Alan Jacobs has a thought-provoking piece in The New Atlantis in which he explores some of the underlying dynamics of protests surrounding controversial speech on campus. You should read his piece before you read the rest of this post, which will be some hastily assembled remarks on his argument (I’ve given myself a time limit of two and a half hours in which to write this post).
The Irrationality of Woke Thought
There is a common impression that ‘woke’ progressives are relativists. This impression is understandable, yet mistaken. Jacobs’ emphasis on the distinction between the ‘mythical’ and the ‘technological’ helps to explain why. Progressives are in fact absolutist zealots, yet their position does not find its centre of gravity in the realm of rational theory. However, due to the pull that the mythical exerts upon the realm of the technological and the need to articulate oneself technologically to lay claim to public recognition, they will speak in ways that appear illogical or relativistic.
The sacred duty to support and validate the victim leads to technological discourse being established as a façade over the mythical conviction. Yet, the technological discourse is treated as an extension of the mythical, so that one cannot challenge the theoretical rationalizations advanced for the sake of victims without violating the sacred victims themselves. To seek to protect the designated victim without affirming the truth of the ideology by which they validate and assert their identities would be to become complicit in their oppression. Hence progressives fawn over people like Ta-Nehisi Coates or certain Muslims, without considering just how inconsistent their values are with liberal values in many respects.
This can produce a host of inconsistencies at the level of technological discourse. However, we would be mistaken to think that these inconsistencies are of pressing concern to those who hold them. What appears as technological discourse is chiefly a veiled extrusion of mythical values into a more public realm. The technological discourse is not revelatory of the underlying posture of the ‘woke’ themselves, but rather a means to present their sacred values in the form of the high language of science and theory—the language of rule in our society.
Inconsistencies are often seen surrounding issues of gender and sexuality, where the ‘woke’ will advance positions that are at one point radically constructivist and the next radically biologically determined. If you highlight typical brain differences between the sexes, you will be attacked as a ‘neurosexist’ by Cordelia Fine and other such feminists. [It should be noted here that the differences in view are akin to the differences between male and female faces: not absolute, but cumulative slight differences in distributions that can produce readily distinguishable kinds when regarded in the aggregate, i.e. men and women are distinguishable despite extensive similarities and that the differences between them will be most pronounced at extremes.] To recognize significant brain differences between the sexes is to threaten the idea that behavioural and psychological differences between men and women are merely socially constructed, without any basis in biology.
However, when it comes to trans persons, the concerns are very different, so many of the ‘woke’ will leap on supposed evidence that trans people have the brain of the sex with which they identify. Likewise, many of the same people who are outraged by the idea that biology might be related to behavioural differences between the sexes when it comes to women as victims of the patriarchy will assert that LGBT persons are ‘born that way’ and will point to differences in childhood toy and play preferences as evidence of their atypical sex or sexual identities. There isn’t a coherent theory of sex and sexuality here, even though there are plenty of ways in which the more complicated picture presented by the actual science can be selectively and inconsistently appealed to in support of positions that are in fact contradictory.
The sense of relativism is further strengthened by the fact that the sacredness of the victim, coupled with a sense of the psychological threat presented by contrary viewpoints, means that the woke constantly tether their more distinct personal convictions to the stake of individual choice and self-expression, so that their convictions don’t get loose and run into their neighbours’ yards. While the woke feel the need to push both the ideology of victimhood and the validating ideologies of victims into the public realm, they will carefully withdraw and privatize other convictions.
For instance, the progressive Christian will be wary not to assert the Lordship of Christ in a manner that seems to threaten, invalidate, or challenge the strongly held beliefs of other persons. They will observe a strong ideological non-aggression pact, expressing their own beliefs in a manner that presents them as private expressions of their personal choice, while carefully downplaying the objective force of those beliefs.
A Self Without a Skin
When you look closer at the sacred values of the woke, a lot of them arguably boil down, not to communally held quasi-religious convictions, but to fundamentally existential concerns. Of course, these concerns get expanded into or related to more mythical notions such as ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘whiteness’, but it seems to me that even the concept of the ‘mythical’, with its sense of an essentially metaphysical posture, doesn’t quite go far enough in analysing the situation here. At the root in a great many cases is something much more raw, existential, and emotional. The categories that woke persons routinely reach for, categories of safety and violence, should be considered here.
Equality, non-discrimination, tolerance, inclusion, affirmation, safe spaces, etc. are all values that ultimately seem to relate to the most primal needs of unthreatened existence and secure belonging, to the desire of everyone for a recognized, valued, and protected place in relationship with those around them. The primal force of these values needs to be appreciated, as does the profoundly felt vulnerability of many of the people who express them. The woke often speak as if their existence and the safety of their community (or those of the people for whom they are ‘allies’) were under direct threat or assault: we should take this expressed sense seriously.
