How «woke» activism took over universities and descended into street riots
Nonsense becomes dogma, «woke» activists turn into left-wing authoritarians: the principles of the Enlightenment are collapsing faster than we might think. We must resist while we still can.
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George Floyd died under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis in the end of May, and people spilled on to the streets of American cities, outraged at police brutality and racial bias and exhausted by Covid-19 lockdowns. In Portland, Oregon, where I live, those protests turned into riots nearly every single night last Summer. The homicide rate climbed to the highest it’s been in 30 years. One late night in mid-August, a man was dragged from his car and beaten by a small band of thugs. The next day, on a bluebird sky morning, some of the few stores nearby that were not boarded up had shop owners out on the sidewalks, cleaning up from the mayhem of the previous night. In this once bustling downtown, normal human activity is almost entirely absent while the sun shines. And at night, the chaos resumes—fires are started, people are assaulted, human feces is literally thrown around.
Some would tell you that my mentioning these facts is evidence that I am on the political right. In fact, I am and always have been on the left. Liberalism had many big wins in the 20th century—securing rights for women, people of color, and workers; the advent of disability law, environmental protections, to name just a few. But there is much more to be done: Even as wealth grows, the middle class is disappearing; health care and education costs climb while quality plummets; and we are polluting our air, water, and soil at unprecedented rates, extinction rates are rising, and habitat is disappearing under the call for more oil, lumber, spaces for people to live.
The gains made by 20th century liberalism, and any chance of confronting the big issues still before us, are being eroded by a new ideology. This ideology—call it the woke left, or the authoritarian left—traffics in blatant falsehoods and untestable claims. It is focused on markers of identity—sex, race, disability—and effectively carves out ways to divide us, rather than unite us in our common humanity.
We are being told, for instance, that men and women are exactly the same, indeed that sex itself is a social construct. This is a fiction, and threatens to disappear many hard-won protections for women. Nature magazine, one of the world’s top scientific journals, now inserts into its news stories the claim that sex is neither binary nor fixed; they do this even in articles that are literally about differential outcomes by sex from diseases, including cystic fibrosis and COVID-19.
And, central to a season of protests that are nominally responding to society-wide racism, we are asked to believe that all white people are guilty of the original sin of racism, for which there is neither cure, nor forgiveness. Loyalty oaths are demanded—admit your racism, or be shamed, or even fired. If you are not in fact a racist, defending yourself against false claims is itself evidence of your racism. Self-defense is taken as proof of guilt: a perfect 21st century Kafka trap.
The American Psychological Association, which oversees accrediting for psychologists in the U.S., has declared that “Every institution in America is born from the blood of white supremacist ideology and capitalism.” As usual, there is no evidence for this claim. Similarly, the K12 schools in America are widely promoting and enforcing an “equity agenda,” which forces not just teachers, but children, to accept these untestable and divisive beliefs.
This new ideology is nearly everywhere you look, in the media and the courts, and in the rise of “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” officers and departments throughout corporate America. But it started in the universities.
Rule of the mob
Universities are inherently gatekeepers, providing an imprimatur for the holders of their diplomas. Should a movement rise that debases the degrees that are awarded, it will be difficult to point to—the degrees still look the same. What is the difference in quality between a degree from Yale in 1990, versus one in 2020? How about the difference between undergraduate degrees earned in Physics, versus “Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies”? You could probably be educated with exposure to the ideas offered by the latter degree, but it would be far easier with the former.
We need a reimagining of the liberal arts for the 21st century, one that educates for breadth and problem solving; an ability to return to first principles rather than relying on static mnemonics; and the exploration of ideas without a clear goal, such that you might land places you never imagined. A liberal arts education allows for the possibility of emergence, in which the whole is greater than, and unpredictable from, the parts with which you began.
