These ideas emanating from the United States are provoking reaction in French universities and nourishing a new kind of militant radicalism. Read our comprehensive report to learn what is going on and how it affects our society.
Should we fear the spread of theories on gender, race, intersectionality or post-colonialism? In unleashing a monster-sized polemic on “Islamo-leftism” in universities during a speech, French Minister of Higher Education Frédérique Vidal has brought these ideas which originated in America to light. These are academic subjects that focus on discrimination against minorities, and they nourish a new radical militancy. In France, this movement’s dogmas, such as “white privilege,” “systemic racism,” “rape culture” or “toxic masculinity” remain little known among the general public, according to a poll by the International Marketing Research Group, a French organization. But in America, this phenomenon has spilled out of university campuses into the business world for several years to the point where it is summed up in the single word: “woke.”
This major report contains the results of our inquiry into the ongoing battle among French faculties. We also visited Great Britain, where statues of Winston Churchill are being toppled. Harvard star Professor Steven Pinker granted us a lengthy interview on the subject in which he claimed that it threatens classic liberalism and the Enlightenment tradition of the university. “This ‘woke’ madness is today everyone’s concern,” he warned. This is the first of five articles that explain the stakes of this new culture war.
In the U.S., the whole affair is such that it can be summed up in the word “woke,” which signifies someone who is “awakened” to social injustice issues of race or gender. A mirror image of the Black Lives Matter movement, the those who are woke represent the actively militant version of academic theories on race and gender. Some speak of the “Great Awokening” to underscore the movement’s religious nature, with its black-and-white moralism, abstruse dogma and puritanism. In 2019, none other than former U.S. President Barack Obama condemned the purist tendencies of the woke by saying describing the world as “messy; there are ambiguities.”
Of all French university faculties, those in the social sciences suffer the most extreme tension over the applications of new scientific concepts about discrimination based on skin color or gender. Increasingly, “new generation progressives” integrate both science and woke militancy, with some French educators accusing them of instituting a “state racism” against what they claim is scientific reality, while others perceive in their inclusiveness undeniable progress confirmed by studies. With the emergence of such studies, the conflict among researchers has become bitter.
In this area, too, our American cousins are well ahead. Across the Channel, gender studies and racial theories arrived on university campuses in the 1990s. Today, those who support being woke and those who despite it confront one another in a fruitless and partisan struggle. If a country like Great Britain can accommodate cultural relativism and multiculturalism so well in its DNA, then it suffers nonetheless from attacks on freedom of speech in its universities, which were traditionally bastions of it. Ever on the lookout to wage a cultural battle, the opportunistic Boris Johnson is promising to respond with a new law that will “guarantee freedom of expression in higher education” by fining universities that restrict it.*
The Harvard star scholar and proponent of rationality does not beat about the bush: “Woke orthodoxy spreads the worst influences of apartheid and Nazism. It contains this idea that each of us belongs to a group defined by our gender, race or ethnicity, that all our ideas can be predicted according to that group, and that justice can only be conceived of according to that group’s ascribed characteristics,” said Pinker, author of “Enlightenment Now.” He worries about such identity-based definitions and the religious turn they’ve taken in America.
Even for what one considers a good cause, this division of society into injured identities causes conflict and hinders the ability to overcome otherness through brotherhood and citizenship. What the left calls progressive is misleading, even more so given the social impasse it creates. All of this should at least be an opportunity for some debate, but being woke makes debate impossible. With its prioritization of the suffering individual and its ever-widening grounds for offensive behavior, woke thought creates a reign of the offended over reasoned argument.
Editor’s Note: This quote, though accurately translated, could not be verified.