The behaviour of many such persons is indicative of a sort of self without a skin, a self that is hyper-sensitive to its environment and neighbours. Having a skin enables us to operate in unsterile environments, because there is a barrier between our flesh and the environment around us, protecting us from most infections. The self needs a sort of skin too, a barrier between it and the environments in which it finds itself, enabling it to function in environments that would harm the self were it not so protected. The self without a skin will either be engaged in constant immune reaction against threats in its environment, will quarantine itself off from the environment, will seek to sterilize its environment, or will be broken down by its environment. Such a ‘pristine self’ must be exposed to nothing but affirmation and support and protected from all threats.
What would it mean for a self to have a ‘skin’? The ‘skin’ for the self is anything that enables the self to differentiate itself from its environment and other persons around it. The self’s skin could be a person’s robust agency, which is closely related to self-differentiation. It could be a secure, stable, and loving home that provides a sense of unthreatened belonging and acceptance at the heart of a person’s life, something immune to the assaults that the self might experience elsewhere. The skin of the self is formed by the many ways in which the self is distinguished from its neighbours. By the maintenance of temporal intervals between action and response. By physical space between people and between their communities. By spaces of solitude and retreat from socially saturated or emotionally charged environments. By a measure of segregation without general separation of the sexes, generations, communities, etc. By the differentiation of realms of life and activity from each other (e.g. work life from home life). Etc., etc.
It is easy to lament or bemoan the existence of highly sensitive selves, and there is a wealth of literature doing just that. Others, like Jacobs, highlight some key aspect of the dynamics of such persons. I think we should press the question further and ponder whether there might be contemporary social, cultural, and technological factors that are ‘fragilizing’ selves, thereby creating a situation in which ideologies of victimhood, extreme vulnerability, and hypo-agency have considerable traction.
The Technological Production of Fragilized Selves
An issue to which Jacobs’ piece didn’t give close enough attention is the close connection between our culture’s prevailing technological posture and the rise of the mythical posture as its obverse. As I’ve argued recently, contemporary society is powerfully formed by the essentially technological values of universalism, de-particularization, commensuration, and abstraction. It seems to me that such a regime fragilizes selves in a host of different ways, eroding, weakening, or destroying the conditions that selves need for self-differentiation, thereby creating a society that struggles to sustain robust and challenging interactions.
Our technological regime collapses distance through advanced communications and cheap mass transport. This both weakens our roots and the boundaries between communities, weakening communities themselves. A world of mass migration within and between countries produces detached individuals without secure belonging or given identities.
The extreme integration, fragmentation, and circulation of people and peoples by the modern economy produces highly pluralistic societies of increasingly atomized individuals, thereby intensifying certain antagonisms as each group feels that their space is threatened or encroached upon. The belonging of many people in such a society is highly tenuous, especially if they are seen as interlopers in others’ patrimony. The influx of other peoples to our nations and communities also fragilizes the peoplehood of those who have deep roots, encouraging the insecure reactivity of nationalist sentiments we are currently experiencing in the West.
When people are in the multicultural and highly pluralistic societies formed by liberalism, they will tend to feel besieged or constrained by the many other differing identities around them. Progressive values are in large measure a regime of politeness, deference, and inclusion designed to negotiate environments where we all have to live alongside people with whom we strongly differ in various ways (which is one of the reasons why progressive values tend to predominate in cosmopolitan cities, or in the less organic contexts of institutions such as universities or larger businesses, which bring people from a great many disparate groups together). By sacralising victimhood and vulnerability and stigmatizing judgment, exclusion, discrimination, intolerance, prejudice, ‘shaming’, etc., we might just be able to make it work.
It shouldn’t be hard to work out why highly pluralistic and ‘diverse’ societies really aren’t conducive to free speech and vigorous debate, and to speculate that, as our societies become even more diverse, free speech will become an ever-weaker value. The sense of a need for some form of non-aggression pact in such societies is considerable.
The universalism of the market de-particularizes persons and places, steadily scouring away those features that make one place different from another and devaluing and privatizing our deepest convictions. Public space is neutralized of particular values, becoming a realm of the universal values of technique. As traditional forms of differentiation weaken, the self becomes an increasingly performative one, needing to secure its own identity through its choices, self-expression, and bespoke identity. Yet such selves are brittle and vulnerable, and easily threatened by those of others.
