I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked why it is that the Woke won’t seem to have a debate or discussion about their views, and I’ve been meaning to write something about it for ages, probably a year at this point. Surely you’ll have noticed that they don’t tend to engage in debates or conversation?
It is not, as many think, a fear of being exposed as fraudulent or illegitimate—or otherwise of losing the debate or looking bad in the challenging conversation—that prevents those who have internalized a significant amount of the Critical Social Justice Theory mindset that prevents these sorts of things from happening. There’s a mountain of Theoretical reasons that they would avoid all such activities, and even if those are mere rationalizations of a more straightforward fear of being exposed as fraudulent or losing, they are shockingly well-developed and consistent rationalizations that deserve proper consideration and full explanation.
I often get asked specifically if there’s some paper or book out there in the Critical Social Justice literature that prohibits or discourages debate and conversation with people who don’t already agree with them. I honestly don’t know. I’ve looked in a cursory fashion and haven’t found one, but, then, Critical Social Justice scholars are also rather incredibly prolific (an undeniable benefit of having no rigorous standards to meet and a surplus of ideological zeal, as it happens). That is to say, there’s a lot of Woke literature out there, and maybe someone has explained it very clearly and at length with a lot of specificity, but if so, I haven’t seen it. So far as I know, there’s not some specific piece of scholarship that closes the Woke off to debate, like a single paper or book explaining why they don’t do it. It’s just part of the Woke mindset not to do it, and the view of the world that informs that mindset can be read throughout their scholarship.
There are a number of points within Critical Social Justice Theory that would see having a debate or conversation with people of opposing views as unacceptable, and they all combine to create a mindset where that wouldn’t be something that adherents to the Theory are likely or even willing to do in general. This reticence, if not unwillingness, to converse with anyone who disagrees actually has a few pretty deep reasons behind it, and they’re interrelated but not quite the same. They combine, however, to produce the first thing everyone needs to understand about this ideology: it is a complete worldview with its own ethics, epistemology, and morality, and theirs is not the same worldview the rest of us use. Theirs is, very much in particular, not liberal. In fact, theirs advances itself rather parasitically or virally by depending upon us to play the liberal game while taking advantage of its openings. That’s not the same thing as being willing to play the liberal game themselves, however, including to have thoughtful dialogue with people who oppose them and their view of the world. Conversation and debate are part of our game, and they are not part of their game.
1. They Think the System Is Rigged Against Them
The first thing to understand about the way adherents to Critical Social Justice view the world is just how deeply they have accepted the belief that we operate within a wholly systemically oppressive system. That system extends to literally everything, not just material structures, institutions, law, policies, and so on, but also into cultures, mindsets, ways of thinking, and how we determine what is and isn’t true about the world. In their view, the broadly liberal approach to knowledge and society is, in fact, rotted through with “white, Western, male (and so on) biases,” and this is such a profound departure from how the rest of us—broadly, liberals—think about the world that it is almost impossible to understand just how deeply and profoundly they mean this.
In a 2014 paper by the black feminist epistemology heavyweight Kristie Dotson, she explains that our entire epistemic landscape is itself profoundly unequal. Indeed, she argues that it is intrinsically and “irreducibly” so, meaning that it is not possible from within the prevailing system of knowledge and understanding to understand or know that the system itself is unfairly biased toward certain ways of knowing (white, Western, Eurocentric, male, etc.) and thus exclusionary of other ways of knowing (be those what they may). That is, Dotson explains that when we look across identity groups, not only do we find a profound lack of “shared epistemic resources” by which people can come to understand things in the same way as one another, but also that the lack extends to the ability to know that that dismal state of affairs is the case at all. This, she refers to as “irreducible” epistemic oppression, which she assigns to the third and most severe order of forms of epistemic oppression, and says that it requires a “third-order change” to the “organizational schemata” of society (i.e., a complete epistemic revolution that removes the old epistemologies and replaces them with new ones) in order to find repair.
This view is then echoed and amplified, for example, in a lesser-read 2017 paper by the Theorist Alison Bailey. Therein she invokes explicitly that in the neo-Marxist “critical” tradition, which is not to be mistaken for the “critical thinking” tradition of the Western canon, critical thinking itself and that which is seen to produce and legitimize it are part of the “master’s tools” that black feminist Audre Lorde wrote “will never dismantle the master’s house.” Since nobody ever believes me that she really writes this, here’s the quote:
The critical-thinking tradition is concerned primarily with epistemic adequacy. To be critical is to show good judgment in recognizing when arguments are faulty, assertions lack evidence, truth claims appeal to unreliable sources, or concepts are sloppily crafted and applied. For critical thinkers, the problem is that people fail to “examine the assumptions, commitments, and logic of daily life… the basic problem is irrational, illogical, and unexamined living.” In this tradition sloppy claims can be identified and fixed by learning to apply the tools of formal and informal logic correctly.
