Conservatives reply to woke objections with a modest offering of facts that undo the woke narrative—and get nowhere.
Here’s a better way.
If you’re invited to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving Dinner, and his daughter shows up and starts talking about America’s genocide of Native Americans, what do you say? Or if you’re in a discussion of classical education with other parents from your neighborhood and someone comments that classical education has a curriculum that lacks diversity and flirts with white privilege, how do you respond?
These are standard woke gestures, commonplace and unsurprising. The language is always the same, the charges familiar. People voice them with a set script in their heads, one they have heard a thousand times in classrooms, on talk shows, and in social media. That hasn’t made them less difficult to answer, though. Our woke interlocutor has a point to make, an objection to raise, and more than that. She has indignation in her delivery, too, maybe a little outrage. Occasionally, she verges on a tantrum. The historical contention is one thing, the moral fervor another. It intensifies the exchange. What was a conversation has become a trial. She has put your conscience in the dock. Are you a bad person who perpetuates injustice? Or are you a good person out to end it?
It sounds like a trivial occasion, but it’s really not. It happens too often not to be important. Woke attitudes have spread too widely for conservatives to avoid it. Not long ago, talk of “privilege,” “patriarchy,” and “transphobia” would have puzzled most Americans. Now, it echoes everywhere, in public and private and professional life. The choice a conservative faces on those occasions doesn’t depend on the truth of things. It’s a social matter, a crossroads. “Do I speak my mind and annoy the present company? Or just nod and move on?”
The affect of wokesters pushes you toward the second option. They speak forcefully, haughtily. They may not know much about the founding, but they know the founders owned slaves, and that’s enough. They can’t name the U.S. presidents in order, but they know that none of them was a woman. They haven’t read news reports on the current chaos at the border, but all Americans are immigrants, they insist. These convictions put them on moral high ground. They also please the holder of them. Indignation can feel awfully good, especially when wokesters can fire it as an adversary and watch him squirm.
People conscious of others’ feelings or raised with bourgeois manners find the affect hard to overcome. They don’t want to offend. I’ve seen conservatives reply to woke objections with a modest offering of facts that undo the woke narrative—and get nowhere. They don’t match the indignation of the wokester with a defensiveness of similar intensity, and so their facts lack authority.
To say that in 1800 slavery existed all over the world, so we should stop treating the American practice as an unusual abomination, does nothing to lessen the blameworthiness of the American South. Noting that the absence of female leaders in ancient times may have something to do with the duties of a king back then to command an army in the field at any time has no persuasive power. Appeals to nature are hollow.
It’s a losing game. Save your breath—don’t try to argue, don’t defend. The wokester is strong on belief and weak on knowledge, no matter how much she thinks she knows the real history of things. To be woke is precisely this claim of superior knowledge, a keener awareness than that of those still un-woke, asleep in their illusions of, say, American greatness. Knowing they possess the truth, wokesters have the blessing of moral courage, the dedication to speak truth to power. It gives them a noble role to play in the correction of the historical record.
And there lies the weak spot of the woke brigade: the pretension to moral superiority through better knowledge. They believe they have better hearts because they have better minds, and that’s an assumption that easily collapses. It points the way to a different response than argument.
Instead of challenging the wokester’s knowledge, let’s go with the wokester’s knowledge and draw it out. Let her school us, let her show us her certainty and let’s accept her duty to instruct the ignorant. She wants to be a pedagogue; we shall accept the position of pupil.
The model is Socrates, who comes to many dialogues as one who knows nothing and desires enlightenment. He asks simple questions and listens closely to the answers. The other participants believe they grasp the truth firmly, but as his queries continue, their confidence begins to wane. They speak at first as ordinary folk who nonetheless possess common sense, or as experts in a subject, such as Ion the rhapsode on the topic of Homer. They are complacent until the dialectic leads them to acknowledge their error.
Take the same approach with the wokester. If she brings up the Native American issue, ask her in all innocence why those cavalry officers were often flanked by native scouts helping them track down other tribes.
If she berates the founders as hypocrites, ask why Thomas Jefferson penned a document that became a rallying cry for civil rights forever after. Why would he do that?
If she brings up the absence of female rulers in the old days, ask what would happen to a kingdom if it were threatened by a neighbor and the ruler were eight months pregnant?
If she objects to Western Civilization as white supremacy, ask her to describe the whiteness of Beethoven’s Ninth, or ask her if she wants her children to read Hamlet, tour the National Gallery, and study the architecture of the Acropolis and the Pantheon.
If America is shot through with systemic racism, you can say, why do so many people of color keep scrambling to come? Really, why?
Ask those questions in a spirit of education. The wokester has taken the podium. She can’t not answer. Her shtick is to catechize and berate, so give her the chance to amplify her contentions. The spread of woke knowledge should satisfy her, as should your willingness to be awokened. What could be better than a willing student, an open mind?
What you will uncover, of course, displeases her more than your expected resistance. The knowledge she presumes will soon appear to come in small packages, biased and uncontextualized. She hasn’t listened to Beethoven’s Ninth or read Hamlet, can’t distinguish a Renaissance work of art from one created in the Romantic Period, and goes blank at the mention of the Acropolis and the Pantheon. In truth, wokeness doesn’t appeal to her intelligence and never did. It flattered her ego. Now, faced with questions directly related to what she has just stated, the certitude crumbles and the ego collapses. You have asked her for knowledge, and she hasn’t replied. She can’t.
You’ve won. It’s time to hum a few bars of Beethoven, mouth some words of Polonius, praise the dimensions of Greek columns, and detail what the Comanches did to their neighbors, and see if she’s ready to listen.
About Mark Bauerlein
Mark Bauerlein is a senior editor at First Things and professor of English at Emory University, where he has taught since earning his Ph.D. in English at UCLA in 1989. For two years (2003-2005) he served as director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His books include Literary Criticism: An Autopsy, The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief, and The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. His essays have appeared in PMLA, Partisan Review, Wilson Quarterly, Commentary, and New Criterion, and his commentaries and reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, The Guardian, Chronicle of Higher Education, and other national periodicals.