• Holly Muir and Spencer Greenberg

Understanding the Divide Between Social Justice Advocates and the Left-Leaning "Anti-Woke" Community

Updated: 4 days ago

As part of our research for an upcoming Clearer Thinking podcast episode (where we will bring people with opposing viewpoints together to see if they can agree on what exactly it is they disagree about), we have been investigating the perspectives of two groups in contemporary U.S. society: those who advocate for social justice, and the newly emerging left-of-center "anti-woke" movement (i.e., liberal-leaning people who tend to oppose identity politics, cancel culture, and critical race theory).



In recent years, we've witnessed a meteoric rise of this anti-woke community, with a number of writers within it gaining large followings, including Coleman Hughes, Sam Harris, Jesse Singal, Katie Herzog, and Bari Weiss. Naturally, they have received a large amount of criticism from some social justice advocates.

This article provides a breakdown of these two perspectives in order to explore some fundamental questions that these groups often disagree about (while attempting to "steelman" both sides). We think you’ll find this article interesting if any of the following apply to you:

  1. You’d like to better understand issues around social justice.

  2. You want to get a handle on why some people who are left-of-center say they are "anti-woke."

  3. You’re only aware of arguments on one side of this debate.

  4. You want to learn about contemporary U.S. culture.

Note that this article is not focused on right-of-center or conservative communities that identify as anti-woke (a group that tends to have very different views than the left-of-center anti-woke communities). We discussed the traditional left-right divide in detail in a previous podcast episode. In this article, we are interested in two groups that both tend to think of themselves as liberal or left-of-center - and tend to agree on many topics, including that:

  • there should be easily available access to abortion and other healthcare

  • the war on drugs is counterproductive

  • it's important to regulate large corporations

  • there are too many people in U.S. prisons

  • racist attitudes should be harshly condemned

  • inequality is a substantial problem in society

  • we should do more to combat climate change

  • there should be separation of church and state

  • same-sex marriage should be legal

  • we should allow more immigration

Despite the many commonalities listed above, these two groups sometimes disagree intensely about specific issues related to the current state of society, and how best to improve it. Before we get into these disagreements, we’ll give a brief explanation of what it means to be "woke" or "anti-woke."

What does it mean to be "woke" or "anti-woke?"

U.S. usage of the term "woke" is thought to have originated in African American communities in the 1930s or 1940s. It came to be used to describe those who understood and sought to raise awareness of racial prejudice and discrimination in the United States. It has since grown to describe a much broader group of people (including many left-leaning white Americans) who advocate for awareness around social discrimination like sexism, classism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a "woke" person as someone who is "aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)." For some, however, this word has become associated with a negative set of qualities, specifically that it describes an insincere or misguided approach to raising awareness about social inequality. The implication is that this kind of advocacy involves self-serving personal motivations, is ineffective in its approach to improving society, or overlooks other serious harms in society. Those who perceive themselves as opposing this kind of advocacy are sometimes self-described as "anti-woke." John McWhorter makes the case that, like the phrase "politically correct," the phrase "woke" was originally used as a self-description, but eventually started being used as a critique (or even insult), in a process known as the euphemism treadmill. Given the shifting connotations around the word "woke," some social justice advocates now argue that the term should be dropped altogether: "...it's become a cudgel, a mockery. Words that begin with a very specific meaning, used by a very specific group of people, over time become shorthand for our politics, and eventually move from shorthand to linguistic weapon. Or in the case of woke, a linguistic eye-roll." While the term "anti-woke" is not ideal, we use it in this article because many people understand it, and no clear and commonly-accepted label for this rapidly-growing viewpoint appears to have been established. Sometimes it is referred to as an "anti-social-justice-warrior," "anti-identity-politics," or "anti-cancel-culture" perspective, but none of these terms are commonly accepted either.


Is the left actually divided?

Interestingly, some people maintain that there is "no controversy between these two sides," or that "being anti-woke automatically identifies you as a member of the political right." However, the anti-woke viewpoints we discuss below are from those who identify as either liberal or left-of-center. Clashes between these two perspectives play out regularly in public media settings, as is apparent in articles with (just to name a few examples) headlines like:

Since there does indeed seem to be a genuine debate on a number of questions, we think it makes sense to speak of a philosophical and practical divide within the U.S. political left.

