time, as it happened, in the press.
Our Twitter and Instagram handles are @RoselandChi1972. The title of the Facebook page is Roseland, Chicago: 1972,