Education, Politics, Regressive Left

Wilfrid Laurier and the Creep of Critical Theory

The social justice movement is known for routinely staging demonstrations, shouting down (and shutting down) speakers, and issuing demands. More significantly, however, its ideas and terminology have become part of the fabric of university culture. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt said in an interview earlier this year:

This is all so new. There’s been, I believe, a kind of a moral revolution, a new moral culture emerging on campus but it really is only in the last two years. If any of your viewers graduated from college in 2013, they probably haven’t seen it. … [I]t’s organized around victims of oppression, it’s a vertical metaphor of privileged and oppressor people, and victims. This idea that everything is power.

To make way for this moral revolution, values that historically have defined secular universities are increasingly being swept aside. The most recent example is perhaps the most chilling.

Lindsay Shepherd, a young teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, was reprimanded for screening a five-minute clip from a televised debate on public education channel TVOntario between professors Jordan B. Peterson and Nicholas Matte over the use of gendered pronouns. Shepherd was teaching a communications class and showed the clip to students as part of a discussion on the use of the singular ‘they’.

Shepherd recorded the meeting where she was reprimanded, thus providing outsiders insight into what universities are increasingly becoming. And, as Haidt mentioned, for anyone who graduated more than a few years ago this is new territory.

The recording reveals that while Shepherd is upset by the accusations, she clearly feels she’s done nothing wrong. It’s evident that there’s a fundamental disagreement between her and her three superiors over the role of a university lecturer. This becomes obvious as Shepherd goes to great lengths to assure them that she didn’t take sides for or against Peterson or Matte and presented the debate neutrally. In fact, it eventually emerges that she disagrees with Peterson. It’s quite evident that she takes pride in the fact that she was able to set aside her personal feelings and present the discussion neutrally. That, to her, is a university lecturer’s duty.

Yet, to her superiors her neutrality is the problem. Had she articulated a clear condemnation of Peterson’s views before presenting them, it would have been acceptable, but by presenting them neutrally she is ‘legitimising this as a valid perspective’. In case there was any doubt, they later expand on the severity of her neutrality:

[T]his is basically like playing – not to do the thing where everything is compared to Hitler – but this is like neutrally playing a speech by Hitler, or Milo Yiannopoulos from Gamergate. This is the kind of thing, that, departmentally, in terms of critical communications studies, and in terms of the course, of what we’re trying to do, is diametrically opposed to everything we’ve been talking about in the lectures.

(There are some important points here, that I’ll get to later, but notice the distinction drawn between the course – critical communications studies – and neutrality: they are diametrically opposed. This is not a slip of the tongue, despite the meaning most people attach to the term ‘critical’.)

It’s easy to see why Shepherd would think that her duty is to neutrality. As Associate Professor David Haskell, one of the few faculty members at Wilfrid Laurier that immediately voiced support for Shepherd, has pointed out, the motto on the crest of Wilfrid Laurier University is Veritas Omnia Vincit: Truth Conquers All. And even a few years ago, when Shepherd herself was entering university, the ideal of a university lecturer as someone who is neutral and facilitates open discourse was largely unquestioned. But Shepherd made the mistake of taking the university’s motto at face value. These days, a university lecturer must read between the lines and hope to avoid inquisition.


How did things change so quickly? According to Haidt, it’s the result of many causes that intersected in 2015:

  • University faculty have become increasingly left-leaning over the past few decades. This has led to more emphasis on teaching ideas related to power, privilege, and oppression–especially in the humanities–as well as an increased focus on the negative effects of bullying and the psychological theory of ‘microaggressions.’
  • A victimhood culture has been developing, teaching students to represent themselves as victims or defenders of victims and to expect school authorities to intervene on their behalf.
  • A change in parenting during the 1980s and 1990s has made today’s youth less independent.
  • Social media has created an environment of increased tribalism and virtue signalling among students.

Haidt’s analysis makes sense. But, although the shift in parenting and the invention of social media are surely important, they seem to be enhancing an ideological shift, not creating it. Victimhood culture is most advanced at the most left-leaning universities. To that observation, add the increased emphasis on teaching the ideas Haidt mentions, and the likelihood that students at left-leaning universities will come from disproportionately leftwing environments, and we have an intersection of ideologies working somewhat independently on faculty, administrators, and students themselves.

Consider, for example, the habit of no-platforming and shouting down opposing speakers. This may partly be a result of increased sensitivity among students, illustrated by their demand for trigger warnings and safe spaces. But there’s also clearly an ideological component involved – the censorious methods and verbiage used by the social justice movement are strongly reminiscent of elements in German philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s influential 1965 essay Repressive Tolerance.

Herbert Marcuse in Newton Massachusetts 1955

In this essay, Marcuse argued against the prevailing belief, attributed to British philosopher John Stuart Mill, that a democratic society should allow virtually unrestricted speech and assembly so the best arguments might prevail. Instead, Marcuse suggested that only leftwing movements should be permitted these things, while rightwing movements should not. The former, he argued, are intent on freeing people from oppression, while the latter are intent on keeping them oppressed. Therefore, suppressing the Right is justified in pursuit of ultimate liberation.

Amongst several examples, Marcuse pointed to the Nazis’ ascent to power in the 1930s as a demonstration of the dangers of unlimited tolerance. He suggested that WWII and Auschwitz could have been avoided had democratic tolerance toward the Nazis been withdrawn before it was too late. He also argued that, with the development of mass communication, human society is in a continuous state of emergency due to the shortened distance between word and mass action. For Marcuse, these arguments justified the restriction of free speech and free assembly, which are typically regarded as near-absolute in liberal societies and in liberal theory.

Finally, Marcuse also suggested that violence, while not ideal, might be necessary to resist the oppressive nature of the Right, and that there is a substantial difference between violence from the Left and violence from the Right, since the first supports liberation, while the latter supports oppression.

The inferences one might draw from this – that everyone on the Right is a potential Nazi, and that violence may be an unfortunate but necessary tool in achieving liberation – help explain why many in the social justice movement refer broadly to people on the Right as Nazis, defend the practice of ‘punching Nazis,’ and insist on preventing conservative speakers from speaking and conservative groups from assembling.

And it isn’t just far-left groups like Antifa, as Shepherd’s meeting demonstrated. In fact, this is not the first time Peterson, who identifies as a ‘British classical liberal’ and has spent decades researching the horrors of Nazi Germany, has been labelled a Nazi. These posters were recently put up around Peterson’s neighbourhood:

The inspiration the social justice movement has drawn from Marcuse and similar ideological figures suggests that there’s a deep ideological commitment that goes beyond students’ sensitivity to uncomfortable speech, and that is closely linked to how they understand oppression and liberation.

In fact, a survey of incoming American university students last year showed that the percentage leaning left was at its highest since the early 1970s, and that it had been climbing steadily for a few years before the social justice movement emerged in 2015. The shift is modest, but it does lend support to the idea that there’s an ideological component to the social justice movement that is coming, at least in part, from outside universities.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the survey is the extent to which political attitudes are increasingly aligning with gender, at least among incoming students. During the early 1970s, men were more likely than women to lean left; that has reversed significantly.

To understand what happened at Wilfrid Laurier we need to understand what’s causing the gradual advance of leftwing ideology as a cultural phenomenon, especially the type that explicitly focuses on oppression, privilege, and power. The social justice movement appears to be just the tip of the cultural iceberg.


Marcuse’s rejection of Mill’s ideas on free speech and assembly can be understood within a broader methodology known as Critical Theory that he and several other social scientists developed during the preceding decades. Critical Theory’s defining feature is that it articulates an explicit purpose for itself: to liberate people from oppression.

The Critical Theorists were heavily inspired by Karl Marx, and one of Marx’s most famous statements articulated the distinction that would come to separate Critical Theory from traditional science and philosophy: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

What’s left unstated here is that the purpose is not to change the world arbitrarily, but according to the particular goal of liberating people from oppression. Science thus becomes a tool for achieving a predefined societal state. This reflects a significant departure from traditional scientific methodology, which discourages defining purposes. One might say that the purpose of traditional scientific methodology is to ‘discover truth,’ but even that is unnecessarily restrictive. Science has traditionally worked pragmatically, through a bottom-up process.

In fact, escaping the need to fit science to a predefined purpose was arguably one of the main drivers of the scientific revolution. For centuries before that, philosophy, the precursor to science, was employed largely in the service of justifying religious accounts. (Thomas Aquinas famously referred to philosophy as the “handmaiden of theology.”) Critical Theory can in that sense be considered a return to a (quasi-)religious approach, where the purpose of scientific inquiry is defined a priori.

And, of course, the use of the term ‘critical’ is misleading. The idea is to criticise power structures within the context of liberating people from their oppression. The purpose itself is above criticism, which is why situations like Shepherd’s arise.

It’s obvious why this would lead Marcuse to reject Mill’s ideas regarding free speech and assembly. Mill’s model of society follows his view of science as bottom-up: people express their sentiments, debate them, and negotiate compromises. There’s no predefined model of society, it emerges out of the discourse. You can’t ban certain people from speaking, because you can’t know beforehand whether or not they have something of value to say. At the very least, people must be allowed to express their sentiments, which is information in itself.

Marcuse’s model of society, of course, follows his view of science, and his view is top-down. For him, the desired end-state of society is defined in advance, so there is little need to listen to what people have to say; he can evaluate every person or movement on whether or not they are perceived to be working towards or away from his end-goal (which correlates strongly with Left and Right, respectively), and promote or censor them accordingly.

So, although Critical Theory was conceived as a scientific methodology, in practice it represents an approach to discourse in general. It’s not just about scientific inquiry having a predefined purpose of fighting oppression, but any discourse.

It is this shift – from the multidimensional, bottom-up approach to discourse that characterised classical liberals like Mill, to the singular, top-down approach to discourse that characterises Critical Theory – that has gradually but significantly changed Western culture. It explains why we are now seeing the social justice movement erupt at universities. And this is true even though, ironically, Critical Theory proper is still a niche scientific methodology. In short, the idea that there is a singular purpose to human discourse – fighting oppression (or more neutrally: reducing power differentials) – to which all discourse must be subordinate, has gradually taken over institution after institution.

Consider, for example, a recent blog post by a science fiction author reflecting on the current state of science fiction and fantasy awards. Here he quotes an awards jury member:

What you like, and what is important are not the same things. What feels modern and what is progressive are not the same things. Groundbreaking art does not give us comfort; it feels uncomfortable until we get comfortable enough with it to adjust our mental schema–our worldview– to accommodate it. Good novels don’t conform to us, they change us and change with us, and when they do, they should win awards.

The author’s point is that you don’t win awards these days by writing pure entertainment, no matter how good it may be. You win awards by criticising power structures. In fact, as he argues in another post, it’s increasingly difficult to even get published unless you do this. Yet, even as traditional publishing sales are dwindling, the industry is doubling down on its approach.

This is a good illustration of Critical Theory creep. Not that long ago, it was widely accepted that the main purpose of fiction was entertainment. People bought books they liked, which told publishers what to make more of. This has changed, as the ideas of Critical Theory have made their way into fiction publishing: entertainment, like all discourse, must subordinate all other considerations to the higher purpose of fighting oppression. Essentially, entertainment has become the vehicle through which societal change can be affected, rather than an end in itself.

The same is occurring throughout the entertainment industry, whether it be Hollywood films or mainstream television.

Consider, for example, GQ magazine’s recent naming of NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick as its Citizen of the Year. GQ is a men’s style and lifestyle magazine, but neither of those things has anything to do with Kaepernick’s award; he was chosen because he has been the most outspoken player in the ongoing national anthem protests at NFL games. As in fiction publishing, entertainment has been subordinated to the higher political purpose of fighting oppression.

A similar change can be observed in the news media. Not long ago it was generally accepted that news reporting was a purpose in itself. Yet, as the ideas of Critical Theory have gradually crept into the media, news reporting has become less about objective reporting and more about painting oppression narratives. It’s increasingly no longer sufficient to simply report the news, it must be framed in a way that serves the higher purpose of fighting oppression.

Similarly, it was fairly uncontroversial until quite recently to hold that education, especially grade-school education, was a purpose in itself. But that too has increasingly become a vehicle for fighting oppression. Like entertainment and news reporting, education is increasingly subordinating all other goals to that higher purpose.

And, of course, the meeting between Shepherd and her superiors represents as well as anything the distinction between Mill and Marcuse, between critical thinking and Critical Theory. While it is laudable that the University’s president has now apologised officially to Shepherd, her own interpretation is that the apology may have not been achievable had she not secretly recorded the meeting, and stood her ground.

The significance of this cultural shift can hardly be underestimated. We’re moving away from the multidimensional, bottom-up approach to discourse that has characterised and helped shape Western societies, and towards a singular, top-down approach that more resembles how Western societies looked before the Enlightenment. In the light of this shift, the quasi-religious behaviour evident throughout the social justice movement should hardly be a surprise.


Uri Harris is a freelance writer with a Masters in Science (Business and Economics).

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  1. Thank you Uri. Excellent piece.
    Breaking this theory down as you have is vital in exposing this trojan horse that is captivating youth like wild fire.
    I know my own daughter a 1st year medical science student at uni has eaten this fallacy up. Its certainly reaching much further than just the Humanities.
    Luckily, we parents are still ‘free’ (for now) to ‘say what we like around the kitchen table’……

    • Robert Paulson says

      Can you provide some examples of things she is learning? I have had similar experience with people I knew before college who came out completely brainwashed with this stuff.

      • Victimhood culture, looking for (& subsequently finding) discrimination everywhere & most disturbingly (for a science student) completely disregarding nature for nurture. Everything is a ‘social construct’, & misogynistic, ‘you cant say that’ la la la…….
        The ‘everyone else is to blame’ routine hardly helps with the development of personal responsibility, proactivity or problem solving especially when the individual is a glass half empty type to start.
        Its really another form of oppression by robbing them & society of valuable contribution.
        Mind you, none of this was spoken of a year ago but at least talking about it at home & in the media gives an alternate view a chance.

