Woke in Plain English: "Woke"


Seeking input on my lecture

I’m scheduled to give a brief 5-minute lecture for the University of Antwerp. The topic is:

Do Critical Race Theory/identity politics/transgender ideology/wokeism etc. pose a danger for free speech and the scientific method?

I’ve written a first draft, below. As an experiment, I’m going to crowdsource feedback on this talk. I don’t take criticism personally, so have at it.

Here’s what I’m looking for: The more specific your feedback/criticisms, the more helpful they are. ← read this again

Also, I have no idea how many people will comment on this, perhaps nobody. If you want to help, please be brief and specific.

Have at it.


Recently, the President of Portland State University, a large public university in the Pacific Northwestern United States, declared, “My highest priority is sustaining and amplifying our commitment to racial justice.”

What does it mean to state that racial justice is the highest priority of a university? How is that different from saying, “Truth is the highest priority of a university?”

In this brief talk, I’ll examine and analyze these questions.

If racial justice is the highest priority of a university, that means that anything—any value—that comes into conflict with racial justice must be subordinate to racial justice. If it were not subordinate to racial justice, then racial justice would not, by definition, be the highest priority. 

Given that all other values are subordinate to racial justice, if there’s a conflict between racial justice and, for example, free speech, then racial justice must trump free speech. What would such a conflict look like?

Accept by fiat that the following proposition is a tenet of racial justice: promotion and tenure should be at least partially based on racial identity markers. If a faculty member provides arguments against this and attempts to refute this claim, then she’d be undermining the highest priority of the university, which is advancing racial justice. Thus, that argument should not be made, or if it is made, the faculty member who offered it should be reprimanded or even terminated because she’s advocated a position which is in direct conflict with the primary mission of the institution.

Another way to think about this would be in the case of a Christian university. Bob Jones University is a conservative Christian university in Greenville, South Carolina.

Here’s Bob Jones’ mission statement:

“Within the cultural and academic soil of liberal arts higher education, Bob Jones University exists to grow Christlike character that is scripturally disciplined, others-serving, God-loving, Christ-proclaiming and focused above.”

If a faculty member teaching at Bob Jones began openly advocating atheist positions and claiming that there was no evidence for the resurrection of Christ, she’d be actively working against the mission of the university. That faculty member’s free speech rights would be in direct conflict with the primary mission of Bob Jones university. It is an open legal question whether the university would have sufficient grounds to terminate the atheist faculty member’s employment.

Now that I’ve clarified the reasoning behind how to think about a university’s goals, let’s bring our attention back to racial justice and use a real-life example of a conflict in priorities. Dr. Abbot is a professor in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. Recently, he was invited to deliver the prestigious John Carlson Lecture at MIT. The topic of his presentation was, “climate and the potential for life on other planets.” A department chair responsible for the John Carlson Lecture cancelled his lecture because elsewhere, Dr. Abbott argued that academic evaluations should be based on what he terms MFE: merit, fairness, and equality, as opposed to exogenous characteristics like sexual orientation, trans status, or race.

If the highest priority of a university is racial justice, and one way to discharge that priority is through basing academic evaluations on considerations other than merit—considerations that advance racial justice—then there is a conflict between Dr. Abbott’s stance and the university’s priorities. That conflict is adjudicated by yielding to the institution’s highest priority—racial justice, thus preventing Dr. Abbott from speaking.

If either MIT or the University of Chicago’s highest priority was racial justice, it’s easy to understand the reasoning behind why Dr. Abbot should be reprimanded, sanctioned, or even have his tenure revoked and be fired. If truth were their highest priority, then they’d have no grounds to cancel his lecture or sanction him in any way based upon his statements about judging academic merit.

But what if a university declared its highest priority as truth, and then a rogue professor argues it should be something else, like how to mitigate climate change? Should she be silenced, fired, or sanctioned?

No. She should not.

Truth is not a conclusion. It’s an orientation and a commitment—a pledge—to form propositions that accurately articulate states of affairs based on the best available reasons and evidence and to revise those propositions as new reasons and evidence emerge. Truth occupies a fundamentally different category than any conclusion-centered agenda (for example, mitigating climate change or racial justice).

Here’s the key difference between orientating a university toward truth as opposed to racial justice or any other agenda: When an organization’s highest priority is truth, it does not start with the conclusion first and work backward in service of the conclusion.

When an organization’s highest priority is not truth, it starts with the conclusion first and works backward in service of the conclusion. In the latter case, for example, if the highest priority of a university is to be “Christ-proclaiming,” disputes about faculty speech and whether a faculty member should be disinvited from public lectures are adjudicated based upon their fidelity to whether the event in question comports with this mission. If a faculty member’s speech actively contradicts this mission, then the only issue in question is what the punishment should be.

Truth-centered universities are under no such burden. Even if a faculty member actively derides truth—as postmodernists routinely do—this position falls under the umbrella of a truth-seeking university. No convergence of opinion or ideological homogeneity is required if truth is the highest priority of an institution. And this is what makes universities that have made truth their highest priority unique.