Welcome to Wokespeak: Its Logic-Defying Rhetoric Is Making Heads Spin
In the midst of the nation’s racial upheaval last year, media outlets including the Associated Press, the New York Times and the Washington Post rushed to start capitalizing the word “Black” in reference to African Americans, some announcing the move as a long-overdue gesture of respect. While RealClear has not changed its style, the change elsewhere prompted newsroom soul-searching on whether to write “white” or “White” in reference to people of European descent.
Capitalizing the term made sense as a simple matter of consistency. But the argument for lower-casing “white” staked its own moral claims. One was that capitalizing it would legitimize white supremacy. Another was that “white” in lower case is an apolitical description of a skin color; it doesn’t merit capitalization because whites don’t represent a shared culture.
News organizations adopted inconsistent policies on the question – the AP, Times and others voted for “w”; the Washington Post and National Association of Black Journalists chose “W.” But the notion that there is no white culture drew jeers of derision from some quarters. It was virtually impossible to pretend not to see that white culture is routinely cited to refer to white supremacy and white privilege as a shorthand for the cultural biases, prejudices and values that prop up systemic racism.
Both ideas—that white culture is omnipresent and nonexistent—can’t be true. Or can they?
The white culture conundrum is one of many such paradoxes in today’s topsy-turvy woke culture, where colorblindness once represented the ideal of being unprejudiced, but now marks the epitome of racism.
These apparent contradictions can cause confusion, frustration and moral whiplash in a swiftly changing society where many people fear that one wayward move can result in a public flogging or a pink slip. Yet as the public seeks guidance, the fractured market of ideas seems unable to provide clarity on which rules apply in which situation.
“These contradictions and conundrums have hit like an avalanche,” said Jason Hill, a native of Jamaica and author of the 2018 book, “We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People.”
“Everyone needs to be aware because at some point they are going to be caught in these conceptual snares,” said Hill, a philosophy professor at DePaul University. “Most people are caught off-guard and cede their position. If you try to argue your way out, they’ll ensnare you in more traps.”
The paradoxes come in a variety of iterations, from moral imperatives to abstract propositions. In Ibram X. Kendi’s best-selling book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” the celebrity professor writes that cultural relativism is “the essence of cultural antiracism. To be antiracist is to see all cultures in all their differences as on the same level, as equals.”
Taken literally, Kendi’s dictum would mean that the antiracist culture he envisions is no better than the racist culture he blames for racial disparities in health, wealth, education and other measures. Yet it’s impossible to read Kendi’s work as anything but a critique of racist culture, and by extension, gun culture, rape culture and consumer culture.
This paradoxical pairing of a radical cultural critique with a radical cultural relativism is hardly unique to Kendi, but one of a growing number of widely circulating self-cancelling propositions.
Take gentrification, often invoked as an example of systemic racism because it can lead to the displacement of generations of black residents by incoming affluent whites. The famed antiracist writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has described gentrification as a crime, and others have denounced whites moving into black neighborhoods as ethnic cleansing, colonization and genocide.
Yet the reverse of gentrification—white flight from increasingly black neighborhoods—is also deemed a racist reflex by some, Coates among them, because it abandons once thriving schools and communities to neglect and disrepair. Hence the paradox: Condemning gentrification and white flight seems to leave no room for movement in any direction, inducing a moral paralysis.
“If both advocating for integrating city neighborhoods and advocating for retreat to safer suburban neighborhoods can be painted as racist—and there are many examples equivalent to this one—almost anyone could be ‘canceled’ at any time,” said Wilfred Reilly, author of the 2019 book “Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War.”
“It makes almost every conversation not among close friends into a booby-trapped environment,” said Reilly, a political science professor at Kentucky State University, a historically black college.
Some critics of progressive politics describe these paradoxes as the inevitable consequence of sloppy, illogical thinking based on emotional arguments and political expediencies. The inconsistencies can also result from the social justice movement’s strategy of “problematizing”—a philosophical posture that deconstructs and delegitimizes existing values and institutions as systems of oppression when seen through the lens of race, gender and power. Indeed, the term “woke” refers to being hyper-aware of the constant microaggressions and oppressions that become evident everywhere once one gets into the mindset of problematizing, or turning everything into a problem.
Others see the self-cancelling propositions in more sinister terms: as moral double-binds and Orwellian doublespeak deliberately designed to deceive, entrap and neutralize political opponents.