And yet it is at this historical moment that an authoritarian streak is dominating instead—one that insists on its own conclusions, and claims that seeking alternative answer to questions is itself a form of bigotry. Mob rule threatens to decide what questions get asked, and which answers are acceptable. Examples are unfortunately abundant, from Berkeley to Yale. And in what some have viewed as the quintessential example of illiberal, anti-Enlightenment thinking taking over an institution of higher education, The Evergreen State College melted down in 2017, at which time and place my husband, Bret Weinstein, and I were tenured, until rather suddenly we were not. At Evergreen, under the guise of a college-wide move towards greater “equity and inclusion,” the core principles of the liberal arts college were dismantled, and those who objected were taken to be enemies of the cause, and therefore of the college itself.
A very brief summary is this: a new college president was hired in 2015, and he made common cause with a group of faculty and staff activists. Together, they began to restructure the college, with the formal justification that Evergreen was a hotbed of systemic racism, using the logic and tactics of the “diversity, equity and inclusion” ideology. The statistics they used to make this claim were demonstrably false, and no credible evidence of actual racism on campus was ever revealed. A very few of us objected to the changes being made at the college, and Bret, my husband, objected most loudly and persistently.
On May 23, 2017, a group of 50 students whom he had never met showed up at Bret’s classroom and disrupted it, demanding his resignation. To the surprise and dismay of the activists, his own students stayed loyal to him. Within hours, campus was roiling over with anarchy and violence. Rioters barricaded the library building, trapping people inside, and kidnapping administrators, including the president, who had been so helpful in allowing this to happen. Vandalism on campus centered on the library and the science labs. In long, private meetings between activists and administration—which were filmed and uploaded to the web by the activists—administrators colluded with students to specifically “target STEM faculty” with implicit bias training on the basis that scientists are particularly racist. One student of ours, who is Afro-Caribbean on one side of her family, was assaulted by activists who told her she was a “race traitor” for studying science.
Students and faculty were hunted on campus; the campus police chief told Bret that activists were “going car to car looking for an individual,” and that that individual was Bret. She advised him to stay off campus, and stay off his bike anywhere in town, for his own safety. Some students were assaulted by activists with baseball bats and nightsticks. Our friends and family had concerns that they would show up at our door, so we took our children out of the state. In the middle of all this, the administration told the campus police force to stand down. Evergreen is in the capital city of Washington state, so we went, with many students, to the capitol building to describe what was happening a few miles away, on the campus of a public institution of higher learning, and to ask for help. No help ever arrived.
Months later, at the end of the Summer, the public liberal arts college that had once lauded Bret and me as stellar professors, promoting our programs as the epitome of the kind of creative educational opportunities that could be created at Evergreen, invited our resignations. They couldn’t force us out—we had tenure. But they promised to make our lives miserable, because we would not promise to sit down and shut up. We took a settlement, and resigned.
Colleges and universities are supposed to be keepers of both tradition and progress, protectors of paradigms and anomalies, overseers of orthodoxy and heresy. We need universities that provide safe harbor for heterodoxy, while also being keepers of orthodoxy. We need universities to teach young people in the next generation how to think, how to question, and, depending on their interests and proclivities, how to create or discover, how to heal or lead, how to effect needed and positive change in the world.
What we most definitely do not need is universities that indoctrinate with bad thinking and wrong conclusions. We do not need Robin DiAngelo advising us, in White Fragility, that claiming you are not racist proves that you are, or Ibram X Kendi, in How To Be An Anti-Racist, informing us that unless you seek equality of outcome, you are, in fact, a racist. And yet our universities are churning out and promoting just these ideas, and sure enough, they have spread into the rest of the culture.
Helicoptered into permanent infantilization
This is a culture war, but the war is not against fascists and racists, as we are led to believe by activists. The culture war is not even primarily against conservatives and the police, although widespread cries to defund and even abolish the police reveal that such groups are indeed targeted. More centrally, the culture war that is upon us is fighting against logic and analysis, math and science. Every tool of the Enlightenment is on the chopping block, and those who defend the use of these tools are taken to be the enemy.
The bad thinking came from the universities, but why have so many of the young fallen for it?
