Wokism cannot ignore critical pluralism

January 17, 2023

Each year, in the section Le Devoir de philo, we publish an abridged version of the winning text of the Philosopher contest, which is held in the (Quebec) college network. For the 2022 edition, the question was: Is the future woke?

Reda Hessi

Student at Jean-de-Brébeuf College

Le Devoir, January 14th, 2023

“Stay woke”, warned the American singer Lead Belly in 1938 in his song Scottsboro Boys, denouncing the unfair treatment of the eponymous group of young African Americans accused of rape. “Stay woke,” Martin Luther King proclaimed in his speech at Oberlin University in Ohio in 1965. “Stay woke,” tweeted Erykah Badu in 2012 in support of the feminist rockers Pussy Riot. A century later, the word woke, born out of the African-American fight for equality, has become an inescapable media concept.

Perspectives on it differ. For one branch of the left, it is an essential perspective for any critical citizen. For many on the right, it is an accusatory term used against any progressive suspected of subscribing to a naive moral puritanism. While the woke movement originally referred to “a position on the race question”, according to Michael Behrent, it is more relevant to define it today as an awareness of the injustices inherent in social structures. It is based on an intersectional understanding of identity, in which historical oppressive relations of ethnicity, religion, gender identity and sexuality define the individual’s experience.

Through its awareness of real historical injustices, wokism seems to offer a way to deconstruct power relations and achieve a more egalitarian society. Nevertheless, as many critics of the movement argue, there is a risk of repressing certain wrongly homogenised traditional identities or muzzling the freedom of thought and expression of groups deemed privileged. Should we then let the moral and identity-based conceptions associated with this movement, known as Wokism, direct social debates with the aim of creating a better society?

At first sight, it is clear that a drastic application of Woke thinking leads to the transgression of its own principles. Being woke necessarily implies a discourse that deviates from social expectations. Indeed, in order to deconstruct society down to its deepest assumptions and go beyond its presuppositions, one cannot abide by the codes of morality defined by society. For example, Simone de Beauvoir could not have criticised female alienation in The Second Sex without transcending the prevailing sexism. However, identity politics can lead to a moralism that prevents the critique of woke ideas, such as falsely accusing a discourse of being discriminatory. Patrick Moreau, a professor of literature, points out that one cannot debate the linguistic inappropriateness of the term ‘survivor’ without risking being accused of supporting ‘rape culture’. The awakening of this dogmatic sleep would thus result in another sleep if the woke principles could not be challenged. The dominated-dominant relationship will have been reversed without progress: the oppression will only have changed victim. Isogoria, i.e. the equality of speech between citizens, could not therefore be abandoned without repeating the wrongs of the past.

Atrophying orthodoxy

John Stuart Mill defends such freedom of speech in On Liberty, because from a utilitarian perspective, the imposition of an ideological orthodoxy would atrophy discussion. Indeed, censoring an idea because it is contrary to the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, risks eliminating either a true thought that could be fruitful in the perspective of a more just society, or a partially correct opinion that could, by dialectic, have revealed the flaws in reasoning taken for granted. Moreover, existing ideas lose their value without freedom of expression, since “dogma will become a mere formal profession, ineffective for the good […] preventing the emergence of any genuine and sincere conviction based on reason or personal experience”. That said, freedom has its limits: one can set aside an idea without completely censoring it. Thus, it is legitimate to take away someone’s privilege to use a broadcasting platform while respecting his or her freedom, since the individual’s freedom can be curtailed if he or she uses it to harm others.

However, some argue that such a broad freedom of expression is unsustainable and does not take into account the authority structures in place. The free flow of ideas does not necessarily lead to the recognition of social issues. In How Fascism Works, Jason Stanley reveals the flaw in Mill’s reasoning: “The market-of-ideas model’s argument for free speech thus only works if the underlying disposition of society is to accept the force of reason over the power of irrational resentment and prejudice.” Of course, this is not always the case. Indeed, oppressive social institutions will inevitably direct the ideas that circulate by using rhetoric or abuse of power to manipulate public opinion. For example, a politician can easily justify a war by spreading an unfounded fear of foreigners. Such freedom, conceived only in a negative way, would therefore not allow the subversion of social inequities.

The paradox of intolerance

Freedom of thought is therefore not invariably beneficial. In the United States, it was necessary to be intolerant of segregationist policies to get rid of them. Following the desegregation of education in Arkansas, the white population of Little Rock violently opposed and even threatened to kill African-American students: if the federal state had tolerated this reaction, these unjust social norms would not have been reversed. Thus, according to Iris Marion Young, one cannot truly understand the mechanisms of oppression without considering the identity of the parties involved.

Freedom of thought and expression must be defended, but not blindly. Karl Popper offers a solution to this thorny issue by addressing the paradox of tolerance. In reality, tolerance of intolerant ideas leads to the elimination of tolerance. One must therefore “claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant”. Total relativism is to be rejected, since it would lead to a rise in violence and hatred. Instead, Popper advocates a critical pluralism based on “refutability”: any rationally supported opinion should be allowed to circulate. According to this model, only dogmatic principles that incite to violate the integrity of others should be censored. It is therefore a question of avoiding social stagnation, without falling into the manicheism and dogmatism to which wokism can lead in its most militant version.

Excluding the dominant

An overly clear division between dominant and dominated and a worldview based on intersectional identities characterise the current woke movement. It can easily lead to a binary morality that does not depend on the actions of the individual, but rather on membership of a group whose moral value depends on historical factors. The President of the University of Ottawa, Jacques Frémont, demonstrated this in 2020 when he excluded certain groups from ethical debates by stating that “dominant groups simply do not have the legitimacy to decide what constitutes a microaggression”.

Moreover, in this movement, the centrality of identity is to be criticised. First, it becomes too easy to deny a speaker their individuality and reduce their discourse to their ethnic or gender identity, leading to the prevalence of ad hominem arguments. The source of an assertion would then replace logic or empirical data as a condition of truth. Moreover, identity itself is a poor basis for debate. According to Michel Foucault, it is constructed by social power relations, under the influence of cultural norms. It is therefore necessarily fluid: identities would only be ‘momentary stabilities’. Moreover, as the woke movement seeks to transform these relationships, this identity base is de facto unstable.

Revenge and resentment

Finally, if one truly aspires to overcome social structures that discriminate according to identity, one cannot comfortably rely on them. Otherwise, the measures adopted would, like Nietzschean resentment, be nothing more than an irrational reaction to the values of the dominant classes, stemming from a desire for revenge. In this case, the morality of the oppressors would be condemned without necessarily stemming from a critical reflection on its validity. The good would then emerge passionately, in opposition to the previous system and dependent on contingent power relations. This irrationality therefore risks transforming oppression without mitigating or eliminating it.

A more egalitarian society will therefore not emerge if the principles of current wokism are allowed to dominate social debate. That said, its emphasis on the importance of identities does highlight patterns of oppression that cannot be fully captured by simple economic or political models. An integration of this way of thinking into the debates, while remaining within the limits of critical pluralism, would thus prove to be judicious and would allow a multidimensional vision of injustice, thus facilitating its elimination. Therefore, it will be necessary to break with Morpheus before rushing to Themis…

Translated by DeepL and validated by Michel Virard

Michel Virard