Advice For Unwoke Academic?
An academic recently asked me for advice. A lucky career development has now made him almost un-fire-able, and he wants to join the fight for academic freedom. We talked about two different strategies:
Fabian Strategy: Become a beloved pillar of his college community. Volunteer for all those committees everyone always tries to weasel out of. When some wokeness-related issue comes up - merit vs. diversity hiring, wokeness study class requirements for majors, firing professors who say unwoke things, etc - use his reputation and position to fight back. Kindly but firmly make it clear that he opposes wokeness, and that other academics in the same position are not alone. Occasionally, when the college administrators make some extreme and obvious overstep - something “we’ve cancelled all yoga classes because they’re cultural appropriation”-level unpopular - escalate it, make sure everyone in the world hears about it, then claim the easy victory when they back down.
Berserker Strategy: Pick fights. Literally pick the fights - study up on college policy, get to know the administrators well enough to understand which policies they’re forced to follow and which ones they’ll cave on immediately, learn the relevant laws, lawyer up, be 99% sure he can win any fight he picks - but then pick fights. Invite controversial speakers, knowing that there will be big protests. Then make sure there are lots of cameras around as hundreds of college students hurl garbage and expletives at some kindly old sociologist who said biological sex was real one time or whatever. Do this consistently, in a way that probably makes him lots of enemies and ensures he’ll never get any position of power, but which keeps this issue in front of everyone’s eyeballs. Make sure that everyone sees him successfully standing up to the mob, having his speakers speak, and continuing to be employed and happy. If the college tries to shut him down, sue them and win, in a way that will make colleges more reluctant to shut people down in the future.
Here are some of the points our discussion touched on:
What Message Does A Hard-Won Victory Send? Suppose in fact this guy invites a controversial speaker, there are angry protests, the college tries to fire him, he sues the college and wins, and in the end his speaker is able to speak and he remains employed. If this case makes the news and helps set everyone’s expectations, what message does it send to the average academic? It could be “have hope, it’s possible to win a fight against wokeness”. Or it could be “if you offend woke people, you’ll have to deal with angry mobs and a long court case; sure, you’ll win in the end, but it sounds horrible”.
Were The George Floyd Protests An Example Of Woke Power Or Woke Overreach? If you don’t live in a blue state, take it from me - the original George Floyd protests were a weird time. Overnight every one of your neighbors put up Black Lives Matter signs on their lawn, sometimes multiple signs per house. Every business had “Justice For George Floyd” signs on the windows. Sometimes random unrelated apps you used for laundry or something would randomly sprout pop-ups saying “Did you know the police are bad? Here’s where you should donate.” The usual cancel culture intensified by an order of magnitude.
In this post, I thought of it as rallying a previously flagging social justice movement, allowing them to make a giant show of strength, briefly cow everyone, and intimidate any attempt at change. My interlocutor noticed some of the same things, but said lots of previously woke people had secretly freaked out exactly how strong the show of strength is and gotten doubts - they’d previously bought into the “wokeness is the underdog” narrative, and only then noticed how much power and control it was grabbing for itself. He thinks a world where the protests had never happened would be woker than our current world right now.
Who cares? This is relevant to the strategic discussion. If occasional Wokeness States Of Emergency rally and empower the woke, we should probably prefer Fabian to Berserker. If the State Of Emergency actually helps sow doubts, we should prefer Berserker.
What Would Convince You To Be Woke? Convincing a woke or on-the-fence person to be unwoke seems much like convincing an unwoke or on-the-fence person to be woke. But perhaps you are unwoke or on the fence; what might push you more towards the woke direction?
For me, seeing actual injustices against minorities makes me more woke, and seeing woke people be stupid and unnecessarily combative makes me less woke. Insofar as the Fabian Strategy implies signal-boosting actual injustices against academic freedom, and the Berserker Strategy implies doing things that woke people interpret as stupid and unnecessarily combative, this seems to favor the Fabian Strategy.
How Should We Assess New Atheism? Our last monoculture was the conservative/Christian hegemony of the mid-to-late 20th century. It gradually crumbled, but its most confrontational detractors - the New Atheists - ended up being judged harshly by history. Should we care about this? Maybe the New Atheists were an epiphenomenon who didn’t contribute at all to the decline of Christianity in America. Or maybe they contributed some appropriate amount they can be proud of, and we shouldn’t care whether or not people disliked them afterwards. If you were giving strategic advice to Richard Dawkins in 2005, would you have told him to tone it down? How analogous is the current situation?
How Did Other Protest Movements Solve This Problem? People like to contrast the soft-spoken MLK with the more radical Malcolm X, but probably both of them fall on the Berserker side of our dichotomy above. Does that mean our dichotomy is too weak? Did anyone do Fabian for civil rights? The best example I can think of is the NAACP passing over lots of less-sympathetic test cases before they settled on Rosa Parks for fighting bus segregation. Maybe a more to-the-point retort is that people who employ the Fabian Strategy successfully don’t make the news. Or make the news as Congressman #26 Who Voted For Civil Rights Legislation. On the other hand, some good examples of Fabian Strategy successes are the actual Fabians and the neoliberals.
Does Poorly-Planned Resistance Provide A Cover For Crackdowns? As much as I hate to say it, the most lasting legacy of the Canadian trucker protests might be normalizing freezing protesters’ bank accounts. A cynical take: the government would have liked to have this power since forever, but was afraid of potential blowback. The truckers were a scary enough bogeyman that they were able to justify taking the power to the populace. Although officially they’ve relinquished the legal right, the cultural right depends on things like precedent which now exist. While I don’t morally blame the truckers for this, from a strategic point of view, they sure did cause it to happen. Seems like another consideration pushing against making people angry without a clear plan for why it’s going to be worth it and you’re going to enact real change.
What’s The Current Default Trajectory? We both agree that wokeness is currently in a weird place; ascendant in all measurable ways, but with cracks beginning to show (think Christianity in 1990-something). On the barberpole model of fashion, some of the highest levels of the barberpole (eg private discussions between knowledgeable people) are starting to turn unwoke in a way that suggests other levels might follow. More people than ever mouth agreement, but it’s increasingly unclear how many really believe.
The default trajectory is probably something like wokeness ending out where American Christianity is now - still sort of powerful in its way, but not hegemonic, and non-Christians can still be fine and have religious freedom in most places. What we both worry about is a “soft landing” where ordinary people lose interest and go away, but all the legal apparatus of wokeness - the diversity bureaucracies, forced quotas, normalization of censorship, and the like - stick around by inertia without any reckoning or reconsideration.
(We’re no longer in a state of constant panic about terrorism, and some people may even grudgingly admit that the previous panic about terrorism went a little too far - got kind of witch-hunty at times. But we still have to throw away our water bottles and take off our shoes before getting on a plane, and we probably always will.)
Does this suggest the Berserker Strategy, to make sure the issue doesn’t fade quietly into the night?
Is the goal to have different parts of society out of sync with each other? For example, if the voting public is very anti-woke, but universities are very woke, maybe this will keep wokeness in the public eye long enough for the (now controlled by anti-woke people) government to reckon with it and change the relevant laws. Or is that playing with fire?
Anyway, I told this person I would give him good advice the only way I know how, which is asking you people. Tell me what you think!