Woke-ism is an authoritarian force that suppresses open and honest investigation and debate

Frances Widdowson

In November 2022, I was invited by Paul Viminitz, a professor in the philosophy department at the University of Lethbridge, to deliver a lecture on the perceived threat of “woke-ism” to academic freedom. As the pressure to cancel the talk mounted, the University’s President, Mike Mahon, declined to provide university space for the lecture, citing concerns about the potential harm it might cause.

In response, I attempted to present my lecture in the Atrium, a significant public space on campus. However, my efforts were met with opposition as several hundred students, brandishing signs with slogans like “RACISM IS NOT FREE SPEECH,” shouted me down.

Surprisingly, this reaction received applause from certain faculty members. Even more astonishing was President Mahon’s public response. In the face of a complete breakdown of open inquiry and critical thinking, he commended the students for their behaviour, stating, “Tonight’s events were a coming together of our community to show support for each other and reflect the values of the University of Lethbridge. I would like to express my sincere appreciation to our community members for conducting themselves in such a peaceful and powerful manner.”

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Photo by Pim Chu

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These events at the University of Lethbridge have led to two significant developments. First, a lawsuit has been filed against the university, asserting that the Charter Rights of Paul Viminitz, Jonah Pickle (a student who wanted to attend my talk), and myself were violated. Second, a discussion on whether “Woke-ism” threatens academic freedom took place at the Lethbridge Public Library on September 16, 2023.

To gain a deeper understanding of this issue, it is crucial to explore the arguments put forth. But before delving into the associated threats, let’s first establish a clear definition of “woke-ism.”

When discussing “woke-ism,” many individuals confess to being unclear about its meaning, partly because the term is informal and not academically defined, often serving as a label to discredit opponents.

While references to the term typically emphasize its manifestations rather than its core essence, I have strived to formulate a succinct definition. “Woke-ism” can be described as a form of identity politics that claims to pursue social justice but has evolved into a more authoritarian ideology. It no longer solely advocates for the recognition of marginalized identities as a means to empower them. Instead, it mandates the affirmation and celebration of these identities.

For instance, it goes beyond advocating for non-discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals and has spread to now insist on including pronouns in email signatures (with consequences for critics) and to applying pressure to actively “support 2SLGBTQ+ individuals coming out.”

The origins of this phenomenon can be traced back to the “postmodern turn” of the 1960s within universities. Postmodernism, a reactionary force, employs relativism to challenge the values of The Enlightenment. It rejects objective truth and accuses any claims of it as strategies to maintain the power of the ruling class.

Instead, it elevates subjective beliefs and relies on standpoint epistemology, asserting that what one knows should be determined by one’s “lived experience” and membership in a group declared oppressed. This shift diminishes the importance of universally verifiable methods in favour of accepting emotionally driven “truth” claims as valid.

This devaluation of reason, evidence, and logic has paved the way for advocacy-based programs to gain traction within universities. Unlike traditional disciplines such as history or chemistry, these programs revolve around an activist perspective on the subjects under investigation. Starting with black and ethnic studies and followed by women’s studies, queer studies, and disability studies, research and teaching within these programs commence with the predetermined “correct” position for solving social issues and then select information to rationalize it. This approach stands in stark contrast to scientific and scholarly methodologies that welcome the investigation of any question, provided a rigorous and transparent process is followed to pursue truthful answers.

Initially, these programs occupied a marginal position within academia. However, shifts in broader society, such as the distortion of the civil rights movement’s anti-discrimination goals to encompass policies like affirmative action, resulted in university administrators offering more support to these “studies” programs.

Various “centres” were established to promote “diversity, inclusion, and equity” (DIE), leading identity politics advocating “social justice” to become the official stance of universities. Rather than accepting identity politics as one of many perspectives to understand why certain groups are underrepresented in elite positions, universities started demanding the promotion and integration of the “world views” and “perspectives” of those who claim to be oppressed into every facet of academic institutions. This shift replaced the pursuit of objective truth with advocacy.

So, how does “woke-ism” jeopardize academic freedom?

In the context of the issues discussed, it’s essential to recognize the serious threat that arises when university administrators insist on affirming and celebrating identities they perceive as oppressed under the guise of kindness. This poses a significant challenge to academic freedom and scholarly standards.

Academic freedom, a cornerstone of higher education, presupposes that faculty members have the autonomy to explore any research question and follow the evidence to its logical conclusions. This autonomy has allowed researchers like Michael Bailey at Northwestern University to arrive at unconventional conclusions, such as the idea that biological males identifying as women may tend to fall into categories such as effeminate homosexuals or autogynophiles (men aroused by the idea of themselves as women). However, proponents of “woke-ism” often respond to such ideas with calls for cancellation and censorship.

