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How “Woke Ideology” Destroyed Debate

Are humans biologically wired for ideologies? How do ideologies create ideologues? Is common ground possible? As a leading scholar of ideologies, Peter Boghossian’s work directly relates to the theme for our Issue No. 2: Ideologies, Belief Systems, & The Human Condition. In today’s conversation, we ask Peter about his views on various ideological stances and what we can do to overcome roadblocks in communication.


Listen to the interview below:


** The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.**

TAEM Editor, Dr. Thomas W. Roberts: Hello, Dr. Boghossian.

Peter Boghossian: You can you call me Peter.

TWR: Today, we are here with Dr. Peter Boghossian, a non-tenure track assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University who was recently denied promotion to associate professor. In 2017, along with James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, the trio submitted bogus papers to academic journals to expose the problems of postmodernism and identity politics-based scholarship. This event was met with both praise and hostility, as it highlighted the cancerous nature of ideological fields within academia. 

Peter has numerous academic publications which can be found in the Journal of Philosophy of Education, Educational Philosophy and Theory, Teaching Philosophy, Federal Probation Journal, and the Journal of Correctional Education, and elsewhere. His other writings can be found in well-known publications like USA TODAY, Scientific American, Time Magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Philosophers’ Magazine, among others.

Peter’s most recent book, How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide (co-authored by James Lindsay), addresses the disadvantages and dangers of political and philosophical ideological viewpoints. 

As a leading scholar of ideologies, Peter’s work directly relates to the theme for our Issue No. 2: Ideologies, Belief Systems, & The Human Condition.

In today’s conversation, we ask Peter about his views on various ideological stances and what we can do to overcome roadblocks in communication.

How would you define ‘ideology’?

PB: Well, before we even begin, let me just say, thanks for interviewing me and I appreciate it. So basically, at a rudimentary level, it’s just a system of ideas, or ideals. We can use that definition as a starting point, and if we need to expand that we can as we move through the conversation.

We are programmed to believe — belief is the default. You couldn’t navigate reality unless you held beliefs.

TWR: Okay. Do you think it is hardwired into the brain to develop ideological systems of beliefs?

PB: There’s no question that it is. Many people have written about this extensively — Sam Harris says, I think this is a direct quotation in the book from The Moral Landscape, “The brain is an engine of belief.” And the person whose work I like the most on this is Michael Shermer from The Skeptic Society — he’s written extensively about this. There are many ways to conceptualize systems of belief, and many heuristics to think through. For example, you could think of the brain as the hardware, and the software — what programs the brain — is what comes in from outside through language. So, we are programmed to believe — belief is the default. You couldn’t navigate reality unless you held beliefs. The issue of belief systems becomes even more interesting when you start talking about why so many people deny the link between beliefs and behavior. Those sorts of issues are extremely interesting to me.

TWR: Right. How much do you think it’s hardwired? How much do you think also comes from culture or society, which is outside the person?

PB: Whatever software you run is a function of the individual culture and the cultural milieu in which one lives. So, it’s a function of culture, history, and language, which plays a large role. The architecture, or the hardware, is the same, but the beliefs — which would come externally — are different. And the fancy word for that is ‘covariance.’ There are variables that act upon each other that produce belief sets.

Image by Piyapong Saydaung from Pixabay

TWR: Well, do you find that individuals, as individuals, are less ideological than, say, a group of individuals together?

PB: That’s a fantastic question. Are less ideological? No, but are less willing to revise their beliefs? Absolutely. And that’s a construct from the American Philosophical Association, “The Delphi Report,” on the idea of critical thinking. So, the ideal critical thinker would always be willing to revise their beliefs. That’s why, for example, Mormons send people to proselytize at your door two at a time. There are also lines of literature in hostage negotiations, the Impossible Conversations, and the Harvard Negotiation Project about the importance of saving face. It becomes much more of an issue to save face when other people are present. That’s why those conversations are always better one-on-one — people are more willing to revise their beliefs. It’s not that they’re more or less ideological, but they’re more recalcitrant to change when others are present.

