In November 2022, Paul Viminitz, a professor in the philosophy department at the University of Lethbridge, invited me to give a talk on the threat “woke-ism” poses for academic freedom. After pressure mounted to cancel the talk, the president of the University of Lethbridge, Mike Mahon, proved my point by refusing to provide university space for the lecture because of the “harm” it would supposedly cause. This led me to try to give a “Speakers’ Corner” presentation in the Atrium – a large public space on campus. As I tried to do this, I was shouted down by several hundred students with signs stating slogans such as “RACISM IS NOT FREE SPEECH!”
This reaction was celebrated by a number of faculty members. Most surprising, however, was the public reaction of President Mahon. In response to this complete breakdown of open inquiry and critical thinking, President Mahon congratulated the students for their outrageous behaviour. In Mahon’s words: “Tonight’s events were a coming together of our community to show support for each other and a reflection of the values of the University of Lethbridge. I would like to express my sincere appreciation to our community members for conducting themselves in such a peaceful and powerful manner.”
The University of Lethbridge’s actions have prompted two important developments. The first is a lawsuit against the University claiming that the Charter Rights of Paul Viminitz, Jonah Pickle (a student who wanted to listen to my talk) and me were violated. Second, a discussion of the question of “Does ‘Woke ism’ Threaten Academic Freedom?” occurred at the Lethbridge Public Library on September 16, 2023.
To help develop a greater understanding of this issue, this article will present readers with an understanding of the arguments being advanced. Before discussing the threats involved, however, I will define what is meant by “woke-ism.”
What is Woke-ism?
In discussions about “woke-ism,” many people confess that they are not quite sure what it is. This is partly because the term is colloquial, and not academic, and so it is often used as a label to denigrate opponents.
Although references to the term often focus on how it is manifested, not what it is, I have worked to develop a succinct definition. “Woke-ism” is a kind of identity politics purporting to pursue social justice, which has become totalitarian. This means that instead of just creating space for identity politics – i.e. the idea that the “recognition” of oppressed identities leads to their empowerment – one is now expected to affirm and “celebrate” these identities. So, for example, instead of directing that there must be no discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community, there is now encouragement to put pronouns on email signatures (and punishment for criticizing this) and pressure to “support 2SLGBTQ+ individuals coming out.”
In the universities this began with the “postmodern turn” in the 1960s. Postmodernism is a reactionary force that uses relativism to attack the values of The Enlightenment. Objective truth is denied, and any claim to this is alleged to be a ploy to keep the position of those in power. Instead, subjective beliefs are prized, and standpoint epistemology is relied upon. The latter claims that what one knows is not decided by universally verifiable methods; instead, one’s “lived experience” and membership in a group declared to be oppressed are seen as important factors to consider when accepting subjective, emotionally driven “truth” claims as valid.
This denigration of reason, evidence, and logic enabled programs based on advocacy to gain a foothold in the university. These programs were not organized around subject areas such as history or chemistry but oriented towards an activist stance on the matters being investigated. Beginning with black and ethnic studies, which were then followed with women’s studies, queer studies, and disability studies, research and teaching were undertaken that started with the “correct” position for solving social problems, and then selected information to rationalize it. This was the opposite of scientific and scholarly approaches where any question could be investigated as long as a rigorous and transparent process was used in pursuing truthful answers.
At first, these programs occupied a marginal position in the academy, but changes in the wider society – the distortion of the anti-discrimination goals of the civil rights movement to embrace policies like affirmative action, for example – gradually resulted in the administrators offering more support to these “studies” programs. Various “centres” were then created to promote “diversity, inclusion, and equity” (DIE) and, as a result, identity politics pursuing “social justice” began to become the official position of the university. Instead of accepting that identity politics was just one position for understanding why certain groups were not proportionally represented in elite positions, it was demanded that the “world views” and “perspectives” of those claiming to be oppressed be promoted and incorporated into every aspect of academic institutions. Thus, advocacy replaced the search for objective truth.
How does “Woke-ism” Threaten Academic Freedom?
Demands by administrators that identities perceived to be oppressed be affirmed or even “celebrated,” while seeming to be an embodiment of “kindness,” pose a serious threat to academic freedom and scholarly standards. This is because academic freedom assumes that faculty members have autonomy to pursue any research question and follow the evidence wherever it leads. The result is researchers like Northwestern University’s Michael Bailey coming to heretical conclusions that biological males identifying as women tend to be either effeminate homosexuals or autogynophiles (men who become sexually aroused by thinking of themselves as women). This leads the “woke” to respond with calls for the cancellation and censorship of people who object to this kind of claim.
“Woke-ism”’s ring-fencing of ideas that are espoused by identities claiming to be oppressed, therefore, prevents an open and honest investigation and debating of research questions like those posed by scholars like Michael Bailey. Similarly, this can be seen in my issue with the University of Lethbridge, where giving my talk was opposed because, as asserted by the entire indigenous studies department, some faculty members “deplored” what was erroneously characterized as my “anti-Indigenous rhetoric.” My “wrong” answers included that I “denounced the TRC’s classification of the Residential School system as genocide and disputed the veracity of the unmarked graves of Indigenous children found at the sites of multiple former Residential School sites.”
