The inexorable rise of wokeism – the culture war and cancel culture – appears unstoppable mainly because its opposition remains incoherent and fragmented. In one sense, this is inevitable.
The main protagonists of the culture war very rarely lay out their cause systematically.
As leading intellectual Frank Furedi points out in his new book, ‘100 Years of Identity Crisis: Culture War Over Socialisation’, there is no explicit philosophy or ideology of culture war. Instead, it is “an ideology without a name” –a century-long process of the instrumental application of science to problems of morality, politics and culture. The loss of faith in the Enlightenment and the intellectual legacy of Western civilisation over time, particularly by the elite, unleashed a focus on changing ‘obsolescent’ attitudes. This inevitably challenged the values that underpinned existing attitudes. As Furedi reveals, through the gradual exportation of this project of contesting so-called obsolescent attitudes, from institutions of socialisation to the rest of society, society has been plunged into a permanent conflict over values – the battle we know today as the ‘culture war’.
What makes this even more challenging to grasp is that much of the debate is couched in terms of yesterday’s political framework of left versus right. This is misleading because today’s cultural conflicts, be they arguments over statues or gender identity, coincide with the erosion of traditional ideological differences.
The example of the rise and fall of the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), a term first popularised in 2018 by Bari Weiss – then an editor and writer at the New York Times – demonstrates this clearly.
The IDW was an informal collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades, and media personalities brought together by what they correctly understood as a grievous assault on freedom of speech. They viewed the new American ‘left’ — with its fetish for diversity, intersectionality and political correctness — as responsible for infecting higher education with an authoritarian culture of censorship, the suppression of unpopular views on issues like race, sex and gender, which they contended was tearing American society apart.
A common or coherent political outlook did not define the IDW. As Weiss pointed out, the core members had very little in common politically.
Core members like Eric Weinstein (who jokingly coined the term ‘Intellectual Dark Web’) was a mathematician and managing director of Thiel Capital. His brother and sister-in-law, the evolutionary biologists Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, and comedian and media commentator, Dave Rubin, (all supporters of Bernie Saunders) found themselves in the company of Jordan Peterson, the psychologist and best-selling author; the conservative commentators Ben Shapiro (an editor-at-large of Breitbart News who was an anti-Trump conservative) and Douglas Murray; Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and outspoken Hillary voter; as well as Maajid Nawaz, the former Islamist turned anti-extremist activist; and the feminists Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Christina Hoff Sommers.
They all found a temporary home in the shared experience of having been marginalised or cancelled and by a courageous desire to stand up to the new authoritarians.
But being united in opposition does not automatically create a unified outlook about what to do in the future.
Some members, including Bari Weiss (who resigned from the New York Times last year), recently unveiled the University of Austin (UATX), an important private liberal arts college in Austin, Texas, explicitly dedicated to academic freedom and open inquiry. It has attracted the recently cancelled Professor Kathleen Stock to its faculty.
While such initiatives are crucial, other members of the IDW have fractured over the future. In an Unherd broadcast, Dave Rubin suggested the movement had already split – between those who feel it necessary to fight within the institutions dominated by the wokeocracy, and those who wish to forge alliances outside of them. Unhelpfully, this was characterised as his turn to the ‘right’. In truth, there is a place for both approaches.
But what Rubin suggests is important and represents one approach that is worthy of consideration. He aims to address the vast majority of conservative Americans with a small ‘c’ – those Americans who want to conserve the past, uphold values like the family or nationhood, and cherish ideals like equality and freedom of speech. These values are precisely what the wokeocracy regard as needing to be challenged or ditched. Rubin’s commitment to free speech is vital in this regard.
Yet, this principle is treated ambivalently even by some of the staunchest anti-woke warriors, like Jordan Peterson. Despite fiercely opposing hate speech legislation and campus censorship, Peterson launched a $1.5million defamation suit against Wilfrid Laurier University because some staff compared him to Hitler. It seems free speech is not as holy among some of the IDW as it first appeared.
The problem is that being anti-woke is not a coherent political outlook. The IDW was defined by what it stood against, not what it stood for. That might be the necessary starting point. The critical struggle for the future requires abandoning yesterday’s political frameworks as a starting point. The battle is not to validate past positions but to clarify what values humanity needs to uphold human agency in the 21st century.
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