TWR: Do you think that gives a way forward, in a way? In other words, instead of negotiating with groups, should the goal be to get individuals in contact with each other?

PB: There’s no question that that’s true. In fact, in my first book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, that’s exactly what I recommend. I recommend 10,000 people engaging with individuals on a person-by-person basis before you could affect large-scale ideological changes in a culture. You can think of it in terms of micro-interventions.

TWR: You wrote a piece on how to converse in an age of accusation. Do you have research evidence that the strategies that you talk about there are effective with, say, an ideological group that’s inflexible? Like, Antifa?

PB: Antifa is a little bit of a special case because it’s newer and thus the research literature is less well developed. But there are overwhelming bodies of evidence that converge on the effectiveness of conversation and dialogue with ideologues. I mentioned this in my first book with regard to religious extremists and hardliners, and we can conclude this from multiple, independent data points. We know this from cult exiting, the hostage negotiation literature, and applied epistemology. There is an ancient point of contact from Socrates in the platonic dialogues. (Socrates didn’t write anything — Plato wrote everything. Socrates is a character in Plato’s dialogues.) We can see this in the Meno, and The Republic, and Theaetetus. And if you jump forward in the timeline, there’s a great piece in The Atlantic [August 6, 2019], where a reformed white nationalist says the worst is yet to come. One way we can make reliable inferences about the effectiveness of discourse and dialogues is to talk to people who have left cults; another person who’s interesting is Joshua Turner who founded Saved by Reason. He was a former Neo-Nazi, but he hooked on to Sam Harris’s material and on to my material, and that was one of the things that brought him out of that dangerous delusion. But we also have other individuals like Megan Phelps Roper, who was a former member and the spokesperson for the Westboro Baptist Church. We have overwhelming evidence that conversation and dialogue work, both from multiple points of contact throughout the research literature and in individual cases from people who have left extremist ideologies.

I don’t think we are, by and large, educating people in our university systems. I think we’re indoctrinating them. And so, if you swim in this soup long enough, if you exist in an “educational environment” — or at least an environment that masquerades as an educational environment — you will start to believe the things that you’re taught.

TWR: You wrote an article entitled, “Deluded Departments.” This was really about education and you made a statement in there that I thought was really interesting — that educated people are better able to rationalize their ideas, and so they can defend extreme positions better. I was really struck by that — that is something that resonated very much with me. We’re aware that the college experience itself for students changes them, and it’s not so much the fact of what they’re taught as just the experience of being there. For instance, a senior student thinks much differently than a freshman because the brain is maturing more and they’ve been exposed to different ideas. So, the question is: Is it the process of education that would lead to this outcome of, say, rationalizing your ideas more? Or is it the type of education that students receive?

PB: That’s a very difficult question to answer. Because those words need to be disambiguated. And, really, it ultimately depends on what one means. This is Michael Shermer’s idea from The Believing Brain and Why People Believe Weird Things. It is the single greatest insight, in my opinion, in all of critical thinking: Smarter people are better at rationalizing bad ideas. And ‘rationalizing’ is different from ‘reasoning to,’ so people can generate good reasons for bad conclusions. I took that idea and I wrote that piece with my primary writing partner, James Lindsay, and applied that to groups of smart people being better at rationalizing bad ideas. This is where your question becomes extremely difficult to answer. My point of contention with your question was the word, ‘education.’ I don’t think we are, by and large, educating people in our university systems. I think we’re indoctrinating them. And so, if you swim in this soup long enough, if you exist in an “educational environment” — or at least an environment that masquerades as an educational environment — you will start to believe the things that you’re taught. One problem (among the many problems) is that you never hear the other side of the story, right? You never hear the opposing views. That’s John Stuart Mill’s famous dictum, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” But the other problem with this is idea laundering. That was the piece I wrote for the Wall Street Journal. That’s Bret Weinstein’s term for what we did in the Grievance Studies Papers. People have an idea and just like money that goes in dirty, you launder it and it comes out clean. Someone has a moral impulse or an idea, you launder it in peer reviewed journals so it has all the trappings of knowledge, and it comes out the other side as ‘knowledge.’ The problem is that many, many people are now believing things on the basis of what they think is evidence, but is simply not evidence. It’s all been idea laundered — all of it. So, it’s not only that academics are better at rationalizing bad ideas, but they think that they’re using the best available evidence to formulate their beliefs, but they’re not. It’s a complicated situation in which we have people who have calibrated their confidence based upon what they think is evidence, but is not evidence.