What do these disagreements stem from?

Given that the two groups we are discussing both lean left on the political spectrum, a major question is: what do they fundamentally disagree about? To help answer this, we have attempted to map the opposing perspectives on 13 topics where disagreement between these two groups tends to arise. In some cases, it may be that there is little genuine disagreement between the groups, and the issue in question is simply described from a different perspective. An important note:

  • While the views summarized below attempt to portray common disagreements in contemporary U.S. culture, it is important to remember that neither group is a monolith; some people from each group will strongly disagree with the viewpoints attributed to their group in the sections below, and other people may find that they lean closer to one side on some issues, lean towards the other on different issues, or fall right in the middle. Additionally, many people hold some combination of these views (including those who are not left-leaning but still identify as woke).

  • What we've attempted to capture in the list below are some of the more commonly occurring patterns of views in the social justice and anti-woke communities. We asked 65 Americans (including both social justice advocates and anti-woke community members, as well as people from other political identities) to critique this article, and we have taken into account their critiques to help make sure we are representing common perspectives from each side accurately.


1. On offending others

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • Offensive language - including discriminatory remarks, threats of violence, and jokes that play on reductive stereotypes - often harm others, can traumatize people and can normalize prejudice against discriminated groups.

  • When people make offensive remarks or act offensively without intending to, the lack of intent doesn't necessarily reduce the harm they cause. Systematic exposure to offensive remarks and "microaggressions" can further marginalize members of groups that are discriminated against, and cause serious negative effects over time.

  • We should strive to reduce instances of offensive language by calling attention to it, educating ourselves on how our remarks and behavior can hurt others, boycotting individuals and institutions that endorse offensive language, and, in some cases, banning, punishing or ostracizing those who are severely and/or routinely offensive.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • If someone is offended by a remark or a joke, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the speaker did something wrong (the problem might actually lie with the person who feels offended and their emotional responses). Lots of humor can be offensive to someone and we should not take such humor to mean that people are seriously advocating for a position that harms others.

  • Interpreting interactions in terms of microaggressions has negative practical consequences because it primes people to look for offensive language and behavior, rather than trusting that most people have good intentions. The resulting focus can produce more harm than good.

  • "Canceling" those that offend others may have substantial negative effects, including damaging a culture of open communication and debate, reducing exposure to diverse perspectives about the world, and preventing us from learning how to calmly engage with and refute the arguments of people we disagree with.

2. On who has the authority to speak about certain issues

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • When it comes to speaking about the experiences of a particular marginalized group and how that group can be supported, the people within that group are the ones who have by far the most authority to do so; they have unique access to knowledge about the needs and issues of that group as a result of their group membership.

  • People from outside a marginalized group cannot truly understand the lived experience of those within the group and should not be the ones deciding what is best for that group. Attempts by outsiders to explain what they think is best for that group are often naive, inaccurate, or reductive. When outsiders have had decision-making authority over marginalized groups historically, it has often led to substantial harm.

  • Society has consistently platformed white cisgender men at the expense of other people. In contrast, people of color have had their voices ignored for far too long in the U.S.; it is time to finally listen to them.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • We should be careful not to overestimate the degree to which people from a marginalized group have similar experiences or opinions on how society should change in order to accommodate them. Someone being a member of a marginalized group doesn’t automatically mean that person has good suggestions or ideas for improving the discrimination faced by that group. People from the same group often disagree with each other and we can't think of one member of a group as speaking on behalf of that group.

  • When it comes to speaking about the experiences of a particular marginalized group and how this community can be supported, anyone in society who has relevant expertise or information should be able to make suggestions, even if they are not themselves part of that group.

3. On group labels

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • It is important to recognize the group status of individuals as this helps us better understand the social experiences and explain any discrimination that, for example, people of color, women, or trans people might face. Identifying group membership is useful in our efforts to protect these groups from discrimination.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • Too much focus on grouping people by shared social experience (or another feature of their identity) creates artificial distinctions that might actually increase the likelihood of some groups facing discrimination. While it can occasionally be useful to talk about group membership, what matters is that all individuals are able to flourish regardless of their group status, and this should be our focus (rather than focusing on improving society for certain groups).

