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Has “Woke” Become Politically Incorrect?
Plus reasons for pessimism and photos from the NYC sneak peak of “The Coddling” Movie!
Above: Trailer for 1994’s PCU starring Jeremy Piven
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been on a tour of sorts for “The Coddling of the American Mind” movie. The film is finished but we’re still setting up distribution—stay tuned for details. But for now we’re just accepting invitations for private events.
Below I share some photos from a private event in New York City hosted by our friends at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). The event couldn’t have gone better—packed house, passionate Q&A, stimulating after party.
Given my wacky schedule, this week’s dispatch is bloggier than usual. I’m pleased I was able to reference some shorter tidbits I’ve wanted to share for a while.
Recently, I spoke at a film and media professionals event. The prevailing assumption among the group was that “woke” is now a weapon used by the right, especially Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Abe Greenwald points to various instances where prominent voices on the left make the same argument:
At The Washington Post, Philip Bump says, “‘Woke’ simply describes anything that is inherently alarming to the right.” Also at The Washington Post, Ashley Parker and Liz Goodwin write that “conservatives began using ‘woke’ in pejorative terms to undermine Black and liberal ideals …”
Greenwald goes on to provide a brief history of the term, and Musa al-Gharbi of Heterodox Academy finds that the “Great Awokening” might be ending, at least at universities:
Data show that there was a significant uptick in research focused on various forms of bias and discrimination starting in 2011, but the rate of production of scholarly papers exploring these topics seems to have slowed in recent years.
“Woke” might be traveling on the same path as “political correctness.”
Both are terms that were coined and referenced with pride within leftist circles. Both spilled into the broader culture. Both faced backlash for their excesses.
Both endured mockery and some defeats. And it looks like both are on their way to being disavowed by left wingers themselves.
But all that may mean less than meets the eye.
Writing in Reason, FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff recalls how political correctness was mocked (see the 1994 movie PCU) and suffered high-profile defeats (including, in 1995, when a court struck down a Stanford speech code that was so overbroad it might have actually prohibited campus screenings of PCU).
Some assumed this meant political correctness was a fad that was gone forever. On the contrary, it gathered strength over the next two decades, rooting itself in university hiring practices and speech policing, until it became what people now refer to as "wokeness" or the much-abused term "cancel culture."
Political correctness didn't decline and fall. It went underground and then rose again. If anything, it's stronger than ever today. Yet some influential figures on the left still downplay the problem, going so far as to pretend that the increase in even tenured professors being fired for off-limits speech is a sign of a healthy campus. And this unwillingness to recognize a serious problem in academia has helped embolden culture warriors on the right, who have launched their own attacks on free speech and viewpoint diversity in the American education system.
We've fully entered the Second Great Age of Political Correctness. If we are to find a way out, we must understand how we got here and admit the true depths of the problem.
The terms “political correctness” and “woke” might become unfashionable, but the ideas undergirding them probably won’t fade.
There’s a good chance they’ll grow stronger. (In a future issue, I’ll give my prediction for how that will happen.)
Let’s Get Pessimistic!
A while ago, I listed “Six Reasons to be Hopeful About the Sorry State of Free Expression.”
Some readers were surprised by my optimism. But please understand, I’m not actually optimistic. I want to be optimistic and that piece was an attempt at positive framing.
This Quillette piece by Cory Clark and Bo Winegard highlights plenty of reasons for pessimism.
A 2021 survey one of us conducted with 468 psychology professors from over 100 top universities in the US (preprint in progress) found that:
When asked whether scholars should be completely free to pursue research questions without fear of institutional punishment for their research conclusions, among men, the majority (60.5 percent) said “yes,” 37.0 percent said “it’s complicated,” and 2.5 percent said “no.” Among women, the majority (59.6 percent) said “it’s complicated,” 39.8 percent said “yes,” and 0.6 percent said “no.”
When asked whether scientists should prioritize truth or social equity goals when the two conflict, among men, the majority (66.4 percent) prioritized truth, 32.4 percent said “it’s complicated,” and 1.3 percent prioritized social equity. Among women, the majority (52.1 percent) said “it’s complicated,” 43.0 percent prioritized truth, and 4.8 percent prioritized social equity.
Both male and female professors seem rather squeamish about the pursuit of truth, but the survey reveals that female professors are especially squeamish.
That’s important, the authors note, because academia is becoming more female over time.
In 1987, less than a third of faculty at postsecondary institutions in the United States were women. Today, 50.7 percent are. In the coming years and decades, this percentage is likely to grow.
Keep in mind that science and the university are both (supposedly) truth-seeking institutions.
It’s fine if you don’t want to devote your career to a field that pursues truth, but what should we make of scientists at universities who are interested in pursuing something other than truth?
At the very least, they should be open about their commitments. Of course, I don’t expect them to actually do that.
Expect this episode to unfold the way the larger debate about free speech has unfolded. Universities promise free speech, but often deliver censorship.
Photos from the NYC Sneak Peek Screening of “The Coddling” Movie
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