by Richard Bernstein
DUNDEE, Scotland — The online class on gender, feminism, and the law was underway when Lisa Keogh, a 29-year-old student and mother of two, introduced a note of unwoke contention into the discussion.
“We were talking about equal rights for women, and I said I don’t believe a trans woman is really a woman,” said Keogh, then attending Abertay University Law School here. “I said that my definition of a woman is someone with a vagina.” Keogh, disagreeing with another point of view expressed in the same meeting, also voiced the apparently retrograde opinion that not all men are rapists.
In response, some students accused Keogh of “making offensive comments and behaving in a disrespectful manner during class discussion.” Abertay undertook a formal investigation, claiming, as a university spokesman told the media, that the school was “legally obliged to investigate all complaints.”
After two months and two sessions before the investigating committee, Keogh was exonerated. Still, her supporters say her ordeal took its toll — and sent a chilling message to other students about the risk of expressing opinions that contradict the tenets of the campus radical left.
“The process is the punishment,” Stuart Waiton, a sociology and criminology lecturer at Abertay, told me over lunch in Dundee. Keogh has filed suit against the university for the stress, anxiety, and the loss of sleep while also claiming the process has hurt her chances of getting a job.
“I’m quite a controversial figure,” Keogh said. “Somebody in a law firm told me, ‘We can’t even be seen publicly agreeing with what you said.’ A friend told me, ‘There’s no point in you even looking for work in Dundee.’” Instead, Keogh said, she’s considering going elsewhere in Scotland where, she hopes, her notoriety won’t follow her.
Scotland illustrates how American-style “wokeness,” complete with its identity-politics, victim-culture assumptions and lexicon, has seeped across the Atlantic to Europe. While the U.S. media has given broad coverage to the rise of far-right anti-immigrant parties in countries like France, Germany, Hungary and Poland, it has paid less attention to the emergence of a mirror-image phenomenon on the left, which demands an orthodoxy of opinion and punishes dissenting ideas, like those expressed by Keogh.
But wokeness is a hot topic in Europe. As in Scotland, its flare-ups and the arguments about it take place mostly in elite circles, the universities, and the press. It usually surfaces in incidents, sometimes so small and geographically scattered as to seem isolated and unimportant.
Nevertheless, they have a cumulative effect. They show the contagious, globalized power of a rising leftist ideology whose adherents are convinced of their own assumptions – chiefly the supposedly pervasive evils of white-dominated societies, the vulnerability of minority groups disadvantaged by the structures of oppressive power, and on the need to protect those groups from insult and slight, even unintended. And taxpayers are underwriting it.
Earlier this year, the European Commission, the main administrative body of the 27-member European Union, created a Gender Equality Strategy aimed at “eliminating the inequalities between the sexes and the socio-economic intersectionality of inequality throughout research and innovation.” The effort is to be funded by a program called Horizon Europe with a budget of more than $100 billion for 2021-2027. “Sexual equality and openness to the question of inclusion are our priorities,” a Horizon mission statement says.
To further that mission, Horizon Europe requires that any governmental or private entity applying for a grant present as part of the application a “Gender Equality Plan” that, among other things, shows the hiring of “equality officers” to help “tackle unconscious gender bias among staff, leaders and decision makers.”
“Don’t think that woke ideology is a delirium limited to certain American universities,” the right-of-center French magazine Causeur wrote of these requirements, noting the deployment of a vocabulary that seems to come straight from the gender and sexuality studies departments of U.S. academe. In Europe, the magazine continued, these assumptions are based on an “imaginary sexism, ideological submission, and coercion in the academic world.”
Each country seems to have its woke eruptions, and in many places they have prompted spirited counterreactions. In Germany over the course of this year, some 600 people, mostly university professors, have become members of a Scientific Freedom Network, the stated purpose of which is “to help victims of cancel culture” — that phrase “cancel culture” having entered the German vocabulary in its original English form.
“More and more academics feel they are restricted in the research questions they can address without feeling any fear of being professionally sidelined,” Sandra Kostner, a specialist on migration at the Schwãbisch Gmünd University of Education who founded the group earlier this year, told me in a Zoom conversation. “I wrote an article two years ago expressing the idea that something is going wrong at German universities,” she continued. “Within a day or so I got about 800 emails agreeing with me, but in many cases, the last sentence was ‘This is just between the two of us.’ There were university presidents and vice presidents saying, ‘Please don’t tell anybody what I’ve told you.’”
Some of the incidents cited by members of the new group seem almost trivial when taken individually, but reflect a widespread and growing trend. For instance, a report on the Freedom Network describes an incident in Cologne when a professor asked a dark-skinned student and German citizen where she was from. The student took the question as an insult, stemming from “institutional racism,” and complained about it both to the local government and on social media, where she got 50,000 responses.
