Woke language hides illiberal tactics in liberal aims
By: Joseph Heath
After several years of creeping illiberalism under the guise of progressive politics, American liberals are finally getting their act together. They are pushing back, creating several organizations committed to combating the influence of “woke” politics and ideology. They have momentum, not just because many woke mantras like “defund the police” have proven spectacularly unpopular, but also because there is genuine growing alarm about the intolerant and authoritarian brand of politics that has become associated with the woke left.
Unfortunately, many of the woke genuinely do not understand why anyone finds their politics, or their political tactics, threatening. In particular, the accusation that they are being authoritarian, or that “cancel culture” is a threat to freedom of expression, is one that they are simply unable to process.
There is a reason for this — and one that’s worth understanding. There are several key phrases that play an enormously important role in woke politics (e.g. “safety,” “mental health,” “microaggression,” “bullying” and even “human rights”) which they use to deflect the accusation of authoritarianism. If you adopt the right words, it’s easier to convince yourself that you’re the good guys even as you’re acting like the bad ones.
I want to take a shot at explaining how this works.
The most important thing to understand about woke politics is that it is not a conventional form of illiberalism, it is better thought of as a type of “illiberal liberalism.” It involves making a set of political demands that are fundamentally illiberal, but then articulating them in a way that fits the conventional structure of liberal political discourse. Because of the way that their complaints are packaged, the woke are able to brush off criticism of their tactics.
Take an issue like freedom of speech. There are various versions of this traditionally liberal virtue; predominant among them, is that those who hold this belief are opposed to content-based restrictions on speech. In the old days, lots of politicians didn’t really believe in freedom of speech, as many among the ruling class maintained straightforwardly illiberal views.
Consider, for example, the aftermath of the “police riot” that occurred during the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. The Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, put the blame for the violence squarely on the protesters. In those pre-feminist times, it was a common tactic for hippie protesters to provoke police by describing, in graphic detail, the various sex acts that they intended to perpetrate on the wives and daughters of the forces of order. Humphrey found this intolerable, and so defended police violence in the following terms:
The obscenity, the profanity, the filth that was uttered night after night in front of the hotels was an insult to every woman, every mother, every daughter, indeed, every human being, the kind of language that no one would tolerate at all. You’d put anybody in jail for that kind of talk. And yet it went on for day after day. Is it any wonder that the police had to take action?
This is good-old-fashioned illiberalism. Someone said something outrageous, something intolerable, and so needs to be punished for it. If you insult the police, you can’t complain if you get beat up. According to Humphrey, it was the content of what the protesters said that justified throwing them in jail.
What I find striking about this example is that people who want to censor speech don’t talk this way any more, because it is such an obvious violation of liberal principles. Modern enemies of free speech have found ways to formulate their demands for punishment in ways that violate the spirit, but still respect the letter, of those very principles. Most obviously, they take advantage of certain exceptions to the general prohibition on content-based restrictions.
Anyone who has studied free speech issues or read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty will of course be familiar with these exceptions. The biggest one is that, while it may not be permissible to prohibit the expression of an idea, any particular episode of speech can be prohibited if the performance of the speech act is likely to bring serious harm to some other person. Mill, for example, famously suggested that while it was permissible to publish the opinion that “corn dealers rob the poor,” chanting that slogan in front of an agitated mob outside the corn dealer’s home is another matter entirely. The latter can be prohibited, because it is likely to cause harm to the corn dealer.
While this caveat may seem reasonable at first glance, it creates all sorts of problems, precisely because the concept of harm is not well-defined. Notice that in Mill’s example, the speaker does not directly harm the corn dealer. The speaker rather incites the mob, and it is members of the mob who then pose a threat to the corn dealer (and that threat may never materialize).
This loophole is the one that has been taken advantage of most aggressively by the woke left to push for restrictions on speech. When they come across something they don’t like, rather than calling for censorship on the basis of content, they will instead attempt to restrict it on the grounds that it causes harm. Of course, they are smart enough to realize that the mere fact that it upsets them is not enough to qualify as a harm. So they posit a causal connection to a more serious physical or psychological harm. For example, students who are trying to censor the expression of ideas in the classroom will claim that the discussion makes them feel “unsafe,” or that it threatens their mental health. What is crucial about this move is that it allows them to call for illiberal actions (i.e. censorship or punishment of speech) on grounds that are, in principle at least, not illiberal.
