Despite the ongoing debates over cancel culture, many people still have not quite grasped what is going on. Most of us can tell that something illiberal and censorious is happening on the left. And many recognise that fundamental liberal principles like freedom of speech are being eroded at a terrifying pace. But—perhaps because they are unaware of the specific ideas that are fuelling this current bout of censorship—they see this as just the left’s turn to push its weight around in the public sphere, as conservatives did for much of the twentieth century.
But, once you look at the intellectual roots of the current situation, it becomes apparent how dangerous this trend really is. And it’s essential that those of us who are uneasy about what is going on make the case not only that today’s activists fall foul of liberal principles but also that the ideas they espouse are wrong, and likely to cause more damage than they realise.
One of the most dispiriting things is how many people who have little or no understanding of the intellectual arguments behind cancel culture nonetheless go along with the overall thrust of the movement. Seeing otherwise apolitical friends championing White Fragility, for instance, has come as a shock—the assumption seems to be that since DiAngelo and co are basically on the side of antiracism and justice, we should give them our wholehearted support, even if what they say is a little full-on at times.
But this is perilously mistaken. We need to be brave enough to say no, they are not fighting for justice: they are fighting for a form of tyranny, and if you genuinely care about justice for everybody, including the most marginalised, you’d do well to read up a little on where these ideas come from.
Many of DiAngelo’s fellow travellers genuinely do want justice, and their aims—if not their means—are laudable. But they are deeply, desperately confused about how best to proceed, because they are trying to make sense of the world with a cobbled together narrative based on a mutually contradictory set of assumptions.
The crux of the problem has to do with language. There is widespread confusion among today’s activists—many of whom are only loosely familiar with Critical Theory—about language and its relationship with reality.
Most of them would deny, for instance, that language has fixed definitions. They claim, that is, that words are not attached by some metaphysical umbilical cord to actual things out there from which they get their meanings, but that they are created by humans and projected onto the world. On the other hand, they contend that—for the sake of moral progress—language needs to be purified and meticulously policed.
Neither of these beliefs stand up to scrutiny. It’s difficult to see how the denial of fixed definitions can lead us to anything other than outright relativism. Or how the strict policing of language would do anything other than make us more fearful and suspicious of each other.
But when you try to weave these two contradictory strands together, they effectively cancel each other out.
Think, for example, of the way we use the terms man and woman in debates about transgenderism. On the one hand, we say that any man who self-identifies as a woman actually is a woman, and that it would be wrong—not merely unkind or discourteous—to refer to them otherwise. On the other hand, we say that it is impossible to define what a woman is. But how can someone actually be a woman if the word woman has no definition? These kinds of contradictions have turned what ought to have been civil discussions about how best to accommodate a minority group into something much uglier and more volatile.
One reason things are so precarious is that we seem to be trying to reconcile two contradictory ideas that have been swirling around in the western psyche for some time. Neither the notion that language has no fixed definitions, nor that it needs to be purified is new or radical.
Take the idea that language is merely a human construct. Versions of this concept go back at least as far as William of Ockham, a fourteenth-century friar who argued that—since no two things in the universe are identical—language is only the projection of artificial man-made categories onto an infinitely particular reality. Later philosophers like George Berkeley go further still, arguing there are simply no objects out there at all: reality consists exclusively of minds and ideas, and language is simply articulating an imaginary world, constructed entirely inside the human mind.
But it was with Friedrich Nietzsche that the notion hit the big time. Nietzsche argues throughout his writing that language is a fraud—it deceives us into believing in an order to reality that simply isn’t there:
To the extent that man has for long ages believed in the concepts and names of things as in aeternae veritates he has appropriated to himself that pride by which he raised himself above the animal: he really thought that in language he possessed knowledge of the world. The sculptor of language was not so modest as to believe that he was only giving things designations, he conceived rather that with words he was expressing supreme knowledge of things … A great deal later—only now—it dawns on men that in their belief in language they have propagated a tremendous error.
