“Racism is permanent”. That is one of the key tenets of Critical Race Theory although sometimes it is replaced with “Racism is ordinary.” Permanent and ordinary, of course, are not the same thing. Things that are ordinary can change while things that are permanent cannot. It used to be ordinary for most children to die before the age of ten. Now that is a rare tragedy. The fact that we all die, however, seems likely to be a permanent feature of being human.

While something being permanent and something being ordinary are not the same thing, within the theory, they are often used to present the same message “Racism is something that is so deeply engrained within society that thinking we can straightforwardly overcome it if we just try hard enough is naïve. Instead, we need to accept it as the water we swim in and then fight it anyway.” This naturally leads to the question “Why?” If racism really is a permanent fixture of society or just the undeniable reality of it, why bother to fight?

To this, theorists and activists have responded with the claim that there is value to individual and group dignity, worth and resilience to continue critiquing and fighting and highlighting the grievous wrong that is racism. The human spirit, but in this particular case, the black human spirit, is nourished, strengthened and supported by the fight itself, by refusing to give up and by creating a space and a community where these positive, affirming and defiant attitudes have reign. Furthermore, this keeps those values and that fighting spirit alive for future generations who may, just possibly, eventually succeed.

This is how the late professor of law, Derrick Bell, put it:

Continued struggle can bring about unexpected benefits and gains that in themselves justify continued endeavor. We can recognize miracles we did not plan and value them for what they are, rather than always measure their worth by their likely contribution to our traditional goals. As a former student, Erin Edmonds, concludes, it is not a matter of choosing between the pragmatic recognition that racism is permanent no matter what we do, or an idealism based on the long-held dream of attaining a society free of racism. Rather, it is a question of both, and. Both the recognition of the futility of action—where action is more civil rights strategies destined to fail—and the unalterable conviction that something must be done, that action must be taken.

This is, I believe, a more realistic perspective from which to gauge the present and future worth of our race-related activities. Freed of the stifling rigidity of relying unthinkingly on the slogan “we shall overcome,” we are impelled both to live each day more fully and to examine critically the actual effectiveness of traditional civil rights remedies. Indeed, the humility required by genuine service will not permit us to urge remedies that we may think appropriate and the law may even require, but that the victims of discrimination have rejected.

That, Geneva, is the real Black History, all too easily lost in political debates over curricular needs. It is a story less of success than of survival through an unremitting struggle that leaves no room for giving up. We are all part of that history, and it is still unfolding.  With you and the slave singers, “I want to be in that number”

Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism1992 (pp. 248-249). Basic Books.

Michelle Alexander, civil rights lawyer, in her forward to Faces at the Bottom of the Well describes resisting the idea that racism is permanent but finally accepting it and she speaks to that same spirit,

I now understand that accepting the permanence of racism in this country does not mean accepting racism. It does not mean being a passive spectator as politicians engage in racial scapegoating. It does not mean doing nothing as our nation builds a border wall locking some colored people out, while building prison walls that lock millions of others in. Accepting the permanence of racism does not mean ignoring global capitalism and the many ways in which it treats millions of people and the planet itself as expendable, utterly disposable. Accepting the permanence of racism does not mean denying or avoiding sexism and patriarchy.

Facing the inconvenient truth that America may suffer from an incurable, potentially fatal disease helps to clarify what we’re up against. It offers the opportunity to clarify our goals. Is our ultimate goal to save this nation from its original sins? Are we trying to “fix” the United States of America? If so, Bell rightly argues that we may find ourselves playing a game we can never win. But if we broaden our view and sharpen our focus, we just might see that our liberation struggles aren’t limited to our national borders and that our movements, if we take them seriously enough, can help to rebirth this nation and reimagine our world. A new country might be born, one with new heroes, new founding mothers and fathers. I don’t expect to live long enough to see that day, and I won’t pretend to be certain that it will come. What I do know is that none of us can say for sure what will happen when the seeds planted by today’s truth tellers and advocates begin to sprout and bloom. Perhaps our movements—the rebellious spirit that gives life to them—will outlive this country and help to make another world possible.

Whether you believe our nation can be saved or redeemed, I urge you to read (or reread) this book and discuss it with others. Ask yourself whether there may be truths lurking here that we have yet to face. Ask yourself if you’re willing to commit yourself to the struggle for racial justice even if the battle can’t ever be won. After years of ambivalence on that final point, my answer now is yes. Forever yes. (pp. xviii-xix).

I don’t agree with Bell or Alexander that racism is permanent or ordinary in America or anywhere else. Of course, many Critical Race Theorists and their successors, Critical Social Justice Anti-racists, will argue that that is because I am a white woman and thus have the ability to close my eyes to the pervasiveness of it. It’s not hitting me in the face wherever I go, they will argue, and so I have the privilege of not seeing the water we swim in while black people are drowning in it.

However, it should be pointed out that very many black people don’t believe racism is permanent or ordinary either. Setting aside those who believe it has already been largely overcome and we are now mopping up the remnants of it and dealing with racist individuals who are widely regarded with contempt, many of those who believe racism to be a profound, all-consuming current problem still regard it as one that can be overcome and their activism centres on the goal of overcoming it. There is a reason the song of the Civil Rights Movement was “We shall Overcome.” Opponents of racism both before and after the Civil Rights Movement fought and fight racism with this goal in mind and with the belief that it is achievable.

This argument between whether racism is permanent and can only be resisted and opposed for the purpose of small victories and self-validation and dignity or whether it is something that is temporary, socially constructed for nefarious reason and can be beaten has been ongoing among opponents of racism for decades. I suspect the latter to be more common, though. As Ibram X. Kendi says,

Race and racism are power constructs of the modern world. For roughly two hundred thousand years, before race and racism were constructed in the fifteenth century, humans saw color but did not group the colors into continental races, did not commonly attach negative and positive characteristics to those colors and rank the races to justify racial inequity, to reinforce racist power and policy. Racism is not even six hundred years old. It’s a cancer that we’ve caught early.

But racism is one of the fastest-spreading and most fatal cancers humanity has ever known. It is hard to find a place where its cancer cells are not dividing and multiplying. There is nothing I see in our world today, in our history, giving me hope that one day antiracists will win the fight, that one day the flag of antiracism will fly over a world of equity. What gives me hope is a simple truism. Once we lose hope, we are guaranteed to lose. But if we ignore the odds and fight to create an antiracist world, then we give humanity a chance to one day survive, a chance to live in communion, a chance to be forever free.

Kendi, Ibram X.. How To Be an Antiracist (p. 238). Random House.

Kendi is correct! All historical evidence bears this out. While humans have always been tribal and territorial and found reasons to kill, persecute and oppress other groups, racism as a reason for this is relatively new. This is unsurprising. It is new in evolutionary terms for people with different skin colours to exist and very new for them to have been in regular contact with each other. Even when they were, it took some time for race to become a dividing line. For centuries before that, religion was far more dominant. The Bible, a text written in the Middle East on the Mediterranean where black, brown and white people were to be found, makes almost no mention of skin colour while being otherwise full of tribal animosity. People who believe racism is insurmountable either because of intractable power structures and socialization or because our tribalistic nature makes racism itself natural and inevitable are simply wrong and history shows this to be the case. They are too deeply embedded in the norms of their own time and place to see outside them. There is absolutely no reason why skin colour should not become as socially insignificant in the West as hair colour is. Nor is there any reason that negative stereotypes attached to people who have darker skin can’t die in the same way as negative stereotypes attached to people who are left-handed did.

The reality is, though, that we have to strive to make that happen and we have to do that in ways that actually work. To do that, we have to acknowledge the problem that underlies racism and that underlies all oppressive power structures and the aim to create or maintain them. That problem is illiberalism. I agree with Dr Kendi when he says racism has not gone away because we have not been using the right strategies for overcoming it. I also think he is absolutely right to recognize that “Black people can’t be racist” and “White people are evil” are failed strategies for overcoming racism. However, we part ways when he argues against the aim for a post-racial and color-blind society and recognizing only one race – the human race (p201). This is liberal humanism he is rejecting as a failed strategy and there is considerable evidence that liberal humanism has indeed produced much progress against racism.

Current anti-racists often criticize their own critics because we so often oppose their identity-politics stance by quoting the words of Martin Luther King Jr when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” They claim that this takes a single quote out of context of the body of King’s work to justify ignoring racism rather than addressing it. But there is a reason that this quote is the one that so many people, of all races, have found the most inspiring. It’s because it speaks to liberal humanist values and it speaks them to people who live in the benefits of liberal society, recognise it and also recognise that its benefits have not been extended to everybody and that that needs to change. Liberalism focuses on the individual and removing any barriers in the way of their ability to thrive in society while humanism focuses on our commonalities and shared humanity over our superficial differences. The belief that we can overcome racism best by focusing on our commonalities rather than on our differences is one that is held by 57% of white Americans and 45% of black ones while 26% of white people and 44% of black people believe focusing on difference is better. The idea that we should reject liberal humanist approaches to overcoming racism when so many people value it and think it works, including a slight majority of black people, is throwing a particularly precious liberal humanist baby out with the dirty water of our history of having failed to do liberal humanism consistently.

It simply isn’t true that a commitment to judging people by their character instead of their skin colour ignores racism. That is the opposite of true. That commitment, if held seriously and conscientiously, must include the consistent opposition of people, institutions and systems that fail to evaluate people as individuals and instead focus on their skin colour. That is a commitment to consistently opposing racism. It is a commitment to liberalism.

Drs Bell and Alexander are wrong to believe that racism is permanent, and this error is shown by both history and by surveying people on attitudes towards racism. However, if we were to shift their analysis to a belief that illiberalism is permanent (and racism is one current manifestation of it), it seems very likely that they are right. Sadly, humans are not naturally a liberal species. Instead, there is much evidence to show that we are a tribal and territorial species which has evolved to form in-groups and out-groups and then to use our big brains to rationalise prejudice and even violence against them. The best sources for information on this are Nicholas Christakis’ Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Humans’ tribalistic natures produce authoritarian tendencies, and the liberal idea that we can actually tolerate the existence of people with different cultures, religions, values, principles and identities without one of them having to win out and dominate all the others is very new, counterintuitive and precious. This is a development prominent in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) countries. “WEIRD” is a good acronym because this really is an unusual stance for a tribal, territorial species evolved to compete for resources and favour their own group. The degree to which societies are able to relax their authoritarian tendencies and expand their liberal ones seems to be related to whether they are dealing with any existential threats or are relatively stable and secure.

As Haidt put it,

Countries seem to move in two directions, along two axes: first, as they industrialize, they move away from “traditional values” in which religion, ritual, and deference to authorities are important, and toward “secular rational” values that are more open to change, progress, and social engineering based on rational considerations. Second, as they grow wealthier and more citizens move into the service sector, nations move away from “survival values” emphasizing the economic and physical security found in one’s family, tribe, and other parochial groups, toward “self-expression” or “emancipative values” that emphasize individual rights and protections—not just for oneself, but as a matter of principle, for everyone.

This is a wonderful development which has seen a great improvement to the advance of scientific knowledge and the progress of human rights, particularly for women and people of racial, religious or sexual minority. Because it is so new and unusual, though, it could easily be lost if we do not work diligently to maintain and continue this rational and liberal moral progress. Current identity politics approaches to anti-racism are a significant threat to it but so too are authoritarian right-wing forces. In our “Manifesto Against the Enemies of Modernity,” James Lindsay and I referred to these forces as the postmodernists and the premodernists. Both of them would undermine the rational, evidence-based, liberal universalist fruits of modernity if permitted to do so. Unfortunately, they feed each other by regarding each other as an existential threat and reacting against each other and drawing normally much more rational and liberal people into their orbit, creating what we termed “existential polarisation.” Rather than behaving in this reactive way where those of us who lean left react against the extremes of the right and condone or minimise the problem on our own side and vice versa, liberals on both sides as well as those who are naturally more centrist or just currently feel homeless should defend liberalism and reason and oppose illiberalism and irrationality consistently.

This is something that liberals will almost certainly need to do forever. It is very unlikely that human nature is going to change and so we need to accept that illiberalism is ordinary and likely permanent and that liberal humanists are always going to need to fight it. The illiberalisms will vary – Critical Social Justice, Islamism, communism, Christian dominionism, ethnonationalism, antisemitism etc – but the liberal response need not and should not waver from a consistent stance. While we will have to address each illiberalism on its own terms, we will need to stand firm, be confident and consistent in our principles and oppose all authoritarian attempts to impose one worldview onto the whole of society. These threats may take the form of government authoritarianism or of radical subversive factions willing to use force to intimidate people and achieve their ends. They may also take the form of the growth of ideological industries using capitalist systems to institutionalise their ideas in corporations, social media and wider culture which is what we see primarily with Critical Social Justice.  Nevertheless, liberals must be prepared to resist all of them.

People frequently email me feeling hopeless about the CSJ problem because of how rapidly it has become a powerful industry impacting all areas of employment, education and culture. They fear that it is unbeatable and sometimes they are tempted to resort to illiberal means to defeat it such as banning it or censoring expression of it or ‘cancelling’ people who engage in it. This is intuitively understandable and may even seem like poetic justice to use CSJ methods against itself, but it is a fatal error to try to beat illiberalism with illiberalism. It is also too pessimistic. If we step back and look at history and all the seemingly unstoppable and catastrophic illiberal ideas we have already unseated from power and marginalised including fascism and communism as well as the amazing progress we have made on common illiberalisms like homophobia, sexism and racism, there is no reason to think we cannot beat Critical Social Justice.

