Woke and Woker: The Shared Thought Processes of Conspiracy Theory and Critical Theory

Wake up, sheeple!

The least productive hobby I’ve ever had was arguing with Conspiracy Theorists in the YouTube comments – particularly the ones claiming that the Jews run the world and might also be reptoid space aliens. For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t making any progress. After all, I could find or come up with what I thought was an extensive, logical, and verifiable response to any of their silly arguments. My responses fell on deaf ears, and as a result I eventually swore off all comment section arguments.

Maybe my writing wasn’t as brilliant as I thought it was at the time, but I had no way of knowing that because they never actually responded to my arguments. Usually they either switched to another similarly silly argument or called me a “shill” for whatever company or organization they said was behind the conspiracy. Sometimes they insisted I was Jewish, even when I told them that I unfortunately did not have that honor.

The common catchphrase among the hard-core Conspiracy Theorists was “wake up, people/sheep/sheeple!” or “open your eyes!” There are invisible structures of power and hierarchy that determine how the world really works, you just have to wake up to see them. That’s why hard-core conspiracy theorists sometimes were called and even called themselves “woke,” before the term became more well-known to refer to the newly ascendant critical theory-based movement of the left. And despite their opposition – a result of their cultural differences – woke critical theory has a lot in common with woke conspiracy theory in their epistemology – how they think about knowledge.

There are many theories, accusations, and suggestions that a conspiracy may exist, but a Conspiracy Theory worldview – which I emphasize with a capital C and capital T to set it apart from an ordinary accusation of a crime that involves multiple conspirators – goes beyond that: it interprets every important event or relevant piece of information as constructed by a system of power under an evil conspiratorial group. Any facts or arguments that contradict their theory are interpreted as disinformation from the conspiracy. The person arguing the conspiracy theory is in league with the evil group, and therefore any evidence against their theory is actually evidence that their theory of power is correct. A conspiracy theory, in this sense, is unfalsifiable circular logic, and therefore disconnected from truth and reality. It can’t be disproven, but there are countless reasons to doubt it.

The loosely connected group of dangerous ideas that are overtaking the culture and institutions of the U.S. and Europe, sometimes referred to collectively as “critical theory,” after a part of its academic origins, operates on the same principle, and its advocates are commonly called the “woke,” because they’re supposedly awake to how the world really works, to the networks of power that dominate the world and brainwash all the people who are asleep into disagreeing with their theories.

“Privilege,” most commonly in the form of “white privilege,” “male privilege,” and “cisheteronormative privilege,” is the most widely recognized manifestation of this “network of power” that controls the world. But the term is not widely understood. It does not necessarily mean that one is blessed with relative financial prosperity or in any other way, which is why a white male hobo is “privileged” over Oprah. “Privilege” according to critical theory is about how one person’s way of thinking is privileged, meaning that it controls how both whites and those who have been brainwashed by white colonialism think. There is a white way of thinking that controls the world like the Illuminati.

If you argue against this, that’s evidence of your privilege, and proof of how far we have yet to go to achieve “epistemic justice.” Arguments against white privilege are proof that the arguer is infected by white privilege, and therefore evidence of the existence and dominance of white privilege. Those who believe this are “woke,” because they’re supposedly awake to how the world really works, to the networks of power that dominate the world and brainwash all the people who are asleep into disagreeing with their theories. Once again, we have unfalsifiable circular logic.

New Yorker cartoon by Ben Schwartz. Critical theory is sometimes opaque even to mainstream liberals who are expected to know the language.

There are many people, possibly a majority of Americans, who casually accept the worldview of either Conspiracy Theory or critical theory but haven’t skeptically investigated that worldview’s core or thought about its radical impacts. Such people genuinely believe that these radical worldviews are simple and common-sense assertions: that we should distrust those in power and that we should treat people kindly.

The hardcore activists of each group tend to retreat to one of these moderate positions when someone fights back against core premise of their radical worldview. Hardcore Conspiracy Theorists conflate something perfectly obvious: that bad people sometimes work together, with their theory as a whole: that some evil group rules the world and controls everything. Hardcore critical theorists conflate something perfectly obvious: we should oppose racism and treat everyone with kindness, with their theory as a whole: that all our identities and knowledge are a function of our position relative to oppressive power structures.

Important debates often are derailed in the arguing against terminology phase before they can ever make any progress toward the truth. Sometimes, that’s by design. Some conspiracy theorists will insist “it’s not conspiracy theory, it’s a conspiracy fact,” and claim that the term “conspiracy theory” was invented by the FBI or CIA to discredit those who had learned “the truth.”

