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The rise of ‘woke’ culture: Lessons on the power of institutions

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We continue to see the ill effects of “cancel culture” and safetyism, whether through student-led riots and intimidation efforts at colleges and universities, the garden-variety intolerances of “woke capitalism,” or the self-destructive interventionism of “bulldozer parenting.”

As far as how it’s all come to be, we have explanations aplenty, from declines in religious life to the fraying of the social fabric to rises in political fragmentation and polarization.

In an essay at Heterodox Academy, Musa Al-Gharbi points to yet another: a robust intellectual movement of woke-ish thinkers and activists that has been slowly growing and spreading across institutions of higher learning (and beyond) for several generations.

Though it may seem as though terms like “intersectionality,” “safe spaces,” and “trigger warnings” are the modern inventions of millennial SJWs and their appeasers, the corresponding ideas (and actual vocabulary) have been around for some time.

“As it is with ‘social justice,’ ‘grievance studies,’ and ‘victimhood culture,’ so it is with most of the other buzzwords that have come to dominate discussions about institutions of higher learning in recent years,” Al-Gharbi explains. “…In short, literally none of this stuff is actually new…Perhaps George Santayana was right when he declared that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Al-Gharbi offers extensive detail on how these ideas have been developed over the years, stretching across various spheres, but taking particular prominence in higher education and among a specific set of cultural catechizers: professors, practitioners, lawyers, and activists.

“It was largely a grassroots campaign,” he explains. “It was very deliberate, but also decentralized — with actors from different backgrounds and interests, concerned with different causes, working different institutional levers — learning from, and building upon, the work of one-another over time.” This included a range of tactics, from “tenure lines, degree programs, and interdisciplinary centers” to training programs and curricula to entrenchment in particular disciplines (humanities departments, ed schools, and so on).

For Al-Gharbi, a professor at Columbia University, it’s a tale that helps explain the present phenomenon. But more importantly, it brings profound lessons on how cultural change actually happens, whatever the merits of one’s particular beliefs and ideas.

Unlike the typical political tricks we tend to resort to when seeking “cultural transformation,” institutional change takes time—often generations—as well as considerable effort, discipline, and perseverance:

Institutionalization is a process: By this I mean, there are no magic wands to create sweeping and durable institutional change. There were few revolutions. Instead, these approaches gained prominence gradually, through generations of advocacy and coalition building by scholars, practitioners and activists. These were campaigns that took focus, discipline and persistence in the face of consistent skepticism, dismissal and outright opposition. Those who wish to reform a complex system (like higher ed in the United States) must be prepared for a protracted campaign — punctuated by piecemeal gains (and occasional reversals) – rather than expecting some kind of total and imminent victory.

…It is a daunting task to meaningfully change the culture or operations of a complex system… such as the one comprised of various constellations of higher ed institutions in the United States. Yet for issues that many reformers are interested in today — like open inquiry or free expression — organizational culture will be the main target of any successful reform movement. As David French pointed out in a recent essay, the legal battle for free expression, etc. on campus has already been waged, and pretty decisively won, decades ago. If people don’t ‘feel’ free in institutions of higher learning today, this is primarily due to institutional or disciplinary culture and norms. And these, as I’ve explained elsewhere, cannot be effectively legislated.

It may be a daunting task, but put in a more optimistic light, we need not wait for political persons or powers to begin repairing what’s already been broken.

Indeed, when taken alongside another explanation for our present predicament—declines in religious and communal life—Al-Gharbi’s reminder brings extra clarity to the opportunities we have as Christians across culture and corresponding.

If we truly believe what we say we believe, we should have the confidence and resiliency to put it to the test—not simply through fleeting social media rants or top-down policy hacks or partisan advocacy or our own narrow versions of Christian victimhood, but rather through wise, faithful, generations-long institutional change.

Institutions matter—educational, communal, economic, and otherwise—and as we seek to bear our own distinctive witness to the issues and struggles of our day, we ought to sow the seeds of truth, freedom, and virtue accordingly.

Image: Villemard, À l’ École (Public Domain)

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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