As the Great Awokening accelerates, many people are wondering how to make sense of our rapidly-changing culture. Safe spaces, deplatforming, cancellations, preferred pronouns, and decolonized curricula have been standard fare on college campuses for several years. But, as Andrew Sullivan recently quipped, we all live on campus now. Ideas that were once confined to progressive universities are making their way into elementary schools, multinational corporations, professional sports leagues, and local churches. How should we understand the brave new world we’re living in? In this article, I’ll review three books that explain our cultural moment: Pluckrose and Lindsay’s Cynical Theories in terms of ideology, Manning and Campbell’s The Rise of Victimhood Culture in terms of sociology, and Lukianoff’s and Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind in terms of psychology.
Cynical Theories is an excellent introduction to the basic ideas at the heart of today’s “woke” movement, which draws on critical race theory, intersectional feminism, and Queer Theory. While these various critical social theories can ultimately be traced back to Karl Marx and the Neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt School, Pluckrose and Lindsay also see a heavy dependence on postmodern scholars like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. They argue that the two principles underlying modern-day identity politics are:
“The postmodern knowledge principle: Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism… with one important proviso: under applied postmodern thought, identity and oppression based on identity are treated as known features of objective reality” (Cynical Theories, p. 59)
“The postmodern political principle: A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.” (p. 59)
These two basic principles have been used for decades to conceptualize race, class, gender, and sexuality. However, in the last 10 years, many different disciplines have coalesced under an “intersectional” framework to produce an overarching Theory of Everything for the social sciences, sometimes known as Critical Social Justice.
Critical Social Justice teaches that dominant cultural groups (whites, men, heterosexuals, the rich, etc…) impose their values on culture to justify their oppression of subordinate cultural groups (people of color, women, LGBTQ people, the poor, etc…). These oppressive values, norms, and systems are the cause of our social ills but are difficult to detect since they are accepted as “natural,” “objective” and “common sense.” Fortunately, the “lived experience” of marginalized groups enables them to recognize the unjust nature of the status quo, giving them authority to dismantle the structures that subjugate them.
In a key passage, the authors summarize the fundamental outlook of the woke movement:
The belief that society is structured of specific but largely invisible identity-based systems of power and privilege that construct knowledge via ways of talking about things is now considered by social justice scholars and activists to be an objectively true statement about the organizing principle of society. Does this sound like a metanarrative? That’s because it is. Social Justice scholarship and its educators and activists see these principles and conclusions as The Truth According to Social Justice—and they treat it as though they have discovered the analogue of the germ theory of disease, but for bigotry and oppression.… Consequently, we now have Social Justice texts—forming a kind of Gospel of Social Justice—that express, with absolute certainty, that all white people are racist, all men are sexist, racism and sexism are systems that can exist and oppress absent even a single person with racist or sexist intentions or beliefs …, sex is not biological and exists on a spectrum, language can be literal violence, denial of gender identity is killing people, the wish to remedy disability and obesity is hateful, and everything needs to be decolonized. (pp. 182–83)
Not only has Critical Social Justice largely conquered the humanities, it has begun to take root in the hard sciences, in medicine, and in mathematics. However, Critical Social Justice is also rapidly transforming the moral structure of society. This phenomenon is the topic of Campbell and Manning’s The Rise of Victimhood Culture.
At the beginning of their book, Campbell and Manning explain that the moral culture of a society can be placed into two broad categories: honor cultures and dignity cultures.
In honor cultures, honor is “a kind of status attached to physical bravery and the unwillingness to be dominated by others” (The Rise of Victimhood Culture, p. 12). In such cultures, people are “often expected to display their bravery by engaging in violent retaliation against those who offend them” because “one’s reputation… makes one honorable”; to not fight back against insults or challenges is “a kind of moral failing” (p. 12-13). Appeals to legal authority are frowned upon because they lower one’s standing in the community. Honor cultures are “prevalent throughout the Arab world [and] among street gangs and other groups of poor young men” (p. 14). But “historically, as state authority has expanded and reliance on the law has increased, honor culture has given way to… a culture of dignity” (p. 14).
In contrast to honor culture, dignity culture assumes that all people have “a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others [and which] exists independently of what others think.” Consequently, members of this culture are “less touchy.” They commend having a “thick skin” and an “ethic of self-restraint” and are hesitant to insult others, whether intentionally or not (p. 14). Dignity cultures “prescribe direct but non-violent actions” when conflicts occur. They allow people to “use the law without shame [but] not necessarily as [a] first resort” lest they be deemed “quarrelsome.” (p. 14-15)
During the 1800s, the United States followed the trajectory from honor culture to dignity culture along with most of the Western world. However, Campbell and Manning posit that a culture of victimhood is now emerging in the United States that departs from both of its predecessors. Victim culture is unlike dignity culture because it rejects the “distinction between violent offenses and merely verbal ones.” Even words are seen as violence. Yet victim culture is also unlike honor culture because it valorizes weakness and values appeals to authority. Indeed, the main feature that sets victim culture apart from either honor or dignity culture is how it insists on “highlighting rather than downplaying the complainants’ victimhood” (p. 16).