Commenting on the incident, Kostner pointed out that up until a decade or so ago, teachers were encouraged “to ask the questions about one’s origins because it was a sign of politeness, signaling interest.” But now, under the pressure of the new victim-culture ideology, such questions are seen “as a denial of belonging, even as a sign of racism.” Behind this shift, the report on the incident noted, is the view of the West as first and foremost having “a history of colonialism, racism, misogyny, and white domination,” all of which has, until the new awakening came along, been “obscured by Eurocentrism and patriarchal rule.”
A 2021 survey of a thousand academics carried out by the Allensbach Institute, a leading German social research organization, found that 40% of respondents feel restricted by formal or informal political correctness rules, mostly due to gender guidelines. This compares to 32% two years ago. More than half of respondents in the arts and social sciences said they feel restricted in the topics they can research, compared to 35% two years ago.
“Only representatives of certain groups are allowed to talk about certain topics,” the German journalist Thomas Thiel wrote in the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “and the value of a statement is based on the origin of a speaker, not on the plausibility of the argument.”
As the complaint about Lisa Keogh and the subsequent investigation shows, no corner of Europe is immune from these kinds of incidents, seemingly isolated and yet illustrating the spread and influence of a rising victim-culture ideology. Earlier this year in Edinburgh, the government-funded James Gillespie High School made national headlines when it dropped the American classics “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men” from its reading lists, saying that “Mockingbird” was flawed because of its “white savior” theme (a white lawyer defends a falsely accused black man) and that John Steinbeck’s novel was flawed because none of the main characters were people of color.
British newspapers quoted Allan Crosbie, the English Department head at James Gillespie, telling a school meeting, “Those novels are dated and problematical in terms of decolonizing the curriculum.” Replacing the books removed from reading lists, Crosbie said, would be “The Hate U Give” by the American writer Angie Thomas, which tells the story of an unarmed black teenager shot dead by a white policeman. (An email sent to James Gillespie High School asking for an interview went unanswered.)
St. Stephen’s University, one of the oldest and most prestigious in the United Kingdom, now requires matriculating students to pass a test in “sustainability, diversity, consent, and good academic practice.” The test asks, for example, whether a student agrees or disagrees with the statement, “Acknowledging your personal guilt is a useful starting point in overcoming unconscious bias.”
The embrace of such ideas might seem strange in a nation like Scotland with its homogeneous population — 96% white; only 4% African, Caribbean, Asian, or mixed — and its Scottish Enlightenment heritage. The stomping ground of classical “Great Books” figures like David Hume and Adam Smith wouldn’t seem to present fertile ground for critical race theory or Black Lives Matter. In contrast with the U.S. – or European countries with long colonial pasts such as France, Belgium, Spain and the United Kingdom — Scotland has no history of domestic slavery and very little of the kind of racial tensions or racial obsessions that are central to American history.
Yet Scottish “wokeness” exemplifies the broad appeal of a globalized demand that the West in general engage in an apologetic self-examination, one predicated on the idea of some previously unacknowledged fault lying at the heart of Western civilization, and only at the heart of Western civilization. “Nothing is more Western,” the French essayist and novelist Pascal Bruckner has written on this phenomenon, “than hatred of the West.”
The spread of “woke” ideas in this sense also demonstrates a negative power of the American example and its globalization. America, in this view, being the most powerful Western country, is therefore the one with the gravest intrinsic fault. “When Black Lives Matter happened in America, it was almost as if the incident that incited it happened here, Stuart Waiton, the Abertay lecturer, told me. “It wasn’t a British policeman who killed a black man. The killing didn’t happen here. And yet, everyone became a participant in BLM. People formed racial awareness groups. There were massive demonstrations. If it’s happening in America, it will probably happen in Scotland as well.”
Consider Education Scotland, a governmental entity that provides advice to the country’s centralized public school system and has in recent times created and promoted a program aimed at “decolonizing the curriculum” through “anti-racist education.” A booklet titled “Promoting and Developing Race Equality and Anti-Racism Education” describes “race” as “a concept that tried to justify exploitation, domination, and violence against people who were deemed non-white” and “made it easier for Britain to downplay the brutality of slavery and colonization.”
But if there’s mention of British colonialism as a kind of original sin, the program is certainly heavily influenced by similar “diversity and inclusion” programs formulated in the United States. Another booklet posted on the Education Scotland website, titled “Anti-Racist Praxis,” is written by Titilayo Farukuoye, who, according to the booklet’s introduction, “aspires to dismantle oppressive structures and to transcend race and gender constructs.” It lays out a full anti-racist program, with, for example, instructions to teachers on how to handle “white fragility.”
“Teachers will,” the booklet says:
- Define white fragility
- Identify white fragility
- Practice overcoming white fragility
- Practice how to centre the person who has experienced harm.