There are lots of different names for critical theory/”wokeism,” all of which are “problematic” for some reason or another. It’s not critical race theory, that’s an “academic analytical tool.” It’s not Cultural Marxism because apparently that’s just an “anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.” What makes it an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory? The anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists sometimes use the phrase, therefore, it doesn’t exist. (For more about the context in which Cultural Marxism naturally exists, see my essay “Autonomy, Power, and the Possible: A Brief Intellectual History“). “Identity politics” is a useful term, but it can refer to political demagoguery on the basis on any identity, while only certain identities are allowed to be elevated in critical theory. The critical theory woke have sometimes been self-identified as Social Justice Warriors or SJW’s, though now it is apparently “unpersoning” to call them that.

I also would prefer eliminating use of the word “theory” in “conspiracy theory,” and in “critical theory,” as the word implies more intellectual rigor in these subjects than actually exists. If it were up to me, we’d call them “conspiracy guessing” and “critical racism.” But if we are ever to discuss a topic, we have to use words as commonly understood and endeavor to clarify when they are potentially ambiguous, and not change the words of meanings to sabotage the possibility of good-faith discussion.

The woke of both sides are adopting an age old understanding of rhetoric that is sometimes held up as a principle of the critical theory approach to knowledge – that terminology can bypass logic, manipulating ethos and pathos. Antifa can’t be fascist, is has anti-fascist right in the name!

Since the days of the ancient Greek Sophists and probably long before, humans have known the importance of controlling the terminology in controlling an argument. For those thinkers who believed there is an underlying reality that humans can access, or that there are universal laws of math and logic, arguments had to be classified in order to separate logic from the other stuff, Aristotle therefore distinguished between the three modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos is an appeal to the authority of the arguer and their sources, pathos is an appeal to the emotions of the listener, and logos is the appeal to logic and empirical data – or an attempt to fabricate or confuse it.

The most skilled rhetoricians have always known that ethos and pathos are the most effective ways to influence people, and are maximally effective when disguised as logos.

Ethos works in two ways, we can claim that something is good because Reverend King said it, or we can claim that something must be wrong because Hitler supported it – like neoclassical architecture, vegetarianism, Wagnerian Opera, or motherhood. Some of the most common arguments we encounter on an everyday basis are in the form of a negative ethos, the thought process that says cultural Marxism doesn’t exist because the anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists say it does. Some of the “logical fallacies” you may remember if you’ve taken a writing class are ways to categorize illogical uses of ethos: appeal to authority, poisoning the well, genetic fallacy, ad hominem, etc.

The use of ethos has changed as our perception of what constitutes authority has been subverted by the common contemporary mindset. Among conspiracy theorists the sources we would traditionally regard as authorities – scientists, seasoned professionals, articulate thinkers – are regarded as less than worthless. Expertise is a marker of involvement in the conspiracy, and logical, well-reasoned, and evidence-based arguments are sometimes rejected by conspiracy theorists on the basis of the arguer’s expertise. As one flat-Earther told me, “It says the same thing on NASA’s website, so I know it’s fake.”

To reject all arguments from ethos in favor of investigating all claims logically/empirically is the ideal, though it is difficult to actually practice. Conspiracy theorists are notoriously uncritical about their sources (for about a dozen concentrated examples, see my essay “Fact or Famine”) if they come from someone who they already agree with.

Woke critical theory gives an academic gloss to that same age-old mental bias that underlies ethos. Expertise is similarly rejected because of its “problematic history” of “epistemic violence” against marginalized voices. The enlightenment call to go “back to the sources” for evidence is replaced with the call to “elevate colonized/disabled/noncisconforming/fat/etc voices.”

Like conspiracy theorists, they judge arguments not on their merits, but on the hidden agenda the arguer is assumed to be perpetuating. As Alison Bailey, Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Illinois State says, “critical pedagogy regards the claims that students make in response to social-justice issues not as propositions to be assessed for their truth value, but as expressions of power that function to re-inscribe and perpetuate social inequalities.” This is called “Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback,” and people of any race are guilty of it if they disagree with critical theory.
(Alison Bailey, “Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes,” Hypatica 32, no. 4 (2007), 882.)

Within the critical theory epistemological framework, assertions are no longer about facts or reasoning, they’re about identity. The most important phrase in postmodern rhetoric is “as a.” “As a person of color, as a parent of a disabled person, as a member of the LQBTQIADF community, I am uniquely and exclusively entitled to a point of view on this subject.”

