by Daniel A. Kaufman
I thought of calling this “Woke Creep,” in light of the fact that the people who make up the Woke Brigade in academic philosophy depend heavily on concept creep in order to ground their myriad allegations, accusations, demands for no-platforming and censorship, and attacks on their insufficiently woke colleagues’ livelihoods. Whether it’s expanding the meaning of ‘oppression’ so that it includes everyone from women being beaten with truncheons in Iran and Afghanistan to those who have received the most elite educations and enjoy digs in the toniest academic institutions in the developed world, extending the word ‘racism’ to cover everything from outright enslavement to the most microscopic microaggressions, stretching ‘phobic’ so it applies not just to those who suffer overwhelming, irrational fear of enclosed spaces or heights or swimming pools or bugs, but to everyone who disagrees with the Woke Brigade on any matter of “social justice,” or distending ‘harm’ to the point that it covers everything from being beaten up and mugged on the street to having heard something, somewhere, sometime that you disliked, Woke Philosophy is built upon a kind of Newspeak one once only expected from aspirant (and actual) totalitarians. The difference, of course, is that real totalitarians are really dangerous, while the collection of walking and talking personality disorders that constitute the Woke Brigade only have the capacity to frighten people by way of what Elizabeth Anscombe, when speaking of moral imperatives in the absence of God, called “mesmeric force.” Alas, in the age of social media and the generalized social anxiety that defines it, even entirely illusory muscle such as the members of the Brigade possess is as good as the real thing, which is a shame, because if everyone would just tell them to fuck off, their influence would disappear in a puff of (suitably enraged) smoke.
My decision to go with ‘triangle’ rather than ‘creep’ came as I was reflecting on the Brigade’s latest hijinks and found my thoughts suddenly drawn to the Bermuda Triangle, that region whose vertices include Miami, Puerto Rico, and Bermuda, and in which popular legend has it that ships and planes mysteriously vanish. (1) Philosophy increasingly feels like it has its own version of the Triangle, where inadequately woke philosophers are subjected to efforts to disappear them via verbal abuse, no-platforming, attacks on their professional standing and livelihood, and other forms of “cancellation,” and the vertices of which include a number of core philosophical institutions and personnel: the American Philosophical Association, the discipline’s leading professional organization; the tight knit, though geographically dispersed klatch of woke philosophers, whose names pop up whenever and wherever there is an eruption of wokeness in the profession, whether the “open letter” to Hypatia, regarding Rebecca Tuvel’s transracialism paper of several years ago, or the post “On Philosophical Scholarship of Gender: A Response to ‘12 Leading Scholars’” that just appeared at the APA’s blog the other day; and of course, the Daily Nous, with the gallant Justin Weinberg at the helm, which a few days ago hosted an anonymously authored hit job (the latest in a long series of such “new consensus” fare) on Kathleen Stock, Sophie Allen, Holly Lawford-Smith, and other gender critical feminist philosophers, “Recognizing Gender Critical Feminism as Anti-Trans Activism.”
As is so often the case, these recent woke outbursts were caused by something utterly ordinary and reasonable, specifically, a short piece that appeared in Inside Higher Education, in which twelve philosophers called for an end to the no-platforming and silencing of critics of contemporary gender identity theory and for a conversation on sex and gender within the discipline that is simultaneously rigorous and civil. (2) In making one’s way through the Brigade’s responses to the piece, one finds oneself confronted with rhetorical maneuvers straight out of the Oceanian playbook: repeated outrages to reason and common sense; bold inversions of reality; a constant refrain of “nothing to see here,” regarding things that are staring you right in the face; and of course, cynical manipulations of language and rejection of the ordinary, standard uses of common words.
The result is a bizarre universe in which middle aged, lesbian professors are deemed so hazardous to their colleagues and students that they must be targeted by academic mobs, for the purpose of stripping them of their employment; (3) where prominent – and in a few cases, distinguished – philosophers appear in the pages of the APA blog to brazenly lie to everyone’s faces that “there is no established orthodoxy about gender in academic philosophy,” even as they maintain, in the very next paragraph, that the central issues in the contemporary debate over gender identity – whether sexes are natural kinds, whether social identities, like genders, are determined by social negotiation or individual fiat – should be off the table, as they “question the integrity and sincerity of trans people [and] the validity of their own understanding of who they are”; in which gender critical philosophers are dismissed for engaging in activism in un-refereed venues … by people engaged in activism in un-refereed venues; and where words like ‘male’ and ‘men’, the proper uses of which people know by the time they are three years old, are ominously characterized as “transphobic dogwhistles.”
Occasionally, the messages get crossed, as when Weinberg’s anonymous philosophers dismiss gender critical feminism as being “first and foremost an activist movement,” while the signatories of the APA letter accuse gender critical feminism of treating “other people’s lives as though they are abstract thought experiments,” and on a number of occasions the Woke Brigade runs headlong into reality – at one point in “Recognizing Gender Critical Feminism as Anti-Trans Activism,” Holly Lawford Smith is taken behind the woodshed for posting a photo of hirsute, bearded, very obviously male, self-identified transwoman, Danielle Muscato, only for the authors to admit in an addendum added a sentence later that Muscato not only posts such pictures on her own website, but encourages others to post them as well. (4) Sometimes you get both – message crossing and reality-checking – as when the signatories of the APA letter link to a particularly nasty, overheated piece of work by Mark Lance, the content of which entirely contradicts their “nothing to see here” message.
Since Woke Philosophy operates very much in the manner of Scientology and other cults, these sorts of manifest contradictions and collisions with reality never deter its members or even give them pause, but are simply integrated into their already unhinged narrative (as one would expect in the Muscato case, the anonymous authors figure out a way to construe their blunder as having been Smith’s fault after all). As a result, the Woke Brigade will never stand correction; will never believe their views have been refuted or even problematized in any way. The best advice, it would seem, then, for anyone who wishes to enjoy a relatively pleasant philosophical career, is to avoid going anywhere near the Woke Triangle and the people patrolling it. Of course, this means abandoning whole areas of philosophical inquiry to crazy people, but I’m starting to wonder whether it matters. The really important work that people like Stock and Smith are doing is concerned with concrete, on-the-ground legislative and regulatory matters; battles that need to be fought in the political arena, where voters not academics will determine what ultimately happens. These voters are already overwhelmingly inclined towards our longstanding, commonsense commitment to sex segregated intimate spaces, sports, etc., so it may be best to concentrate on rallying them, and just ignore all the noise emanating from the Triangle.