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Just Stop Woke: A Journey

By Dr Anthony Lewis, Chair of Windsor Humanists and Chair of the South Central England Humanists Network

'Woke Ideologies' are now influencing public policy and causing real-world consequences and division. They are based on postmodernism which denies objective truth. Anthony argues that no ideas should get a free pass from the normal process of review and challenge against evidence and material reality which are core to Enlightenment values.

The first pandemic lockdown in the spring of 2020 was a strange time marked by the cancellation of JK Rowling for being ‘transphobic’ and a ‘TERF’ (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist), the Black Lives Matters (BLM) riots in London which inspired many prominent public figures to ‘take the knee’, and the toppling of ‘problematic’ historic monuments such as the Colston statue in Bristol. It became clear, during our ongoing monthly Windsor Humanists Zoom sessions, that none of us knew very much about the background to these ‘social justice’ issues and I was tasked to investigate so that we could have an informed discussion about what had driven this ‘lockdown madness’.

A Kafkaesque experience

I intended to take a neutral stance during my research but quickly realised that this was going to be difficult for me. As my investigations proceeded, I found myself disagreeing with most of the core tenets of the various strands of postmodernism such as Critical Theory, Cultural Marxism, Social Justice, Gender Ideology, Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory, Post-Colonial Theory, Intersectionality, Disability Studies and Identitarianism – all of which are often collectively termed ‘Woke Ideologies’. I tried to read two of the foundational texts – Critical Race Theory by Delgado and White Fragility by Robin Diangelo but could not finish reading either as I found the language in both opaque, difficult to understand and, to be honest, slightly bonkers. I contacted a ‘woke’ friend of mine for some help but the conversation ended with us falling out. Apparently, this is a typical experience for anyone who questions any of the basic principles of this movement. He accused me of being a racist because I thought that I was not a racist! He declared that ‘unconscious racism’ was deeply embedded in Western society and most ‘white people’ were not aware of it. I asked him for some evidence to support this startling assertion and his response was that this was another example of my unconscious bias and prejudices. I was unsettled by this experience of being subjected so personally to what is, in effect, the modern intellectual equivalent of the medieval witches ducking stool. The chutzpah of accusing me of being racist whilst using highly racialised language was for me a rather novel Kafkaesque experience.

I have worked and lived around the world in many different cultures and I have, overwhelmingly, found people to be good and decent and that, if you treat people with respect, you will in return be treated well. I was brought up on the ideals best expressed by Martin Luther King Jr, to not judge anyone by the ‘colour of their skin but by the content of their character’. I can look into my heart and honestly declare that I am not a racist – it is just not part of my psyche. However, I have witnessed privilege and racism to varying degrees everywhere I have visited. I can also assert, based on my ‘lived experience’, that prejudice does not always come with a ‘white skin’. I do understand that we still have to combat our remaining divisions to progressively build a more inclusive and fairer world, but the more I explored these variants of postmodernism, the more I concluded that in all good conscience I had to ‘come out’ as a firm ‘non believer’, as I just do not think that these Woke ideologies are helpful. I realised that to be opposed to these ideologies did not require me to study them in any great detail or to ‘educate myself’ as the Woke often insist. In much the same way that I can declare that I am an atheist without being an expert in theology. It has been a process very similar to coming out both as an atheist and as gay.

Cynical Theories

Challenging Books on Woke

Luckily, as I was sinking into the verbose and impenetrable morass that is postmodernism, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay published their book Cynical Theories - How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity — and Why This Harms Everybody in the summer of 2020. As Steven Pinker, the humanist and neuroscientist, declares on the back cover ‘this book exposes the surprisingly shallow intellectual roots of the movements that appear to be engulfing our culture’. This accessible book provides the best overview of postmodernism and its latest variants for those wanting to find out more. There have been a number of other excellent books published since 2020 which expose the harms that these divisive ideologies are doing to the social justice causes they purport to champion (listed below). Of particular note for humanists is the most recent by the comedian and broadcaster Andrew Doyle The New Puritans where he argues that what we are witnessing is the emergence of a new secular religion that is just as ‘pernicious, divisive and misguided as any of its predecessors’.

So what are the basic precepts of postmodernism? Surely social justice is a noble objective? How have these ideologies been able to capture many of our institutions? Why do some view it as a direct threat to the ideals of the Enlightenment? What can be done about it? What follows is my attempt to briefly answer some of these questions. As a humanist, my current views are contingent on new evidence, and also reasonable argument, but, to be honest, I am not holding my breath for any great revelations that might change my mind in this regard anytime soon.

The dialectical roots of postmodernism

The dialectical intellectual approach was first developed by ancient Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, and subsequently modernised by Hegel (1770-1831) in the early nineteenth century. The method is based on the assertion that the best way to understand reality is through critical ‘discourse’ using language, without the need for evidence. Postmodernism asserts that there is no objective truth and that much of our views of reality and knowledge are considered to be social and cultural constructs, including evidence-based science. It puts our subjective perceptions at the centre of human affairs without the need to test ideas against reality. The philosopher Kant (1724-1804) concluded that the method was ‘the logic of illusion’ whilst Popper (1902-1994) argued that it led directly to the totalitarian horrors of both Marxism and Fascism (both of which use the dialectical method) as it encouraged ‘irrationalism’.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of the left-leaning academics in the humanities started applying the postmodern dialectical approach to issues of social justice. Much of this scholarship is derived from Marxist ideas that all inequalities are driven and sustained by systemic power structures. From this unproven assertion, a whole system of grievance ideologies based on victimhood has been developed, which has spawned an enormous number of sub-disciplines. Much of the academic discourse is conducted using impenetrable language that is not subject to the usual rigorous challenge and testing against evidence, as normally expected for all other forms of scholarship in our universities (see the Grievance Studies Affair). This is, in large part, due to the fact that nearly all of the researchers in the field are advocates for what is, in effect, a political movement. As a result, many of these ideologies only get tested properly when they emerge from the academy into the real world of public opinion and start to influence public policy. The results of this ongoing clash between untethered ideas and reality are now playing out all around us, explaining much of the current turmoil engulfing many of our institutions.

