Wokeness Is Oversimplifying the American Creed
The University of Chicago’s Dorian Abbot is a climate scientist with some vital observations about the sustainability of life on other planets. He planned to share them at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in its esteemed annual Carlson Lecture. But Abbot has also advocated race-neutral university admissions policies, including co-writing an essay in Newsweek arguing that race-conscious admissions criteria (as well as admission preferences for children of alumni and for athletes) should end.
Abbot’s invitation drew opposition from some students and faculty, and this year’s Carlson Lecture was subsequently canceled. In response, Prof. Robert George, who leads Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, invited Abbot to speak at Princeton. But M.I.T.’s message had already been sent and seems hard to misinterpret: Abbot was not suitable for general consumption.
I’m less concerned with the particulars of Abbot’s case here than how it demonstrates our broader context these days. I refer to a new version of enlightenment; one that rejects basic tenets of the Enlightenment, as exemplified by Prof. Phoebe Cohen, chair of geosciences at Williams College, who downplayed Abbot’s apparent disinvitation with the observation, as reported by The New York Times, that “this idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism” — the idea, presumably, that the widest possible range of perspectives should be heard and scrutinized — “comes from a world in which white men dominated.”
A major problem with this new mood, this dis-enlightenment, in which Abbot is denied a prominent forum seemingly because his views on racial preferences don’t suit a certain orthodoxy, is that it demands that we settle for the elementary in favor of the enlightened. Among the ultra-woke there seems to be a contingent that considers its unquestioning ostracizations as the actualization of higher wisdom, even though its ideology, generally, is strikingly simplistic. This contingent indeed encourages us to think — about thinking less.
For example, affirmative action and its justifications are a complex subject that has challenged generations of thinkers. A Gallup survey conducted in late 2018 found that 61 percent of Americans generally favored race-based affirmative action. But in a survey taken a few weeks later, Pew Research found that 73 percent opposed using race as a factor in university admissions. In a Supreme Court decision in 2003 allowing a race-conscious admissions program, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor surmised that 25 years hence, racial preferences in admissions would no longer be necessary — which would mean we have only seven years to go.
Clearly some cogitation is in order. Yet it appears that Abbot was barred from a more august podium out of an assumption that his views on racial preferences are beyond debate. Even though he was to speak on an unrelated topic. This “deplatforming” — if we must — was, in a word, simplistic.
Simplistic, too: Cohen points to a time when white men, exclusively, were in charge. Yes, but the obvious response is: “Does that automatically mean that their take on intellectual debate and rigor was wrong?” The implication that the questions Abbot raised are morally out of bounds forbids basic curiosity and rational calculation and stands athwart the very purpose of the small-L liberal education that universities are supposed to provide.
Another sign of this dis-enlightenment: the modern fashion that treats stereotyping as sophisticated analysis. We’re told much about a vague monolith of white people ever ready to circle the wagons and defend white interests. Robin DiAngelo’s best-selling “White Fragility” is Exhibit A of this trope, and her latest book, “Nice Racism,” includes a chapter titled “Why It’s OK to Generalize About White People.” But the existence of racism does not, as DiAngelo suggests, make it valid to propose that there is a kind of undifferentiated body of white people with indistinguishable interests.
White America consists of myriad groups and individuals, whose actions and non-actions, intentional and not, have a vast range of effects whose totality challenges all thinking observers. Writers like DiAngelo, who wield enormous influence in our current discourse, encourage the assumption that white people act as a self-preservationist amalgam. This notion of a pale-faced single organism stomping around the world is a cartoon, yet smart people hold this cartoon up as an enlightened way of thinking, and it has caught on.
I also suspect I am hardly alone, when hearing the term “systemic racism,” in quietly wondering how useful it is to use the same word, racism, for both explicit bigotry and inequality, even if the latter is according to race. In his similarly best-selling “How to Be an Antiracist,” the Boston University professor Ibram Kendi begins by defining a “racist” as “one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.” He then defines an “antiracist” as “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.”
His simplistic definitions declare a dichotomy between racism and antiracism with naught in between — quite a blunt instrument to apply to something as complex as the sociology and history of race in our nation. The looming implication that a system, a society, can be racist is not accidental: It tempts, in anthropomorphizing the complexities of race-based inequalities, how they emerge, and what to do about them.
A symptom of these less-reflective, too-reflexive approaches is the zeal for banishing apostates so common today, when it is accepted as appropriate and cutting-edge to tell those who dissent from the woke take on race to hit the road. Abbot was but one example, prevented from speaking to a broad audience at a university on a topic that has nothing to do with racial preferences, as if his opinions about racial preferences irrevocably taint his climate science work. As if his views on racial preferences themselves are unworthy of reasoned discussion.
Consider, also, cases in which some obviously non-malicious breach of woke liturgy results in some degree of shunning: The week before last, you’ll recall, I wrote about the University of Michigan professor Bright Sheng. We are back to the age of Galileo’s inquisitors.
This treatment of different opinions and approaches as heresies is one of many signs that a new religion is afoot. I’m not kidding. The Emory University philosophy professor Robert McCauley, for example, teaches that religion tends to anthropomorphize. He sees a major difference between religious belief and science as the tendency for the former to attribute agency and intentionality to things we may not be able to explain. I’m thinking of how one might say that a guardian angel facilitated good fortune, or even how a natural disaster may be seen as an “act of God.” In the new woke religion, society is described as “racist,” a term originally applied to people.
Note also the eerie parallel between the conceptions of original sin and white privilege as unremovable stains about which one is to maintain a lifelong concern and guilt. Religions don’t always have gods, but they usually need sins, which in the new religion is the whiteness that supposedly bestrides everything in our lives.
There is a pitchfork aspect to how this way of thinking is penetrating our institutions of enlightenment. With an unreachable pitilessness, a catechism couched in an elaborate jargon is being imposed almost as if sacred: privilege, decentering, hegemony, antiracism. Nonbelievers, sometimes even agnostics, are cast out, leaving a cowed polity pretending to agree. This is a regrettable kind of religion, aiming to run the state. That’s not how this American experiment was supposed to go.
The only thing that will turn back this tide is a critical mass willing to insist on complexity, abstraction and forgiveness. As a Black man, I am especially appalled by the implication that to insist on these three things in thinking about race issues is somehow anti-Black.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”