I should be paying more attention to the Letter site, in which two people go back and forth, debating and discussing a single issue in a series of short exhanges. Have a look: there’s some good stuff on there. In fact, I’m likely to do one in the near future, but more on that as plans proceed.
It appears that Sarah Haider and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, after five letters (three by Haider), have wound up their conversation, which you can read at the link below. I’ve already posted twice about their earlier exchanges (here and here), but in the future will wait until a series is done before summarizing and evaluating it.
In the first two letters, we learned that Sarah was pessimistic: she thought the culture war was lost and the Woke had won. Ayaan, on the other hand, was more optimistic. Did either of them change their mind?
Yes, I think Sarah did, becoming more optimistic about Wokeism’s end than she was at the outset. And I think the telling part was when Hirsi Ali told her that, ultimately, any ideology which rejects the facts and embraces its own “false facts”, as does Wokeism, is doomed. I agree.
At any rate, I think that when discussing the origins of Wokeism, Haider might have cited the analysis of where Critical Theory originates outlined in Pluckrose’s and Lindsay’s recent book Cynical Theories. So while Haider is close to being correct in what she says below, it’s not true that Wokeism seeks only to destroy. It also wants to create an authoritarian and Orwellian society that ultimately rests on postmodern tenets:
Wokeism is, perhaps, an anti-ideology—a will to power that can be identified not by what it values or the future it envisions, but by what it seeks to destroy and the power it demands. This makes it especially disastrous. For, when an existing organizing structure is destroyed with no replacement, a more brutal force can exploit the resulting power vacuum. In Iraq, the defeat of Saddam paved the way for ISIS. In Iran, naive socialists helped overthrow the authoritarian power, hoping to create a more just world—instead, the Ayatollah took charge and promptly executed and jailed his former allies. Once liberal institutions have been delegitimized by the woke, what will replace them?
But while its philosophy is empty, the psychology of wokeism is deeply satisfying to our baser instincts. For the vicious, there is a thrill in playing the righteous inquisitor, in mobbing heretics and demanding deference—brutal tactics that keep the rest of us in line, lest we be targeted next. Meanwhile, the strict social hierarchies of the woke are reassuringly simple to navigate: one always knows one’s place.
Certainly Wokeism is driven by thirst for power, but its philosophy isn’t really empty, just repugnant. And I don’t fully agree with Haider that “liberalism flies in the face of human nature”. (She says this to account for the displacement of liberalism by Wokeism.) In fact, as Pinker points out, liberalism has slowly been making inroads over much of the world, and that’s because human nature is attracted by science and empirical success, repelled by oppression and mistreatment.
But the important issue is whether Wokeism is on the wane. At the end of this letter, Haider bends a little and suggests that, as she has done in her work with ex-Muslims, the death of Wokeism lies in appealing to the youngest rational folks you can find—those who can think but are still on the fence. She gives an interesting example of someone who, she thinks, has the right approach:
Instead of aiming our efforts on those already captured by wokeism, perhaps we should focus on the next generation, whose values are still in active formation, who will relish standing up to the empire of the woke as a function of youthful idealism.
In my work with ex-Muslims, we persuade curious, intelligent young people to stand up against the religious totalism that has destroyed so much of the Muslim world.
. . . Jordan Peterson’s approach provides a good model. Though I have reservations about his specific message, he addressed the anxieties of young people and guided them through the culture war skirmishes. We must do the same.
We shall see how big Peterson’s influence in destroying Wokeism will be, but at least the man has the guts to push back against the Woke. He’s not afraid of being called a racist or a misogynist. Conquering the fear of disapprobation is, to be sure, the first thing we have to do.
But, says Hirsi Ali—and I now think she’s right—Wokeism will die from its own petard, for it ultimately rests on assertions that are either wrong or untestable, and so, like Communism, is doomed. I may not be around to see it, but I think Hirsi Ali’s most important point is this:
What is baked into modernity is self-perpetuating, not self-destructive. Many young people may have their hearts and minds captured for now, but the facts of physics and mathematics will remain what they are even if their detractors insist these fields must go “woke” (the controversy surrounding mathematician Abigail Thompson shows these fields are not immune from ideological pressures). Sooner or later, these young revolutionaries do have to realize that, for real progress to be made, they will need to base policies on objective realities. If they want to go to Mars one day, it is not the theories of Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi that are going to get them there.
You don’t even have to aspire to go to Mars: the same can be said if you aspire to equal opportunity for people of all groups. Critical Race Theory won’t create that.
And, as Ayaan notes, the failure of the “blue wave” to appear in November suggests that, as she says, “[Americans] retaliated against the woke.” Perhaps the dissolution is on its way.
At the end of her last letter, Haider entertains the notion that yes, Wokeism may disappear. But she thinks the cause won’t be the intellectual vacuity of a fact-free ideology, but simply Wokeism’s hegemony, which quashes criticism:
So I wonder if perhaps what we are seeing is not an outright rejection of liberal, Enlightenment values, but a symptom of deep ignorance and privilege—an inability to comprehend the value of something many here have never lived without.
As John Stuart Mill explained, when a doctrine has been accepted so widely that the people have generally inherited, rather than adopted it, it begins an inevitable decline. Converts bring with them a zeal, but also an intimate understanding of the merits and pitfalls of both the ideology they left behind and that which they have adopted. Their beliefs were formed actively, by wrestling with objections and rebuttals. Those who have inherited the values that shape their lives may never have done this work, and thus may be far more susceptible to the simplest persuasion and emotional appeals.
“The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful is the cause of half their errors,” wrote Mill. But if our success really is to blame, then we have cause for hope. It is possible that the challenge posed by the woke will serve to invigorate us, to wake us out of what Mill calls “the deep slumber of a decided opinion.” And that awakening—or shall I say awokening?—cannot happen a moment too soon.
If there is an “inevitable decline” of Wokeness, I think it will represent more than just the unavoidable death of ideas not questioned. After all, Wokeism by its very nature precludes questioning, and that’s one reason it’s so successful. The reason Communism declined (and this is just my amateur’s take) is that it didn’t work—it did not produce a society palpably superior to ones based on at least some capitalism and freedom of speech and thought. Wokism won’t work because its tactics aren’t based on empirical data, and it rejects any data that contradicts its ideology. Ultimately, I think, that will bring it down. And it can’t come soon enough for me.
So in this exchange of letters between two very thoughtful (and civil) people, we have seen some movement. Sarah started out beefing about how Wokeness was here to stay, and in the discussion she wound up becoming not only more optimistic, but musing about what we can do to rid our house of ideological termites.
Some lagniappe: an article tweeted recently by Ayaan about the intellectual vacuity of critical gender theory:
Amazing dissent from Wokism. A good start to the year. We need more brave voices like this. https://t.co/OLD00Q7ytI
— Ayaan Hirsi Ali (@Ayaan) January 1, 2021