Many young Americans are enraged for reasons they do not understand. Many are in debt, their educations have failed them, good health care is a distant memory, and the prospect of owning a house is a pipe dream. Many were helicopter parented away from all risk and serendipity, away from actual learning from the world. Many were raised on legal pharmaceuticals—mood disrupters and flatteners, and myriad exogenous hormones—that have rendered them psychologically disorganized, unable to track or control their own emotional states, or to read that of others. They were handed screens at a young age and encouraged to treat the interactions therein as complete human interactions, when of course they are not. Those screens’ algorithms are designed to make addicts of us all. And the American economy has become obsessed with making us into full-time consumers.
So we have damaged a generation of young people, with a perfect storm of bad parenting, legal drugs, and screens, and delivered them an economy that reveals that, for them, the American Dream is a near impossibility. Their anger and frustration can, in this framing, be understood. But even legitimate anger and frustration are no excuse for rampaging in the streets, looting, rioting, assaulting, even killing, innocents. Why are they being allowed to behave this way, and where are the adults who will stop this?
Many of the adults who should be stopping the chaos are exactly the same people who helicoptered their children into permanent infantilization. These are the adults who caved to temper tantrums when it was their own children throwing them. Of course they cave now, when the tantrums come wrapped in pretty slogans like “Black Lives Matter.” The fact that the pretty slogans hide agendas that are far different—like the disruption of the “Western-prescribed nuclear family structure”—is not noticed by most who shout them in the streets, or put signs in their windows and yards.
One small concession after the other
So to adults of all ages who have been captured, even just a little, by the new ideology, allow me this example of what the capture looks like. I will use the messaging of Trans Rights Activists, whom I distinguish from true trans people, the latter of which are extremely rare, and do not pretend that biology is a fiction. The Trans Rights Activists, however, would have us believe, among other things, that men can give birth—and they’ve got the New York Times going along with their fantasy.
Note that this is crazy talk. Five hundred million uninterrupted years of sexual reproduction in our lineage assures us that male and female are distinct phenomena. It is no less crazy than suggesting that plants are animals or that Europe is Australia. This is crazy talk, and no amount of social pressure changes that fact.
How, then, does the crazy idea spread?
When you object that, actually, men cannot give birth, your activist friend will look at you with sadness in her eyes, and a question: Why can you not just be generous and kind?
If you persist in your claim that men are not women, you will be shamed. And after a while, after repeated exposure to the thing-that-is-proclaimed-to-be-true-that-patently-is-not, you may begin to question your understanding of reality.
Now the activist will swoop in and ask you to cede small points. Because this isn’t your area of expertise, and in no way the hill you want to die on, you may accept them. Surely the only difference between men and women is chromosomes? What then do we make of chromosomal anomalies? Doesn’t this put the lie to biological sex? (To which accurate answers are: Male and female are far older than sex chromosomes. Complex systems are imperfect. And no, biological sex is real.)
But if instead you do cede small points, the activist will be so appreciative, and make another request: Can’t you go a little further? This is often more effective than brute force attempts to change thinking. You will be asked to “educate yourself!” and you will be provided the bad thinking of some over-educated and under-smart “experts” with which to do so. Beware arguments from authority, though. Track your logic back to first principles when you can.
If you resist the sad eyes and gentle words and attempts to re-educate you, the activist may move down the list of accepted actions: after shaming, perhaps gaslighting. Then smearing of your reputation, including outright lies. Threats of violence are a last resort—but only if you resist! The activist will assure you: it’s best not to resist. Accept the crazy talk, else you are inviting whatever happens to you. You are doing this to yourself!
Do not cede small points in order to keep the peace. The peace will not be kept this way. Cede small points, and you will be expected to cede more. Apologize for things you did not do, and you will be held accountable for those things, and more. This movement is cloaked so beautifully, as if it is a gift of freedom and justice for all. But it is not that. It brings division and destruction. Do not accept the horse at the gates.