• Jim Kelly

Is your workplace getting too woke? How to speak up.

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

"Thank goodness you're out there saying these things. I wish I could speak up, but I can't afford to be fired."

Public speakers on the traditional center--the Douglas Murrays and the Dave Rubens--report hearing this over and over again from their listeners, just because they're still saying things that everyone believed five minutes ago: We should evaluate each other based our accomplishments rather than our skin color. Women and men are different. Reason, evidence and debate are the best way to work through our disagreements.

Millions of people have stopped saying these things, even if they haven't stopped believing them, because our employers are pushing us to become more woke. Companies everywhere are devoting themselves to social justice: hiring diversity executives, skewing hiring processes to increase diversity, and requiring employees take training to correct their implicit biases. We feel a tension between wokeism and our traditional values, even if we can't quite pin down where the conflict lies.

But what has people genuinely alarmed is the sense of taboo. It suddenly feels unsafe to talk about meritocracy--the value of accomplishments, the role of high expectations and honest feedback in professional development, and one's freedom--and therefore responsibility--to create one's own successes and learn from one's failures. The social justice movement would have us accept those values are racist and have to go, but for millions of us that's a little too glib, and it's not clear what we're supposed to value instead. Did we miss the meeting where all these questions were hashed out?

Moreover if you value meritocracy as an ideal, you understand how important it is. We want to get good at our jobs, both to advance our own careers and to make a genuinely positive impact on the people around us. We want to work with capable teammates who are likewise good at their jobs and getting better all the time. All of us need clear, honest signals about what we're doing well or poorly, both in everyday interactions and in high stakes matters like hiring and promotions. If those signals start trying to take account of historic injustices, how do we make sense of them? And how does society function if the career success of the electrician or the doctor or the teacher depend on something other than how well they do wiring or surgery or teaching?

If you're one of those people quietly cheering on anti-woke dissidents but scared to speak up yourself, here's what you need to know.

You're not crazy

If you sense tension between wokeism and traditional values, you aren't hallucinating.

Western civilization flourished during the past few centuries under a set of classical liberal values most of us absorbed in childhood and took for granted. Individual rights, freedoms, and responsibilities. Earning one another's respect--or disrespect--based on our actions, not our gender, our skin color or the injustices of our ancestors. Working out our differences through reason and debate.

Millions of us imagined we still had a consensus about those values. So we're disoriented and concerned to see so many institutions throwing their weight behind race- and gender-based concepts of fairness. Without any debate or, seemingly, any dissent. Didn't we all agree we should judge each other on the content of our character rather than the color of our skin? Yet now we're talking about how we can get more black people--never mind who, exactly---through our hiring pipeline. Did black people become interchangeable? How can a question that seems so easy to answer suddenly feel dangerous to ask?

You live in the trenches of a war between philosophies. Wokeism is an attack on liberalism's foundation. It recognizes the group rather than the individual as the primary moral actor. It emphasizes relativism over objective truth. And it focuses on power relationships rather than reason as de facto way we settle our differences.

If it seems like wokeism is winning the war, it isn't, it just has strong opening moves. It uses a clever exploit to win converts from liberalism without having to debate its ideas: artfully vague, morally loaded language--terms that are never defined, goals that are only hinted at.

Woke causes--diversity, inclusion, equity--sound like admirable ideals that only a knave would object to. You're against equity? What would you prefer, inequity? The ambiguous language doesn't overcome objections, it shames people into not raising them to begin with. That turns out to be pretty effective.

Although the liberal might perceive this tactic as sneaky, to the philosopher of wokeism it's perfectly legitimate. No one fully agrees what any words mean, so vague language is not just okay but inevitable. And reasoned debate, he would say, is liberalism fooling itself. Regardless of what is said, decisions will be made by powerful groups and imposed on powerless groups. The moral course is not to debate but to recognize power imbalances and act to level them. If shaming you into silence helps do that, well, you're getting off easy considering your life of privilege.

