Given the determination of the Woke to cancel anyone who disagrees with them, even liberals worry about their left flank. This may even be more true if you’re liberal since the Woke are more concerned about punishing apostasy on the left than worrying about what conservatives are saying. The need to constantly monitor your own speech, causing that paranoid feeling of scrutiny, as if you’re living in a fishbowl, is a central part of the Woke MO to stifle dissension against their cynical power grab.
Below is a set of practices for surviving with your sanity intact as the Woke ride roughshod over our institutions and civil norms.
Articulate your values
A deacon at my Church once posed us this question: “If tomorrow was your last day to live, what would you do with your time?”
I thought: I sure as hell won’t be going to work. I’ll max out my credit cards. I’ll give up on my diet. In fact, I’ll likely be flying so high the question of whether it would be my last day would cease to be hypothetical and would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But as I seriously pondered the question, I thought, I should leave letters to my children imparting the knowledge and values I would have passed on to them by the time they had reached adulthood.
In the process of writing these letters, I articulated my thoughts regarding politics, religion, the social contract, relationships. I came to understand my first principles rooted in Enlightenment liberalism and (small S/small J) social justice.
Articulating your values in a Word document or notebook—not in stone!—will help you recognize when they’re being violated. Outsourcing your moral compass to a political party or social movement is an invitation to manipulation and corruption, especially as the platforms of political parties in the West are currently in flux and responding to (or accommodating) the pulls of ideologues. This exercise will also help you see when you’ve violated your own principles, so your instinct will be to correct yourself, rather than rationalize what you just did.
Adopting a label like “liberal,” as I tenuously do, can have fraught consequences. I think labels are useful for making sometimes necessary generalizations, but as the definition of a word can change over time, or change dramatically in a short amount of time via fiat by determined activists, you open yourself up to signing on to a set of ever-shifting beliefs you didn’t determine on your own. I still describe myself as a “lefty,” since my positions on most issues fall on the left side of the political spectrum, but I’m also fully aware it’s a position defined as relative to another. Therefore, articulating my principles is a defence against relativism and its consequences.
Understand what you’re up against
For your mental health, I don’t recommend exposing yourself to much Critical Social Justice literature. When issues like global warming or Social Justice are framed in hyperbolic, existential terms, one can feel pessimistic. One who sees oppressors and greed behind all the planet’s ills is prone to become misanthropic. However, to understand the roots of cancel culture and to better navigate the ever-shifting minefield, one should engage with Critical Social Justice theory just enough to understand what its adherents are saying- so that one can judge for oneself whether CSJ views are valid and to avoid inadvertently stumbling over a tripwire.
Cynical Theories by Counterweight’s own Helen Pluckrose and New Discourses president/social media thought leader Dr James Lindsay is a thoroughly researched overview of CSJ written for a lay audience. If you wish to go to the sources themselves, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s TED Talk can be viewed as a primer on CSJ theory, Robin DiAngelo’s 2011 article “White Fragility” is an accessible introduction to a certain strain of CSJ discourse, and quotes from Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist can be read on Goodreads, albeit out of context. Skimming these last three resources will provide you with just enough context to understand what CSJ evangelists are saying for you to move on with your life.
At the same time, recognize the value of diverse viewpoints, especially those different from your own. Even if you don’t agree with another opinion, it can at least illuminate where your blindspots are, or help you understand a question from a different angle, or understand your own views better. I didn’t understand what it meant to be a liberal or American until I moved to Japan. Being immersed in another worldview helped me understand my own, and I eventually came to see the Japanese worldview from their point-of-view. In fact, I found I could articulate both better than the average person who only had experience of one.
Viewpoint diversity embraces the idea that a marketplace of ideas can exist, and as long as people are allowed to speak freely about different ideas, address opportunities and debate tradeoffs, a consensus will eventually coalesce around an optimal set of ideas. I think there is a stall for CSJ in this marketplace; my only objection is its adherents insist on holding a monopoly in the market.
Don’t isolate yourself
During the pandemic, people have worked and lived more online. The dearth of face-to-face interaction has made it harder to bounce ideas in more natural, empathetic settings in which you can read the effects your thoughts or jokes have on other people in real time and adjust. But also, people have an entire world of virtually connected people to find an echochamber. I have a feeling the extreme opinions on both the left and the right wouldn’t have such traction if they’d been exposed to a live audience before they could metastasize online. The spreading of extreme ideas online combined with physical isolation has likely made people more ideologically extreme.
Don’t let the only human interactions you have be online. While we are not yet out of the woods with the coronavirus, it is relatively safe to meet friends outdoors, especially those who are not as vulnerable to the virus or who have already been vaccinated. Regular human interaction with the back-and-forth of a natural conversation may pull someone prone to extreme ideas back from the brink.
If you find you’re surrounded by ideologues, quietly seek out fellow travelers within your group (or outside it, if none can be found within). You might find a number of people who disagree with the dominant narrative, and you can check in with one another from time to time for support and to check yourself whether you’re overreacting to the latest excess.
Pick your battles
To live to fight another day, you can’t raise hell every time something happens you disagree with. Unless you want to end up like the elderly St. George, swinging your sword in the air at nothing, you should pick your battles. Understanding your values, as I suggested above, will help you know where to draw the lines in the sand, and when your values have been trampled. At that point, you can decide whether it’s worth your time (and potentially your livelihood) to speak out. Otherwise, just smile and nod, especially when you’re unlikely to change anyone’s mind.
