In a 2019 essay entitled “Seizing the Means of Knowledge Production,” the Columbia sociologist Musa al-Gharbi describes one of the most striking developments of the past few years: the way that a series of ideas, drawn from postmodernism and critical theory, has achieved a surprising degree of hegemony within large segments of the academy, the foundation and museum worlds, HR departments, and the national media.
Terms barely known a decade ago are now commonplace not only among activists, journalists, the intelligentsia or students at elite liberal arts campuses, but among the undergraduates in college classrooms nationwide, raising really fascinating questions about the flow of ideas: how a discourse, once associated with such figures as Derrick Bell, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Kimberlé Crenshaw was diffused, disseminated and dispersed.
You know those words and phrases: cultural appropriation, implicit bias, intersectionality, microaggressions, systemic or institutional racism and sexism, white privilege, and woke.
None of those terms is truly new. Most trace their roots to the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. But it is only recently that these ideas gained traction in the national press.
This shift in language is not merely of linguistic interest. We are in the midst of a cognitive and moral revolution unmatched since the mid- and late 1960s, when ideas drawn from neo-Marxist and feminist thought, anticolonial and national liberation thinkers, liberation theology, and the Black Power movement posed an earlier challenge to conventional liberalism, or when, in the wake of world war, psychoanalytic and existential ideas dominated the discourse of the professional class.
What we are witnessing is a paradigm shift, as a new generation of thought leaders grapples with some of the pressing issues of our time, and as a new cohort of activists, on campus and elsewhere, deploys a new language to advance a variety of causes, from climate change to transgender rights.
I do not invoke the phrase “paradigm shift” lightly. I am convinced that we are witnessing something like what Friedrich Nietzsche meant when he wrote about a transvaluation of values -- a shift that has provoked alarm among the many academics associated with the Heterodox Academy or the journalists who publish on Substack.
Why would this be the case? Because of a genuine shift in attitudes toward free speech, sexual and gender identity, consent, and the value of incremental reform. There is a growing sense among many students that:
- Systemic and institutionalized inequities, which do not hinge on individuals’ conscious intentions, pervade American society and even the academy.
- Power and privilege take diverse forms, including through language and discourses that label or stigmatize and can inflict a kind of violence or trauma.
- Subjective feelings, especially those of people who have been historically marginalized, represent a reality that needs to be taken far more seriously than in the past.
- Classrooms themselves are sites of power and subordination, in which certain ideas and modes of expression are privileged and bias too often intrudes in the selection of topics, readings, activities and assessments.
Today, any discussion of this new discourse inevitably raises the specter of a supposedly intolerant “cancel culture” with its purportedly rigid strictures of “political correctness.” This is a view summed up in the title of a recent book by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay: Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity -- and Why This Harms Everybody. You’ll recall that Pluckrose and Lindsay sought in 2018 to discredit a whole set of programs in gender, race and sexuality studies by submitting a number of bogus articles to academic journals in those fields.
The new discourse has also generated a political backlash -- a “war on woke” -- as state legislatures, including those in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, West Virginia and even New Hampshire (plus some leading French politicians), seek to suppress the teaching of critical theory or critical perspectives on U.S. history under the guise of preventing the “propagation of divisive concepts.”
There is the call, in Georgia, for every public college and university to identify every course that focuses on privilege and oppression, or the proposal in South Dakota, to bar schools from using any content “associated with efforts to reframe this country’s history in a way that promotes racial divisiveness and displaces historical understanding with ideology.”
So let me be clear: I am not here to decry this paradigm shift as a retreat from historic liberal values of free speech and freedom of inquiry, or as a symbol and symptom of cultural and intellectual decadence and stagnation.
Arguments like those found in Cynical Theories grossly oversimplify the arguments advanced by figures like Derrida, who was quite right in doubting grand narratives of progress, recognizing the indeterminacy of many truth and fact claims, and asserting the limits of rational inquiry.
The issues that this new paradigm and discourse seek to address are real and pressing, and the questions that it seeks to answer are excruciatingly difficult:
- How do we create inclusive learning environments that are more respectful of difference without restricting academic freedom and free speech?
- How do we discuss tough, fraught topics frankly and forthrightly while respecting each student’s right to a safe, secure space for learning?
- Are there words or ideas that ought to be out of bounds in a classroom and that need to be called out?
- How should we revise the national narrative to offer a fuller, more accurate account of the country’s diversity and its glaring and persistent inequalities, violence, exploitation and legacy of conquest and expansion?
In a very different context, I have described youth as a cultural avant-garde, as the agents of change and transformation who have, historically, been responsible for the creation and actualization of new sensibilities and value systems. That kind of cultural ferment is visible around us today and is creating lots of discomfort as new boundaries of acceptable behavior remain to be delineated.
At times, pushback is not only appropriate, but necessary, especially when viewpoint diversity, open inquiry, constructive disagreement and academic freedom are at risk. But we also need to recognize that at least since the late 18th century, cultural reinvention is youth’s historic task and wild exaggeration is often the form that this process takes.
It certainly an overstatement to claim that "Each generation goes to battle against the ones that came before." But the historical process is dialectical, and those of us who are academics should feel blessed to have a front-row seat as a set of values appropriate to an extraordinarily diverse society is debated and defined.
I only wish that the campuses offered many more courses that explicitly addressed the issues that our students are confronting -- especially those involving identities, inequities, intimacy and interpersonal interactions -- from an academic perspective.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.