Confronting the Moral Panic Over Critical Race Theory

The left shouldn't cede discussions of terminology to anti-woke activists

Recently, Oliver Traldi wrote a piece on what I consider the current moral panic around Critical Race Theory, arguing that attacking the language of anti-woke activists is counterproductive and prevents discussion. By coincidence, Oliver’s piece dropped one day before a contentious debate Sam Hoadley-Brill and I had with several anti-CRT YouTubers. Part of it focused on definitions and individual cases, exemplifying the messiness Traldi highlighted. However, while I’m sympathetic to some of Traldi’s concerns, I think his analysis underestimates the risk of letting bad actors be the only ones playing the “game of the name.”

Precise definitions are both essential and nearly impossible to produce. Much of philosophy is about coping with those two truths. The scope of a concept, its essential features and its commonly contingent features, are at the heart of any discussion of anything anywhere. A lot of Platonic dialogues are spent arguing over definitions; it’s one of the most ubiquitous problems for knowledge. It’s also easily weaponized by sophists seeking to use the vagaries of language to prevent fruitful discussion. Nobody has anything close to a solution to this problem.

But we shouldn’t let the difficulty of producing precise definitions prevent us from trying to improve our understanding. This is where Traldi and I mostly agree. There is a common and misguided form of argument that claims wokeness (or cancel culture etc.) is a vague or cluster concept, and therefore isn’t real. While we should be skeptical of catchall terms, and group ideas into more discrete concepts when possible, phenomena like “cancel culture” and “wokeness” do track some cluster of things actually happening in reality. So does “systemic racism” and “white fragility,” as I’ve previously argued.

Traldi sees arguments about definitions as power moves meant to prevent opponents from using effective terms. That’s probably part of the motivation, and all political factions do it. However, it’s also worth noting that there are a range of plausible ways to interpret the pushback. For example, I could argue that calling it “cancel culture” gives the impression there’s a specific movement actively seeking to create a toxic culture of cancelation, rather than the still harmful but far less organized reality that there are a mix of people with a wide range of goals using long-standing social shaming techniques at a scale our brains were not designed to handle. One could say similar things about previous iterations of this moral panic, like how the term “PC police” gives the impression that gestapo language enforcers are ruining speech for everyone, rather than society going through a necessary process of introspection about a wide range of behaviors in the context of advancing social norms.

First impressions matter, and it’s reasonable to push back on terms that frame the debate in a harmful way.

When a concept has been weaponized, the game of the name is particularly important. Take the crucial term “racism.” There is a pervasive view among the anti-woke that the one true definition of racism involves the sort of personal racial animus and openly hateful intent we naively associate with a bygone era. There’s value in problematizing that account of the history of “racism” by highlighting how “racism” is a contestable concept, where there is no one true definition. Instead, the term “racism” contains a conflict between a definition that centers intent and one that centers consequences, where neither is the one true definition.

Here’s a taste of the actual history, which postcolonialists and the critical race scholars they influenced correctly recognize as “not great.” Here is a CRT-influenced account of the adoption of the current meaning of “racism” after the civil rights movement. Here is another dip into the complex history of “racism” in Arc Digital. Having problematized the concept, we can then choose to disambiguate it, through the use of terms like “individual racism” and “systemic racism.” But whether we do or not, the idea that there is a correct definition of “racism” that has been in use for hundreds of years and the woke are just now trying to change it is ahistorical.

The worst part is that the CRT moral panic has produced illiberal laws that, if upheld, would make it hard, perhaps impossible, for teachers to teach the complex history of these ideas. Instead our history books are likely to remain filled with harmful fictions, like the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War and various forms of American moral exceptionalism.

Traldi mis-locates responsibility for current challenges around defining and discussing concepts like “wokeness” and “CRT.” He and I agree that the current situation isn’t really about CRT in the technical sense, so the question is, why has it been taken up as this colloquial catchall? Traldi correctly notes that CRT is just the latest in a long line of catchall terms, each trying to paint the social justice movement as philosophically and methodologically extreme, and in conflict with the previous period of social justice activism—the Civil Rights movement—that most now claim to lovingly endorse. Yet he suggests that it is persnickety academics who are forcing this endless parade of scary terms, and not the duplicity of anti-woke activists jumping from an incoherent term (“postmodern neo-Marxism”), to a term closely associated with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (“cultural Marxism”), to an overgeneralized though real phenomenon (“wokeness”).