Consider a concrete example of this. My own academic discipline was rocked by a cancel-culture scandal in 2017, involving an article published by the Canadian philosopher Rebecca Tuvel in the journal Hypatia. In the article, Tuvel upset a lot of people by asking the awkward question why, if it’s all just socially constructed, we accept the claims of people who want to switch genders, but not those who want to switch races. What ignited the real controversy, however, was not the article, but rather the attempt by hundreds of academics to cancel it, by signing an online petition demanding that the journal retract the piece.
This recent trend of demanding the retraction of controversial academic work is a perfect example of illiberal liberalism. Traditionally, the way that philosophers have responded to journal articles they disagree with is to write their own articles criticizing the view. Demanding that the journal retract the paper is an entirely different tactic. On the surface, it is not illiberal, since academic journals are committed to publishing material that meets a certain standard, and are committed to retracting work that is subsequently shown to have fallen below that standard. And yet at the same time, it is clearly punitive. Having published a journal article that subsequently had to be retracted is a major stain on a scholar’s reputation, and could easily serve as an obstacle to being granted tenure.
In the case of Tuvel’s paper, the purpose of the online petition was obviously punitive, since the case for retraction was non-existent. It was clearly a demand for censorship (something illiberal), but it was presented under the guise of a demand for retraction (something consistent with liberalism).
In the petition letter, the central argument for retraction was made in terms of the “harm” caused by the article, as well as the claim that its publication was “dangerous.” Many wondered how an article published in a feminist academic journal, dealing with an entirely abstract argument about identity and social construction, could possibly cause harm. In its defence, some of the signatories pointed to the high rate of suicide among transgendered individuals, claiming that anyone seeking to ask questions or to debate their claims was putting them at risk of self-harm.
This argument is obviously spurious. The suggestion that upsetting someone who belongs to a social group with an elevated suicide rate should count as a “harm,” sufficient to justify restrictions on speech, is not a defensible conception of harm. Young white American men who own guns also have an extremely high rate of suicide, and yet no one worries much about hurting their feelings. More generally, expanding the category of harm in this way makes it so broad that practically any action can be construed as harmful, and therefore completely undermines freedom of speech. This argument was obviously being gerrymandered to prohibit the expression of a specific view that certain people found offensive.
What is crucial though is the form of the argument. By pointing to these ephemeral harms, those who are trying to engage in censorship of speech that they disagree with are nevertheless able to convince themselves that this is not what they are doing. The appeal to harm is a “fig leaf” argument, in that it conceals their true motive from others, but also, one senses, from themselves.
This analysis allows us to better understand some of the strange “snowflake” behaviour that one sees among young people of a certain political persuasion. Explicitly or implicitly, they have internalized the idea that in order to get other people punished for doing things you don’t like, you have to claim that they have harmed you. This is why they are so quick to claim injury (e.g. damage to their mental health, fear for their safety, etc.), in circumstances that a normal person would shrug off. They are like soccer players trying to draw a penalty. It’s not a “culture of victimhood,” on the contrary, it is more often an act of social aggression, since these performances of injury are typically carried out, not to attract sympathy, but rather punish and control others.
This is also why HR departments have become an important vector for illiberalism. At my own university, for example, staff at the Office of Accessibility Services have attempted to censor the curriculum in certain philosophy courses. The logic of this is not difficult to see. Students realize that they are not going to get authors or texts banned by appealing to the faculty. So instead they go to their disability services counsellor and claim that they cannot attend class when certain authors are being discussed, because they feel unsafe. Staff have no particular commitment to academic freedom, and so are happy to take up the cause.
HR departments aren’t full of cultural Marxists, they’re a liberal fig leaf used to cover up these fundamentally illiberal impulses. Most HR professionals have no particular ideology, they are just extremely averse to conflict, and think that the easiest way to make a conflict go away is for the person who is saying the thing that is upsetting other people to stop saying it.
As a member of Generation X dealing with young people, I sometimes feel like a hockey player watching a soccer game, trying to figure out whether the players are completely hamming it up, or whether they actually are that delicate. The answer is probably somewhere in between. I have no doubt that many young people truly are lacking in psychological resilience, but it is important to recognize that there are also important political motives at work that encourage them to act this fragile.
It is equally important to recognize the futility of calling them “left fascists” or authoritarian. Not only do they brush off the accusation, but it encourages them to double down on the snowflake behaviour,because it’s precisely by claiming injury that they deflect the accusation of intolerance.