Social media further fragilizes the self by abstracting it from the concreteness of its natural communities, local contexts, and its bodily condition, placing it into socially-saturated contexts of mutual surveillance, where it must constantly perform its identity and be subject to social judgment, with fewer places to which to retreat. The modern self is increasingly publicized by social media, exposing it and thinning the skin of its natural obscurity. Social media also undermines the differentiation between groups, persons, and their various contexts, while diminishing the mediating function of shared activities and contexts. It places persons on collision courses, by making natural social differentiation and belonging harder to attain. It collapses the distance between people, encouraging the social dynamics of the stampeding herd or the ‘viral’ spread of emotion or sentiment. The differentiation of time, space, and context is much harder to come by online. Differentiation of sex, age, office, and social status are all also undermined by social media.
One especially important result of this loss of differentiation is the collapse of the realm of agonistic interaction and the realm of communal belonging into each other, producing a sense of perpetual anxiety, social judgment, or besiegement. Everyone feels that they are under attack in the current environment.
A technological society also produces fragilized selves by weakening the social, communal, and familial bonds that exist between people. The weakening of the family and the breakdown of family culture produces a great many young people who are psychological vulnerable. They lack the security of an intact and stable home and strong and enduring community, so must seek psychological security elsewhere.
The Problem of Gender
It is important to recognize the significance of gender as part of this whole picture. Men and women typically relate quite differently to these matters. Our culture, like most human cultures, was historically built around a public realm that was essentially male. More domestic and communal realms were predominantly ordered around women and children, while the public realm was largely a realm of male struggle. Within this realm of male struggle, manly virtues were expected of participants: strength, mastery, courage, and honour.
Our public institutions almost invariably arise out of male spaces and interactions. Traditional honour culture was a male phenomenon, which had to be tamed in order to create a more peaceful public square, without duels, riots, and that sort of thing. To avoid the eruption of the male agonism of the public square into violence, a dignity culture had to be forged. Structures had to be provided to resolve disputes without violence and men needed to learn a code of tolerating a certain amount of unreasonable treatment without violent reaction or litigious response. Dignity culture existed to control the unruly excesses of agency within an agonistic male realm.
Over the last century, however, women have entered in large numbers into the realms created and ordered by male agonism. The result has been a steady yet radical transformation of their spaces, a transformation which is by no means complete. The rise of ‘victimhood culture’, described by Jason Manning and Bradley Campbell is difficult truly to understand without considering this huge change. Institutions that formerly existed primarily to keep the excessive agency of men from boiling over into violence have greatly increased in their number and size and increasingly play the more maternal role of nurturing and protecting vulnerable selves. While the paradigmatic individual of classical liberalism was the agentic, independent, and educated white male, the paradigmatic individual of progressive liberalism is the vulnerable woman, who is weak in her agency and dependent upon other agencies to ‘empower’ her.
It is important to recognize, for instance, that the advance of feminism has generally not occurred by means of true political agonism, but by means of petitioning other agencies to act on women’s behalf. A relationship between ‘empowering’ agencies and women cast as dependents upon their action is integral to the dynamics of most feminism, which is why the rise of women in public life and the rise of the managerial state and a sort of maternal capitalism—both of which stifle lesser agencies as they increase their power through taking on the mantle of women’s empowerment—can’t easily be separated.
Unwelcome though this point may be, I do not believe that society has found a sustainable and healthy way of maintaining an open and vigorous public realm in which men and women are participants in an undifferentiated fashion. While a masculine public realm can workably include the many women who can largely conform to its norm, a workable egalitarian ideal has yet to be demonstrated.
There are various problems that must be dealt with, relating to key differences between men and women on average (and, yes, there are exceptions, but the exceptions weigh little relative to the general tendencies). As individuals and as groups, men typically exert more direct power than women. They are more forceful and agonistic in their agency than women. They are less socially and physically vulnerable than women. They are more inclined to rougher interactions. Men are typically cast as combatants, while women are generally seen to be non-combatants and to be protected from the sort of treatment that to which men are exposed. Men are much ‘thing-oriented’ than women, who are much more ‘person-oriented’ than men. The effect of this particular difference can be seen in a host of areas, but it is significant here as those most sensitive to conflict and threat will largely be women, while men will tend to dominate movements concerned with the agonism of free speech.
It is not at all accidental that the ‘woke’ movement is a movement in which women are the leading voices and most committed participants. Nor is it surprising that its routine forms of engagement with opponents are those characteristic of the indirectness of female intrasexual competition: freezing them out, socially stigmatizing them, attacking their reputations, appealing to third parties to act on their behalf, leveraging social consensus against them, etc. Movements such as the New Atheists, by contrast, which valorize combative discourse, violation of stifling sensitivities, pursuit of truth over all else, the hard sciences over other disciplines, etc., are predictably overwhelmingly male, and it was to be expected that their key figures would move into anti-SJWism. The key gender differences at play here are to be seen even in the abstract contexts of the Internet, and lead to larger conflicts that play out in ways that accentuate gender differences.