Woke commissars

There is a whole panoply of irrational slogans and devotional behaviours that have emerged over the last decade, derived from various Woke Ideologies which are clearly unmoored from material reality. Such as ‘being born in the wrong body’, ‘trans women are women’, ‘check your privilege’, ‘white saviour complex’, ‘white atonement’, the ever-expanding absurdity of the 2SpLGBTIA+ acronym, and the rather banal declaration of patently obvious ‘preferred pronouns’, just to call out a few of them. These have been hilariously satirised by Andrew Doyle in his book on Woke - A Guide to Social Justice under his pseudonym Titania McGrath. As always, satire is a very effective tool to skewer the more extreme absurdities inherent in much of the Woke lexicon.

However, these unexamined and untested ideologies are now having serious real world consequences for public policy, civil liberties, social cohesion and public discourse. Over the past three years the Free Speech Union (UK) has supported over 2,000 people from across the political spectrum and at all levels in numerous organisations in the private and public sectors. These are people who have lost their jobs for lawfully expressing dissent or misgivings about the presumptions that underpin specific aspects of various Woke ideologies.

As the Russian-born British satirist, podcaster, author and political commentator Konstantin Kisin has warned in his book An Immigrant's Love Letter to the West the ‘woke’ equivalent of the USSR commissars are already deeply embedded in our institutions and organisations as diversity champions, sensitivity readers and equality tsars. Although created with the best of intentions, he points out that it is inevitable that these roles will extend beyond their initial remits, through ideological mission creep, to challenge us all ‘to check our thinking’. He predicts this will have a chilling effect on our hard-won liberal freedoms, just as it did in Soviet Union. In the UK, we already have our police forces recording Orwellian-sounding ‘Non-Crime Hate Incidents’ in secret, with no recourse or right of appeal, nor any need for evidence. The unfolding ‘De-banking Controversy’ in the UK is yet another example of how deeply our organisations have been captured by these ideologies, with little democratic debate or open public discussion. If a public figure such as Nigel Farage (a prominent and controversial UK politician with whom I feel no great affinity) is not immune from such political persecution, am I alone in worrying that none of us is now safe from being ‘cancelled’?

Applying Hitchens’s Razor

Postmodernism is founded on the assertion that there is no objective reality and it deliberately eschews the use of evidence and reason as a Western social construct. I reject this approach as a blatant and transparent ruse to avoid scrutiny and challenge from critical thinking. As a humanist, I strongly believe that it is imperative that Woke ideologies are subjected to rigorous challenge and testing against evidence and reason – as should all propositions in an open liberal democracy.

I am reassured that in the UK these ideas are now being properly reviewed and challenged. For example, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities led by Dr Tony Sewell found little evidence for widespread systemic racism in the UK. It also highlighted that white working class boys were the most disadvantaged ethnic group in the UK, whilst some ethnic minorities were doing well. And the Cass Review into Gender Identity Services for Young People and Children has already recommended in its Interim Report that the Tavistock Gender Clinic should be closed and that the focus in future for treating children with gender dysphoria should be on safeguarding and therapy, rather than on 'affirmation' leading to permanent medical intervention. Both illustrate the beneficial application of the evidence-based approach to assessing difficult issues.

As a humanist, I reject the idea that you should fight racism by being racist, or that you can fairly achieve trans rights at the expense of women's rights and their safety, or that you ought to persecute and ‘cancel’ people who disagree with your beliefs or opinions. I believe that the Enlightenment values of freedom of expression, liberal democracy, legal equality before the law and the use of reason, evidence and science, is the proven pathway to achieve progress and address the remaining inequalities in our societies. I believe that all ideas, whether secular or religious, need to be tested and challenged, so that we can weed out the bad ones. Claiming moral superiority by appropriating a noble cause such as social justice should not give anyone the right to impose their beliefs on others or to control the speech of those who dissent, no matter how sincerely felt. I observe that most of the Woke ideologies appear to create an unhelpful victim mindset that harbours resentment and clearly sows division. And they do not appear to me to be very helpful in delivering consensus or workable solutions to deal with our remaining social and economic inequalities. Instead, they encourage a combative and querulous approach to important issues of social justice which is based mainly on linguistic acrobatics serving little constructive purpose.

Perhaps we should leave the last word to the late great humanist and author Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) who developed the concept of Hitchens’s Razor in his book God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything which states:-

'That which can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence'.

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1 commentaire

Aaron the Humanist
Aaron the Humanist
16 sept. 2023

I seem to be very much on the same page as you regarding all of these aspects. Creating unnecessary subdivides to groups of people, almost creating victims where there previously wasn't any, and then expecting an entire eorld to agree with those that feel they are ABSOLUTELY right without question.

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