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TWR: So, people don’t know that they don’t know. I was fascinated too about your ideas about culture warfare 1.0 and 2.0 and their differences. I noticed you now believe that culture warfare 1.0 is sort of obsolete, or that the current rules of engagement have changed. And I guess that was the era in which people really tried to convert other people to their ideas by proselytizing, is that right?

PB: Yes. There are three components: There are new rules of engagement, that’s the first one. The second one is the correspondence theory of truth. And the third is the role that intersectionality ought to play in everybody’s worldview. Everybody’s worldview, emphasized. So that’s what we’re talking about. Now, what was your question specifically?

TWR: Well, I was wondering what warfare 1.0 actually consisted of, and whether or not you believe that it has passed because debate is no longer relevant. And one of the examples you gave was the Christian right who, during the 1950s, were trying to convert others. I wonder if they perhaps are still at culture war 1.0 because of their recent involvement in politics, carrying their beliefs through to politics, and whether or not you would see that as irrelevant as well.

PB: Again, this is where it gets tricky. There are certainly some Christians who are stuck in culture war 1.0 and I always feel bad for these people. One of the things that many Christians simply cannot get over and they cannot wrap their head around to move forward is the acceptance of homosexuality. And the cultural and legal manifestations of homosexuality, for example, gay marriage or gay couples adopting children.

TWR: Gay ministers, which is what’s happening in the Methodist Church right now.

PB: That is correct, that is another manifestation. So, it’s always odd to me, this civilizational threat — I’m not saying that for histrionics or hyperbole — we’re looking at grave civilizational threats right now. And while modernity is crumbling, people are held over in culture war 1.0 and they’re worried about where the genitalia of two consenting adults go? So, if I were to give those people any advice, I would say, you have to wake up. You have to wake up because we have extremely serious issues facing all of us. I think that you would see in culture war 1.0, for example, when Richard Dawkins or Jerry Coyne or another noted evolutionary biologist give a lecture on why creationism is false, the creationist would want to debate them and they would ask what they thought were hard questions at the end of the debate. Maybe they’d help hold a counter-talk or maybe even a talk at the same time, or what have you. Culture war 2.0 doesn’t play by those rules. Their adherents bring bullhorns into the lecture halls. They accuse — look at my colleague Bruce Gilley at Portland State University: they’ll try to cancel the person in question. They’ll have weaponized offices of diversity, equity, and inclusion and accuse the person in question as a rapist or claim that they beat their family, or what have you. These folks just simply do not play by the same rules of engagement. This is no trivial point. In fact, it’s a key feature of this culture war. That’s what you do when you don’t debate, right? I mean, if you don’t debate then, by definition, you don’t debate — you have to do something to get your point across or advance your narrative.  

These folks just simply do not play by the same rules of engagement. This is no trivial point. In fact, it’s a key feature of this culture war. That’s what you do when you don’t debate, right? I mean, if you don’t debate then, by definition, you don’t debate — you have to do something to get your point across or advance your narrative.

