What actually triggered the Woke Cultural Revolution in the West?
For at least three or four years now, I have, together with my closest colleagues, been recognized as something of an authority of the ideology most of us just refer to now as “Wokeness.” Spanning that time, certainly at least as far back as early 2018, I have frequently faced the challenging question of “how did this Woke stuff escape the university and go mainstream?” While we were doing the Grievance Studies Affair, in fact, we ended up in an epic argument about the issue that led to us giving a kind of quirky name to the difficulty we had in answering this question. We called it “crossing the Tim Pool Gap.”
This challenge in communications gained this name for us in February of 2018, when Peter Boghossian, Helen Pluckrose, Mike Nayna, Tim Pool, and I all met at Peter’s house, rather by chance, to have a discussion about this exact topic. In a heated discussion that went on for hours, we hit a major impasse in which we could not satisfactorily convince Tim of our thesis, and neither could Tim convince us of his. Tim argued that activists, especially in media, were the primary agents of change in Wokifying everything. We insisted that, while this may be, there was a significant university component as well and, further, that it was the root of the activist mentality. “Ideas like ‘hegemonic masculinity’ didn’t come out of the sky! They came out of academia!” I still remember Peter yelling in frustration. The thing is, Tim wasn’t wrong, and neither were we (there’s something like a revolving door of bad ideas between these groups, who all fancy themselves activists in the same causes). We were so alarmed and frustrated by our inability to communicate the university-to-culture pipeline (or lab leak, as it might better be understood) that we referred to this challenging comms problem ever after as a search for a way to bridge the Tim Pool Gap, or “TPGap,” in our private communications.
This is a question that deserves an answer though, because when something this pernicious takes hold of the core of a culture, we have a duty to understand how it was able to do so, so that, whether our culture stands or falls by it, future societies will not so easily be threatened. As indicated by the existence of the Tim Pool Gap, though, the answer to that question is complex and probably deserves a book’s length to get anything better than a very cursory treatment. Certainly, the roles played by the Internet (thus democratization of information), social media (thus decentralization of publishing and broadcasting), and other infrastructural changes are significant. They are also beyond my scope, and I recommend the reader consult Martin Gurri’s admirable book The Revolt of the Public, if not works by Marshall McLuhan and even the postmodernist Jean Baudrillard, for insights in that regard. So too have intentional agents who funded or promoted Wokeness as a tool for facilitating their own agendas or for waging political warfare by turning the West simultaneously stupid and wholly against itself. That said, media and academia also both played a role, as we argued, and I would refer readers to Tim Pool’s analysis of the former and Helen Pluckrose’s analysis of the latter—though until someone (I know, I’m someone…) takes on the bear of Critical Pedagogy in sufficient detail, that latter domain will remain a bit mysterious. I will touch on that aspect here, but I will only touch.
In this essay, I hope to outline a few factors that I think offer a partial analysis of how this societal virus escaped the university lab. I don’t really mean to be so narrow, though, as to insist that the university is the only relevant “lab” or to imply that the media and activists were merely vectors, as we shall see. Reaching back even into the 1960s, radical leftist thinkers, notably including the very famous Herbert Marcuse, were writing that a fusion between the radical outsiders, racial minorities, and leftist intelligentsia (itself a loaded and important term) were to form the vanguard movement to change Western culture from within and prepare the way for what has ultimately become the Woke movement and whatever horrors might follow it, if it is not put to a stop.
Rather than detailing the various structural components that made possible the ascendancy and temporary grasp of power that Wokeness has achieved, I want to outline something like a timeline of when and how it managed to thrust itself upon us, where it was never particularly welcome. Thus, simplifying in the extreme, I hope to shed some light on four (or five, depending on how you count them, not on what two and two equal) phenomena have led to the rapid mainstreaming of the Critical Social Justice, or “Woke,” ideology in Western society over the course of the last decade and a half. I hope to tell the story of how susceptibility to this catastrophic ideology played out through a small number of key events that moved Wokeness from fringe to center stage (hopefully very temporarily). I offer this with the hope that it will help us backtrack psychologically and socially and take a step back from the ledge before its too late, and also to give some account so that others in other times and places may be able to see these manipulations before they become a full-blown civilizational threat.