Language is wokeism's super power but also its kryptonite. Once you see how the unspoken ideas and barbed terms foreclose debate, you understand what keeps wokeism aloft and why no one is asking questions about it. And you have the key to reasserting your own values, without getting fired.

Management cares less than it appears

Companies are hard to run. The people running yours have a million things on their minds, principally how to keep customers happy and revenue coming in and paychecks going out. The CEO doesn't have time to care how woke you are.

But management does want to keep employees happy. Good employees are hard to find, an investment to train, and expensive to replace. So if woke policies are popular among employees and not too expensive, management is likely to support them.

Diversity programs have taken over corporate America because from the CEO's chair they look like good business. Every other company he sees is doing them and marketing them aggressively. The HR director assures him they're a best practice in the industry. A few activist employees are screaming for the company to do more of them. And whenever they launch a new one, not a single employee complains or even asks a question.

Given all that, paying a few grand to a consultant to run workshops on systemic racism or whatever seems a no-brainer, wouldn't you agree?

Don't read your company's diversity programs as proof of the CEO's woke zeal and assume you have to stifle any dissent. Your CEO probably cares more about your job satisfaction than your conformity. To assume the opposite might sell both of you short.

Don't attack. Don't argue. Just clarify.

Wokeness has an academic pedigree that goes back decades. If you've absorbed critiques of Marxism and postmodernism and critical theory, you'll recognize those strains of thought in the diversity movement and be able to raise terrific arguments.

But don't, because woke programs don't run on arguments. They run on language perfected to create both a moral imperative to act and a sense of taboo from asking questions. Which means even the advocates can't define the terms precisely. Getting to clear definitions would take a great deal of discussion and reflection and would strain the rapport of even close colleagues.

You can't talk about abstract concepts at work, because people just don't have the time. The people in your HR department implementing the programs are well-intentioned professionals who have probably never read any Foucault or Derrida. But they agree with their colleagues that inclusion and equity sound like good things to encourage, they know they're an industry best practice, and they've been part of similar rollouts in three previous companies.

None of those rollouts gave them much practice defending woke ideas, because nobody ever pushes back. If you argue with them, they won't have good answers prepared. If you do it in public, they will try to shut you down because you're disrupting their project. You will get a reputation as a troublemaker. And that is something the CEO will care about.

But you don't have to attack, and you don't have to win an argument. You just have to break the taboo and create the space for your coworkers to ask questions too.

So you must ask questions. You must ask them publicly where your coworkers can see. And therefore you must keep the tone conspicuously reasonable.

Fortunately that's easy, just listen for vagueness. "Increase diversity" doesn't necessarily mean "hire more black people," and odds are no one will quite say that, but it will be implied. The rationale will be only implied--to right historical injustice, or because teams with black people get more done, or something else? Whereas most of your company's programs will have measurable goals, diversity programs will only hint at goals, perhaps because they expect to expand forever. Listen for euphemistic language. Is "address systemic inequities within the company" a euphemism for "you white people are racist" or did I miss another interpretation?

Then ask a clarifying question. Pick something that wasn't quite said but wasn't quite unsaid, rephrase what you thought you heard in clearer terms, and ask if you heard it right. Ask about implementation. Ask what success looks like. For example:

  • Are we trying to get a diversity of ideas or a diversity of demographic groups?

  • Are any parts of the company sufficiently diverse now?

  • When do we expect the company to meet its diversity goals?

  • Are we saying we'll now be treating people differently based on their skin color?

  • What dimensions of diversity matter?

  • "Inclusion" sounds like it means inviting more people to more meetings, which I can't imagine anyone wants. If that's not what it means, what does it mean?

  • Do we care if the staff has a sharp political bias?

  • If we're saying we don't have enough employees from group X, that implies we have too many from group Y, doesn't it? Is that what we're saying?

