Sunday, May 28, 2023
As its contribution to Princeton University's 2023 reunions, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions hosted a panel discussion entitled "When professions go Woke, can dissenters survive?" Our panelists were Kristen Collier of the University of Michigan Medical School; J. Joel Alicea of the Columbus School of Law of the Catholic University of America; Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review magazine, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Washington Post; and Ryan T. Anderson of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
In my introduction to the discussion, I addressed the origins and meaning of the word "Woke."
Is there a word to describe the attitude of a person who regards his or her opinions as so obviously correct—and so profoundly enlightened—that they may not legitimately be challenged or questioned, and that only hate or bigotry can explain others' holding different beliefs?
Sure there is. That word is “woke”?
Of course, it’s a contested word. And the word, even as a slang term, didn’t always have those connotations. These days the connotations of the term are mainly negative; it is now mostly used pejoratively. But it didn’t begin that way. The word began with people who believed in racial justice and prioritizing the elimination of racial discrimination and other forms of injustice applying it to themselves and those who shared their beliefs and priorities. It was broadened, however, to be a term that applied to those who held ultraprogressive and, especially, identitarian ideas about race and, especially, sexuality and gender.
For the Woke, “anti-racism” is not the philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King. It is the ideology of Professor Ibrahim X. Kendi. And gender ideology of the sort that constructs and sacralizes innumerable gender identities is unquestionable dogma. Those holding these beliefs themselves embraced the term “woke” until their critics—a coalition of conservatives like me and old school liberals like the comedian Bill Mahr—began following their linguistic practice and referring to them and their ideology as “woke.” Soon the term had become almost an epithet—and nobody wanted to be “labeled” as “woke.” Mind you, their views didn’t change, nor their aggressiveness in asserting them and in labeling people who don’t share them as “racists,” “homophobes,” “bigots,” etc., etc., etc. But they no longer accepted the term, and began charging anyone who used it in referring to them as … yes, you guessed it: “racists,” “homophobes,” “bigots,” etc.
Now it’s a free country. You’re free not to use the term "woke." But others are free to use it. You’re free to criticize those who use it. But they’re free to criticize you. We’re using it for this panel—it’s right there in the title—because we’re interested in the phenomenon for which it has become the label: an ideology, a set of beliefs, that its partisans regard as so enlightened that it may not legitimately be questioned, and as so obviously correct that dissent from it can only be explained as a manifestation of hatred and bigotry.
What do you do if you are a dissenter, and your profession or institution has gone woke? In the face of intolerance of your opinions, is it possible to survive without either capitulating or going silent? That is the question we’ve asked our distinguished panelists to address.