Some critical notes about 'woke'

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In the USA, wokism has led to radical changes in universities in the last five years or so including safe spaces, trigger warnings, decolonization, diversity officers, gender-neutral toilets, proclaiming one’s pronouns, cancelling speakers on campus, a growing list of taboo words and taboo works, the firing of staff, ceremonies of forgiveness for slavery and, in Canada, the burning of politically incorrect books taken from libraries under the banner of ‘flame purification ceremony’. A culture war is raging in the USA and woke is rapidly changing the educational landscape. Here in the Netherlands, it is all just beginning. Are we prepared for what is coming? Do we want to radically change our institution according to the lines of this new neo-Marxist ideology? And how do we decide if this is the right way to go? And who decides on this?

The classical liberal and humanist ideal of a university is that it is a scientific institute which strives to obtain objective knowledge without any taboos, where students learn about the scientific method and are trained in critical thinking. As an institution, the university is meritocratic, liberal and democratic, which means that people are enrolled, hired or promoted solely for the quality of their work. A meritocratic liberal democratic institution invites anyone to apply who meets the requirements and hires the person with the most relevant competencies. All students are admitted who meet the entry requirements. Background or gender does not count, and the institution should do its best to facilitate people with special needs. In addition, university should actively promote viewpoint diversity because the university is a place where debates can be held about scientific and societal issues, no matter how controversial, and where students are stimulated to think critically. Students should not be protected from controversial ideas, theories, literature and opinions. They should be trained to cope with ideas which might conflict with their core values or fundamental ideas.

The woke idea of a university is completely different. Wokism is an illiberal radical left-wing ideology which strives for a set of required outcomes, for example, that the background of students and staff should match the percentage of that group in society at large. According to woke ideology, the university should predominantly be a safe space. The interpretation of a safe space, however, is radically different from the common notion of the term. This is the case with many concepts in wokism. In wokism, in order to for university to be a safe learning environment, everything should be avoided that might possibly raise an uncomfortably emotional response in anyone. This could be a response to certain ideas, literature, words, illustrations, persons, theories or topics. An example would be voicing criticism on religion, especially Islam, which is seen as ‘islamophobic’.

It is good to be aware of an often-used immunization strategy in the woke camp: the complaint that the opponent makes people feel uncomfortable, unsafe or emotionally offended. By playing this card, it becomes exceedingly difficult to have a critical conversation. There is an attempt to introduce this strategy into our cherished organization by trying to implement the idea of a safe learning environment, which means that no one should ever be emotionally triggered. In the woke sense, creating a safe learning environment is about accommodating each potential complainer. A safe learning environment has a strong tendency towards self-censorship in which teachers don’t speak out frankly for fear of complaints to the management. A safe learning environment leads to cancel culture and an endless stream of trigger warnings. Wokism is not in favour of free speech but rather an attempt to make people adhere to a rapidly changing set of politically correct opinions. And one’s use of language is being policed by social justice warriors. One wrong word or expression can lead to a wave of hateful responses on social media.

Woke is everywhere and must no longer be ignored. Those who are not yet into woke are taken along with the current woke revolution. And yes, it is a revolution which challenges the core values of liberal democracy, science and even objectivity. I believe such strong words are justified, even though I can also clearly see that woke also has good aspects. Many of the issues in wokism are laudable. Of course, striving to end discrimination and promoting fair chances for everyone to participate fully in society helps to build a decent society. But wokism is not about using incremental change to fix injustices in the system, it is about a complete overhaul of the system in all its aspects: institutions, language and minds. Woke changes the liberal system into an illiberal framework.

In conclusion, wokism uses the cloak of inclusivity and diversity to promote a dangerously intolerant ideology that threatens the freedom of expression, academic freedom, scientific objectivity and liberal democracy. I encourage you to study woke, both its adherents and its critics, and to make up your own mind. By not doing anything, you will one day find yourself in a fundamentally changed institution. By not doing anything, soon you will not be arguing about arguments but about being white and defending yourself as not being racist. By not doing anything you will have to change everything, including yourself. But, of course, I may be wrong.

This is a short version of a speech that Floris van den Berg made at the Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development. DUB asked him to publish a short version of the speech as an opinion piece. This op-ed accompanies two articles on the same topic: "Is 'woke' a threat to academic freedom?' and "Real dialogue, nobody learns that". We've also asked the Assistant Professor of Media Studies Nina Köll to write an opinion piece on the subject.