Within victim culture, victimhood does not merely provoke sympathy; it actually provides “a kind of moral status based on suffering and neediness.” The more victimization someone can claim, the more social status they accrue. The flip side of this equation is that “if victimhood is a virtue, privilege is a vice. [Privilege] has the same relationship to victimhood that cowardice does to honor and admonitions to ‘check your privilege’ are analogous to the shaming of cowards” (p. 22-23). Within a victim culture, institutions are redesigned to cater to the safety of victims, who are encouraged to seek assistance from an ever-growing bureaucracy dedicated to their protection.
In the remainder of the book, the authors show how victim culture is increasingly manifested in microaggressions, trigger warnings, safe spaces, false accusations, and moral panics. But where The Rise Of Victimhood Culture examines these changes within society at large, Lukianoff and Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind zooms in on individuals, focusing especially on the effects that our culture’s shifting norms are having on people’s mental health.
If Campell and Manning are correct, then some people are encouraged to adopt a victim identity despite the fact that they are not victims in the traditional sense of the word. However, even these individuals are the victims of bad ideas, ideas whose consequences are being felt at both cultural and personal levels.
In The Coddling of the American Mind, Lukianoff and Haidt argue that, as a culture, we have embraced three Great Untruths which are undermining our mental health and our social cohesion:
1. The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
3. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. (The Coddling of the American Mind, p. 4)
The Untruth of Fragility insists that we must be shielded from all “trauma.” Unfortunately, “trauma” has undergone tremendous concept creep over the last few decades. Whereas the term once referred to an event “outside the range of usual human experience” that would “evoke significant symptoms of distress in almost anyone,” it is now defined as anything “experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful” (p. 25-26). The upshot of this first principle is that we must at all costs protect individuals, especially children, from anything that would make them unhappy lest they suffer lasting damage.
The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning assumes that our feelings are always reliable guides to reality. This untruth is illustrated by the concept of “microaggressions,” defined as “commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of color” (p. 40). Lukianoff and Haidt point out that many commonly cited examples of “microaggressions” do not necessarily convey or express negative stereotypes but instead “hinge on the fact that listeners could choose to interpret the statement or question in a way that makes them feel insulted or marginalized.” Grounding offense in the subject’s feelings rather than in the actual intention of the speaker or the objective content of the speech makes people more and more sensitive to smaller and smaller perceived slights.
The Untruth of Us-Versus-Them sorts reality into two groups: “victim and oppressor. Everyone is placed into one box or the other” (p. 57). Lukianoff and Haidt believe that human beings are hard-wired to identify with tribes and groups. However, that tendency can yield two very different approaches: “common-humanity identity politics” as exemplified by Martin Luther King and “common-enemy identity politics” as exemplified by Adolph Hitler. Practitioners of the former “humanize their opponents and appeal to their humanity while also applying political pressure in other ways” while the latter “tries to unite a coalition using the psychology embedded in the Bedouin proverb ‘I against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world'” (p. 76). The theory of intersectionality, which “teaches students to see multiple axes of privilege and oppression,” can encourage common-enemy thinking over common-humanity thinking since it emphasizes differences over commonalities.
One of the book’s most profound insights is the recognition that these Three Great Untruths function as a kind of “reverse cognitive behavioral therapy” (CBT). CBT is a very successful method of treatment for anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and a host of other psychological problems. It teaches patients to recognize cognitive distortions and to reprogram their brain to “create different, more helpful habitual beliefs” (p. 37). What’s remarkable is that many of these cognitive distortions are beliefs which are now being encouraged and promoted by our culture, including:
“Emotional reasoning: Letting your feelings guide your interpretation…
Overgeneralizing: Perceiving a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident…
Mind Reading: Assuming you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts…
Labeling: Assigning global negative traits to yourself or others…
Blaming: Focusing on the other person as the source of your negative feelings; [refusing] to take responsibility for changing yourself” (p. 38)
Rather than working to dismantle these distortions, our culture tends to protect them, valorize them, and exacerbate them, creating people who are increasingly paranoid, anxious, and depressed.
To understand exactly what is happening, it helps to consider the complementary perspectives of all three books together.
The Perfect Storm
Combining these three books provides us with a very robust picture of the pathologies we’re seeing in the “woke” movement today.
For example, “Us Versus Them” thinking is not just a free-floating meme; it follows necessarily from Critical Social Justice’s view of the social binary. Students see the world as a battle of good people versus evil people because CSJ teaches that the world is a battle of good people versus evil people. Whites, men, heterosexuals, and the rich are all oppressor groups and people of color, women, LGBTQ people, and the poor are oppressed.
Victimhood culture is encouraged because CSJ grants certain individuals intrinsic authority and insight on the basis of their oppression.
