What Can be Done to Protect and Promote Academic Freedom and the Merit Principle in the Coming Years?

January 2022

Academic freedom and the merit principle have been suffering attacks for decades. The frequency and intensity of attacks (using SAFS responses as just one indicator) has accelerated in the past five to ten years, with the period since the COVID-19 pandemic representing a level of increase not seen before. It is no coincidence that the intensity of attacks has gone hand-in-hand with the rise and consolidation of power of the Critical Social Justice (or Woke) worldview in our epistemic apparatus, that is universities, funding agencies and governmental instances responsible for this apparatus. That is because the worldview demands that the “modern” epistemic system be delegitimized, discredited, overturned and replaced. Critical to this goal is the silencing of dissent which explains attacks on academic freedom. Similarly, merit gets in the way of the political project resulting from this worldview of equity, or the retributive redistribution of resources from “oppressor” or “oppressed” identities. This essay doesn’t belabor the details of this history. Instead it looks towards the future by asking “What is to be done?”

Answering this question was the motivation for the book Counter Wokecraft: A Field Manual for Combatting the Woke in the University and Beyond that I wrote with James Lindsay of New Discourses. In this essay I summarize the takeaways from this manual related to what is to be done.

Effectively doing something requires understanding what has happened and how it has been done. It’s first important to recognize that this has not happened just by itself. The movement to overtake our institutions has not been centralized in a few political leaders or actors; it has been diffuse, although coordinated. The movement has extensive and deep roots but the blueprint for its campaign can best be marked by Antonio Gramsci and then Herbert Marcuse. In earnest it began in university departments, moved up into university bureaucracies and spilled out into the bureaucracies governing and funding them. The coordination that took place was around the evolving and emerging worldview hostile to the modern epistemic system.

In practice (or praxis) this was manifested in coordination consolidating around a few key principles and two forms of tactics. Micro tactics are the collection of tactics used in the service of the “grand” tactic of Woke Viral infection. Woke Viral Infection refers to the attempt to introduce and make the CSJ perspective the dominant perspective in any and all circumstances, be they departmental curriculum committees, departmental assemblies, faculty councils or university senates. The aim of coordinated micro tactics is to facilitate this infection by exaggerating support for, and quelling dissent from, CSJ advances to facilitate and consolidate infection.

The first thing to recognize when evaluating how to counter this movement, and how to defend academic freedom and the merit principle, is understanding that it can’t be done alone. I’ve begun to appreciate that many people in support of these principles, also tend to be very independent. They believe it is their responsibility to allow others to pursue their work as they see fit, and they expect to be left alone by others as well. This has been a contributing factor to the ease with which our epistemic apparatus has been overtaken.

In order to work together, you first need to figure out with whom you can work. Given the many tactics used to quell any dissent it is difficult to know what anyone really thinks about anything anymore. In Counter Wokecraft I describe how to identify potential allies you can work with, and how to start coordinating and working with them. To be most effective, you need to concentrate allies in situations where you can have an impact. It is good to have allies from different departments or universities, but effectively working with them means concentrating your efforts in particular “situations.” The most intuitive setting is your own department and departmental meetings, but you can work with allies across departments in faculty committees, or from across faculties in university senates, or across universities at funding agencies or with law makers.

Finding allies is of course, only the first step. Once you’ve found allies, you need to coordinate to understand how to work together. There are at least three levels of this type of coordination. First you need to discuss tactics you can use in a particular situation or setting. You can agree for example to say something if you see a CSJ advance being made, and importantly to support your allies when they say something. This makes it more difficult for Woke participants to exaggerate support. Even more importantly, you need to support allies when an attempt is made to bully or intimidate them. This reduces the success of Woke attempts to quell dissent.

The second level of coordination is with respect to particular interventions in a given setting. This involves coordination on how to respond, for example, to a policy or specific Woke intervention (like removing objective measures of merit from selection of faculty or students). It also involves coordinating on interventions and policies you can propose to strengthen academic freedom (such as preventing departments (or universities) from taking political positions) and merit in academic decision making. An important category of interventions to consider are those that help to enable dissent and weaken the effects of Woke intimidation. These involve many ways of formalizing decision-making and in particular the use of secret ballot voting.

The third level of coordination relates to identifying situations at which to make interventions. The general rule here is to aim as high in the epistemic apparatus as possible. Departmental committees are good (and in fact, departmental hiring committees are probably the highest priority locus of intervention), but faculty committees are better, universities committees better still, and university donor, funding agency or government instances the best. In addition to aiming high, coordination on loci of intervention requires understanding whether a successful intervention can be made. There is little use in attempting interventions in situations that have insurmountable amounts of Woke presence or control. Coordination in these respects therefore also involves information gathering, sharing and analyzing to identify the best locations of intervention.

The campaign to overtake the epistemic apparatus of Canada has been long in the making. We cannot expect to right the ship instantly. At the same time, for those who value academic freedom and merit, and universities more broadly, we have a moral obligation to try set things on the right course. By working in a coordinated and sustained fashion we will be able to.