Since it’s impossible to contemplate the nature of reality—or of anything—without recourse to language, the scope of what mankind could hope to grasp through reason was, post-Nietzsche, dramatically shrunk. It was like an astronomical discovery in reverse: we had originally believed we were pointing at distant stars, but they turned out to be merely white dots daubed on the inside of the human mind.
This radical shift (often known as the linguistic turn) was adopted by a host of radical thinkers, including Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jacques Lacan and Jean-François Lyotard: an otherwise intellectually diverse group nicknamed the Nietzscheanised left by philosopher Richard Rorty.
As seemingly self-defeating as this basic argument is—relying, as it does, on language—it has now become something of an orthodoxy: adopted by wave after wave of students and more or less unquestioned by large chunks of the general population.
Many of my peers no longer believe in an objective reality out there, independent of our chosen designations, at all.
One obvious example of this is sexuality: in recent decades, the idea of a binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality has given way to the idea that there are numerous sexualities, which has itself given way to the idea that sexuality is entirely fluid. In a YouGov poll from 2015, for instance, 48% of Brits aged 18–24 identified as neither heterosexual nor homosexual, compared with 24% of the adult population in general. It’s unlikely that this can be accounted for entirely by actual changes between generations—a major factor must also be that we now conceptualise sexuality in different terms: we no longer think of it as something we can, or should, cement in place. As a recent advertising campaign by Smirnoff puts it, “labels are for bottles, not people.”
If essences are not out there to be discovered, but are merely the whims of human beings, we are surely free to create reality as we wish it to be. We can follow to the letter Justice Anthony Kennedy’s famous dictum: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Hence sexuality, gender and even, in some circles, racial identity are increasingly considered up for grabs.
Many of the reforms of the last few decades have genuinely improved millions of people’s lives. But the way in which we conceptualise them—as self-defined, rather than absolute, truths—and our inability to convince others of their legitimacy in objective terms is deeply troubling. Should the social winds change, the “right to define one’s own concept of existence” will be one of the first privileges to be swept away. If we cannot secure our views with anything sturdier than “because we wish it to be so,” the progress we celebrate now will be reversed frighteningly quickly.
It would be naive to assume that the dissolution of fixed linguistic definitions only aids some ever-expanding concept of liberty—that all we are doing is finding subtler ways to express the previously inexpressible experiences of the marginalised. For linguistic idealism, as it is sometimes called, is not the preserve of any particular political position. Take, for example, this quotation from white supremacist Richard Spencer: “The Constitution, or any text, has no meaning in and of itself. There is only a reader reading it.”
If we allow words—good, evil, human, subhuman—to become nothing but instruments of power, we should not be surprised to find them wrested from us and used to demonise us. And yet so much contemporary moral discourse seems to resort to what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls emotivism—asserting that something is morally true simply because we wish it to be so.
For example, the phrase love is a human right is one of the slogans of a recent Amnesty International campaign in favour of marriage equality.
Nobody, surely, would argue that love is actually—in a metaphysical or legally binding sense—an incontrovertible right? Amnesty is simply throwing together two concepts (love and human rights) and hoping that we’ll form an emotional association between them. This undermines the claim that human rights is an objective concept: in effect, all it really means in this context is a good thing or something we like. Such an approach is dangerously weak.
Since my word against yours is all we can rely on, no wonder contemporary debates are so often won by smears, hysteria and outright bullying.
The other intellectual strand of wokeism—the idea that moral progress can only be achieved through the purification of language—has deep historical roots of its own. It is the culmination of two assumptions that can each be traced to the seventeenth century.
The first of these—that mankind is perfectible—has its roots in the Enlightenment belief that scientific and technological advances should yield moral, as well as practical, progress.
The second—that morality is fundamentally a question of purity—can be traced to Protestantism, with its notion of justification by faith alone: that salvation depends on one’s beliefs, not one’s actions.
Both these assumptions were absorbed into the Western psyche and remained axiomatic for some time. But it was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that a genuine synthesis of the two—the goal of perfecting man by making him internally pure—finally seemed possible.