        • Robert Paulson says

          Where in the “intersectional victimhood hierarchy” does she sit? I’ve had a few friends turn into raving ideologues during college, two white, another Latina, all women (women seem to be particularly vulnerable to this ideology).

    • & just one more gripe whilst over at the back fence is that these opportunistic charlatans leave such a stench in every cause they exploit with their stand over tactics be it asylum seekers, feminism, anti racism etc, that they effectively erode credibility & interest in such causes.
      Oppression much?

      • Robert Paulson says

        Yes, I’ve had similar thoughts about this. A lot of this seems to be either a form of social posturing or a rhetorical power-grab. But actions speak louder than words, and I don’t see many of these virtue-signalers actually doing anything to help people in the groups they claim to stand up for, say volunteering after school with poor kids or hosting refugees in their homes.

        • Exactly & not to mention they don’t want their ‘help’.
          Example being Jordan Peterson’s receipt of a huge majority of letters in support of his stance against ‘made up pro nouns’ from transgendered persons.
          ‘With friends like these’………

    • Agreed, fantastic piece. I especially appreciate the approach of going deeper on Haidt’s remark that the SJW movement seems to have erupted only recently. As an undergrad in the 1990s, I majored in a cultural studies type of program modeled on Critical Theory, postmodernist deconstruction, and Foucault. Thus, none of this looks radically new or very surprising to me. It was all foreshadowed within certain departments going on 20 years or more now.

      • Uri Harris says

        Thanks Marc. People have been warning about this for a long time, and now it has finally erupted.

        Haiti does talk about the ideological aspect quite a bit, but I think he still might be underestimating it in favour of more immediate psychological explanations, such as changes in parenting. I don’t think anyone has a good understanding of what’s going on, which is why this has been able to spread almost unchallenged.

      • Marc,
        I think this is clearly right, and it astonishes me that so few people note that this is a kind of replay of the political correctness wars of the late 80s-mid 90s. PC has two tightly-interwoven dimensions, one political and one intellectual. PC proper was the former; it was a slightly less radical version of the “social justice” movement. It aimed at a kind of leftist revolution on campus, badgering many universities into e.g. adopting (anti-)speech codes…which were, at public universities, all overturned by the courts. Like the neo-PCs, the paleo-PCs were obsessed with enforcing their terminology and modes of reasoning (largely: victimology) on everyone else, calling anyone who disagreed racist, sexist, etc. Paleo-PC began to fall apart with the Antioch sex code, which was exactly the contemporary (and inaccurately-named) “yes means yes” policy of “affirmative consent” at every escalation of sex. This was so absurd and widely-derided (even on Saturday Night Live) that it represented part of the beginning of the end for paleo-PC. But what was risible as a policy at an ultra-leftist private college then was more-or-less imposed as law at *all* colleges during the Obama administration. Paleo-PC was radical; neo-PC is off the scale.

        On the intellectual side, I think you find a similar state of affairs. Both PCs were tightly bound up with Continental philosophy and French literary theory. IMO it’s always been a mish-mash of postmodernism, poststructuralism, critical theory, feminism, and suchlike. Postmodernism was the foremost scholarly position for the paleo-PCs; critical theory is the most prominent today (or so I’ve argued elsewhere).

        • Dan Fields says

          That’s an excellent comment and I really appreciate that someone remembers that SNL skit about the Antioch policy. It took about 20 years for an isolated absurdity, mocked on national TV, to become the norm. And as new ground is conquered, the perpetrators scout the horizon. We saw at Princeton this week how the “affirmative consent at every stage” will be applied in new contexts, in this case, dancing.

          The lesson here is that in the social justice religion, there is no internal moderating force or break point. No matter what the SJW cult achieves, it always seeks more. There is no social advantage for the adherents to call an end to any particular crusade or to place any limits on any particular social justice concept or practice. And the speed at which SJW norms are disseminated is picking up. It took 20 years for Antioch to become the norm. But “microaggressions” took about 6 years. The next big thing, whatever it is, may take 6 months from the day of its invention to become a norm on all campuses. This will not stop on its own. It is not a tide or a pendulum. It will only reverse when human beings organize, target it, cut off its resources, and force it to retreat.

          • I agree, Dan Fields, and I think it’s an extremely important point. Conservatives have been saying such things for years…but I dismissed them. There’s a “logic” to leftism that drives it to ever-greater extremes. Even when I agree with the left, I have begun to think: but can I agree with the next step down that path? Because that will inevitably become an issue if we take *this* step. I’ve begun to think that slippery-slope arguments are more-or-less always valid against the PC left.

            I also agree about the pace of radicalization picking up. I’m still amazed that, almost instantaneously, the left was able to convince people that some men are women. This is, IMO, akin to being able to convince people that night is day. Not only were they able to convince people that something obviously false is true, but they have made this belief *de rigueur*: denying it means exclusion from polite society, and, of course, being the target of unhinged, mass public denunciation. And it’s not just words: public policy is being made on the basis of this view. (I mean: “transwomen” are women! So on what grounds can they be excluded from women’s restrooms and locker rooms?) And, of course, agreeing that people should be able to dress and live as they want isn’t good enough: we are commanded to *believe that they are literally women.* That involves accepting an entire metaphysics according to which saying so and believing so makes things so.

            Alarming in the extreme, according to me.

    • Thank you. I think ‘wild fire’ is an appropriate description, unfortunately. It’s a powerful ideology and pushes all the right buttons.

  2. Chris says

    Is it a breaking wave, a storm surge, or a permanent rise in sea level? Will the islamists round them all up and hang them before they can convert? Or will an angry mob of detransitioning eunuchs get to them first?

    • Michiel says

      Good question. I sure hope it’s a breaking wave or temporary surge, but if this stuff really takes hold permanently the damage could be catastrophic. It’s already surprising that something that is really such a niche philosophycal theory could gain such momentum. It doesn’t seem quite as bad here in Europe yet but it’s growing. And the whole idea of “left = good, right = bad” and the idea that some level of violence to silence right wing voices is permissible is certainly too common here, which I’m sure must be residual damage from WWII. Hardly anyone knows anything about the horrors of the left-wing authoritarian states in the 20th century, but everyone grows up hearing constantly about the Nazis. This is really skewing people’s sense of history.

    • Robert Paulson says

      I hope so too but I’m pessimistic because the generation right after me (I’m a millennial) has had their brains we-wired by social media and electronic devise use. This is important because it means most of them no longer can engage in deep reading, and deep reading is important because complex ideas cannot be represented visually or in blog-post sized chunks. The importance of free speech and Enlightenment ideas are sophisticated and are predicated on a complex understanding of human nature while the social justice ideology is simplistic and, as Jordan Peterson said, can be learned in a day. Everything can be explained by abritrary power. You have reduced the complexity of the world to a single dimension that explains everything. No critical thinking required.

      • Wait, “complex ideas cannot be represented visually”? Erhm…I think you should think harder before you make such puzzling (and frankly incorrect) claims.

        • Ralph Blanchette says

          I think you should explain your objection to Paulson’s correct statement. Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” overflows with complex ideas, only a few of which may be captured on a purely perceptual level, such as being immediately aware of the several different kinds of persons represented, how they are dressed, what they seem to be doing, and so on. Even those ‘perceptions’ are not ideas of course, because they are perceptions of concretes, while ideas are abstract concepts used initially to identify the categories that classify the percepts.

          To go beyond this simple naming stage to the level of complex ideas requires thinking on a higher conceptual level where what is seen is not merely identified, but integrated into a lifetime of experience. Having done this, one may ‘represent’ the complex ideas in ones own mind or to another in language, which will constantly refer to the perceptual level but which obviously goes beyond the perceptual to reach the level of ideas.


          Use “Click for fullsized image” first, and consider what a naive viewer will take from that image in 1-5 minutes on a ‘device’ and then read Kenneth Clark’s comments and ask yourself, how many hours of deep reading would be required to get even as far as that essay in the representation of ideas?

          Visual art can only represent complex ideas from and to a mind prepared by deep reading and contemplation to integrate the perceptual with the conceptual, which is why Paulson’s insight is sound.

          • Robert Paulson says

            Great example Ralph. Just looking at those paintings alone would have never given a me full appreciation of them. The images alone do not give historical context or the connections with literature.

            RE Justin: Try reducing a complex novel or piece of philosophy or argument to pictures without losing information. Or try reducing a long historical narrative to pictures or a movie. You can try, in fact there are whole YouTube series that do just that. Documentaries are an attempt to do this, but they are always low-resolution representations of written works. Same goes for most movie adaptations of novels. My point is that there is significant information loss in moving from the written medium to the visual medium, at beyond some threshold, a sufficiently complex concept or idea simply cannot be accurately represented visually.

            I would recommend reading “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Politics in the Age of Show Business” by Neil Postman. He does a “high-resolution” analysis of why our transition to a visual culture is a serious problem for democracy for exactly these reasons.

  3. An overall excellent piece. I just wish the author would have either used quotes when talking about the supposed ‘oppression’ that the current SJW’s so bravely (sarcasm) purport to fight against or at least prefaced that word with ‘illusive,’ ‘conjured,’ or ‘supposed.’ If we’re ACTUALLY living in this sea of racism, top down oppression and ubiquitous injustice then maybe there IS a need for critical theory to try and redress such omnipresent evils. Or MAYBE the Universities should simply be educating students to be as competitive as they can be in the real world, all the while championing the inherent ability of their impressionable and still naive students to transcend personal struggle and succeed in this life Does the tinge of specialness and ego inflated sense of self-righteousness that being labelled part of a ‘protected and oppressed class’ seems to instill in these SJW’s really nurture the character and better the self-development of them? Is the truth and profundity of a message that espouses the inherent worthiness, capability and intrinsic equality of every human being on this planet not a FAR more effective and empowering way to bring about well adjusted adults?

    • Even if there were lots of racism, there’s no need for critical theory. Racism’s been dealt with before without that rot.

      • Exactly. That’s why I wanted ‘oppression’ to be prefaced with something akin to ‘alleged’ so the very shaky ground that Critical Theory stands on is front and center.

        • Michiel says

          Agreed, I had the same feeling while reading this, otherwise excellent, piece.

    • Fair enough. The problem with trying to describe an ideology neutrally is that it’s usually articulated using positively charged words, so you either have to change the language (which then no longer is as recognisable), or accept that your description sounds positive. I could have used quotes, as you suggested, but then it becomes more difficult to read and a bit pretentious. Not sure exactly how to resolve this. Thanks for the comment.

  4. If it is acceptable to suppress freedom of speech for the right because they may be dangerous, then considering the millions killed by communists, freedom of speech for the left is also too dangerous to permit.

    • Michiel says

      Of course, this should be obvious to anyone with even a little bit of historical sense. But the people in the social justice movement have none.

    • The SJWs resemble Hitler Youth in their blind devotion to their ideology.

  5. I fear that the gender dimension that you mention in the context of the shift to the left is an important part of the picture. The shifts that you are describing are, I suspect in large part, the result of a movement from institutions built by and around men and their norms to institutions built around women in particular. This is obviously an awkward reality to talk about and a phenomenon that proves deeply inconvenient for a society theoretically committed to egalitarianism. A few things to notice:

    1. Male and female groups generally have different ways of dealing with conflict and competition. Female intrasexual competition tends to be indirect and works by manufacturing and maintaining a social consensus, freezing out and stigmatizing people who threaten it, and appealing to third parties to intervene against them. Male intrasexual competition tends to be much more direct and overt. The stifling of free speech we are witnessing in universities today follows classic forms of female competition: excluding opposing viewpoints through no-platforming, surrounding issues with a human shield, appeal to officials and other third parties to intervene on their behalf, etc.

    2. Men and women have different tendencies in discourse. Male speech tends to be more agonistic and combative. Male speech tends to follow models of manliness. The manly man is expected to be strong in putting forward his position, masterful in arguing it and taking apart opposing arguments, courageous in putting his position in jeopardy in debate and taking whatever comes, and honourable in never avoiding or shrinking back from direct challenge or employing indirect means to win in an underhand fashion. But women often disproportionately struggle with such norms; for instance, with the expectation that public discourse is a place where you must fight your corner and push your position, rather than a table open to all voices to put forward their positions equally and unchallenged. Public discourse as a realm of stress-testing ideas and engaging with views that directly attack your own can be threatening to people who prefer forms of discourse where everyone gets an equal say, where direct conflict is not really accepted within the group, and where people expect to be affirmed.

    3. Male society typically plays to strength. Male society tends to function to toughen its members up and expects them to rise to the challenges thrown in their direction. Those who are weaker are expected to get out of the way if they can’t handle the force of the challenge, to allow the strongest to play to their strength. Female sociality, by contrast, can be much more protective, affirming, and nurturing, accommodating itself to weakness. Furthermore, when men are around women, they tend to become protective.

    4. Female society tends to produce a queen bee effect: people are more likely to gather around female leaders, but behind male ones. The female leader is treated protectively and an attack upon a leading woman is perceived as an attack upon the group, while the male leader tends to stand or fall more by himself.

    5. Following on from the previous points, the paradigmatic academics and leading members of society in the past were white males. While people may complain about the privilege that this sustained, it also sustained a culture whose thinkers and leaders did not enjoy the protection afforded to victims. They were expected to be able to stick up for themselves and, if they couldn’t, they were to be replaced by others who could. Leaders and ideas were presumed to be open to direct challenge, and were expected to prove their legitimacy through their ability to withstand it. Likewise, academic culture played to the robustness presumed of white males as the least vulnerable members of society.