TWR: Let me ask you this: I began writing a textbook, Social Policy for Child and Family Development, and the reason I did it is I was teaching a class and I couldn’t find much literature at all that was not what I would consider to be coming from a single point of view, and then applying that single point of view across all different developmental issues that children and families have. So, I developed my own model by combining systems theory with dialectical theory: the idea in that model, basically, is that it allows different perspectives without saying that you have the only truth here and that it’s convergent and everybody should believe that — instead, it’s a divergent point of view. Now, in your paradigms here of culture war 1.0 and 2.0, does that fit a model of how you might work effectively — does a dialectical idea fit the model of culture war 2.0?

PB: Yeah, that’s 100% correct: dialectics are in culture war 2.0. The problem that you may face is that you can’t publish anything that’s not woke right now — if it doesn’t subscribe to the dominant moral orthodoxy, anything that you write that goes against this will never get published. If it doesn’t get published in peer reviewed journals, then it doesn’t become part of the canon of knowledge. And once it doesn’t become part of the canon of knowledge, then people point and say, “How do you know that?” So, this is a massive system-wide problem. The other thing that we haven’t talked about is: What are the consequences of the system-wide problem? One of the consequences is that it leads to a legitimation crisis. That’s the German philosopher Habermas’ term, which I’ve extended. It leads to a crisis of confidence in public trust — the erosion of trust in our public institutions.

TWR: Now, the consequences of a crisis of trust really would be people trying to leave the system or people fighting within the system, right?

PB: The consequences of that are staggering. For example, when the gatekeepers have fallen, when the Southern Poverty Law Center can no longer be trusted to identify extremists because they’re woke, then the whole system is jeopardized. But for the folks who buy into the woke ideology or the vertical social justice ideology, this is a good thing, because they want to destabilize the system. The best heuristic to think about it is from Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” The Master’s tools are reason, rationality, logic, epistemic adequacy, evidence — all of those things can’t be used to disable what they consider to be systemically racist, corrupt systems. So, you have to have something else. And that’s why they switch the rules of engagement in cultural war 2.0. Since you don’t have debate, you don’t have critical examination of ideas — even doing so is platforming and thus heretical.

TWR: In terms of the textbook, I believe I got it published before the woke stuff took over so much. I’m not sure it’s being used a lot of places, but it did get out there. So, I was glad to at least get that, and it was something that I could teach from because I couldn’t teach from the other stuff. 

PB: In a sense, you experienced this because you weren’t participating at some level or another in the moral orthodoxy. So, what is the likelihood that that textbook you developed would be adopted, not even for widescale use, but almost any use? And just think about it from an individual level, if someone did adopt your textbook, then they’re open to criticisms that they’re racists. Since your textbook is not explicitly “anti-racist,” therefore you’re complicit in racism. So even if you had the best textbook in the world, you still face the issues related to idea laundering. You still face issues related to its adoption, due to this deranged, neo-racist narrative.

Economic systems that appear to be diametrically opposed are closer to each other than they are to what I would term, “the new religion of critical social justice and woke ideology.”

TWR: Yeah, exactly. So now, moving along here, I wanted to ask you about your talk regarding “The Great Realignment.” I was really fascinated by that because I’ve kind of experienced that myself with groups of liberals who are siding with conservatives and atheists who’re siding with Christians because of all this. Now, what do you see as the outcome of these coalitions? Are they going to continue? Are they going to get larger? Or, is this just a phenomenon that’s taking place right now, in response to some chaos?

PB: What do you mean?

TWR: Well, do you see this as a long-term thing where groups that basically have different ideological positions can at least come together because there’s a common enemy, I guess you’d say?

