By now there are enough “cancel culture” stories to fill volumes. After my own story about standing up to a woke mob—and succeeding—went viral on Twitter, I decided to speak out, because I am convinced that Americans need more encouraging stories about standing up to cancel culture, and information on how they can do it themselves.
In order to withstand attacks, you’ll need to be armed with an understanding of the ideas in play, and the courage to stand up to bullies. I hope my story can help give you both.
My story began in 2010, when my husband and I founded a nonprofit organization that trains people around the world who are providing care for survivors of trauma. We were pleased with the success of our organization for the first several years, but around 2016, we noticed a change.
My husband, who serves as executive director, eventually found himself uneasy among his staff. The general tone was one of criticism. It wasn’t explicitly directed at him at first, but toward “systems,” the “hegemony,” and “normativity.”
We were not acquainted with critical theory at the time, but the common rhetoric about “systems of power and oppression” was an indicator that there was a shared perception of reality among team members to which we were not privy.
We initiated all-team sessions to hear from our staff and discern what was happening. What usually happened was the staff made vague assertions that the organization was “causing harm” and would present a list of demands. I later came to understand these meetings were essentially “struggle sessions”—an opportunity for our woke employees to shame us into submission, a technique often used in Mao’s China.
I decided to do some research into the ideology that was animating the staff to see what my husband and I could do to save our organization and the people we serve. I’m convinced that there’s no shortcut around this learning process if you want to successfully make a principled stand. Here are some of the things I learned.
Know What You Are Dealing With
Through my research, I came to realize that our staff were following “critical theory” and its descendant theories, like critical race theory and queer theory.
>> What is critical race theory? Christopher Rufo breaks it down here.
These theories basically divide society into two groups: oppressor and oppressed. If you are white, straight, male, and/or wealthy, you are an oppressor. If you are a racial minority, gay or trans, a woman or identify as some other gender, and financially not wealthy, you are oppressed. The objective of critical theory is to defeat oppressors and overturn the system that benefits them.
Those who have embraced the tenets of critical theory are colloquially referred to as “social justice warriors,” or simply “woke.” (It’s important to note that most people who have been influenced by critical theory and its descendant theories—like critical race theory and queer theory—most likely wouldn’t identify themselves as “critical theorists”).
I like the term critical social justice to identify the ideology, because it doesn’t have a pejorative connotation and is descriptive of the earnest (though I believe misguided) motivations of many of its adherents.
Whatever they are called or what other people call them, they share the conviction that they have acquired a critical consciousness that enables them to rightly perceive systems of power and oppression unseen by others (hence, being “woke”). This belief governs all of their actions.
Understand How the Battle With the Woke Mob Is Fought
To protect yourself and your organization from becoming subverted by critical social justice ideology and subsequently cancelled, you must understand how the battle is fought.
First, critical social justice is an anti-objectivity ideology: One of its fundamental assertions is that there are no objective truths, only “positional” truths. As explained by Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo in their 2017 book “Is Everyone Really Equal?”:
One of the key contributions of critical theorists concerns the production of knowledge. … These scholars argue that a key element of social injustice involves the claim that particular knowledge is objective, neutral, and universal.
An approach based on critical theory calls into question the idea that objectivity is desirable or even possible. The term used to describe this way of thinking about knowledge is that knowledge is socially constructed.
Bearing that in mind, you can throw out your notions of engaging in classical discourse where the best idea will emerge victorious. Your ideas are not on trial: You are.
Shift the Focus From ‘Identity’
Your woke assailants will accuse you of ineptitude, the inability to perceive reality, or even immorality based on your identity—by which I mean, the characteristics you can’t change about yourself. Your identity can even disqualify you from talking about certain subjects.
For example, they will demand your silence in conversations on race if you are deemed “white” or even “white adjacent.” They will suggest you do “harm” or “violence” if you are “cis-gendered” and attempt to engage in conversation on gender identity.
This identity-based gatekeeping is a result of the presupposition in critical social justice that all truth is “positional.” Therefore, only those who have a certain “social position” due to their identity can perceive or speak truth on topics related to their identity.
Don’t take the bait and engage in self-defense. You will be eviscerated if you let the conversation become about you.
When I realized that an employee was attempting to control my behavior based on my identity, I deflected by using her own woke moral code against her. She told me I couldn’t speak on a topic because I’m straight, to which I replied that it was wrong to assume about my sexuality just because I’m married to a man. (She immediately groveled.)
Instead of trying to defend yourself from their attacks on your identity, you must remain fiercely committed to keeping the focus of the conversation on ideas rather than identities. Keep the dialogue on the faultiness of their ideas, not on yourself or them.
Level the Playing Field With Ground Rules
Third, it is by no means a fair fight. Your opponents will cry foul no matter your speech or behavior. Claims of “harm” will be made simply on account of certain ideas being brought into the conversation or sacrosanct commitments of critical social justice being challenged.
This is why you must be “above reproach.” Let your interlocutors know you will be recording all organizational conversations. Insist that terms be defined clearly from mutually agreed upon authoritative sources or fruitful engagement will be impossible.
On that last point, definition of organizational terms was a key component of our success. The first term I worked to define was “psychological safety.”