    6. Male sociality allows for much more of a distinction between ideas and persons. Ritual combat functions as a form of bonding, or at least a context for deepening respect, between men to a degree that it doesn’t usually for women. Directly to challenge someone else’s opinion in a female group is much less likely to go down well, as the idea and the person are much more closely aligned (observe the difference between the comments of male- and female-dominated sites online for examples of this).

    These differences can be seen in a great many areas. Male sociality has always tended to value free speech and challenge in ways that female sociality hasn’t and men as individuals also consistently seem to care more about this value (this is one of the reasons why the New Atheist movement was always so strongly male, and why it has so widely turned into an anti-SJW movement). When informal societies develop organically, free and direct speech tends to be far more characteristic of male-dominated groups. While there are many women who love combative discourse and sociality and many men who don’t, these are the exceptions to the rule. Furthermore, the women who love combative discourse and sociality will generally have to go to male-dominated groups to enjoy it. It is not at all surprising that the crisis of free speech in the university finds its centre of gravity in fields such as Women’s and Gender Studies.

    The shift in culture arises from a number of different factors. Part of it is a demographic shift in universities and other leading cultural institutions, with women starting to become numerous in formerly male-dominated institutions. The culture of such institutions will tend to weaken and then shift with these demographic changes. Part of it is also the rise of social media, which allows for a radical scaling of the dynamics of female intrasexual competition and its use of the group to pressure people into a consensus.

    Part of it is probably also the fact that it is in the interest of government and other powerful institutions to operate with the paradigm of people as victims with little independent agency. Such persons need to be ’empowered’ by a powerful central agency: the empowerment of the weak legitimates the increased power of the central agency. It also legitimates the closing down, co-option, or hyper-regulation of all other strong or independent agencies that might compete with it.

    It’s not easy to know what to do about this situation, but it is important to pay attention to the shape of it. We are only some way down the path. It can get a lot, lot worse.

      • I agree, but beware the Damore effect. You might be the new Hitler for suggesting that there are (gasp) differences in male and female behavior (or that you didn’t mention ze/zir behavior as well) /boggle

    • augustine says

      There is current research indicating that liberal or conservative tendencies are, in part at least, genetically determined. I had wondered if population level shifts in our DNA, with selection pressures moving toward a more liberal outcome, might be playing an important role in societal changes such as that discussed in this article. But the shift has been too fast and the idea too complicated.

      Forgive me taking the liberty but I see Dr. Roberts’s keen epistle as providing a far better alternative explanation: not much has changed really since c. 1960 but that women are the thing that has shifted to new roles of conduct and power.

      • Robert Paulson says

        I also think women are the catalyst as well. A robust masculine doesn’t respect weakness and vulnerability in men, so victimhood culture would not emerge in a masculine society, but women rely on their perception of weakness and vulnerability as a form of power. How do you deal with a bully that, as soon as you confront them, can fall back on the victim role and not lose respect in the eyes of society? A female tyranny might be impossible to overthrow once its established since all attempts to fight it just make it stronger.

    • Settle down Al, never heard of ‘man flu’?
      While I can confirm first hand that yes, females are intra sexually competitive in this manner lets not forget that shame & intimidation has been on the menu del dias for males since dot not to mention a hellava lot of these Uni prof/’administrators’ perps are males. So in actual fact it’s a combo soup on this one.
      Oh, & just to give you guys the heads up, there’s plenty of giggly pillow throwing ‘bonding’ particularly where your ‘strengths’ are concerned…….

    • Thank you for that well-thought out comment. I suspect that we’re going to see the political gender gap continue to grow, for the reasons you mention.

    • Sarka says

      There is one glaring problem with this eloquently elaborated theory. Classical liberal ideas of debate spread and became dominant in Western societies only since the late 17th century, in many respects even later. But before this period there were centuries in which classical liberal ideas of open debate were not exactly conspicuous by their presence! Were these centuries of female domination of society and culture? Er…. um…. back to the drawing board…..

      While the findings (graph) on changes in student political leanings in the US are fascinating (especially the breakdown by sex), unfortunately the category “liberal and far left” is irritatingly undifferentiated (especially to a European!). I remain unconvinced that specifically the Critical Theory wave can be associated in clear causative ways with rising female participation…The founding parents of critical theory were nearly all founding fathers, and many of the most zealous inquisitorial Critical Theory heirs in US and even UK academe are men. Also and relatedly, while as an elderly feminist I am appalled by a lot of what passes for feminist thought these days, I would say mildly that post-colonial studies has been at least as much a source of pomo (postmodern) infections as women’s studies or queer studies (BTW – is one to suppose from your theory that male gays, too, or males from minority backgrounds, lack robust manly argumentative skills and instincts?)…hence we skeptical old academics sometimes speak of “poco pomo” as the problem.

      Socio-biological theories like yours always sound tremendously (in a manly way!!!) splendid and confident and downright. Unfortunately, they are usually transparently tendentious and break down at first push….e.g. the times of the Spanish Inquisition were pretty patriarchal, were they not?

      • Sarka,
        If you think that your response fatally undermines my position, I doubt that you have read me very carefully. The position that broke down at your first push wasn’t mine, just the strawman that you set up. Let me give a detailed response to your points.

        Classical liberal norms of open debate may be a relatively recent development. However, much that I was describing relates to norms of discourse and public life that go back considerably further in history than that. If you are thinking purely in terms of some binary opposition between restricted speech and open discourse, you will miss a great deal of the actual evolution of speech and public discourse, including many of the phenomena I was discussing. The differences I was discussing exist in contexts where speech is officially restricted and in contexts where it is not.

        There is a deep and rich tradition of oppositional debate in the West. Liberalism introduced a new way of ordering public discourse and a more extensive scope for it in certain respects. It was occasioned by such things as the existence of more robust public institutions and the related development of a dignity culture, the invention of the printing press, the rise of the nation-state, the growth of the essay as a literary form, etc. However, a culture of agonistic debate long pre-existed it, even if it was more volatile and restricted in its openness (in part because it was more volatile). Anyone who is familiar with medieval and early modern writing will know that there were cultures of vigorous and forceful debate long before the enlightenment.

        The relationship between liberalism and the rise of dignity culture is exceedingly important. Prior to the historical conditions that allow for the rise of a dignity culture, public discourse largely occurred within the context of an honour culture, and was always at risk of spilling into duels and other forms of violence. Many older institutions retain the measures that were used to contain this form of discourse, creating a sort of well-ordered ‘playing field’ in which debate could occur as a sort of ritual combat according to set rules. For instance, the House of Commons in the UK ensures that MPs don’t address each other directly, but through the Speaker, and that they speak of others using honorifics. This limits threats to the honour of participants in debate and also puts an obstacle in the way of the antagonisms that so easily arise when we argue directly with someone.

        Public discourse in both honour and dignity cultures was ordered around male norms. In honour culture, the agonism of male interaction was far more volatile and academic or political disputes were in danger of becoming duels or spilling over into other sorts of violent antagonisms. In dignity culture, stronger institutions and new media (e.g. the printed essay is a less volatile medium than the oral debate) allowed for the better ordering and refereeing of the culture of discourse, which in turn allowed it to become more open. However, throughout these developments, it was the domestication of a culture of manliness in public speech, a culture going back millennia, in which the more typical tendencies and norms of men were decidedly in evidence throughout the historical progression.

        And, it is crucial to notice, this domestication of a culture of manliness in public speech was not merely a matter of overcoming male tendencies that were obstacles to constructive and civilized discourse—although it did involve that. Rather, it was the steady optimizing and troubleshooting of a manly culture of discourse that served as the engine of Western culture’s pursuit of truth. Norms of manliness were integral to the culture, not incidental.

        Even where norms are weak, one can still witness a male tendency to the obsessive stress-testing of ideas in agonistic discourse. This functions as something akin to a sort of sport online, where men dominate in most such discussions (men are over 90% of Wikipedia editors, 80% of commenters on news sites, etc.). Without healthy norms, this often devolves into merely being fighty and pugnacious, but where a robust structure, ethos, model, or pattern of interaction exists, it can be a profoundly powerful engine for the testing and development of truth.

        Victimhood culture, by contrast, does not find its origin in a typically masculine culture of discourse, but generally operates in resistance to it. It depends in large part upon reframing the paradigmatic subject as a vulnerable victim or potential victim to be protected. While a traditional manly culture of discourse would generally excuse or exclude such persons from frontline participation, as all participants in discourse were expected to function as strong and competent combatants, such victims are now placed on the frontline of debate, where they function as human shields around issues.

        Now, just as there are many women who thrive and excel in this traditionally manly tradition of discourse, there are many men who are attracted to the victimhood culture for various reasons. First, there are men who are members of various minorities or marginal groups who see that victimhood culture gives them an advantage, even while often not completely buying into it. Second, there are men who suffer from extreme cultural guilt and feel morally compelled to step back and listen to members of groups perceived to be the historic victims of straight white males. Third, there are men who are low in agency and cannot excel in a traditional male culture of discourse, but can use a culture of victimhood to gain credibility or power. Fourth, there are men who feel acutely aware of the vulnerability of the women and minorities around them and feel a duty to protect them as victim classes. Fifth, there are socially vulnerable men who feel the need to secure their position in communities and relationships where women or minorities who hold these positions have a lot of influence by making clear that they are ‘nice guys’ who will affirm them in their convictions and challenge opponents. Sixth, there is a small minority of men who will use their support of victimhood ideologies as a way of hiding or even advancing their forms of abuse (as we are currently seeing among the long list of right-on media figures and celebs who are being exposed as abusers).

        Once again, it is important to distinguish between certain of the ideological threads of postmodern and postcolonial thought and the phenomenon of victimhood culture. The factors that Haidt identifies as precipitating the shift being discussed are only partially accounted by illiberalism arising out of the Frankfurt School and various postmodern movements. And, beyond that, we need to explain why those illiberal ideas found such a ready audience.

        The danger of much postmodern thought and discourse is found in its erosion of the conditions of meaningful discourse. The opposing camp is presumed to be beyond reason and their position a mere façade masking what is little more than self-serving will and power. ‘Truth’ is little more than a mask upon power. When we lose faith in reason, argument, and truth, the alternative is suppression, exclusion, violence, indoctrination and re-education. Liberalism rests upon a cultural ethos in which the conflict of debate is a bounded conflict, one focused upon a well-ordered arena where ideas and policies can be contested, without spilling out into a total cultural war. Yet postmodernism, critical theory, and postcolonialism present us with a society riven with antagonisms that cannot be sublimated into reasonable discourse and with other parties who are simply dishonest and acting in bad faith.

        It is imperative, however, to recognize that such a position, though destructive, does not have to play itself out in the way that it does in modern society. There is a certain ambivalence to such ideas of themselves: we need to attend both to why and to how they have been received and appropriated. A demythologization of liberal discourse, presenting it as an implicit validation of positions that cannot really be dealt with in reasonable discourse, but which are fundamentally opposed to the existence of a just society is a position that we can respond to in a number of ways. Likewise, the radically deflationary idea that ‘Truth’ is little but a veil for sectarian interest, mere power, or economic advantage.

        What needs to be explained is why our society has 1) so readily welcomed theories that discredit, invalidate, and pathologize opposition, rather than engaging with and arguing against it in good faith; 2) married this to a radical culture of victimhood. We need to explain why a culture of victimhood holds so much power. Part of this is the legacy of Christianity, perhaps, but there seems to be something more going on.

        For instance, I am wary of drawing a direct line from someone like Marcuse to the position of, say, those who will try to instigate disciplinary procedures against someone who treats transgender ideology as publicly contestable, even though there seems to be a connection. Marcuse’s position has real problems, but it shouldn’t just be dismissed out of hand. If you have dealt with actual Nazis and have seen their methods, it isn’t entirely stupid to be critical of a liberalism that admits people who are its sworn enemies to an equal place at the table, knowing that they will overturn the table if they just get enough leverage. In addition, Marcuse’s concerns about mass communication’s potential for overturning a healthy social discourse are not misplaced. The recent rise of social media, for instance, has seen a far more reactive, polarized, mob-driven, and mistrustful form of public discourse developing, which is genuinely threatening to a society committed to reasonable and liberal discourse. Unless we find ways to master our new discursive environment, it will continue to corrode the trust, the good faith, the reasonable authority, the critical processes, and the shared conversational and institutional norms that a healthy society depends upon.

        It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that liberalism can secure its own foundations with a universally valid technique. However, as various thinkers have made clear, liberal society typically rests upon a number of contingent cultural and historical factors. Where these factors are unsettled, are lacking, or collapse, liberalism can easily fail. Radical changes in the demographics of our institutions and societies (perhaps fracturing our sense of a shared peoplehood), in historical conditions, in the form of our communications media, in our technology, in the ideologies prevalent in our societies, in our conditions of production and consumption, etc. can all destabilize a liberal culture of discourse, which is really a lot more vulnerable and grounded in contingent factors than we might think. Liberalism is like a dam holding in potentially dangerous social energies and using their power for creative and empowering ends. However, such a dam needs to be built upon secure foundations and, if the social forms and ethos that provide the basis for liberalism fail, those energies can be released with incredibly destructive effects.

        Recognizing the real vulnerabilities and the contingency of liberal society is important and, for all their considerable faults, the deeply flawed voices of such as Marcuse may even prove occasionally instructive at some points here. It is important not to conflate such positions as that of Marcuse with those of modern victimhood culture, while recognizing the connections. Modern victimhood culture is not principally premised upon the vulnerability of an unguardedly open society to totalitarianism, but upon the radical fragility of the subject and the need for protection as victims and fragilized selves, rather than the development of strong agency. While warnings against naively extending an unwary hospitality to the proponents of totalitarian ideologies, who are fundamentally opposed to an open society, are not without warrant (even though this caution should lead to a wariness of many on the left too), we are currently seeing such warnings being used in the service of an alternative absolutism.