PB: Yeah, I do, but there’s one thing that we all have to be hyper aware of: making predictions about the future is extraordinarily difficult. I happen to be a huge sci-fi fan — my wife would say I’m a fanatic — but one thing they always get wrong is… everything. They don’t just get the technology wrong, they get the gender stuff wrong — they just miss the point. It’s very difficult to make predictions. I don’t even know what will happen in a month from now. Think about this: We went from a pandemic, when everybody is completely freaking out and locked down to almost forgetting about it literally overnight. This is the legitimation crisis as well — there are epidemiologists claiming we need to protest, and we have literally millions of people in the streets about BLM. So, I am very hesitant to predict, but if I am absolutely forced to predict, I would say that we can and will get through this — and, there’s an interesting exchange between Sarah Haider from Ex-Muslims of North America and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Both amazing, amazing women — Ayaan has just the most incredible story. And they exchange thoughts in Wiki Letter about whether or not the culture war is lost. I certainly hope that Ayaan is right and that Sarah Haider is incorrect. I think Ayaan is correct, but I don’t know. But I do want to stress that I’m very skeptical of anybody who assigns weight to their predictions, given how many variables there are and how quickly things change.

Big fishes eat small fishes by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

TWR: Oh, absolutely. Shifting just a little bit to economic ideology. Of course, socialism and capitalism are kind of diametrically opposed to each other. How do you see these different economic ideologies playing out currently? And do you see how they would be involved in culture war 2.0?

PB: Yeah. I think that many on the right, who have pretty good philosophical intuitions about what’s happening in this culture war, haven’t quite grokked that socialism and capitalism… I thought you were going to say Marxism and Neo-Marxism — that changes things a little bit. Eric London, who is a fascinating fellow and runs the Worldwide Socialist Web Site, is also against critical race theory and intersectionality, and what he understands is this shift in thinking. I think we need to start thinking in terms of those people who want to rip down the civilization and those people who don’t. And so, the economic systems — and those people who acknowledge that everything isn’t mediated through race and power dynamics — both the capitalists and the socialists, are more aligned to one another than is typically thought. (My fear was going to be that you would say Marxism or Neo Marxism, because then the equation gets to be more difficult. And those waters are sufficiently muddied.) The best explanation that I’ve seen for this is in Cynical Theories, the book by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, which should be mandatory reading for anybody who wants to understand this current cultural moment. But the explanation Cynical Theories alludes to is that economic systems that appear to be diametrically opposed are closer to each other than they are to what I would term, “the new religion of critical social justice and woke ideology.” There’s more difference between woke ideology and either economic system than there is between the economic systems.

The first order of business is: We have to clean up our K-12 educational systems. We have to clean up pre-service teacher education systems. We have to reintroduce civics back into the curriculum. We have to stop this deranged push towards anti-racism — which is actually neo-racism — and stop looking at people on the basis of their race… Our first order of business is to understand.

TWR: Okay. Do you foresee maybe a culture war 3.0? And what would that look like?

PB: Yeah, that’s a very good question. I don’t know, because I don’t know the winner of cultural war 2.0. I mean, certainly something will emerge. What that will be, I don’t know. But this is a very, very pivotal time. This is a pivotal time in not just our culture, but our civilization. And again, this is not hyperbole — things are changing very, very quickly. And we now have additional problems that we didn’t have before. Problems of idea laundering, of relativism, of standpoint epistemology, which basically denigrates ways of knowing like the scientific method and forwards truth as one’s lived experience. We have these additional, almost moral justifications for insane behavior that we didn’t have before and that complicates the equations. So, I don’t know about culture war 3.0 because we are not even out of culture war 2.0 yet.

TWR: Well, I can understand that answer. I have no idea myself. Other than maybe this is what leads to civil wars — maybe that’s where we’re headed in culture war 3.0.

PB: Yeah, that’s good. The only thing we have going in our favor, which a lot of people have been talking about — Tim Pool has been talking about this and Joe Rogan on his podcast with Douglas Murray just talked about this recently — what we have going for us, in my opinion, is you can’t easily identify people in the Civil War. It’s not by accents. It’s not by clothes. That may be some kind of a prophylactic against us killing each other.

TWR: Well, one last question. And this is maybe too broad and maybe it’s already been answered to some degree, but where do we go from here?