  • Our employee culture seems to be on the political left, to the point where I often see people not realizing when they're saying something controversial. Do we know if employees of a different political slant are being quietly alienated?

  • If we're making special efforts to hire and promote people from group X, are we stigmatizing them professionally, either in everyone else's eyes or in their own? How do we know?

  • If we're training employees to be more sensitive to the special needs of group X, it sounds like we're saying employees haven't developed good social skills with people of a variety of backgrounds, or group X is unusually touchy. Are either of those what we're saying?

  • Will considerations like equity inform performance reviews and promotion decisions?

  • Generally when we need more people of background X to achieve a company goal, we offer them more money. And whether we like it or not, we have to bid high enough to attract the numbers we need. Are we planning to pay people from these desired groups differently?

Questions like these are on the one hand so benign that no one can argue you should be fired for uttering one. But they're powerful enough to show wokeness papering over many contradictions, awkward tradeoffs, and illiberal ideas.

They're also powerful enough to put your HR rep on her back foot, so wield them gently. You will not get clear answers, because there are none. Instead she will try to smooth the paper back in place. When you ask "It sounds like we're saying X. Are we saying X?" expect the answer "No, we're not quite saying that, because it's complicated..."

At that point let your HR colleague off the hook. She won't have a way to clarify the ideas, and it's counterproductive to score points off her. You win when your coworkers see you calling woke ideas into the light without your head rolling through the cubicles.

Assert your personal boundaries

The workplace is ultimately a web of relationships, and a relationship is an ongoing negotiation. To keep it healthy you have to defend your own boundaries, because you will meet people who may not intend to violate them but don't know where they lie.

Millions of us sense wokeness infringing what we regard as legitimate boundaries. We're tired of being called racist and sexist. We sense we're being bullied into apologizing for "privileges" such as being white, and into patronizing our black colleagues by casting them as disadvantaged and delicate and denying them full ownership of their successes and failures. We chafe at pressure to pretend to believe things we haven't been persuaded of.

We dislike the gaslighting euphemisms within which wokeness smuggles these demands, maneuvering us to at once hear them and pretend not to hear them. And we're alarmed that our employers, who hold our paychecks vulnerable, are straying beyond our professional relationship into diagnosing our problematic thoughts and reprogramming our social skills.

If your boundaries are being violated, reassert them. Politely and firmly make clear what you're experiencing and how it falls short of your needs. For example:

  • I'm a member of group X that this program seeks to help, and I feel a bit mortified that you're telling my coworkers that people like me need this special treatment. I'd prefer to be judged by the same standards as them.

  • This implicit bias training feels like a shaming tactic. If you think I'm doing something wrong, I'd much prefer you say so explicitly.

  • It seems like we're biasing our recruiting/hiring process based on people's skin color. That goes against my values, so I'm not comfortable taking part.

  • I'm open to the idea that I'm "racist" or "fragile." After listening a while, I still haven't heard any substantiation for those charges, and what I am hearing is simple name-calling. So thank you for the feedback. I'm going back to work now.

Recognize your privilege

There is much to like in the woke vision of a culture where diverse ideas are welcomed and everyone feels included and appreciated. But wokeism is clumsy and ironically creates just the opposite: large numbers of people who feel bullied, stifled, and alienated. Companies are clumsy too, and often follow fads that prove unproductive. The social justice fad will inevitably find its way to the back of the corporate imperative closet, but not before employees muster the courage to speak up for their values.

If you feel you're the victim of woke culture taking over your workplace, that's the first line you need to draw. Don't accept the victim status. What are you doing, waiting for HR to recognize you as a special marginalized group?

Instead, recognize office culture is just the sum of the values each of us brings to the office. If you dislike the encroaching woke culture, change what you're contributing to the culture. You don't have to start a war, just share your own values. Commit the microaggression of asking for clarification, and see if those are as powerful as you've heard. To suppress yourself is to contribute to the problem, withholding exactly what your coworkers need to correct course.

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