The New Front in the Culture Wars: Wokes vs. Liberals

Who could have predicted it? Liberals are losing the culture war. But not to conservatives. According to the woke narrative, the old “liberal vs conservative” battle line, as least as it applies to race, has morphed into “wokes vs white supremacists.” That reframing certainly serves woke interests. In today’s USA, if you can scarlet anyone who disagrees with you as a white supremacist, you win. Unfortunately for the wokes, the real 2020 front in the culture war on race is not “wokes vs white supremacists” but “wokes vs liberals” (with white supremacists as a group that is marginal but hot in the media because it’s politically useful to all sides).

To a careless observer, the wokes may seem a natural extension of last generation’s liberals, but make no mistake: their world views are oppositional (at least on issues of identity). The old liberal values (pro free speech for multiple inputs and less racialization in our value judgments about people) are incompatible with woke values (stifle dissent and emphatically racialize value judgments about people and interactions). And the wokes are winning in university administrations and practices, where e.g. universities are placating the woke by going back to racially segregated housing, in newsrooms and online media, with the New York Times just the tip of the fallen iceberg, and to a lesser extent in the corporate hiring and training practices, and most obviously in museums and the arts, where the skin color of the artist often weighs more heavily with curators than the art itself.

So I’ll be curious to see where we go, now that Biden is in and the glue holding wokes and liberals together (fear of Trump) is dissolving. I would agree with the wokes that “liberal vs conservative” is no longer a viable defining line on race (though it still works on many other topics), but I disagree with their self-serving replacement (“wokes vs white supremacists”). It is more accurately “woke vs liberal” views on race. In this respect, for the past couple of decades, even many people who are otherwise conservative share the “liberal” view on race as I have defined it (pro free speech for multiple inputs and less racialization in our value judgments about people) and recoil at the racial essentialism of the wokes. Very few people today, on any end of the spectrum, would say that racial equality is not a valid goal. How and how much do we attend to that goal is what the fighting is all about.

Thus I come back to my thesis: The real 2020 front in the culture war on race is not “wokes vs white supremacists” but “wokes vs liberals” (with white supremacists as a group that is marginal but hot in the media).  Do we want to see less racialization in our value judgments about people (liberal) or more racialization of our value judgments about people (woke)? Be careful how you answer, especially if you are an educator, because the way you answer that question may determine whether our kids have any real hope of moving toward a more ideal union of racial harmony.

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Carving conceptual space: into rivers and blocks

This is about how we carve up conceptual space, but first it’s about language. In my case, teaching English as a second language (ESL). Why did my Mexican students have so much trouble with run-on sentences, whereas this was not an issue for my German students? Don’t get me wrong. Every student has their problems. But this difference really stood out. Sure, the German language is in some ways more closely related to English, but German word order and sentence structure can also be quite different than in English. But comma splices and run-on sentences seem to be something of a national pastime in Mexico – four, five, or six complete English sentences joined only with commas or with nothing at all. If we did an exercise, they could all grasp the concept of how to punctuate correctly with periods. But then in the midst of writing or speaking, they would revert to the endless flow without periods.

I concluded, based on my zero hours of training in psycholinguistics, that I was up against their intuition. And their intuition in this case was their way of carving up conceptual space. I tried to compare to my experience watching films in German and Spanish. I’m intermediate in German and upper intermediate in Spanish, but I can follow German dialogue better. Why? Because German is more like English? Yes, but only in a specific way. I definitely have a larger vocabulary in Spanish than in German. But the Germans pronounce every word, with clear edges at beginning and end, whereas the spoken language in Spanish flows like a river. Spanish subtitles can tell me that I know 90% of the words, but I understand 10% in the oral flow. I never know where one word ends and the next begins.

Coupled with my Mexican students’ style of writing full paragraphs with only commas along the way, I decided this is not just a speaking style. It’s the way they carve up conceptual space. Conceptual space is like a flowing river for them, whereas conceptual space for Germans is arranged into building blocks. And you can hear it in the oral flow of the language. Based on the way sentences are arranged into building blocks for paragraphs, English speakers would seem to carve up conceptual space as Germans do, into building blocks. The oral flow of English, however, may strike second language speakers differently than German, as there are so many more pronunciation peculiarities in English. I actually don’t know – I am too “at home” in English – but if any ESL speakers or psycholinguists out there want to chime in, I’m all ears.

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From Shrooms to Hippies

I didn’t quite realize it but now Hippies is 99c. Follow Jaz and Ziggy through the risks and pleasures of the 1960s. Go ahead. Click it. Release your inner hippie.

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