Woke Zealotry On Campus and Beyond
Take the time to read this interview of Glenn Loury by former New York Times editor, Bari Weiss, on her Substack page, Common Sense. It’s an abbreviated version of the full interview. For about four decades, Loury has been one of the voices for good sense on higher education and racial issues. Speaking with Weiss, Loury doesn’t pull his punches.
Here they are on the issue of the zealotry that reigns on college campuses.
BW: To what extent do you connect the decline in standards to the fact that schools are effectively now a political monoculture? Is there something about not being around other people with worldviews that are radically different from your own and being forced to contend with them? Does that make people stupider and perhaps lazier?
GL: I think it sounds correct to me. I don't know if that accounts for the fact that if I write an equation on the blackboard during a lecture to undergraduates at Brown, a third of the class eyes will glaze over. I don't know if I can draw the direct connection there, but groupthink is the enemy of rigor. I think that's a defensible place to take a stand. So one of the things that I think has happened is that our standards have lowered. Now, another thing that has happened is that I think we're in the service of various believed-to-be-certainties about moral issues. We feel that we need to signal solidarity with them through the work of the university, through its research, through its teaching, its pedagogy, through its composition of its incumbent members and how we select and what we define to be excellence and all that. That has become captive to a certain political agenda. I mean, it's left. It's definitely left.
So yes, the political monoculture of academia results in a dumbing down of debate. Of course it does. When almost everyone agrees, and those who don’t are afraid to speak, thinking can’t be honed. No one, regardless of how scrupulous a thinker, can anticipate every possible argument in opposition. We all need others to disagree with us in order to understand and better shape our own ideas. That’s the benefit of actual diversity.
Groupthink in turn naturally results in what Loury calls “believed-to-be-certainties.” They’re “certainties” because the monoculture – students and faculty alike – agrees on them. That’s what makes it a monoculture. Is the U.S. an irredeemably racist country? How could it not be, since seemingly everyone on campus agrees it is and no one says otherwise? Plus, just look at all the racial disparities that continue to exist. Once there was slavery, then Jim Crow and now racial disparities. How could the one not lead to the other and then the other? It’s simplicity itself.
Which of course is a big problem. It is simple, far too simple to accurately describe a nation of 330 million people and its vastly complex history. It’s true that past racial discrimination likely accounts for some of the differences between the races today. But what else is true is that this country has, in my lifetime, undergone vast changes in its treatment of the races. Since around 1970, black Americans have experienced a level of freedom, opportunity - and, in some cases, privilege - never before imagined, much less realized. Bumper-sticker descriptions (Systemic Racism!) of the present-day U.S. do not and cannot help move us forward.
But it’s precisely that simplicity that is so appealing to so many. Thinking critically and honestly about something as complex as race in America requires persistence, a lot of information and the integrity to scrupulously analyze same. Many people prefer the simplistic – facile conclusions that are often mistaken for clarity. It’s that paring away of inconvenient facts, subtlety and nuance that has led more than one commentator to call “wokeness” a religion. And, like other religions, this one tends to beget a sense of righteousness among the believers, what Bob Dylan once deftly called having “God on our side.” Oh, the irony.
Inevitably, that sense of their own moral rectitude produces an attitude in the “woke” somewhere between condescension and disdain. The very term itself connotes a higher level of awareness meant to contrast dramatically with that of the degraded state of the rest of us. In so doing, it echoes class antagonisms that are neither recent in origin nor woke. More than the astonishing demerits of woke arguments, that smugness accounts for the offensiveness and divisiveness of the campus monoculture Weiss and Loury decry.
The impatience with the fact that when you transform moral judgments about things like gender identity overnight in a country of 330 million people, where everybody is not going to be on the same page at the same time, and the way you decide to talk about that from some lofty, supercilious, self-righteous, sanctimonious moral posture and to condemn the people who are holding their bibles or holding on to their traditions as if they were know-nothings. That smugness infects the university.
And, as we know, the smugness that infects the university is now infecting much of leftist discourse elsewhere. Consider this piece by Jeremy Beckham writing on Glenn Greenwald’s Substack page in which he takes down an intentionally divisive New York Times article. In it, Times reporter David Leonhardt attempted to connect deaths from COVID-19 with voting Republican. In order to do so, he had to ignore numerous variables other than voting tendencies and take as his major source of information a person with no apparent expertise or special knowledge about the subject. Amazing, but true. Meanwhile, Leonhardt ignored much contradictory evidence. Why? To promote a narrative of Republicans as, in Beckham’s words, “knuckle-dragging.”
The irony is thick indeed, and the reason why should be obvious: even if the methodology is unsound, the findings fit a preferred narrative that the overwhelmingly liberal readers of The New York Times want to hear.
In short, the Times carried on the woke program beyond the ivy-covered walls. It wanted to trash conservatives and it didn’t allow even minimal intellectual honesty to stand in its way.
The country is becoming dangerously divided and has been for a number of years. To put it mildly, the smugness and sanctimony of the academy and its spawn elsewhere aren’t helping. Combine that with the merits of woke arguments that recede to the vanishing point and their incongruously expanding power, and we have a serious problem - one that will surely get worse.