Preparing the Soil
Insofar as I’ll talk about the relevance of Critical Pedagogy to the mainstreaming of Wokeness, I will say this: had the soil not been properly prepared and tilled for the ideology to take root, it probably wouldn’t have. Ideas like Critical Theory, especially in its contemporary manifestations, which are grossly anti-intellectual and, in fact, not only stupid but also insults to hard-won truths about human dignity, do not take root in healthy societies filled with healthy minds and healthy relationships. People, frankly, have better sense until they’ve been manipulated into a position of susceptibility to its backwards frame of analysis.
The responsibility for preparing a culture for such an infiltration falls on all the players mentioned above, plus on the general complacency of neoconservatives and astonishing greed of neoliberal players throughout, but it lands significantly on the shoulders of the Critical Pedagogists. Behind that fancy term, these are activist “reformers” of education who sought to bring Critical Theory into the theory of education, thus our society’s schools, thus our children’s heads. This, believe it or not, has been a successful push that has been proceeding in the West since the 1970s and that has been generally victorious since the very early 1980s. That means that Critical Theory activists have had significant access to the subversion of the minds of our nations’ youth for almost forty years with almost unmitigated access probably for at least the last twenty of those and the ability to run a full-court press over the last ten.
It’s tempting to call this shift in educational priorities toward the neo-Marxist an “indoctrination,” but it would be more accurate to call it a “reprogramming,” or, with children, merely a “programming.” The goal of Critical Pedagogy in general isn’t to educate students but rather to induce in them a so-called “critical consciousness,” which is to say that it aims to shape their minds to interpret the world in “systemic” thought processed through Critical Theory. This process has much less to do with installing some doctrine or dogma into the minds of the students by force and enforced ignorance and much more to do with teaching them a particular—and particularly bad—way to think, claim to know, and, crucially, to act with respect to anything and everything they might encounter in their lives. Critical Theory demands social activism by definition, after all, so Critical Pedagogy is designed to train students to become generally uninformed, uninformable, incurious complainer-activists in the mold of Critical Theory.
This programming and reprogramming of an entire generation or two has mostly succeeded. While most students in America, perhaps until recently, would not have been identifiable as little critically conscious proto-Red Guards, the cynical and self-hating line of Critical thought—an uninformed yet profoundly radical skepticism not just of what we might know but of why our society is even organized the way that it is, even to the level of basic shared assumptions of right and wrong—wormed its way in some degree into the thought processes of virtually everybody currently under the age of forty, unless they’re traditionally conservative.
The proof of this is in the pudding. The Millennials are, in this respect, largely a lost generation (unless they start bootstrapping themselves into a different frame that better realizes the power of responsibility and freedom to speak), as are at least half of the so-called Zoomers. This is a tragedy even without its being dangerous, and it has mostly to do with so-called education “reformers” ruining their educational milieu with crackpot theories about self-esteem and asking Critical questions about their own civilization (all done against a backdrop of not-so-called neoliberal corporatists screwing them over enough to make Critical Theory far more relatable in their lives). As a result, not only is it highly likely that most Millennials and Zoomers you meet will think at least in some part in this toxic “Critical” way, which mustn’t be confused for critical thinking, as proof that Critical Pedagogy tilled the soil for the Woke ideology (and planted most of its seeds), there’s also the wholesale bending of the university to the ideology that has to be appreciated for what it represents.
It turned out to be a naive assumption on our part back in 2018 that the process of Wokification emanated from universities that, in housing and nurturing Theory, then must have taken it up and stared indoctrinating students in it (or, as above, reprogramming them). “They teach! They teach lawyers! They teach journalists! They teach teachers!” I remember repeating at the time. “How would Wokeness not get out into society if they teach everyone who enters its professional class?!” I still think we had a point, but this analysis is far too simplistic and cannot explain an crucial fact that undermines its credibility almost totally: it gets the Wokification of the university backwards.