More people come to me seeking hope and reassurance that we are going to win this in the near future. I can’t promise them that we will. I hope we will. I think we will. This ideology is just too extreme and contradictory to human nature to survive long term. It also targets majority groups and so is unlikely to gain genuine widespread support and it already faces significant resistance from many kinds of opponents. I’m significantly less afraid that the illiberalism of Critical Social Justice will win out and be successful for centuries or decades than that it will get pushed back by another illiberalism that also targets liberal attempts to oppose racism, sexism, homophobia and other bigotries and sets back the progress liberalism has made on those fronts.  Then we’ll have to fight that one before we can restore liberal progress. And that is why we must stand firm, fully understand liberal principles and apply them consistently.

And this is where Bell and Alexander have something very valuable to offer to liberals even though we may disagree with their identification of the problem too narrowly as racism rather than illiberalism more broadly. When they speak of the value of continuing to fight something that may never be entirely beaten, they speak to an essential element of the human spirit that recognises the inherent integrity, dignity and worth involved in being part of a community that opposes and defies oppression and injustice. This part of the human spirit really is nourished and supported by being part of a community that exists to do this, that creates spaces to which people can come to feel validated and supported and which produces intellectual resources that will survive them, keep the spirit alive and embolden the next generation.

James E. Petts


The term “liberalism” has been used to refer to many different and often incompatible political and ethical theories. This is not an attempt to document those different theories: anyone interested in the academic debates on the topic will find the entry on liberalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy worth reading. Rather, this is a short description of a particular conception of liberalism, universal liberalism, setting out what it is and why it matters.

The fundamentals of universal liberalism

The basic principle of universal liberalism is that everyone has a right to be free of coerced social conformity that is not demonstrably productive of the greatest good for the greatest number. Coerced social conformity includes, but is not restricted to, control by a state or government. It also includes coercion exercised by private individuals, whether acting alone or in groups, and non-governmental organisations of all kinds.

Universal liberalism is not anarchism. It does not hold that any and all political authority and coercion is illegitimate. Rather, it holds that coercion is justified when – and only when – the harms that coercion of all kinds inevitably cause are outweighed in the particular case by benefits such that the particular coercion in fact produces the greatest good for the greatest number. A paradigm – but not the only – case of justified coercion is to restrain unjustified coercion. Thus, laws prohibiting violence are not merely justified on the basis of avoiding harm resulting from injury: they are justified also on the ground that they restrain illegitimate coercion, even in cases where there is no possibility of injury. Likewise, laws prohibiting the threat, rather than only the actuality, of violence are justified, along with prohibitions on blackmail and deliberate harassment and abuse.

Universal liberalism does not require every decision about everything to be made on a case by case basis and thus exclude the application of more general principles other than itself. It is not necessary, for example, to decide individually whether each specific instance of theft should be subject to punishment. Where the greatest good for the greatest number can be achieved by the adoption of a general rule or principle, universally applied (as, for example, in law), then the application of this rule or principle is justified.

Universal liberalism and reason

Fundamental to universal liberalism is the primacy of reason. This is in part because only reason can meaningfully answer the question of what is in fact productive of the greatest good for the greatest number (and, more fundamentally, what it means for something to be good and why it matters in the first place). Thus, anyone not accepting the primacy of reason is less likely to endorse a principle whose application depends on the constant application of reason than those who do so accept.

However, the primacy of reason is not a consequence of adopting universal liberalism. The primacy of reason is logically prior to liberalism or any other kind of political or ethical principle: it is logically impossible to make justifiable decisions or to persuade (rather than intimidate or deceive) anyone of any political or ethical (or indeed any other sort of) claim without reason. Rather, universal liberalism is a product of adopting a fundamentally rational approach to the domain of ethics; any other approach is itself inherently unethical.

The only further premise necessary to add to the starting point of a purely reason based set of ethical principles to reach the fundamental principle of universal liberalism outlined above is that, all other things being equal, coercion is inherently harmful to those coerced. While it is theoretically possible that somebody might disprove that claim, it is highly doubtful that anyone who knows what it is to be coerced (and that is everyone reading this, for there will be nobody alive and able to read who has not been coerced at least as a child) would seriously and in good faith dispute that premise.

It is from the primacy of reason that the universality in universal liberalism comes. Because reason is inherently universal, so too are the principles derived by applying reason to reality. That does not mean that it is rational to regard every situation as identical: it is not. Rather, it means that it is rational to treat one situation differently from another when and only when the differences between the situations mean that the reason for treating one situation in one way is the same as the reason for treating another situation in a different way: in other words, the different treatment arises because of the consistent application of the same fundamental reasons.

Universal liberalism in practice

The two principal enemies to universal liberalism in practice are power and prejudice, particularly concentrated, coercive power and widespread, shared prejudice.

Power: the state

In relation to government, the principle of universal liberalism requires that state power, which is by its nature a concentration of coercive power, be restrained. Democracy and the principles of the rule of law, freedom above the law and equality before the law, as well as the separation of the powers are all important forms of restraint, although these are by themselves insufficient. It is also necessary, to prevent unjustified, abusive use of the concentrated coercive power of the state, to prevent either the removal or dilution of democracy, the rule of law, the separation of the powers or any other necessary checks and balances by politicians even if they have been democratically elected, and also to prevent what is sometimes called the “tyranny of the majority”.

That a majority of people on election day support an act of coercion or vote for politicians who subsequently decide to engage in an act of state coercion does not mean that such an act is in fact justified, so there is justification in imposing restraints on the power of even democratically elected politicians to prevent abuse of that power, including restraints on their ability to remove or circumvent the restraints. Historically, such restraints on the power of the state have included bills of rights (that in the United States of America being the most well known) and human rights treaties, such as the European Convention on Human Rights. The effectiveness and appropriateness of these particular instances are outwith the scope of this article: the significant thing for present purposes is that there are substantial historical precedents for the restraint of the power of democratically elected governments to prevent abuses of power, and that some such restraints are justified.

Power: freedom of expression

An important consequence of the principle of universal liberalism is the importance of the freedom of expression, particularly the freedom to manifest ideas, to communicate facts and to challenge rigorously others’ ideas and factual claims. This is because it is important, in order for people to be able to make informed judgments about what claims to accept and reject, and thus what instances of coercion may or may not be justified, for people to have complete and accurate information, and freedom to communicate information and manifest and challenge ideas and that the marketplace of ideas that that freedom creates is more likely to yield a world in which people tend to have complete and accurate information and well considered ideas than one in which there is widespread censorship. It is also because censorship (in the sense of restraining the communication of fact or the manifestation and challenging of ideas and factual claims) is an act of coercion that can rarely, if ever, be justified as being productive of the greatest good for the greatest number, precisely because it stifles the marketplace of ideas necessary to maximise the extent to which ideas and claims are thoroughly tested before being accepted.

Importantly, the universal liberal commitment to freedom of expression does not require anyone to accept the naïve factual premise that nobody will ever lie or spread misinformation or that nobody will ever be persuaded or deceived by a bad idea into harming others. Rather, it is founded on the premise that allowing concentrated coercive power to dictate what ideas may be manifested or challenged and what factual claims may be made is one where the inherent danger of the abuse of that power with the intention and effect of entrenching misinformation and bad ideas far outweighs such danger as there may be from bad ideas or misinformation spreading in a state of freedom from censorship, and that the much safer and more effective means of dealing with bad ideas and misinformation is to permit (and, indeed, encourage) rigorous, reasoned scrutiny of all factual claims and ideas. There is no need to pretend that such a strategy will work perfectly in every instance in order to conclude that its net effect is infinitely preferable to the net effect of censorship.

The universal liberal commitment to freedom of expression, however, does not mean that there can never be justified coercion to restrain any act of speech or communication. It is justifiable to prohibit deliberate lies (e.g. fraud), providing that whether any given statement is in fact a deliberate lie is determined on a case by case basis by a rigorous judicial process, free from the possibility of any influence by legislature or executive and preferably involving a jury. It is also justifiable to restrain intimidation, the intentional incitement of crime, and deliberately abusive conduct directed towards particular people, not least because such behaviour is itself a form of unjustified coercion which needs to be restrained in order to protect people’s freedom to manifest and challenge ideas.

Power: economics

Economics is fundamentally about resources, and resources are fundamental to power. It is therefore not surprising that unjustified coercion (i.e., that which is not productive of the greatest good for the greatest number) is common in economic contexts.

In England in the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, liberals successfully dismantled a network of royal monopolies, which prohibited a huge range of worthwhile activity except on payment of a fee to the Crown in exchange for a licence to provide that service. The origin of the word “ferry”, for example, now used simply to refer to a short distance boat service, is the ancient royal monopoly on river crossings intended to siphon money from essential economic activity by coercion, a form of rent-seeking. The effect was that essential services were more expensive for everyone in order to enrich the aristocratic elites of the day. Another example from the UK in the 18th and early 19th centuries is that of the “Corn Laws”, which prohibited the importation of corn, a staple food product, at below a certain price in order artificially to inflate the price of UK grown corn, to enrich landowners (who were at the time the only people allowed to vote) at the expense of everyone else.

That is not to say that universal liberalism does not admit of any coercive measures in relation to economic matters: as with all spheres of life, in economics, coercion is justified when and only when the long-term net effect of a specific form of coercion produces the greatest good for the greatest number. Coercion is justified to prevent fraud and theft and to enforce contracts, without which much worthwhile economic activity with widespread benefit would be practically impossible, and is justified to restrain unjustified coercive economic behaviour, such as extortion by people or organisations in the position of a monopoly.

Coercion is also justified to require the contribution by those who have money to spare to fund the necessary mechanisms to uphold democracy and the rule of law (and thereby be effective in the prevention of illegitimate coercion), and also to require those with disposable income to contribute a portion of it to beneficial activities, such as the relief of extreme poverty, when the net effect of the coerced contribution and the activities themselves produces over the long-term the greatest good for the greatest number.

However, there is a particular danger of abuse of power in the case of large numbers of people making compulsory payments to the same body, which can thereby amass truly extreme levels of concentrated economic power as a result and which can use that power corruptly, especially if combined with political power. Such bodies are liable deliberately to spend it on projects which benefit those who have control of the very large sums of money (or those with the power to influence those with such control), rather than those which are in fact productive of the greatest good for the greatest number. This abuse is sometimes colloquially termed “pork barrel politics”, although the phrase is historically sometimes confined to this sort of abuse only when committed by a local, rather than national, government. History demonstrates that democracy itself is insufficient to prevent this abuse. Universal liberalism requires stringent controls to prevent anyone from being in a position to commit such abuses, whether local, national or otherwise.

Prejudice: social norms and diffuse coercion

Although the greatest danger of unjustified coercion arises from the concentration of coercive power, such as in the state, coerced social conformity that is not productive of the greatest good for the greatest number can also arise from diffuse coercion: many small acts of disapproval, ridicule or even intimidation committed by large numbers of people acting independently. Each individual act may be insufficient to coerce anybody, but the cumulative effect of large numbers of people all behaving in this way in response to the same behaviour can in fact be powerfully coercive against that behaviour in all but those who care least about others’ opinions of them and do not depend on those others for income or essential goods or services.

Many things not formally prohibited by law have been significantly suppressed by diffuse coercion of this nature. Historical examples include pre-marital sex, homosexuality, even not involving behaviours which were actually prohibited by law at various places and times in history, and, more recently, transsexuality. The significance of the suppression of the latter by diffuse coercion is demonstrated by the much larger numbers of people now emboldened publicly to manifest transsexuality than was so even a decade ago as a result of a much more widespread acceptance of transsexuality as something that does not warrant disapproval of any sort. Even more sinister than coercion aimed at suppressing particular behaviours, widespread diffuse coercion may be applied to particular categories of people however they behave, as in widespread racism, with the implicit intent of driving people in those categories away entirely. The modern concepts of “micro-aggressions” and “cancel culture” both in substance amount to attempts to describe – and criticise – the unjustified use of diffuse coercion.

As with all other forms of coercion, not all forms of diffuse coercion are unjustified. Diffuse coercion is justified where – and only where – the net effect of the coercion itself combined with its ability to prevent undesirable or mandate desirable behaviours is productive of the greatest good for the greatest number. It follows from that that diffuse coercion aimed at entire categories of people no matter how they behave can never be justified. Examples of justified diffuse coercion include widespread public disapproval of drunk-driving and widespread public disapproval of racism, although the latter has to some extent in recent times been hijacked by extremist activists to promote a sectarian agenda entirely unconnected in all but the most superficial respects to genuine and principled disapproval of anything that can accurately be termed racism; but that must not be allowed to diminish the importance of public disapproval of racism properly so called.

Also as with all other forms of coercion, it is a legitimate use of coercion to restrain illegitimate use of diffuse coercion. Measures such as legislation prohibiting prejudice-based discrimination, the effective prohibition of deliberate harassment and intimidation of all kinds, as well as the use of diffuse coercion to restrain unjustified diffuse coercion (e.g., by withdrawing funding, support and custom from and refusing to co-operate with institutions that deliberately tolerate or participate in unjustified diffuse coercion) are justified to prevent illegitimate uses of diffuse coercion.

Because unjustified diffuse coercion arises principally from prejudice, an important means of minimising the risk of unjustified diffuse coercion in the long-term is to eliminate prejudice wherever it arises. Prejudice is the attitude of pre-judging: in other words, judging what characteristics that a person or thing has generally on the basis of only a few superficial characteristics in circumstances where there is no logically necessary connexion between the two. Racism is an obvious example: concluding that because a person has dark skin, he or she is inherently inferior to somebody with lighter skin, or, that, because somebody has light skin, he or she is inherently racist are paradigm instances of prejudice. In essence, prejudice is irrationality.

Thus, diffuse coercion in the form of widespread public disapproval of prejudice and irrationality of all kinds is necessary and justified in order to minimise the instances of unjustified diffuse coercion. Indeed, there is good reason to suspect that an excessive willingness on the part of those who generally consider themselves to be liberal to tolerate superficially relatively harmless forms of irrationality has significantly contributed to the fragility of liberalism in recent decades, and that this needs to be reversed if liberalism is to have a chance of continuing to achieve the immense benefits for humanity that only it can achieve.