        It is the rise of this victimhood culture and the movement from a culture of argument to a culture of socially manufactured and policed consensus that the differences between the sexes (and of their groups in particular)—differences that are visible from the early years of childhood—can help us to understand. That victimhood culture should be the medium through which postmodernism and critical theory should be refracted is a contingent factor for which gender differences in discourse prove quite illuminating.

        • First Time Visitor says

          “We need to explain why a culture of victimhood holds so much power.”

          Until recently, the left has mostly been defined by its opposition to the right, and the right in the 80’s and 90’s was best defined by its lack of empathy, or what was seen as a lack of empathy in its resistance to the left’s social agenda. Between its faith in bootstrap-pulling and its contempt for marginalized communities, there wasn’t a lot of empathy to be found.

          The power base of the left is rooted in helping the marginalized. By empowering them, they empower themselves. Due to the corruptive nature of power, this has become a self-serving goal, rather than the original other-serving goal.

          In other words, I think you’ve already answered your own question:

          “…it is in the interest of government and other powerful institutions to operate with the paradigm of people as victims with little independent agency. Such persons need to be ’empowered’ by a powerful central agency: the empowerment of the weak legitimates the increased power of the central agency. It also legitimates the closing down, co-option, or hyper-regulation of all other strong or independent agencies that might compete with it.”

          Except the process you describe here musn’t be limited to governments or institutions, but include movements such as feminism and social justice.

          Thanks for everything you’ve written. Please continue to write about this subject.

    • Alistair- thanks for the insightful comment.

      You wrote: “It is not at all surprising that the crisis of free speech in the university finds its centre of gravity in fields such as Women’s and Gender Studies.”

      To add to your point, Education departments are also competing to be the most cult-like in the academy, and they also skew heavily female. Get ready for a huge upsurge in radical ideologues indoctrinating America’s children very soon (where they aren’t already…)

    • Andrew Roddy says

      ‘the paradigmatic academics and leading members of society in the past were white males’ – which unfortunately left societies with no white people ignorant and leaderless. The European colonists attempted to remedy this situation but sadly history seems to have afforded them little thanks.

    • Jacqueline Scheidl says

      Okay, so here’s my point by point response to your comment. But I just want to say (overall) that you fall into the classic blunder of drawing an arbitrary line through the list of virtues or characteristics and saying “these are male and these are female”. I do believe there are clear differences between the sexes but I have yet to read a convincing argument on how those differences play out in leadership roles and debates. I have difficulty recognizing myself in their explanations of the female mind and (if you’ll pardon a theological digression) very often the explanations I read tend to reveal more about how much original sin has affected our ability to view each other clearly.

      1. I agree with the statement that there are general differences that can be spotted between all-male and all-female groups when a decision needs to be reached.. Female groups tend to consensus build while male groups tend to fight for supremacy. Consensus-building is an empty (and possibly insidious) enterprise when it takes the form he describes: bringing everyone around to the already chosen decision. It is not much different from fighting for supremacy of your idea over all-comers although it takes a less direct route which, I agree, makes it more distasteful. HOWEVER, true consensus-building around a decision is always preferable to a pig-headed adherence to one’s own opinion even when new evidence is introduced. I think this is self-evident, but the commenter seems to lionize sticking to one’s guns at all costs. This is dumb.

      Note: I refer here to a decision about policy or approach. I’m not a relativist and I don’t think the facts of right and wrong are up for debate. I would also add that when trying to bring someone to a correct understanding of a moral issue shouting the truth at them until they repent has very rarely had the desired effect. You do have to listen to understand where their hang-ups are and then give them explanations that fit.

      On the subject of stigmatizing dissent (again, something I agree is bad), a brief look at the research done on groupthink will reveal many, many examples of all-male or predominantly male groups falling prey to this desire to have everyone in agreement or apparently in agreement. The Challenger disaster is one and I vaguely remember a similar example related to the Vietnam War.

      I don’t think it’s fair either to accuse women of coming up with the idea of no-platforming since it is a pretty clear descendent of the practice of blacklisting which comes from the early censorship of artists and writers (predominantly male) by monarchs (also predominantly male). It does seem in the present day that the proponents of no-platforming, the spokespeople calling for it in the media, are more often female than male but that perception may simply be due to the fact that you are more likely to see women in those roles than before.

      2. Public discourse should be a realm of stress-testing ideas as he mentions. Ideas should not go unchallenged, but that also means they should not go unsaid either. There is a thin line though, which both sides cross, between objecting to an idea on merit and objecting to it being spoken at all.
      Also, I would note from my own experience: it seems less like women struggle with articulating arguments, defending them against all-comers, and being courageous in debate than that they are socially penalized for doing so. Not just by men but certainly by any men they argue against. Being called a bitch or accused of being shrill is not uncommon.
      Note: this idea that winning an argument in an underhand fashion by using indirect means is not an expectation in the “male” approach to argument. Wot a laff. We chuckle.

      3. I am a little surprised that the commenter seems to approve of the weak “getting out of the way”. A society that doesn’t care for the weak is not one that a Christian could in good conscience approve of; strength is not a virtue in and of itself. I’m not entirely sure who he is trying to refer to with that word but his apparent disdain for them does not look well.

      4. Again, this statement doesn’t seem to hold up when tested against historical examples. If we consider old Europe as an example of “male society” then even the basic principle of loyalty to the king is a clear example of the queen bee effect that the commenter ascribes to females. Male leaders rose and fell with their entourage. The same is true today.

      5. I agree that you can’t hide your ideas behind the protection of belonging to one or another marginalized group. But AGAIN this idea that the past was some bastion of free thought and open debate? Where leaders and ideas could be open to direct challenge without unfair social consequences? I think the reality was more complex.

      6. There’s a lot here but I want to pick up on his parenthetical comment regarding the differences in comment boxes on male-dominated vs. female-dominated sites. If ad-hominem attacks can come under the heading of not appropriately separating person from idea, then I think we can agree that this is patently ridiculous. The inability to separate idea from person is not a male-female divide but rather a human inclination.
      And finish by noting again: censorship originated with and was propagated by males. If we’re going to be pointing fingers at one sex or the other, we should at least have some intellectual honesty and admit that the blame can’t be all in one area.

      Last thing: the fact that the crisis in free speech is originating in Women’s and Gender Studies is not a female thing but a truth thing. People who hold to truth and know they do so are not likely to be afraid of other people having the ability to speak against them. People who are trying to replace truth with something else need to stop others from speaking because the truth has an attraction that is all its own.

      I think his argument would have benefited from a focus on the ideas that (1) the government benefits from people viewing themselves as victims with little agency and (2) people have a responsibility to use their agency and to stress test ideas through public discourse. It was greatly weakened by trying to drape it over the old canard of society being weakened by the influence of females.

      • Thanks for the response, Jacqueline.

        I fear you are making several unwarranted assumptions about my motives, value judgments, and the exact character of my claims. By misrepresenting and exaggerating my claims and making uncharitable presumptions about what is motivating them, it is easier to dismiss them. I don’t recognize my position in much of your response.

        Take, for instance, the issue of differences between the sexes. I never claimed an absolute difference between the sexes on these tendencies and, at a number of points, made clear that there are exceptions in both directions and a degree of overlap. Nevertheless, even such differences can lead to huge gendered effects at the extremes, which is often where the traits really make themselves known. The fact that men are typically a few inches taller than women, for example, produces a situation where among people over six foot, women only represent a fraction of one percent. There are plenty of taller women who could argue against a claim that ‘men are taller than women,’ observing that most men are shorter than they are. However, understood properly, the fact is very real and has huge effects at the extremes, making ‘tall humans’ an almost entirely male group.

        This said, the differences I was identifying should be distinguished in their character from those that exist between detached individuals. The differences I was focusing on were primarily differences between male and female groups, rather than differences between individuals. The issue with groups is that they tend to dampen the force of exceptions and they pull everyone towards characteristics that represent the group norm or ideal. In so doing, they often accentuate the differences between members of different groups. If we were pure detached individuals randomly mixed together in society, the differences between male and female individuals might be less pronounced. As we tend to identify with other members of our sexes and be identified as members of our sexes, however, the differences are accentuated. Even online, where gender is disguised in many ways and we tend to function more as atomized individuals, we still find that 80%+ of comments on news articles are by men, 90%+ of Wikipedia editors are male, ~90% of followers of rationalist blogs such as Slate Star Codex or Less Wrong are male, and sharp differences exist between the sexes in modes of speech and discourse. Sexual difference can produce significant differences in preferred modes of discourse, interaction, behaviour, community, and identity and we need to be mindful of it. Without stigmatizing either men or women, we also need to recognize that common or typical male and female tendencies can be potentially problematic in certain contexts, even while being healthy, good, and, indeed, essential in the main.

        In addition to this, there are tacit social norms surrounding men and women that have a big effect on how group dynamics play out. Again, these social norms are founded upon natural differences in averages and tendencies, but they accentuate them. Across human societies, for instance, manliness is associated with virtues such as strength, mastery, courage, and honour in ways that womanliness is not. This certainly does not mean that women don’t display these virtues (although, when they do they tend to have a different ‘timbre’ from the same virtues expressed by men, like two different musical instruments playing the same note). However, it means that these virtues are demanded or expected of men and cultivated and rewarded in them in ways that they aren’t for women.

        Women, in particular, generally possess the status of ‘non-combatants’ in ways that men generally do not. Most men, by contrast, are expected to function as combatants and to protect and be gentle towards people with non-combatant status. Men are expected to be able to withstand rough treatment and to play to their strengths with each other, but not to direct such behaviour towards women. Both statuses come with advantages and disadvantages. Many of the problems we now face arise from people who want the privileges of social prominence and influence that come with combatant status, while wanting the privileges of immunity from rough treatment that come with non-combatant status. Once again, there are exceptions, but the group differences lead to us defaulting to certain modes of interaction with men and women and we can get into trouble when we don’t.

        These differences are built on natural differences and aren’t merely arbitrarily constructed out of thin air. There is good reason that males, from the earliest age, are much more likely to be attracted to agonistic forms of play than to nurturing forms of play, for instance. Socialization can have an effect, but its power is limited. Despite being exposed to all the standard feminine socialization, girls exposed to high levels of testosterone in the womb will tend to display more masculine tendencies, for example. Socialization very seldom works against the grain of our nature.

        1. I think you are making a number of assumptions about my position and deflecting from the issue here. In particular, you muddy the waters by confusing the process of arriving at practical decisions with that of forming theoretical judgments. In the case of a group seeking to arrive at a practical judgment, consensus-building is often integral to the process of forming good judgments, as the alternative is unilateral or coerced action. However, the same isn’t true of theoretical judgments. While it is important to seek to persuade others of our theoretical judgments, especially as these inform practical judgments, consensus-building isn’t integral to the forming of good theoretical judgments in the same manner. When someone holds a controversial judgment about the nature of reality, the appropriate response is not to try to arrive at a compromise solution, but rigorously to test and challenge it to see whether it is true.

        The problem that we are dealing with concern the development of tightly enforced consensuses around theoretical judgments. These consensuses often aren’t formed around ideas whose mettle has been tested through rigorous cross-examination (flat-earthers are largely frozen out of scientific discourse for good reason, for instance), but around ideas that are socially orthodox. The difference here isn’t just the indirect means of arriving at a single conclusion, but the fact that the consensus hasn’t been formed through rigorous stress-testing and robust conflict between advocates of different viewpoints. The ideas that lie at the heart of the consensus aren’t unchallenged because they have successfully and soundly defeated all realistic challengers, but because they are socially preferred, even though as ideas they may be weak and untried.

        And this is certainly not a matter of just a ‘pig-headed adherence to one’s own opinion’—quite the strawman of my position!—but of testing the mettle of every opinion. And this testing of the mettle of opinion is just as much a testing of the mettle of your own opinions. In a conversation like this, we all develop our positions through the sparring. We discover and develop the strengths of our positions and may recognize weaknesses in them, even as we expose the weaknesses and flaws in other people’s positions. Far from producing a pig-headed adherence to our own opinion, constantly testing our opinion in debate against advocates of opposing opinions forces us always to improve and strengthen our opinions, to hone and to sharpen them. Argument puts opinions and those who hold them in jeopardy. They must demonstrate the strength of their ideas and their advocacy of them on the field of debate, or look like mere weak yet stubborn opinionators who can’t defend their viewpoint when it is challenged.

        Regarding groupthink, there are indeed plenty of male examples of it. But I never once claimed that it was an exclusively female phenomenon, so I am somewhat bemused that it is supposedly an argument against my position. Nor does your questionable genealogy of no-platforming weigh against my claim that the strategy tends to be closely related to forms of female intrasexual competition, not least because the no-platforming that we encounter today takes a specific form, built around a victimhood culture and the protection of people from threatening opinions. This is rather different from traditional sorts of censorship, which were far more focused upon the maintenance of power, social order, and preventing violence and unrest.

        Besides, historically, public discourse simply was male discourse, with a few notable women as exceptions to the norm. Part of the issue that I am highlighting here is that liberal discourse, like other historic forms of discourse, was essentially a form of discourse between males with a few women who functioned as honorary males within it. We shouldn’t just assume that the predominately male origins of liberal forms of discourse are irrelevant to its character or that it will continue quite unaltered by the introduction of large numbers of women.

        2. The social penalization is much of the problem, and it is exerted by many of the same women who will speak about their strength and assertiveness in putting forth their opinion. The more pressing question is not whether people can put forward their opinion assertively—although that is a question for many—but whether they can take the social pressure, the rigorous challenges, and, yes, the unreasonable treatment that is thrown at people who put forward strong opinions.

