“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” These words, penned by the Swiss-born French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), capture the spirit of modern revolutionary thought. It argues that institutions and standards, even notions of goodness and truth, enslave people by binding them to a political system, social order and moral and theological tradition. True freedom can never be realized within these structures. Neither can real equality — where all are equal in every respect. Achieving these lofty (though undefined) goals of freedom and equality requires liberation from the institutions and standards of the past. Individuals and society must move past them and create new ones — ones that avoid the oppressive and exclusionary nature of those being replaced. How? In the past, force and even violence was the strategy. Think of the French and Russian Revolutions. There is, however, another way. Over the last century, revolutionary thinkers have also advocated for a quieter, more intentional approach, one that seeks to change institutions from within in what was described in the 1960s as “the long march through the institutions.”
“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
This social strategy can be traced back to neo-Marxist thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), whose work was translated into English by Notre Dame professor John Buttigieg (father of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg). Gramsci taught that the best way to liberate society from oppression was not through political revolution. Rather, it was by slowly but surely influencing and eventually changing extant institutions within it, especially ones that shape culture, such as colleges and universities. This would lead to a cultural revolution and, politics being downstream from culture, political change would follow suit.
We seem to be living either in the middle or, as some argue, the end of a cultural revolution. So much has changed in just a few years. Ideas regarding race, gender and sexuality that made no sense a decade or two ago (and for thousands of years prior) are now part of public discourse — claims like “there are more than two genders” and “elementary school music classes promote white supremacy” or “math is racist” and so on. Universities are abandoning traditional curricula and the ideal of the relentless pursuit of truth for the advancement of social and political causes informed by critical theory and the relativism of social constructivism. Businesses are becoming overtly political and identifying with radical causes such as transgenderism and feminism. Even the military has been affected. One retired Army Lieutenant General named Thomas Spoehr described the military’s greatest challenge as “the weakening of its fabric by radical progressive (or ‘woke’) policies being imposed … by the very leaders charged with ensuring their readiness.”
The history of the woke movement includes more than just the adoption of Gramsci’s strategy for cultural revolution. Critical theory also plays a large role. Its roots can be traced back to Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) and a circle of intellectuals (mostly social scientists) called the Frankfurt school, named for where it was originally located in Germany. It defined critical theory as any approach to understanding a society that moves past merely describing it. Critical theory is the study of a society that critiques its institutions and traditions with the goal of liberating its people from the circumstances that enslave them. In many ways the Frankfurt school applied the revolutionary philosophies of Marx, Rousseau, Gramsci and others to social science research. Their work almost entirely revolved around the conditions necessary for social change in every arena of public and private life.
Critical theory and its recent manifestations have long been part of American academic culture.
Some of the intellectuals involved in the Frankfurt school eventually settled in the United States; the school was for a time located at Columbia University in New York. They then took up teaching posts at American universities where they laid the foundation for the various subdisciplines of critical theory that began to pop up at universities across the country. Critical social justice theory examines and critiques society from the standpoint of social justice as defined by secular, progressivist standards. Queer theory critiques what it calls heteronormativity and strives to create conditions for the inclusion and normalization of an ever-expanding list of alternative sexual identities. Gender theory, which emerged from feminist theory, criticizes the way that way that gender is conceived and, to use its own language, “performed” and seeks to change the status quo by constructing and including other expressions of gender. The list goes on. There’s even an academic side to the fat acceptance movement called fat studies. It questions society’s health and fitness standards and seeks to destigmatize and normalize obesity.
Critical theory and its recent manifestations have long been part of American academic culture. They were there before the 1960s, but it wasn’t until they informed and, conversely, were informed by another academic movement that their influence extended beyond narrow academic circles. That movement is generally called postmodernism.