Another important bulwark against prejudice is for people to be in a position to equip themselves with the thinking tools necessary for a rigorous, reason- and reality-based understanding of the world, especially critical thinking skills, and unhesitatingly to reject any idea or claim that is not demonstrably supported by sufficient reason and evidence. This is so not least because only the rigorous application of reason can meaningfully distinguish which acts of coercion are legitimate or not, and therefore which acts of coercion to restrain illegitimate coercion are themselves legitimate. This principle is the fundamental justification for law and justice systems.

Prejudice: individuals and groups

A common application of unjustified coercion, both from concentrated power and of the diffuse kind, is in support of sectarianism. In simple terms, sectarianism is the behaviour of favouring one group of people over another when making decisions, including decisions about whether coercion is justified in any particular instance.

Sectarianism is fundamentally opposed to universal liberalism, in that universal liberalism requires all coercion ultimately to be justified by reference to the greatest good for the greatest number, rather than the greatest good for some arbitrary subset of the greatest number as is the case in sectarianism.

Sectarianism may be cynical in origin (e.g., politicians in a national government trading off an arbitrarily large amount of harm to people who cannot vote them out of office for an arbitrarily small benefit to those who can vote them out of office), based entirely on prejudice, or a complex combination of the two (e.g. people adopting a racist attitude towards immigrants whom they believe will increase the pool of available workers and thereby prevent their own wages from increasing, without taking into account the well-being of the immigrants themselves, even where some individual manifestations of this racism may not stand any chance of benefiting the person manifesting it).

Sectarianism tends to be supported by human cognitive biases that probably evolved to support tribal living, and in many instances is or at least involves a form of prejudice. Universal liberalism requires that nobody be in a position to coerce others on sectarian grounds, and that sectarianism in general and of all kinds (not just specific instances of it) consistently be subject to widespread and strong social disapproval.

Why universal liberalism matters

Universal liberalism matters because it is a principle which, by definition, requires the promotion of the greatest good for the greatest number. Any principle which does not require this is inherently liable to produce net harm compared with a principle that does if applied in practice.

Empirically, the application of universal liberal principles has in fact resulted in enormous gains for humanity. The repeal of the Corn Laws in the UK in 1846 after a sustained campaign by liberal reformers benefited 90% of the population at the expense of the wealthiest 10%. The precipitous decline in both proportion and absolute numbers of people living in extreme poverty in recent decades is in large part a result of global free trade (i.e., the reduction of unjustified coercion preventing trade across national borders). The enormous advances in medical science made possible by the free exchange of ideas has more than doubled world average life expectancy since the start of the 20th century. The increased social tolerance of a wider variety of sexual behaviours and orientations since the mid 20th century has permitted millions to live fulfilling personal lives where otherwise they would have been repressed and unsatisfied. The standards of living and personal autonomy enjoyed by billions of people the world over are as a direct result of the application of universal liberal principles, and the continuation of these standards of living and this autonomy requires these principles to continue to prevail.

Those who seek to coerce others in circumstances where the coercion does not demonstrably promote the greatest good for the greatest number knowingly put at risk the benefits already achieved and purposely obstruct continued progress towards achieving more. To defend universal liberalism is to defend the common interest of all humanity.


In the introduction to his anthology Censorship and Silencing (1998), Robert Post makes the case that attitudes towards censorship, both in academia and beyond, have become much more politically and ideologically controversial in the past few decades. Previously, censorship had been largely associated with the political right, whereas the political left generally advocated for quasi-libertarian attitudes towards free expression. More recently, however, members of groups that are ideologically different in almost every way have converged in pro-censorship views. Post gives the examples of feminist scholars, such as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, supporting the censorship of pornography, which is generally associated with Christian fundamentalism, or Critical Race Theory scholars joining the Jesse Helms-led conservative movement to ban hate-speech. Post wrote over twenty years ago, and yet, his observations are just as relevant today.

So, what caused this shift in the attitudes of many left-leaning scholars and public figures towards a classically conservative attitude towards free speech? I argue that, in part, the change in the way that censorship was perceived in the social sciences was catalysed by

Foucault’s writings on power and censorship. Hitherto, censorship in academia had been seen as a generally repressive and coercive act, indeed as the antithesis of academic freedom. Viewed through a liberal lens, preventing censorship is a matter of protecting the individual’s negative freedom, i.e., their freedom from restriction. Thus, censorship was defined as the coercive blocking of certain topics and content by an individual, group or state that takes place after the act of expression (see Freshwater, 2003). Michel Foucault and other postmodernist thinkers, though, sought to redefine censorship, showering it with a postmodern dose of radical scepticism and preoccupation with power.

Foucault on power and censorship

For Foucault, censorship was not the coercive and repressive act that modern liberal thinkers described it as. Instead, he saw it as a productive act whose power could be harnessed. Foucault dedicates the first chapter of The History of Sexuality (1978) to discussing the censorship of content relating to sex during the classical period. Central to his hypothesis is that, during this era, loci of power utilised the censorship of sexual content to control the discourse relating to sex, rather than to quell it completely. By inhibiting casual discussions on the topic, powerful entities were able to regulate sexual knowledge production itself. Through censorial means, they dictated the terms and framework through which sex was discussed. Foucault argues that this sparked an “explosion” in the production of discourse regarding sex. He gives the example of schools during the classical period. Every aspect of the design and management, such as classroom arrangements, bedtime monitoring and dormitory layouts, he says, was influenced by this sexual taboo. He calls this “incitement to discourse”, as, according to his thesis, the censorship of sex-related content paradoxically produced an era that was obsessed with sexuality. Foucault began to redefine censorship, uncoupling it from repression and characterising it instead as a positive force.

Another significant contribution Foucault made towards the postmodern redefinition of censorship was the idea that sousveillance can be more effective a mechanism of censorship than surveillance can. During the period in question, the expurgation taking place was not nearly as powerful a censorship tool as were the changing cultural norms that labelled sexual discourse taboo. Foucault writes:

“The forbidding of certain words, the decency of expressions, all the censorings of vocabulary, might well have been only secondary devices compared to that great subjugation: ways of rendering it morally acceptable and technically useful.”

In other words, Foucault argues that social norms, and the self-censorship they encourage, can be more coercive than explicitly repressive devices at controlling speech. In a similar vein to this latter observation, in Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault uses the analogy of Bentham’s panopticon, a prison in which inmates never know when they are being watched. Foucault sees this as a useful metaphor for power relations in contemporary societies, where citizens self-sensor and modify their behaviour to fit in with social norms, where they are constantly sousveilled by those around them.

Foucault planted the seed of postmodern doubt in the minds of social scientists and thus emerged New Censorship Theory, a branch of postmodern thought that framed censorship as productive rather than repressive.

New Censorship Theory

Pierre Bourdieu was a particularly notable figure in the emergence of New Censorship Theory. Inspired by Foucault’s observations on panoptic societies, Bourdieu developed an idea of self-censorship as a process of pre-emption and anticipation of the way society will respond to certain discourses. The movement subsequently evolved from the contributions made by several key names in the social sciences, including Judith Butler and Michael Holquist. There are several key ways in which the New Censorship movement re-theorised censorship that are fundamental to how the contemporary social sciences perceive freedom of speech and censorship.

First, the movement re-framed censorship as an important and productive force. Much as Foucault saw power and censorship as productive, the academic proponents of New Censorship Theory saw the constructive potential of these concepts, too. In Excitable Speech (1997), Judith Butler explains exactly what is meant by censorship as a “productive” force. It is not to say that censorship is necessarily positive, rather it is “formative”, assisting in the production of discourse, instead of simply the denial of liberty. She describes how censorship could be conceived of as necessary to the realisation of certain social and political aims, giving the example of marginalised communities exercising censorship over others in order to regain control over their own representation. In other words, rather than being purely repressive, censorship can be harnessed as a productive and emancipatory tool. Important to note here is also Herbert Marcuse’s influence on this topic. In his widely cited chapter Repressive Tolerance, Marcuse proposes the concept of “liberating tolerance”, which would involve the censorship of speech that argues against “the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.” and other right-wing ideas. He makes the case that this “liberating tolerance” must be primarily enacted in the academic realm, where the freedom of right-wing academics must be limited in order to correct the power imbalances between minority and majority groups. Marcuse was a member of the Frankfurt school of critical theory, and though this chapter concerns itself primarily with postmodern thought, its influence in the shift in attitudes towards censorship in the academy must also be acknowledged.

Censorship was also re-characterised by postmodern scholars as ubiquitous. The aforementioned liberal idea of censorship understands un-censored expression to be “free”. The pioneers of the New Censorship movement subverted this definition and argued that no expression is ever truly free, as orators, writers and artists constantly self-censor as they create. According to Bourdieu, market conditions (i.e. what others will find valuable) affect speech prior to the act of speaking has even begun. The speaker, artist and writer self-censors according to what society will accept and appreciate. Likewise, Bourdieu argues that, in academia, when scholars wish to generate discourse in their given field, they must self-censor in order to adhere to the correct etiquette that is expected from academic literature. An oft-quoted passage from Holquist affirms this idea of censorship as a ubiquitous force, stating:

“To be for or against censorship as such is to assume a freedom no one has. Censorship is. One can only discriminate among its more and less repressive effects.”

As well as censoring to conform to linguistic and stylistic expectations, the New Censorship scholars argued that social and cultural norms constitute another form of ubiquitous censorship. These norms produce what Bourdieu calls structural censorship, where one pre-emptively alters the content of one’s expression in order to fit what is deemed to be socially acceptable. Previously, censorship had been considered to be always an explicit and repressive act. The new theory labelled some forms of censorship as implicit. For Bourdieu, structural censorship forces the individual to self-censor in order to conform to meet the demands of the market (the listener). Accordingly, Bourdieu presents censorship as necessary, and argues that it is most effective when it is implicit and shrouded in cultural norms and customs:

“Censorship is never quite as perfect or as invisible as when each agent has nothing to say apart from what he is objectively authorised to say […] he is […] censored once and for all, through the forms of perception and expression that he has internalised and which impose their form on all his expressions.”

Butler echoes this sentiment six years later, claiming that implicit forms of censorship can be more effective in limiting “speakability”. Part of the reason being that, when censors explicitly ban certain content, it conspicuously draws attention to that which has been censored. The effect is that censors self-sabotage their own work through the very act of explicit censorship. Social norms, on the other hand, censor by rendering certain utterances impossible. “Impossible speech”, for Butler is that which is socially unacceptable to say, that which renders the speaker “asocial” or “psychotic” in the eyes of society.

I find it important to note that these proponents of New Censorship Theory are particularly influential in their fields, and, in fact, their writings on the topic are generally contained within some of their most celebrated works. In 2007, Foucault, Bourdieu and Butler ranked as numbers 1, 2 and 9 respectively as the most cited authors in the humanities. For this reason, the implications of this redefinition of censorship are certainly not to be downplayed.

Implications for academia

That censorship is omnipresent is the inevitable terminus of the ideas raised in this strand of scholarship. As Post asserts, “If censorship is a technique by which discursive practices are maintained, and life largely consists of such practices, it follows that censorship is the norm rather than the exception”. Post acknowledges that once one sees censorship as ubiquitous, one must differentiate between different forms of censorship in order to accept or reject them. However, taken to its extremes, the general thesis of the New Censorship literature has the potential to render the term “censorship” meaningless. As mentioned, these theorists make the point that self-censorship is fundamental to the process of writing and content production, as a writer selects their words through a process of inclusion and exclusion. Although this may be the case, the process of self-censoring due to fear of reprisal or judgement is hardly the same as self-censorship as an artistic choice. Within the New Censorship framework, though, these are presented essentially as one and the same, since societal norms and values are both seen as effective and potentially productive tools of censorship. A gender-critical feminist scholar, for example, may self-censor in order to avoid being ostracised by colleagues. This is far from being an artistic choice and rather a type of censorship based on academic social norms. By redefining censorship as a ubiquitous and inevitable element of discourse, one takes the negative connotations away from the term “censorship”. In addition to this, Butler’s (and Marcuse’s) suggestion that censorship can be used as a tool for social justice could conceivably be used to justify censorships according to the political and ideological whims of censures (or violent student demonstrators at universities, for example).

My concern is that, once censorship is normalised as a concept, the moral outrage previously invoked by incidents of censorship may be eroded. I believe that classifying social norms as a form of censorship leads us down a slippery slope that ends with advocating for the use of explicit censorship as a tool for enforcing the popular dogma or theory of the day. Unfortunately, I suspect we’re already well on our way down said slippery slope, as 40% of millennials in the US believe that the censorship by government of potentially offensive content is justified.

There is now a growing disconnect between those who believe that self-censorship is a form of repression and those who see it is a positive tool for achieving progress. I believe that addressing this divide will be impossible without an understanding of the theories and literature that have led a generous portion of the population down this path.

After studying Architecture at the University of Nottingham, Laura Walker-Beaven worked in fundraising and international development. She recently completed a masters in Human Rights, during which she became increasingly concerned about the impact of Critical Social Justice on universities.


Academic freedom has faced numerous challenges over time. In the UK, a 1963 report on higher education regarded the greatest threat to academic freedom as being political influence. Recently, the debate surrounding academic freedom has been resurrected, as threats to freedom of speech appear to emerge from within academia itself. In December 2020, Civitas published a report on academic freedom in UK universities, which reviewed incidents of speech censorship between 2017 and 2019. At universities across the UK, Civitas observed instances of speech restrictions and censorship by way of restrictive campus speech codes, instances of no-platforming, and ‘cancel culture’ petitions and letters. Other think tanks and advocacy organisations have similarly expressed concern over the reported decline of academic freedom in universities in the UK and beyond (see UCU; Policy Exchange; Heterodox Academy; Gallup; Woman’s Place UK).