Joseph Heath is Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto.
The self-styled champion of individual liberty wants you to call government agents to punish Americans for their parenting.
Social media has so conditioned people to expect hyperbole that there’s a perverse satisfaction when a clip is truly as bad as advertised. Last night, a viral tweet claimed that Fox News’s Tucker Carlson had told his audience to harass people on the street wearing masks—and to “call the police immediately; contact child protective services” if they saw a child wearing one.
Surely, this couldn’t be a fair description; naturally, it was. Having spent the early part of the month espousing the white-supremacist “great replacement theory,” Carlson is now seeking to use the power of the state to harass and immiserate his political opponents:
Carlson delivered his rant with the combination of astonished indignation, obvious bad faith, and smug sarcasm with which he delivers everything these days, a volatile mix that makes it impossible to know when and to what extent he’s trolling. Like his fellow traveler Donald Trump, Carlson delights in making appalling statements with a straight face and then insisting he was just joking; unlike Trump, Carlson has in the past shown enough of a sense of humor that you can’t discount that possibility.
Trying to figure out Carlson’s “real” feelings is not only impossible but beside the point. Whether he’s disingenuous or delusional, many people will hear what he says and take it seriously and literally. We have several recent examples of the Fox audience being misled into believing falsehoods, including denying the reality of COVID-19 and subscribing to bogus claims about fraud in the 2020 election.
Carlson’s diatribe is a useful data point for how American conservatism has transformed, especially in the Trump era, from a movement that (at least putatively) believes in limited government to one that primarily prizes marshaling the power of the state to punish those who disagree with it. With Trump in eclipse, Carlson is the most visible face of the new conservative movement.
Although Carlson makes a lot of ridiculous claims in a short period in this clip, it is his comments about children that are most disturbing. After complaining that mask mandates imposed by the state are equivalent to living in North Korea, Carlson executes two athletic rhetorical maneuvers. First, he goes from describing mask wearing as excessive to describing it as abusive, and second, he elides the difference between a government mandate and a personal choice.
“As for forcing children to wear masks outside, that should be illegal,” Carlson sputters. “Your response when you see children wearing masks as they play should be no different from seeing someone beating a kid at Walmart: Call the police immediately; contact child protective services. Keep calling until someone arrives. What you’re looking at is abuse. It’s child abuse, and you’re morally obligated to attempt to prevent it.”
One doesn’t need a lot of imagination to game out where this is going. Some viewers will take Carlson’s possibly arch exhortations to heart. They’ll call the police and child protective services. In most cases, authorities will ignore those calls. In some cases, especially if the callers repeatedly summon police as Carlson demands, they could be charged with filing false claims; it’s a good bet that neither he nor Fox News will be there to help them if they are. In other cases, encounters will end poorly for the innocent parents involved. The news is full of examples of how police called to respond to petty or wholly imagined offenses end up gravely injuring or even killing people. (Carlson believes Derek Chauvin was wrongly convicted.)
But when government authorities fail to intervene—because, of course, no laws are being broken—Carlson’s fans may feel the moral obligation to take matters into their own hands, just like Edgar Maddison Welch, who stormed into a Washington, D.C., pizzeria heavily armed in 2016, because he wanted to prevent child abuse that he wrongly believed was occurring there. No one was hurt in that incident, though someone easily could have been. Welch spent about three years in prison.
Carlson’s argument isn’t really about masks. As he grudgingly admitted, the Biden administration had already signaled that new guidance would soon make clear that mask wearing outside is not necessary for fully vaccinated people; the CDC released that guidance this afternoon. Perhaps the change could have come faster, but conservatives have traditionally applauded the deliberate process of government, because it prevents tyranny and abuse of citizens.
Even after new guidance, some people will decide to continue wearing masks outside. Perhaps they feel more comfortable that way. People exercising sometimes extreme caution about their health is neither new or a nuisance. Perhaps they are immunocompromised, or have immunocompromised family members or friends. Ultimately, it’s none of my business or Tucker Carlson’s business why they are doing so, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone, which neither he nor anyone else has established they are.
