Two Kinds of Wokeism

There seems to be two kinds of wokeism (just, as we saw yesterday, there seems to be two Overton Windows), which might be described as wokeism on the right and wokeism on the left. If wokeism might be described as a perhaps exaggerated respect for the sensitivities of others, a sort of extension of what was once branded “political correctness,” the implication by those against it is that valuable things are being thrown away or suppressed to protect those sensitivities, at the expense of traditions of the past, or even the reality of science in deference to traditional worldviews.

Most broadly, being “woke” simply means being aware of how others perceive the world, and how the assumptions made yesterday might not be appropriate today and might be improved. Woke; awake; aware. In practice, especially on the right, it means opposing anything that challenges the tradition in the US of white Christian culture. On the left it means challenging, even trying to correct, injustices of the past, including almost incidentally racist attitudes in old books, from Dr. Seuss to Roald Dahl. Conservatives are outraged that something traditional is being lost when Random House declines to keep in print certain cringe-worthy Dr. Seuss books, but then turns around to ban, as best they can, other books that *they* don’t like, those that concern people and practices that weren’t part of their traditional conservative past. And so on.

Outrages against wokeism are easy to find on the right (see: Florida), less common on the left, where it seems to be confined to the academic community. Today, a couple examples of that.

Salon, Paul Rosenberg, 4 Mar 2023: When liberal institutions fail us: “Envious reversal” and the Hamline University debacle, subtitled “A small college panicked and fired a professor — but the real lessons aren’t the ones the right wants to teach”

A kind of exception-that-proves-the-rule story. About a case of “wokeism” that even most liberals have condemned. This concerns an incident at Hamline University, in Minnesota, that took place last October, in which an art history instructor showed her class, with plenty of advance warning, a medieval Islamic painting of the Prophet Muhammad.

As was widely reported, López Prater gave both written and verbal advance warnings for devout Muslim students who may regard such images as sacrilegious — a widely-held view today that was not so dominant in the past. But one student who disregarded the warnings complained afterwards, leading the school’s administration to label López Prater’s actions as “Islamophobic” and terminate her promised future employment — a decision move vigorously opposed by the Muslim Public Affairs Council as well as the University of Minnesota’s Department of Art History.


This episode rapidly gained momentum on the right as an example of “wokeness” and diversity run amok, but it’s important to understand that Hamline’s decision was opposed to the diverse traditions found within Islam.  In the lawsuit López Prater filed against Hamline, she stated that the student in question, Aram Wedatalla, “wanted to impose her specific religious views on López Prater, non-Muslim students, and Muslim students who did not object to images for the Prophet Muhammad — a privilege granted to no other religion or religious belief at Hamline.”

Cue Mehdi Hasan, whom we just discussed.

MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan put it more directly: “There’s a reason right-wing media have been all over this story. Because they don’t want to admit that there is a real problem with anti-Muslim bigotry in this country. And now they can say, look, look, it’s those Muslim bullies and censors on college campuses and those liberal cowards in charge of colleges who have invented the whole thing, who’ve taken offense of things they shouldn’t be offended by.”

My outrage about this story is that this university allowed a complaint by a *single student*, who was warned in advance, to lead to the firing of the instructor. Isn’t this kowtowing to religion run amok?

But what I found most interesting about this piece are these remarks about liberalism and public schools.

“Everyone blames the liberals,” John Stoehr argues, reflecting on what happened at Hamline, and how it’s been received. “No one blames the institutions for getting the liberals’ ideas wrong.” That’s really the point made above. It’s easy to say that academic freedom is a core liberal value, and that violating it is a major failure. But religious freedom, non-discrimination and pluralism are liberal values too, and Hamline had systematically failed on all those counts already.

Liberalism is the force in politics and society that aims to flatten entrenched hierarchies of power in order to advance liberty, equality and justice for all, not merely the few,” Stoehr writes, linking to Rick Perlstein’s essay on right-wing education panic, “They Want Your Child!

“Public schools are where young people encounter ways of being and thinking that may directly contradict those they were raised to believe; there really is no way around it,” Perlstein writes. “Schools are where future adults receive tools to decide which ideas and practices to embrace and which to reject for themselves. Schooling, done properly, is the opposite of conservatism. So is it any wonder it frequently drives conservatives berserk?”

Note carefully what Perlstein is saying: “[T]he opposite of conservatism” doesn’t mean that education is leftist indoctrination, but rather that students are given a choice to “decide which ideas and practices to embrace and which to reject,” given tools to decide for themselves. They are free to choose “conservative” values and ideas, of course — but that act of choice is the essence of liberalism.

Thus conservative animus against public education. The piece goes on to discuss projection, or “envious reversal.”

What happened at Hamline was only one example of another long-standing trend in envious reversal: portraying liberals as intolerant and close-minded and conservatives as the opposite. That’s a tough sell when it comes to religious conservatives with their constant public bullying and censorship campaigns, but libertarians love this, particularly on higher education.

And so on, with quotes from George Lakoff. Concluding,

Conservatives want to keep us tangled in the contradictions of the past, in the supposed name of “freedom.” But real freedom comes through freeing ourselves from those contradictions, even if new contradictions arise. Once we understand freedom as dynamic, the prospect of new contradictions need not deter us from moving forward. It simply presents new challenges for us to meet.


The second example, which I know about only because Jerry Coyne (author of Faith vs. Fact and Why Evolution Is True) on his site has been following developments of this story from New Zealand. For months now there have been debates there about acknowledging the indigenous Maori “way of knowing” alongside science, at least in secondary-school classrooms. The latest item today,

The New Zealand Herald does a hit job on Dawkins

is just the latest installment. (The Elon Musk Richard Dawkins angle is incidental. No better graphics today for these stories.) On the face of it, the whole story seems incredible. Coyne:

The government has decreed that MM [Mātauranga Māori] be taught as coequal to science in secondary-school classrooms, although this “way of knowing is a melange of practical knowledge, religion, traditional stories, morality, and superstition.”

So this would be wokeism on the left run amok. To compromise science — Coyne accuses the NZ government of not understanding what science means — with local traditions of indigent “natives” (though of course the Maori have occupied those island only since the 1300s, only a few hundred years before European colonists arrived) is unsupportable, no matter how much we might like to respect the cultures of non-European peoples.


As an aside, I’ve been to New Zealand and witnessed a local Maori version of a luau, with hunky males dancing in grass skirts, pigs baked in pits, and simulated aggression between tribes. Takeaway: Sticking your tongue out and waggling it is regarded as a sign of contempt to the rival tribe. Before the performance began, our tour guide warned us not to laugh.

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