Of course, some deny the existence of a free speech crisis, often claiming that right-wing speakers have fabricated it in order to protect their ability to continue espousing questionable views on university campuses (see Fowles; Smith). These critics, however, fail to consider the wealth of literature coming from left-leaning academics and journalists also discussing the threats to academic freedom. For instance, the Harper’s Letter, which argues in favour of protecting free and open debate, counted Noam Chomsky, Salman Rushdie and Samuel Moyn amongst its signatories, indicating the bipartisan support for this cause.

Amidst this growing public concern over campus censorship, the UK government recently appointed a Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion. As so often happens in public discourse, views on the topic are often highly polarised and attribute the “free speech crisis” at universities to various single-issue and highly politicised concerns. Instead, in this article I present some of the research and contemporary thought exploring potential factors that could threaten academic freedom. In an effort to avoid dichotomous thinking, this article considers different approaches to the issue and accepts that the cause of declining academic freedom is likely a complex amalgamation of the issues discussed here—and many more.

The political economy of censorship

A substantial body of literature suggests that threats to academic freedom, particularly in the UK and the US, have increased due to the neoliberal privatisation of universities. Professor Anna Traianou argues that the commercialisation of knowledge production has negatively impacted the intellectual freedom of academics. In the 1980s and 90s, a considerable shift took place in how higher education was conceptualised. The UK government began encouraging more of the population to attend university in order to compete globally in the emerging knowledge economy. According to Traianou, public sector funding for universities could not meet the resource demands incurred by the sudden influx of students. As a result, tuition fees were introduced, compelling universities to compete for funding. The Civitas report similarly proposes that privatisations have led university management to treat students as customers, producing a paradigm that prioritises customer satisfaction over academic freedom and knowledge production. Although the issue of university privatisation is undeniably multifaceted, Traianou and Civitas’ arguments make a compelling case for why public sector funding may allow universities to better pursue truth and knowledge unencumbered by the whims of their student customers.

Sociologist Adam Hedgecoe suggests that the establishment of research ethics committees in UK universities has also contributed to the threat to academic freedom. For those unfamiliar with the inner workings of universities, research ethics committees are groups of academics who judge whether proposed research projects are ethical. While the necessity of these committees may be abundantly obvious within the context of medical research, for instance, the encroachment of these into the social sciences has been the subject of many debates. In his study, Hedgecoe finds evidence that these committees tend to prioritise the reputation of the university rather than the ethics of research praxis. He theorises that sensitive or controversial research projects may be denied permission to proceed by these committees because they pose reputational risks to the university. Hedgecoe further suggests that these bodies promote academic cultures that prioritise public image over academic freedom and the pursuit of knowledge, the effects of which become even more significant when combined with the commercialisation of higher education. While Hedgecoe takes a decidedly measured approach to his research, other academics have spoken out more vocally about the potential for research ethics committees to curb academic freedom. Sociologist Martyn Hammersley, for example, has written a number of articles arguing that ethics committees tend to emphasise the individual autonomy of the research subject, but ignore that of the researcher. Hammersley also questions whether the ethics of a social sciences proposal can truly be decided by such a committee. He makes the point that this very act is hubristic in that it assumes that one could conclusively decide whether a proposal is ethical or not. Hammersley asserts that the existence of such committees “amounts not only to a bureaucratization of research but also to unwarranted restriction on the freedom of researchers”.

The Civitas report suggests that the development of equality policies, which rightly seek to protect minority students from discrimination, may go too far in limiting speech. “The university institution,” states the report, “is not created for the primary purpose of prohibiting discrimination—its founders do so for the purposes of providing places of higher education and learning”. Law professors Ian Cram and Helen Fenwick make a similar point, arguing that recent changes to UK counter-terrorism law could incentivise universities to cancel potentially controversial events. Cram and Fenwick explain that UK law changed to place duty on universities themselves to actively prevent potential instances of radicalisation and extremist content. The authors claim that the law already contained sufficient protection against such content and that including the “prevent” clause encourages universities to pre-emptively cancel or prevent campus events that may include or lead to “extremist expression”. The authors claim that this policy is excessively broad and ill-defined, potentially leading to universities restricting ideologically diverse content in accordance with the new laws.

Ideological influences

Taking a rather different approach to the works outlined above, other scholars adopt positions that correlate declining academic freedom with the rise of certain ideological movements. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, in The Coddling of the American Mind, posit that free speech in universities may be placed in jeopardy by growing cultures of “safetyism”, resulting in over-protective attitudes towards children both at home and at school. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that protecting children against adversity instils a mindset in young people that seeks to avoid discomfort or feelings of offence. Subsequently, according to the authors, when students arrive at university, they lack the cognitive toolkit required to confront ideas that fundamentally contradict their own worldviews and react by demanding “safe-spaces” free from intellectual discomfort. This, combined with privatisation, means that universities may be more inclined to compromise their commitment to academic freedom and open enquiry in order to appease their increasingly “coddled” customer base.

Others attribute the reported decline of academic freedom to the rise of postmodernism within academia. Public intellectuals Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, in their book Cynical Theories, outline the principles of postmodernism and map the journey of these concepts from their roots in the poststructuralism of Foucault and Derrida through to critical theorists in fields such as postcolonialism and, more recently, intersectional feminism, critical race theory and queer theory. They argue that these fields have formed an academic oligopoly that poses a fundamental threat to Enlightenment and scientific forms of reasoning. Although the authors touch only briefly on academic freedom directly, the implications are clear; the modus operandi of these critical social justice theories seem to be at odds with the established norms and justifications for academic freedom.

Philosopher John Sanbonmatsu makes a similar case, arguing that nihilism, stemming from the poststructuralist denial of the existence of objective truth, has come to monopolise academic thought. He claims that the effect of this has been to “blunt the critical imagination and to erode our capacity for truth-telling”. Sanbonmatsu suggests that the reason for postmodernism’s success in universities, despite opposition from almost all other ideological perspectives within the academy, has been its ability to morph and adapt into new forms. These ideas have penetrated each field of the humanities so profoundly that the term theory itself, argues Sanbonmatsu, has become synonymous with postmodern. This postmodern domination of academia, he claims, has shut down academic enquiry and “penalises those who dissent from its ideological frame”. Indeed, if Sanbonmatsu is right, the pervasive nature of this subset of academic theories could be seen as hegemonic in its monopolisation of academic thought. This could result in a “tyranny of the majority” effect in academia, whereby academics are openly discouraged from conducting research that opposes popular philosophies stemming from postmodernism. A particularly topical example of this is Kathleen Stock of Sussex University, my alma mater, who has been publicly denounced by the University and College Union for her critical stance on postmodern theories of gender and has now resigned after harassment by activist students and lack of support from colleagues. Although this, and many contemporary examples of campus censorship, may stem from postmodernism and its offshoots, the same could be conceivably said for any theory or ideology that comes to dominate academia.

This article has touched on research and thought from two approaches to the academic freedom debate. As I mentioned in the introduction, I fear the discourse on the topic tends to place the blame of declining academic freedom on single issues rather than considering its complexity, stemming as it does from the amalgamation of intersecting causes. Perhaps by broadening our view of the university free speech debate, we can better consider the steps necessary to bolster academic freedom in UK universities and beyond.

After studying Architecture at the University of Nottingham, Laura Walker-Beaven worked in fundraising and international development. She recently completed a masters in Human Rights, during which she became increasingly concerned about the impact of Critical Social Justice on universities.


Some people have questioned why I do not use the term “anti-white” to describe aspects of Critical Social Justice Theory and activism that explicitly generalise negatively about white people. Instead, when someone points out that a statement is racist about white people, rather than focusing on the fact that the denigrated group is white, I am likely to address it as a failure to consistently oppose racial essentialism and the evaluation of the worth of any individual by their race.

The main reason I do this is because I think it is important to focus primarily on first principles rather than identity. The first principle of liberal opposition to racism is that it is stupid and unethical to evaluate people’s worth by their race or attribute any characteristics, traits, values or behaviours to them because of the colour of their skin. That is, the first principle of liberal approaches to racial equality is an individual and universal one that racist generalisations are always factually and ethically wrong. There is enormous value in foregrounding this universal principle because liberally minded people of all races can get behind it. It is this consistency of opposition to racism that will bring us together to oppose both the ideological loons whose negative racial generalisations are about black and/or brown people and the ideological loons whose negative racial generalisations are about white people.

Negative generalisation about individuals on the grounds of their race is a concern shared by all people who oppose racism in genuinely liberal ways. Even though the people who denigrate black and brown people and the people who denigrate white people are different people who are motivated by different ideologies, there is value in pointing out that they are manifesting the same factual and moral failures. Despite the fact that negative assumptions made about black and brown people by white identitarians are different to the negative assumptions made about white people by Critical Social Justice anti-racists and impact people differently, there is still value in calling upon the first principle of liberal opposition to racism in order to oppose both.

This does not mean that we should not address the differences above. If we want to oppose white supremacist ideas, we will need to focus on their ideological framework. It is necessary to look at how they are specifically anti-black and how they make specific false claims about the unintelligence and criminality of black people. It is important to look at how this specifically affects black people. If we want to oppose CSJ approaches to anti-racism, we will also need to focus on their ideological framework. To do this, we need to look at how they are specifically anti-white and make specific false claims about white people being racist, arrogant, ignorant and entitled, and how this affects white people. We don’t need to make any false equivalencies when addressing both of these forms of racial stereotypes. We can openly acknowledge the mountains of historical evidence that the people most grievously impacted by racist views have been black. We can and should also acknowledge that the legacy of this can be measured today in the comparative prosperity of white and black people.

However, we need to look at what will best address and remedy both the legacy of historical racism and the racial polarisation we are facing today. The universal liberalism of the Civil Rights Movement is best equipped to do this, and there is much evidence to support this view. Society makes most progress when it appeals to our shared humanity. When Martin Luther King said he dreamt of a day his children would be judged by the content of their character not the colour of their skin, he was appealing to white Americans’ hopes for their own children and their claimed liberal values. He was saying ‘We are human just like you. We have needs and personalities and abilities and feelings just like you. Yet we are treated as inferior and denied full access to society.’ This appeal to empathy and common humanity was something that white people could relate to and get on board with. With liberal feminism and Gay Pride working in much the same way, we saw much legal progress between 1960 and 1980, and have seen much social progress since. This works with our best impulses of fairness, empathy and reciprocity.

Identity politics, on the other hand, works against those best impulses and brings out the worst in human nature – our in-group bias (tribalism) and tendency to callously disregard the wellbeing of the out-group. When Robin DiAngelo calls upon white people to be less white – by which she means less arrogant, ignorant and oppressive – this does not appeal to their empathy and create a sense of shared humanity. In fact, she rejects universalism explicitly. This causes mostly resentment from white people who are none of the above, and resulted in DiAngelo writing a whole book about how fragile white people are as the only possible explanation for them being unreceptive to her approach. Other appeals to identity which categorise certain groups as oppressors and others as oppressed have caused the same closing in and shutting down reaction. DiAngelo can call it ‘fragility’ but I would call it completely unnecessary alienation of whole sections of society from what should be a shared endeavour that is in the best interests of all of us – a society free of racism, sexism, homophobia and all other bigotries.

This is why I think the term ‘anti-white’ is seldom useful. It may certainly sometimes be valid to use the term to point out that the race being denigrated in this case is white in order to address the problem specifically. However, as a general rule it is better to refer to principles rather than identity because shared principles are something that bring us together, while shared identities can too often drive us apart.

A black person being abused because of her race can say “This is anti-black and that is wrong.” A white person being abused because of her race can say “This is anti-white and that is wrong.” They can both say “This is prejudice against an individual because of her skin colour and this is wrong.” In this last case, there is no element of identity politics – just consistently liberal principles.

We are seeing the rise of a new and largely reactive white identity politics and a new white victimhood narrative at the moment. White identity politics have always existed, of course. That’s what underlies the historical racism that has caused so much harm to non-white people. But we have made remarkable progress toward overcoming that old racism which just ignorantly assumed the superiority of white people. What we are seeing now is something new which is appearing in response to the identity politics and victim narratives of the Critical Social Justice movement. It is a defensive response to theories which make negative claims about white people such as that they are all racist, oppressive, arrogant, entitled, selfish, ignorant and more. This occurs alongside the development of concepts like ‘whiteness’ which is nebulous and indefinable, is explained in the Theory as a kind of ideology held by white people that upholds white supremacy but is often used in practice to mean existing while white which is inherently bad.

There are good grounds for seeing these ideas as racist and ‘anti-white’ and you are not fragile if you are a white person who feels wronged by being presented in this way when you are actually none of those things. You are feeling the sting of injustice and it is natural to feel defensive. However, it is essential that what you defend is consistent principles of opposing racial essentialism in all its forms and not evaluating people by their race. Do not defend being white – thisis an accident of birth and not something you should feel either proud or ashamed of, be credited for or blamed for. If you find yourself defending your white identity, you could be slipping into white identity politics which could separate you from everybody else who consistently opposes evaluating people by their race. This is a fatal error as a post-racial future is a vitally important goal that requires the combined efforts of all of us. Such a future is the only truly liberal outcome and it is impeded by anybody who behaves in ways that add salience to race itself rather than consistently opposing racism. I do not claim that people who use the term ‘anti-white’ are embracing white identity politics or asserting a white victimhood narrative. Most of them do not and are not. They are simply describing an incident specifically. However, I would advise strategically to avoid doing this.

