I used to be woke a good fifteen years before it was called that. You could call it proto-woke, but I called myself a post-Marxist, sometimes a postmodernist. Being a good student of Herbert Marcuse, I held that free speech was a reactionary activity that needed to be curtailed and that those whose speech did not further social change should be silenced. Had social media-enabled cancel culture existed at that time, I would have spent a lot of time online, cancelling reactionaries.
But one day I woke up and stopped telling myself why we had to change the world and instead asked how this could be done.
The people I was reading at the time provided no answers. Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein just made vague allusions to some radical experiments happening in Mexico that the advanced capitalist world could copy. Slavoj Zizek and Jacques Derrida spent their careers dodging this pragmatic question—in fact, the entire canon of Marxism and postmodernism avoided, with great flourishes of obfuscation, the question of how the perfect, post-revolutionary society would be created.
So, I sought out other reading. I discovered Steven Pinker’s 2002 book The Blank Slate. Pinker asks how a lot. How does human cognition work? How do we tell right from wrong? How do societies form? From his book, I learned that Marxism and progressivism were part of a long tradition of utopian thinking, built upon the concept of the human being as a tabula rasa. Marxists, progressives, many liberals and social engineers all believed that they could create a utopian society from scratch because, for them, humans and human society were infinitely malleable.
The people who attempt to cancel others in the name of some utopian project have usually never asked themselves how they would build their utopia. Because, if they did, the case for censorship would crumble.
The New Utopianism
Wokeism is just the latest version of the utopian ideology: a belief system that flares up every three or four generations and goes all the way back to Plato’s Republic in 375 BC, with its idea of a perfectly planned and regimented city society. It recurs in the Christian heresies of Pelagianism (400 AD), as well as those of radical millenarian groups such as the Anabaptists (1500s), who held that the Kingdom of God could be created on Earth. This was an early form of blank slate thinking: holding that man is born without sin or can have his sins washed clean.
Utopianism inspired the French revolution, the Christian progressive movement in nineteenth-century America, the communist revolutions of the twentieth century and the peace movements and collectivist cults of the 1960s. Every time utopianism re-emerges, it attempts to reshape humankind in the name of progress: to make us purer and more ethical. It bombards us with reasons as to why utopia must come to exist—but these attempts always come undone because they do not address the question of how.
Utopianism always attempts to repress freedom of speech, since the utopians believe that humans are blank slates, who can be wiped clean of all imperfect words and ideas.
The Blank Slate Human
At the heart of the utopian ideal is that the belief that human beings are perfectible, expressed, for example, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s assertion that, “Man is born free and is everywhere in chains.” Such ideas influenced Vladimir Lenin’s dream of the new Soviet man; Mao Tse Tung’s declarations that the peasant is “a blank page, unblemished” and that a “clean sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it”; and the Khmer Rouge slogan, “Only the new-born baby is spotless.”
The hippie movement expressed the same sentiment in its belief that children are the future, capable of universal love. Today, for the millennial children of the 60s utopians, everything is a social construct and there is no such thing as human nature.
The control of language is the most important tool the utopian social engineer can wield in the construction of a perfectly planned society from which all cruelty, suffering and inequality have to be eradicated. To quote Mao, the “four olds”—“old ideas, old culture, old habits and old customs”—must be destroyed; old words, which perpetuate the power structures of the past, must be banned; old books must be burned. During China’s Cultural Revolution Mao’s student-led Red Guards—some of them as young as nine years old—destroyed 5,000 years of cultural artefacts, artworks and texts with the goal of eliminating every trace of the past. Mao’s was a regime of centrally planned control of language usage.
For the utopian social engineers, to say the incorrect words is to attack their plan for utopia. They want to erase every problematic word, burn every heretical book—because they believe that a new kind of human will arise from the ashes and create an entirely new world in which all human problems will cease to exist.
Hidden beneath the current manifestation of utopian activism lurks the dream of the unproblematic state: without blemish, without opponents, from which even the language of opposition has been removed.
Most utopians today don’t know that they are part of a long tradition. They might not refer to their end goal as utopia, and are more likely to talk about achieving an equitable, zero growth or communist society than The Kingdom of God on Earth or The New Jerusalem.
However, utopia remains a metaphysical mirage. The perfect unproblematic society—which is the eternal goal, forever over the next horizon—always starts to reveals its totalitarian essence when we start asking its exponents exactly how they plan to bring it about.
