Why Dunk on Your Critics When Self-Criticism is Such an Easy Layup?

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A Good Quip is Emotionally Satisfying

I cannot be the only person who, when in moments of mental turmoil, fantasizes about leveling some ideological opponent with a brilliant quip which shuts them up. I believe this experience is somewhat common among humans.

But lately this unhealthy exercise has become less satisfying, and I think it might be worthwhile to deconstruct why; mostly for my own sake, but perhaps, dear reader, you might glean some understanding (whether of me, yourself, or some potential universal humanity).

The more righteous I feel, the more devastating such quips, which never seem to come at the time they are needed, tend to be. But as I continue to grow as a thinker, the more I am certain that certainty isn’t all that laudable a goal. And in recent months, I have noticed that I catch myself, while formulating some quip, retorting back at myself in the process. It softens my emotional satisfaction, and robs me of the catharsis of which such ruminations are capable.

That is, I have begun to value my ability to see myself from the point of view of my interlocutor and see how the devastating verbal barrage of truth was blunter (double entendre intended) than I anticipated. The next thing I know I’ve discovered nuances and depths of uncertainty I wasn’t able to see in the blinding light of certainty.

It’s not completely unlike the experience of realizing, mid-argument, that your significant other is actually right. In the moment, you are too taken-aback and still too emotional to admit it, and perhaps you dig in because of this, but it changes the experience nonetheless. Anyone who frequents Twitter might have some understanding of this phenomenon, as well.

Idealism and certainty

Back in the halcyon days of 2012 or so, back when I was idealistic and more certain, I found myself in the lap of the burgeoning movement we now think of as the woke mentality. I saw it as progress, and even recognized it as a form of the same PC culture I saw in the 1990s. I saw it as the world finally waking up to certain realities and I saw it as a good thing. I became woke (even if a lot of it wasn’t really new to me) before the term fully took hold.

I was endlessly amused by memes which excoriated the people who couldn’t or wouldn’t see The TruthTM, and enjoyed those in my orbit lambasting those who tried to resist with their own biting criticisms. When blogs I read wouldn’t follow along, I often left them behind and enjoyed seeing other blogs mocking them. Nothing like a good dunk, to use a current phrase.

An example of this would be Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True, which I used to read regularly until he started to chafe at some of what was called, at the time, 3rd Wave Feminism, Feminatzis, etc. While I agreed with Coyne’s view of science in the face of anti-science rhetoric from evolution-skeptics and so forth, I found his anti-feminism sometimes to be off-putting, and sided, at the time, with PZ Myers in those blog wars. There was even a time when I had drinks with PZ, Amanda Marcotte, and other like-minded people (in PZ’s hotel room, no less) at a convention during these times. I was part of a movement, it felt like, and it felt good. For someone with seriously debilitating insecurity, it was tremendously validating.

This was after the days of Elevatorgate, where the rift within the atheist/skeptic community foreshadowed the coming larger cultural, political, and ideological divides which came to dominate much of everything. I saw my side, the side of the coming liberal utopia of awakened skeptics, as being attacked by dim-witted, privileged, and clueless gobshites who were simply too dense or self-interested to hop on the truth train. I saw the red pill movement, which took shape not long after all of this, as angry, resentful, and hateful people who were very obviously wrong. It felt good to be on the right side of justice, and to have a set of smart, clever, and devastatingly witty compatriots ready and willing to throw a quip towards our enemies.

And we felt superior.

An Inception of Awakenings

In the next few years, I went through (metaphorical, of course) Hell. Much of it was my own doing, but what wasn’t mine was a trauma which came from realizing that what I thought were wise friends and allies were, in many cases, toxic, abusive, and dishonest fanatics for a cause which I no longer could support.1

But, as I have said previously, I wasn’t red-pilled. I reject their movement as well and I’m not going to be joining the likes of David Silverman2 anytime soon. And if, after reading this, you think that he and I are of a similar ilk, then you will have failed to understand my larger point here, and have mistook me leaving one set of toxic ideas for joining another. This cultural war doesn’t have merely two sides, and I don’t think any major faction is always wrong (no, not even David Silverman and those who side with him are always wrong, even when they are making asses of themselves).