Instead, rise above any efforts to demean you as a person whose skin happens to be white by consistently objecting to anybody being demeaned because of the colour of their skin. This keeps you in sync with liberal opponents of racism of all races, and they do come in all races. Three people who have come to Counterweight for help in defending white colleagues against language that is demeaning to white people have been black. Two of them said they did so because they have experienced racism, and they know what it feels like and they cannot stand by and allow people to be denigrated solely on the basis of their skin colour. These are genuine liberals whose opposition to racist generalisations is absolutely consistent. I have the greatest respect for them and so should you. Join them and all the other liberals of all races in working towards the post-racial future that will benefit us all.


To “sleep cosmologically against a rock”: the fractured—and great—mind of Fernando Pessoa birthed this phrase in his lonely and angst-ridden “factless” semi-autobiography The Book of Disquiet. Though one could argue—and quite convincingly at that—that Pessoa’s outlook on life closely resembles the criteria for clinical depression and he is thus only someone to be regarded as imitable if you dislike getting out of bed in the morning, I have always thought he captured a great truth about imagination, and therefore literature, in this phrase. Reading is a cosmological experience, one that frees you from the material technicalities of your existence and transports you to wherever in the universe you want to go. With a book, you can indeed live cosmologically against a rock, perhaps forever if the fancy takes you—but you shouldn’t.

Great literature can absolve you of the need to engage with the world but the greatest strength of literature is its capacity to transform both you and, by extension, the world around you. Opting out of reality, as Pessoa seems to think we should, is certainly a service books can provide but opting in—and opting in better—is the ultimate gift provided to us by great literature. Azar Nafisi, an American-Iranian academic and writer—and one of my favourite authors—knew this well. When we eventually emerge from great literature, she thinks, we do so with a fresh perspective on the world around us. She taught literature at the University of Tehran under the Islamic regime, and is best known for her enchanting and deeply poignant book Reading Lolita in Tehran. In her most recent book, The Republic of Imagination—an exploration of the link between democracy and fiction—she writes:

If my students in Iran and millions of other brave souls like Malala and Ramin risked their lives in order to preserve their individual integrity, their access to free thought and education, what will we risk to preserve our access to this Republic of Imagination? To say that only repressive regimes require art and imagination is to belittle life itself. It is not pain and brutality that engender the need to write or the desire to read. If we believe in the first three words of the constitution, “we the people,” then we know that the task of defending the right to imagination and free thought is the responsibility not just of writers and publishers but of readers, too. I am reminded of Nabokov’s statement that “readers are born free and ought to remain free.” We have learned to protest when writers are imprisoned, or when their books are censored and banned. But what about readers? Who will protect us? What if a writer publishes a book and no one is there to read it?

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” So says Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, expressing the feelings of millions. We must read, and we must continue to read the great subversive books, our own and others. That right can be guaranteed only by the active participation of every one of us, citizen readers.

In this passage, Nafisi is not referring to the much-debated and contested “free speech crises” playing out very publicly—or merely purportedly if you are in the camp doing the contesting—across college and university campuses and much more softly in the words unspoken between friends and colleagues and in the hushes that cannot be quantified. Instead, Nafisi is talking about a danger that springs from nonchalance towards imagination and fiction, a nonchalance produced by not knowing how good you have it and nurtured by cuts in public spending and the disappearance of libraries. It is these circumstances, Nafisi thinks, that leads to the devaluing of books, art and the importance of free inquiry—and this devaluing plays out in the real world in a loss of insight and perspective. It is our duty as readers, therefore, not to allow our imaginations to dissipate in this way.

Safeguarding imagination from ideology

I think a parallel can be drawn between her imploration to readers to protect the Republic of Imagination from nonchalance to the need for protecting the Republic of Imagination from ideology. By this I am not, strictly speaking, referring to censorship in art and literature—though this, of course, is a problem. Indeed, given the fortitude that led Nafisi to teach great American works of fiction to women within the Islamic Republic of Iran—at great personal risk, in amongst the turmoil of politicisation and moralisation of books and fiction—so that they could access a freedom in literature that was denied to them in their lives under the regime, I would certainly wonder what she thinks about the fact that two of the books she speaks of—Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird—are being banned from curriculums as we speak, or that publishing houses are being pressured to drop authors and that other publishing houses as well as individual authors are hiring censors to prevent their books from getting “cancelled”. But I need not guess. In a podcast with the Iran’s Weekly Wire, Nafisi says:

It is so amazing. I am always amazed by how much of my own experiences that I am talking about now, and the ideas that I have formulated now come from Iran, and my experiences over there, both good and bad, because I experienced political correctness in its extremist form, where you were punished for thinking differently, and sometimes what you thought differently might have been terrible, but punishment itself is not enough. Political correctness usually targets things that need to be corrected, when we talk about insulting women, or insulting people of other races or nationalities, all of these are things that go back to our real values and principles in life, and they should not be taken lightly. But when you have people in schools censoring Huckleberry Finn because they call it racist, without at least having the debate within the classrooms rather than just eliminating, allowing people to genuinely experience something, and form their own ideas, then it becomes dangerous.

I think that political correctness, in the form of ideology, in the form of didactic, self righteous preaching to others, runs against imagination, because what imagination does, it puts you into the experience of all sorts of people.

Under this ideology, censorship is allowed to creep its way back in to a place people flee to after their own countries and nations are upended from totalitarian regimes that, in the banning of books and censorship of the arts, sought to remove their imagination—and, according to Nafisi, by extension their identity. It is typically those who are privileged to live in places which have free expression who fail to recognise the importance, and tenuousness, of such freedom—a freedom that necessitates constant defence to remain in place. This can lead them to express dismissive attitudes towards or even demonise those who warn against the creeping of censorship. Yet, as is the case in Nafisi’s hypothetical book without a reader, book banning and censoring in the west, implemented by institutions rather than the state or government, is not synonymous with an inability to access literature. In the world of the internet, most societies—even if they had the inclination—would have a great deal of trouble genuinely ousting books or ideas. This is especially true in democratic countries.

A book that is removed from a school syllabus is not a book one would have trouble finding oneself; likewise, ideas that have been deemed dangerous might be hard to share if your livelihood depends on support from certain sections of the public sphere i.e., in much of academia and journalism, but there is no shortage of platforms springing up on the internet for such ideas. I am more concerned, then, with the way many of us are being taught to read—especially in English departments within universities, and increasingly, schools. There are more ways to lose our access to imagination than simply not reading great works—reading them with a (predominantly) dogmatic ideological lens will suffice for such a loss just as well.

Literary Theory

The ideological lens I am referring to here is known broadly as “literary theory” —or simply, “theory”. There are different literary theories—and therefore lenses—one can choose from: queer literary theory, postcolonial literary theory, feminist literary theory, Marxist literary theory—the list goes on. In Beginning theory: an introduction to cultural and literary theory, Peter Barry outlines the points in common between these different lenses—the comments in square brackets are mine:

    • Politics is pervasive.[Broadly speaking, this refers to the rejection of an apolitical or dispassionate reading or writing of a text; we can neither interpret a text without some kind of lens nor can we write a piece of literature without some kind of political context, and theory merely makes the lens utilised explicit.]
    • Language is constitutive. [Language does not merely affect our reality, but actively constructs, limits and shapes it—and therefore has the power to oppress or liberate.]
    • Truth is provisional. [There is no one truth; much of what we take for granted as being “fixed” or “stable” truths are in fact socially constructed.]
    • Meaning is contingent.[The meaning in texts is not to be found by working out the “facts of the matter”; instead, meanings are constantly shifting and changing rather than being fixed and absolute.]
    • Human nature is a myth.Within theory, human nature is not only found to be an inaccurate depiction of humanity but an oppressive one—in so far as what is deemed human nature is, purportedly, often male and “Eurocentric”.]

So, the different lenses tend to hold the above points in common and differ with regards to the oppressed group they focus on and they interpret literature so that the oppression of such a group is salient i.e., they require the close reading of literature to find evidence of oppression and oppressive representations (even when no such reading makes sense—as was the case when Helen Pluckrose’s reading of Shakespeare’s Othello was problematised for not bringing out racist themes that, given the historical context of Shakespeare’s times, were unlikely to be there).

In the ‘70s, English departments began to morph and grow, shaking off the limits placed on them by “New Criticism”—an approach to literature that kept the focus narrow and concerned mainly with the aesthetics of the works themselves—and embraced “literary theory”. English departments thus began to delve into philosophy, history and culture so that lectures might more closely resemble women’s studies and other such identity-based fields within academia than being spaces for the exploration of great writing. Lisa Schubert writes in For the “Public Good”: Contradictions in Contemporary Literary Theory:

Literary critics (by this time a no longer sufficiently defined, free-standing category, but always preceded by a further denomination: feminists, black, black feminists, lesbian, Marxist etc.) questioned not just the literature of the canon and the images therein but the very ideologies masked behind these works, the predominantly Western white male values, assumptions and ways of thinking imbued in the texts. Empowering the marginalized groups that they represented, some critics began to reject anything that resembled a “traditional” (read: white male) theoretical approach to literature. Indeed, battle lines were drawn, as critics like Barbara Smith in “Towards A Black Feminist Criticism” effectively told white male critics to keep their theoretical hands off black women’s art.

More recently, Lennard Davis, a professor at the University of Chicago said, in reference to the state of the modern English department:

English departments might be seen, also, as semiology departments involved in studying the signs and meanings of such things. Cultural studies, which was often housed in English, has risen and fallen as a trendy topic. Now the idea that one should study the semiology of culture is so built into the system as to be invisible to the ordinary student.

[…] To some, English (and the language to which it is linked) is seen as yoked to an oppressive history of conquest, enslavement and imperialism. Hence, another feature of the moment is decolonising the curriculum. This reshaping of the canon of literature now includes paying attention to the global south. It also means reconsidering the European basis of English culture, to the extent that foundational texts like those of Plato or Aristotle are being challenged as “white” and “Eurocentric”.

Of course, it doesn’t seem like too much of a shock, nor a massive indictment of an English studies course, that it might be Eurocentric (unless we deem it problematic that an African studies course might be Afro-centric?). But still, broadening the horizons of English departments is not necessarily a bad thing; expanding the range of authors studied as well as bringing in culture, philosophy and history to the study of literature can surely make for a deeper and more interesting analysis of texts; indeed, texts in English studies courses never used to be so divorced from context in the first place. So, it is not efforts to diversify and expand literature and syllabuses that is the problem, or even the reading of works through a lens of political struggle. After all, reading works from around the globe and from people with differing life experiences and perspectives is, I think, one of the best ways to expand your own world, to empathise with others, and to gain fuller and deeper perspectives on life.

It is certainly enriching and beneficial to Western students to become acquainted with thinkers and societies outside of the West(especially since the West itself includes all kinds of people and cultures), be they from Iran, the land of poets—their Persian myths and histories retained and immortalised in the works of Ferdowsi, author of the Shahnameh— or any number of other places each with their own unique history of thought and philosophy, of intellectual achievement and progression as well as struggle, war and strife. And, yes, books can be political. And, yes, books can provide lessons about morally heinous power imbalances and can make us question accepted truths and norms—Huckleberry Finn being a prime example of such a book.

However, to actively and unapologetically politicise all literature, in the manner that a “critical lens” would dictate, seems to me to be not only akin to sacrilege but also largely restrictive and narrow. For all the talk of diversification and deeper perspectives, the lenses available in literary theory are all suspiciously ideologically aligned at least in so far as they all fall in line with the radical left—and any criticism of such lenses is only put up with if the criticism reveals some oversight of some oppression. Deconstructing texts to the point where a real, or imagined, ideology of identity is all that one can find in the words laid out in front of one is a travesty for books, writers and readers alike. As movements to “decolonise the curriculum” that include the removal of books, reading canons through a “critical lens”—note, using a “critical lens” does not mean to think critically, it means to think and interpret literature through the lens of a particular ideology—and to increase diversity of skin colour, but often not diversity of viewpoint gain traction, it is essential that we, as readers, retain our sense of wonder and curiosity in books, ideas and fictional landscapes, regardless of the skin colour and sex of the author and characters. One does not find groups in literature, but individuals.

If the transforming power of books lies in their ability to endow one with new perspectives on life then we must ask ourselves—what perspectives are available to those who read only, or predominantly, from a restricted set of ideological lenses? Is life enriched when political struggle and warring identities are said to permeate all levels of interactions from the individual to the institutional? Are we empowered when all we can see is the myriad of ways we have been oppressed? Can we move forward and enact real change to create a more compassionate and fairer society when we obsessively tally up the degree to which those around us are supposedly complicit in our marginalisation simply by glancing at the colour of their skin or their sex? And, perhaps most importantly:are these lenses true? One might be forgiven for the cynicism of critical lenses if they accurately reflected reality.(“Critical theorists” would, of course, reject my terms, suspicious as they are of notions of truth and reality.) However, stopping to question the validity of such lenses is an often ignored task.

So, it seems to me, then, that Nafisi’s invocation of our duty, as readers, to not give in to complacency can just as much be transferred to our duty now, as readers, to not give in to ideologically homogeneous prescribed reading lists, or reductive analyses of literature through vacuous identity prisms or to the idea that we might be unable to cope with words and characters that might offend or bring about discomfort. We have a duty not to suck the life out of imagination by reading literature as if it were simply a bundle of identities warring for power or a seducing instrument of western power and “cis-gendered, white, male, heteronormativity”. The vitality of a book and an author is not determined by a group identity. It cannot be reduced to a way of spreading marginalising norms and perpetuating inequality or speaking the “lived experience” of a whole group. Reading books of authors with differing ethnicities and backgrounds should not be conflated with reading people with one particular viewpoint who happen to have the same skin colour.