4. On diversity

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • Having people from diverse sets of backgrounds (including gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality) makes institutions more likely to function fairly, takes the needs of everyone into account, helps rectify historical injustice, and helps groups come up with more creative solutions to problems.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • While racial, ethnic, and gender diversity is helpful to correctly represent everyone’s views, diversity of thought is just as important. Additionally, diversity of thought and ideas is not necessarily correlated with having a diverse set of backgrounds; focusing on the latter is less likely to result in institutions that have genuinely diverse problem-solving approaches, maximal creativity, and fair outcomes. An overemphasis on a social justice-oriented philosophy tends to produce a narrow range of views, rather than diversity of thought.

5. On differences in outcome

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • The fact that some groups have different outcomes in society (for example, earning less money or having less higher education) is a strong indication that systemic discrimination and societal or institutionalized prejudice has prevented members of these groups from having better outcomes in life.

  • To improve outcomes for marginalized groups, we should use affirmative action to correct for the prejudice in systems that have typically favored people from privileged groups or required qualifications that are only accessible to those with privileged backgrounds. Abandoning standardized tests may also help reduce outcome inequality. Changes like these are a starting point to help make up for past discrimination that has held some groups back.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • The fact that some groups have different outcomes in society is not always explained by systemic discrimination and societal prejudice. For instance, a difference in outcomes might sometimes be explained by different interests, attributes, or cultures. While prejudice is real and still produces many negative consequences, we need to remember to look for additional explanations.

  • There are many valid forms of success, and we shouldn't assume that one person's version of success will match another person's version, and that's okay (e.g., if a particular woman makes less than a particular man because of her true, uncoerced preference is to stay at home and raise children, there is nothing wrong with that).

  • Using affirmative action can backfire by leading some to believe that people who have been admitted to a particular institution are only there based on their group identity (as opposed to their merits). It is good for institutions to take into account the hardship that people face when considering their applications, but hardship doesn’t always follow from, for example, having membership to a particular racial group.

  • Colleges and work environments should be meritocracies - the most skilled people should be accepted regardless of group membership.

6. On cultural appropriation

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • Appropriating clothing, behaviors, or customs of a marginalized group can be harmful for several reasons, including: (1) it allows already privileged groups to benefit financially and socially off of the labor, culture, and ideas of the originators of those ideas (without benefiting those creators), and (2) it fails to take into account the significance that some outfits or practices have in their original cultures, trivializing their original meaning. Cultural appropriation causes harm to marginalized groups.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • Most instances of people dressing or acting in a way that has been associated with a marginalized group are just people appreciating that particular culture, and we should not see that as inherently negative. We are all better off if we adopt those practices and customs that we find beneficial.

  • In many instances, people from marginalized groups aren’t offended by those who incorporate aspects of their culture and, in some instances, even encourage others to adopt aspects of their culture.

7. On complicity in discrimination

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • Members of privileged groups (i.e., those who have more power in society based on their gender, race, or class) benefit from discrimination against other groups even when they themselves are not explicitly engaging in discrimination. Additionally, many members of privileged groups will have had ancestors that did explicitly engage in discriminatory practices.

  • As a result of this complicity, members of privileged groups have an obligation to help rectify the wrongs done to the living members of marginalized groups, which includes helping to dismantle oppressive institutions and social systems. It is appropriate for people who do not act on this obligation to feel guilty.

  • White supremacist culture is a prevalent and significant problem in U.S. society today, causing a great deal of harm to people of color.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • Most members of privileged groups are not responsible for the discrimination that is still present in our current societal structure, as they did not cause it. Nor are privileged individuals responsible for harmful actions their ancestors might have committed, since they were not alive at the time.

  • While it is admirable and important for people to work to improve society for, and reduce discrimination against, marginalized groups, people do not have an obligation to work towards this, nor should they feel guilty merely because of belonging to a "powerful" group.

8. On power structures in society

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • Society is organized in a way that benefits particular identity groups at the expense of other identity groups; many of the laws, policies and social norms we live with were set up and are maintained in order to serve those in power. Powerful people are deliberately trying to perpetuate systems of inequality within the U.S.

  • Claims of "objectivity," "rationality," and "reason" are sometimes used to argue in favor of what benefits those who are already in power and to undermine or silence the voices of marginalized people who are not served by the way society currently operates.