Critical pedagogy begins from a different set of assumptions rooted in the neo-Marxian literature on critical theory commonly associated with the Frankfurt School. Here, the critical learner is someone who is empowered and motivated to seek justice and emancipation. Critical pedagogy regards the claims that students make in response to social-justice issues not as propositions to be assessed for their truth value, but as expressions of power that function to re-inscribe and perpetuate social inequalities. Its mission is to teach students ways of identifying and mapping how power shapes our understandings of the world. This is the first step toward resisting and transforming social injustices. By interrogating the politics of knowledge-production, this tradition also calls into question the uses of the accepted critical-thinking toolkit to determine epistemic adequacy. To extend Audre Lorde’s classic metaphor, the tools of the critical-thinking tradition (for example, validity, soundness, conceptual clarity) cannot dismantle the master’s house: they can temporarily beat the master at his own game, but they can never bring about any enduring structural change. They fail because the critical thinker’s toolkit is commonly invoked in particular settings, at particular times to reassert power: those adept with the tools often use them to restore an order that assures their comfort. They can be habitually invoked to defend our epistemic home terrains. (pp. 881–882)
Here, the “master’s tools” are explicitly named by Bailey as including soundness and validity of argument, conceptual clarity, and epistemic adequacy (i.e., knowing what you’re talking about) and can easily be extended to science, reason, and rationality, and thus also to conversation and debate. The “master’s house” is the “organizational schemata” laid out by Kristie Dotson as the prevailing knowing system. Her claim is that these tools—essentially all of the liberal ones—cannot dismantle liberal societies from within, which is their goal, because they are the very tools that build and keep building it.
Bailey’s point is clear: the usual tools by which we identify provisional truths and settle scholarly disagreements are part of the hegemonically dominant system that, by definition, cannot be sufficiently radical to create real revolutionary change (a “third-order” change, as Dotson has it). That is, they can’t reorder society in the radical way they deem necessary. The belief, as both scholars explain in different ways, is that to play by the existing rules (like conversation and debate as a means to better understand society and advance truth) is to automatically be co-opted by those rules and to support their legitimacy, beside one deeper problem that’s even more significant.
The deeper, more significant aspect of this problem is that by participating in something like conversation or debate about scholarly, ethical, or other disagreements, not only do the radical Critical Social Justice scholars have to tacitly endorse the existing system, they also have to be willing to agree to participate in a system in which they truly believe they cannot win. This isn’t the same as saying they know they’d lose the debate because they know their methods are weak. It’s saying that they believe their tools are extremely good but not welcome in the currently dominant system, which is a different belief based on different assumptions. Again, their game is not our game, and they don’t want to play our game at all; they want to disrupt and dismantle it.
Their analysis would insist that their methods aren’t weak; it’s that the dominant system treats them unfairly. By being forced to participate in the dominant system, they therefore believe, they’re being cheated of the full force of their cause. To them, if we set the legitimization of the system part aside, to engage in scholarly conversation or debate is like a boxer stepping into an MMA match in which kicks, punches, throwing, and grappling are all on the table for the MMA fighter whereas gloved punches are the only thing the boxer is allowed to use, only far worse.
Debate and conversation, especially when they rely upon reason, rationality, science, evidence, epistemic adequacy, and other Enlightenment-based tools of persuasion are the very thing they think produced injustice in the world in the first place. Those are not their methods and they reject them. Their methods are, instead, storytelling and counter-storytelling, appealing to emotions and subjectively interpreted lived experience, and problematizing arguments morally, on their moral terms. Because they know the dominant liberal order values those things sense far less than rigor, evidence, and reasoned argument, they believe the whole conversation and debate game is intrinsically rigged against them in a way that not only leads to their certain loss but also that props up the existing system and then further delegitimizes the approaches they advance in their place. Critical Social Justice Theorists genuinely believe getting away from the “master’s tools” is necessary to break the hegemony of the dominant modes of thought. Debate is a no-win for them.