Postmodernism is notoriously difficult to define. Even proponents of it have had a difficult time agreeing on a definition. In short, it refers to a philosophical disposition that is generally agnostic towards universal claims to truth, like the claims of Christian theology and ethics. It isn’t necessarily hostile to them, but it is skeptical of them. It is also critical of them, for it sees all claims to truth and goodness, normalcy and permanency, as bids for power. Institutions like the church and the American civil tradition that promote a set of standards and, especially in the case of the church, a fixed view of truth, marginalize other ideas and behaviors. In doing so, they implicitly exert power over people. They thus need to be deconstructed, from a postmodernist perspective. Deconstruction is not destruction. Rather, it is a scholarly approach to the study of society that analyzes and exposes the assumptions and implications that ideas and institutions have on people. And it is done from a secular perspective that, ironically, seems unaware of its own assumptions and the implications its ideas have on people.
Michel Foucault (1926–1984) was the chief protagonist of this view among American academics. He was described as a militant intellectual. He took his ideas to their logical conclusion even in his private life where he experimented with some of the most deviant sexual behaviors, which biographers continue to expose. Nevertheless, as an atheist he believed that freedom knew no bounds. That is the very definition of freedom; limits to freedom regarded as sin or standards to preserve a civil and moral order were, for him, mere arbitrary constructs imposed on society by institutions and traditions. They needed to be deconstructed. That was, in many ways, the main point of Foucault’s academic work. He critiqued everything from standards of normalcy to the way discipline and punishment was conceived in penal systems. He went so far as to deconstruct normative standards of sexuality — whether between the same sex or between adults and minors. His ideas comprise the gamut of what are many of the main concerns of woke culture today.
Out of the Academy and into the Culture
Wokeism is the result and perhaps the marriage of these social and academic trends. They began to coalesce and surface in the 1980s and ’90s on college and university campuses. There were plenty of warnings about it. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals (1990), and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education (1991) all tried to sound the alarm. But they were written off as just that — alarmist. For example, Russell Jacoby, a historian from UCLA, argued that while these academic trends were real they posed no threat to American culture in The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (1987). Conservatives should relax, he claimed, and be content that the radical ideas of the postmodernists and critical theorists would remain confined to university and college campuses.
Recently, though, in an article penned last year Jacoby admits that he failed to see something that was not so obvious in the ’80s and ’90s. He did not realize — nor did anyone else it seems — that the rapid growth of institutions of higher education at the end of the 20th century started to slow down and faculty positions for graduates with terminal degrees and a postmodern and critical theory mindset ceased to exist. “The hordes who took courses in critical pedagogy, insurgent sociology, gender studies, radical anthropology, Marxist cinema theory, and postmodernism could no longer hope for university careers,” he writes. “What became of them? … They joined the work force. Some became baristas, tech supporters, Amazon staffers and real estate agents. Others with intellectual ambitions found positions with the remaining newspapers and online periodicals, but most often they landed jobs as writers or researchers with liberal government agencies, foundations or NGOs. In all these capacities they brought along the sensibilities and jargon they learned on campus.”
The exodus of these students and the ideas they learned during their years at university explains how otherwise academic ideas moved into the world beyond academia. They now “staff the ballooning diversity and inclusion commissariats that assault us with vapid statements and inane programs couched in the language they learned in school,” he continues. Now “we are witnessing the invasion of the public square by the campus, an intrusion of academic terms and sensibilities that has leaped the ivy-covered walls aided by social media. The buzz words of the campus — diversity, inclusion, microaggression, power differential, white privilege, group safety — have become the buzz words in public life.”
So, while wokeism seems new — it almost seems like it came out of nowhere — it actually has a history. There is a discernable institutional history of it in American higher education and an intellectual history to go along with it that extends back at least a century. It is found in the so-called scholarship of critical theory and philosophy of postmodernism, which took root and grew on university campuses but eventually moved into other institutions. Its ideas and standards are now taking root across our culture. The task before the church is to think through how it might address the challenges it brings not out of fear but with wisdom and confidence of the truth of what God’s Word has to say about ethical and social matters. That is the subject of the next post.
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