But it does feel like, in some sense, that I woke up more than once, as if I’m rising through layers of bad dreams, never sure if this, right now, is finally reality. I’m not sure if the top is still spinning.

And in a sense I do realize that this reality, this set of perceptions, beliefs, etc to which I ascribe some level of objective truth, is still a Kantian dream from which I may never wake. Because if our view of the world, viewing ourselves as entities which see ourselves as entities because we have an entity category built into our minds, then it is the case that we are all trapped within an inescapable box completely separated from actual reality, and then there is no waking up. There is no being right or having the truth, there is just an endless process of wittling away nonsense with better questions and methodologies for separating nonsense from tentative objective reality.

Which would mean that thinking of yourself as woke is just, indeed, a kind of spiritualism or religion; just another idea of another world beyond ours. Just another form of being asleep, as it were, but believing, just like every other ideology, that you have the truth. It’s undeserved righteousness, just like everyone else.

In the vein of seeing this in religious terms, I’m looking forward to John McWhorter’s upcoming book, where he promises to explore the idea of wokeism as a new cult, religion, or something of the like (it hasn’t been published yet, but his thoughts on the subject to date seem consistent with such ideas). As a student of religion, culture, and someone who has shifted ideological frameworks myself, it seems clear to me that most ideologies behave in similar ways to religions, insofar as they create pious followers who see their enlightenment in relation to others’ obfuscated perspectives. In other words, all true believers see themselves as woke relative to those uninitiated. Par for the course, in terms of people.

The New Meta-Narrative

To clarify what all that jargon above was about; I’m skeptical that any of us have the truth, but I think there is a truth; it’s just that we may never know what all of it is. So, if anyone is claiming to have the truth they are delusional, wrong, or lying to some degree. And what bothers me about the woke isn’t their worldview. In fact, I largely agree with their goals, some of their beliefs, and don’t think most of them are acting in bad faith. What worries me is their tendency towards an un-willingness to hear criticism without responding with some version of a “Kafka Trap,” which is to say that any criticism is treated as evidence of that which the criticism is aimed.

The most notorious example of this is the idea, and the book of the same name, of White Fragility. This is an idea which essentially states that any push-back against the claim that I (for example), as a white person, am racist (or at least contribute to the support of systemic racism) is evidence of some fragility within myself. It is a claim which the true believers believe has no valid counter. In other words, it’s an assertion, and it is believed with a kind of faith, and to reject it is to deny The Truth.TM In other words, heresy.

It is akin to being told that there is an original sin (racism, in this case) of which we are all subject in one way or another, and we need to repent. But there is no ridding oneself of this sin, but only to keep “doing the work”, perpetually. We light-skinned humans exist in sin, or as a racist and we must confess our sin and seek forgiveness (which will never come). It’s right out of the playbook of religion, so perhaps it takes an atheist contrarian to see it clearly.

This is not to say that the existence of systemic racism has no merit; I, in fact, do think that there are systemically racist policies, cultural norms, etc which are a significant problem which must be addressed. However, the claim that such racism is ubiquitous and inescapable is a claim with a different level of scope than the fact that it exists at all. Further, conflating the criticism of the ubiquity of systemic racism with it’s nonexistence3 is a very common ploy used in the back-and-forth between interlocutors of the cultural conversation going on these days.

And considering my history with insecurity and depression, feeling guilty is sort of my go-to feeling. It took some amount of therapy and perhaps even wisdom to learn that this is a manipulation, and one that is all too easily inculcated onto Left-leaning white people who are currently willing to accept this as the truth about racism in our culture, whether out of fear, guilt, or cynical playing along to not get on the wrong side of the woke police. And I also understand that the recognition that one is being manipulated is one which causes reactionary and defensive behavior. Many people’s reactions against this idea are overkill, such as James Lindsay’s decision to vote for Trump because he fears the woke takeover of the Democratic party, which he sees worst than the threat of a second term for Trump. I find this an unreasonable conclusion, but one that at least makes sense to me because I have a similar reaction to being manipulated. I, however, am not ready to jettison the entire Left, including the current Democratic party, for the sake of a fear of it being led by authoritarian Woke Leftists with some bad ideas.

