The Irrational Cognitive Style of Woke Progressivism

Among the religiously-conscious, a type of consciousness especially pronounced these days among those who adhere to the ideology of woke progressivism, perceptions are shaped much as they were in the past, most notably in the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, a time when Christians attacked individuals with perceived similar characteristics, proclivities, and traits. Homosexuals, Jews, and single women were suspect because of who they were, not what they did, and any one of them or all of them could stand in for something one of them did or might do. If a Jew did something bad, any Jew could take his place on the pyre. All Jews were subject to control and retribution because of who they were. This is the same attitude woke progressivism brings to questions of justice from its standpoint (what it calls “social justice”).

A heinous act is committed by a man against a woman and the narrative on the left is that what happened to the woman was motivated by misogyny, a type of prejudice attributed to all men, a hatred and loathing that ranges from the male gaze to rape and murder. Therefore, all men are responsible for the actions of the perpetrator and thus all men where they can be wrangled (universities, the workplace) require reeducation and reform. Men are naturally sexually attracted to women, see women as objects in their environment, as they do everything else, and this puts women at risk. In this way, members of an abstract demographic category are blamed and shamed for actions they did not perpetrate (and objectification is turned into something untoward).

We see the same thing with race. A white man commits a crime against a black man and the act is construed as motivated by race prejudice. One need not know anything about the crime other than the respective race of perpetrator and victim. The narrative on the left is that racism is systemic, something possessed to some degree by all whites; therefore, all whites are ultimately implicated in, or at least to some degree responsible for that act and all whites have to be reeducated about race so it won’t happen again (which, of course, it will). Even when there is no instance of wrongdoing, the ideology that might result in wrongdoing is always lurking implicit in everything, and therefore reeducation is necessary. Identity is proof of motivation. Phenotypic features are sufficient condition for suspicion. In another manifestation of this thought pattern, each black man can speak for all black men except when he can’t, but no white man can speak for black men.

Ashleigh Shackleford

This is a entirely irrational way of thinking. It takes an anecdote and represents it as if it were a scientific conclusion in the way that a falling rock is an indication of gravitation. It assumes that racism and sexism are aggregate and regular phenomena and that explains actions supposed to result from them. Demographic disparities are by definition racism and sexism. The anecdote becomes proof that heterosexism, racism, sexism, and all the rest of it are systemic without any scientific work. To be sure, persons act on the basis of the beliefs they have about things, but where is the evidence that the beliefs motivating concrete heinous acts are held by all members of a group who happen to be defined as white or who have male gonads (and who identify as such) or who are attracted to members of the opposite sex? A straight white man is not analogous to a Nazi or a Muslim—or progressives. Nazism, Islam, and progressivism are ideologies. White, straight, and male are passive demographic categories. The woke mix qualitatively different things. Moreover, even in the case of ideology, the connection must be made between collectively-held ideas and the concrete action those ideas are supposed to have motivated.

As a straight white man, I am no more responsible for what other straight white men do than I am responsible for what gay black women do. I may be burdened by abstract categories when they move others to discriminate against me, but I am not really a category. I am a concrete individual. I am responsible for my actions. My actions are not intrinsically motivated by the demographic characteristics attributed to me. There are neither empirical nor rational means by which anybody can put me in the realm of culpability for actions taken by another straight white man. There are only irrational means, the same means by which a black man is made to stand in for another black man or all black men and mistreated (or rewarded, for that matter) on that basis. To assume on grounds of race and sexual orientation that I possess a flawed character is race and sex prejudice. To treat me differently on that basis is discrimination based on race and sex.

It is this irrational cognitive style that makes it difficult for progressives to accept that, for example, there is no systemic bias in lethal civilian-police interactions. Newspapers report the death of a black unarmed man at the hands of a white police officer and the manner of death, extraordinarily rare as it is, is portrayed as evidence of a systemic problem demanding reeducation and reform. But the science finds no racism in lethal civilian-police interactions—and scientific findings only matter to those with intense religious commitments when they support the doctrine. When it comes to claims about white privilege, for example, progressives are eager to appeal to statistical averages around abstract aggregates, but for COVID-19 risk assessment it’s all about that suffocating MAGA hat wearer who rejected the vaccine confessing his stupidity from his hospital gurney. This is a special sort of hypocrisy because the soundness of the respective cases actually requires a flip in the level of abstraction (hint: because one is a reification). This is why more than forty percent of progressives think half of those infected by COVID-19 wind up in the hospital. While they sit around laughing at the much smaller proportion of the population that thinks the earth is flat.

* * *

Even when I was sympathetic to elements of critical race theory, I never taught it uncritically in a classroom, let alone supported its imposition in diversity training. I now recognize critical race theory as a toxic ideology, but even when I didn’t, my belief that higher education is no place for demanding conformity to a particular line of political thought always guided my classroom ethics. Nor should critical race theory be represented as a definitive or settled view in training sessions in corporation and government agencies. Not only is critical race theory toxic, but the practice of compelling speech from administrators, students, teachers, and workers is tyrannical. This is what Randall Kennedy misses in his answer to questions about anti-CRT legislation. If it were just a matter of assessing the merits of CRT claims that’d be one thing. But that is not what what’s happening. CRT is being taught as truth and assessment of it is treated as racism. What is more, how can the elementary school environment be an ideal speech situation (see Jurgen Habermas)? It can’t. Perhaps high school could be. But it’s not.

Suppose you are a biology professor at a university who believes in creationism. That could bias the way you treat the subject matter, how you grade students, how you treat your Darwinian colleagues, how your work reflects on the reputation and integrity of the institution. Your colleagues find your beliefs offensive. That are quite disturbed by creationists. They seek uniformity of thought. But you have a right to your beliefs. Second, how does what you believe affect your coworkers if you don’t act on those beliefs? It is already against the law to discriminate on the basis of race. This is about thought control. If the action is illegal, why do you need to brainwash the employee? Why this? If you are going to brainwash employees on race, then why not everything? Why should a person’s right to their own beliefs matter at all? Mix the suppression of ideas with the conflation of concrete individuals with abstract categories and democratic freedoms are sliding into the abyss.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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