Liberalism’s defenders usually describe illiberalism as comprised of two distinct threats: the authoritarian right and the culturally totalitarian left. However, this framing misrepresents the situation. The dangers posed by the far right and radical left are not two separate problems, but two manifestations of the same external menace.
But liberalism also faces an internal threat.
The external threat involves the authoritarian tendencies of the right and the woke illiberalism of the left. Though the threat is real, liberalism is likely to win this battle—in no small part because of things like the recent Harper’s letter—because liberals have recognized that this problem exists.
The greater, unrecognized internal threat facing liberalism is that of self-identified liberals who say they support values like free speech and civility but claim that they are defending more reasonable interpretations of what those principles should mean. Though well intentioned, the inevitable result of this line of thinking is the subversion of liberal society.
This crowd occupies the middle ground between ardent defenders of free speech and the aggressively anti-free speech woke. They are the moderately woke.
The Internal Threat: Moderate Wokeness
Moderate wokeness is not an ideology, but a way of thinking and acting that seeks to uphold traditional liberal values, but is receptive to many of the arguments of the woke. The moderately woke believe that things like cancel culture and self-censorship have long existed among certain groups, and that technology has simply provided a way for marginalized populations to make their voices heard. The moderate woke views the liberal reaction to cancel culture as about preserving power for those who have traditionally held it, rather than legitimate concerns about rising illiberalism.
Moderate wokeness does not seek to get people fired or reprimanded and thus appears to be distinct from cancel culture, yet, in the long run, both produce the same illiberal outcomes. The issue is not that the moderate woke reject free speech out of hand, as many of the more woke do. The danger is that they defend an understanding of principles like free speech that subverts the central elements of liberal society.
Take, for example, the recent controversy surrounding Joshua Katz’ article, “A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor.” In the piece, Katz objects to a faculty letter that demands that Princeton implement a variety of changes on racial issues, some of them quite radical. The response to Katz’s article has been harsh. Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber has commented, “While free speech permits students and faculty to make arguments that are bold, provocative, or even offensive, we all have an obligation to exercise that right responsibly. Joshua Katz has failed to do so, and I object personally and strongly to his false description of a Princeton student group as a ‘local terrorist organization.’”
This is what moderate wokeness looks like. Eisgrubber’s statement contains an ostensible commitment to free speech, though—even by moderately woke standards—it’s weak. But it is clear that he believes that Katz’s actions crossed a line and a university spokesperson has stated that the administration “will be looking into the matter further.”
It appears that academic freedom prevailed in this case, with Katz recently writing that he is not under investigation. While it is certainly welcome news that the university backed off, this is no reason to celebrate, as this is still an obvious case of moderate wokeness at work. Even though academic freedom ultimately prevailed (for an established, tenured professor), the initial response made it clear that the institution feels that Katz crossed a line. The takeaway for any reasonable Princeton student or employee, then, is that they should avoid doing what Katz did. This represents a radical redrawing of the lines of acceptable speech and sets a new tone for future debate.
Moderate wokeness is not limited to the upper echelons of academia. It permeates all levels of society and hinders people’s ability to express themselves in everyday life. It does not use the overt bullying tactics of cancel culture, but simply undermines the basis on which a culture of free speech is built.
The impact of moderate wokeness is harder to see and will only become clear over time—unlike cancel culture, which has clearly recognizable features, such as causing individuals to be fired, demoted or ostracized. The effect of moderate wokeness is subtle. Moderate wokeness changes the ways in which people talk about certain issues and think about how problems should be addressed. This constriction of what constitutes acceptable thought can cause a society-wide chilling effect on speech which, over time, will impose a massive opportunity cost on humanity.
It is easy to recognize an external threat to the preservation of liberal values that attempts to suppress dissent outright. Moderate wokeness, however, is more difficult to detect, since operates through self-cancel culture.
Though the propagation of self-cancel culture is generally an unintended consequence of moderate wokeness, it tends to suppress free expression by imposing stifling norms around how ideas can be expressed, discussed and challenged. As the response to Katz’s essay shows, in a moderately woke culture, individuals are ostensibly allowed to question reigning orthodoxies, but only if they do so responsibly. In the abstract, this makes sense: we expect people acting in certain roles, such as journalism and teaching, to be mature and reasonable in their use of words. However, this is not what the moderately woke mean when they say that free speech is a right that must be used responsibly.
Almost overnight, moderate wokeness has dramatically raised the bar of what constitutes responsible speech. This new standard is as strict as it is vague: under the new orthodoxy, misusing a single word with no ill intent can be enough to fail the responsible speech test. In this overly moralized environment, failing this test can be quite damaging to an individual’s reputation, especially if she is financially insecure—which most people are—or just starting her career. Failure to comply can result in losing one’s job or being denied employment opportunities.
Rational people will observe how high the bar has been set and simply decide to remain silent. It does not matter that the bar is now resting at an unreasonable and dangerous height. People will self-censor, unless their opinions align with the dominant narrative, in which case they can be quite vocal—as recent events have shown. This, in turn, makes the narrative appear to be more of a consensus than it really is, and, as a result, individuals with dissenting viewpoints will be especially incentivized to change their ways of thinking or stay quiet. This is what self-cancel culture looks like.
This goes beyond self-censorship: because an individual who is not absolutely committed to his position may quickly abandon his stance in favor of the new, morally self-righteous supposed consensus. In short, a person may cancel his old opinion and adopt a new one, without regard for the underlying facts or logical coherence of the new position.
This description of self-cancel culture is not a thought experiment—it’s a reality.
