Graphic: DOROTHY KGOSI
Graphic: DOROTHY KGOSI

The highly publicised student protests that started in SA in 2015 catapulted a “woke” conceptual repertoire into the mainstream.

In the universities, its instantly recognisable vocabulary — “positionality”,  “lived experience”, “trigger”, “trauma”, “invisible violence”, “intersectionality”, “pathological whiteness”, “black pain” — is now seeping into faculty discussions and management communiqués. It could soon be the basis on which some universities are run.

Champions of the new social justice creed largely reject the content of nationalist and religious ideologies from the past. Yet nationalism, religious puritanism and today’s woke ideology share a common form. All three give pride of place to direct, possibly incommunicable, personal experience, often elevating it far above formal education and reasoned debate.

In doing so, all three ideologies shunt people onto two sides of a social divide: on one side, those granted direct insight into what is best for society; on the other, those cut off from it, who must listen and obey.

Pursuing this comparison brings into the foreground a troubling, indeed dangerous, aspect of the ideas that have taken root on many campuses. 

Radical Protestants of the 17th century spurned university-educated priests as agents of the antichrist. In England, “Ranters” interrupted church services to deliver impromptu sermons to the congregation. The Digger Gerrard Winstanley called for preachers who could speak “as the spirit gave them utterance, from an inward testimony” to replace educated “hearsay preachers”. God’s will, held Familist John Everard, must be known “experimentally” — that is, experientially — “rather than grammatically, literally or academically”.

The Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay wanted government reserved for the elect: “saints” who could “feel in themselves the working of the spirit of God”. The vast majority, incapable of true moral insight or self-government, were to listen to a “visible saint” who could “speak experienced truths” and do as they were told.

Eighteenth-century German nationalists like FC von Moser and JG Herder also invoked direct contact with a spirit as indispensable for political leadership. Not the holy spirit in their case, but the spirit of a nation (nationalgeist/volksgeist), to be absorbed through blood, cultural immersion or both.

ANC Youth League leader Anton Lembede’s nationalism prompted him to reject nonracialism in the struggle against white supremacy. “This African spirit can realise itself through, and be interpreted by, Africans only. Foreigners,” he wrote, “can never properly and correctly interpret this spirit owing to its uniqueness, peculiarity and particularity.”

Counting “Asiatic” and white South Africans as foreigners, Lembede concluded: “The leader of the Africans will come out of their own loins.”

The National Party and Broederbond’s christelike nasionalisme was a heady, ultimately unstable, synthesis of both the above.

Like nationalism and puritanism, today’s campus radicalism attributes authority to certain categories of people based on a form of direct experience they are thought to enjoy. Not the “experienced truth” of God’s will, but the “lived experience” of overlapping forms of social domination.

Direct contact with truth is — for today’s campus radicals — acquired not through heritage or predestination, but by being on the receiving end of marginalisation and oppression. Popularisers of “intersectionality” theory claim simultaneous exposure to several different overlapping “matrices of domination” (gender, race, cis-normativity and so on) guarantees especially comprehensive insight into the workings of power and the nature of contemporary injustice.

This third type of appeal to direct experience informs the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) public curriculum change framework. The senate must decide whether to endorse this document in 2019. It states that “marginalised people” have “their own epistemologies”, which need to “take a central place” so the world is no longer seen “through colonial eyes”.

In more concrete terms: “students felt that while white academics had expertise in specific areas, they could not claim authority on blackness, black pain, African ideology, course material and productions, or as overseers of curriculum”.

The new social justice creed’s distinguishing mark is not opposition to injustice. Everyone’s against that. The statement in UCT’s curriculum document goes far beyond endorsing preferential hiring for redress purposes or dismantling unfair barriers to representivity.  Rather, the new creed’s hallmark is the doctrine that current injustices have created patterns of knowledge and ignorance that coincide with demographic categories. White academics can’t be trusted with the curriculum, we learn from UCT’s official document and innumerable open meetings on campus.

This is not because they are biologically inferior or bereft of God’s grace. Rather, it is because their privileged “positionality” blinds them to the true nature of social reality. Their position as beneficiaries of forms of domination has cut them off from the direct revelation granted to the oppressed — most abundantly to those most oppressed. Dependent as they are on journals and books, they could at best be hearsay lecturers.

Of course, the notion that people directly affected by certain social problems might be more proactive and effective at articulating their nature is by no means far-fetched. Plenty of researchers make responsible, proportionate use of this plausible idea. The rot begins when one makes the leap from that observation to a general theory about the ability of different categories of person to grasp and communicate truth.

Societies run on the basis of an epistemic hierarchy (whether of blood, divine grace or degree of presumed oppression) quickly become hierarchical in other ways. Their rulers mete out ruthless treatment to those supposedly cut off from the inner light, and feel righteous in doing so. This was as true of the settler communities in New England as it was of Europe’s radical nationalist hells.

While no society has yet been run on radically woke lines, some recent social experiments (for a few weeks in 2016, one campus of the university where I work was widely referred to as “Waco”) do suggest it wouldn’t be much fun.

For my part, I think the enlightening impact of “lived experience” should not be overstated. A university, of all places, must not lose sight of the access to truth that systematic research, theory construction and hypothesis testing can provide. Faculty discussions would be more constructive if there was greater focus on what people say and the reasons they give, and less on the “locus of enunciation” — Latin for crass group stereotypes peddled by people with PhDs.

Less energy spent policing who can and can’t talk about injustice might even mean academics came up with better ideas about how to tackle it. But then, as a heathen white male, cis-gender, resident non-national, I suppose I would say that.

• Hull is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cape Town.