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Culture War Roundup for the week of October 17, 2022

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How do wokes/social constructionists/etc reconcile their views with the actual state of scientific knowledge or even basic logic? It seems clear to me that if one accepts genetics and evolutionary principles, it necessarily implies that 1: humans have a nature that is determined in large part by our genetics and 2: humans and human societies undergo selection on both an individual and group level. We've known for a long time now that intelligence, mental health and a whole bunch of other traits relating to ability and personality are very heavily influenced by genetics, and it's perfectly logical this could lead to differences in outcomes on an individual as well as population level.

However this gets dismissed away with a lot of spurious reasoning (which is usually presented with a huge amount of nose-thumbing and "Scientists say..." type wording in order to scare the reader into not questioning it). As an example, the whole "races can't be easily delineated, there's no gene specific to any race, and there's more variation within races than between them" argument seems to be a poor attempt at deflection and simply doesn't hold up as a method of dismissing population-level differences. Just because races can't be easily delineated does not mean that race is a "social construct" - race might not be discrete, but it is a real physical entity with roots in biology and just because there's no clear dividing lines which can be drawn doesn't exclude the fact that if you do decide to draw these lines it's entirely possible you'd find differences which exist. None of what's said is inconsistent with the idea of innate variations in intelligence and ability that roughly correlate with observable phenotypic traits. All it takes is for the frequency of specific alleles which code for these traits to be unequally distributed, and you'll find aggregate differences. But the way it's presented exists to mislead people into thinking that the continuum-like nature of genetic differences means that these differences or even the concept of race itself as a biological entity is not something that one should even entertain.

There is also another level to this denial of evolutionary principles that extends far beyond genetics, however. Many of these people also seem to think that social norms themselves are arbitrary vagaries of specific historical circumstances, rather than being adaptive practices which were selected for through the process of survival-of-the-fittest. This view fails to account for many commonalities among civilisations, one of the clear ones being religion (one of the favourite woke whipping horses out there). Not only is religion completely ubiquitous in pre-modern society, you can generally see a shift from animist-type religions in tribal societies to the more developed and organised forms of religion mostly predominant in societies that achieve "civilisation" status. This clearly seems to suggest that religious dictates don't simply arbitrarily drop out of the sky - it indicates that some form of selection was occurring and that societies that adopted certain religions had an advantage. Even more than this, these "successful" religions that are common in civilisations share quite a few similarities in their dictates - selflessness, self-discipline, abstinence, etc.

I'm no religious nut - I'm quite atheist, but religion is a social technology that exists so that large-scale societies can remain cohesive and retain a shared moral foundation, and I would call it a good thing overall (and yes, my perspective often pisses off both religious people and atheists). However this is never properly engaged with by the orthodoxy outside of "yeah people facing hardship make up bullshit to make sense of the world, it's got no validity or use outside of that". Such stock explanations that handwave away traditional social norms (at least, those which contradict the woke moral system and outlook) as being functionless at best and damaging at worst are painfully common, despite many of these social norms being absolutely everywhere up until recently.

Among the supposedly educated any discussion of these topics through these non-approved lenses tends to invoke accusations of "social Darwinism" with the implication that applying any kind of evolutionary logic to humans and human societies is invalid because it could be used to justify Bad Things. This is all consequentialist reasoning which has no bearing on the truth of the claim itself, and lumping in all kinds of belief systems under the same category is a very clear composition fallacy which is clearly done to tar every single idea contained within its bounds with the same brush.

More than this, despite these people being very intent on portraying themselves as secular, scientific people, their viewpoints clearly are in conflict with any kind of scientific understanding and come off to me as being borderline superstitious. In order to strongly believe that insights from genetics and evolution can't be applied to human behaviour and that humans do not come programmed with specific predispositions that depend on what you've inherited, you have to believe in metaphysical, dualist ideas of the mind which are essentially detached from anything physical that could be affected by genetics. Once you adopt a view of the human mind as a physical entity the shape of which is determined by the specifications of genetic instructions, it opens up that whole Darwinian can of worms and everything that stems from it, and many wokes simply do not want to acknowledge the possibility that it could have any amount of validity. Unless they're able to maintain an absolutely unreal amount of cognitive dissonance, I'm unsure how their ideas can be anything but superstitious.