That’s the sort of personal choice that conservatives have also traditionally defended. Though Carlson masquerades as a defender of free speech (one of several poses he’s tried on over the years), he must know that the government has no business telling citizens what they cannot wear. It is, to borrow Carlson’s analogy, like being forced to wear a Kim Il Sung pin in Pyongyang. Unlike mandates to wear masks, which stem from a public-health interest, a government rule punishing people for wearing masks during a pandemic serves no compelling interest. As for children, conservatives have long argued that families should enjoy autonomy about their parenting decisions, without undue interference from the state.
But Carlson doesn’t object to the state harassing people or exercising undue power. He delights in it, as long as the state is harassing the people he hates. The cruelty, as my colleague Adam Serwer has said, is the point. This is the lodestar of the Trump and post-Trump GOP, which values owning the libs above all—not merely rhetorically, but with the fist of government. Thus Trump asserted that he had the authority to override state and local coronavirus shutdowns (before hastily backtracking when it became clear that he had no such power). He sought to involve the federal government in decisions of colleges and universities in order to muzzle speech. And he celebrated police violence, even as he moaned that he was the victim of overzealous law enforcement.
It is tempting to read incoherence in Trump’s arguments, or in Carlson’s: How can they both be against government mandating masks, on the basis of personal liberty, and also demand that the government prevent people from wearing them? In fact, the principle is straightforward enough. Small government for me, but not for thee.
As you learn more about narcissism, you may uncover a distinct lack of conscience in some. You wonder, “Am I dealing with a sociopath, or worse? Psychotherapist Dr. Les Carter explains commonalities and distinctions regarding narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths.
What are the lyrics to ‘God Save the Queen’?
God save our gracious Queen,
Long live our noble Queen,
God save the Queen!
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God save the Queen!
O Lord our God arise,
Scatter our enemies,
And make them fall!
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix,
God save us all!
Not in this land alone,
But be God’s mercies known,
From shore to shore!
Lord make the nations see,
That men should brothers be,
And form one family,
The wide world ov’er.
From every latent foe,
From the assasins blow,
God save the Queen!
O’er her thine arm extend,
For Britain’s sake defend,
Our mother, prince, and friend,
God save the Queen!
Thy choicest gifts in store,
On her be pleased to pour,
Long may she reign!
May she defend our laws,
And ever give us cause,
To sing with heart and voice,
God save the Queen!
Lord grant that Marshal Wade
May by thy mighty aid
May he sedition hush,
And like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to crush.
God save the Queen!
President Trump believes, not without good reason, that the Mexican government is not doing its utmost to stop the illegal flow of Central Americans crossing the U.S. border. And so he has responded with . . . a $17 billion–a–year–and–rising sales tax on Americans.
The president loves tariffs. He believes that they are an effective means of protecting American firms from unfair overseas competition and a good negotiating tool as he works to reform trade agreements that he believes are disadvantageous to Americans. But the question of who ends up actually paying any given tax is complicated. The price of those tariffs, and the retaliatory tariffs they have provoked, is very high for American companies: For example, the tariffs Beijing imposed in response to Trump’s have cost American farmers an enormous part of their export market (half of exported U.S. soybeans used to go to China; the tariffs have been a gift to Brazilian producers), but the U.S. tariffs themselves are an enormous problem, too. Many American manufacturers import raw materials and components from abroad, and complex products such as automobiles and electronics may cross the border several times in the course of production.
A 5 percent tariff on Mexican goods would notionally amount to about $17 billion on U.S. imports from Mexico, touching everything from industrial components to fruit and crude oil. In reality, it is difficult to say how much money would be raised, because buyers respond to tariffs in unpredictable ways. In any case, many of those costs will be borne by American consumers and — this cannot be emphasized enough — American businesses that rely in some part on imported inputs. More important, it would cause uncertainty around a North American supply chain that has evolved organically over many years as the result of enormous investment by American companies and their business partners.
President Trump envisions a tariff that will potentially ratchet up to 25 percent.
The president here is unnecessarily complicating his own life. He has just overseen the successful renegotiation of NAFTA, which will be reconstituted as the U.S.–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA). But that agreement has not yet been ratified — not by the United States, and not by Mexico. Imposing punitive tariffs over a policy dispute unrelated to trade five minutes after negotiating a new trade pact makes the Trump administration — and the United States — look like an unreliable negotiating partner. Mexico is not wrong to resent it, and even Trump allies such as Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) are against him on this.
