Anti-Woke: From Outrage to Action
Suppose you want to provoke outrage about X. The media’s standard recipe is simple:
Step 1: Locate the most outrageous new example of X on Earth.
Step 2: Show everyone.
To say that this recipe is “prone to abuse” is a gross understatement. This recipe is abuse. The world is so huge that it contains at least one outrageous example of X for every noteworthy X. Which allows the media to spread outrage about anything that it wishes.
Once you grasp this recipe, the simplest defense is to stop paying attention. Alternately, you can watch dismissively, constantly telling yourself, “This shows diddly squat. The world is so huge that it contains at least one outrageous example of X for every noteworthy X.”
Over the years, I’ve strongly internalized these defenses. I’ve internalized them so strongly that I even use them when I’m sympathetic to the outrage. Most notably, though I’ve always held woke ideas in incredulous disdain, I spent years minimizing all of the outrageous stories about woke-run-amok that my friends kept posting on social media.
In 2020, however, I rapidly started to change my mind. Why? Because the outrageous events stopped merely being stories on the internet. I started to experience them first-hand. My friends started to experience them first-hand. And not just friends in academia. Multiple friends in totally apolitical jobs were suddenly required to endure woke brainwashing sessions (via Zoom, due to COVID), and ordered to start hiring primarily on the basis of race and gender.
I’m tempted to deny any personal responsibility. I followed the best procedures; they just didn’t work. But that lets me off too easy. I strongly believe in judging thinkers on their long-run track record, and I dropped the ball on this. I could have done better, and I shall try to do better. To make myself more useful. And I think I know how.
In hindsight, the early woke outrages were canaries in the coalmine. Publicizing them warned people of the problems to come. By now, publicizing woke outrages is a full-fledged genre. You could spend all day reading one after another.
Unfortunately, just seething about woke outrages - and urging others to seeth with you - accomplishes little. What can actually be done to better the situation?
Plenty. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. In fact, let me propose three ways.
Way #1: Deregulate discrimination.
Most of the power of wokeness, as I’ve already argued, stems from long-standing discrimination laws:
Imagine what would happen if a firm’s top brass loudly declared that, “Discrimination simply isn’t a problem here” – and routinely fired complainers for contradicting the party line. Picture a firm blanketed in propaganda telling workers to “Be color-blind,” “Laugh it off,” and “No one likes a tattle-tale.” A small business in a conservative area might get away with this for a few years, but a Fortune 500 company that stuck to its right-wing guns would go down in flames.
In principle, U.S. discrimination laws always allowed for the possibility that racial and gender success gaps stemmed from racial and gender performance gaps. In practice, however, discrimination laws were always a thinly-veiled threat against anyone who dared to measure performance gaps with an open mind. Which put the whole labor market on a regulatory slippery slope. How can you justify durable success gaps unless you can safely discuss the massive evidence in favor of durable performance gaps? After almost sixty years of discrimination laws, we’ve slipped all the way to our Orwellian world where racial and gender discrimination are close to mandatory.
If this diagnosis is right, the straightforward remedy is to repeal discrimination laws. Just declare victory over racism and sexism, and deregulate. If that’s politically impossible, how about just weakening them? I remain a fan of my own proposal to carve out a political speech exception to discrimination laws. Along the lines of:
Political speech by employers or employees, on or off the job, shall never be considered a form or indicator of “discrimination.” “Political speech” includes the expression of any allegedly racist or sexist views.
Way #2: Deregulate hostile takeovers.
I know that many readers worry about “woke capital,” and will insist that business will remain woke regardless of the laws. At minimum, this is exaggerated. Some business leaders are woke fanatics, but most aren’t. Either way, though, such fears highlight another concrete measure to make business apolitical again: deregulation of hostile corporate takeovers. As I recently explained:
What the world needs is a way to dislodge managers who sacrifice profit for woke prestige without waiting around for them to kill their own companies. A way to swiftly detach the parasite from the host while he’s still fundamentally healthy.
Wishful thinking? No. In theory, there is a simple way to remove subpar managers from any publicly-traded company: the hostile takeover. The classic version is just to buy 50%+1 of a firm’s stock, walk into the next board meeting, and fire the leadership en masse…
[E]xisting regulations strangle hostile takeovers - a veritable death by a thousand cuts. The Williams Act, for example, forces would-be corporate “raiders” to publicly disclose their intentions in advance. This prevents the raiders from actually capturing much of the gain of the takeover. The classic strategy of quietly buying up shares, then summarily firing the current management, is off the table.
Anti-woke critics rejoice when woke firms go bankrupt. As the slogan says, “Go woke, go broke.” But that’s hardly fair to innocent shareholders, and takes a really long time. Deregulating takeovers is a big improvement. Instead of waiting for woke managers to slowly drive their firms into the ground, corporate raiders charge in and save the day.
How? Raiders find a publicly-traded firm pursuing an ideologically-driven business strategy contrary to shareholder interests. Then then buy enough shares to get majority control. Once they hit this target, they fire the managers who are putting their political agenda ahead of shareholder interests:
Historically, most scholars thought that incumbent managers wanted to hobble corporate takeovers so they could “enjoy the quiet life.” The threat of a hostile takeover prevents the leaders of publicly-traded firms from resting on their laurels. The logic remains the same, however, when managers’ breach of fiduciary duty stems not from sloth but from fanaticism. We need old-fashioned greedy capital to save us from woke capital.
Way #3: School choice.
School choice probably won’t dramatically increase test scores, because most parents don’t care that much about test scores. But choice is great at doing whatever parents do care about. During COVID, choice kept schools open, because parents craved daycare. Since a lot of parents are angry about woke indoctrination, we should be similarly confident that choice will dramatically slash that, too. If we’re lucky, this will reduce the wokeness of the next generation. It will definitely reduce the employment options for woke preachers. Even if all of the effects are transient, protecting innocent children from tiresome brainwashing is an end in itself.
I’m confident that deregulating discrimination, deregulating takeovers, and adopting school choice would turn wokeness into a pathetic shell of its current self. To be honest, though, I’ve been wrong before. My deeper point is that wallowing in anti-woke outrage, though perversely fun for some, is only a first step. We need concrete, thoughtful policy changes ASAP, before we learn to take these evils for granted.
Another good step would be defunding universities which are influencing America's smart young people. If you don't subsidize loans, then maybe social justice majors would receive higher interest rates and it would serve as a financial disincentive.
#1 (deregulate discrimination) is premature but probably the long-term solution.
#2 (deregulate hostile takeovers) seems a non-starter in the current regulatory environment. Maybe one day.
#3 (school choice) is viable but perhaps the least effective. But we need it anyway, so it's worth fighting for.
Going from what I hear from my university-aged son (U Florida) and his friends, the next generation is going to swing hard to the right, or at least against wokeness. The backlash in that generation will be astounding (and perhaps harmful in new ways). College students are NOT swallowing the Kool-Aid. There's just nothing they can do about it . Yet.