This was a necessary first step because even challenging some of our staff’s ideas was seen as “violence.” Being an organization dedicated to addressing trauma, we were shocked that words like “causing harm” and “unsafe” were used liberally by the clinically trained individuals on our program staff to describe conversations about ideas (a sad result of their education in psychology through a critical theory lens).
I found Greg Lukianoff and Jon Haidt’s book “The Coddling of the American Mind” and was stunned by the similarity between the behaviors discussed in the book and those exhibited by our staff. Particularly, the description of “emotional reasoning,” a cognitive distortion which can be defined as “letting your feelings guide your interpretation of reality,” was apt for our staff.
As explained by Haidt and Lukianoff, there are consequences to using emotional reasoning:
A claim that someone’s words are ‘offensive’ is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.
I used the material in “Coddling,” the research on psychological safety by Amy Edmondson (who coined the term), and some evidence-based models of organizational psychological safety to craft an organizational definition of the term “psychological safety” our staff were required to read. This would preclude vague definitions of the term and force our staff to recognize when their accusations of “harm” were unsubstantiated.
It was painfully clear that these clinically trained mental health professionals, while purporting to be on a mission to increase safety and reduce harm, were accomplishing the opposite by adhering to a worldview that sees some people as inherently participating in harm and other people as inherently oppressed based solely on their identities.
Another term I defined was “evidence-based.” The most disheartening aspect of this whole experience was that individuals who had received advanced degrees in clinical fields had become completely detached from science rooted in observation and verifiable claims. That the assertions of critical social justice could not be falsified was a clear indicator to me that it is ideological in nature rather than scientific.
It was revealing to me that our team members not only resisted the traditional definition of science, but indicated our adherence to it was a symptom of “white supremacy” that contributed to the disenfranchisement and harm of entire groups of people.
Why was it important to define “evidence-based”? For starters, both the employees and I were motivated to help treat victims of trauma. To do so, our approach must be guided by evidence that is both verifiable (can be objectively confirmed to be true) and therefore falsifiable (can be objectively dismissed as untrue).
“Evidence” that does not meet this criteria is anecdotal and, far from being helpful to trauma-informed methodologies, actually can lead away from accurate conclusions about the nature of and remedies for trauma.
Therefore, if our mission of being truly helpful to address the impact of trauma on human beings is to be effective, we have to avoid theories and ideologies that undermine honest scientific inquiry. Effective, evidence-based treatment of trauma is incompatible with the incoherent and destructive ideology of critical social justice, which is why anyone who is fighting for true justice must expose critical social justice for what it is.
As soon as I insisted that our nonprofit operate based on evidence-based principles, many of the emotional and irrational attacks that the employees were using lost their effect. Unfortunately, even as the incoherence of their ideology was exposed, our staff remained committed to their chosen framework for understanding reality, and insisted that a commitment to objectivity was harmful.
We had to come to terms with the reality that we were at an ideological impasse. The staff members who disagreed with us ultimately left the organization, accusing us of perpetuating ongoing harm.
Why My Husband and I Stayed in the Fight
I hope you can see the urgency that this ideological war necessitates. It’s not a matter of “agreeing to disagree.” As our cultural and academic institutions are captured by critical social justice ideology, the impacts will be on the most vulnerable.
What will happen in women’s prisons, for instance, when “woman” is redefined to be inclusive of biological men who identify as women?
What will happen to children when schools teach some classmates are inherently oppressors and some are inherently oppressed?
Or, as in the case of my own story, what will happen in mental health care when “norms” for health—established by rigorously tested data—are erased in an effort to “increase inclusivity” and “celebrate diversity”?
The truth is that those who had the most to lose if my husband and I had lost the battle for our organization were the people our trainees serve. These are children, women, and men whose lives have been affected by the most egregious abuses and tremendous suffering. They deserve the best care possible.
We Won Our Fight With the Woke Mob. You Can, Too.
You do not have to be an academic, a pundit, or a brilliant orator to join the fight. Wherever you have a sphere of influence, you have an important role to play in combatting the toxic effects of ideological subversion.
You need to spend some time acquainting yourself with the fundamental tenets of critical social justice, then stay courageously committed to addressing the faultiness of these assertions.
I recommend reading Neil Shenvi’s book reviews to introduce yourself to critical theory. James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose’s book “Cynical Theories” is a deep dive into critical theory for those interested in gaining a robust understanding of the ideology.
You will need to learn not to be concerned with what people think or say about you, since your character will undoubtedly be called into question and your identity attacked.
Whenever “harms” or “violence” are indicated, require specific words, actions, and incidents be provided as evidence to support these claims. Whenever possible, insist upon shared definitions of key terms before engaging in discussion.
I am convinced that critical social justice can and will be defeated ultimately for the sole reason that it’s so fundamentally misaligned with reality. However, the tragic truth is that much collateral damage is being done to individuals and institutions where this ideology has already taken root.
The more people who decide to take a stand courageously against this destructive ideology, the sooner we will usher in a sound and truly helpful discourse around solutions to injustice.
This piece was originally published on The Daily Signal, which publishes a variety of perspectives, and can be found here. Nothing written here is to be construed as representing the views of The Heritage Foundation.