By Dr James Frey Croft
James is University Chaplain and Lead Faith Advisor at the University of Sussex, and a former Leader at the Ethical Society of St Louis in Missouri. In this article, he argues that Critical Social Justice, also known as 'woke', is an expression of, not incompatible with, Humanist values.
I am a Humanist. I grew up in a nonreligious home, joined Humanists UK in university, and for almost ten years I have literally been a professional Humanist. Until recently I led a large Humanist community in the USA, and now I am the first Humanist to lead a university chaplaincy in the UK. I am 'woke' – or, at least, according to my critics I am 'woke'. I am never quite sure exactly what this means, but I am committed to the principles central to Critical Social Justice: that Black Lives Matter, that trans people are really who they say they are, that no person is illegal, and that we have a moral duty to dismantle structures of oppression.
Humanist and woke
Some think these things are incompatible: that “wokeness” is in some way anti-Humanist. I think this view is wrong: not only can you be Humanist and woke but, I believe, “wokeness” is the natural implication of taking Humanism seriously. That’s what this article is about.
What does it mean to be “Woke”?
If we are to examine the compatibility of “wokeness” with Humanism, we must specify precisely what it means to be “woke”. This is challenging, because the concept is highly politicized, and there is much disagreement over precisely what it means. For the sake of this article, however, I am happy to take for a definition one offered by someone who describes themselves as a humanistic opponent of “wokeness”. If I can demonstrate the compatibility of that definition with Humanism, I consider the case to have been made. Enter Helen Pluckrose, a prominent opponent of “wokeness” and a proponent of what she calls “liberal Humanism”. She describes “wokeness” using the term Critical Social Justice, which she defines as:
“Critical Social Justice (CSJ) is a specific theoretical approach to addressing issues of prejudice and discrimination on the grounds of characteristics like race, sex, sexuality, gender identity, dis/ability and body size.”
According to her, Critical Social Justice sees as its goal the eradication of “oppressive power systems…like white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, heteronormativity…cisnormativity…ableism and fatphobia.” This is difficult, in part, because (according to CSJ proponents) “most of us cannot see these oppressive discourses and systems, because they are just the water we swim in. The marginalised have a greater ability to see them and so have a greater competence to define them and point them out.” Finally, “Critical Social Justice theorists and activists apply their “critical” methods to analyse systems, language and interactions in society to “uncover” these power systems and make them visible to the rest of us. They believe that in this way society can be revolutionised and social justice achieved”.
This perspective, Pluckrose argues, is opposed to liberal humanism, which is “focused on freedom, individuality and equality of opportunity.” Liberal humanists “want every individual to be able to pursue their own goals and fulfilment provided this does not infringe on anybody else’s pursuit of the same.” I am happy to accept Pluckrose’s definition of Critical Social Justice as an adequate description of “wokeness” – I just disagree that there is any fundamental contradiction between her description of it and her description of liberal Humanism.
“Wokeness” is, in principle, compatible with Humanism
First, we should notice that there is no in-principle contradiction between Pluckrose’s definition of CSJ and her definition of liberalism. If the goal of liberalism is to ensure “every individual [can] pursue their own goals and fulfilment provided this does not infringe on anybody else’s pursuit of the same”, then the eradication of oppressive systems which limit people’s life options will be a necessary part of that project. If systemic racism exists, then by definition it limits how people of colour can “pursue their own goals and fulfilment”, by subjecting them to discrimination, harassment, marginalisation, and other forms of dehumanisation.
A liberal society, by Pluckrose’s own definition, cannot be one in which systemic racism exists – and the same goes for each other system of oppression. A patriarchal society is not a liberal one, nor a heteronormative or ableist society. Indeed, Pluckrose herself accepts that CSJ and liberal humanism “ultimately seek the same outcome”. So it seems, at least by Pluckrose’s definition of wokeness, Humanists should be committed to the aims of Critical Social Justice – presuming we come to believe structures of oppression actually exist.
Structures of oppression still exist in the UK, as a matter of observable empirical fact
So, do structures of oppression exist? They do: there are countless studies which demonstrate that there are pervasive inequalities affecting historically marginalized groups. There is still a significant gender pay gap in the UK. There is experimental evidence for discrimination against older people, black people, and gay men in recruitment. Scholars argue that the British class system is still influential, and in some ways is getting worse. Ethnic minorities have consistently higher unemployment rates compared with white people, a penalty that is exacerbated when socio-economic background is considered, leading London School of Economics researchers to conclude that “racial discrimination undoubtedly plays a role” in employment differentials. Black and Asian women are significantly more likely to die in childbirth than white women. Trans people face significant discrimination in employment.