Forming Complex Spaces
Nothing I’ve said in this post is something I’ve not said several times before. However, it can be helpful to be reminded of the social problem that we face.
Jacobs concludes his essay by highlighting the problem as he sees it. A point I’ve made before is that the possibility of the free exchange of ideas is itself dependent upon the existence of realms of common life and belonging. Vigorous ideological exchange needs to be buffered, lest it be experienced as an existential threat. The traditional realm of public discourse was a heterotopic male realm: a realm of male agonistic interaction set apart from other realms of society. Whether the parliamentary chamber, the law court, the debating chamber, or some other realm, the ‘free’ speech of these realms was generally carefully choreographed. People knew that effective discourse doesn’t merely happen naturally: it must be cultivated, its dynamics understood and regulated, and its participants carefully vetted.
Such past arrangements had important strengths, but also significant weaknesses, not least in the marginalization of women within or exclusion of women from much of the discourse of society. Given the differences between men and women, our institutions, which have been ordered around male discourse, need to change to accommodate increasing numbers of women within them. A pressing problem is that forms of discourse that are more typically male are often more congruent with their institutional ends. For instance, public discourse that does not have an agonistic character can easily produce leaders that cannot be strongly questioned and challenged. Societies built around the protection and empowering of the vulnerable can easily become oppressively conformist and destructive of people’s agency.
Here it is important to recognize that vigorous ideological exchange requires realms of secure belonging as its precondition. People who don’t feel secure or have a well-defined and differentiated self don’t think or discourse well. They lose their heads, act on instinct, or speak reactively, rather than in a responsive and considered fashion. Without well-differentiated contexts, people lack the space for reflection, meditation, and deliberation and are far more vulnerable to crowd dynamics or peer pressure. They cannot attain to a greater degree of objectivity as they cannot differentiate themselves from others and their environments enough to stand back and gain a clearer perspective upon them.
If such a person is stronger in agency and oriented to combat, they become reactively belligerent and antagonistic. The lost and angry boys on the Internet, who go around spoiling for fights, are an example of this problem. If a person has weaker agency, by contrast, they will tend to huddle closer to the herd and stampede when spooked. Whether it is the reactive antagonism of provocateurs or the reactive hypo-agency of the victimhood cults, such approaches reveal an unhealthy self.
How do we solve this problem? I believe it must start by giving people their space, by re-establishing differentiated yet interconnected realms and respecting our differences. It must involve valuing the differences between us. Male agonism, for instance, is hugely important for a healthy society, and must be given spaces to thrive and develop, without being undermined by those who feel vulnerable within it. Sometimes this will involve male-only spaces. Sometimes it will involve masculine spaces in which women who can work well in such contexts can also participate. Mutatis mutandis, the same should hold for women: they must be given room to thrive as women, and the realms created by such sociality must be given their full weight in determining the shape of society at large, without consigning them to a marginalized realm or cutting the sexes off from each other more generally. We must find ways to maintain the differences while improving the engagement between various communities, and exploring and developing commonalities.
A deeper attention to these matters, I believe, holds the potential to improve the health of many of our institutions. In discussing the importance of the agonism of our universities’ ‘free speech’, for instance, the dangers of an overemphasis upon agonism have easily been forgotten. Combative debate is hugely important, yet important as just one part of, and as dependent upon, a much larger practice of communal discourse.
Furthermore, it is easy to forget that the very agonism that is characteristic of a certain type of free speech is of a kind that can stifle the expression of many others, constraining their speech. Where they know that discourse will have a combative character, many people with less forceful or confident agency close down and don’t feel able to participate. The agonism is important, but it is no less important that it is limited to appropriate places and times, rather than treated as the universal norm. Certain crucially important ways of thinking are also prevented in highly agonistic environments, which push participants towards arguments that promise to overturn opposing positions or more deeply entrench one’s own. Yet we often also need to engage in imaginative and exploratory thought and more defeasible reasoning and the suspension or minimization of agonism is often necessary in order for this to occur.
Rather than approaching the organization of institutions such as the university as if they were universal machines to be fine-tuned, within which all individuals were to be included as interchangeable members, abstracted from their particularity, I believe that we need to appreciate ways in which each university is like a specific dance, which has to be carefully choreographed. To make such a dance work, you need to appreciate, value, and maintain both the differences and the commonalities between different people and groups, while also recognizing ways to elicit and explore the remarkable dynamics that can occur when they are brought into effective interactions. While this is complicated, it is far more likely to produce effective societies than approaches that collapse all of the differences between people.