Most “cancel culture” stories are brutal and alarming. It seems no one is safe from the threat of a mob intent on taking a person down: not acclaimed editors, not professors, not poets nor promising politicians nor regular college kids. It’s my hope this story will provide encouragement that it’s possible to withstand the mob. But you might have to learn how to fight fire with fire.
My husband and I co-founded a non-profit organization in 2010. At the time, we knew nothing about the woke ideology called Critical Theory (or sometimes “critical social justice”). Our motivation was to address disparities in mental health care. We had learned that lay people (without clinical training) made up the majority of trauma care providers working with vulnerable populations such as refugees and human trafficking survivors around the world. We wanted to help equip those lay care providers with good resources for increasing mental and emotional resilience in their communities.
We hired clinically-trained mental health professionals to develop our curriculum, oversee Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning, and run the international training program. The organization saw great success in our first seven years. We received accolades from all the right people in academia and the non-profit world, and we partnered with international and grass-roots organizations working with survivors of trauma in more than 50 countries.
Then a few years ago, we became aware of a gradual but marked shift in tone among our program team. My husband, who serves as Executive Director, felt he was always on trial with his own staff. These were people we respected and admired who had done great work with the organization for years. My husband had once related to these people with familiarity and ease. Now, he couldn’t fathom team members’ hypercritical posture towards “norms” or understand their impenetrable rhetoric.
As a volunteer for the organization, I was often around the staff and became accustomed to their phraseology. It included frequent use of terms like “systems of power and oppression,” “hegemony,” “marginalized identities,” “intersections,” “centering,” “deconstruct,” “knowledges,” and “normativity.” I didn’t understand the ideology behind it, so I started what turned into a deep-dive research project.
Meanwhile, the open letters began. The letters were always directed to everyone in the organization from the graphic designer to the governing board, always asserted vaguely that the organization was “causing harm,” and always ended with demands. We were alarmed and confused.
We initiated all-organization sessions, sometimes moderated by our board chair, sometimes with a third-party professional mediator, trying to discern what was happening and what was needed. I later came to understand these meetings were essentially “struggle sessions,” as in the Maoist tradition.
But even at the time, it soon became apparent there were no specific actions or incidents that could be deemed harmful. The accusations remained vague and abstract, demanding as means of atonement that the organization examine “systems” in order to protect “vulnerable identities.”
Still attempting to uncover any real abuses that could be occurring, my husband met individually with team members to assess whether anyone had experienced mistreatment. No team member could identify any incident that would require further inquiry.
What also became apparent was the accusers didn’t want to resolve any real or imagined harm. They wanted control of the organization. Not understanding board governance, they demanded that the head of the program staff replace the Executive Director as a voting member of the board. They reasoned that because the Executive Director was straight, white, male, and Christian, he was unqualified to lead an organization addressing trauma.
That’s when I learned to fight.
At this point, I’d been doing my homework for a while and understood these assaults to be the fruit of a social justice ideology derived from Critical Theory. I had discovered Neil Shenvi’s blog, with thorough reviews of Theory’s original source documents. I also found James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose’s Cynical Theories, and Lindsay’s blog, New Discourses, full of resources for understanding Theory and tactics for exposing its inconsistencies. I knew what we were facing was an attempted subversion of the organization through threatening ultimatums, character smearing, and forced transfer of power.
We were committed on principle to seeing the conflict to its end, so rather than fire the subversive lot, we aimed to expose their holy texts as deficient. We hoped they would recognize that adhering to Theory is indistinguishable from cultish zeal. I wrote position papers on how Critical Theory compromised our mission by conflicting with a number of our organizational commitments—including being evidence-based, valuing the individual, practicing cultural humility, and allowing for true diversity. These papers were distributed to team members as required reading ahead of scheduled “struggle sessions.”
I also learned to fight fire with fire by using their woke moral code against them. When a staff member said I couldn’t speak to a topic because I’m straight, I told her it was wrong to assume about my sexuality just because I’m married to a man. She immediately groveled.
Incredibly, when staff members were forced to concede some of their demands were contrary to the best mental health research, they persisted, claiming “deep personal conviction” as their justification. These were professionals with clinical training and advanced degrees from respected institutions. It was disheartening. At this point it was evident there was no good-faith dialogue to be had. We were dealing with ideological devotion rather than a commitment to seeking truth.
After some months, when it was clear to them we wouldn’t budge, the ones making demands left “on moral grounds,” with parting emails accusing us of multiple phobias and labeling the organization “white supremacist.” Never mind that we’ve always partnered with people of every ethnicity, creed, and identity. In refusing their terms, we had forfeited our right to be regarded as decent human beings. In truth, it was the most dehumanizing experience of my life. I already stood accused due to my immutable traits—white, straight, cisgendered, Christian. By not acquiescing to their moral code and demands, I was anathema.
No Pain, No Gain
Having survived an attempted power grab and character assassination by a Woke mob, I’ll attest: it’s painful. It especially hurts if the mob includes people you once trusted. But if you care more about maintaining your integrity than what people think or say about you, you’ll emerge with your dignity intact.
Don’t apologize or defend yourself against vague accusations of “harm.” An apology when you’ve done nothing wrong is a lie. It will only further convince your accusers their delusions are reality. They don’t want dialogue; they want compliance. Nor will you defeat them in logical debate: Theory rejects objective truth.
Instead, attempt to show the inconsistencies between their demands and what they claim to care about (e.g., the poor). It will require some research on your part to prove you really do understand Theory, and you repudiate it as insufficient to the work of bettering the world. You’ll acquire a thick skin, as you will be called nasty names.
If you don’t fight this nonsense now, wherever it’s showing up in your community, soon there will be nothing good, true, or beautiful to defend. We will be ruled by lies and power while being told we’re progressing toward truth and justice. We’re in an open war, ideologically speaking. There is no “safe” any more for people of good conscience. Choose which kind of “unsafe” you can abide. Fighting lies is always preferable to being ruled by them. I believe the truth will prevail.
The American Mind