But perhaps the greatest acrimony arising out of a “woke” ideology, illustrated by the case of Lisa Keogh, has another powerful American echo. It has to do with trans rights, and the battle over gender definition, much of it spurred by leglislation being considered by the Scottish parliament that would reform the UK’s Gender Recognition Act of 2004, which enabled people throughout Great Britain to legally change their gender. The reform would make the process much easier, essentially by what’s called “self-identification,” enabling people to change their gender without the need for a medical diagnosis.
Worried that men could simply declare themselves to be women and thereby gain access to such women’s spaces as girls’ sports teams, bathrooms, and shelters, some people, including some leading Scottish feminists, either outright opposed the change or at least urged a discussion of it. The reaction from the transgender lobby has been swift and harsh.
An example is an ongoing incident that started three years ago when Ann Henderson, only the second woman in 170 years to be elected rector of the University of Edinburgh, another of Scotland’s renowned institutions of higher learning, retweeted a message from a feminist group that opposes the move to allow people to identify their own gender. Harassment for what she called “repeated, unfounded accusations” continued for her entire three-year term; it was led by student groups, against which, Henderson says, she got very little support from the university.
The acrimony over trans rights has a political dimension in Scotland, where the majority group in the Scottish parliament, the Scottish National Party, has avidly supported the proposed reform, to the point of excluding party members who expressed doubts. The most widely known such case involves Joan McAlpine, a former member of the parliament with impeccable feminist credentials. But because of her dissenting ideas about trans self-identification, McAlpine was placed so far down on the SNP’s election list that she was effectively removed from office.
Among her offenses was her opposition to adding a “non-binary” option to the British census form, on the grounds that it would weaken protections for women. Earlier this year, she was uninvited from a meeting on climate change because, as the organizers of the meeting put it, “We do not believe her views on transgender rights align with our views on equality.”
“It’s been incredibly toxic,” Mandy Rhodes, the editor of Holyrood, a biweekly publication focused on Scottish politics, told me at a meeting in her office in Edinburgh. “I’ve been a campaigning journalist my whole career, over three decades, always focused on equality and social justice issues, but I find myself in the ridiculous position of being accused of being anti-trans and siding with the right-wing press when all I’ve really done is understand that human rights can conflict with each other and we always need to question and explore the consequences, however unintended, of that.”
Recently, a senior police officer in Scotland caused a stir when he said that the police could record a suspected rapist as a woman in cases involving “a person born male but who identifies as female and does not have a gender recognition certificate.”
“This would potentially mean that a woman who has been raped would have to address her alleged assailant as ‘she,’” Rhodes said. “In Scots law, rape can only be committed by someone with a penis, and so the absurdity and potential harms to women victims of sexual assault have been exposed by this line of discussion, where proponents of self-identification for trans people basically have to defend the rights of rapists against the rights of women who have been raped.”
Some critics of Scottish wokeness in general identify it as part of a broad cultural shift toward what they call a therapeutic society, as opposed to a society of individual agency, with a strong emphasis on the idea that vulnerable groups need state protection. A couple of years ago, the courts required the government to scrap a planned program by which every child in Scotland under 18 years of age would be assigned a “named person” who would have responsibility for that child’s welfare, which its critics construed as an effort to take authority out of the hands of parents and give it to the government.
“More and more we feel like we’re living in a one-party regime ruled over by a bunch of managers and where what’s been decided is now in process and you have to comply with it,” Penny Lewis, a lecturer in the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Dundee, told me. “It’s not people in jackboots marching down the street,” she continued. “It’s all wrapped up in this ideology of caring.”
According to Lewis and others who share her views, the Scottish government, led by the SNP, sees itself as a kind of world leader in bringing about a kind of therapeutic state. “The SNP barely existed before the referendum on independence,” she said, referring to the 2014 vote that defeated a move for Scottish independence from Great Britain. “A lot of them actually have very limited political experience, so it’s easier for them to take these supposedly virtuous ideas off the shelf, than it is to figure out what to do in a country that’s got serious problems.”
“The new authoritarianism isn’t about authorities imposing their will, but protecting supposedly vulnerable groups,” Waiton said. And if there are no truly vulnerable groups desperately in need of state protection, it’s necessary to invent them.
“We’ve moved from people as a social subject to people as the vulnerable subject,” Waiton said, “and if you think people are vulnerable, then they have to be protected.”
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Richard Bernstein is an investigative reporter for RealClearInvestigations, examining international relations, higher education, religion, and the culture wars. He is a former foreign correspondent, culture reporter, author, and book critic for Time magazine and the New York Times, and was the first Beijing bureau chief for Time.
Photo “Protest” by Rute Pina CC BY 2.0.