        The fact that women are often stigmatized as ‘bossy’, ‘strident’, and ‘shrill’ has a lot to do with the behaviour of women who forcefully assert their opinions, but loudly protest if they receive strong pushback for doing so. Many men resent this, because they see that such women want the privileges of having a highly prominent public voice, without the responsibilities and the risks that come with that. People who voice strong opinions while wanting to protect themselves from rough treatment are often disliked because, in effect, what they want is for people to accept what they say without challenge or question, merely because they feel entitled to it. When people suspect that someone is functioning in such a manner, they can experience it as an attempt to negate their agency and will often throw insults around, as they see that the other party is trying to silence their arguments.

        Of course, there are dangers in the other direction. The common roughness of certain spheres of male discourse can cow some people with informed, sensible, or wise things to say into silence. Combative and agonistic discourse is hugely important for society’s thinking process, but it is only one part of that process. Cultures that are purely engaged in agonistic discourse are dysfunctional and ineffective in many ways and can easily lose a sense of certain exploratory, playful, experimental, curiosity-driven, communal, and collaborative dimensions of a healthy culture of thought. Unless they are careful, they can devolve into ego-driven conflict and prevent ideas whose strengths lie in their attentiveness to reality or defeasible reasoning from being given the weight that they merit. Agonistic discourse is sine qua non for a liberal society, but liberal societies also typically provide structures of advocacy and representation, broader contexts of non-agonistic discourse, and institutional support for the development of diverse parties of opinion so that agonistic discourse, though essential, doesn’t dominate everything.

        My point about not winning an argument in an underhand fashion relates to the way that the norms of liberal discourse appeal to manly virtues. These norms are often not operative in informal contexts like Twitter or Facebook, much as one shouldn’t expect a street-fight to be fought according to Queensbury rules. However, in an institutional context, like the rules of boxing, they are connected with the norms of honourable manly behaviour in direct ritual combat. The interaction is structured in such a way that social status on the line. A man who doesn’t play according to the rules loses status and will be regarded as dishonourable. A man who dodges arguments or who uses institutional machinations to avoid directly facing stronger challengers will be viewed as weak and unmanly. However, female sociality doesn’t share the same typical orientation to direct ritual combat for honour and status, typically dealing with conflicts and the establishment of status in a group rather differently. And perceived weakness in direct conflict doesn’t carry the same stigma for women as it does for men. A woman who is challenged can present herself as the victim of an aggression in ways that a man could not.

        3. If we want to stress-test and develop strong ideas, the weak are definitely going to have to get out of the way. This doesn’t mean that we don’t listen to what they have to say, but there are times when we need to play to our strengths for the good of society and they need to get out of the way if they don’t want to get hurt. When highly vulnerable people are in contexts of dispute, they tend to function as human shields around important issues that need to be discussed and tested, preventing us from examining them closely. The Christian approach is to honour, protect, bear with, be attentive to, mindful of, and make space for the weak, but to use our strengths fully for the good of all. This involves, for instance, keeping the weak away from positions where we need to play to strengths, such as positions of front line leadership.

        Many of our institutions are built around the practice of strength for the sake of all. For instance, an effective legal system that serves everyone requires the robust testing of cases. To ensure that this occurs, we have people with great strengths in rhetoric, argumentation, legal knowledge, and experience to listen to, speak, and act on behalf of people who are weak in these respects. The weak are firmly encouraged to get out of the way and to allow legal advocates to act as their representatives. This ensures both that the weak are well served and not steamrollered by the strong, but also that their weakness doesn’t have to be accommodated in a way that obstructs the practice of justice. The same sort of thing is needed for a healthy liberal society. Weak and vulnerable people on the front line will either be steamrollered, or close down the stress-testing and challenging of ideas by their presence.

        4. Medieval kingship (which was still a highly gendered phenomenon: queens functioned and were regarded differently and dynasties focused on male heirs for good reasons) is an extremely complicated phenomenon that is hardly a good analogy for the sorts of things that we are discussing here. Kantorowicz’s discussion of the king’s ‘two bodies,’ for instance, helps to illuminate some of the complexities of the king’s personage and of medieval notions of sovereignty.

        Both the typical male and typical female leaders have people surrounding them. However, my point is that the relations tend to differ. The male leader is more likely to function as the champion, which, if we are talking about old forms of kingship, is why kings were often expected to lead their men into battle. The authority of such a figure rests heavily upon their ability to withstand direct opposition and challenge. Their power is associated with being the foremost and prominent figure behind which others gather. If a challenger proves stronger than them, people will gather behind them instead. As they prove their strength, others will rally behind them and support them. The queen bee doesn’t lead from the front, however, but from the centre. She isn’t usually exposed to direct challenge, but the battles are fought by the group on her behalf and she is protected. Her power is the power of the hive.

        Some of these dynamics can be seen surrounding Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, for instance. There was a sort of hive effect surrounding her (‘I’m With Her’), with people surrounding her frequently acting as if she was someone to be protected and a sort of victim who needed others to stick up for her, rather than a forceful and robust individual capable of leading the free world from the front and weathering the sort of unreasonable attacks that exposes you to. Her candidacy suggested, not the prominence of a front-line leader, but the diffuse power of the hive of the Democratic Party establishment that surrounded her. She should be president, not because she could lead from the front and command presidential authority by the force of her leadership, but because it was ‘her turn’ and the population were expected to give it to her as a matter of justice (staffers toyed with ‘because it’s her turn’ as a campaign slogan). The result was an extremely weak candidacy that left America facing four years of an utterly disastrous presidency in Donald Trump. The hive power she wielded was immense, but such power is of more limited effect upon people who aren’t members of the hive or are within situations where the hive has extensive social influence. To them, the power of the queen bee will just be resented as that of an under-accountable leader propped up by a suffocating establishment and protected from challenge.

        5. In other comments, I’ve made clear that the past was not a bastion of free thought and open debate. No period of history has been that. However, we are moving away from a period of much more open debate to one in which debate is increasingly stifled by institutional, cultural, and popular forces. The fact that public discourse was largely a preserve of elite males from the dominant culture meant that, although debate was often curtailed in various ways on account of its propensity to produce social disorder or spill over into interpersonal violence, there was an intrinsic bias towards strong positions and tough advocates. Hiding behind victimhood wouldn’t get you anywhere. As debate could be more carefully contained and society be more firmly founded, the conditions existed for the flourishing of free and open debate.

        When the core value is the strength of position and their advocates, we have a much more promising basis for rigorous social and academic discourse than we do in a society when the core value is validation and protection of vulnerable individuals. While domestication and training are required, the former value can easily be sublimated into rational argument, in which the most rigorous, robust, masterful, and resilient ideas are privileged over weaker ideas. The latter value, however, tends to be resistant to rational argument in very principle. Argument is experienced as violence and, whereas the former value privileges ideas for formal characteristics that are congruent with their truth (robustness, strength, their ability to overcome criticisms, etc.), the latter value privileges ideas for their content, irrespective of the truthfulness of this content.

        6. Again, we are talking about different tendencies, not about polar oppositions. There are important differences between ad hominem attacks and the sort of conflation of persons and ideas I am challenging. An ad hominem attack is generally a supposed argument that focuses upon the opponent’s person or character. Such arguments are generally bad arguments (although there are occasions when a person’s identity, character, or behaviour is relevant to the argument), but there is a huge difference between arguments that boil over into personal attacks and arguments that can’t even get off the ground because any challenge to a person’s ideas is seen as a personal attack. The former is a matter of argument handled poorly, not being held within the established bounds, while the latter is an example of an inability to argue at all. The former is common in agonistic male realms. However, it often isn’t even intended as a directly personal attack, but is like a vicious tackle in football, where winning the game becomes such a concern that someone is prepared seriously to injure their opponent to do so. Such a tackle will often be taken personally and lead to bad feeling off the pitch, but it has a particular character on account of its occurrence on the pitch. A direct personal attack would occur if the person put the argument to one side entirely and started insulting his opponent’s mother, for instance (and it is not accidental that one of the most personal forms of attack upon a man is upon the women that are closest to him). The difference between the two phenomena we are discussing here is like the difference between a poorly refereed and ugly game of football, filled with bad sportsmanship, and people who treat any robust (and non-vicious) tackle upon their opinions as a sort of personal assault or who will directly attack the person rather than arguing with them.

        The separation between idea and person, which is even retained to some degree in the case of the ad hominem attack, is largely maintained by the norms of ritual combat that male groups have. The playing field, the boxing ring, the comment box, the debating chamber, etc. establish an other place or time, distinct from the realm of our most immediate personal identities, an arena that we can enter and fight and then leave and be at relative peace. The difficulty for more typical forms of female sociality is that they don’t usually have the same sort of distinct ‘arenas’ for ritually negotiating their conflicts. The ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ are continuous with each other, rather than bounded realms. The conflict is more likely to be experienced as a direct antagonism, and less likely to be experienced as a sort of mutually challenging and strengthening game held in common by the participants. Of course, we all struggle with these distinctions, but the struggle is much less pronounced in groups where disjunctive contest is integral to the form of group bonding.

        Again, the point here is not about the origin of censorship. Public discourse was historically overwhelmingly male discourse, so it is not surprising that features of our discourse such as censorship largely originated with males. My intent is not to blame, but to understand the dynamics that we are witnessing. Female group dynamics aren’t dysfunctional, but handled poorly they cause huge problems for challenging and agonistic discourse, which has historically been driven by male dynamics and norms.

        Female group dynamics are far more likely to be ‘person-oriented’ over ‘thing-oriented’, which is great for forming close-knit communities. However, close-knit, person-oriented communities are not great for having arguments in or for handling strong differences of opinion. Less close-knit communities, oriented outwards towards common activities, things, and tasks are the best for that sort of thing. And male communities are far more likely to develop such dynamics.

        The issue with Women’s and Gender Studies is that inclusion, equality, tolerance, and affirmation of the pristine self take priority over truth. This set of concerns is one that is more characteristic of female groups than male ones. Again, this set of concerns is not wrong or pathological per se. Any decent, healthy, hospitable, and civilized society will have such a set of concerns at its heart. Such concerns only become problematic when they start to colonize places that were formerly realms of intellectual contestation, smothering challenging discourse. A different unhealthy dynamic can go in the other direction too, as the agonistic tendencies of much male community bleed into society as a whole, making everywhere a hostile realm of conflict and argument. One of the dysfunctions caused by contemporary social media is that spaces of contestation and spaces of belonging and close community have been collapsed into each other.

        Female groups don’t unavoidably function with such a dynamic, any more than male groups unavoidably function with an agonistic dynamic and men can’t help but argue and spar with each other. However, such dynamics do come naturally and, unless mindfully contained, directed, resisted, or skilfully sublimated, they are the patterns that we will tend to fall into. The problems arising from areas such as Women’s and Gender Studies aren’t problems with women as women or with common forms of female sociality, but they are problems with a common form of female sociality within specific academic settings and it is not accidental that the problems are focused in heavily female contexts.

        Anyway, after this exceedingly long response, I am bowing out of this discussion. I’ll leave you to have the final word. Thanks for the interaction!

    • biorhythmic disparity is merciless to men and women alike but in different ways, a cleave between men and women. there are certain things one and more and many can do about it: aquaculture, agriculture, &c., demolition of “trigger” “spaces” like highrises and parking lots and tow away signs. civil engineering has to be curtailed tremendously, and the attendant gadgets and widgets have to be recycled rather than the dweeb mentality that new products of consumerism need only be affordable. the old issue of slaves tied to the land has to be resolved more permanently: freedom of mobility without the pollution, freedom of speech w/out the nasty talk and constructivistic blame shifting, fairness in equity, a good egalitarian mix of men and women across all sectors of society w/ plenty of open access for monosex gatherings (the Amazons and the Spartans), &c.

    • She always agreed with him on that. The disagreement was on the use of various pronouns, I think, although I’m not entirely sure.

  6. Kirilov says

    Another finalistic ideology spreading in society… Monod was right that nobody will ever like scientific naturalism.

    • This really is important, I think. There is a strong tendency for people to build purpose into their worldview.

    • Absolutely key insight- humans aren’t very smart in general, and they are wired for religious world views not scientific rationalism. Christianity was kneecapped by the enlightenment, in jumped communism and national socialism. Those were knocked down, in jumped Intersectionality.

      To move forward as a species, we need a new or refigured spirituality/religion that is mostly compatible with liberal secular values and the scientific enterprise. I think teachings within buddhism have the best shot, but i’m biased 🙂

      • First Time Visitor says

        “Christianity was kneecapped by the enlightenment, in jumped communism…”

        I think you misspelled ‘capitalism’.

        “we need a new or refigured spirituality/religion that is mostly compatible with liberal secular values and the scientific enterprise.”

        I completely agree. A secular religion is necessary to provide a framework off which we crazy humans can safely bounce. People need boundaries.

        Instead of co-opting something else, though, why not create it ourselves?

        • Very interesting. But I think when you start going down that road of creating something, you end up making stories that suit your world view, morality and ethics, and then you have a compilation of stories that congrue together with a meaning. And then I think what you end up with is essentially another religion or another bible. And then fundamentally, what will be the difference between your new religion and the old ones? The new one is secular? What is secular anyway?
          Just some ideas.

          • First Time Visitor says

            Thanks for your ideas!

            That’s why *I* wouldn’t be creating something and why *WE* would be creating something. This isn’t the kind of thing to come from one person’s mind. And we could we could use the healthiest concepts and rituals from previous religions. The data’s there – why not use it?

            A secular religion wouldn’t require any kind of faith in a form of God(s), but would be compatible with such a faith. Its main focus would be to provide a moral framework to which a society can refer. “Why should you not do such-and-such? Well, because of this-and-that, as codified in Secular Religion.” It sets a standard beyond “make money” or “play the victim”.

