The quasi-religious fervor of modern wokeness has notorious tendencies toward a repressive orthodoxy. Hardly anyone has noticed the contradictions this displays. It’s not just that free speech is valuable—a claim that, sadly, no longer commands universal assent, particularly on the left. The critique I offer here is internal: a culture of repression and fear obstructs the socially transformative aims of the antiracism movement.
I’ve been on the political left all my life. I have defended abortion, pornography, recreational drug use, Obamacare, and the morality of homosexual conduct. I have debated same-sex marriage with Ryan Anderson, the founder and editor-in-chief of Public Discourse. My first book, Antidiscrimination Law and Social Equality, can be read today as a manifesto for wokeness avant la lettre. It argued in 1996 that the law should be deliberately deployed to “reconstruct social reality to eliminate or marginalize the shared meanings, practices, and institutions that unjustifiably single out certain groups of citizens for stigma and disadvantage.” I also argued, there and elsewhere, that discrimination against gay people is sex discrimination, an argument that recently persuaded the Supreme Court in Bostock v. Clayton County. But I also said that this project raised sensitive free speech issues. My allies on the left are sometimes oblivious to those issues.
The logic of the antiracism movement’s goals should push it toward liberalism, and in particular toward the defense of free speech. If you want to have a real effect on the world, then you have to be able to think about what works and what doesn’t. That means being capable of having your ideas challenged. If you can’t do that, then you won’t be effective. The illiberal tendencies in the antiracism movement hinder its professed aims. The movement’s fervor for social change can be a force for great good in the world, but only if the movement takes a liberal form. Liberalism has managed to assimilate other once-intolerant faiths—to induce them to abandon their illiberal tendencies. It can do it again.
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The modern woke antiracism movement, many have observed, is a lot like Calvinism, with its deep sense of original sin, relentless self-examination, yearning for purification, tireless proselytizing, and tendency to pitiless ostracism and shunning. (That’s the brilliance of the coinage, “The Great Awokening,” by Matt Yglesias, whose heterodox views recently forced him to abandon the Vox website that he helped found.) A recent prominent statement by more than 150 prominent artists and intellectuals enumerates the pathologies it has produced: “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.” These episodes—and there are many of them—have created a climate of fear. (A notable illustration is the former Obama staffer David Shor, whose employer gave in to pressure to fire him after he tweeted a study showing that nonviolent demonstrations are more politically effective than riots.)
Many writers have denounced “cancel culture,” hoping to vanquish or at least contain it. There is, however, another response, one that has succeeded with intolerant religious groups: to work within their own theologies to make them less intolerant. The antiracism movement has ample resources within itself for such a transformation. In fact, it must evolve in that direction if it is to realize its admirable ambitions.
Wokeness aims, not at salvation in some other world, but at the amelioration of injustice in this one. That project demands attention to questions of causation and efficacy. And that in turn demands the rejection of coercive orthodoxy and respect for freedom of speech. James Lindsay and Mike Nayna’s now-classic essay, “Postmodern Religion and the Faith of Social Justice,” carefully traces the analogy with religion. Social justice, they observe, has its articles of faith, insulated from critical examination, its rituals of belonging, promises of redemption, canonical texts, inexhaustible fervor, and intolerance. Their analogy is in many ways powerful, but it has implications they don’t notice.
They draw the lesson that we should invoke familiar principles of secularism, such as “a general reticence toward institutionalizing the ideology of any moral tribe in any public space,” and an understanding that it is permissible “to demand rigorous evidence for it before it should be implemented, and to treat objections in very much the same way as one would those extended by any religious faith under similar conditions.” In particular, they propose to resist its institutionalization as an orthodoxy in universities. They are certainly right about that. There is, however, a complementary approach they don’t consider.
Their basic strategy is one of containment. The idea of containment was made famous by George Kennan’s 1947 article, which proposed countering “Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world” by the “adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.” This, he hoped, would “promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” Kennan’s proposal became America’s foreign policy for decades, and ultimately it succeeded.
