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In the mid-2010s in the English-speaking world there arose a left-wing social and political movement that has become enormously influential, one you are likely familiar with in one form or another. The movement has gone by many names: woke(ness), social-justice warriors (SJW), Progressive Activist, The Elect, Successor Ideology, Tumblr liberalism. What is notable about these names is that all of them have been applied to the movement primarily by people outside it. The only one coined from within the movement is “woke”, and recently many members of the movement have become suspicious even of that.

The movement, in other words, has shown a remarkable reluctance to name itself. What is clear to me is that the movement is a movement, with its own new and radically revisionary paradigm of inquiry, and therefore needs a name to identify it, even though its members seem reluctant to give it one. Perhaps this could be because they believe it is not a movement, it is just common sense. If so, I think a simple reflection on what was considered common sense ten years ago, within the same societies, is sufficient to show that belief false.

But this post is not about the name or lack thereof. Rather, the purpose of this post is to talk and think about the movement’s ideas, whatever it might be called. There are significant aspects of this movement that I agree with, and at least one that I have greatly benefitted from. I sympathize with its aims considered at the broadest level. Moreover I believe that there is truth in everything; I looked for the truth in the rise of Trump, and it is at least as important to do that here.

As a start to that end, in the remainder of this post I will articulate those aspects of the new movement that I disagree with, but do so in terms as sympathetic as I can manage. My aim is to describe these tenets of the movement in terms that its members would recognize and agree with. As the movement often has a new and specialized vocabulary, I am aiming to put the content of their ideas in my words: the aim is not to parrot their ideas in their vocabulary, but to express the content and meaning, in good faith, in a relatively widely recognized form of English.

I do this in part because I’m broadly in sympathy with the view recently expressed by Regina Rini that we need nuance rather than being simply pro- or anti-: “I can learn from thoughtful, point-by-point rebuttals of these views without the rhetorical intrusion of epochal ill winds. I learn nothing from bombast.” I’d like to start such a project with a point-by-point list of where my disagreements are. This is not a rebuttal; I’m not going to explain why I disagree, not here. That rebuttal would be the work of several different posts, some of which I have already made, others of which I will make in the future. Here, again, the project is sympathetic understanding.

So here goes. The new movement believes, and I do not believe, that…

  • The most urgent issue facing the world in the 21st century is inequalities of race and gender (including sexual orientation and gender identity).
  • On questions of race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, the most important overarching distinction to make is the distinction between privileged groups on one hand, and marginalized groups on the other.
  • The fact of being marginalized is always central to the life experience of people in marginalized groups.
  • Therefore marginalized groups’ experience of marginalization makes them all natural allies with each other.
  • Therefore with respect to race, the most important division is between white people, who are all privileged by virtue of their whiteness, and people of colour, who are all correspondingly marginalized.
  • Because marginalized people have the lived experience of being marginalized, they naturally understand the nature of that marginalization better than privileged people ever can.
  • Therefore, those within a privileged group should not speak on any issue that they are privileged about, except to amplify the voices of the marginalized.
  • It is hurtful to marginalized people to question them or ask them to justify their positions on issues related to their marginalization; rather, their own accounts of anything related to their lived experience should simply be accepted.
  • To fight racism it is helpful to emphasize and strengthen people’s racial identities, for example by setting online icons to match one’s skin colour and teaching young children to identify themselves and each other by race.
  • One of the more important ways to respond to the colonization of indigenous peoples in the Americas is by prefacing public events with an acknowledgement that the land the events are on once belonged to them.
  • The cultures created by people of colour are their property, and for people of other cultures to make cultural or artistic works using that property is to take that property away from the people of colour illegitimately.
  • Social and political activism in general, and activism on racial and gender inequality in particular, is a moral duty for everyone.
  • Anyone not actively working to change the status quo is complicit in all of its inequities and problems, and therefore those who are not proactively antiracist should be considered racist.
  • Anger on behalf of marginalized people is helpful and should be encouraged; in a protest demonstration, damage to property is often a helpful and productive means of expressing this anger.
  • Gender should be viewed entirely as a matter of self-identification, and so one should refrain from using the offensive phrase “biologically male/female”, replacing it with “assigned male/female at birth”.
  • In human interactions and institutional policies, the highest priority should be assigned to safety, including safety from psychological as well as physical harm.
  • There is a category of words that are inherently offensive to marginalized people, irrespective of whether they happen to offend any particular marginalized person or even the majority of the relevant marginalized group; these words are helpfully referred to as slurs.
  • The typical effect of slurs is to make marginalized people emotionally unsafe, vulnerable to trauma.
  • Therefore, the usage of slurs in classrooms should be entirely prohibited, even for pedagogical purposes.
  • In general, it is important to revise the use of the English language significantly to avoid all words that could be offensive to marginalized people.
  • Any innocent intentions behind hurtful words do not matter; all that matters is their hurtful impact on their target.
  • The proper and primary role of art and humour is to challenge the privilege of privileged groups, and any art or humour that does not do this should be viewed with suspicion.
  • Freedom of speech, to the extent that it matters, is far less important than the harm that speech can cause to marginalized groups. Therefore those who speak ideas contrary to the interests of marginalized groups should lose their platforms for speaking, so that their harmful words can no longer be promoted.
  • Especially, when some feminists express the claim that female-only spaces (such as women’s sports, women’s colleges or women’s bathrooms) should be reserved for non-transgender women, this idea is so dangerous that it should be met with social censure, shunning anyone who expresses it and perhaps anyone associated with them.
  • Attempts to oppose these tenets or their application are derived primarily from a desire, conscious or unconscious, to preserve the relevant privileged groups’ privilege over marginalized groups.

None of these bulleted tenets are obvious or common sense. I will state once more that I disagree with all of them. (I am probably stating that disagreement more times than is necessary, but this is the sort of post from which misunderstanding is easy, and these are the sort of issues on which misunderstanding is dangerous.) In 2012, even within left-wing circles, every one of these tenets would likely have been met with spirited disagreement if not derision. But I would also say that none of them is self-contradictory or otherwise absurd. Some seem obviously wrong to me, but many people nevertheless hold them or beliefs very much like them, and I hope I have portrayed them all sympathetically enough that they do not look ridiculous. People can and do defend them all, even though that defence can be (and I think often is) weak.

In some contrast to Rini’s view, I think these tenets typically tend to come as a package: I expect that if you were to take surveys, you would find high levels of correlation between believing one of them and believing the others. I would certainly like for them to come as less of a package – for more people to take individual ideas from this list separately rather than accepting them as a group – but so far that does not seem to be what has happened. And many of the tenets do support, or are derived from, other tenets. So, taken together, I think these and other controversial tenets constitute a paradigm or tradition in political theory and ethics. (It is a further step to discuss which such tenets are the paradigm’s hard core and which are mere auxiliary hypotheses, to use Lakatos‘s terminology. There’s no room for that here; that would require a different but similar post aiming to explain the movement’s theoretical structure.)

This paradigm is one that I reject. But I also believe that dialectic begins with sympathetic understanding. While I have never been a right-winger, I have tried in various ways over the years to understand and learn from right-wing thinkers. I think it is important to extend the same courtesy to this recent left-wing paradigm with which I have significant agreements but many disagreements. I hope that this attempt at a neutral presentation of its controversial claims can be a start to that.