            Moreover, it would help create trust which is necessary for any civilization to survive and something we’re losing at an alarming rate. “If I say the wrong thing, will I be accused of being a racist or sexist?” or “Does this organization actually want to create something healthy for my society, or do they want to just take our money?”

            If we create a standard of behaviour that people can respect, we can buoy up our civilization above the waters that currently threaten to overtake it.

            If anyone is interested in discussing this further, please email me at

  7. Paul Taalman says

    “Perhaps the most interesting thing about the survey is the extent to which political attitudes are increasingly aligning with gender, at least among incoming students.”
    That just proves they’re being indoctrinated before high school.

    • No question there’s a heavy cultural influence from an early age. But it also suggests there are deeply-rooted differences in men and women, as Alastair mentions above. And, of course, the increasingly explicit attacks on men and masculinity by parts of the left don’t help.

  8. ccscientist says

    The problem with defining victimhood as the only source of virtue (in the absence of religion) is that one must identify an oppressor. It is not obviously true that someone is poor because of an oppressor somewhere. Maybe the person had bad parents –whose fault is that? Or maybe they got into drugs and crime. Did white people whisper in their ears during sleep to induce them to do this? The claims of oppression remove responsibility from the individual.
    In the struggle to seem more virtuous, the SJW must more and more stridently denounce the oppressor, to the point of claiming that whites should no longer have children, should kill themselves, should be banned entirely from society. In contrast, religious piety is more personal and does not require an enemy.

    • Michiel says

      Religious piety may not require an enemy, but in reality of course it often does. Just take a look at (extremist) islam, which sees (and fights) supposed enemies, Christians, Jews, atheists, gays, westerners, everywhere.

    • There are many examples of leftist environments descending into purity spirals, for the reason you mention. Once there are no longer any non-leftist oppressors, they have to look within for people who either have it a bit better than everyone else, or isn’t pure enough. This occurred in communist regimes, and it occurs in the social justice movement today.

  9. saldebus says

    Excellent article.I do take issue with your interpretation of the jury members quote. As I recall, my english teachers were always pushing novels that were not easy or fun but supposedly “important” for their message, topic or author’s statement. I think the difference is that now the push is becoming extremely left wing and oppressively compassion driven to the point of idiocy. I would also suggest that unlike the awards ceremonies Hollywood still produces more , purely entertainment driven movies and audiences still shell out more money for these movies. And as far as news narratives, it has become obvious that the mainstream news narrative has lost it’s hold on society and been exposed as biased. Now it seems that everyone has caught onto this game and powerful forces are trying to exert their narrative into everyday life in an effort to take control of the overarching dialogue and society. There is a fight for the hearts and minds of society and this left wing power, privilege and oppression model along with a toxic feminine way of blaming, shaming and ostracizing through the social media is increasing the hostilities. Thank you again for your writing. It is valuable content that we need.

    • Thanks. Good point. It’s quite reasonable for awards to be given to more original and difficult material, rather than simply that which sells best. I don’t disagree with that. The problem, as you mention, is that these things have become synonymous with leftist ideology.

  10. Emblem14 says

    We must give credit where credit is due – the strength of this ideological tsunami was generated and is sustained by the large kernels of truth in the “Woke” critique of western societies. Many thoughtful and compassionate young people go through an almost formulaic journey of disillusionment with the status quo, rage and despondency at the prevalence of injustice, followed by the indignant demand that something must be done about it. We must appreciate that the energy fueling radicalization is proportionate to the destructive force of the collapse and reconstruction of a worldview – which in turn depends on how severely someone feels they have been deceived or patronized by agents of the Established Order (parents, teachers, religions, politicians, sanitized social studies textbooks

    After all, the world, even and especially our own proud slice of civilization, is full of disgusting, outrageous and immoral reminders that we are far from as good as we tell ourselves we are. Most of these evils, from the perspective of a young, freshly disillusioned idealist, are seen as being tacitly or explicitly endorsed by the status quo, by virtue of their continued existence and the conspicuous lack of justice for victims, or accountability for wrongdoers.

    Actually, you’d have to be grossly naive to think that young, idealistic people could look at our current condition and react with anything but disgust and rejection. They’re comparing it to the standards the society itself professes to uphold! If the current regime is so noble, they think, why are all these evils still with us? Why haven’t previous generations done away with them? The only plausible explanation is that everything and everyone associated with the status quo is corrupt, debased, rotten or cowardly. In any case, it’s not working.

    Indeed, our society is very much full of bullshit and the kids are having a violent allergic reaction to it, at around the same time they first become aware of alternative concepts that are attuned to their moral outrage and most importantly, promise something fundamentally better. This gives them hope, a righteous mission (crusade?), a totalizing moral framework (bye cognitive dissonance!) and a psychological coping mechanism keeping them from falling into a nihilistic abyss of cynicism.

    Why has Critical Theory, Postmodernism, pseudo-Marxism and Intersectionality taken the minds of young idealists by storm? Like most things, it’s a complex phenomenon contingent on place, time and historical narrative. My hypothesis, with a charitable reading of the moral positions of the left, is as follows:

    1. The current Power Structure is an immoral fraud when judged by it’s own self-professed standards and commitments. That much, most people across the political spectrum agree on. So, any notion of conservatism or preservation of the “traditions” that landed us in this hypocritical morass is a non-starter. The Establishment has nothing to offer.

    Defenders of values associated with the status quo have to bend themselves into pretzels to justify the current state of affairs, or explain how reality is so inconsistent with their professed principles. Most don’t even bother with such painful contortions when they just live to get by and put food on the table. Moral compromises of the jaded adult sort don’t go unnoticed by the young. Defense of anything good or worth preserving about the way things are sound like empty platitudes in the face of such hypocrisies. Insofar as the status quo is defined as “liberalism” or Neoliberalism, it is morally bankrupt.

    3. Fixing a corrupt society is a hero’s journey. Becoming an activist – a force for change – is a great way to give your life meaning and heroic purpose, especially juxtaposed against a vapid, consumerist, postmodern wasteland, devoid of moral structure, increasingly adept at inventing new ways to debase human dignity. Even in the best positive light, what does rudderless Capitalism offer in ways of human fulfillment? Mere economic abundance, endless novelty and libertine hedonism rings hollow after a short while.

    4. Who can be against compassion for the weak, the downtrodden and the oppressed? You’d have to be a monster to deny that at least one of the primary goals of coordinated social action should be to improve the wellbeing of the worst off, and fight against unfairness and injustice wherever it manifests. The only possible reason someone would reject that proposition is if they’re benefitting from said injustice, unfairness and oppression.

    5. The state of society seems to confirm the Theory. Liberals give lip service to egalitarianism, validating it in principle while destroying its own credibility by being unable to produce it in practice. Radicals and activists take this seriously. Why shouldn’t they? It is a matter of fact that there are massively unequal distributions of almost everything, suspiciously delineated by exactly the social categories the Theory says is responsible for producing the inequality in the first place. It seems obvious that the solution to this very real problem is to smash the categories, the hierarchies and the power structures that sustain them. Anyone who protests or gets in the way is an enemy just trying to cling to their ill-gotten gains.

    6. The path to a just world requires a commitment to the reversal of injustice, remediation of injury and due compensation for the historical wrongs that created the unacceptable unfairness of the present. Affirmative action and reparations writ large are a moral necessity, basically. And since social and political power, along with its benefits and deprivations, seem to be pegged to group identities, then group identities are the only salient construct through which to engender meaningful shifts in the balance of power.

    7. The righteous moral status of victimhood has been enshrined in the general recognition of society’s responsibility for the comparatively shitty circumstances of marginalized groups and identities. A victim is not at fault for their own plight; their suffering and disadvantage is therefore unacceptable and their grievances must be addressed if society is to be moral. This gives anyone who can credibly claim victimhood, especially as a member of a group for which victimhood is already a fait accompli, the power to make certain demands of society. Even though the individual parties making and acceding to demands may be totally unrelated and disconnected to the individuals who produced the conditions on which the moral imperative rests, individual complicity is strictly irrelevant. Because social power is a function of group position, group membership is the only salient fact in determining a person’s moral obligations vis a vis social justice.

    The social status, economic and political power we have bestowed onto victimhood, makes claiming victimhood, whatever the actual merits, also a very self-serving act, which can profit the individual claimant in a variety of ways:

    They can be treated as an authority figure.
    Their opinions carry special weight.
    People listen to them more attentively.
    People treat them with much more respect.
    Their baseline moral reputation increases through a halo effect.
    They can cast moral aspersions on anyone who opposes them.
    They have the ability to socially ostracize almost anyone.
    They can bestow and rescind the moral credibility of others.
    They can deflect individual accountability for their actions.
    They can exempt themselves from many social norms that are expected of others.
    They can demand that their personal preferences supercede others’.
    They can demand special deference to particular needs.
    They can make bold, unsupported pronouncements without being challenged.
    They can enjoy a double standard of identity-based ethics that allows them to treat people differently on the basis of group membership, even to the point of abuse and cruelty.
    They can indulge in power trips and fantasies that would be unavailable to them otherwise.
    They can parlay their social power into economic opportunities that would be unavailable to them otherwise.
    They can do all of the above while being absolutely full of shit and confident that no one who accepts their victim status will ever reprimand or criticize them.
    They can be confident if anyone ever does reprimand or criticize them, all they need to do is call the critic a bigot in response. (even if the criticism is completely unrelated to issues of identity or power).

    How can you look at the perks of victimhood culture and be surprised that a lot of young people are tempted to avail themselves of its benefits?

    In closing, the only way to loosen the grip of this ideological movement is to do 3 things, and do them sincerely.

    #1: Acknowledge the vari-sized kernels of truth at the core of “woke” analyses. There are concepts in left-wing discourse that have (limited) utility, sincere moral underpinnings and impressive (superficially) explanatory power. There’s a reason why left-wing ideologies are so persistent and attractive – because they do appear to address certain things that a whole lot of people think need addressing. Obviously, the error of ideology is to take an idea that might be partially true, or sometimes true, or context-sensitively true, and stretch it into a totalizing dogma containing all truth for all time.

    Ideology is incredibly seductive, and people need to be taught to recognize the flaws of ideological thinking, practice self-awareness of its distorting cognitive effects, and remain ever vigilant of its encroaching tendrils. By being able to admit where left-wing insights have utility, or at least speak to a valid moral concern, you show that you’re not just another ideologue parroting talking points. Young people desperately want to be able to separate truth from bullshit in a way that’s consistent with their deeply held moral intuitions – and you gain instant credibility if it’s clear that you’re not trying to obscure anything.

    #2: For God’s sake, someone needs to put forth an easily digestible critique of both the style and substance of the Intersectionality / Woke / Post-Modern miasma, using a framework that’s compatible with its adherents moral psychology. It will probably have to be written by a non-binary trans woman of color to penetrate the identity-epistemology bubble, but the incoherence and internal contradictions of the ideology can be used to deconstruct it on its own terms. It’s an anti-intellectual caricature of reality that can be dismantled by someone who is sympathetic to its intentions but embarrassed by its sloppiness and unsophistication.

    #3: An equally compelling alternative must be offered at the same time. Liberalism’s reputation is in bad shape. It still has plenty of defenders, but in comparison to Wokeness, it can very easily be portrayed as inadequate to the moral demands of our time, and constitutionally impotent to do much of anything but tolerate horrible shit and deliver anemic, incremental change that is vulnerable to reactionary regression at any time. The up-side of liberal pluralism is not obvious in an era of stagnation and open corruption, and a hard sell in any case without a somber historical perspective or direct experience with its antithesis. It’s a rare state of affairs in human history for a reason.

    Nevertheless, some kind of, dare I say, ideology that satisfies the same fundamental urges for a robust package of meaty ontology, epistemology, ethical framework, and heroic purpose needs to be on the menu next to Woke culture for kids who are in the process of being disillusioned. If not, the only games in town will be the far left, or the alt-right, (it’s photo negative), and polarization will lead to ever escalating social fracture culminating in violence.

    If that happens, it will mark the ultimate disgrace of all the commentators sitting on the sidelines, lamenting the fall.

    • I can highly recommend rapping ‘humans gonna be human’ to help join the dots for them…….

    • Excellent comment. I think you’re right that there are similarities between the left and the right in resenting large parts of the current system, which is why a lot of Sanders supporters voted for Trump. Also, people on both the left and right talk about being woke (or redpilled).

        • A brief look at the Culture Wars.

          Quoting from Louise Nagles book ” Kill all Normies”

          There is no question but that the embarrassing and toxic online politics represented by this version of the left, which has been so destructive and inhumane, has made the left a laughing stock for a whole new generation. Years of online hate campaigns, purges and smear campaigns against others – including and especially dissident or independent-minded leftists – has caused untold damage. This anti-free speech, anti-free thought, anti-intellectual online movement, which has substituted politics with neuroses, can’t be separated from the real-life scenes millions saw online of college campuses, in which to be on the right was made something exciting, fun and courageous for the first time since… well, possibly ever.

          When Milo challenged his protesters to argue with him countless times on his tour, he knew that they not only wouldn’t, but also that they couldn’t. They come from an utterly intellectually shut-down world of Tumblr and trigger warnings, and the purging of dissent in which they have only learned to recite jargon.
          The online right in return has become nastier still, with many drifting so far right it would have been inconceivable just a few short years ago, to Jewish conspiracies and so on.

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  12. Top article. Many of us amateur philosophical detectives have been thinking along similar lines – and increasingly, not just from the Right, but from the more old school Leftists, who are beginning to understand how their political position has been corrupted and brought into disrepute by Frankfurt School shenanigans.

  13. Essentially, entertainment has become the vehicle through which societal change can be affected, rather than an end in itself.

    Judging from the context, this should probably say “effected”.