Social media is good for keeping up with old acquaintances and learning what MLM schemes they’re involved in, but it’s not a good place for political discussions. Arguments in comments sections lack the human component of being able to read the other person’s reactions, and they carry the risk of talking past one another to virtue signal to an imagined audience. Most of the time you’re formulating your response as you’re reading the comment, rather than trying to understand what the commenter is saying. Not only are you unlikely to convince the person you’re arguing with, but they will also almost certainly double down on their beliefs, causing more harm to your side of the argument in the process.
If you would prefer to push back in a low-key way, keep asking questions to Woke bureaucrats, such as school board members, and pressing them to answer you, as any well-meaning member of the public is entitled to do. Remember, they are the ones proposing sweeping changes to societal norms and laws, so the onus should be on them to provide evidence their claims are true and their proposals will work. They may retort that the “idea that objectivity is best reached only through rational thought is a specifically Western and masculine way of thinking” (Margaret L. Anderson and Patricia Hill Collins, Race, Class & Gender) but that idea is still fringe here in the real world, and shouldn’t be accepted as an argument to shut down real debate. The goal here is to obstruct their agenda by questioning them in good faith (yes, you can obstruct in good faith if you remain unconvinced of the merit of a proposal), and if there is hypocrisy or cynicism in their agenda, here is where it will come out.
Control what you can
If you can tame the chaos at home, you will have more fortitude to face the chaos of the world. This is exemplified by the exhortation to “Clean your room” commonly attributed to Marie Kondo. Your home, whether it’s a seaside villa or the corner of a small studio apartment, should be a retreat from the world where you can leave the problems at the door. (This is why I would especially resent the protestors in Portland going around neighborhoods shining lights into windows in the middle of the night shouting into a megaphone: “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up, m****f****, wake up!”)
Since most travel and entertainment is on hiatus, whatever time and money that might have been budgeted on those splurges could be redirected to home improvement projects. This will give you a sense of control over a small portion of the world you call your own. If you share a home with a family or roommates, this is also an opportunity to improve relationships with them. Family or friends who have your back can help you weather the tempests of the outside world.
Another aspect of your life within your control is how hard you work. With 5 to 10 per cent more effort, chances are you could become the most productive person in your workplace. The extra productivity would be noticed, without an unreasonable amount of extra work on your part. If you are the most valuable employee in your department, your boss will find it more costly to terminate your employment if a mob demands your cancelation. You will also be more likely to accrue personal gains in terms of salary or fringe benefits if you are the most productive employee.
On the flip side of this argument, do not give your employer a reason to fire you. Keep up with assignments and limit the time you spend on distractions, and relegate them to your own smartphone or tablet. You should also draw up a list of labor lawyers in your state so if you get a surprise meeting request from HR, you will have someone to call before you go to the meeting.
Refuse to engage in the lie
In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson says the biggest lies are the ones we act out. The lies coming from the ideologues at both extremes aren’t just obnoxious, they are damaging when people believe them enough to live their lives by them.
If one believes the (nearly identical) rhetoric about white supremacy and race salience coming from both the identitarian right and identitarian left, why would a person on the far right give talented people of color a chance to prove themselves? Or why would talented people of color on the far left apply themselves to make a better life? The right-wing belief is damaging not just because it’s offensive and demoralizing, but because it deprives the world of an individual’s talent. The left-wing belief is damaging because those who believe America is fundamentally and irredeemably a white supremacist country would also become demoralized and be prone to waste their lives on a Quixotic quest fighting an imaginary giant, trying to extract privileges and resources from a group they believe is hostile to them instead of taking positive steps to improve themselves (and the world at large in the process).
You can spot a lie by watching how it unfolds in the world when it is carried to its logical conclusion. Reality is a good check against lies. When a Qi “master” tries to throw an MMA fighter with his spiritual energy, he will likely get kicked in the face. When you see everyone throwing their seeds into a single hole because an academic with no farming experience claimed doing so will sprout a cornucopia, it’s time to plant your own garden and stick to traditional farming methods. Don’t go along with the lie.
Live your life
Although the world seems particularly bleak at the moment, this has been the case throughout human history with only a few, relatively modern, exceptions. Tribal warfare was a constant feature of life in prehistoric times. The murder rate among hunter-gatherers would be the highest per capita in the world today. Reading George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, I consider myself lucky I was born in the American Midwest in the late 20th century rather than a remote English mining town in the early 20th century. While you should be concerned with global challenges, this shouldn’t prevent you from living your life. Pursue your personal and professional goals, despite what’s going on in the world. Today it’s Woke totalitarianism, tomorrow it could be a climate disaster, a hundred years from now it could even be an unholy alliance between AI and extraterrestrials. The point is to limit your worry about things bigger than you and make the most of the limited time you have on this planet. Don’t dedicate too much of your life trying to force others to change their behaviors when your effort can be put to better use improving your own.
Improving yourself is easier than improving someone else and will have the same cumulative effect on the world.
In this article I’ve tried to preach what I practice, and I hope these recommendations help you remain somewhat aloof as the culture war rages on around us.
Hampton Jacobs is a pseudonym for a manager at a Woke university in the Midwest. He is the author of the novel Good Old Boy, available on Amazon.