A few years ago I was engaged in a discussion with a married couple, both of whom were professors of the humanities. I asked about the increasingly stifling intellectual environment on campus. They glanced at each other with unease, and hesitantly agreed that it was a problem. This was clearly a discussion they had in the privacy of their bedroom. Pushy as I am, I asked if professors and students could even broach the role of culture in explaining differences among groups. This time I got a look of utter horror. I had hit a third rail, which, in earshot of the wrong people, could be a career extinction event.
Woke ideology has achieved a near total victory in crowding out cultural explanations for disparity in the world. It has become difficult if not impossible to speak about the effects of cultural differentiation among subgroups in the West, among rich and poor countries, or among regions of the world. No other question has plagued humanity more and caused greater resentment than why some people have more money, power and success than other people. The woke have successfully branded cultural explanations as racism.
The reason woke ideology was so dead set on de-legitimizing cultural arguments is that the woke want to disempower the people in charge and empower historically marginalized groups. Cultural explanations get in the way. The woke needed to demonize the cultural argument because it was the only other explanation for why society is the way it is besides structure. The cultural argument weakens the case for the grand shift in power that the woke pine for. If the cultural argument has any validity whatsoever, it means that differences among groups are at least partially a function of varied cultural traits and that people in power might not always be holding others down. Entertaining such a complex mix of factors is just not going to spark the desired change in power. The woke project requires an ideological monopoly.
In banishing culture, the woke prohibitionists leave only one viable explanation: structure. If you can’t explain disparity by differences in culture, then you are left to explain it by differences in power.In the words of Andrew Sullivan, “Woke activists have brilliantly managed to construct a crude moral binary to pressure liberals into submission. And it’s worked like a charm.”
Classical liberals barely put up a fight. We got to this point because for many years non-woke liberals outside academia rarely ventured into theories of disparity and seldom challenged woke structural explanations. We supported social policies that address discrepancies in wealth and achievement but tended to be agnostic as to why there are differences in the first place. Woke ideologues, on the other hand, came to the party fully equipped with a theory of disparity. And either because many liberals had not thought enough about the roots of disparity, or were conflict-averse and didn’t want to be labelled racists, we gave away the store to woke idealogues.
The successful discrediting of cultural explanations is a singularly impressive feat considering its utter absurdity: that differences in cultures cannot and do not explain any differences in economic and social outcomes.
Here are four fallacies they are committing:
- The Fallacy of Cultural Ubiquity. The prohibition on cultural explanations must be counterintuitive to nearly everyone. I imagine that even the most ardent woke ideologue would, if they took a truth serum, admit to the influence of culture. You mean to tell me that people all over the world or in a given Western country who live differently, view the world differently, speak differently, approach life and work differently, experienced history differently, and think differently about gender and sex—that none of this boundless variation—has any bearing on why certain societies are richer and poorer or why certain subgroups are more or less successful in a given society? The argument is absurd on the face of it.
- The Fallacy of the Dominant Culture. Woke ideology treats all culture as irrelevant except that of the dominant culture. Structure cannot explain the behavior of the dominant class because the dominant class is at the top of the food chain. The only other explanation for how the dominant class behaves is culture. The woke do think it’s perfectly legitimate and even imperative to criticize the culture of the oppressor. It’s fine, for example, to talk about “white fragility” or “toxic masculinity”—the machismo culture of cis-men—or “rape culture.” But how can culture not be a factor at all for marginalized groups but be the sole factor for dominant groups? Are they really saying when structure comes to play culture goes away?
- The Fallacy of Selective Agency. If structure really is an all encompassing force, shouldn’t it also explain the vitality of the Black community? As Thomas Burgess wrote in Quillette, “if whiteness is responsible for black vices, isn’t it also responsible for black virtues? Wouldn’t all culture be its creation, and not just the undesirable parts? This is the logical conclusion of this kind of thinking, and it is what happens when you cede omnipotence to the oppressor. When you create a puppet master, you create puppets missing some of the most basic attributes of being human.”
- The Fallacy of Differential Outcomes. If “white supremacy” is truly the all powerful force woke ideologues make it out to be, why do so many other ethnic populations substantially outperform whites? One would think that in a white supremacist society whites would be allotted such advantages as higher average incomes and higher levels of educational achievement than other groups. Many White Americans are, in fact, doing poorly. In addition, some African immigrant groups that came to the U.S. under disadvantageous conditions have on average done better than American blacks and segments of the Hispanic population. Wouldn’t a white supremacist system subjugate African immigrants too?
Pointing out and dismantling these four fallacies can help make room for cultural arguments. We just need to make them.