The ability of humans to overcome our feelings (including rage, fear and lust) and make evidence-based decisions is the single most important reason for our progress. The woke command to placate the feelings of select groups and fanatically pursue trendy causes while rejecting empirically grounded knowledge will only set back the flourishing of society.

This is already happening. However, we are affluent in both social and financial terms. It is only when this wealth is seriously depleted that the pursuit of knowledge will once again become the principal aim of society. Until then, get ready for some suffering.

The damage done by making feelings more important than facts is unfolding in real time in the cradle of wokeism: the US.

In response to the abhorrent killing of an African-American, George Floyd, by a white police officer, lobby groups (such as Black Lives Matter) called for the disestablishment of police forces. Rather than urging for Floyd’s killer to be appropriately punished and for police to be better trained, these activists actually felt it would be a good idea to defund the police.

Now think (don’t feel) about that for a moment. It is incontestably one of the stupidest ideas in history. Criminologists have known for decades that the best deterrent to criminal activity is to instil in people the belief that if they commit crimes they will be caught. This is best achieved by ensuring a high police presence. This has been repeatedly proven by empirical studies.

Moreover, a number of natural social experiments (including the 1923 Melbourne police strike) showed that if the police numbers are radically reduced, chaos will ensue.

Despite this, many police departments across the US have been progressively starved of resources. The result is unsurprising. The rate of violent crime and homicide has had its largest increase – more than 30 percent in some US cities. This is on the back of a declining crime rate in the US for much of the past 25 years.

Now, just like that, crime is suddenly the second biggest concern of Americans (behind inflation). Liberal cities such as San Francisco that aggressively defunded police departments are now furiously “refunding police” as a result of unprecedented levels of crime.

The surge in crime was utterly predictable. Every one of the thousands of law professors and criminologists in the US knew that no other outcome was possible. The incredible thing is that the “defund the police” movement met no effective, expert pushback explaining how this policy would result in the preventable deaths of thousands of innocent people, many of them African-Americans.

Many criminologists did not speak up because they knew they risked being “cancelled” from their jobs and social circles if they expressed views contrary to this “social justice” cause.

This highlights the paradox of the internet. Its theoretically free flow of communication has not led to enhanced knowledge. Rather, it has provided a vehicle for enhanced venting and emotional manipulation.

The internet gives every person a podium and the noise emanating from millions of daily posts hampers the ability of many people to distinguish between fact and agenda. Truth is no longer binary but now depends on the extent to which people can stimulate the feelings of others and drown out opposing views by inflicting damage on the careers and social standing of people with dissenting views.

The thudding hypocrisy of woke­ism is that the advocates of social justice causes have become ruthless tyrants and oppressors. They have shown no restraint in seeking to dismantle free speech (a cornerstone of democracy), the presumption of innocence and proportionality in punishment.

Former US president Barack Obama had no luck getting woke warriors to temper their blind rage.

In 2019, he pointed out that the “idea of purity and that you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke (is misguided). People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”

To this day, the smartest analysis of free speech dates back to British philosopher JS Mill who stated that “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race … If the opinion is right, (people) are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”

Of course, no principle is absolute. Free speech can be limited, but only when it is necessary to prevent harm to others — for example, words that incite violence or defame others. In all other circumstances, suppressing free speech causes more damage to society and individuals than any emotional hurt (real or perceived) among those who decide to be offended. Feelings are not unimportant but the trajectory of human progress demonstrates that stifling free speech and thereby compromising the search for knowledge is too high a price to pay for allowing rule by emotions.

This article has been republished from The Australian with the permission of the author.

Mirko Bagaric

Mirko Bagaric is the dean of law at Swinburne University.