The indigenous studies department’s opposition to my talk was directly related to the influence of “woke-ism.” These faculty members cited the University of Lethbridge’s official territorial land acknowledgement in support of their position: “We honour the Blackfoot [Siksika] people and their traditional ways of knowing in caring for this land, as well as all Indigenous Peoples who have helped shape and continue to strengthen our university community.” The department of Indigenous studies went on to claim that “This honoring [sic] must include a commitment from all faculty to ensure that Indigenous histories, cultures, memories, and lives, past and present, are represented faithfully, truthfully, and safely, on this campus.”
Referring to the words “truthfully” and “safely” in one sentence shows the contradictory nature of “woke-ism,” and its postmodern roots. If the truth must be represented “safely,” it is not truth at all. This problem can be seen most clearly in the current discussions about the Indian residential schools. As the “woke” position supports that Indigenous perspectives must be “respected” by forcing people to pretend that they are true, the view of “Knowledge Keepers” that 215 children are buried in clandestine graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School must not be questioned.
The problem, however, is such a belief is not supported by any forensic evidence and is highly unlikely to be true, in part because there is no parent claiming that a specific child is “missing.” As I have documented in two articles – “Billy Remembers” and “Relative Truths and Rent-Seeking” – the only “evidence” for this claim is the anomalies found by Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR). But GPR is not indicative of bodies, as has been clearly shown in the recent excavation of a church conducted by an Indigenous group in Manitoba. No remains were found even though several “Knowledge Keepers” believed that there were “kids in the basement.”
What is to be Done?
Critically discussing trans activism and the “unmarked graves” at former Indigenous residential schools are just two of the areas of inquiry that are obstructed by “woke-ism.” This means that the development of knowledge, the training of professionals like MDs, social workers, and teachers, and the ability of universities to be a bulwark against autocratic tendencies are being seriously compromised. Although members of the public who are disenchanted with Canadian universities may have a hard time seeing how this relates to them, they must recognize that freedom of expression and open inquiry are essential features of both universities and a democratic society.
Those recognizing the problem of “woke-ism” often focus on legal and bureaucratic changes to counteract it. Although these initiatives are important, they do not get to the heart of the matter, which is the cultural acceptance of suppressing unpopular ideas (a tendency that is also increasing in Canadian society more generally). This means that trying to increase oversight will only work if it occurs in the context of a public discussion aimed at changing our culture.
While my Charter challenge against the University of Lethbridge makes important legal arguments, it is the events exposing “woke-ism” that will have the most impact on what happens in the future. There needs to be much more effective organization, such as the development of local Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship chapters, to give strength to individuals who are trying to push back against the threats to academic freedom and open inquiry which are fundamental to both Canadian universities and society.
Pushing back, however, is very difficult because “woke-ism” uses the plight of the oppressed to justify its totalitarian agenda. People who would not normally go along with constraints on freedom of expression accept it if they think it will “prevent harm” and support the empowerment of the oppressed. This is then used by managers in universities and other institutions to clamp down on dissent and assert greater control over members of society.
People need to understand that the truth cannot be oppressive. In order to find solutions, we need to accurately understand the cause of problems, and “woke-ism” directly interferes with this process. There is, of course, a difference between discussing an idea, and deciding what should be done in response to hearing it. If it is true, for example, that no bodies of Indigenous school children are buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, or that some trans people are autogynophiles, will accepting this new information automatically result in a particular policy? With this new information, we could still, as Canadians, decide to settle Indigenous land claims or fund gender affirming care for trans people.
Opposition to “woke-ism” requires a broad coalition of individuals and groups who are principled in their support of freedom of expression, realizing its importance for both universities and democracy. This is impeded by references to “woke-ism” as a “left-wing” phenomenon, and the failure to recognize that socialists often support both freedom and equality, as was seen in the works of George Orwell. It is often not recognized that left-wing politics focuses on economic factors and accepts the objective character of class conflict, while “woke-ism” promotes the subjective feelings of boutique identities such as “two spirit,” “women of colour,” and “Black fat queer femmes” so that privileges can be demanded.
The point of “woke-ism” is not to challenge capitalism, but to reorder the “professional-managerial class” to increase representation of these identities in elite positions. This opportunism needs to be challenged, but the totalitarian tendencies of “woke-ism” suppress dissent and our ability to address the economic conditions that are at the roots of the serious existential problems that desperately need to be addressed.
Frances Widdowson is a political scientist whose firing from Mount Royal University is currently in arbitration. She is a Senior Fellow with the Frontier Centre and a Board Member of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship. Her research and activities are documented on the website www.wokeacademy.info.