  14. Though I replied to a comment above, I’d also like to say: props for this good and important piece.

    One thing I’m fairly sure you’re wrong about, though is the claim that science has no particular purpose. Its purpose is the discovery of truth. Critical theory is wrong because it has purpose for science in mind; it’s wrong because it has the *wrong* purpose in mind. A political purpose is exactly the *wrong* end for science to adopt. If science could adopt any end and remain science, then it might as well adopt a political end (or have one imposed upon it).

    The imposition of politics on science is, of course, (neo-)Lysenkoism.

    One of the most astonishing things about this leftist totalitarian academic putsch is that anyone who read and even vaguely understood *1984* should know better.

    • Sorry that was supposed to say:
      Critical theory is wrong NOT because it has A purpose for science in mind; it’s wrong because it has the *wrong* purpose in mind.

      • There is a good deal of philosophical debate about whether or not it makes sense to say that the purpose of science is to discover truth. And there are reasonable people who have argued for pragmatism. One could say science is about generating predictive models, without reference to truth as we normally understand it. I think it’s still an open question.

        • I agree that it’s an open question. But you presuppose an unusual answer to the question: that science has no intrinsic end. That’s different than saying that it might not, or that it might have one of a couple of ends people discuss seriously.

          For purposes of a discussion like this, it’s best to either leave the question open, or go with the consensus about the most likely candidate–which is: discovery of the truth. That’d be the normal way to think about such a thing, anyway.

          The real point is just that IMO it’s more important to note that critical theory proposes a weird and unlikely end for science, not that it proposes some end or other.

  15. The article makes a number of problematic claims and assumptions. For example, it’s simplistic to suggest that there is a “social justice movement.” with some sort of unified agenda. Second, the author’s concept of critical theory is incorrect and lacks nuance.

    • I disagree. In fact, I think one of the most important characteristics of the social justice movement is that previously distinct rights movements have coalesced. One of the most interesting things about modern feminism for example is how much feminists take on other issues later to race, transgenderism, and even capitalism. Even when these issues contradict women’s issues, for example in their reluctance to criticise treatment of women in Muslim environments. The main driver of this is Intersectionality, which essentially aligns all social justice issues into a single framework. With regard to my take on CT, this article explains why professors of a course titled ‘critical communications studies’ reacted the way they did, and why they consider themselves opposed to neutrality. This is something that lies at the philosophical core of CT, and where it openly distinguishes itself from Enlightenment ideas (positivism, liberalism, etc.).

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  17. Pingback: Link: “Wilfrid Laurier and the Creep of Critical Theory” – David's random ramblings

  18. Brent says

    I was briefly a Marxist whilst studying philosophy at an English university in the Sixties, where I took a course on it. The lecturer, himself a keen Marxist, pointed out that Marxism was not a theory but a ‘praxis’, and its postulates were simply whatever ran counter to the current status quo, the idea – borrowed from Hegel – being to create an antithesis to the thesis and bring about a synthesis, namely the dictatorship of the proletariat.

    In other words, any sort of nonsense was fine as long as it countered the establishment viewpoint, the aim being to use any means whatsoever to tear it down. This included violence of any kind, physical, social, cultural, intellectual . . . including the complete disregard of truth. Whatever would bring about revolution was good, because an egalitarian society would surely arise from the ashes.

    As I say, I was briefly captured by this idea, but swiftly saw that a level of violence and immaturity characterized its adherents as well as the conviction – bordering on blind faith – that the end would justify the means. Given the evidence of history this seemed naïve in the extreme, but I do not think that as a philosophy it is too much concerned with reality.

    Critical theory and post-modernism seems to be the continuation of exactly the same thing, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and a dumb wolf at that, with its adherents intellectually dissociated from reality (which they don’t believe exists anyway) psychologically and emotionally regressed (being conspicuously childish or adolescent) and completely oblivious to history and to where all this inevitably leads.

    Whereas in the Sixties I decided that these ideas were wrong, now it seems to me that they were never meant to be right, were never anything but a mind-fuck designed to manipulate mentally susceptible, naively idealistic, but thoroughly dull-witted adult children. It seems that there will always be a class of the gullible ‘useful idiots’ who can be manipulated to fulfill the program and do the bidding of reckless and casually murderous social engineers, who are themselves as captured by their ideologies as those their ideologies capture.

    • Excellent comment. There has definitely been a lot of cross-pollination between different Marxian movements. As you say, the praxis concept is the same basic idea as Critical Theory’s normative approach. The course was titled ‘critical communications studies’, but it could just as well as you say been titled ‘praxical communications studies’ or something.

    • Julie says

      I think the violence is embedded in the term ‘social justice’. I don’t think it is acknowledged enough that although ‘justice’ ostensibly means ‘fairness’, the word has other implications, other ‘traces’. It also implies retribution, revenge, condemnation, ‘an eye for an eye’…all carried out by ‘society’. I think it is a very sinister term. It also requires a hierarchy of power to exact the justice. Who is the judge, jury and executioner? All it offers is a reversal of one supposed power base with another. It’s time to ditch the term altogether as a dangerous construct, and replace it with something like ‘social cohesion’.

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  20. I think it is also crucial to consider the way that the university has changed as an institution over the past few decades and how counterproductive it has become. In many ways it is a system where even when everyone is acting perfectly rationally, the cumulative result is radically dysfunctional as the incentives are all misplaced.

    1. A college degree is increasingly essential for getting a decent job. There is a sort of protectionism around a growing number of jobs, restricting them to people who have degrees. The reasons for this are various. I suspect that an important part of it is that, with the legal liabilities surrounding discrimination in hiring, credentialism allows for a way to discriminate between candidates without the assumption of much risk.

    2. Government funding and other factors have radically inflated the value of a degree. And when people are paying exorbitant fees, they expect what they pay for. And most aren’t really paying for rigorous academic training, but for a prestigious and valuable credential.

    3. Recruitment of students is so competitive that universities are increasingly pouring large sums of money into facilities and resources that have nothing to do with the academic ends of their institutions, merely to create a more desirable student experience. One of the results of this is that the university is becoming a far more consumer-driven institution. And the emphasis upon things such as college sports push against the academic ends of the institution.

    4. Employment within academic itself is increasingly precarious. Fewer scholars have tenure and most academics are in a considerably more vulnerable employment situation than someone at their stage in their career would have been a decade or so ago.

    5. As the student and their parents come to be seen primarily as consumers to be attracted, colleges will go to increasing lengths to accommodate themselves to them. Academics desperate for employment are plentiful, but paying students are the lifeblood of the university, and colleges can’t afford to alienate them. If a student protests that a video shown by a TA in their class is transphobic, what is going to happen? Isn’t the customer always right? What would it do for the university’s PR if word got out that trans students weren’t being made to feel safe? Besides, lecturers increasingly depend upon favourable students’ assessments for their place in the university. When students carry such power, it isn’t surprising that lecturers will self-censor.

    6. As the university becomes more business-driven, it becomes increasingly caught up in the politics and law of equality and diversity. HR departments, the politics of representation, equality and diversity policies and the burgeoning number of officers enforcing them, identity-focused societies in student politics, the legal risks surrounding discrimination, etc. all start to constrict freedom of challenging discourse on sensitive subjects. An academic who is an outspoken critic of critical race theory, feminism, queer theory, etc., for instance, will increasingly be a legal, financial, and PR liability to their employers. All of these positions now tend to function as a sort of establishment orthodoxy on account of the perverse incentives to hold them and the strong disincentives against challenging them. The Women’s and Gender Studies department and the people working in critical race theory are powerful because their ideology holds such influence in the HR departments. Their power is not in their academic prestige or the rigour of their arguments, but in their influence in the administration of universities and elsewhere.

    7. As Upton Sinclair observed: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” People in precarious academic jobs, whose continued employment depends upon their adherence to a social justice ideology that underwrites the university as a market-driven institution (neoliberalism is social justice) will find it very difficult to speak out against it openly. And it isn’t all disincentives. There are plenty of social and cultural incentives to hold to strong positions on social justice. It marks you out as a member of the professional and ideas class, who knows the right beliefs to hold and won’t put your employer in legal or PR jeopardy.

    8. As students come to be seen primarily as consumers, they will tend to be coddled. They are not apprentices or trainees in a boot camp of thought. They are there to get the credential in order to get a good job. The actual academic side of the university is of secondary importance. Students have always been immature. They are still largely kids, so that shouldn’t surprise us. However, when the university wasn’t a consumer-driven institution, it had more power to push back against their immaturity and to form them into mature adults, rather than pandering to their fragilized selves.

    All of this is to say that ideology is often not the driving factor, but may simply be the shadow that follows economic, technological, communications media, demographic, and other such factors. An open and liberal society requires specific conditions to thrive. It requires a cultural ethos and norms, it requires healthy and well-ordered institutions, it requires a well-managed public square, rather than a chaotic free-for-all.

    • Following on from this, I am reminded of Kevin Birmingham’s powerful article on, among other things, the damaging effects of the precariousness of university employment:

      The privilege of tenure used to confer academic freedom through job security. By now, decades of adjunctification have made the professoriate fearful, insular, and conformist. According to the AAUP, adjunct faculty are about half as likely to undertake risky research projects, and the timidity moves up the ladder. “Professionalization” means retrofitting your research so that it accommodates the critical fads that will make you marginally more employable. It means cutting and adding chapters so that feathers remain unruffled. Junior faculty play it safe—conceptually, politically, and formally—because they write for job and tenure committees rather than for readers. Publications serve careers before they serve culture.

      It is important to pay attention to where the power lies when accusing universities of closing down free discourse. Most academics today know that, if they don’t conform strongly to the expectations or demands of their peers, students, and institutions, they may be out of a job, losing health insurance, struggling to repay the mortgage, further delaying the start of a family, etc. This is a very powerful incentive not to say anything controversial. I am reluctant to place too much blame on those who seek to stay out of trouble for these reasons.

      The students aren’t really the bad guys either. They are immature and often don’t know better. In a healthier institution they would be challenged and helped to become more robust and resilient to opposition. Many of them shouldn’t be in university in the first place and are victims of a system that has placed many jobs out of reach of someone without a degree. Many of them will be left with huge debt following an education that was largely a waste of their time.

      The administration are generally only doing what they need to do to ensure the survival of the university as an institution and to protect it from legal, PR, and financial difficulties.

      Employers in the marketplace that expect degrees are only trying to sort for good employees in a system that gives them little scope for discrimination.

      Even the proponents of social justice ideology have limited culpability. They are often unimaginative yet highly scrupulous and empathetic types, who seek to uphold the rules, without understanding what is driving them. They often have a vision of a society and academic institution more accommodating of the vulnerable and fragilized selves that they encounter on a daily basis and often are themselves, while not considering the way that this can undermine the internal ends of the academy as an institution as a realm of ideological contestation and rigorous and challenging intellectual formation. However, as advocates of students, they recognize that an academy that doesn’t feel ‘safe’ for vulnerable and fragilized selves will produce unjust social effects, as without a degree people will be marginalized in society and the economy.

      As I’ve remarked before, in such situations everyone can act rationally, but the result can still be profoundly dysfunctional. The real problem is that the academy has become an alienated institution, a slave of the ends of other agencies and systems that are in clear tension with its internal ends. We are highly unlikely to change things by blaming any single agency within the system. The only changes will come as we alter the incentives that structure and sustain the system.

      How to change the system is a huge challenge. Like untangling a highly tangled ball of wool, pulling at one point can cause a knot to develop somewhere else. Making the university a far more selective institution will cause many universities to fail economically (it is hard to see a generally positive yet realistic result that doesn’t involve many academic institutions closing) and will lead to unpleasant social outcomes for many. Cutting government funding may make the university even more hostage to the interests of the market and consumers. Making a degree a protected characteristic and preventing employers from selecting for it would lead to many universities failing and increase the difficulty of selecting employees, and may even increase the power of social justice ideology in business as they have much less basis on which to discriminate. It could also lead to even an further diminishing influence of the university in society and the growing power of business as the force over all society. Some difference can be made by people ensuring that universities who close down discourse for the sake of progressive ideology suffer negative PR and economic consequences, but it must be remembered that the power of the consumer is fickle and unwieldy.

    • No question administrators play an important role in all this. In some sense, though, ideology is still driving this, I think. It’s just coming from outside the universities as well now (for example Bill C-16, which was referred to multiple times during the Laurier meeting). And when students enter universities they already have a social justice mindset. I agree that it would be foolish to think everything can be explained by a single cause, though.

      • Thanks for the response, Uri.

        Ideology is doubtless a part of the picture. However, it seems to me that it might not be quite as large a part as it might initially appear. The ideology that we see is often not in the driving seat, but is a rationalization of positions that were arrived at for other reasons.

        For instance, the social justice mindset of students entering universities seems to have several different causes and is already suggestive that overt ideology might not be the real driving force here. Most of us weren’t acquainted with thinkers like Marcuse until we were a few years into our university education.

        On this front, I have already suggested that we should attend to the fact that the ‘social justice mindset’ is unevenly distributed and is far more common among women in and female-dominated groups. So part of the explanation is probably gender differences in modes of sociality, with males and their groups being far more open to and appreciative of realms of agonistic social discourse, while female groups are much more conformist in their impulse and can exert far more peer pressure against dissenters.

        A further, immensely important, factor is the spread of pluralism in society. In highly pluralistic societies, social etiquette can increasingly close down or curtail discussion of differing ultimate commitments. The important thing is to be ‘tolerant’, not threatening or challenging others, but affirming them as equal members of society. The power of values such as ‘tolerance’, ‘equality’, ‘diversity’, and ‘inclusion’ in pluralistic Western societies such as ours is immense. Yet, although it is often underwritten by ideology, it seems to me that the rise of these values has much more to do with the need to make relationships and social order in highly pluralistic societies workable.