Think, for instance, about the history of left-wing utopianism. Wherever strictly political ideas—Marxist or otherwise—have been attempted, they have always fallen short. The problem, it seems, is that no matter how much economic planning, re-education or military power the state ushers in, humans are always still too human.
To achieve genuine moral progress, then, humans would somehow need to rewire themselves. For the utopians, our inner impurities thus became the final matryoshka at the heart of the progress project: the only question now was how to get at them.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, two intellectual developments suddenly seemed to make this possible: Freudian psychoanalysis, with its ability to reach into our minds and exorcise secular demons; and Saussurean semiotics, the atomic analysis of the way language structures our thoughts.
“Without language,” Saussure writes, “thought is a vague, uncharted nebula.” But, as his fellow semiotician Barthes puts it, language is “never innocent.” It coerces us, with all its encoded signs and symbols, into always thinking “oppressively.” Only if we could somehow lay it out on the editing table, like a huge spool of code, and modify it at the most minuscule level, could we perhaps correct it and, thus, by extension, correct the way we think.
Over the course of the twentieth century, radical thinkers like Barthes, Lacan and Foucault—though they would not necessarily have thought of themselves as collaborators—worked towards a collective solution to our stubborn imperfectability: a combination of psychoanalysis and deconstruction—literary criticism applied to the human mind. By relentlessly and ruthlessly scrutinising our use of language—the semantic structures through which even subconscious thoughts are formed—they believed that we might finally uncover and weed out the latent prejudices that hold us back.
And so we get philosopher Paul de Man’s rather fanciful claim that “one can approach the problems of ideology and by extension the problems of politics only on the basis of critical-linguistic analysis.” Or literary critic J. Hillis Miller’s assertion that, “the millennium of universal justice and peace among men … would come if all men and women became good readers in de Man’s sense.” More recently, we’ve seen calls to replace the word woman, which suggests that women are derivative of men, with womyn or womxn; and the idea that words are violence, which has now become fairly widespread.
It quickly became a commonplace in our universities that our language was inescapably racist and sexist. The whole purpose of the humanities became, to quote a recent profile of feminist Julia Kristeva, to allow “specific social groups to trace the source of their oppression to the very language they used.” This led in turn to the modern notion of microaggressions, which—though it occasionally yields interesting examples of unintended slights—seems mostly to encourage the morally righteous to actively look for offence.
In one striking example, MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry chastises guest panelist Alfonso Aguilar for describing Paul Ryan as a hard worker, claiming that to apply the term to a white politician implicitly demeans slaves and working class mothers. In 2018, the University of Bath warned lecturers not to use the expression as you know, in case students felt personally shamed for not already knowing something. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Inclusive Excellence Centre has even labelled the term politically correct a microaggression, since people now use it predominantly as a pejorative.
The rules change at a bewildering speed and seem to get stricter with each passing day. Some of the original thinkers championed by today’s activists are now denouncing what they see as the totalitarian implementation of their ideas. “Many of our American colleagues have taken what we proposed and have simplified it, caricatured it and made it politically correct,” Kristeva has recently said. “I can no longer recognize myself.”
But then when “we look at great philosophers as cultural facts,” philosopher Leszek Kołakowski writes, “what counts is less their genuine intentions than the way their thought influenced and was perceived by the general educated audience.” And, in the hands of today’s “general educated audience,” these ideas have become thoroughly authoritarian.
If somebody uses a term perceived to be racist, even unknowingly, they are deemed instantly and objectively racist—what matters is only the word, not the intention or tone. Our interactions thus become much more digital and codified—we spurn the nuance of body language and context, and outsource all meaning to the word itself (no surprise, then, that so much of this takes place online). What matters is not one’s manner or behaviour, only the purity of one’s thoughts—hence, much contemporary moral discourse consists only of virtue signalling. Offenders are cancelled—a kind of quarantining to prevent their malignant code from replicating in the minds of others. As Orwell writes, “a heretical thought … should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.”