A Language Exercise
The rest of us rarely question utopians on their underlying philosophy, because we are generally too busy trying to defend freedom of speech or re-platform the de-platformed.
We never ask, So how will you bring about your perfect society? Many might refuse to entertain the question, or be suspicious of your reasons for asking it. However, some will be tempted to try to answer. Rather than being constantly on the defensive, a more effective way of countering cancel culture could be to give utopians the space to examine their core beliefs in public.
Over the past two decades, I’ve asked the how question to people from three different generations of utopians: a card-carrying communist active in the 1940s and 50s, a CND peace movement activist and second wave feminist from the 1960s and 70s and perhaps a dozen of the woke. Their answers were surprisingly similar.
It is very difficult to get utopians to stop focusing on the things they believe must be eradicated: poverty, sexism, racism, greed, inequality, capitalism, ecological destruction: huge abstractions that provide an endless cause of fury. But if you stop them from regressing to the old routine of cancelling people who stand in the way of their perfectly planned society, you can encourage utopians to attempt to work out the steps towards the creation of that society.
Ask them how they would structure a society in which they could plan every single thing to the fullest of their good intentions.
First of all, they will need to agree on a list of all the things that are wrong with society. Is there a priority to the issues, are all the steps to eradicate them actionable? How is this all going to be planned and co-ordinated, and on what scale?
A utopian may decide that a group of people with the correct, unproblematic ideas needs to be appointed to turn these demands into concrete plans.
You can then ask if this would be a central or decentralised committee and how its members would be chosen. Would they be chosen on merit, past history or on the strength of their convictions, or would they be randomly selected? How would they be voted in? How could they be voted out? And what would they do if some of these people had problematic ideas?
Once constituted, the committee would need to get everyone in society to go along with their plan. How would that be done? It is likely that re-education, the use of positive images and language control would be necessary—although a utopian would no doubt call language control positivity training. This would require new laws, and new agencies to enforce them. Freedom of speech could be a real threat to the plan for a perfect society, so, freedom of speech would have to be stopped, or at the very least curtailed, until the project was complete—and maybe afterward too, because a perfect society has to be maintained.
How would this be done?
A utopian might suggest that this should ideally start at school: only correct speech should be taught, only correct images shown, so that children grow up totally committed to the plan for a perfect society. Many liberal boomers used to say that the creation of the better society begins in kindergarten. And true to their word many of them went into education to teach kids how to become utopian subjects. In their worldview, the perfect planned society is a new social construct, written upon the blank slate mind of the child. If you force them to make these assumptions explicit, utopians may begin to realise that they have not thought this through well enough, since their perfect society requires mind control of children or the use of a special thought police.
This might disturb them. It might give them some pause next time they join a mob to cancel someone.
Don’t stop there, though—go deeper into the how.
Ask them how this imprinting of the correct unproblematic words, images and ideas would be achieved.
They might suggest that psychologists and educational specialists would be employed to make sure that the kids were trained in utopian beliefs and behaviours. This suggests a belief in behaviourism: that children can be conditioned like the animals in the experiments of Pavlov and Skinner. Utopians may not know about the secret Pavlovian behavioural experiments conducted by a team of Soviets in fascist Italy in 1932 on orphaned children, to make them respond to visual and linguistic clues. You don’t need to tell them that twentieth-century attempts to show the dominance of nurture over nature ended up proving the exact opposite, and were conducted through experiments now considered inhumane and illegal, or that the majority of pioneering scientists today believe that human behaviour is by no means infinitely malleable because humans are not blank slates.
Now ask how the utopian will make everyone go along with the plan. What might potentially go wrong and why? The utopian will not believe that their plan could fail because of human nature, because they don’t believe that human nature exists. It must then have to do with some other kind of human error—some secret enemies perhaps: a belief that led to the purges of Mao and Stalin. Ask how they would address any problems in the building of their utopian society. How would they fix things, if any element of the plan went wrong? Would there be any provision for feedback on any errors that occurred in executing the plan, and, if so, how could these reports or complaints be differentiated from the subversion of the plan by enemies?
The larger the scale of any social engineering project, the greater the chance of unintended outcomes. Mao Zedong’s well intentioned attempt to eradicate pests in communist China resulted in the greatest manmade famine in world history, from 1958 to 1962, causing over 45 million deaths. The building of dams can cause drought; a government subsidy for single parents can accelerate the breakdown of the family; drug prohibition can incentivise drug dealers to sell stronger drugs. None of this is planned.