“Woke-ism” essentially creates a protective barrier around ideas endorsed by identities claiming to be oppressed. This impedes open and honest investigation and debate on research questions, similar to the challenges faced by scholars like Michael Bailey. A parallel situation occurred in my experience with the University of Lethbridge, where my talk was opposed based on what was erroneously characterized as “anti-Indigenous rhetoric.” This included my objections to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s classification of the Residential School system as genocide and my skepticism regarding the veracity of unmarked graves of Indigenous children discovered at multiple former Residential School sites.

The opposition from the indigenous studies department at the University of Lethbridge was directly influenced by the tenets of “woke-ism.” These faculty members cited the university’s official territorial land acknowledgment to bolster their position, emphasizing the necessity for the faithful, truthful, and safe representation of Indigenous histories, cultures, memories, and lives on campus.

Notably, the use of both “truthfully” and “safely” in a single sentence highlights the inherent contradiction within “woke-ism” and its roots in postmodernism. This contradiction becomes most apparent in discussions concerning Indian residential schools, where “woke” ideology demands unquestioning respect for Indigenous perspectives, even when they conflict with available evidence. For instance, the belief held by “Knowledge Keepers” that 215 children are buried in clandestine graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School is deemed beyond reproach and immune to scrutiny.

However, this belief lacks forensic evidence and is highly improbable, especially since no parents have come forward claiming specific missing children. As demonstrated in my articles “Billy Remembers” and “Relative Truths and Rent-Seeking,” the sole basis for this claim relies on anomalies detected by Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR). Yet, GPR does not definitively indicate the presence of bodies, as evidenced by a recent excavation conducted by an Indigenous group in Manitoba, which found no remains despite several “Knowledge Keepers” believing there were “kids in the basement.”

Addressing issues such as trans activism and the “unmarked graves” at former Indigenous residential schools is only a fraction of the broader problem posed by “woke-ism.” This ideology obstructs the development of knowledge, professional training (e.g., for MDs, social workers, and teachers), and the universities’ capacity to serve as safeguards against autocratic tendencies. Even though the impact may not be immediately evident to the public disenchanted with Canadian universities, it is essential to recognize that freedom of expression and open inquiry are fundamental to both the university system and a democratic society.

Efforts to counter “woke-ism” often concentrate on legal and bureaucratic measures. While these initiatives are crucial, they do not address the underlying issue – cultural acceptance of stifling unpopular ideas, a trend that is also on the rise in Canadian society. Thus, enhancing oversight can only be effective if it occurs within a broader public discourse aimed at changing our cultural norms.

Although my Charter challenge against the University of Lethbridge presents essential legal arguments, events shedding light on “woke-ism” will likely have the most lasting impact on the future. There needs to be more effective organization, including establishing local chapters of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, to support individuals pushing back against the threats to academic freedom and open inquiry, both integral to Canadian universities and society.

However, pushing back against “woke-ism” is challenging because it leverages the struggles of the oppressed to legitimize its totalitarian agenda. People who might otherwise oppose restrictions on freedom of expression may accept them if they believe such measures will “prevent harm” and empower marginalized groups. This is then exploited by university and institutional managers to stifle dissent and increase control over society’s members.

It’s crucial to recognize that truth itself cannot be oppressive. To find solutions, we must accurately identify the root causes of problems, and “woke-ism” directly obstructs this process. It’s essential to differentiate between discussing an idea and deciding how to respond to it. For instance, if it’s true that no bodies of Indigenous school children are buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School or that some trans individuals are autogynophiles, accepting this new information doesn’t automatically prescribe a particular policy. Armed with this knowledge, Canadians can still choose to address Indigenous land claims or fund gender-affirming care for trans individuals.

Resisting “woke-ism” necessitates a broad coalition of individuals and groups who steadfastly support freedom of expression, recognizing its significance for both universities and democracy. This effort is hindered by characterizations of “woke-ism” as solely a “left-wing” phenomenon and a failure to acknowledge that socialists can advocate for both freedom and equality, as exemplified by the works of George Orwell.

It’s crucial to understand that left-wing politics primarily focuses on economic factors and acknowledges the objective nature of class conflict, while “woke-ism” prioritizes the subjective feelings of specific identities, seeking privileges in elite positions.

In conclusion, “woke-ism” is not fundamentally concerned with challenging capitalism but rather with reshuffling the social hierarchy to increase the representation of specific identities in positions of power. This opportunistic approach must be challenged because the totalitarian aspects of “woke-ism” suppress dissent and hinder our ability to address the underlying economic conditions responsible for serious existential problems that require urgent attention.

Frances Widdowson is a political scientist whose firing from Mount Royal University is currently in arbitration. She is a Senior Fellow with the Frontier Centre and a Board Member of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship.

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