The House of Representatives has passed an important resolution calling on the U.S. to end support for the Saudi/United Arab Emirates war in Yemen. Congratulations to Rep. Ro Khanna, who has waged this fight for almost two years. (Self-promotional aside: He says he introduced the bill after he read one of my 2017 columns on Yemen. I have the best readers!) I hope the Saudis and Emiratis will get the message and end this tragic war, for which there is no military solution.
One of my concerns is that the opposite will happen: The Saudis might try to embroil the U.S. in a war with Iran,
- partly to bring Riyadh and Washington closer together,
- partly to distract from Saudi problems, and
- partly to teach the Iranians a lesson.
There are plenty of Iranian, Saudi and American ships in the Gulf and hotheads on each side, so it would be easy to have a murky accident that both sides mishandle and then escalate. The crown prince already tried to boost his fortunes by starting one war, with Yemen, and it is conceivable he’ll try to do the same again
President Trump and his staff have often criticized The New York Times and other news organizations for bias, arguing that we should just report what the president says without trying to analyze whether it’s true or is consistent with other things he has said. I think in fact that we should do the opposite: Where we in the media have screwed up the worst, I believe, is in cases like the run-up to the Iraq War, where we were more lap dogs than watch dogs. My colleague David Sanger (whom I met in our freshman year of college and who was the best man at my wedding), has written an eloquent essay explaining why we point out inaccuracies and inconsistencies even though we know the White House will object. His key phrase: “We’re not stenographers.”
Speaking of journalism, it is horrifying to see the way a New York hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, has systematically purchased and pillaged newspapers around the country, squeezing them for a final bit of revenue as it destroys them. Alden represents the worst of capitalism, targeting a public good and systematically trying to destroy it (often for the underlying real estate that newspapers own). Led by Randall D. Smith, R. Joseph Fuchs and Heath Freeman, the company is now trying to acquire newspapers around the country owned by Gannett, presumably so that it can rip them apart as well. I hope for the sake of newspapers around America, Gannett shareholders resist these barbarians at the gate.
It has been a year since the Parkland, Fla., massacre claimed 17 lives, and we remain as vulnerable as ever to shootings — in a way that Canadians and Europeans are not. I originally wrote a piece in 2017 about modest, sensible steps we could take to reduce the carnage, and I’m recirculating it now because it remains tragically relevant. In addition, check out this satirical Times video about when the right time is for politicians to act on gun control.
When we look at history, it’s clear that Christianity is an evolving faith. It only makes sense that early Christians would look for a logical and meaningful explanation for the “why” of the tragic death of their religion’s founder. For the early centuries, appeasing an angry, fanatical Father was not their answer. For the first thousand years, most Christians believed that the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross—the “price” or the ransom—was being paid not to God, but to the devil! This made the devil pretty powerful and God pretty weak, but it gave the people someone to blame for Jesus’ death. And at least it was not God.
Then, in the eleventh century, Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033–1109) wrote a paper called Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Human?) which might just be the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written. Thinking he could solve the problem of sin inside of the medieval code of feudal honor and shame, Anselm said, in effect, “Yes, a price did need to be paid to restore God’s honor, and it needed to be paid to God the Father—by one who was equally divine.” I imagine Anselm didn’t consider the disastrous implications of his theory, especially for people who were already afraid or resentful of God.
In authoritarian and patriarchal cultures, most people were fully programmed to think this way—working to appease an authority figure who was angry, punitive, and even violent in “his” reactions. Many still operate this way, especially if they had an angry, demanding, or abusive parent. People respond to this kind of God, as sick as it is, because it fits their own story line.
Unfortunately, for a simple but devastating reason, this understanding also nullifies any in-depth spiritual journey: Why would you love or trust or desire to be with such a God?
Over the next few centuries, Anselm’s honor- and shame-based way of thinking came to be accepted among Christians, though it met resistance from some, particularly my own Franciscan school under Bonaventure (1221–1274) and Duns Scotus (1266–1308). Protestants accepted the mainline Catholic position, embracing it with even more fervor. Evangelicals later enshrined it as one of the “four pillars” of foundational Christian belief, which the earlier period would have thought strange. Most of us were never told of the varied history of this theory, even among Protestants. If you came from a “law and order” culture or a buying and selling culture—which most of us have—it made perfect sense. The revolutionary character of Jesus and the final and full Gospel message has still to dawn upon most of the world. It is just too upending for most peoples’ minds until they have personally undergone the radical experience of unearned love. And, even then, it takes a lifetime to sink in.