Therefore, you’ll find them resistant to engaging in debate because they fully believe that engaging in debate or other kinds of conversation forces them to do their work in a system that has been rigged so that they cannot possibly win, no matter how well they do. They literally believe, in some sense, that the system itself hates people like them and has always been rigged to keep them and their views out. Even the concepts of civil debate (instead of screaming, reeeee!) and methodological rigor (instead of appealing to subjective claims and emotions) are considered this way, as approaches that only have superiority within the dominant paradigm, which was in turn illegitimately installed through political processes designed to advance the interests of powerful white, Western men (especially rich ones) through the exclusion of all others. And, yes, they really think this way.
For adherents to Critical Social Justice Theory, then, there’s just no point to engaging in conversation or debate with people with whom they disagree. They reject the premise that such a thing is possible at all, because what is discussed or debated are, if changeable, in some sense matters of opinion. They don’t see the world this way at all, though. “Racism is not a matter of opinion” is, after all, one of their thought-stopping mantras. For them, disagreements across a stratifying axis of social power are a matter of being, experience, reality, and even life and death. These are not matters to be debated; they’re far too important for that.
2. A Metaphysics of Discourses
Secondly, the organizing principle of their worldview is that two things structure society: discourses and systems of power maintained by discourses. Regarding the systems of power, their underlying belief is genuinely that of the Critical Theorists: society is divided into oppressors versus oppressed, and the oppressors condition the beliefs and culture of society such that neither they nor the oppressed are aware of the realities of their oppression. That is, everyone who isn’t “Woke” to the realities of systemic oppression lives in a form of false consciousness. Members of dominant groups have internalized their dominance by accepting it as normal, natural, earned, and justified and therefore are unaware of the oppression they create. Members of “minoritized” groups have often internalized their oppression by accepting it as normal, natural, and just the way things are and are therefore unaware of the extent of the oppression they suffer or its true sources. In both cases, though in different ways and to different ends, the falsely conscious need to be awakened to a critical consciousness, i.e., become Critical Theorists.
Adherents to this worldview will not want to have conversations or debate with people who do not possess a critical consciousness because there’s basically no point to doing such a thing. Unless they can wake their debate or conversation partner up to Wokeness on the spot, they’d see it as though they’re talking to zombies who can’t even think for themselves. Unwoke people are stuck thinking in the ways dominant and elite powers in society have socialized them into thinking (you could consider this a kind of conditioning or brainwashing by the very machinations of society and how it thinks). We will return to this aspect of the problem further down in the essay.
For now, we’ll turn our attention to how that socialization (into accepting the dominant views) is alleged to happen, which is through dominant discourses. The Critical Social Justice worldview holds that systemic power structures society, and systemic power is a function of which “discourses” are viewed as legitimate and which aren’t. That discourse-legitimation process, which is roughly what is described in the section above, is viewed from within Theory as a set of wholly political decisions, mostly because of the Theorizing of the French postmodernist Michel Foucault.
Foucault held, among his many ideas, that whether or not a truth claim is actually true or not is mostly irrelevant because the interesting thing to focus upon is the political process that allows certain people (say, scientists) to be regarded as recognized authenticators of truths. This process is what shapes the prevailing discourses and thus defines, as Foucault had it, a “regime of truth” or “episteme” that dictates what is and isn’t considered true (whether it is true or not) and thus how society will be organized politically, socially, and practically. In particular, it explains what ideas will be considered accepted and acceptable and which will be considered unacceptable, unthinkable, or crazy. In this way, power, as “power/knowledge” works through everyone at all times, and this is the backbone of how Foucault framed the world.
Again, it is difficult to express from within the liberal paradigm (to their point, I guess) just how fully and profoundly they believe this. Their view constructs, in fact, a metaphysics of discourses that, in some sense, becomes the operative mythology underlying all of society and its operation. Because of the already critical orientation of the postmodernists and then the further amplification of taking on Critical Theory much more fully later, Critical Social Justice views this metaphysics of discourses in a very particular way with regard to the moral valence of how discourses are constructed.
This, by the way, outlines what Helen Pluckrose and I called “the postmodern knowledge principle” and “the postmodern political principle” in our forthcoming book, Cynical Theories. The knowledge principle is that knowledge is socially constructed and the result of political processes, and therefore objective truth is unattainable and irrelevant except in that some people make unjustified claims upon having access to it. The political principle is that these unjustified claims create a form of hegemonic dominance that needs to be deconstructed and dismantled through manipulations within the discourses at the level of the meanings of ideas.