Perhaps the makers of the utopian plan would have to overlook or hide evidence of any unintended consequences or failures of the plan? This falsification would be done with good intentions, of course. And maybe anyone who spoke the truth about the facts would have to be labelled a hate-speaker, presenting hate-facts.
But how, you might ask a utopian, would you be able to tell facts from lies? Would you need a department of truth? And how could you stop dissenters from spreading lies about the plan?
Again, any utopian will have to confront the need to control all speech for the sake of the plan. At this point, they might tell you that there will be no dissenters or that any dissenters will have to be kept away from the planned society: now they have envisaged complete totalitarianism, merely by following the internal logic of utopianism to its natural conclusion. They’ve just come to the realisation that their utopia leads inexorably, by their own chain of logic, to new versions of re-education camps, the Stasi and the gulags. This might be quite disturbing for them. They might want to go back through it all again to see where they went wrong. Or they might want to blame you. But if they look at the 2,300-year history of attempts to create utopia, they will discover that this paradise on earth has never once been achieved and that all attempts invariably end in failure or violence. They will also discover that the largest genocides and manmade famines in history were engineered by utopian social planners.
There will never be a utopia, not unless you can alter human beings and control every human interaction—and even then you are bound to make mistakes because, without freedom of speech, how could anyone correct any errors that creep into the plan?
Finally, the utopian may come to realise that silencing and cancelling everyone who disagrees with the utopian masterplan might itself lead to the collapse of the plan. Just as the suppression of the feedback loop of criticism led to the economic slowdown and then destruction of the USSR, and fake reports of harvest efficiency led to Mao’s great famine.
The utopian might even realise that, all these years, they believed that merely silencing the enemies of the great plan was enough and never once considered how they were going to put that plan into practice.
Have pity on the utopian. It’s a long hard journey from idealism to pragmatism, from belief in an absolute abstraction to a life in a world of many small hows.
The Ironic Strategy
Many of us have heard some quite extraordinary utopian declarations, even by academics, ranging from the idea that, if women were in charge of everything, there would be no more wars to the idea that, if the speaker’s chosen identity group were in control of society, there would be no more global warming.
The underlying assumption in all such statements is exactly the same: a central planning group will decide how everyone else must behave, speak and act. Democracy will ultimately have to be dispensed with, since the utopian always has a single plan that must be enacted. Those who dissent will have to be silenced or made to disappear.
The destruction of freedom of speech is a load bearing pillar of utopianism, but most people who oppose freedom of speech are unaware of the utopian underpinnings of their belief or of the long history of attempts to make utopia a reality.
I propose this language exercise in asking how utopians wish to achieve their aims as an alternative to endlessly fighting for an end to censorship, which is a matter of continually putting out individual fires. If the utopianism beneath cancel culture is questioned and exposed, then cancel culture will collapse or continue as nothing more than a habit, a mob behaviour with no real justification.
The best way to defend freedom of speech may be to abandon the defensive position and instead turn the tables on utopians, by offering them a platform to explain their own beliefs so that they will be forced to face the inherent failings of utopianism itself: a generous and ironic strategy.
So next time someone accuses you of saying things that are problematic, ask them how they will make their unproblematic society work. Surely they will need a squad of language police to monitor the problematic people. That’s not a realistic plan—it’s an endless, thankless task. Although it might make the members of the language police feel righteous and superior to the people whom they are correcting, no-platforming, criminalising and locking-up, they would remain caught in a bind: never moving beyond mere punitive correction of others. This cannot be the way to the perfect society.
So, invite utopians to draw up their plans, and soon they will realise that their idealised blank page is, by necessity, stained with blood.
Historically, all utopian projects have resulted, for practical reasons, in increased power given to state planners and human engineers—i.e. in totalitarianism.
Is that what our modern utopians really want?
One question utopian never ask themselves is: “what if people aren’t robots that will do what I program them to?”
A system that does not account for humans being humans is not only miserable for everyone, but also doomed to failure. A system that actually leverages the power of humans being humans to the betterment of society is ideal. For a fine example of such a system, look no further than those built on enlightenment ideals.
I ask this question often. “Can you articulate or describe a path to your ideal society that does not include confiscation, reeducation, redistribution, relocation, violence?” The thought experiment always goes more or less how you describe here.
I’ve been suggesting this same strategy now for a while. Simply asking “how?” as well and any disconfirming questions like “what do you think is the best argument against your position?” are lethal injections to utopians.