Microaggressions take on such tremendous significance because CSJ teaches that they are indications of the largely hidden operations of hegemonic power, by which dominant groups oppress others.
Our embrace of “safetyism” (treating safety as a “sacred value” which makes people “unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns”, Lukianoff and Haidt, p. 30) is part of the reason that people have been so eager to embrace the ideas of CSJ: it plays into our overwhelming fear of “harming” people, especially victims of oppression.
Of course, I’m not the only one who recognizes the connection between these ideas. Lukianoff, Haidt, Campbell, and Manning both note the contribution that critical theory and intersectionality have made to our current cultural woes. Campbell, Manning, Lindsay, and Pluckrose cite Lukianoff’s and Haidt’s work explicitly. And all three books discuss many of the same cultural artifacts, including the meltdown at Evergreen State and the ordeal of Nicholas and Erika Christakis at Yale. But the books’ different perspectives provide different insights into how “wokeness” can be combatted.
First, Cynical Theories shows that “wokeness” needs to be countered at the level of ideas. Rather than dismissing the various social ills studied by critical race theorists and feminists, Pluckrose and Lindsay acknowledge them but argue they are better addressed by classical liberalism than by Critical Social Justice. CSJ tends to offer one-dimensional solutions (“Defund the Police!” “Ban the Box!” “Abolish Testing!”) based on a flattened story of oppression and liberation rather than an honest account the complex interplay of history, culture, individual choice, and ethics. It shuts down discourse, branding all dissenters as racist, sexist bigots. Here, it’s worth asking people pointedly whether they want to do good, or merely feel good. If their ultimate concern is solving social problems, then they have to be willing to look at the evidence and listen to counterarguments. For this to occur, classical liberal principles like free dialogue, robust public debate, and open exchange of ideas are mandatory.
Which brings me to my second point, one that is made repeatedly by The Coddling of the American Mind: what is good for people is not always what affirms their feelings. In our culture of expressive individualism, this claim is secular blasphemy, but it’s undeniably true. Cognitive behavioral therapy works precisely because our feelings can mislead us and produce in us all kinds of harmful, self-destructive behavior. Moreover, this claim is not the invention of 20th-century psychologists, but (as Lukianoff and Haidt note) is the consistent witness of philosophical and religious traditions stretching back millennia. In a wrong-headed desire to be affirming, sensitive, and empathetic, we have created a generation of children (and many adults) who are paralyzed, filled with anxiety, struggling with depression, and unable to cope with the inevitable “slings and arrows” of life. Many aren’t even willing to have their beliefs contradicted. Microaggression theory, especially as it’s conceptualized within disciplines like Critical Race Theory, is not just unhelpful; it’s deeply harmful.
Finally, The Rise of Victimhood Culture shows that appropriate financial and social pressure may be the most effective tools for exorcising wokeness from public and private institutions. In their book, Campbell and Manning point out that while campus “cancellation” and “deplatforming” is most often enacted by the Left on right-wing speakers, there have been notable examples of left-wing academics being cancelled by the Right. The only reason that there are far more cases of left-on-right cancelation is the overwhelming liberal slant of the academy (the liberal-to-conservative ratio is as high as 30:1 in some departments). But the fact that left-wing academics do get cancelled when they provoke enough public ire suggests that university administrators may be far less motivated by ideological fanaticism and far more motivated by fear of bad press. For this reason, recent lawsuits on behalf of Asian-American students, anti-Critical Race Theory legislation, and embarrassing leaks of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training documents may do more to stem the tide of “wokeness” than reasoned argument. If “woke capitalism” never had a real interest in social issues and was only hoping to boost market share, then bad publicity may be enough to make universities and corporations reverse course.
As an evangelical, I’d like to add one more brief note for fellow Christians. Dr. Pat Sawyer and I have argued elsewhere that Christianity has resources to fight Critical Social Justice that secular approaches lack. However, Christians can also employ the strategies suggested by these books. Christianity can fight wokeness at the ideological level, offering doctrines of human solidarity based on the Imago Dei, our common sinfulness, and our common salvation in Christ. It can fight wokeness at the psychological level, offering Christians a better identity grounded in our adoption as beloved children of God. And it can fight wokeness at the cultural level, insisting that all humans do indeed possess inherent dignity and that all of us should be long-suffering, slow to take offense, and quick to forgive as we have been forgiven.
What’s more, we can approach this issue not as culture warriors looking to destroy our enemies, but as fellow human beings, prone to the same sin, and in need of the same grace.
See all content on critical theory here.
- Words that Wound: A Short Review of Solórzano’s and Huber’s Racial Microaggressions
- Liquid Souls: A Brief Review of Trueman’s Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self
- A Short Review of Haidt’s The Righteous Mind
- Review of Pluckrose and Lindsay’s Cynical Theories (external)
- Facing Woke Religion, the Gospel is Still Good News (external)
While Diversity, Equity, and
Lukianoff and Haidt