It's even worse when it comes to their idea of social norms as something that just drop out of the sky and persist and propagate over the long term regardless of the adaptiveness of these norms, since there is clearly nothing controversial about the idea that societies compete against each other, and this will tend to select for those norms that promote functioning (which is why you find common threads). But you still come across this type of knee-jerk denial nevertheless. Regardless of how well-read they may be, their reasoning remains fundamentally sloppy, and I'm unsure how they manage to square this circle.

I second @Nantafiria in admonishing you to take this question to a forum which is not so unanimously “anti-woke” as this one; it’s not that you’re not going to get any insightful answers at all here, but rather that you’re not going to get any insight into what wokeness feels like from the inside, which seems to be what you’re asking for.

That being said, I’m going to give you my best attempt to describe what an actual “woke” (fair warning, I’m going to continue to put this word in scare quotes, because I believe that it’s intentionally under-defined and contains several motte-and-bailey imprecisions which are designed to be exploited) person thinks about when pondering the kinds of issues you’re asking about. Depending on which definition of “woke” you have in mind, I would have qualified as “woke” when I was in college a decade ago. I was exposed to many of these ideas several years before they exploded onto the mainstream, so I feel like I was exposed to a purer version of them, less adulterated and packaged for consumption by the general public than the strains of “wokeness” we see now.

The most important through-line connecting the various strains of “wokeness” is a belief in the centrality of power relations to every aspect of human life and society in a post-agricultural world. In the Marxist-Hegelian telling, the primordial state of humanity - what we would call the hunter-gatherer model of society - was profoundly egalitarian and non-hierarchical; every person was expected to contribute to the collective good in an amount commensurate with his or her ability to do so, and everyone understood the importance of providing for those members of society who could not “pull their own weight” - children, the elderly, the infirm/disabled, etc.

It wasn’t until the advent of agriculture that human societies began to be plagued by the twin evils of surplus and centralized political institutions, which produced a class of rent-seeking parasitic elites who could hoard surplus resources for themselves. This class had to overcome the perception of their own illegitimacy which would have been viscerally felt by all of the vast majority of people who were not members of that class; in order to defuse and redirect that resentment, that class of rent-seekers must have been incredibly adept at narrative-weaving - in creating powerful narratives which legitimated their privileged position. Priest-craft was certainly integral to that narrative-weaving, as was a sophisticated network of power-brokerage in which the privileged class could utilize leverage and patronage to play various factions of society against each other.

Why else would the mass of society, dispossessed by these rent-seekers, and having a vague pre-conscious ancestral memory of the idyllic egalitarian before-times, not simply rise up against these pathetic elites and reclaim their birthright? The fact that they didn’t is a powerful testament to the centrality and potency of narrative - specifically, elite-crafted narratives which legitimate hierarchy, inequality, and state power - in human society.

Hegel even talks explicitly in strangely religious, post-Christian terms about this. He references the metaphor of the Garden of Eden and the Fall, and he subverts this metaphor by saying that there is no literal god or Eden, but that this allegory actually represents the way that humanity was robbed of its idyllic anarcho-primitivist birthright by the advent of inegalitarian states. For Hegel, and subsequently for Marx in an attenuated and less explicitly religious sense, the teleological goal of humanity is to reclaim that birthright: to rebuild Eden, to dismantle the unjust structures who took it from us against our will by weaving webs of lies and cynical narratives.

So, you have an ideology to which the following axioms are central: 1. Hierarchical and unequal power relations are a (contingent) fact of human society; 2. The inherent injustice of those power relations is masked by self-serving narratives created and propagated by the class of individuals who benefit from those unequal power relations; 3. Some of those individuals may be intentionally creating and manipulating those narratives, but the majority of the individuals in the privileged class simply imbibe and repeat those narratives without investigating the truth value of those narratives, since to do so would be to risk delegitimizing the structures that allow their lifestyle to persist; 4. The only way to dismantle these unjust structural power relations - short of mass revolutionary violence, anyway - is to rhetorically deconstruct, attack, dismantle, and replace the legitimating narratives. You must first identify what those narratives are, which means you must constantly be vigilant against them. This vigilance sometimes requires a great deal of sophistication, because the narratives themselves are so sophisticated and are protected by a network of legitimating institutions which grant the narratives the armor of their support.