That is, many people who react to the woke with an overcompensation (support for Trump, intentionally trying to trigger woke people, etc) believe they are seeing wokeism as a new meta-narrative to replace the meta-narratives of the patriarchal, hierarchical, sexist, racist, etc world in which the woke say that we live. The irony of this is (as Cynical Theories points out) that wokeism grew out of a set of Postmodernist philosophical ideas which sought to deconstruct, transcend, or expose meta-narratives, only to later be used to create a new one out of a goal to achieve social justice.

But if the current SocJus movement it’s based on some bad ideas, then if it succeeds in its goals then all it will do is replace it with a new form of injustice, ultimately. At least that’s what many who are critical of the woke mentality believe, and why they oppose people like Robin D’Angelo, Ibram X. Kendi, and their allies in the attempt to create new policies based on woke ideas. Such critics of SocJus wokeism believe that their methods and ideas won’t succeed in creating social justice at all. I think they have a point; it will solve some things, perhaps, but it creates new problems. And the unwillingness of the woke to hear criticism, while understandable as a human response, will be the factor that will make it a new orthodoxy to be opposed once it actually has real power. If the woke would allow skepticism into their ranks, this could be avoided. But they treat criticism as evidence of people being racist, sexist, etc and worthy of being ostracized, ignored, and considered problematic. Therefore, many people are legitimately worried about this phenomenon.

Thus there are so many people quipping at each other, and the most vociferous quippers are the ones least likely to consider that their side is in error. And it reminds me of what it felt like to be surrounded by such a righteous, witty, and insular tribe. I felt like I was part of something, but what I didn’t realize until later was that I was surrounded by many toxic people. The point is that being part of a toxic culture doesn’t feel toxic because even abusive, toxic, and hateful people are capable of great affection, kindness, and loyalty to those inside their tribe.

And this is why I’m now suspicious of any tribe which does not actively seek skepticism, criticism, and ideological challenge from inside or outside that community, which is to say the overwhelmingly vast majority of human groups.

Seeking ideological purity creates an insular bubble where ideas are never challenged, which then creates the very meta-narrarive which the Theories which are the basis of their woke ideologies were originally supposed to correct for. They are, essentially, shooting themselves in the foot because they remove anyone who doesn’t bend the knee. So it’s understandable that even those on the Left who don’t fully agree stay quiet out of fear of losing friends, social connections, or even their jobs. I’m lucky to be in a position where I will, at most, lose a few acquaintances (already have) but my livelihood is not in jeopardy.

So, what I mean to say is that the metaphor of “woke” is especially bad and problematic (I’m taking the word back), because it is self-righteous and entitled especially because it considers criticism to be evidence for their worldview. And this was the basis for how and why I no longer considered myself one of the woke.

The key for them to understand is that I didn’t then join the opposition, because they are also largely toxic. I merely found myself in the no-man’s land between trenches, and have discovered that neither trench looks inviting as a safe space.

A Book Recommendation

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay deal with these concepts, related to wokeness, Critical Theory, and the history of these ideas, in their recent book, and corresponding website, Cynical Theories. I’m recommending these resources not because I agree with all of their conclusions, but because they expose many of the problems with the philosophical underpinnings of “Theory,” upon which much of the current woke mentality is based. Also, I do so despite the fact that I find much of Lindsay’s tone and conclusions (outside of the book, primarily) off-putting and often incorrect themselves. Pluckrose I tend to agree with much more often, in terms of her public pronouncements, but regardless of their differing political opinions, their criticism of Critical Theory is important to be aware of.