  • One helpful way to combat these systems of power and the people that maintain them is to disrupt the norms, knowledge systems and processes that they use. This might sometimes include protesting and extreme activism.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • Given that the world is incredibly complex, people’s actions can often have unintended consequences and interact in unexpected ways. The best way to figure out what to do to improve society is to engage in rigorous debate about policies, with all reasonable perspectives being heard, and arguments and counterarguments being made.

9. On group generalizations

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • The power dynamics of groups in society must be taken into account when considering whether a generalization is an instance of racism. If a person from a historically oppressed group believes that all white people are racist that is not itself necessarily a form of racism - the history between the two groups, and the asymmetry in power between them must be taken into account.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • There is no difference between making generalizations about marginalized groups and generalizations about privileged groups when it comes to evaluating what is or is not racist; negative generalizations about entire groups are not helpful and should be avoided.

10. On national pride

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • The United States was founded on a bedrock of prejudice and oppression, with mistreatment of women, Black people, and native communities baked in from the very beginning. U.S. citizens should not be proud of their roots.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • The United States played an incredibly unique and important role in history and has helped to improve the state of the world. America is far from perfect and has participated in numerous injustices. Despite these terrible events, we should be proud of the many positive contributions made by the U.S., including it being the world's longest standing modern representative democracy.

11. On historical figures

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • Given that many people we celebrate today - for example, teaching young children about them or maintaining monuments in their honor - did terrible things, the appropriate response is to stop commemorating these individuals (for example, by removing their statues and renaming buildings). Continuing to make these individuals visible in society - even if we are not explicitly celebrating all of their actions - is harmful to those people whose ancestors were hurt by their actions.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • It is not fair to judge historical figures by our own moral standards; their behavior, while we may know it to be highly immoral, may have been entirely ordinary for their society at the time. We should teach both the good and the bad about historical figures that had an important role in society. We should commend them for their great achievements while not minimizing or ignoring their many flaws, which might mean continuing to maintain monuments erected in their honor.

12. On the meaning of gender

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • Gender is a social construction that is separate from whether someone is biologically male or female (and even biological sex is not as binary as it is often assumed to be). Biological sex should not determine the social reality of individuals, like how they should dress, what pronouns they are able to use, or how they are treated in professional and non-professional settings.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • We should respect people’s gender identities, but it is harmful to pretend that there are no biological differences between males and females when we plainly can see such differences across most animal species, including humans. There are some important situations where we need to treat males and females differently (such as in medical environments: the probability and management of different diseases differ across the sexes ). Males and females are, of course, deserving of equal respect and treatment, but that is not the same as saying they are identical.

13. On the harm of cancel culture

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • So-called "cancel culture" - where members of the public attempt to ostracize a person in response to harmful or prejudiced behavior they have engaged in - occurs a lot less than is sometimes claimed in the media. And when it does occur, it is usually justified. Individuals that say they are "canceled" are often people that still possess a lot of power; they can find good jobs and live a fulfilling life, even if they have been criticized publicly or lost one particular job. It is right for people to stand up against those who act in harmful, prejudiced, and offensive ways.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • Cancel culture often harms people unfairly. Justice is not best served by mobs harassing a person or trying to get them fired. When this is seen as an acceptable way to settle disputes, people become afraid to express reasonable opinions (fearing they will be misinterpreted and harassed). The best way to handle statements that you think are offensive or harmful is to make arguments against them, not to try to get the person that said them fired or ostracized. We need to make it safe for people to debate with each other, and we can't trust anyone to be the arbiter of what ideas are "off-limits" - if we do that then eventually some of our own ideas will end up being off-limits according to whoever happens to be in power at that moment.

Importantly, there is no need to agree with just one side or the other when it comes to the perspectives listed above. If anything, we think that appreciating the merits of both perspectives may lead to actions and conversations that improve society for everyone. Hopefully, reading this has helped you clarify your own views about these issues and given you a clearer sense of the perspectives taken on issues around social equality by left-leaning groups. If you feel that we have excluded or misrepresented particular viewpoints, please get in touch to let us know! If you'd like to hear our full podcast episode on this topic when it is released (where we bring a social justice advocate and a left-leaning anti-woke person to try to get to the bottom of what they fundamentally disagree about), you can subscribe or sign up here.

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