That seems to be Lindsay and Nayna’s idea. The solution is “a bulwark between church and state,” “a committed prevention of institutionalizing religious doctrines and practice in liberal governments.” They’re not alone: many writers, both conservatives and free speech liberals, are worried about how to contain the intolerant impulses of the social justice movement.
In America, disestablishment has been a one-way barrier, preventing government from establishing an orthodoxy while leaving religious groups free to participate in public life. Religion has never been kept out of politics. That isn’t bad news. The movement to abolish slavery began as a Christian crusade and largely remained one. The Social Gospel movement of the late nineteenth century fought alcoholism, sweatshops, decaying tenements, business monopolies, and foreign wars. Organized Catholics helped push the New Deal to the left. In the 1960s, religious groups supported the civil rights movement and mobilized against the Vietnam war. Liberalism can’t do without the belief, in the teeth of much evidence to the contrary, that the world can be made less unjust and cruel than it is. For many people, that belief is grounded in religious faith. Today’s social justice movements, to the extent they are quasi-religious, illustrate the point.
Kennan didn’t say what he meant by “mellowing,” but he evidently contemplated a regime less authoritarian and dangerous than Russia under Stalin. America has some experience with the mellowing of religions that were once authoritarian and dangerous. Consider Catholicism. The enormous wave of Catholic immigration alarmed America’s Protestant majority, who worried about the Church’s demand for close ties between church and state, endorsement of religious censorship, and rejection of freedom of conscience—all officially declared in the Vatican’s Syllabus of Errors in 1864. The fears were always exaggerated. American Catholics quickly adopted America’s liberalism and even carried it back to Rome, where they influenced the doctrinal developments of Vatican II. Something similar is true for Muslims. American Muslims have not only been, for the most part, good citizens. Some of them have tried to bring a liberalized Islam to the countries of their ancestors.
In all of these cases, the groups in question found within their own theologies a basis for embracing aspects of liberalism. Today Catholic bishops will tell you that freedom of conscience is objectively correct, and was so even when the Church persecuted dissenters. John Rawls famously wrote that liberalism must be undergirded by a variety of conflicting views, religious and nonreligious, that together could form an “overlapping consensus” on basic liberties. That is in fact what has happened.
The antiracism movement has resources that can be similarly deployed toward liberal ends. The crucial disanalogy with religion is that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. All the work of checking your privilege is supposed to have the causal consequence of producing a more just society. That fact provides a reason, within the movement’s own terms, to check its illiberalism.
The ideology of antiracism has sometimes degenerated into what John McWhorter calls “willfully incurious, self-flagellating piety, of a kind that has helped no group in human history.” One of Bernard Shaw’s characters observes that the “pious English habit of regarding the world as a moral gymnasium built expressly to strengthen your character in leads you to think about your own confounded principles when you should be thinking about other people’s necessities.” That’s one reason why the religion analogy is fiercely resisted: antiracism purports to aim at actually helping black people, not purifying the souls of whites.
If we are going to actually improve the world, then the conversation we need must focus on how the world actually works. One of the best arguments for free speech is that our ideas could be wrong. The best basis for our confidence in them, as John Stuart Mill observed, is “a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.” Racism is obviously a deep cause of the obstacles that stand between the worst-off African-Americans and the decent lives they could have. But so are other phenomena that everybody knows about but that many whites are afraid to mention: the black/white academic achievement gap, the high incidence of black single-parent families, and the disproportionate violence and criminality of young black men. There are good reasons to be careful when talking about those facts, which are cited with glee by genuine, unapologetic racists. But unless we figure out how to change them, the lives of the victims of racism will not improve. A conversation in which those facts can’t be mentioned is of little use.
The path forward is not obvious. We need to discuss frankly the merits of different policy proposals. The antiracism community can’t do that without a culture of free speech. Unless familiar pieties can be challenged, how can we know whether they are true? The religion of wokeness should denounce censorship, cancelling, and deplatforming. These practices mutilate our thinking. If “systemic racism” refers to the complex totality of causal processes that perpetuate the marginal status of so many African-Americans, then they operate to reinforce structural racism. If the woke antiracism movement is indeed a religion, then the vision that demands these repressive practices is a pernicious heresy.