A recent poll conducted by the Cato Institute found that 62% of Americans believe that the current political climate prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive. Those who responded in this way included most strong conservatives, conservatives, moderates and liberals. Strong liberals (left-wing American progressives) were the only group of which most members felt comfortable expressing themselves. This is exactly what we should expect from a culture of self-cancellation: those who agree with the ascendant leftist narrative feel emboldened to speak loudly, while the rest of society stays quiet.
The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal have recently discussed self-cancel culture, citing cases of authors who have prevented their own books from being released and journalistic publications that have taken their own articles down. These examples are undoubtedly instances of self-cancellation, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. Liberals should indeed be concerned about the books that have been withdrawn—but far more concerned about the books that are never written.
It is the conversations that will never be had, the research that will never be done and the ideas that will never rise to the top that should worry us most. The primary concern about a culture of self-cancellation is not that people will have great ideas, yet feel afraid to share them, but that people won’t have brilliant ideas in the first place because such a culture doesn’t appreciate the premise—and thus the process—of liberal science. This is especially pernicious, because, under moderate wokeness, there is no active or identifiable attempt to constrict the flow of debate (by contrast with the obvious censorship favoured by outright left-wing wokeness and far-right authoritarianism). Moderate wokeness only attempts to make debate responsible, which inevitably results in less debate.
The marketplace of ideas is incredibly complex. It is a place where each individual encounters a unique set of thoughts, observations and arguments. This mixture leads individuals to generate new ideas, many of which make the world a better place. In a culture of self-cancellation, the marketplace of ideas has less to offer. This is bad for everyone, as a world where the best ideas are prevented from rising to the intellectual top is a world where humans are flourishing less than they otherwise could, which is why the best way to think about the effects of moderate wokeness is in terms of opportunity cost. Moderate wokeness causes very little direct harm. But over time it will lead to the degradation of ideas, and prevent us from collaborating with each other to create solutions to society’s biggest problems.
The External Battle
One might agree that moderate wokeness is a very real problem and yet contend that the greatest threat to liberal society comes from one or both fronts of the external battle. The external threat to liberal values is very real, but, of the two perils, the external is less likely to be a long-term problem.
There is a wide consensus, including among most on the right, that right-wing populism can lead to very bad outcomes. Because of this consensus, it is difficult for overtly authoritarian figures to gain support in the west. Even when they do gain power, as President Trump has, they often find themselves hemmed in by institutional constraints and an aggressive opposition. This is not to claim that we’ve beaten right-wing illiberalism forever or that our institutional safeguards are infallible. This is an ever present problem that needs to be monitored and countered, and, in some countries—such as Poland—right-wing authoritarianism is clearly the greatest threat to liberal values. But in countries with long-established liberal traditions, like the United States, recent manifestations of right-wing populism have been and can be controlled effectively, at least to the point at which other threats now pose a greater danger to the maintenance of a liberal social order.
The situation is similar for the threat posed by illiberal wokeness on the left. While the emergence of cancel culture caught everyone off guard, recent incidents suggest that this form of overt illiberalism is also being rejected. The recent effort to cancel Steven Pinker failed spectacularly, and writers like Yascha Mounk have done an excellent job at documenting how cancel culture can unjustly harm ordinary people’s lives. Given that most people dislike political correctness to begin with, developments like these provide clear, emotionally resonant examples of why cancel culture is wrong and how it can be resisted.
This, coupled with the growing chorus of voices standing up to defend liberal values, indicate that extreme wokeness is unlikely to persist as a major threat for long. There is a long way to go before we can banish the retributive cancel culture mindset from the world, but liberals have every reason to believe they are winning the external battles against the right and left.
Where Do We Go from Here?
An optimist might hope that by raising the problem of moderate wokeness, the marketplace of ideas will work its magic and find a way to avoid the worst impacts of prolonged self-cancel culture.
However, whatever solutions emerge later, we urgently need to reset the norms surrounding how ideas are exchanged. This starts with the language we use but extends deeper, into all spheres of life.
As George Orwell once wrote, “one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.” This is certainly true today. It is very difficult to have open and honest conversations when highly loaded terms like violence, safety, trauma, victim, danger, fascist and socialist are used in ways that have nothing to do with their usual definitions. There is little doubt that the weaponization of such words makes it harder to share ideas, especially on controversial subjects.
We also need to reset our understanding of what it means to be offended. As the Cato poll shows, many people are so concerned about not offending others that they tiptoe around their points and fill their claims with so many caveats that it dilutes what they’re actually trying to say. For instance, at this point the norm is to preface any position that even slightly deviates from the reigning orthodoxy with some statement along the lines of all forms of bigotry are abhorrent and should in no way be accepted. A statement that is so obviously true that it is bizarre that it needs to be said at all.
It is tough to balance the need to express oneself clearly with the legitimate goal of not wanting to offend people unnecessarily. There is certainly nothing admirable about a Twitter troll, who likes to shit-stir for its own sake. But modern discourse has reached the point at which the desire not to be offensive or misconstrued is actively hindering our ability to share ideas. We need to get to a place where a reasonable person acting in good faith need not fear that her argument might offend someone, or at the very least, that if it offends someone no consequences will result from that fact alone. Ideas and words can cause harm. But we would all be better off if people dealt with opposing arguments in healthier ways.
Moderate wokeness is the problem that liberals don’t recognize as a problem. Like so many past evils, it stems from good intentions run amok. It’s a rapidly growing tumor destroying liberal society from within, and, until people understand this, a massive burden will continue to weigh on society, imposing an enormous opportunity cost on all of humanity, which may result in a needlessly bleak future.
Image by Pete Linforth