The imagination of Western youth is not in danger from an inability to access ideas and literature considered offensive or immoral. They are in danger from their failure to read it. They are in danger from failing to really see and imagine. They are in danger from an ideology that tells them that the stories they read are about—and only about—the struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed. Such a failure of imagination, if continued, amounts to the death of literature and defies the beauty and truth that can be found in our great works of fiction—and, indeed, our non-fiction. Searching books for ways to separate and put artificial chasms between the characters themselves and between the readers and the writings based on differing group identities is a fundamental betrayal of literature; it is the responsibility of all of us who read to explore and appreciate the differing circumstances we reside in but, more importantly, to have the capacity to transcend these differences by falling into the vast landscapes of our common humanity. This is one place where the transforming power of books lies.

Nafisi thinks that in books and stories we can find home; I myself have certainly found a home in her books and many others’. But what is home if not that which is familiar? And how can we find that sense of familiarity in lands that appear so fundamentally different to the ones we know?

By appreciating that books offer the greatest avenue to connection across differing nationalities, ethnicities, places and times. By appreciating that in literature we manage to find ourselves in worlds and people that should not be our own but are, nonetheless.

Isobel Marston is a student of Philosophy at the University of Southampton and Counterweight’s Content Coordinator.



Unfortunately, this essay needs to be written because so many people seem to be fatally confused about the concept of academic freedom, freedom of belief and speech more broadly and the value of viewpoint diversity and robust debate. That is, they fail to see the difference between someone making an argument that other people might find personally upsetting but which they do not have to read or listen to and targeted harassment, intimidation and dishonest character assassination intended to terrify people into silence. This is a very alarming development and it has never been more evident than in the current situation surrounding Professor Kathleen Stock.

Kathleen Stock is a feminist academic who has been critical of some forms of trans activism and queer theory that prioritise a personal perception of gender identity over the existence of biological sex in ways that impact on women’s rights, spaces and sports. While defending the rights of trans people to be free from harassment and discrimination and honouring their pronouns, Stock believes that recognizing the material reality of biological sex is important. In Material Girls she rejects the idea that only trans people have a right to an opinion on the subject of gender and argues that everyone does and that she as a lesbian sex-nonconforming woman has skin in the game too. She believes that women’s rights and trans people’s rights can both be recognized as important and rejects the idea that there is no debate to be had about this.

In the past week, Stock has been on the receiving end of what can only reasonably be described as a campaign of intimidation and an attempt at cancellation in the form of having her fired from her position at the University of Sussex. This included an Instagram account set up to demand her firing, posters stuck around her office calling for her firing and referring to her as transphobic and banners targeting her personally accompanied by the use of flares. In addition to this student activists issued explicit threats to continue the aggressive targeted harassment until Stock is fired and incited to others to behave intimidatingly until she is gone. The Instagram account said

‘If you care for our community like we do, spread the word, get people angry, angry enough to do something about it,’

And ‘Our demand is simple: Fire Kathleen Stock. Until then, you’ll see us around.’

Given all of this and the fact that police have needed to be consulted regarding Prof. Stocks’ physical safety is it any wonder that she has experienced panic attacks and been described as hyperventilating and crying? This was a targeted, personal attack on an individual of a physically threatening nature simply because she wrote a book, made some arguments and organized with feminist and gay and lesbian groups to argue for the need to consider biological sex a relevant factor.

Incredibly, there are people who see Prof. Stock making arguments which target no individual and which people can choose to read or not and which repeatedly stress the importance of trans people’s rights not to be intimidated or discriminated against as equivalent or even worse than the campaign of intimidation against her as an individual. Nowhere is this more evident than on Twitter. Twitter should not be mistaken for a representation of broader society but neither should its power and influence be underestimated.

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This is blatantly untrue as well as being ridiculously hyperbolic. Would it be reasonable to accuse Judith Butler of making gender-conforming (or as Stock would prefer “sex-conforming”) people unsafe and wanting them dead because she has written and spoken about the importance of understanding gender as a performance? Would it be reasonable for students who disagreed with Butler’s theories of gender to worry that she wanted them dead or ethical for them to aggressively hound her, demand her firing and incite students to behave aggressively towards to her? Of course it would not. Butler is to be understood as having written arguments which people, including Kathleen Stock, have responded to appropriately with arguments. If activists targetted Butler in this way or any other queer theorist or trans activist in this way (which of course happens) it would almost certainly be clear to the activists hounding Stock that this was harassing and threatening behaviour. It would also be clear to Kathleen Stock who condemns any such behaviour very explicitly.

Many activists do not see this in this case because of their belief that arguments about sex and gender which do not comport with their gender ideology are literally dangerous to trans people. It is argued that any differing views on how sex and gender work can lead trans people to commit suicide. “Pretend to believe what I do or I’ll kill myself” is an emotionally manipulative demand and cannot be used ethically to prevent people expressing a range of views on an issue that really needs to be discussed. People who are suicidal require psychological support not the censorship of all other viewpoints. Similarly, it is argued that the existence of gender critical feminist arguments encourages violence against trans people although there is no evidence of anyone having committed violence influenced by gender critical feminism. Nevertheless, the belief that disagreement with a certain gender ideology held by (what is almost certainly) a minority of trans people is literally dangerous to trans people persists. If you believe this, it seems perfectly reasonable to respond to such arguments not with counterarguments but with aggressive retaliation. People with this mindset do not see Stock as a philosopher having an opinion which could be upsetting to some people but as a hatemonger causing real, genuine harm. The exchange below demonstrates this well.


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Bizarrely, this has led some people to accuse those defending Stock or opposing the bullying and harassment of being “snowflakes.” They even regard the intimidating behaviour as “criticism” seeming not to comprehend that criticism is the production of a verbal or written critique, not an attempt to get someone fired or make them too afraid to enter their place of work.

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This use of the term “snowflake” is an attempt to turn a term coined to describe people who feel harmed by viewpoints they find upsetting back onto those who object to physical harassment and intimidation of an individual. This does not work. It therefore seems necessary to discuss what phenomenon the word “snowflake” is meant to describe and why it does not apply to people preferring not to become the victims of campaigns of targeted harassment.

I am not a fan of the term “snowflake.” It tends to be used in a derogatory fashion to indicate contempt for an individual’s lack of psychological resilience. This usually occurs in the response to some dramatic statement about the harmfulness of speech. It is often said in response to things like “Your beliefs about sex and gender deny trans people’s right to exist,” “Your words erase women of color,” ‘advocating for hearing aids is advocating Deaf genocide.” While such statements are hyperbolic, it is not particularly useful to just dismiss the individual expressing them as a snowflake. This fails to recognize that the distress felt is probably completely genuine. If it is, some compassion and also a practical solution is required if we wish to be able to keep discussing different ideas. We need to look at the cause of people feeling deeply and personally harmed by somebody else expressing a viewpoint. This could be caused by an individual having suffered trauma that has left them feeling genuinely endangered by certain trigger words and who needs to be treated with therapy. It could also be caused by a cultural shift in our attitudes towards language and concepts of emotional safety which is teaching young people to genuinely feel such intense distress at words. This is more likely the explanation in the case of activist groups and it needs to be addressed on a cultural level. This is particularly important as these groups are so often found in universities which will turn out the next generation of leaders of various industries and institutions and we need them to be able to cope with a full range of words and ideas.

On that cultural level what is disparagingly known as “snowflakery” is more seriously and empathetically expressed by concern about an increasing lack of psychological resilience. It indicates alarm that an increasing number of young people and particularly those deeply steeped in theories of Critical Social Justice behave as though words that convey ideas they find upsetting could psychologically melt them. The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt looks at precisely this phenomenon in a compassionate way that accepts the phenomenon as real and dangerous. It points out that we should not just dismiss people feeling this way as snowflakes as though it is their choice and preference to feel this way. The evidence that this phenomenon is accompanied by an increase in mental illness and suicide suggests it is not something young people are taking on because they enjoy it.

This phenomenon is very real and it needs addressing robustly by re-establishing a cultural norm that exposes young people to a wide range of ideas and teaches them to respond to speech they find abhorrent and unethical with counterspeech rather than with mass hysteria, violence, intimidation and attempts to get people fired. Of course, not all young people feel or behave this way and many of the people opposing this kind of mentality are themselves members of Generation Z. They are our best hope for a more resilient, tolerant and genuinely progressive future.

The phenomenon of snowflakery or what could be more compassionately referred to as “a pathological oversensitivity to words that causes people to be less able to function in the ideologically diverse world in which we live” is very different to an ethical objection to bullying, harassment, intimidation and cancellation. It is absolutely essential that we do not lose sight of some very key distinctions.

  • The difference between distress and physical harm.

If somebody makes an argument that women are mentally inferior and should stay at home doing only domestic chores, this idea could make me feel emotionally hurt or angry or that my full humanity was not being recognized. It does not physically harm me as I remain free to do precisely what I want and I can choose not to read the argument or criticize the argument. I can make my own argument for why women should be able to access all the opportunities men have. In fact, this happened and equal rights for women won. I won’t say the subject is not up for debate but I am confident that the arguments for equal rights for women are strong enough to keep winning.

The issue of whether or not women’s rights are affected by self-identified gender identity being accepted as the definition of womanhood in all circumstances has not been settled and it really needs to be. This requires allowing people like Kathleen Stock and theorists and activists who have opposing views to make those arguments and have those discussions. They will not be easy for everyone and could cause significant distress to individuals but it will not cause them physical harm. Physical harm is much more likely to be caused by continuing not to allow this to “be up for debate.” Gender critical feminists and trans people already face much hostility and occasionally violence. Discussion is the only thing that will prevent this and enable a resolution to be found where natal women’s rights and trans people’s rights do not conflict and disadvantage either party.

  • The difference between making arguments and targeting individuals for harassment.

If somebody writes a book arguing that sex and gender both exist on a spectrum and that there are infinite numbers of gender identities and that these should be prioritized over understanding biological sex as binary with very little variation, they are making an argument. If somebody else writes a book arguing that biological sex is almost entirely binary and that it is important to recognize that and that gender identity cannot take priority over biological sex in every situation without affecting women’s safety and ability to compete fairly in sports, they are also making an argument. People are likely to have strong feelings about both books but they can express these with arguments.

If political activists become enraged with the author of either of these books and plaster their workplace with posters calling them hateful names, set off flares, set up Instagram pages to incite acts of intimidation and frighten them out of speaking or writing or going to work, this is not an argument. These are targeted acts of harassment, bullying and intimidation against an individual. They are intended to circumvent the need for argument or dialogue and instead impose one viewpoint on others by intimidation. At the moment, it is the people making arguments for recognition of biological sex that activists feel most justified in trying to bully into silence but this could change. If you recognize that this would be bullying and harassment if done to somebody writing a book supporting a position you hold, recognize that it still so when done to someone writing one supporting a position you don’t.

  • The difference between criticism of ideas and punishment for them.

If somebody strongly dislikes an idea set forth by someone else, they must be able to criticize it. A criticism is when someone makes a critical analysis of an argument and attempts to show, possibly in strong terms, why that idea is factually wrong or morally abhorrent. This is done in words just as the original idea was set out in words. If the criticism is strong enough, the other person’s reputation could be damaged and they could lose esteem in the eyes of the public. This is a natural consequence of having one’s ideas critiqued and is acceptable in a liberal society. It does not constitute a punishment although it could be considered a consequence. Nevertheless, it is an acceptable consequence that we all sign up for when putting our ideas out into the public sphere.

If someone strongly dislikes an idea set forth by someone else and they then try to get that person deplatformed, fired or intimidated into silence, this is not a criticism. There has been no critical analysis. It has not been shown why the idea is factually wrong or morally abhorrent. The person taking these steps is not seeking to criticize ideas and convince others in a legitimate way that the individual expressing the idea is not putting forth anything of worth and should not be held in high esteem. They are going straight to punishment. This is not a natural consequence but one enabled by being in a position of power that enables one to essentially ban ideas and intimidate anyone else who might be thinking of expressing them. This is not an acceptable consequence for expressing ideas in a liberal society and it is not something anyone should have to accept they are signing up for when expressing their ideas in the public sphere. If we have a society where that is the case, we have a society in which totalitarianism is being allowed to win out over liberalism and that must be fought by everybody who wishes to be able to speak freely whether they agree with the current ideas or not.


Andreas Bikfalvi MD PhD, University of Bordeaux and National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM)

“The politicization of science” is a divisive subject. There are people who think that science is always political while others, such as the prominent quantum Chemist Anna Krylov, say that science must keep its independent and neutral status. There have been recently two assays published in J Physical Chemistry that are holding these opposing views. In the first assay, Anna Krylov, explains what politicization of science really means and, for here, we must absolutely follow the principles of Robert K. Merton who views science as a system of organized skepticism which is neutral and universal, and must therefore be protected from political or ideological intrusion. The second assay asserts that, because of strong ties with society (universities, state-governed funding organizations etc..), science can never escape politics and must bow its knee to it. I will discuss this here by defending Krylov’s position.

In her recent essay, Anna Krylov detailed her thoughts and worries about the increasing politicization of science (1). Growing up in the U.S.S.R., Anna Krylov, who immigrated to Israel in 1991 and came to the USA in 1996 (2), experienced first-hand how communist Soviet ideology permeated all areas of the society in which she was raised. In particular, this political control affected many aspects of Russian science, the deleterious effects of which are well-known. With this background, Krylov is endowed with an important perspective on the changing nature of society and the interaction between politics, culture and science. Her article has attracted significant attention (more than 50 thousand views since its publication on June 12), and has been the subject of both praise and criticism on social media platforms.

Krylov’s essay has been criticized in print by Philip Ball, a science journalist from the UK (3,4). Here I will discuss some of his criticisms. In my opinion, his criticisms largely miss the points made by Krylov, and furthermore I find the demeaning and patronizing tone of his writings rather inappropriate.