Whatever was going on in some fringe classrooms in the humanities and occasionally social sciences departments in those schools, they had only a little effect in directly changing the institutional and administrative direction of our centers of higher learning. How do we know? Besides the fact that, at least until quite recently, fewer than 2% of university graduates left with any sort of “Studies” degree, the administrators have told us so. Their self-defensive claim about the Wokification of institutions of academia is that these changes were institutionalzed after being demanded from below, from the students coming into the schools and wanting “safe spaces,” “homes,” and all manner of protections from the slings and arrows of rather cushy middle- and upper-middle-class life.
This claim mostly checks out, even though there were certainly some activists in their administrative ranks. Generation Snowflake had the administrations by the balls because academia had, following the federal underwriting of student loans, foolishly entered into an unsustainable student-services arms race that, even by the late 1990s, was forcing those once-venerable institutions into a business model that had to attract (with gyms, fancy dorms, and movie theaters on campus, for example) and keep (by never failing them or letting them feel unwelcome or even uncomfortable) students at virtually any cost. A whining minority of Snowflakes in any given institution, by the early 2010s, didn’t just represent a moral provocation to university administrators, but also a credible financial threat under the weight of all those new mortgages and student-services administrators hired to help keep them happy.
So, the Critical Pedagogists were able to till the soil in the primary and especially secondary education arenas for a couple of decades, which resulted in our society sending these disproportionately Critical, self-esteem-obsessed, entitled little monsters (half of whom, at least, had no business going in the first place—another catastrophic civilization-threatening lie we still attempt to maintain) off to colleges that would be willing to do anything to keep them happy. Puppies and crayons? Bubbles? A special room because a conservative-leaning Democrat is speaking in a hall across campus? No problem! Just don’t drop out (and take your gravy-train tuition dollars you’re saddling yourself with crushing debt (and more anxiety) to pretend to have with you)!
For those who had been reprogrammed, even if a rather tiny but terrified and vocal minority, remaking college into a safe-space that taught the only view of the world they found morally tolerable became an increasing priority, and the universities were no longer in any position to withstand those demands. Inch by inch, these already progressive institutions sought to coddle the least consolable until they became, in the oft-repeated words of my colleague Peter Boghossian, “indoctrination mills” in leftist ideologies, particularly the emerging Wokeness of Theory. More accurately, Critical Pedagogy wormed its way into many required courses for all majors while the administrative architecture of the institution enforced a cultural expectation of deference to Wokeness and coddling to the Woke.
This background phenomenon was not merely how the societal soil was tilled to promulgate and accept Critical Theory analyses of the crucial events of the last dozen years or so. It was—as we had hoped to persuade Tim Pool—also the programming bed for the new crops of little professionals who would either work to remake society around them, just as they had done college, or who, seeing themselves as elites with their fancy degrees, would do anything to stay in the good graces of a society that has to think in a particular way to be considered Respectable (more accurately: not Deplorable). That is, universities were training the new generation of professionals, particularly in education and media, that Tim was pointing to as the primary disease vector of the Woke pandemic we’re now engulfed in. Unfortunately, our analysis was too shallow, relying largely on the idea that something as technical and academic as “critical constructivism” (which is the right name for the operating system of the Woke ideology) must have wholly academic origins.
I’ll leave this issue here—it being rightly the subject of several chapters’ treatment in a proper analysis of the broader phenomenon of the Woke bid to take over society—and turn to several societal-scale phenomena that led to the widespread adoption of some Woke ideology, if not full reprogramming in many cases, outside of the academic setting. Suffice it to say that my view on the role the university played, beyond just in incubating and nurturing this demon where it should have been uniquely equipped at several points to have aborted its development, is one of having tilled the earth so that when the events and phenomena I now describe unfolded, conditions were right both to push (through “educated” activists) and to receive the ideology in ever greater numbers in the Western mainstream, especially on the left, but also on the country-club right, which has never had the chops to stand up to anything that looks like it came out of the once highly esteemed halls of the Ivy Leagues, to which, not knowing what time it is between cocktail parties and dinners, they dearly hope to send their precious children.
— Read on newdiscourses.com/2021/04/rise-woke-cultural-revolution/