One of the most important things is to let friends be wrong… You don’t have to have perfect ideological congruity with someone to be their friend. If there’s not ideological congruity that doesn’t mean that they’re an existential threat. It just means they don’t believe exactly what you believe.

PB: That’s a really good question. The most important question in the interview. The first order of business is, if we want to maintain what’s great about our society — and I do believe that America is and should aspire to be the shining city on a hill — then we have to start changing what people value. Specifically, we have to place a value on conversation and engaging across moral, cultural, and political divides. That’s a way out of this. That’s why we wrote, How to Have Impossible Conversations. The problem is: What do we do if people don’t value discourse, dialogue, and basic civility, and instead, their go-to is violence?  It’s a very difficult problem. The first order of business is: We have to clean up our K-12 educational systems. We have to clean up pre-service teacher education systems. We have to reintroduce civics back into the curriculum. We have to stop this deranged push towards anti-racism — which is actually neo-racism — and stop looking at people on the basis of their race. Assuming that they are sincere and not grifters, there’s no clearer example of the moral mind having overwritten the rational mind than Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi. And so, we have to place reason front and center, we have to make belief revision a value and a virtue, and we have to start talking to each other again.

TWR: Exactly. Yeah, I think we can talk to each other — and I think you pointed this out — without trying to change people. And also say without trying to win.

PB: That’s right. That’s one of Jurgen Habermas’ ideas — the theory of communicative action is that the goal of communication should be to understand. Our first order of business is to understand. We have created a culture that is inimical to human flourishing; we have created a culture in which, forget about even talking to people, we don’t even want to understand why people believe what they do. We have serious problems in the integrity of the journalistic enterprise, which again, contribute to the legitimation crisis: we’re not even entertaining ideas of interviewing people who have potentially odious beliefs, potentially odious beliefs.

TWR: Which, of course, shuts everything down. There’s no going forward at all in that situation.

PB: That’s correct. I mean, where do we go from there? It all comes back to values. We have to admit — and if we’re unwilling to admit this, there’s an enormous problem — we have to admit that some people are harboring conceptions of reality that bring us away from human flourishing. If we are not willing to admit this, we are in serious shit.

TWR: Exactly. And I think that’s where culture war 3.0 comes in.

PB: Yeah, I hope that there will be a swift and peaceful resolution to culture war 2.0. You know, it’s great to have a debate — it’s great to get your points out and try to rebut the other person’s argument, and then to go for beers after when you’re finished. We talk about that in How to Have Impossible Conversations: One of the most important things is to let friends be wrong. It’s completely okay if someone has a different belief. Now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t deal breakers — of course there are deal breakers. But you don’t have to have perfect ideological congruity with someone to be their friend. If there’s not ideological congruity that doesn’t mean that they’re an existential threat. It just means they don’t believe exactly what you believe.

TWR: Thank you so much.

PB: All right, sir. Have a great day.

TWR: You too.


Dr. Peter Boghossian is a non-tenure track assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University who was recently denied promotion to associate professor. In 2017, along with James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, the trio submitted bogus papers to academic journals to expose the problems of postmodernism and identity politics-based scholarship. Peter’s publications can be found in the Journal of Philosophy of Education, Educational Philosophy and Theory, Teaching Philosophy, Scientific American, Time Magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Philosophers’ Magazine, among others. Peter’s most recent book is How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide (co-authored by James Lindsay).

1 thought on “How “Woke Ideology” Destroyed Debate

  1. This interview with Dr. Boghosian is a welcome breath of fresh air. It identifies the great problems we have in this country in which one has to obey the accepted ideologies, which are not backed by fact or even logic, or suffer for trying to oppose it. The “woke” is, as the professor realizes, impossible to debate with. Facts do not matter; imaginary “facts” are what count. Segregation is being brought back by African Americans on campuses. Senseless anger and violence are utilized rather than reasonable discussion. We are at a very dangerous period of the life of the USA, reinforced by the fact that the “woke” now run the government.

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