You really do have to understand this like a religious view, very much like a Holy Spirit that is the Word, where the “Word” is the prevailing discourses, and the “Spirit” isn’t really holy: it’s systems of power and attempts at their disruption. Power is viewed to work through all people at all times as a result of the discourses that they accept and participate in, and so participating in conversation or debate with people who uphold the dominant discourses causes that power to work through you as well. That makes you complicit in the dominant discourses, even if you think you reject them, which makes having a conversation with the wrong person tantamount to a sin. This attitude is overwhelmingly present in the critical whiteness literature, which devotes a considerable portion of all of its proliferation to pointing out that white progressives who try to help out are the worst kind of racists because they no longer think that they’re equally significant conduits of the problematic dominant discourses and systems of society.
That’s a bit complicated, I admit, and so a simplification of this idea is that adherents to Critical Social Justice see discourses—ways we think it is legitimate to talk about things—as the true fabric of reality and thus the core site of ethical consideration. This is their mythology, in a nutshell. As such, they will not be willing to participate in any process that reinforces, maintains, upholds, reproduces, or legitimizes the unjustly dominant discourses, as they see them. Supporting those is, in fact, just about the highest sin one can commit in the Woke faith. The discourses must instead be engineered into a state of perfection—God’s Kingdom through Perfect Language—and it would not be permissible to engage in any behavior or process that allows oppression to be spoken from or into our discourses. Conversation and debate with people who speak from and in support of the dominant discourses would certainly therefore be considered highly problematic, and anyone who participates in it intentionally or even neglectfully would similarly be problematic.
So, their view of conversation and debate in this regard is one that considers it with extreme reticence and caution. Foucault said that it’s not that everything is bad but that everything is dangerous, and under the “metaphysics of discourses” that they’ve adopted and adapted from him, they would see conversation with people who uphold the dominant discourses as profoundly dangerous, not just for themselves, lest they be tempted and lose purity, but for others who will hear it and thus maintain the very power structures they think must be fundamentally dismantled. This fear that people will speak the wrong way and uphold “hate speech” or some such is so profound that they will be very wary of engaging in conversation or debate with people who disagree with them on principle, even with all other concerns set aside.
3. No True Disagreement
Thirdly, adding to this is a theme we draw out significantly in the eighth chapter of Cynical Theories: they believe all disagreement with them to be illegitimate. If we followed from Dotson in the paper named above and another slightly earlier one (2011) about “epistemic violence,” it could be pinned on what she calls “pernicious ignorance.” Robin DiAngelo would call it “white fragility” to disagree. Alison Bailey refers to it as an attempt to preserve one’s privilege under the kind of term George Carlin lived to make fun of: “privilege-preserving epistemic pushback” (four words, twelve syllables, one hyphen). Further, Bailey said all attempts to criticize Critical Social Justice thought, because they come from that “critical thinking” and not the “critical theory” tradition (within which they’d obviously agree), generate “shadow texts” that follow along but don’t truly engage (in the correctly “critical” way; i.e., agreement with her). Barbara Applebaum said similar in her 2010 book, Being White, Being Good, wherein she explains that the only legitimate way to disagree with Critical Social Justice education in the classroom is to ask questions for clarification until one agrees (which, you might notice, isn’t disagreeing at all).
In general, as mentioned a bit earlier in the essay, if you disagree, you either have false consciousness or the willful intention to oppress, and so your disagreement isn’t genuine. Only disagreement that comes from a Critical Theory perspective would be genuine, but this isn’t actually disagreement with the Woke worldview, only with superficial aspects of how it is playing out. The Woke view genuinely is that unless you agree with the Woke worldview, you haven’t disagreed with the Woke worldview in an authentic way, and therefore your disagreement cannot be legitimate. Read it again: unless you actually agree, you didn’t disagree correctly (cue Jim Carrey as the karate teacher defending against the knife attacker).
Now put yourself in the mind of someone who really thinks this way. The Critical Social Justice view of their conversation or debate partner is literally someone who is willfully, actively, or perniciously misunderstanding and misrepresenting all of their arguments in order to preserve their own dominant status and the system in which they are unjustly granted that dominance. Would you debate with someone you know would only be a bad-faith actor who is operating not in the interest of the truth but instead in their own selfish political interests? Not unless cornered. But this is how the Critical Social Justice advocate thinks about anyone who disagrees with them, in addition to seeing them as utterly morally degenerate.