Your identity, of course, gives you your own perspective, but not necessarily your own truth and certainly not your own facts. Even if it were the case that one’s perspective gave them their own truth, it would not follow that their truth is the truth for everyone else, and those outside their perspective but somehow inside their truth can only listen. In critical theory, perspective is a function of narrative, and perspective is the foundation of identity. Because each person’s identity is produced by their perspective, disagreeing – or even failing to actively agree – with their perspective is “denying their personhood.”

These conceptual similarities among the woke explain certain practical similarities that you may have observed in either critical theory or conspiracy theory. For example, when the woke do use evidence, anecdotes are always better than data. Even though black or African Americans are ten times more likely to be killed by someone who shares their skin color than by a white person, activists tell us that they should fear for their lives because of the few videos in which a black suspect is killed by a white cop. Even though repeated epidemiologic studies have not found any association between the MMR vaccination and autism, we’ve all heard that someone we know has a cousin whose kid was diagnosed with autism after receiving a vaccine.

The woke assert a claim to secret knowledge, to have taken the metaphorical “red pill” and to see the invisible power structures of the world and who really controls. It’s like having a claim to magic powers. Yet they often treat those who disagree with them not as merely uninitiated, but as agents of evil. The mainstream cultural power belongs to the critical theory faction, and they are constantly asserting that power against those who somehow commit a thoughtcrime against their worldview. Though Conspiracy Theorists don’t have the same cultural power, they do have a certain influence on those who have them in their audience. Writing this, I know I’ve probably already made a lot of Conspiracy Theorists very angry, and I’m risking accusations of being an agent of Illuminati disinformation. But I hope those who have stuck with me will appreciate my candor in talking about the issue directly rather than patronizingly playing along with ideas I disagree with just to avoid offending a potential audience.

The psychology of hard-core conspiracy theorists is complicated and the psychology of the hard-core critical theory woke is mostly unexplored. Exploring the psychology of the arguer, of course, doesn’t discredit their arguments, but it can be useful in understanding their worldview. Woke theories on both sides allow those who believe them to blame their problems or the complicated issues they see in the world on evil forces like cisheteronormativity, the patriarchy, the Rothschilds, Whiteness, the Illuminati, systemic racism, or the Jews.

Wokeism can act both as a quirk of individual psychology and within a larger community. Communities like this thrive on groupthink and mob psychology, to their adherents constantly fired up. Detecting systemic racism in unlikely spots is a badge of honor for critical theory adherents, just as detecting a conspiracy in ordinary events establishes credibility among conspiracy theorists.

The woke critical theorists also share a feature with conspiracy theorists in that they can seem harmless and goofy most of the time, but have the potential to be dangerous when given power. Power is always dangerous, but responsible people may be humbled by the complexity of the world and difficulty of their job and might exercise some restraint. The woke, however, think that they know how the world works and who they need to destroy to reach utopia. This mentality drove both Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot, as they strove to “free their people” from the people their theories deemed to be oppressors.

Poster from the 1941 “Anti-Masonic” Exhibition in German-occupied Serbia. Approximately 11,000 of the 12,500 Jews in Serbia were murdered during the occupation.

There are, of course, prominent differences between Conspiracy Theory and critical theory. For example, because it developed in plain sight on the internet rather than tucked away in the academy, Conspiracy Theory is spoken about in mostly plain English. This makes it easier to try to talk about, while the strange and nebulous language of critical theory makes it very difficult to identify their circular logic.

If you try to argue logically or with data against the woke, they will typically tell you to “educate yourself” by watching really long conspiracy video or reading a dozen articles on Slate or Salon. The difference is we rarely see celebrities issue groveling apologies to Conspiracy Theorists and assurances that now they have “educated” themselves to the harm their words have done. In terms of culture and popular acceptance in different groups, Conspiracy Theory and critical theory are far away.

So can you be awake without being woke? You can distrust or oppose the government without believing every accusation levied against them just as you can oppose racism without believing every accusation of racism. But that means taking upon yourself the task of skeptically evaluating evidence for yourself. If that sounds exhausting, it is.

In a classical Persian poem, an unjust king asks a holy man, “what worship is greater than prayer?” The holy man says, “for you to remain asleep till the midday, that for this one interval you may not afflict mankind.” (Gulistan, Tale XII). If “wokeness” is to afflict mankind, then it might be better to go back to sleep.



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