James Lindsay: Why the woke won't debate you

Having just written about two separate examples of the woke in Seattle getting rough with people they dislike, I wanted to highlight something about the underlying mindset driving some of this behavior. Yesterday, James Lindsay, one of the people involved in the grievance studies academic hoax, published an essay titled “No, the Woke Won’t Debate You. Here’s Why.” He attempts to explain some of the philosophical reasons why this might be true.

In Lindsay’s view the answer isn’t as simple as hoping to avoid being embarrassed. It’s much deeper than that. So far as he is aware, there’s no single explanation published anywhere by any woke academic advising people not to debate those they disagree with but he believes there are things within the structure of the belief system which naturally discourage it.

There are a number of points within Critical Social Justice Theory that would see having a debate or conversation with people of opposing views as unacceptable, and they all combine to create a mindset where that wouldn’t be something that adherents to the Theory are likely or even willing to do in general. This reticence, if not unwillingness, to converse with anyone who disagrees actually has a few pretty deep reasons behind it, and they’re interrelated but not quite the same. They combine, however, to produce the first thing everyone needs to understand about this ideology: it is a complete worldview with its own ethics, epistemology, and morality, and theirs is not the same worldview the rest of us use. Theirs is, very much in particular, not liberal. In fact, theirs advances itself rather parasitically or virally by depending upon us to play the liberal game while taking advantage of its openings. That’s not the same thing as being willing to play the liberal game themselves, however, including to have thoughtful dialogue with people who oppose them and their view of the world. Conversation and debate are part of our game, and they are not part of their game.

Most of us look at a disagreement over some topic as an ongoing debate in the public square. Some believe one thing and some another and there’s a give and take over which views hold up to scrutiny and which don’t. But for the truly woke, there’s a deep skepticism of the entire process which has its roots in postmodernism. For these academics, the debate itself is really a kind of falsehood which exists to reinforce structures of power. And because the ultimate goal of critical theory is social justice, anything which gets in the way needs to be dispensed with, even if that includes things like reason and argument.

To set the table for Lindsay a bit, keep in mind that just a couple weeks ago the NY Times published a piece based on interviews with anti-racism trainers including White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo. While the piece was sympathetic in many ways it found that many of these trainers have a deep skepticism of “scientific, linear thinking” as well as the primacy of the written word (including written history), individual achievement, excellence and even punctuality. Those views aren’t incidental, they are part of the substructure of the woke project.

Lindsay points to a 2017 academic paper by an author I’ve never heard of to make the point that for the woke fringe “critical-thinking” is considered an enemy of the revolutionary project:

The critical-thinking tradition is concerned primarily with epistemic adequacy. To be critical is to show good judgment in recognizing when arguments are faulty, assertions lack evidence, truth claims appeal to unreliable sources, or concepts are sloppily crafted and applied. For critical thinkers, the problem is that people fail to “examine the assumptions, commitments, and logic of daily life… the basic problem is irrational, illogical, and unexamined living.” In this tradition sloppy claims can be identified and fixed by learning to apply the tools of formal and informal logic correctly.

Critical pedagogy begins from a different set of assumptions rooted in the neo-Marxian literature on critical theory commonly associated with the Frankfurt School. Here, the critical learner is someone who is empowered and motivated to seek justice and emancipation. Critical pedagogy regards the claims that students make in response to social-justice issues not as propositions to be assessed for their truth value, but as expressions of power that function to re-inscribe and perpetuate social inequalities. Its mission is to teach students ways of identifying and mapping how power shapes our understandings of the world. This is the first step toward resisting and transforming social injustices. By interrogating the politics of knowledge-production, this tradition also calls into question the uses of the accepted critical-thinking toolkit to determine epistemic adequacy. To extend Audre Lorde’s classic metaphor, the tools of the critical-thinking tradition (for example, validity, soundness, conceptual clarity) cannot dismantle the master’s house: they can temporarily beat the master at his own game, but they can never bring about any enduring structural change. They fail because the critical thinker’s toolkit is commonly invoked in particular settings, at particular times to reassert power: those adept with the tools often use them to restore an order that assures their comfort. They can be habitually invoked to defend our epistemic home terrains. (pp. 881–882)

Here’s Lindsay’s take on this:

Here, the “master’s tools” are explicitly named by Bailey as including soundness and validity of argument, conceptual clarity, and epistemic adequacy (i.e., knowing what you’re talking about) and can easily be extended to science, reason, and rationality, and thus also to conversation and debate. The “master’s house” is the “organizational schemata” laid out by Kristie Dotson as the prevailing knowing system. Her claim is that these tools—essentially all of the liberal ones—cannot dismantle liberal societies from within, which is their goal, because they are the very tools that build and keep building it.

I don’t think the average woke protester on the street has absorbed all of this material or could restate it in his or her own words, but the point is that if you soak in enough of this thinking, the opposition to the fundamentals of liberal thought are there at the base of it. And it doesn’t take much to pick up the idea that what matters to the woke is not expertise and reason but passion:

Debate and conversation, especially when they rely upon reason, rationality, science, evidence, epistemic adequacy, and other Enlightenment-based tools of persuasion are the very thing they think produced injustice in the world in the first place. Those are not their methods and they reject them. Their methods are, instead, storytelling and counter-storytelling, appealing to emotions and subjectively interpreted lived experience, and problematizing arguments morally, on their moral terms.

To pick an example, you don’t have to have read any of this material as a 20-something college student to understand that there is a group of people who don’t care if the professor speaking on campus is a subject matter expert who might have some sound ideas. What the woke students care about is shouting down a bad person for reinforcing structural harm. You literally don’t have to argue, you just have to have a loud voice and a few accusations to level. And that’s exactly what they do.

To be even more specific, the social justice warriors at Evergreen State College didn’t have a hope of out-arguing Professor Bret Weinstein on any topic. But by showing up as a group they could label him a racist and demand his firing. The goal wasn’t enlightenment, it was power.

We’re seeing the same thing in Portland, Seattle and other cities around the country. The people agitating to “defund police” haven’t won an argument on the topic of policing, they’ve simply made demands by marching in the street. We’ll only find out the problem with listening to activists rather than experts later after these ideas get instituted without any real debate.