Woke ideology, which presents itself as the progressive successor to the liberal tradition, is actually a source of cultural lethargy and decay. It is an anti-rational meme with the power to disable criticism, which wreaks havoc on liberal societies.
In The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch argues that our brains evolved as natural selection simulators: ideas are varied and selected within an individual’s mind, and if these ideas are transmitted to others, they are also varied and selected within those other minds. For example, a home builder might creatively vary his ideas about how a house should be built, in order to solve a problem. The builder might design a machine to physically place a brick into the wall of a house, rather than having laborers do so. This new idea varies the production process. If this new process is more efficient, it will probably be selected by other builders. Modern liberal societies thus allow individuals to vary production ideas, but many of these ideas are eliminated because they don’t work well. Only those that survive in people’s minds and that get themselves transferred to others become ubiquitous. These memes are passed from person to person using knowledge-laden patterns of speech and behavior.
Deutsch argues that there are two kinds of memes, and they use very different strategies for surviving and spreading. Rational memes thrive in a critical environment because they solve problems. A critical environment is necessary to help rational memes survive because, without criticism, errors creep in. Anti-rational memes survive in society by disabling their holders’ ability to criticize them and compelling them to install those ideas into the minds of others.
Societies in which anti-rational memes predominate Deutsch calls “static,” because change happens only very slowly. Most static societies have historically gone extinct because of their inability to adapt to a changing world, but a thousand years ago such societies were widespread. Individuals with the same intelligence as we have experienced hardly any changes in their societies over the course of their lifetimes. Indeed, there were often few noticeable changes over many generations, until the culture was invaded or conquered or a natural environmental change destroyed it. Of course, the people in those static societies needed to obtain sufficient food, shelter and protective medicines, just as we do, but all efforts to solve these challenges were stymied by anti-rational memes and physical or psychological coercion, such as shaming.
By contrast, dynamic societies value new ideas, debate and criticism and therefore make rapid progress. During the Enlightenment, the west became much more dynamic, and its rational memes survived not by silencing opposing ideas but by encouraging open criticism and competition among ideas. They survived because they contain truth and hold explanatory power, so people freely choose to adopt them. They are the ideas that people choose when they cannot think of better ideas or better variants of the same ideas.
In modern liberal societies, persuasion, not coercion or power, drives the evolution and transmission of creative problem-solving. If people disagree as to what should be done, rational people conceive bold ideas to solve the problem. They are open to criticism—because we are all fallible and can be mistaken even when we feel certain that we are right. People judge ideas by their content, not by their source or by the identity, race or gender of their proponents. They try to come up with genuine solutions that people will consent to. They show no inclination to coerce others. They keep varying their ideas in search of creative solutions that people will wholeheartedly agree make life better. Free societies welcome diversity of all kinds, including diversity of ideas, and the huge diversity of ideas promotes real progress for all. In our society, the pace of change and innovation is so rapid that we can barely keep up with it.
By contrast, woke ideology has the potential to set us back and perhaps already has. It holds that individuals from different religious or ethnic backgrounds cannot relate to each other. For example, the woke say that whites can’t appreciate the point of view of blacks because they lack the standpoint epistemology, i.e. the sociocultural history of suffering that is needed to understand the point of view of the marginalized. What a pessimistic view of humanity! Philosopher Karl Popper debunks this view in The Myth of The Framework, in which he argues that conflicting intellectual and moral frameworks do not prevent mutual understanding and problem-solving.
In radical woke discourse, when a man disagrees with a feminist argument, he is accused of mansplaining. The woke deplatform speakers who dissent from their dogma. When black conservatives and classical liberals deviate from identitarian race politics, some woke activists brand them race traitors or coconuts. When black extremists or Antifa activists commit acts of violence, many in the increasingly woke mainstream media either justify their actions or remain silent for fear of offending movement leaders. This inadvertently reinforces a permission structure for further violence. In certain parts of the US, where violent activists run amok, we no longer pass Natan Sharansky’s town square test of a free society: can a person walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment or physical harm? If not, Sharansky says, that person is living in a fear society, not a free society.
Woke cultural warriors strive to eliminate free expression and force a monolithic hegemony upon our educational institutions, big tech companies, corporations, governments, old and new media, nonprofits and other institutions of civil society. Express the wrong opinion and you may lose everything.
Silencing bad ideas is anti-rational and prevents the arguments that would otherwise persuade the holders of those ideas that they are mistaken. Instead of eliminating bad ideas, this entrenches them. When disagreements cannot be settled by reason, through argument, they are settled anti-rationally: the party with the most power wins. So what starts out as an argument that the disadvantaged should have a voice, ends up being an argument in support of force and even violence. It is no accident that whenever there were changes in the leadership of the static societies of old, it was almost always because of warfare or other forms of violence.