So, let’s look at discussions about race through that lens. First off, we have a clear example of a form of social capital which some people have and others don’t; those who have it enjoy a position of rent-seeking privilege, while those who don’t are barred from the privileged class and suffer accordingly. The social currency in question is whiteness. (Or, if you want to get even more sophisticated and up-to-date, you might even say “not-blackness”, as many black post-Marxists - see Charles Blow’s recent op-ed about the Nury Martinez debacle in Los Angeles for an example - predict the rise of a form of “lite supremacy” in which the racially privileged caste will continue to expand to encompass Asians, Latinos without significant African ancestry, and any other group that isn’t Black.)

Now that you’ve identified the vector along which this particular dynamic of unequal hierarchy is constructed, you then have to ferret out the narrative that people have internalized in order to legitimate that narrative. Remember: the default primordial state of humanity is egalitarian and does not recognize hierarchical distinctions between individuals, so any time you identify a hierarchy, there must, by definition, be a narrative preventing people from seeing it and instinctively revolting against it. So, what’s the narrative legitimating racial inequality? And, more importantly, what are the institutions that are propping that narrative up by granting it the imprimatur of their support?

The narrative, of course, is that this inequality is inevitable due to some inherent difference between classes of people, and any attempts to rectify this inequality will fail because it’s built-in. Big surprise there - this is the exact same form that every other hierarchy-legitimating narrative takes. The convenience of this narrative for the class of people benefiting from it is manifestly obvious and impossible to miss. How wonderful for you, the possessor of the social capital whiteness, that you just happen to be in the “biologically superior” caste, and there’s nothing we can ever do to change that, because the subaltern caste is just inherently worse than you. Nothing more to see here, folks, now get back to toiling and suffering while whitey hoards the fruit of your misery.

What’s the legitimating institution that protects this narrative? Well, it used to be the church. Their narrative was something like “God cursed Noah’s son Ham for looking upon his father’s nakedness, and now the descendants of Ham carry that ancestral curse which has made them natural slaves to the descendants of Japheth and Shem. It is God’s will, nothing we can do about it.” Or, at other times, instead of the descendants of Ham, blacks were said to bear the Mark of Cain, but the effect was the same. Well, we eventually deconstructed and delegitimated that particular narrative, and the institution which legitimated it now bears only a fraction of the power it once held; very few people uncritically internalize narratives propagated by churches anymore, at least not ones that contradict egalitarianism. So, the privileged caste needed to find a replacement institution to pass the narrative baton to, and they needed to do it in a hurry. Well, conveniently, the institution of Science™️ was there to step into the breach.

Science™️ is a very slick and effective power-legitimating institution, partly because it superficially seems to act in opposition to the old, defeated institutions such as the Church, and partially because it is so good at presenting itself as Objective and Narrative-Free. Once the proto-Marxists (the Enlightenment thinkers) showed up and dealt a knock-out blow to the Church, they had to then be co-opted by a narrative that allowed them to enter the privileged caste! Good lord, power-legitimating narratives are memetically powerful and infinitely-malleable, which is why we have to work so damn hard to relentlessly sniff them out. Now, the practitioners of Science™️ had obtained a form of social capital called Knowledge, and this allowed them to speak authoritatively and to, once again, intimidate the disempowered masses into submission. Do what you’re told, plebs, the Knowers have decreed that inequality is inevitable because some people are naturally worse than others. Conveniently, we the Knowers look and sound very similar to the guys who previously told you that their privilege is natural. Hell, in many cases they’re literally the same guys! But, nothing we can do about it. God - er, sorry, Science - made it this way. Get back to work!

Even if some of what the scientists are saying has some factual basis, that doesn’t excuse the fact that they are helping to once again lend legitimacy to the eternal narrative that powerful privileged people deserve their power. Our most important goal is to defeat that narrative. Everything else is secondary.