The gist of the problem is that the philosophical ancestors of woke ideologies are largely anti-science, anti-rational, and are most-definitely anti-liberal (in the philosophical sense not necessarily the political one, though it can be that too). Things such as evidence, logic, skepticism, and other important tools of criticism are denounced and replaced with power dynamics which seem to be cynically utilized for the sake of control and political expediency, which is the very problem I think we should be concerned with, not emulating.

And with the recent rise of woke ideas taking over much of academia, the corporate world, and other parts of society and culture, there is a sense that you are either on-board with justice or you are deplorable; you are with them or against them. It’s too simplistic a dichotomy and it ignores those who are for social justice but not in the way that many of the Woke Left are trying to achieve it. The problem is that most people don’t know that there is such a distinction, and so they conflate people like me, who are critical of much of their methods, with the red-pilled/Alt-Right/Trump-supporting/NAZI-sympathizing/socialist-hating and actually racist and sexist part of our culture which opposes the woke for equally bad reasons as those who support it. I am not Ben Shapiro.

I, and many others out there, don’t have a political or cultural home among the two major sides of this conflict, and we see ourselves pilloried from both ends as being on the other. People who I listen to, read, or both (whether it be the Fifth Column podcast, Andrew Sullivan, Blocked and Reported (Jesse Singal and the “transphobe” Katie Herzog), Coleman Hughes, or the aforementioned John McWhorter) are hated by both sides of this tribal cultural war because they don’t bend the knee to any orthodoxy. I don’t always agree with these people (I don’t always agree with myself), but I appreciate people who are willing to say what they think and challenge orthodoxies on all fronts. And somehow that’s bad, because one is either racist or anti-racist (says Kendi), with no possibility of being neither. That’s ridiculous.

Dreaming of Being Awake, but Still Snoring

The woke ideology is not enlightened, even where it makes good points and is right. They take good ideas and goals and wrap them in emotion to sell them to well-meaning people who want the world to be better than it is. And if you criticize them, you are considered a heretic and labeled as problematic. The whole cancel culture thing is really about how people are afraid to speak up when they disagree, because they know the potential interpersonal, social, and professional costs. The wars going on in many media outlets, between the woke and those who disagree, is going to be an ongoing conflict for years to come.

The point is that I believe that much of the woke world uses ideas such as standpoint theory (which is an interesting, and I think valid, set of ideas worthy of study in general) incorrectly; that is to say too broadly. All ideas have to be subject to scrutiny by any person who is able to parse the logical, rational, or empirical factors related to it. And no (again), this isn’t a form of supporting white, western, supremacy itself.

Postmodern/poststructural/woke ideas are not automatically and universally bad, but they are, I think, used too broadly or liberally (lol) than I think they have epistemologically earned. I frankly don’t think that most of the people policing ideas out there in the Left are sufficiently trained or (frankly) interested in logic, skepticism, and science to wield such a weapon correctly, and so we end up with a loud minority of people seeking justice but creating different forms of, probably unintentionally, injustice. Good intentions, bad execution.

And they do it for a quite human reason; they are caught up in the emotion of the movement. They feel empowered and important, being a part of a set of ideas which could make the world better. That is, their goals are laudable. They aren’t bad people, they are just people with ideas which don’t always survive scrutiny, and like many ideological movements before them, they are overzealous and undeservedly self-righteous.

I understand it because I experience this same set of feelings, thoughts, and a sense of belonging as they do when I come up with those zingers in the shower, on a walk, or unable to sleep. This is a fairly universal human experience, but the difference is that the ideas we want to defend, criticize, or even to expand upon are ideas that are stuck in a whirlwind of historical, cultural, and ideological chaos which is really difficult, if not impossible, to pin down. At different times ideas, even within small pockets of culture, have relative power. Right now, there is a set of ideas about social justice, those that we refer to as wokeness, which are on the rise in terms of influence and power in our culture. And the irony is that the ideology of anti-oppression is now in a role where, at least on small scales, is acting much like an oppressive force upon groups and individuals.

