Members Only | June 30, 2021 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

That the GOP distorts ‘wokeness’ isn’t surprising. What’s surprising is when legitimate critics do

Magdi Semrau explains three ways "anti-woke" critics get social reform wrong.

That the GOP distorts 'wokeness' isn't surprising. What's surprising is when legitimate critics do

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Over the past few months, the GOP has become hyper-focused on targeting social justice. In most cases, their concerns are plainly ridiculous, as when they rant about wokeness or the gender of plastic potatoes. Other cases are more serious. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has pushed to survey political views on college campuses. Local governments have senselessly banned teaching of “Critical Race Theory.”

What’s troubling about this is not merely that the proposed policies are terrible—though they are—but that pundits from across the political spectrum have uncritically accepted the distorted characterization of social justice they are predicated on. 

Consider a few representative examples. George Packer has written that, for social justice advocates, “the country is less a project of self-government to be improved than a site of continuous wrong to be battled.” Jonathan Haidt has argued that campus protests over speakers such as Charles Murray were not only an ominous threat to free speech, but tantamount to witch hunts. Last summer, in an open letter to Harper’s, signatories including Noam Chomsky, David Brooks, Steven Pinker and JK Rowling endorsed the idea that, though a moral reckoning was necessary, it has “intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” 

Critics of social reform describe the ominous suppression of debate without acknowledging that social justice advocates are not shutting down disagreement. They are rejecting bigotry, writes Editorial Board member Magdi Semrau.

In these warped-from-the-start narratives, those of us who are advocating for even the most basic egalitarian principle are painted as Orwellian Thought Police bent on exploding trivial offenses into grave transgressions. Social justice is becoming increasingly illiberal, even authoritarian. Mere differences of opinion are subject to reprisal, which, in turn has severe cultural, if not legal, implications for free speech.

One might expect these blunt arguments from the right, but when similar positions are adopted by respectable moderates, liberals and progressives, they are a cause for even greater concern. None of the public figures listed above would endorse the GOP’s new legal actions against speech; however, their own subtle endorsement of negative caricatures has primed the American public to generally see contemporary social justice as perhaps equally dangerous as the GOP’s own authoritarian actions. 

Importantly, much of the centrist and left-of-center commentary repeats the same errors. They are so common—and pernicious—they are worth identifying explicitly. 

1. Critics treat extreme examples as representative
Too often, rather than critiquing a plausible and well-supported position, critics of social justice dwell on extremes, treating them as reflective of the broader cause. 

Listening to some pundits, for example, you might easily get the impression that, in the context of education reform, progressives uniformly advocate for the abolition of all assessments in K-12 public education. This is an easy position to criticize but it’s held by a tiny minority. It’s not close to representative of the social justice agenda. 

Far more common is the well-supported view that racial disparities exist in instruction and assessment, and that reform is necessary. Empirical evidence—not mere rhetoric—shows many standardized measures are biased towards white students. These are aspects of inequality in our education system—from curriculum design to assessment—that should be confronted. Of course, it’s much harder to mount a cogent argument against this sensible position. Thus some keep talking about the extreme view.   

2. Critics obscure and trivialize substantive concerns
In almost all of these critiques, we hear reference to how activists shut down discourse over credible disagreements. As Packer describes modern social justice, activists foster “monolithic group thought, hostility to open debate, and a taste for moral coercion.” Similarly, the Harper’s letter cites reformers as forcing “ideological conformity.” 

In these critiques, the exact nature of the “disagreement” is rarely made explicit. We are therefore made to worry that free speech is imperiled, that open and responsible dialogue is impossible. The topic of conversation conveniently shifts from social justice to social epistemology. This obscures and confuses what’s actually at issue. What topics should be subject to credible intellectual debate? Critics rarely say, so one might assume they believe everything is on the table, though I doubt that is the case.

Regardless of what teachers say, there are bad questions. Asking if men should be legally permitted to rape their wives is a bad question. So, too, is asking whether women would be better off in the kitchen. Is the worthiness of the n-word a topic worthy of debate? What about forced sterilization? There’s a difference between good faith disputes over widely uncertain empirical matters and disputes proceeding from uncertainty about trans women’s humanity. When reformers criticize others for asking such questions, the issue isn’t disagreement. It’s opposing bigotry and intolerance. 

These are extreme examples. Few who argue social justice advocates are suppressing intellectual debate would say there are credible disagreements on these grounds. 

And yet critics do believe there are credible disagreements to be had elsewhere without ever stipulating what, exactly, these disagreements look like. We should not, I suspect, according to George Packer or any of the signatories of the Harper’s letter, organize and promote campus events about justifying genocide. Here, so-called “ideological conformity” is quite a good thing, as it would be in the case of marital rape or forced sterilization. But it is, apparently, a suppression of intellectual disagreement to shout down the view that Black people, as a group, have lower IQ. Or to aggressively denounce those who claim that trans women are not really women. 

In this sense, critics of social justice write in broad terms about the ominous suppression of open debate without acknowledging that, in many cases, social justice advocates are not shutting down good faith disagreement. They are rejecting bigotry. 

Which brings me to the next problem in reasoning. 

3. Critics say activists have gone too far, but don’t say how far is far enough
A common thread among many critiques of social justice is that, in some way, activists have gone too far. This is a very easy position to occupy, as it requires almost nothing in terms of an actual argument. It’s also practically useless and virtually uninformative. Perhaps things have gone too far. But when the charge is unaccompanied by any positive proposal concerning appropriate measures, the effect is underwhelming.  

Which bigoted acts should be met with extreme social censure and which acts should be met with active listening and polite discourse? This distinction is rarely recognized or made clear. Relatedly, what should the activist response be to a given transgression? How loud is too loud? How much protest is too much protest? Should we yell at someone who uses the n-word, but listen politely when they deride Black people’s IQ? 

Overall, the so-called anti-woke discourse on social justice that is prevalent among Republicans unhelpfully misrepresents the issues, trivializes what’s important and is above all, is unserious. This should not be surprising. What is more concerning, however, is that others on the political spectrum are following along, thus producing a vision of social justice that is almost as threatening as the GOP’s own narrative. 

We should demand better from our own side. Critics of social justice should avoid straw men and fallacious reasoning. Further, they should more rigorously define what ideas they believe are worthy of intellectual debate and thus intellectual credibility. Finally, they need to be clearer about what level of protest they believe goes to far. 

Magdi Semrau

Born and raised in Alaska, Magdi Semrau is a writer now pursuing graduate work in linguistics, communication sciences and disorders. Follow her on Twitter @magi_jay.

Published in cooperation with Alternet.

Magdi Semrau writes about the politics of language, science and medicine for the Editorial Board. She has researched child language development and published in the New York Academy of Sciences. Born and raised in Alaska, she can be found @magi_jay.

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