“They’re not bugs, they’re features,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which defends free speech and other individual rights of students and faculty at colleges and universities.
“It gives you infinite power over your opponent if you can literally have your argument any which way that works to your advantage,” said Lukianoff, co-author of the 2018 book “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.”
To be sure, any large movement will have discordant voices and divergent opinions, and a certain amount of viewpoint diversity is inevitable. In all human affairs, from politics to religion, there seems to be no shortage of hypocrisy. Fabio Rojas, a sociology professor at Indiana University, said the visibility of paradoxes in the realm of social justice is a testament to the movement’s ascendance in Western societies.
“Social justice is the theory of the moment. It’s all that we’re doing,” said Rojas, author of the 2007 book “From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline.” “Right now the social justice world is gigantic, very popular.”
Still, many antiracist advocates don’t see these conundrums as contradictory, but as being situationally true in specific contexts, and also dependent on other nuances, such as whether a word like “culture” is being used literally or metaphorically.
Ron Scapp, an academic specialist in ethnic studies, is among those who acknowledge the contradictions and paradoxes as real, not imaginary; but Scapp says they are not the result of muddled thinking or an underhanded attempt at emotional blackmail. They simply reflect the ubiquity of systemic racism that permeates so much of American society, which means that we encounter racism wherever we turn, and all our options are morally fraught.
This sensation of feeling trapped is what is often meant by the idea that facing one’s white complicity in structures of oppression will necessarily cause white people to experience discomfort and even distress, because they have no place to hide in the society they have created, said Scapp, a professor of humanities and teacher education at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, in New York, and past president of the National Association for Ethnic Studies.
“The options aren’t painless—this comes with a price,” Scapp said. “And doing good doesn’t mean that you get to feel free from any pain or inconvenience that history has set us up for. There’s some white people who want a quick and easy out, to buy their way out of that history.”
Several critical race theorists told RealClearInvestigations that another factor might be at play in the calling out of contradictions: a whiff of white privilege in demanding perfect logical consistency without bothering to attend to context or to the literal and rhetorical uses of language.
“There might be some element of that [white privilege] involved in demanding logical consistency where it’s so easily shown that there is none,” said Robert Westley, a Tulane University law professor who specializes in critical race theory and reparations. “If we suspend the rhetoricity of language and just approach it in a logical way, then you could generate these kinds of contradictions all day long.”
In many intellectual traditions, logical consistency is not considered to be the loftiest human intellectual attainment, and rationalism lacks the prestige of paradoxes, enigmas, koans and riddles. In the Anglophone world, contradictions have been celebrated as transcendent by the playwright Oscar Wilde, poet Walt Whitman and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who declared that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Political theorist Saul Alinsky, the author of the 1971 community organizing guide “Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals,” gamely advised: “In the politics of human life, consistency is not a virtue.”
Paradoxes aren’t the sole domain of the activist, but also are a tendency of progressive scholarship. For example, we are told that women are equal to men in all areas of competency, but studies show that women are more effective in 84% of leadership skills and in 13 of 19 areas of leadership effectiveness, according to research reported in Harvard Business Review.
It is accepted as a self-evident truth that slavery and segregation enriched white America at the expense of African Americans. But research also shows the opposite: that racism acts as a drag on the whole economy—retarding investment, growth, purchasing power, consumer spending and depressing other metrics—which economically harms white people, too, according to a report in The New York Times.
The most fertile ground for contradictions might well be the diversity and equity industry, which seems to have outpaced the pulpit in its zeal for issuing moral precepts.
A recurring theme in the social justice movement is the plea for an honest conversation about race, where all perspectives are respected. But the public is also getting the inverse message: that it is imperative for whites to remain silent to make room for marginalized voices and to stop centering their privileged experiences.
In the antiracist consulting world, it is a truth universally acknowledged that organizations should hire people of color to promote diverse viewpoints and insights from those employees.
But according to materials from The Walt Disney Co., recently leaked to City Journal, there is a limit on exploiting black wisdom. “Do not rely on your Black colleagues to educate you. This is emotionally taxing”; “Do not call on your Black colleagues to represent the voice of their community”; and “Be aware of tokenism, when Black professionals are expected to be representative for their entire race.”
