What's in a Name?

Attacking the language anti-woke critics use forestalls the real conversation

If you’re like me, you at one point criticized something you called “identity politics,” and you were told, “All politics is identity politics.” Or maybe you criticized a piece of history, calling it “revisionist,” and you were told, “All history is revisionist history.” Or maybe you didn’t think somebody should have lost their job for something they tweeted, so you criticized “cancel culture,” and you were told, “All culture is cancel culture.” And of course there is the king of all such moves: you at one point criticized something for being politicized, and you were told, “All X’s are political.”

Those are just examples from my own life. But what about the general mode of argument?

The cynical reading is that your interlocutor is just trying to keep you from using a word that’s conceptually and rhetorically effective. The goal is to prevent the language that can clearly pick out what you’re talking about from entering the discourse in the first place. On that cynical reading, these arguments are hardly arguments at all, but power moves of sorts: they’re about controlling which sorts of distinctions can be introduced into the common vocabulary. The demand for definitions serves as a question-deferring strategy, ensuring we never get at intelligible concepts because we’re stuck looking for precise language. Your interlocutor is at particular pains to remove any distinction which separates something they like from what’s normal, and which carries a negative connotation (for the thing that they like).

Christopher Rufo and James Lindsay are on a tear against “critical race theory,” helping to promote bills in several state legislatures that limit funding for public schools or contractors that endorse, or in some cases teach materials that express, “divisive concepts.” One line of response from opponents has focused on the name. “Critical race theory” is not, in fact, an academically respectable term for most of the things Rufo and Lindsay are targeting. They are concerned with diversity initiatives from well-heeled consultants and activist schools of education, not the relatively abstruse doctrines that were first formulated in law review articles in the 1970s.

To be charitable to this response, while it’s true that some of their targets do seem to descend from common claims found in the academic literature on critical race theory, that alone doesn’t make those targets themselves part of critical race theory. And, anyway, some of their targets don’t descend from critical race theory at all.

But “critical race theory” is not the first name people like Rufo and Lindsay have used for the sort of thing they are talking about. Some have labeled the general phenomenon “wokeness.” That term has come under fire for being an appropriation of black slang. Before that, some called it “cultural Marxism.” That term was attacked for apparently anti-Semitic overtones. Jordan Peterson called it “postmodern neo-Marxism,” which was mocked for being an apparent contradiction in terms (I don’t myself think it’s an oxymoron). The term “postmodernism” is attacked for being unclear. When one simply calls it “social justice,” one hears the response that social justice is good by definition. And so on. You get the idea. There’s a concept or issue needing a name, but in the case of this one particular concept or issue, no name will do. We just need to discuss the problem of its name first, forever.

It may be, though, that people like Rufo, Lindsay, and Peterson are not naming a distinct, unified, or interesting phenomenon. That would be a reason to think that none of these names work. But in general their opponents do think that they are attacking something unified. They are happy to explain all their theories about why, at base, such ideas are under attack: They think that the goal of these attacks is to buttress the power of a system of group domination—today, primarily white supremacy is the go-to, though patriarchy seemed more primary a few years back. So there is at least a resemblance among the ideas under attack: they’re all ideas that oppose, either in terms of their explicit content or their political potential, that sort of power structure. At least their theory seems to demand this analysis.

It’s hard for me to avoid the cynical reading in the case of “critical race theory” and the other terms that have been rejected for the phenomenon we’re gesturing at: people who support this thing try to prevent it from being named, and once it’s named they obfuscate its contents. “This unpopular example isn’t part of the definition, but it is good in my opinion anyway.” “This popular example is part of it, but you need to do the reading until you agree with me on every detail.” And so on. The name of the game—or the “game of the name” as Steven Pinker once called it in an old article about the social effects of generating too much euphemism—is language control and gatekeeping, and a cottage industry in explainers.

The reverse move is common as well. In particular, to defend an action or policy from criticism, one may distinguish it from actions or policies in the vicinity that everyone agrees are bad. This also serves as a defense from complaints of hypocrisy.

Not all such distinctions are successful, and in fact not all of them try to be. “That was then; this is now” has the form of offering a distinction between two situations, but in some usages it serves precisely to highlight that the situations are in fact overwhelmingly similar. The problem is that little effort is usually made to explain why a distinction is ethically relevant or important. So the distinction itself doesn’t show any difference between the supposedly good and the supposedly bad case. Often the distinction itself goes on to prove insufficient —that is, a further situation will crop up that seems good to us but falls on the bad side of the distinction, or that seems bad to us but falls on the good side of the distinction, and so we will need to offer yet another distinction within the distinction we’ve already tried. In other words, the distinction is articulated as though it’s articulating the defining principle at issue, but it’s actually just articulating some other non-definitive idea that’s not germane to why we care to disagree about this kind of thing. These epicycles of self-excuse are a kind of motivated political casuistry.

One of the most commonly-cited pseudo-distinctions in contemporary political arguments is “power.” This thing is awful, the worst thing in the world, when done by a person or group with power, but it’s harmless, or even good, when done by a person or group without power. It’s never explained just how it is that power affects a moral situation or even what power ultimately is.

This reverse argument admits some cynical readings too. The old slogan “Who? Whom?” comes to mind. I, as a political actor, or we as a political grouping, will decide that something is bad when it harms us or when it helps a competing political actor or grouping. But we won’t think it’s bad when it helps us or when it harms a competing political actor or grouping.

So we will need to gerrymander a distinction between the situation we like and the situation we don’t, and we’ll come up with a distinction to do so. But the distinction is just some words we’ve chosen to mark off the things we like from the things we don’t, and has no more substantive explanatory content beyond that. The problem is that little effort is usually made to explain why that distinction is ethically important. So the distinction itself doesn’t show any difference between the supposedly good and the supposedly bad case.

The name-game effort is sort of counterproductive for the defenders of wokeness in several ways.

First, it allows a cottage industry to prosper on the other side, too. Everyone who comes up with a new name and frame for this thing, whatever it is we’re talking about, seems to blow up. They start making money off of books, media appearances, and even donations from fanatical supporters.

Second, it pushes back any effort for a systematic explanation and evaluation of what’s going on from the woke side. What is the woke academic theory of the relationship between Kimberlé Crenshaw and Robin DiAngelo? Is one a kind of bowdlerization of the other? Are they both effects of the same cause? Or is there no relation at all? Which parts of the things anti-woke writers inveigh against are good and which are bad?

For those defenders of wokeness who agree with people like me on a lot of individual cases of this stuff, what should be done? Should we ignore them because they don’t add up to a broader phenomenon? Should we pretend they’re good so that we don’t jeopardize important related goals?

There is a bigger point to be made about language control, too. Pro-woke writers are often seen defending the idea that definitions change naturally, or even that they should be changed artificially, as social mores change, and that invidious associations should not be read into technical terms like “whiteness.” But these principles go out the window when the various names of wokeness are put on the table. The whole theory of language changes: now it’s something top-down, something that should be left to the experts, the people who have “done the reading” and can lecture about it.

But why? Just as language can change to favor them, so it can change to disfavor them. Unless the woke theory of language is simply that linguistic changes are valid if and only if they aid woke political projects—an insane theory, but not far off from what I sometimes see advocated—they need to explain more.

Sometimes old friends text me a link to some tweet or article and ask me if I think it’s “peak woke.” I think we have passed peak woke in terms of elite opinion, psychological commitment, and interpersonal sanctimony, and it is on the downswing. But in terms of institutions, it is more or less at its peak. This puts its defenders in a rough position: They end up arguing for things they don’t really like. They should stop doing that and just tell us plainly where the distinctions ought to be drawn.