Sure, on a large scale, they are still punching up, but in small ways, in small interactions, it occasionally punches down. Ibram X. Kendi describes this, in his book How to be and Anti-Racist, as the future discrimination that we need:

The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination

Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist

Kendi views this as righting an historical wrong; a continuous punching-up until the scales are even. But, that’s the thing about policy, cultural mores, and ideologies; they take on a life of their own and become the new mores. A goal of equity is one thing, but if the method one utilizes to attain it becomes the new normal, it won’t stop once the goal is attained, but it will still operate, as if through mere momentum, to punch in the same direction once equity is attained.

The problem with discrimination, oppression, and injustice in general is not who it’s being done to, but that it’s being done. And I don’t trust any potential amendment, policy, or moral idea to right a wrong by use of the very same tools which created the problem in the first place; stopping an attacker with a bat isn’t made better by taking the bat and handing it to the original victim. That’s mere revenge porn. Again, an understandable and very human reaction, but not a just one.

Here’s the point. People in control now believe they are right. People fighting them think they are right. People think they are right. But they can’t all be right, and in fact it’s quite likely that none of them are fully right. So, shouldn’t our highest values as carriers of ideologies, rather than to defensively parry criticism, be to actively self-criticize? Not that we have to accept criticism from any idiot on Twitter or Facebook comment section, but to already be doing it yourself? To do so, you need to take your serious critics seriously.

Shouldn’t we be questioning our most sacred beliefs and values, and find the weaknesses of our arguments, before some clueless bro points it out to you? It’s our instinct to defend our tribes, of course. But we need to, if we’re going to survive this infancy as a species, find a way to stop grouping ourselves based upon ideology/orthodoxy if we want to find truth, justice, or any solutions which will actually work in the long run. It’s too easy to get caught up in interpersonal fights where we defend our friends and attack our enemies regardless of the strength of our arguments. We need to do better, collectively.

I yearn for a day where open criticism will not result in ostracism from communities and then be thought of as merely removing problematic people. The freedom to criticize exists, and of course nobody has to pay attention, but dismissing criticism which points to your ideological foundations as invalid or a source of the problem merely makes your beliefs sacrosanct, which no idea should be. The good ideas keep surviving criticism for a reason, and don’t need your defense by removing critics from your club.

Because actual skepticism, rationality, logic, and critical thinking has never been the dominant meta-narrative of any system which has power, despite what some have said; the colonial, Western, white world is not one based in rationality and logic any more than any other group (yes, this is a claim which derives from Theory). Those things are available to all groups but rarely applied universally. Such tools are usually used as a means to reinforce our biases and destroy our foes (say, with witty quips), but rarely to question the strength of our own ideological foundations.

It’s sort of like how the strongest criticisms of any religion comes from other religions, but it takes an atheist to point at them all and say, “hey, you are all incorrect here.” So, while it might take a deplorable Trumpster to point out issues with wokeism, it takes those of us yeeted out of the Left to point to both said Trumpster and Woke Cultist and say “y’all are all wrong, so let’s actually start listening to each other and then maybe we can figure this shit out, finally,” while being quite aware that both of them will dunk on us with a witty quip, and continue to dismiss us and each other.

Question even your most sacred values and beliefs, and not just those of your ideological enemies.


Notes:

[1] I will clarify, here, that the hurt I also caused them, and our subsequent enmity, was not the reason I ended up on another side of ideological rifts, but being separate from them did finally allow me to reflect more clearly on ideas I previously cleaved to from an emotional distance; a process which took some years.

[2] If you haven’t been following the ravings of David since his various ousters, exposure of his awful behavior, and subsequent leaving of the Left, suffice it to say he’s become anti-woke in a way I will not endorse. That is to say that it’s possible to be critical of wokeness without becoming a snarling, angry, resentful idiot.

[3] And yes, there are woke critics who go this far in their critique. I disagree with such critics.

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