Traldi claims that the woke strategy is “no name will do we just need to discuss the problem of its name first, forever,” and that the woke use this trick to avoid engaging substantive criticisms. But this obscures why the names involved in these moral panics are endlessly moving targets. It’s not because the individuals driving the moral panics are responding to good faith criticism from academics. There’s scant evidence of that (as Traldi knows, given his experience critiquing the anti-woke book Cynical Theories).

Keeping the target moving keeps the panic fresh and tests out different emotional manipulators, as was the case with preceding moral panics. Here is Chris Rufo, one of the most prominent promotors of the CRT moral panic, giving the game away:

This level of bad faith should be front and center in any discussion of our current epistemic crisis, but Traldi obscures it by focusing on woke activists being picky. If we’re looking for a plausible explanation why CRT is getting traction as a moral panic term, I don’t think we can do better than Mark Edwards:

The frustrating part is that the moral panic formula doesn’t change. I’m not old enough to remember the peaks of the weaponizing of “socialism,” but we’re still paying for it with a wildly dysfunctional healthcare system and radicalizing amounts of wealth inequality. I’m old enough to remember when conservatives weaponized “liberal,” before everyone started tripping over themselves to be called the true defenders of a very small “l” liberalism. What reason do we have to think, if we just let Rufo and others weaponize “CRT,” that the fallout won’t be stagnation on key racial issues?

Traldi presents two possible harms of continuing to engage in the game of the name with anti-woke activists. First, he says it creates a cottage industry for media personalities and consultants to spin up new debates about terms. There’s something to that, but the ship has sailed. I very much doubt that discussing terms less and concepts or cases more would result in fewer people Traldi dislikes appearing on television or getting hired to conduct seminars.

Second, Traldi claims that the game of the name prevents introspection amongst the woke. There’s something to that too, but I don’t think the right move is to abandon the game. Rather, the woke need to play the game honorably, even if that will put them at a disadvantage against bad faith actors.

You can find fanatics in any movement, but much of the social justice left seems keen to discuss the nuances of theory, especially when they don’t have to worry about the right holding the conversation hostage. What the left rejects is the demand that they engage in good faith with transparent political hacks. We should at least acknowledge that demanding this of the woke is asking them to go above and beyond what we seem willing to ask of the anti-woke, perhaps because we’ve accepted that the ask would be pointless given the behavior modeled by anti-woke leadership.

Even if I found these two concerns persuasive, it’s not clear what Traldi thinks is the right alternative. For example, he cites as problematic statements like, “This unpopular example isn’t part of the definition, but it is good in my opinion anyway.” But that statement does what Traldi’s asking for, sidestepping the game of the name to discuss whether the thing itself is good or bad. If statements like that are part of the problem, what’s the solution?

Traldi concludes that the woke “end up arguing for things they don’t really like” and “should stop doing that and just tell us plainly where the distinctions ought to be drawn.” That’s overly-simplistic, given the complexity of these issues. Does Traldi really believe that there are easy lines to be drawn and the woke are just refusing to do it for strategic reasons? Even if you consider the woke to be highly duplicitous, you should be extremely skeptical that there are easy lines to draw in such a difficult landscape. And in a previous essay, Traldi rejected the value of line-drawing entirely.

But even if there were relatively straightforward lines to draw, how can the woke draw the line if they can’t engage at the conceptual level? Just spend the rest of their lives going case by case, saying what’s unacceptable and what isn’t? Many people do this, and it seems no more or less effective than the game of the name, nor is it incompatible with continuing to engage at a conceptual level.

I don’t expect Traldi to present a solution to this difficult problem. There may be no solution for bad actors in this media environment. But it’d be better to target the bulk of our criticism at the bad actors weaponizing these concepts to foment politically-motivated moral panics, rather than the folks reacting to that weaponization with frustration and incredulity.

The left should not cede the game of names to their political opponents, who’ve shown zero interest in a conceptual cease fire. Doing so would allow the anti-woke the sort of conceptual motte-and-bailey we see happening with CRT, where they claim to be attacking a narrow and extreme version of social justice work, while keeping the definition of CRT vague so that passing laws banning “divisive concepts” can have a maximally chilling effect.

If we’re going to resist attacks on social progress by bad faith political operatives, we can’t be browbeaten into abandoning the conceptual high ground.