As in the static societies of old, woke activists enforce conformity through shaming, ostracization and threats to people’s livelihoods, all of which disable the means by which people can solve disagreements peacefully.
The woke memeplex asserts that a dominant group—most commonly white cisgender males—are holding down marginalized groups and denying them the fruits of their intellectual and physical labor. This perspective locks in perverse, simplified explanations of economic and political disparities. Of course, as with many anti-rational memes, there is a kernel of truth in this. There have been structures in the west that have oppressed minorities. But the woke memeplex is anti-rational because it disables its holders’ critical faculties by labeling any criticism of itself a form of bigotry or racism, and it gets itself passed onto others like a Trojan horse, by attaching itself to good ideas, such as the ideas that racial and gender discrimination are wrong. Well-meaning people who support greater equality are naturally susceptible to an anti-rational meme that insists here is the reason for inequality and if you disagree you are racist. This anti-rational woke meme is particularly damaging because it explains all differences in outcomes between groups as a product of power differences, and seeks to crowd out all other possible explanations, such as cultural differences.
Coleman Hughes explains how the woke meme subverts critical thinking in his review of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: “A key element of her program is for whites to eliminate a set of normal behaviors when talking to black people about race: the aforementioned ‘silence, defensiveness, argumentation, withdrawal, certitude, and other forms of pushback’ … If you eliminate all these behaviors, only one option remains: enthusiastic agreement.”
Wokeness insists that members of the allegedly dominant class not criticize the doctrine or even attempt to describe the reality of the marginalized group. Only members of the marginalized group have standing to represent themselves. The marginalized group claims powerlessness in the face of domination and thereby insulates itself from inquiry and criticism. Unfortunately, many in the marginalized group internalize the self-defeating claim that they have no agency. Agency and the freedom to come up with and criticize new ideas, which can entice others to participate in the exciting world of progress, are the only things that improve people’s circumstances over the long term.
As the woke meme has grown more prominent, it has polarized US culture. As Robert Lynch argues, “it would be hard to design a more perfect instrument for destroying social capital than making fixed and immutable traits the basis for understanding everything from the history of our nation’s founding to all social and economic inequality.” In other words, healthy societies—open, dynamic societies that value creativity and criticism—build trust across social boundaries. The woke meme, however, pits people against each other by generating competing identity claims, exaggerating power differences and undermining social trust at every level. Indeed, left-wing identity politics—a product of wokeness—has predictably given rise to right-wing identity politics, which sometimes takes the form of white identitarianism. It is an inherently destabilizing mix, leaving everyone the worse for wear.
It would be difficult to overstate the detriment to race relations. Coleman Hughes argues that the woke white fragility crowd insist that whites adopt rigid and unbalanced roles in relation to their black neighbors, co-workers and dialogue partners, rendering emotional intimacy impossible. These roles require whites to completely relinquish their critical thinking and accept at face value all testimony of oppression and even ideological pronouncements from their black interlocutors. The woke treat whites as perpetual offenders who need to guard their every word and infantilize blacks as victims who can do no wrong. All of this works against mutual respect and friendship in a multiracial society.
The most radical forms of woke ideology not only seek an ideological power shift, but hope to root out the founding ideals of western societies. While many Americans believe that their country has failed to live up to its highest ideals, they nevertheless recognize them as their ideals. Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists were very clear: “On the one hand we have proudly professed the great principles of democracy, but on the other hand we have sadly practiced the very opposite of those principles.” King’s goal was to help America live up to its founding principles, not tear them down. The hardcore woke agenda takes aim at these democratic values. As Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic write of Critical Race Theory—the ideological foundation of woke activism—“unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.” By calling America a white supremacist state and lambasting its Enlightenment intellectual underpinnings, critical theorists and many woke activists seek not to amend but to replace the country’s founding ethos. One can hardly imagine a more destructive intellectual assault on a pluralistic, democratic society. It would be tempting not to take it seriously if it had not already taken a toll.
A liberal society that caves to woke demands becomes less liberal, even illiberal. Irrationality begets more and different forms of irrationality. Today, society is caught in an increasingly vicious cycle of illogicality. This poses a danger to our current liberal political order, which depends on our ability to attenuate anti-rational memes. Perhaps we will be able to look back at the current moment as a time when liberals pushed back with renewed energy, sharpening their intellectual faculties, better articulating liberal values and strengthening the community of people who support the liberal enterprise. The only way to free ourselves from the grip of the anti-rational woke meme is through creativity and criticism.