None of this is sustainable either socially or philosophically. There are huge, irreconcilable tensions between the language purification project and the notion that language is a human construct: on the one hand, we want to deconstruct all statements to unmask their latent prejudices; on the other, we sheepishly acknowledge that language never actually refers to anything at all.
It’s difficult to know how to make sense of Barthes’ claim “that all classifications are oppressive” unless we mean that classifications are being used unjustly—that is, committing some kind of transgression against somebody’s essence by labelling them incorrectly. But Barthes also claims that, “Man does not exist prior to language, either as a species or as an individual.”
The whole thing is riddled with contradictions: there is such a thing as purity, but no such thing as essence; we must unite in the pursuit of progress, but there are no master narratives along which to progress; language is a pre-existing code that forms all our thoughts for us in advance, but the words it consists of are entirely meaningless.
We defend certain communities against cultural appropriation, but abhor the notion of inherent identity. We use words like racist, misogynist and transphobe to taint our opponents, while claiming that language is a private enterprise used simply for defining one’s own reality. We define certain things we like as universal human rights, while arguing that morality is culturally relative. Labels are bad, but self-labelling is good.
As a result of this strange fusion of moral fervour—we must change the world—with ethical nihilism—morality is a social construct—the left has started slipping into what Gavin Haynes calls purity spirals: the relentless, competitive pursuit of moral ideas for their own sake, with “no upper limit, and no agreed interpretation.” The means justify the means.
If—for instance—our only goal is to smash binaries, with no particular idea of what we actually want to reduce them to, how will we know when to stop? Sure, we can slice binaries into smaller subsections—but it quickly becomes apparent that these subsections have no essence of their own, so they too must be split into ever smaller subsections. What exactly are we hoping to ultimately achieve?
Moral zealotry has thus become a learned behaviour with no clear objective. As Haynes says, “the game is always one of purer-than-thou,” which, since nobody has any basis for saying what counts as sufficiently pure, results in a never-ending “process of moral outbidding, unchecked, which corrodes the group from within, rewarding those who put themselves at the extremes, and punishing nuance and divergence relentlessly.” The social consequences of this—including the bizarre cases for the online knitting and young adult fiction worlds that Haynes has written about at length—are ghastly.
If social democracy is to survive in any recognisable form, the left must make a clear distinction between practicable reform and the ever-expanding vortex of wokeism. We have a moral obligation to draw relentless attention to the contradictions at the heart of woke ideology. Many of its most vocal proponents are, I suspect, only nebulously aware of where their beliefs come from. We must challenge them, then, to justify their positions from the ground up.
Why should we take their demands seriously if they cannot define words like love, fairness, justice or progress or explain why they matter? Why are they so insistent on unmasking the truth about society if truth itself is meaningless? Where does their vision of a better society come from?
None of these questions are answerable if language refers to nothing objective. Which is why none of today’s activists have put forward a constructive, positive case for their moral beliefs. At best, they appeal to abstractions like fairness and justice, which provoke a sort of Pavlovian emotional response.
Indeed, it’s unsurprising that almost all the buzzwords of the last decade have been negative: mansplaining, appropriation, microaggression, oppression, transphobia, patriarchy, privilege. Highlighting real injustices does matter, but only if one can coherently contextualise them in opposition to some positive moral framework. A close analysis of how we use language might yield some useful results, but not if its only purpose is to compete—to paraphrase Jonathan Yardley—in The West Sucks sweepstakes.
If forced to think through the implications of their beliefs, many of today’s activists might realise that the relativism they espouse cannot provide the foundation for moral belief of any kind—certainly not for urgent, vital ethics. I would encourage them to ask themselves: why do I feel so strongly, so passionately, so intuitively about good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, if these words mean nothing?
In the end, we can go one of two ways. We can try to ground ourselves in an intellectual nihilism that condemns the world without being able to say why good and bad matter, seeks to change society without being able to justify why justice matters and looks to challenge lies, without being able to explain why the truth matters. Or we can admit that we are ordained, as philosopher Charles Taylor would say, always to orient ourselves in moral space—an inescapable dimension of human experience that suggests that the words we use really do refer to something objective beyond ourselves.