John McWhorter, “Cancel Culture and Wokeness” (Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin, 10 September 2021)
John McWhorter is a linguist and associate professor of linguistics at New York City’s Columbia University where he teaches linguistics, philosophy, American cultural studies and music history. He has been involved in socio-political debates for many years and attracted much public attention by criticising the conflation of challenging power structures in Western society with aspects of Western culture to the extent that many of the tools, methods and language we use to challenge power themselves end up complicit as forms of oppression and must be replaced. By replacing these tools and methods and changing our vocabulary and grammar, we end up being hijacked by the very elites we should be challenging and our energies are deflected and directed to targeting those who should be our allies. Movements aimed at ending discrimination against minority groups with the aim of bringing people together to fight power elites end up being used by those very power elites to divide people in classic “divide and rule” fashion. Tools and methods used by feminist groups movements to create safe spaces, institutions and networks for women are are taken over by people claiming to be transgender to invade those very spaces, institutions and networks – while genuine transgender people end up being targeted and vilified for actions, behaviour and other activities they are not responsible for; similar can be said for ethnic and religious minorities that have attempted to carve out public space in Western society for their members, only to discover their culture, practices and belief systems are being exploited by governments for the latter’s own agendas and benefits, while they themselves face public wrath.
McWhorter gave a talk at the Internationales Literaturfestival in Berlin in September 2021 on cancel culture and wokeness which form one aspect of how our toolboxes in challenging power structures and networks has been taken over and abused by power elites to keep us weak and divided, and constantly at one another’s throats. In this way, we become our own oppressors, and the power elites do not have to expend any effort or energy to oppress us and to keep us away from them. The central gist of McWhorter’s lecture is that Critical Race Theory, which underlies cancel culture / wokeness, has become the base on which all current intellectual, cultural and even political and economic activity must be founded, and everything that we do must always somehow address inequalities existing between different groups in society. McWhorter likens Critical Race Theory to a religion which is a very apt comparison. He gives examples of how CRT has invaded every aspect of contemporary Western culture in talking about the musical “My Fair Lady”, the study of physics in universities and discussions about art and literature. He sees a parallel between the way CRT invades all the sciences and humanities, and the dominance of Christian theology (controlled by the Roman Catholic Church) in mediaeval Western societies nearly 1,000 years ago.
The actual talk lasted 20 minutes and the rest of the hour-long session was given over to a Q&A session. Host Matthew Karnitschning asked McWhorter for examples of how CRT is poisoning Western society and shutting down the public discourses necessary for democracy and transparency to function. McWhorter gives the example of New York Times journalist Donald G McNeil Jr being sacked for uttering the word “nigger” to high school students on a trip to Peru in 2019, while discussing with them whether their classmate should have been punished for using the word in a video she made as a 12-year-old . He also refers to college courses, publications and other practices which treat black Americans as victims of oppression but end up patronising them and reinforcing the very racism and institutional discrimination that previous generations of black activists such as Martin Luther King had railed against. Other interesting issues Karnitschning raised include the phenomenon of “virtue signalling” in which people demonstrate they are “good” by calling out what they perceive as racial prejudice or discrimination against designated victim groups: in the earlier example of Donald G McNeil Jr, the people involved in “virtue signalling” were the students and their parents who reported him for using the N-word, and the NYT staff involved in his sacking.
McWhorter took questions from the audience which ranged from whether he saw parallels with the Cultural Revolution in China (1964 – 1976) – the only parallel he saw between that period and the current CRT scare is that in both, a minority of people denounced academic and other figures, and the majority sat on the sidelines, too scared to speak up – to a query challenging his assertion that CRT is a religion demanding faith and emotional investment over truth.
The session ended on a rather downbeat note as McWhorter outlined how he saw US society and US colleges and universities in particular continuing under the reign of CRT: in McWhorter’s opinion, these institutions will become more ideologically rigid, and alternative educational institutions and systems that meet more vocationally oriented needs or demands for education based on Enlightenment values will arise. The current trend of falling enrolments of white US men at college was noted but McWhorter believes factors other than CRT (such as college being increasingly overpriced, the burden of student debt and competition from online courses) are the issue.
Strangely during the session no-one including McWhorter thought to mention if the way education systems in the US and other Western nations have been designed and allowed to develop, with private schools, colleges and universities lavished with funding at the expense of their state-funded equivalents, has played any role in birthing CRT. Indeed, the class-based hierarchical nature of Western societies in which privatisation of what should be public institutions, and that privatisation denying large segments of the general public access to education that would encourage critical thinking, logic, use of the scientific method and exposure to alternate and diverse ways of thinking and expression – which Karl Marx identified as the scourge of Western civilisation in his time – can be seen as the petri dish in which CRT and other ideologies enabling the bourgeois classes to view themselves as championing the poor and disadvantaged, or particular sections of the poor and disadvantaged, have arisen and flourished.
The most impressive part of the session is where McWhorter nailed the essence of CRT: perceiving every relationship as being based on differences in the power wielded by the people involved in the relationship, and making those power differences the core issue of every endeavour in Western society. The first 20 minutes of the session are worth repeated viewings, the Q&A session not so much so.