4. Guilt by Association with Racists
Fourthly, the Critical Social Justice view sees people who occupy positions of systemic power and privilege and yet who refuse to acknowledge and work to dismantle them, to the full satisfaction of the Critical Social Justice Theorists, to be utterly morally reprehensible. They are racists. They are misogynists. They hate trans people and want to deny their very existence. They are bigots. They are fascists. They are “literal” Nazis. Not only that, they are willfully so, and their main objective is to defend and spread their hateful ideology in the world. If you truly believe this about the people you’ve been asked to have a conversation with, would you be about to help them do that by giving them a platform and lending your own imprimatur to them? Of course not. Such views are not even to be tolerated, much less entertained, engaged with, platformed, or amplified.
Furthermore, because of the theories of complicity in systemic evils that live at the heart of Theory, such a stain is automatically contagious, in addition to whatever real damage it does to further its advancement into the world. As they tweet, so they are: “ten people at a table with one Nazi is eleven Nazis at a table.” And not only are they supposed to endorse the platforming of that by sharing a stage with people they see this way, but they’re supposed to do it in ways that the dominant system, which is all of those things as well and their guarantor, approves of and advances its own interests through. These horrible ways include civil conversation and debate, which aren’t happening.
To give you some idea of just how extreme they are in their fear of being associated with people “on the wrong side of history,” there is a (somewhat fringe) concept within the Critical Social Justice worldview called “non-consensual co-platforming” (two words, nine syllables, one hyphen). What this concept describes is the following situation. Imagine that a Critical Social Justice Theorist were to publish an essay in the New York Times Opinion column this month, and a couple of months from now, I were invited to do so and did. Now we’re both people who have essays published in the New York Times Opinion column. The logic of “non-consensual co-platforming” would be that the editors of that column did a bad by putting me, a known undesirable, in the Opinion pages where there is also a Woke purist, obviously without having first got her consent to have been “co-platformed” with me in the same publication. (This example is rare, but more common is the same claim made about being platformed to speak at the same conference.) Now, the Woke purist is in the unpleasant situation of having been published in a place that is willing to sully its own reputation later by the publication of some deviant rascal. This is how seriously they take the stain of guilt by association.
The Woke ideology is so sensitive to the moral taint of being associated with moral undesirables that—again, especially in the context of a conference lineup—they believe that stain of co-platforming is contagious even in this extraordinarily distant way. If you think that people who think this way about moral contagion are going to get on stage and have a conversation with you, you’re positively out of your mind.
5. They’re Too Tired
As a fifth and final point, since this is getting pretty long already, remember that Critical Social Justice activists tell us more or less constantly how exhausting it is to fight this constant uphill battle in which no one takes them seriously (read: fight shadows of their own nightmarish projection). They tell us constantly about the high emotional labor costs of doing the “work” they do (and never being taken seriously for it). To invite them to a public conversation or debate is to ask them to get exploited in this way for other people’s benefit by getting up on stage in a dominance-approved paradigm with a bad-faith moral monster who just wants his opportunity to reinforce the very dominance that exhausts them in front of an audience who not only doesn’t but can’t actually get it, unless they already do. Again, that’s not happening. Even if very handsomely (read: ridiculously and exorbitantly) paid for their “emotional labor” to subject themselves to this situation, the other four points make it a nonstarter (and would drive up the price to basically literally infinity).
One of the biggest mistakes we keep making as liberals who do value debate, dialogue, conversation, reason, evidence, epistemic adequacy, fairness, civility, charity of argument, and all these other “master’s tools” is that we can expect that advocates of Critical Social Justice also value them. They don’t. Or, we make the mistake that we can possibly pin Critical Social Justice advocates into having to defend their views in debate or conversation. We can’t.
These principles and values are rejected to their very roots within the Critical Social Justice worldview, and so the request for an advocate to have a debate or conversation with someone who disagrees will, to the degree they have adopted the Critical Social Justice Theoretical ideology/faith, be a complete nonstarter. It’s literally a request to do the exact opposite of everything their ideology instructs with regard to how the world and “systemic oppression” within it operates—to participate in their own oppression and maintain oppression of the people they claim to speak for.
These facts about the Critical Social Justice ideology extend from the microcosm of engaging in debate and conversation to each of those specific “master’s tools” a—science, reason, epistemic adequacy, civility, etc.—every bit as much as they do to the whole system that these tools combine to form: liberalism in the Modern era. This is a system that advocates of Critical Social Justice repeatedly tell us must be dismantled in the sparking of a “critical” revolution that replaces the whole of it, including its basic epistemology and ethics, with Critical Theory.
The hard truth is this: if you don’t yet understand this, you don’t know the fight we’re in or have the slightest idea what to do about it.