        It can be exceedingly difficult to develop a coherent ideology out of these values, because the values are really social norms first, rather than ideological commitments. It is about an ethic of getting on with others in a society where deep differences exist. Students haven’t been trained in any explicit ideology, but this ethic and its attendant values have been inculcated in them throughout the entirety of their education.

        Rather than a coherent ideology, what we have is a socially-enforced non-aggression pact between people of different convictions to ensure the continuation of a regime of niceness. The sacred value is the ‘pristine self’, the self that must be affirmed and protected from attack or challenge. Ideologies are attached to the self as forms of private self-articulation. The ideology of transgenderism may be both incoherent and intellectually inconsistent with various forms of feminism, for instance, but both can be affirmed in the very strongest of terms and treated as beyond challenge. This is because they aren’t ultimately about objective reality, but are the affirmation and expression of the pristine self. Even if we disagree, we must affirm its validity, provided it doesn’t break the non-aggression pact. Laws like Bill C-16 are designed to establish and enforce this non-aggression pact.

        Liberal society depends upon a faith in discourse to negotiate difference. It also depends upon a commitment to the contestability of ideas. However, by connecting ideas with identity and surrounding them with a human shield, the non-aggression pact of tolerant pluralistic society has placed them beyond challenge. To challenge and interrogate the ideology that undergirds someone’s identity is an act of violence, an invalidation of their self, and an attack upon their ‘community’. And, although people will insist that such challenges arise from falsehood, actual errors are seldom if ever demonstrated. This is because the act of challenge itself is deemed pathological, save in those cases where the non-aggression pact has previously been breached by the other party. So, for instance, the arguments of someone like James Damore in his Google memo are not truth claims to be contested, but attacks upon the selfhood of women that require that Damore be punished and pathologized.

        All of this rests upon the radical vulnerability, fragility, essential victimhood, hyper-performative, and hypo-agentic character of the contemporary self, the self as a weak and a brittle thing to be protected from harm. Liberal society depends upon a public square populated by ideological combatants, people with thick skins who can engage directly in ideological challenge without protection. Yet this always privileged men and members of the dominant majorities in society, who are generally more amenable to such discourse. By contrast, contemporary politics is driven by private and individual identity over ideology, with ideologies functioning as the intimate scaffolding of the soul, or the cicatrix over deep personal wounds. It should be noted that intersectionalism and other such theories associated with identity politics tend to privilege the passive individual as the locus of identity (with associated ‘communities’ being merely an agglomeration of such atomized and fragilized individuals), rather than a concrete and historical community with its own structure and agencies.

        Modern society creates such vulnerable selves through its uprooting of us from deep structures of belonging, through high levels of divorce and weak family structure, through high levels of migration within and between countries, through the radical integration of the sexes, through precarious employment, through the fracturing and atomization of communities and traditional ways of life, through its establishment of highly diverse societies, through its association of the self with its choices and a performative identity, and through its pandering to the self as consumer.

        The rise of this new model of social organization also relates to the collapse of spaces through new media and policies of inclusion. Having a robustly agonistic public square depends upon the exclusion of thin-skinned and vulnerable people from it, which will always be a problem for a pluralistic society committed to radical inclusion, especially when it has radically democratic media. It depends upon structures of advocacy and means by which one could participate extensively in civil society without being included in conflictual discourse. It depends upon marking out well-ordered arenas where sensitive ideas can be contested and challenged, and realms where people can be protected from challenge. The Internet and social media have undermined a lot of this, as the realm of political and ideological conflict and the realm of civil society have increasingly merged.

        When it came down to it, liberal society has generally cared about objective truth. Maintaining the contestability of even the most cherished ideas is important for a society committed to truth in such a fashion. However, it isn’t at all clear to me that neoliberal society produces the same commitment to truth in many areas. What matters for neoliberal society is maintaining the social conditions and forming the human capital that is conducive to realizing the interests of the market (and what matters to most of its members is finding a way to be non-threatening neighbours and relations to people who are committed to realizing their identities in radically different ways from their own). The education system exists to provide optimized human material for the economy and to effect the sort of social formation that trains people to cooperate and coexist with other individuals with very different values within a loose society of individual self-actualizers. A commitment to the pursuit of a truth beyond technique is a threat to both of these ends. Too much of a commitment to truth and to ends other than the servicing of the economy and the social order that maintains it is a problem and may even be deeply unsettling. Employers really aren’t interested in employees that hold strong and particular ideological positions; they want ‘tolerant’ employees who are adaptable and fungible, happily and comfortably working with any group of colleagues, privatizing their convictions, and maintaining the non-aggression pact that places deeply held positions beyond contestation.

        Of course, many in universities are genuinely committed to the value of truth, but many others believe that tolerance trumps truth, knowing that this is the case both for the forces of the market and also for their fragile students.

        • Uri Harris says

          Thanks for the comment, Alastair. I think we’re on the same page. I definitely didn’t mean to imply that ideologies are abstractions that people adopt on reason. I imagine the professors at Wilfrid Laurier chose to offer a ‘critical communications studies’ class because critical theory gives them a toolkit for teaching students a social justice/egalitarian attitude towards society that they are passionate about. And I’m sure, as you say, that the social justice ideology behind Bill C-16 is largely a consequence of societal trends.

          I may have misunderstand you, but I got the impression that you were suggesting that the Laurier incident was largely driven by administrators trying to protect the university from liability and professors trying to hang on to their jobs. That I don’t think is true. From listening to the tape, it seems to me that these are people driven by ideology, in other words they *strongly believe* in social justice principles. And this, I think, is consistent with the social justice movement in general. There’s a quasi-religious aspect to much of this, it seems to me. But again, I don’t mean to suggest that people have adopted their ideology through abstract reasoning. Which is why I talk about the culture, which I think leads young people to internalise a lot of this. I think you’re right about a lot of the societal trends.

          That said, there’s an interesting discussion to be had about the extent to which ideologies can be reasoned (or debated) out of. I hope so, because the societal trends that have led to this are not going away anytime soon.

        • Emblem14 says


          I think you’re approaching the root of the conflict with this comment. Indeed, it suggests why the tension between, let’s say, “classical liberal” and “social justice” types seems so intractable and fundamental. Different terminal values will do that, and “culture war” is a fair description of the result. Although there are more than 2 factions on the playing field, one can coarsely delineate the “sides” of this conflict between those who are committed to some enlightenment/positivist ideal of a “truth” outside of motivated subjectivity that reason can help reveal, and to which all other values are subordinate, and those who hold to some other ultimate value, whether it be Tolerance, Social Justice, Religion, Ethnic, National or Class Solidarity or some other Grand Narrative, to which “truth” is subordinate. Hence the fertile soil for Postmodernist Deconstructionism when “truth” is merely an instrument, not a goal. The nice thing about deconstruction is that when all interpretations are equally valid, you can be certain that you’ll find what you’re looking for.

          I think you’re right, and Haidt would agree, that the notion that we arrive at our ideologies through reasoned deliberation is unsupported by evidence. Instead, we apply post-hoc motivated rationalization to legitimize our moral intuitions. How we develop those intuitions is a complex intermix of genes and environment and may even be predictable to a large degree. Some of us want to be aware of this and move the process from the intuitive and unconscious into conscious analysis so we can minimize (though never fully eliminate) the pull of cognitive biases.

          There’s been some very illuminating literature on the evolution of different cultural modalities characterized by honor, dignity and victimhood (Haidt talks about them here: that helps put some of the underlying sociological factors into context.

          As you’ve touched on, each modality has its benefits and drawbacks, and different people will feel more or less comfortable under different social norms. But whether you define it as a culture or a mindset, I think the social construct of Victimhood as currently practiced is really at the core of the troubling intellectual and emotional stunting of individuals, the devaluation of agency, autonomy and personal accountability, the hypersensitivity to threat and harm, the spread of paranoia, the enticement of tribalism, the degradation of discourse and crucially, the moral imperative of self defense and vindictive protectiveness that in turn produces the dogmatism, authoritarianism, censoriousness and general illiberalism of the social justice left and the alt-right. An amplified social incentive to be position oneself as oppressed and aggrieved has predictable effects on political discohesion and polarization.

          Arguments from “universal principles” don’t carry weight with people whose deepest moral commitments are particularistic in nature. A double standard can always be justified. We know how hospitable the human mind is to self-contradiction, hypocrisy and compartmentalization. The best you can do is show how someone’s behavior or thought process is counterproductive to their own stated goals.

          To really challenge the higher level manifestations of victimhood culture, I think you need to confront it at its source on a psychological and ontological level. Simply addressing the misguided ideological formulas that spring from that well will leave the core intuitive drivers unexposed and unaddressed.

          • Thanks for the thoughtful response, Emblem14!

            I think it is worth bearing in mind that the leading parties in the debates about free speech on campus tend to both be species of liberals: classical liberals and progressive liberals. Both are committed to a form of universalism, albeit one to a society built around the universal principle of the person as responsible agent and the other to a society built around the universal principle of the person as victim.

            Here I think we need to return to the conservative tradition—which is quite distinct from the classical liberal tradition (the linked article is a must-read)—if we are going to develop a workable response. The conservative tradition, unlike the liberal tradition, doesn’t operate in terms of universal reason, but in terms of a sort of ‘contemplative pragmatism’, marrying extensive reflection on higher values with a strong empiricism. This approach is far more attentive to the unique shape of particular realities and the need to establish a prudent solution that is appropriate to their particularity, rather than trusting in universal techniques and principles to accomplish this for us. It is a politics of wisdom, rather than technique.

            Liberal approaches fail on both sides, because neither progressive nor classical visions of the human being can be universalized. And liberalism fails to attend closely enough to how important healthy institutional forms and traditions are for the maintenance of values such as free speech, yet how vulnerable they are and how carefully and attentively they need to be formed. The conservative tradition has been far more alert to such things and we might need to revive its largely neglected insights (not least in movements claiming to be conservative, but really being classical liberal, libertarian, or neoliberal) if we are to deal with current crises.

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  22. SJWs are not to be argued with. They are poorly parented, maleducated bundles of narscistic emotions. A deeply ill-served generation.

    They are correct in a sense. They are victims. The are victims of the treachery and corruption engaged in by those entrusted to educate them since kindergarten. They occupy young adult bodies with young children’s brains. Perportedly scared of their own shadows because of all the evil around them, but also vicious and aggressive.

    They are due our compassion. They did not ask for the twisted cultural and education environment that as left them so psychologically and intellectually damaged. But they are not to be taken seriously, other than to recognise the serious threat they and those that programmed the little idiotic drones represent to all of our liberties.

    If you are the parent or radical educator of a young SJW currently terrorizing an academic institution and society at large, shame on you. You have caused great damage to the person you claimed to care about.

    • The young men I have encountered and informally questioned detest the SJW. These are kids not in University but working full time and accepting responsibility for their lives. They have spent their Teen years on the Internet with all its violence , gore, Porn and Politically Incorrect commentaries. They value free speech and detest Censorship of any type.

      When questioned about their desire for higher education they do not see the point. Their friends have degrees and can’t get jobs. They look down on the institutions. There is another breed of kid out there and they exist in large numbers. They don’t have time for the cry bullies. Expect Them.

  23. Jason says

    I just became a Patron of this site, due largely in part to this article. I would urge everyone here to forgo a couple of cups a coffee a month, and chip in what you can. This type of discourse is now more important than ever, and we need well reasoned perspectives that don’t creep into alt-right territory to push back on the these misguided movements.

    Thank you Quillette, and thank you Uri.

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  25. Hey Uri, thanks for the linkage.

    It seems I’m a little late to the party here. This WLU situation with Lindsay Shepherd is exactly what I’m talking about in the little world of science fiction books.

    Authors being accused of “cultural appropriation” is a big favorite of mine. You put an Indian character or a Chinese character etc. in a story about space ships, and you’re a racist because cultural appropriation. If you -don’t- put in an Indian or Chinese etc. character, you’re a racist, just because.

    • Uri Harris says

      Right. Make everything an act of bigotry, then you get to call whoever you want a bigot. It’s quite brilliant, actually.

  26. David Nyman says

    The conjunction of Marxism and the struggle against oppression should strike one as more than a trifle oxymoronic. Perhaps the right might, with some justification, respond to taunts of “Nazi” with “Chekist” or the like. What constitutes oppression and the various ways of opposing it are themselves surely critical elements of the debate. A debate, moreover, that should be part of the more general attempt to discern the possibility of a shared reality in which the various “discourses” might find their common origin.

  27. Serafino Bueti says

    All of this is humourously summoned up in the youtube video ”Ain’t no rest for the triggered.”

  28. Lots of interesting explanations going on here, not sure there’s any point in adding my two cents, but to me, it’s not all that complicated. The Left demands that there be opposing “oppressors” and “oppressed”, and whereas they used to be defined by class/economics, they’re now defined by demographics, with the result being the politicization of demography. For the Left, who you are and what you think are one and the same, ergo, if I disagree with what you think, I am disagreeing with who you are. That’s where the Shepherd’s professors get this idea that she is violating students’ human rights by presenting ideas with which they disagree: their beliefs are simply a 1:1 reflection of their identity.

    I think that is why there is so much attention being paid to a seemingly obscure private meeting involving a 22-year-old graduate student. Politics as demography is nothing particularly new or unique in the world; it’s the norm far more than the exception. But if left to fester and grow, it will destroy everything; we’ll simply revert to permanently warring tribes looking out for their self-interests, unable to discuss or negotiate anything other than the occasional truce.

  29. Paula says

    Walter Lippmann from 1937: “What worried Lippmann the most was the failure of those who consider themselves progressives to remember how much of what they cherish as progressives has come by emancipation from political dominion, by the limitation of power, by the release of personal energy from authority and collective coercion.” He cited “The whole long struggle to extricate conscience, intellect, labor, and personality from the bondage of prerogative, privilege, monopoly, authority.”

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