Ball’s main point is that science is and has always been political, and therefore the idea that science and politics should be separated is naïve. My sense is that few if any scientists will disagree with this; anyone who is involved in the process of grant applications and research funding is acutely aware that funding is provided by society and priorities here are dictated by culture and politics. And this is seemingly uncontroversial, as Society wants a return on its investment. Science should ultimately lead to improving standards of living and the flourishing of society. In this sense, science and politics are intimately intertwined.

However, “politicization of science” means something entirely different in the context of Krylov’s essay. Perhaps, “imposition of ideological viewpoints into science” would be a more precise term. It means that specific ideas, doctrines, and ideologies that originated outside of science are forcefully imported into science, demanding individual scientists to conform irrespective of the validity and merit of these ideas. That is, a forceful imposition of the ideology onto science and demanding its blind acceptance. In some past instances, such ideas were based on erroneous interpretations of scientific observations, which falsely promised to nourish society and contributed to the Zeitgeist which, as a consequence, reinforced these erroneous interpretations in a kind of feed-forward loop. Lysenkoism, Eugenics, and social Darwinism are classic examples of this type. This is exactly the principal substance of Krylov’s article. She identifies current tendencies in the sciences and society that mirror these past and unfortunate perturbations of the scientific enterprise. Her worries about lasting damage that such intrusion may cause are indeed well-founded.

Rather than focusing on the Krylov’s main point, Ball instead spends much of his effort attacking a strawman of his own creation. Nowhere in Krylov’s viewpoint is the issue of improving diversity in science discussed. Yet Ball talks a lot on this topic, creating the false impression that Krylov’s paper is somehow at odds with the prevailing opinion of the importance of this issue.

Another aspect of Ball’s criticism is related to the question of values in science. There is an ongoing discussion about how moral and ethical values are related to science. In the past, this discussion has been mainly confined to the social sciences: Max Weber’s distinction of “sein” (is) and “sollen” (ought), which was the subject of the “Werturteilsstreit” at the beginning of the 20th century. This has been followed by debates between Neurath (Vienna Circle) and Horkheimer (critical theory) in the 1940s and those between Popper (critical rationalism) and Adorno (critical theory) as well Albert (critical rationalism) and Habermas (critical theory) three decades later (5).

But the discussion about values has many aspects. For instance, should a professor attempt to indoctrinate their mentees (students and post-docs) and transform them into activists, or should the professor instead teach them how to think? For me, the latter is mandatory. Should academic institutions or funding organizations introduce criteria for recruitment or obtaining grants that favor considerations other than merit, potential, and expertise? Should science explore all possibilities in the realm of rationality? Or, perhaps, should there be areas of knowledge that are off-limits to investigation because of conflicts with current societal wisdom? These are difficult questions to answer since science is conducted within ethical boundaries, which evolve with time and can differ between societies. However, such questions about the value system of a scientific enterprise are distinct from the privately held morals of a scientist, which should be separated from his or her scientific work. Should scientists be judged on their scientific merits alone, or “cancelled” when failings — as judged by deviance from contemporary moral values — occur? Should Einstein be cancelled because of his disparaging remarks in his private diary about the Chinese (6)? Should John von Neumann be canceled because he designed the explosive lens that would surround the atom bomb and calculated the altitude at which the bomb should explode to cause maximum damage? (7).

Furthermore, the evaluation of past events under a lens of contemporary moral standards is questionable and may lead to erroneous conclusions. A good example (outside of science) is to depict the 17th Century French philosopher Montesquieu as a racist (as Cornell West did, (8)) when one does not understand that the tone of his “Lettres Persanes“ is ironical (perhaps because of a lack of erudition in the French language). Should we judge as racist the biologist and Nobel prize winner Hermann Müller who was a committed eugenicist, but at the same time a devout Marxist? (9).


Finally, basing value judgments of the present on past events as causal factors is highly contentious and does not take into account causal complexities, confounding factors, background conditions, etc. In most cases, they represent classical examples of defective causal reasoning.

Ball cites Oreske. I will cite the Canadian historian and science sociologist Yves Gingras, a Mertonian who already in 2019 said: “By deciding that the social behavior of scientists will now affect their chances of keeping their grants, the NSF extends its traditional mission beyond that of scientific gatekeeper. This is certainly in keeping with the spirit of the times, but by explicitly opening the scientific sphere to the general social sphere, it will be moving onto more slippery terrain,” (10) and “Whereas getting funded by the NSF was perceived as a sign of scientific excellence, it is possible that in the coming years, keeping one’s grant will have also become a badge of good social behavior. It also suggests that existing institutions hiring those people are not doing their work properly. But as the road to hell is paved with good intentions….” (10). In the same vein, the NIH in the US has recently implemented a policy for grant applications that introduces huge moral biases, a true Mertonian sacrilege!

Ball’s understanding of current social movements seems to miss at least some of what is going on at all levels of society, including education, the sciences, and medicine. Does he want racial discrimination based on the importation of critical race theory (CRT) in the medical praxis or does he want a socially egalitarian evidence-based medicine preserved (11)? Does he approve of the replacing of rigorous mathematics instruction by dumbed-down ethnocentric versions of mathematics pedagogy (12)?

Towards the middle of Ref. 3, Ball states, “To suggest that science should be immune to calls in the broader society to re-examine the biases and incentives that inhibit diversity is not just in itself a political act, but moveover [sic] one that may be against the interests of science.” I find this rather ironic because Ball and so many others are not arguing for diversity in viewpoints in science. On the contrary, they want to imbue science with a homogeneous political ideology, which means Ball is making Krylov’s case for her without realizing it.

I am sure that Anna Krylov’s essay will remain widely read and important despite Ball’s attempt to distort its message and his misdirected criticisms. Undoubtedly, the Savonarola’s of the present day are well alive!


  1. Krylov AI, The Peril of Politicizing Science. J. Phys. Chem. Lett. 2021, 12, 22, 5371-5376, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jpclett.1c01475
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Krylov
  3. Philip Ball. Science Is Political, and We Must Deal with It. J. Phys. Chem. Lett. 2021, 12, 27, 6336-6340, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jpclett.1c02017
  4. Philip Ball. Science is political. Chemistry World, 16 July 2021, https://www.chemistryworld.com/opinion/science-is-political/4013986.article
  5. Albert H, Topisch E. Werturteilsstreit. Wege der Forschung Band 175; Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1979
  6. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/14/world/einstein-travel-diaries.html
  7. John von Neumann, https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/John_von_Neumann
  8. West C. A Genealogy of Modern Racism. In Race Critical Theories, Eds : P. Esset, DT Goldberg, pp. 90-110,
  9. Richards M. Artificial insemination and eugenics: celibate motherhood, eutelegenesis and germinal choice, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences Volume 39, Issue 2, June 2008, Pages 211-221 .
  10. Gingras Y. The moralisation of science is challenging its autonomy. University World News. 23 March 2019, https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20190320145639758
  11. Wispelwey B., Moore M. An Antiracist Agenda for Medicine. Boston Review, March 17, 2021, http://bostonreview.net/science-nature-race/bram-wispelwey-michelle-morse-antiracist-agenda-medicine
  12. Deift, P.; Jitomirskaya, S.; Klainerman, S. America is flunking math. Persuasion, 2021. https://www.persuasion.community/p/why-america-is-flunking-math-education

Curt Jaimungal and Desh Amila’s new documentary Better Left Unsaid  is a gripping chronicle of the post-modern extreme left’s descent into ideological thought-policing. The documentary is skilfully presented by the captivating Jaimungal and is helpfully divided into chapters.

Amila and Jaimungal trace the decline of civil debate to the introduction of new terminology that began from around 2013 in the English-speaking West. A raft of new rhetorical slogans (“TERFs”, “mansplaining”, “non-binary”, “intersectional”, “white privilege”, “systemic racism”, “diversity”, etc.) came into currency, and along with the lexicon came a new moralizing that prized diversity of ethnicity and race over diversity of viewpoint. According to interviewee Professor Bruce Pardy of Queens University, it is hard to understand what it is the radical left wish to achieve other than an extreme form of collective authoritarian control.

Amila and Jaimungal carefully avoid setting up straw men. At every step, their documentary offers a truthful rendering of the radical left’s positions and arguments, as well as tracing them back to their origins in post-modern thought. Only after honestly explaining the radical left’s stances and assertions do they launch the counterarguments. This is particularly important because the extreme left has conspicuously (and tactically?) avoided entering into the kind of reasoned debates that academics from the liberal left (now re-branded ‘conservatives’) would win. Instead, the far left has pushed its ideology through the use of cancel culture, misleading language, and/or pre-emptive changes in policy or law. This has led many on the liberal left to compare the radical left Critical Social Justice (CSJ) movement to a sort of cultural Marxism; it imposes ideological orthodoxies through the coercive machinations of state bureaucracy and mass propaganda rather than by reasoned persuasion.

Better Left Unsaid claims that CSJ doctrine revolves around social constructionism and rejects essentialism. However, this is erroneous since the radical left actually insists upon gender essentialism, and sexual constructivism. This is one reason why there is such divergence between the trans-affirming left and liberal gender-critical feminists. Furthermore, Critical Race Theory uses non-essentialist language as ‘bait’ and then switches to essentialist claims once the audience is hooked. Despite this blind spot, the film fruitfully points out that a key supporting case study for the transgender movement is a deeply flawed experiment that was performed by John Money on a two-year-old boy named Bruce (later David) Reimer in the late 1960s. Bruce later committed suicide because of the trauma inflicted by Money’s intervention, and yet this botched experiment is somehow supposed to prove gender constructivism.

Like gender, ‘racism’ has also taken on new meaning within the far left’s lexicon. We no longer judge someone a ‘racist’ on the basis of what they say or do, but on the basis of their race. The presumption of innocence has been abolished (for white people). We don’t see an individual; we see his appearance and assess him on that basis, which (oddly) is what ‘racism’ used to mean.

‘Sexism’, too, has gone from being inequality of opportunity to a situation where, if there is any inequality of outcome, sexism is alleged to be the cause. While there is some truth in the CSJ claims, balance is being lost partly because of the way that the reasoned critique of propositions, which was the way things used to work at universities, is being supplanted by moralizing doctrines. The new definitions (e.g. systemic racism, sexism) are broadened to such an extent that one cannot help but fall guilty of them. However, the punishment for these thought crimes is as if you’d transgressed the original (much narrower, empirically measurable) definition. Micro-aggressions and unconscious bias can’t really be measured, but just like original sin, they are still asserted to exist. Moreover, by re-defining the experience of being offended as though it were tantamount to being the victim of a physical assault, you justify violent assault as a legitimate response to mere words.

It helps that Jaimungal and Amila are themselves non-white, because they can meaningfully ask how those on the extreme left who claim to speak on behalf of oppressed minorities respond when members of those very minorities disagree with what is being said in their name. The unfortunate answer is that minorities who dissent from the “tolerant and inclusive community” positions are quickly stigmatized with racial epithets like “house nigger”, “Uncle Tom”, “native informant” or “coconut” (brown on the outside but white on the inside).

In this climate everything and everyone becomes politicized, even if only by not being sufficiently political. All occurrences are viewed through the CSJ lens. Art history isn’t really about art anymore. Art is the means to the end of Social Justice. English isn’t about English anymore. Science isn’t about science. All are social constructions invented by European men to oppress someone. This new ideological framework is one in which presumptive guilt is the starting point, and any inaction vis-à-vis the status quo is a sin of omission.

Jaimungal is aware that, if interpreted uncharitably, his documentary could itself be declared illegal under the current British Colombia Human Rights Code [RSBC 1996]. Many comparisons have been made between the CSJ ideology and religion. Both promote a notion of ‘original sin’; both have banned sources of evidence that conflict with what adherents already believe; both have censored dissident doctrines and excommunicated irreverent speakers; both claim to promote ideals that sound unambiguously good. However, a big difference is that the Social Justice ‘religion’ is being imposed on non-believers, whereas most left-thinking people do not accept that religions can demand that others agree with them. The question is no longer ‘did racism take place?’. Rather, it is, ‘how did racism manifest in that situation?’ As with theology, the proposition is put forth a priori as an axiom. The presumption of innocence is demolished in the claim that not to act against racism is to actively support it. The logic, says Jaimungal, is that by doing nothing you are simultaneously doing everything. Similarly, the Christian concept of grace entails that the salvific ‘price’ has been paid for your sin with the blood of Christ, meaning you owe it to God to confess the faith.

Many on the extreme left see the West as peerless in its misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic and even genocidal tendencies. ‘Compared to what?’, asks Jaimungal. If one claims to care about certain minority rights as a matter of principle, then where is the outrage against those Islamic and/or African states where honour killing and child marriage are the norm, where slavery is still legal but homosexuality is not? The lack of interest in the rights of the same minority groups championed by the far left in the USA and Britain (when the perpetrator is not ‘the West’) betrays a certain disingenuousness.

Jaimungal helpfully traces the roots of the extreme left movement to post-modernism, as well as explaining modernism so that viewers understand what post-modernism was a reaction against. Post-modernism arose in the later 20th century as both an attack on and a continuation of modernism. Thinkers like Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard and Baudrillard were diverse in their ideas but they are united by a common scepticism towards grand narratives. They espoused both epistemological and moral relativism. For them, no ‘fact’ can be disentangled from relationships of power, from politics. Truth isn’t outside of power, it is produced under the control of a few great political and economic apparatuses. But Jurgen Habermas has accused Foucault of a ‘performative contradiction’. As Jaimungal explains, “you can’t make a truth claim denying the existence of truth.” He continues by saying that Truth(1) is an ontological claim about what is the case, whereas Truth(2) is a social construction. But Truth(2) takes Truth(1) as a presupposition.