Critical race theorist andré douglas pond cummings (who writes his name in lowercase letters), said this is actually sound advice for an organization that has hired one or two token black employees. The problem of tokenization disappears when organizations have true diversity with many black colleagues representing multiple black perspectives, said cummings, a business law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock who has taught courses on corporate justice and “Hip-Hop & the American Constitution.”
He said many of the paradoxes will become moot in a socially just society.
“Maybe some of these seeming incoherences or inconsistencies just need time to come to a place of coherence,” cummings said.
Appeasing moral scolds can present a special challenge for homebuyers who want to be “on the right side of history” and increasingly see their words and actions as moral statements. The real estate dilemma of gentrification versus white flight is particularly acute for someone who might opt for a hybrid automobile over a gas-guzzling SUV and insists on shopping at businesses that support Black Lives Matter. A home purchase, the most expensive personal investment most people will make, becomes imbued with the greatest moral significance of all.
Rachel Garshick Kleit, a professor of city and regional planning at The Ohio State University, has taught classes on and written about teaching “The Socially Just City.” She said her students have been torn between the two impossible options when they think about home ownership as a personal moral decision. “They were in moral conflict over it in a class discussion,” Kleit said. “They were trying to figure out what their personal responsibility was.”
Gentrification is deeply personal for all involved. In a 2019 New York Times article about gentrification in Raleigh, N.C.—headlined “The Neighborhood’s Black. The New Home Buyers? White.”—a community organizer vented her frustration: “Our black bodies literally have less economic value than the body of a white person. As soon as the white body moves into the same space that I occupied, all of a sudden this place is more valuable.”
Some critical race theorists are willing to grant moral absolution on this point. The moral predicament of home ownership arises out of the default culture’s fixation with individualism, said Westley, the reparations specialist at Tulane. The critique of gentrification and white flight is not so much a moral litmus test for individual white homebuyers, according to Westley and Kleit, but a critique of the government policies that shape real estate markets in ways that are harmful to people of color.
“I think you have to get out of this individualist paradigm where it’s all about me and what I do, as opposed to it’s about what we do as a society and a community,” Westley said.
‘Endless Contradictions, Fabrications and Fantasies’
The topic of woke paradoxes has received scant attention, but it hasn’t escaped notice altogether.
Conservative British author Douglas Murray grappled with the issue in his 2019 book, “The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity.” He traced the cause of the linguistic convolutions to the social justice movement’s emphasis on identity politics and its jettisoning of traditional liberal principles such as colorblindness. This manner of thinking distorts the benefits of liberalism (that is, civil rights gains for minority groups) into a type of idolatry, elevating identity politics as an end unto itself. This confusion leads to “endless contradictions, fabrications and fantasies,” Murray wrote.
As a paradox-spotter, Murray has few peers. Murray depicts social justice activism as an incarnation of the Orwellian principle that revolutions start out professing that all people are equal but then slip into the self-serving belief that some people are more equal than others. Though Murray doesn’t mention the U.S. Declaration of Independence—“all men are created equal”—slavery and discrimination might well be one of the most egregious examples of this unfortunate tendency.
Murray does cite other examples. One is a 2014 study by Australian researchers that found that children of same-sex couples are healthier and happier than children brought up by straight couples. In another study, UCLA researchers found that gay couples are more likely to stay together than straight couples (and, surprisingly, lesbian couples).
Murray also noted the perplexing declamations that women are more capable than men. This incongruity gained currency after the Great Recession of 2008, which was allegedly caused by too many men in positions of power in the finance and banking industry. Christine Lagarde, former head of the International Monetary Fund (now president of the European Central Bank), blamed the financial meltdown on the underrepresentation of women on the boards of banks and in regulatory agencies. “If it had been Lehman Sisters rather than Lehman Brothers,” she was quoted as saying, repeating a favorite mantra, “the world might well look a lot different today.”
According to Murray, who is gay, one of the “central conundrums” of our time is expressed by people with marginalized identities: You must understand me. You will never understand me.
Murray dubbed these moral strictures as “paradoxical, impossible demands.”
“The inherent willingness to rush towards contradiction” is “not enough to stop this new religion of social justice,” Murray wrote. One reason “why contradiction is not enough is because nothing about the intersectional, social justice movement suggests that it is really interested in solving any of the problems that it claims to be interested in.”
That left Murray with only one possible conclusion: “Their desire is not to heal but to divide, not to placate but to inflame, not to dampen but to burn.”