WASHINGTON — Middlebury College in Vermont kicked off this year's college disinvitation season on April 17, canceling a speech by anti-liberal Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko hours before his scheduled talk. The success of social-justice-seeking "woke" students in shutting down campus speech will undoubtedly revive a debate among the opponents of woke-ism: Is it a form of religious zealotry or cultural socialism?
Each side can identify enough correspondences — the piety and the righteous denunciation, the summary firings and Twitter show trials — to prompt a shudder of recognition. And yet neither resemblance is quite perfect.
Woke-ism may have some of the emotional tenor of church, but it lacks the supernatural beliefs and cohesive ritual of a real faith.
As for cultural socialism ... what could "collective ownership of the means of production" mean when applied to culture, which is collectively produced now and always has been?
I suspect that both sides are searching for a different word, one associated with both religion and Marxism: What they are trying to describe is an orthodoxy, a received wisdom enforced not by argument but by social, economic or even violent coercion.
Thus, publicly opposing gay marriage today, or even having opposed it in the too-recent past, risks sanction ranging from public abuse to job loss. As tends to happen with orthodoxies, even asking empirical questions about related subjects risks being declared anathema. Asking what are outcomes like for the children of gay parents, or how many kids with gender dysphoria desist from experiencing it, invites furious activist groups to shower you with abuse and call for your firing.
This is not, as New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, the way we treat questions of science; it is how we guard our sacred dogmas, our moral communities. And maybe it can't be otherwise. Seventy years ago, arguing for gay marriage would have been at least as dangerous as arguing against it is now, and a youthful, decades-old flirtation with communism could be career-ending. As for banning empirical inquiry to protect dogmas, well, we're still fighting over teaching evolution in schools.
"Everything is open to question" may seem a natural intellectual principle to those raised between roughly 1970 and 2000 — between the sexual revolution and the Great Awokening. But most cultures, for most of human history, haven't acted this way. Maybe that's because such openness represents an unstable equilibrium, possible only in the liminal moment between the eradication of an existing orthodoxy and the establishment of a new one.
Cultures may simply need to place some topics beyond debate, minimizing the distraction and disruption of relitigating fundamental moral questions. And if an orthodoxy is necessary, "vulnerable minorities should be treated better" is one of the more appealing choices.
Yet installing it will still be painful. Existing orthodoxies are largely self-enforcing, transmitted by a million little social signals you absorb without noticing.
Adopting a new orthodoxy, however, is messy. And while the new orthodoxy gropes toward its final shape, people living under it experience a special, debilitating terror: the fear that anything you say might be held against you, that what is mandatory today might be forbidden tomorrow, with ex post facto justice meted out to anyone who failed to anticipate the change.
Nor will the transition be entirely comfortable even for the new orthodoxy's proponents, who must eventually recognize that what they're promoting is an orthodoxy — and that they have the power to enforce it.
The left has, for some years, prided itself on being "the reality-based community," the "party of science." That is irreconcilable with a dogmatic program. If empirical facts undercut the dogma, the facts have to go, and the people who stated them must go too: denounced as heretics, cast out of the Elect.
There may be an argument for such strong-arm tactics in the name of revolutionary social justice. But moving toward them necessarily undercuts the left's other self-conception as the underdog, the champion of the weak and powerless.3 comments on this story
Revolutionaries and reformers, working from outside the system, can't force people to renounce wrong-think by threatening to strip them of their livelihoods and drum them out of the public square. Those weapons are available only to the powers-that-be.
To advocate such tactics is therefore to admit that you are no longer fighting the system, but that you are the system — that in the centers of cultural production, at least, Rosa Luxemburg is giving way to the commissars, and Martin Luther to the Grand Inquisitor.