The new Social Justice movement that has risen to ascendency in US and British academia followed in the wake of post-modernism and can be seen as its legacy. It is characterised by the ideas of academics such as Judith Butler, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Edward Said, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Their contribution has been to associate all ideas with race, gender or sexuality and to mine all ideas and texts in order to find the power structure(s) motivating them. They dismiss statistics, objective evidence and even scientific method, with Sandra Harding even calling Newton’s Principia “a rape manual”.

In Chapter 3 Jaimungal presents a recapitulation of what happened in the last century under the aegis of communism. This is intended as a warning because mass carnage took place under the auspices of equity. The worrying thing is that, while widespread violence has not yet started to take place under the auspices of ‘social justice’, the preambulatory rhetoric sustaining it bears an uncanny resemblance to pre-tyranny language, and there have been a few outbreaks of actual fisticuffs from the group calling itself, with no irony, “Antifa”. For this reason, Jaimungal is looking not just at what happened — in Lenin’s Russia, in Mao’s China, in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, in Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese collective land reform campaign, in Nazi Germany, during the Rwandan genocide, and to Tamils in Sri Lanka – but also how and why these horrors happened. What he reveals is that over and over again atrocities were committed in the name of equality, individuals were abolished in favour of classes of people (who either had power or didn’t have power) and collective guilt, free speech was abolished, and anyone who didn’t mobilize in the ‘correct’ way was seen not as a passive non-combatant but as positively traitorous.

In response to the well-worn rebuttal that these movements were not ‘true’ Marxism/Communism but a false veneer put on by charismatic interlopers who corrupted the pure doctrine, Jaimungal says this is rich coming from the same people who insist that one can self-identify as any gender and that they must be believed simply on the (infallible?) basis of their self-pronouncement. Jaimungal questions why the same logic does not apply to self-described ‘Marxists’ and ‘Communists’.

Another rebuttal he fields states that the meddling West interfered with these experiments in Communist self-government. One might ask how we can disambiguate what was ‘pure’ Marxism/Communism from doctored versions thereof? To answer this, Jaimungal uses Causal Networks and Reichenbach’s Common Cause Principle to show that the ‘package of ideas’ that typifies the new left’s ‘cultural Marxism’ correlates highly with Communism. Thus, while admitting that the methodology could be flawed, or the sample size too small, the tentative conclusion from the evidence is that the West’s meddling is a less likely causal factor than the actual similarities between CSJ’s ‘cultural Marxism’ and Communism.

Nevertheless, his aim is to argue that this kind of politics could happen again in the modern West. We are not sufficiently vigilant of how fragile our civil liberties are. What we’re seeing is a sustained assault on the main ‘arteries’ (e.g. checks and balances) that protect our freedoms, such as free expression, the presumption of innocence, bodily integrity and informed consent.

Jaimungal does not limit his critique to the non-Western regimes under communism. He states that the West has clearly done some horrendous acts, such as the coups d’état in Iran and Chile and Projects MK Ultra and Mockingbird in the United States, among others. Given what we know about our own governments, Jaimungal asks why we would doubt that modern Western states would commit deleterious actions against their own people. This is an especially good question in light of how the presumption of innocence is being abolished in public school curricula in the United States where first-graders are forced to deconstruct their racial and sexual identities, and then to rank themselves according to their “power and privilege”. A curriculum teaches that “all white people play a part in perpetuating systemic racism” and white teachers are told in training sessions that they are guilty of “spirit murdering” black children. Or take Harvard-Westlake, a private school in Los Angeles, where a new plan to become an “anti-racist institution”—unveiled this July, in a 20-page document— forces kids to fixate on race.

The filmmakers provide a blueprint of the dangerous ‘package’ of ideas that are the prelude to violence and group persecution. There are four ‘stages’ or steps to the ideological process: (1) a lens claim, (2) an evidentiary clam, (3) separation claim, (4) the call to action. Tellingly, the documentary excerpts a directive issued from Communist Party HQ in 1943 to all communists in the United States. It reads:

When certain obstructionists become too irritating, label them – after a suitable build-up — as fascists, or Nazi or anti-Semitic and use the prestige of anti-fascist intolerance organizations to discredit them. In the public mind, constantly associate those who oppose us with those names which already have a bad smell. The association will, after enough repetition, become fact in the public mind.

One of the most important points made by this documentary is that we’ve lost perspective. The purposeful use of charged words and images has seized our attention and led us astray. Harry Frankfurt called it “bullshit” in his eponymous book. We’re losing sight of truth and getting caught up in salient rhetoric, emotional appeals, and persuasive associations to the extent that we now equate a lower-middle class person not having a CEO position with actual slavery and we equate the temporary sting of an offensive remark with GBH. These distortions and exaggerations get amplified with repetition.

Jaimungal concludes by reminding us of the danger involved in viewing the world as more dangerous than it actually is. Trust is a cardinal resource in a functioning society that both the extreme left and the extreme right are squandering. Both extremes have abandoned the West’s key tenets: (1) the sanctity of the individual, (2) the notion that conscious lies lead to serious injustice, (3) moral agency and responsibility, and (4) freedom of speech. As for the second of these, the radical left demolishes any sense that dishonesty corrupts, since post-modernism says that there is no truth. Without truth, there is no lying.

©2021 by T.M Murray. All Rights Reserved.

This essay is the second instalment of my series on woke tactics. This series is dedicated to helping you understand the way that Critical Social Justice advocates try to win arguments so they can advance their cause socially, politically, and institutionally.

As I mentioned in my last essay, it is often the case that CSJ activists are not trying to defeat you intellectually with evidence and arguments, they are trying to defeat you socially using power moves and social maneuvering. The CSJ activists – in many cases – are not trying to convince you on rational grounds, they are trying to gain social power and influence over society so they have the ability to spread CSJ everywhere. It is important to understand this as we look at their strategies. There may be times that the CSJ activists will try to use fair arguments to make their case and when that happens we ought to engage in good faith. However, we have to be aware that often they do not argue in good faith and instead use different tactics for which we must be prepared.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the next three tactics Critical Social Justice advocates use to win arguments.

  1. The Kafka Trap.

Put simply, the Kafka Trap is a fallacy where someone is accused of something terrible and, when the accused person insists they are innocent, the accuser twists the insistence of innocence and uses it as evidence of guilt. Here is a simple illustration of the tactic:

Police: “You robbed the bank.”

You: “I did not.”

Police: “That is exactly what a bank robber would say. I knew you were guilty.”

The mechanism of a Kafka Trap works like this: someone goes about accusing someone else of something terrible and when the accused person insists they are innocent the person making the accusation twists the insistence of innocence and uses it as evidence of guilt. In this way, all the accused persons claims are treated as though they imply guilt.

The Kafka Trap was first discussed by Eric Raymond and named for the author Franz Kafka who illustrated this fallacy beautifully in his book The Trial. In The Trial the main character is accused of crimes and placed on trial without being told what he actually did wrong, and with no evidence being brought against him. He is then put through a process to destroy his reputation and credibility. The only way the trial ends is if he admits guilt, and his refusal to admit that he is guilty of these unnamed crimes is used as proof of how evil he is; after all, he is so remorseless that he won’t even be honest and admit guilt!

A typical Kafka Trap in the world of CSJ is to say that we are all complicit in (systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, etc) and then when someone denies that they are complicit in (systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, etc) the CSJ advocate will say that only a (racist, sexist, homophobe, etc) could be blind to their complicity in (systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, etc).

As you can see, the way this works is to say that denial of the accusation proves that the accusation is true. If you deny you are a racist, then you are a racist for denying that you are a racist. There is no way out.

When laid out that simply the Kafka Trap becomes obvious. It becomes less obvious when dressed up as a sort of academic jargon. The most obvious example of this is “white fragility.”

The concept of White Fragility was created by Robin DiAngelo in 2011. DiAngelo says that white Fragility refers to the agitation, anger, frustration, and shock that white people go through when they are confronted with their own racism. She claims that white fragility is the result of a lack of stamina in white people to confront racial issues honestly. According to DiAngelo, a white person’s denial and refusal to accept their complicity in racism is a result of white fragility. It is white fragility which explains why white people deny their complicity in racism.

“White fragility” is a Kafka Trap disguised as an academic idea. The way it works is that if you are accused of complicity in racism, and deny that you are complicit in racism, you will then be considered guilty of white fragility. Since, according to CSJ advocates, white fragility has the effect of preserving white people at the top of the racial hierarchy, exhibiting white fragility means you are complicit in racism. This means that when you are accused of being complicit in racism you have two choices:

  1. Admit to your complicity in racism, or
  2. Deny your complicity in racism in which case your denial is taken as proof that you have white fragility and are therefore complicit in racism.

As you can see, there is no way out because white fragility is a Kafka Trap.

  1. Reframing/decentering

Reframing is a tactic that is as old as the hills. In practice the way that this works is to change the terms on which the debate or conversation is being had. This is done all over the political spectrum and is a common tactic. A simple example of how re-framing works can be seen in conversations around gun legislation. Let’s suppose someone suggests some sort of regulation to make guns more difficult to purchase, the frame from both the left and right would go something like this:

Pro-gun person: “This is an issue of the right to bear arms.”

Anti-gun person: “This is an issue of gun violence.”

As you can see, the pro-gun person is putting the issue in terms of their right to posses a gun, and the anti-gun person is putting the issue in terms of the prevention of gun violence. Both of these statements are instances of people trying to decide the terms on which the debate will be had. The idea of re-framing is that if you get to frame the debate, you can determine the terms of the debate and essentially bake the conclusion right into them. In most debates we are usually trying to balance several competing interests, and if one of those interests gets to define the debate, they can tip the playing field in their side’s favor.

De-centering is similar to re-framing, but it works in a different way. De-centering is changing the focus of the debate. That is, de-centering is not so much about changing the terms on which the debate is had, but changing whose concerns get to be central to the debate and whose concerns get to take all the conversational oxygen. An example of de-centering might look like this:

Enlightenment Liberal: “I am not sure I agree with this policy position, we should analyze this reasonably and carefully using the methods of science.”

CSJ advocate: “White male scientists have been front and centre in this debate for too long. They need to sit down and be quiet so that the concerns of trans-women can be central to this conversation.”

Enlightenment Liberal: “But this is a scientific question.”

CSJ advocate: “We’re going to be centering the lived experiences of trans-women of color in this conversation. Sit down.”

The reason this tactic is used is that CSJ is very concerned with discourses and they think society is put together by a set of interwoven discourses and culture wide “conversations” as it were. CSJ thinks white people and “whiteness” have monopolized the cultural conversation in the west for far too long, and the way to end this is to “decenter” both of those by marginalizing people that argue from any position the CSJ advocates consider to be a product of white people, or whiteness. The idea is that it is time for white people to be quiet and let other groups dominate the conversation.

Decentering does not seek to tell you that you are wrong, or that your view is incorrect, or that you do not have your facts in order. The goal of decentering is to “win” by turning down the volume of any view opposed to CSJ, and turning up the volume of the CSJ worldview. In other words, decentering is a social power move that seeks to marginalize Enlightenment liberalism by moving it to the fringes of the discourse. Thus, with the use of this tactic CSJ advocates can bully their way into a place of prominence in the conversation.

Decentering seeks to move the CSJ view into a place of prominence and move any other view to the fringes of the debate by using social power. Rather than allowing people to use reason to decide which views ought to be central in the debate, CSJ advocates attempt to bully their way into a place of prominence in the conversation by claiming that any idea they do not like is “whiteness”

  1. Redefinition

This tactic may be the most common tactic that the CSJ advocates use when they spread their ideas. The way this works is pretty simple: they take a simple word like “racism” and then redefine it to fit their needs. This is how the word racism goes from being defined as:

  1. Bigotry against a person or persons due to their race.

To being defined as

  1. “White racial and cultural prejudice and discrimination, supported by institutional power and authority, used to the advantage of Whites and the disadvantage of people of Color. Racism encompasses economic, political, social, and institutional actions and beliefs that systematize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources, and power between Whites and people of Color.”

Typically when someone says “America has a problem with racism” people take this to mean that America has too many people who are bigoted against other people because of their race. Most of the time they do not think that America is beset by institutional white privilege, nor do they think there is an institutionalized authority that is reinforcing racism. The result of this is that CSJ advocates can garner support and agreement from those who naturally support pleas to “help end racism” without realizing this redefinition has gone on. When people realize the definitions in play are not the usual ones, the CSJ advocate will insist that the CSJ definitions are the “correct” ones. It’s the linguistic equivalent of pouring out the wine, filling the bottle with Kool-Aid, pouring someone a glass without telling them what you did, and then when they complain, responding by saying “why are you upset, that’s how it’s supposed to taste.”

Now, to be completely fair it is not always the case that this is done dishonestly. CSJ thinks about the world in a different way then the rest of us so it “translates” any concept it likes into something that fits with the CSJ conception of the world. This means all the concepts that we use, they will redefine to fit their conception of the world. The redefinition of basic concepts is a hallmark of CSJ, which is why, as James Lindsey points out, “ this worldview is only ever communicated to us in reformulated perversions of our own concepts”. For this reason it is very important, when confronted with a CSJ advocate, to get the specific definitions for any term they use lest you get more than you bargained for.


I said this in my last essay, but I want to say it again for emphasis: The CSJ worldview progresses not through clarity and truth, but by muddying the intellectual waters and making social power moves.

The first step in preventing Critical Social Justice advocates from turning a discussion of truth into a struggle for power is to be able to know and understand the tactics that CSJ advocates employ. Being prepared for the ways in which the CSJ advocate will attempt to take the conversation off of the solid ground of truth, evidence, rationality, and warrant, and move it onto the quicksand of power struggle will allow you to push back against it more effectively.

Mike Young is a Canadian thinker, writer and essayist. Follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/wokal_distance.