All this evidence – and this is a tiny slice of the available studies – speaks to the existence of stubborn inequalities in British society which disadvantage numerous identity groups. Those who wish to claim that structures of oppression have nothing to do with these disparities would have to present an evidenced argument as to how else such inequalities came about, as well as an argument explaining why the inequalities that studies find to exist almost always break down in ways which are readily explicable if we posit structural marginalisation as a cause. I have never seen anyone do this, and I do not think it can be done.
In my view, then, structures of oppression still exist in the UK as a matter of empirically-observable fact. If this is the case, then it would seem that Critical Social Justice (which seeks, remember, to end structures of oppression which limit people’s freedoms) is a necessary component of Humanism.
A conflict over means rather than ends?
The final place where a conflict might arise between wokeness and Humanism is in the approach taken by each camp toward ending oppressive systems. Pluckrose again: “while the CSJ approach advocates for identity politics, liberals advocate for removing social significance from identity”, and this difference leads to a contest between the two ways of thinking about society. Elsewhere, Pluckrose has suggested that the distinction is between the sort of approach Martin Luther King promoted – in which people are judged “not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character” – and an approach which seeks to maintain the significance of identity categories.
Here, I think Pluckrose is just mistaken about the approach of CSJ advocates (as well as her interpretation of King – but that’s a different article). Critical Social Justice advocates like myself do want to live in a world where we are judged as individual humans, and where our life options are not determined by our membership of a marginalised group. We simply recognise that it is impossible to create that sort of world without taking seriously the structures of oppression which currently exist, and accepting how they affect our lives and institutions.
Consider this from Ibram X. Kendi, one of today’s most prominent promoters of Critical Social Justice: “[When we are] being anti-racist we are expressing notions that the racial groups are equals, despite any cultural and ethnic differences…pushing policies that are leading to equity and justice for all.” Kendi – and all Critical Social Justice Advocates – want people to be judged as equals, as individuals, on our merits. We just also insist that we must diagnose social problems honestly and accurately before we can solve them. We must talk honestly about how racism, say, affects our society – how it affects how we think, talk and act, and how our institutions function – before we can create a world in which people are not judged by the colour of their skin. As Kendi puts it in an article for The Atlantic: “What I am—a black male—should not matter. Who I am should matter.”
Contrary to critics like Pluckrose, there is no contradiction between recognising that we are all part of social groups which hold unequal power and esteem in society, and fighting for a world in which we are all treated as individuals. In fact, it is only through recognising and being honest about how society is stratified by group membership (sex, gender, race, class, economic resources, sexuality etc.) that we can create such a world, as any engaged activist will tell you. It is not through ignoring how being gay affects how people are treated by society that we can create a world in which gay people are treated as individuals, but through confronting that fact. A reckoning with how power dynamics group and stratify us is a precondition for the humanisation and individuation of all people.
Towards a Better Humanism
Behind the resistance of some Humanists to Critical Social Justice is not, in my view, any inherent tension between the two philosophies, but a discomfort with how Critical Social Justice requires Humanists to reassess our own assumptions. Critical Social Justice – “wokeness” – requires us to be honest about how racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of oppression infect our thinking and our institutions – including Humanist institutions.
Humanists like to think of ourselves as enlightened, on the front lines of progressive politics and liberal social change, and to an extent this is a fair characterisation. But we are not immune from the structures of power which shape all human society. Sometimes, our very progressiveness can sometimes prevent us from seeing this: secure in our self-understanding as history “good guys”, we sometimes fail to critique the ways our own approaches reinforce existing iniquities. The challenge of “woke” activists can therefore feel unwelcome, because the critical eye is being turned not on our traditional opponents – religious fundamentalists and illiberal politicians – but on ourselves. This provokes defensiveness and, sometimes, a reactionary retreat to conservative positions.
In reality, though, “wokeness” is profoundly Humanistic. By calling our movement to a more honest assessment of how inequalities shape society, wokeness respects Humanism’s insistence on facing uncomfortable truths. By calling us to inspect how our own prejudices, behaviour, and institutions perpetuate social injustice, wokeness respects Humanism’s commitment to the equal dignity of all persons. And by insisting that we can, working together, dismantle structures of oppression and build a world in which all people can live free, wokeness respects Humanism’s hope that we can, ultimately, save ourselves.