We are seeing open warfare between various feminist and other progressive factions on social media and in the universities. A key divide is between so-called gender critical feminists and trans activists. Professional scholars might once have been expected to bring a degree of moderation and clarity to these sorts of debates but many of the worst offenders are academics. This is hardly surprising given that higher education in the humanities and social sciences has long been dominated by ideologues and their acolytes. Independent thinking on controversial issues is generally not encouraged and in many instances is simply not tolerated.
Even once-respected fields like philosophy have been progressively transformed into platforms for mindless social activism. Daniel Kaufman has described this sad state of affairs:
Woke Philosophy is built upon a kind of Newspeak, one once only expected from aspirant (and actual) totalitarians. The difference, of course, is that real totalitarians are really dangerous, while the collection of walking and talking personality disorders that constitute the Woke Brigade only have the capacity to frighten people by way of what Elizabeth Anscombe, when speaking of moral imperatives in the absence of God, called “mesmeric force.”
Kaufman suggests that in this “age of social media and … generalized social anxiety” such “entirely illusory muscle” can still exert power. And so it does, to a point. But the patent silliness of many of the claims of these virtue-signalling activists, coupled with their lack of self-awareness, simply invites ridicule from those not directly involved.*
These internecine conflicts amongst self-described progressives derive (as I see it) from deep-seated contradictions and flaws within feminism itself and within progressive and radical thinking more generally. Some of these contradictions relate to the Enlightenment view of the mind as infinitely malleable, a tabula rasa, a blank slate. Even the mythical notion of original sin has more psychological plausibility than this view.
Another fallacy of progressive ideology is the belief that complex problems of ethics and society are amenable to theoretically-elaborated solutions (based on discursive reason). Strangely, even feminist thinking – typically (and irrationally) hostile to science and mathematics – often falls into this trap. Though core feminist ideas are anti-rationalistic in certain ways, they are presented nonetheless as “theory”.
Standpoint theory, for example, has been adopted by feminists. It entails a highly politicized approach to knowledge and values. You know the sort of thing: the “oppressors” see everything in distorted, self-serving ways, while oppressed groups tend to see things more truly.
It is patently obvious that judgments regarding social and political values depend on a multitude of factors which no theoretical construct or ideological narrative can adequately represent. The classical and conservative notion of practical wisdom – encompassing as it does both personal and cultural contingencies – is far more closely aligned with lived experience than any theoretical construct or ideological narrative could ever be.
The errors of progressivism have been compounded and exacerbated by the notion that objective knowledge of the world is not possible. This idea has deep roots in radical social thought and philosophical pragmatism. But it is self-defeating; and perhaps it is the realization of this fact which lies behind the attempt to present traditional – and commonsense – views of objectivity and truth as being not simply in error but also as somehow morally or politically tainted.
Feminism, like other kinds of identity politics, relies heavily on this kind of rhetorical moralizing. We are dealing here with emotional manipulation, ploys designed to promote or prop up ideas which cannot sustain themselves in the absence of a particular kind of value-laden belief system.
If truth is socially constructed then science and rigorous scholarship should not be privileged over the pseudo-intellectual effusions of feminists, critical theorists, et al.. How convenient.
All these various virtue-signalling discourses are not about intellectual inquiry at all – and never have been. For most of the participants, it has always been a power game, pure and simple.
The facts are not in dispute. Successive generations of left-leaning intellectuals and activists somehow managed – in the wake of the social and economic upheavals of the 1960s and 70s – to establish and maintain niches for themselves within the education system, the arts, the media and various sections of an ever-expanding bureaucratic and regulatory web. And the resulting relentless flood of propaganda and ideologically-driven scholarship in conjunction with other forms of activism has led to deep and wide-ranging social and political changes.
God knows where it goes from here.
* I recently came across these “obituaries” for the cancelled by Sarah Lazarus. She has a light but deadly touch.