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Liberalism Is Easy to Abandon; Wokeism Difficult to Resist
Letter 3: My Response To Ayaan Hirsi Ali
This is a re-publishing of a 2020 letter exchange between me and Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the outcome of the culture war. As the original hosting site has been taken down, I am reposting here with titles. This is the third letter, from me to Ayaan, and you can find the full list here.
22 Oct '20
Thank you so much for your response. I am heartened by your optimism, but I must admit, I remain unconvinced.
I am not a cynic, and I have not given up. However, in order to effectively combat this foe, we must understand what we face, and strategize accordingly. I fear we underestimate our opposition, and overestimate our strengths.
I agree that wokeism is NOT an intellectually compelling ideology. In fact, it may not even be coherent enough to be classed as an ideology. The circular logic, appeals to the absolute authority of “identity” and privileging of “lived experience” over objective analysis are all feints, not arguments. The woke exploit the therapeutic language of “harm,” “safety” and “trauma” to disqualify discussion participants, heckle speakers and cancel events—ending rational debate before it begins.
Their ludicrous prose, of which you offered such a ghastly example, is perhaps intentionally opaque. As Orwell recognized, “avoidably ugly” jargon, far from clarifying one’s thinking, performs “the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.” It limits discourse, discourages reflection and flattens thought before it can even occur.
Additionally, wokeism shape-shifts at a dizzying rate: correct behavior today can become an outrage tomorrow. Perhaps there is no meaning to be found—no center around which this force moves. What are “woke values” that are not also progressive values?
Wokeism is, perhaps, an anti-ideology—a will to power that can be identified not by what it values or the future it envisions, but by what it seeks to destroy and the power it demands. This makes it especially disastrous. For, when an existing organizing structure is destroyed with no replacement, a more brutal force can exploit the resulting power vacuum. In Iraq, the defeat of Saddam paved the way for ISIS. In Iran, naive socialists helped overthrow the authoritarian power, hoping to create a more just world—instead, the Ayatollah took charge and promptly executed and jailed his former allies. Once liberal institutions have been delegitimized by the woke, what will replace them?
But while its philosophy is empty, the psychology of wokeism is deeply satisfying to our baser instincts. For the vicious, there is a thrill in playing the righteous inquisitor, in mobbing heretics and demanding deference—brutal tactics that keep the rest of us in line, lest we be targeted next. Meanwhile, the strict social hierarchies of the woke are reassuringly simple to navigate: one always knows one’s place.
By contrast, liberalism flies in the face of human nature. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is a phrase so often repeated that we have forgotten how deeply counterintuitive it is. We want to punch the Nazi (or gag him), not defend his right to march.
Liberalism might ultimately be good, but it doesn’t feel good. And this is why it may find itself vulnerable to public abandonment, especially in times where it is most necessary. In addition, with the rise of an authoritarian power in China, liberalism is meeting an existential challenge on the global stage.
As you note,
Islam has mounted a partly successful resistance to all these ideas for centuries, at the price of impoverishing Muslim-majority societies around the world
This was possible partly because Islam is more intuitive than liberalism, more satisfying to our primal urges. This is an advantage wokeism shares.
You rightly point out that liberalism has formidable champions in Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and J. K. Rowling. Yet Hitchens is gone and all the others are over fifty. Likewise, this summer, when I co-signed an open letter in defense of free debate, I was disconcerted to see how few of the other signatories were even close to my age.
Bari Weiss recently noted that:
The civil war inside The New York Times between the (mostly young) wokes and the (mostly 40+) liberals is the same one raging inside other publications and companies across the country. The dynamic is always the same. The Old Guard lives by a set of principles we can broadly call civil libertarianism. They assumed they shared that worldview with the young people they hired who called themselves liberals and progressives. But it was an incorrect assumption.
This has been my experience, too. Woke adherence can be predicted by generation—where true liberals exist, they exist primarily among the old guard. If the woke have won over the young, they have captured the future.
And it is undeniable that indeed they have—particularly the highly educated young: the future elite. Universities have become places where ideas are suppressed and the driving force behind this is not authoritarian administrators, but authoritarian students.
Are all young people bamboozled by wokeism? No. Most people of all ages are well-meaning conformists: they would like to do good in the world, but also want to avoid social opprobrium, whenever possible.
Conformists, however, can illuminate power dynamics in our social environments. If this battle does not yet have a victor, then the conformists will remain passive. If, however, the conformists act, we can follow their direction to find where the real power lies.
As Nassim Taleb has pointed out, a sufficiently intolerant minority can wield immense social influence. Like religious zealots, the woke infuse their language with morality, creating a powerful pressure to conform, and encourage social policing, shaming and shunning tactics that discourage dissent. Defying them can jeopardize your professional reputation and even your livelihood.
By their repeated capitulations, the conformists (including world-famous movie stars, corporate executives, and heads of influential magazines) have crowned a victor: the woke.
So how can we fight this?
Instead of aiming our efforts on those already captured by wokeism, perhaps we should focus on the next generation, whose values are still in active formation, who will relish standing up to the empire of the woke as a function of youthful idealism.
In my work with ex-Muslims, we persuade curious, intelligent young people to stand up against the religious totalism that has destroyed so much of the Muslim world.
When I began my activism, even the word “ex-Muslim” was a rare sight. Now, there is a growing movement of young people happily adopting that label, addressing Islam critically with their peers and religious authorities. So extraordinary has been our success that the religious are now hosting conferences and workshops on the “problem” of rapidly growing atheism. We must employ a similar strategy against wokeism.
Jordan Peterson’s approach provides a good model. Though I have reservations about his specific message, he addressed the anxieties of young people and guided them through the culture war skirmishes. We must do the same.
We must counter the messages they receive at school and from their peers and from our media and cultural institutions. And we must educate them on the value of liberalism.
Thank you again for your letter. I welcome your thoughts on the path forward.
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