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The trouble with "woke"
Someone please provide a neutral name for this hugely influential political project
After months of focusing solely on getting this Substack up and running, I’ve started making the occasional appearance on other people’s podcasts. In these conversations, I’m finding that I am struggling to name the political ideology that I’m critical of.
Here’s the problem: Many online insist that the word “woke” is a now a slur. And I certainly would not want to slur anyone.
As it turns out, though, the alternative terms are also considered offensive and inflammatory.
“Identity politics” and “political correctness” have been deemed “dog whistles” for bigoted views that I do not hold.
“Social justice warrior,” or SJW in Internet parlance, is seen as condescending and trivializing. Plus, outdated.
Even “far left” is misleading, because the political movement that we’re speaking of has little to do with traditional leftism — it is largely uninterested in material conditions, disdains the working class, and often embraces the establishment.
Personally, I have tried to popularize the term “identitarian moralism,” which I wrote about earlier this year:
This phrase captures the new left’s puritanical thrust and quasi-religious fervour, along with its festishization of identity, while also signalling its ability to shape-shift to take up the Twitter cause du jour, whether that happens to be pandemic public health policies or, this week, recasting Madeleine Albright as some sort of feminist icon.
What remains consistent, across all fronts, is a strident illiberalism.
But, admittedly, identitarian moralism sounds a bit dull and academic, so it’s not surprising that it has failed to catch on.
What we are left with, then, is a hugely influential movement — which is a major force in politics, the media, the arts, pop culture, Corporate America, education, H.R., and tech — but which we have no legitimate name for.
How can we debate that which we cannot name?
I was reminded of all of this again this week, reading the news.
Here’s how the CBC, my former employer, defined the phenomenon:
Many of these platforms borrow the term “woke,” which is used pejoratively by conservative politicians in the U.S. to describe efforts to combat systemic racism and encourage acceptance of gender diversity.
So, if you use the term “woke,” you are smearing those fighting for gender and racial equality — and making common cause with conservative American politicians?
It makes me wonder: How exactly are we supposed to discuss this political movement — which clearly is not just about straightforward efforts to promote equality, but involves a growing number of quite extreme, and often unpopular, policy demands?
Is all discussion about what this cohort is proposing off the table?
If so, is that not an odd assumption to operate on in a pluralistic democracy?
Significantly, the typical counterargument to all of the above is to claim that nobody opposed to wokeness can even explain what it is.
Okay, fine. Fair enough.
If the call is “explain what you mean by woke and then we can have a conversation,” I will articulate exactly, precisely what I am talking about when I talk about wokeness.
When I say “woke,” I’m referring to a political movement that is driven by a narrow focus on identity, and that promotes an ever-evolving, yet uncompromising — and harshly-enforced — cluster of views, particularly on race and gender.
The ideology behind this movement arises from academic theories like critical race theory and intersectionality. It spreads through social media. And it focuses its revolutionary energy on transforming language and speech norms, interrogating interpersonal conflict, advancing DEI trainings and policies, representing racial and gender diversity in pop culture, pursuing symbolic wins like the toppling of statues — and ostracizing anyone who disagrees with any item on its agenda.
The woke ideology presents itself as leftist, but it is not. It resists class analysis, avoids talking about material conditions, and frequently operates in economically elite spaces. It distrusts the public in general, and working-class people in particular, as it views many of their interests and concerns as problematic. And, while wokeness promotes itself as a natural extension of previous civil rights movements, it is actually antithetical to these movements in that it rejects the tenets that made landmark victories possible — namely free speech and open debate.
As such, wokeness constitutes a challenge to classic liberalism, and thus to the foundations of our current social order.
So, contrary to what the CBC posits, one could easily be a classic liberal, a leftist, a Canadian, outside the political class, pro-racial justice and pro-LGBTQ rights — and also anti-woke.
As, of course, I am.
Hopefully that’s specific enough.
But if you don’t like my definition, there are no shortage of others out there. Hat tip here to the Substack writer HistoryBoomer, who also dove into the “What is woke?” debate in an essay this week. Here’s his definition:
I’d call woke a messy (and oft misused) label for a left-wing ideology that sees society as deeply defined by people’s membership in certain identities — race, gender identity, sexual orientation — and believes ongoing oppression of some identities must be fought with a religious fervor. It’s the fervor, the assumption that anyone opposing their ideas is a hateful bigot, that gives wokeness its disturbing air of sanctimony, and separates it most sharply from old-time liberals like myself. Its most dedicated adherents are absolutely sure that they are fighting for a better world and resistance cannot be tolerated.
Here is what New York Times columnist and Woke Racism author John McWhorter told me in an interview for the Globe and Mail, about his conception of the woke, whom he calls The Elect:
The Elect are people who believe, as an inheritance from critical race theory, that battling power differentials should be central to all intellectual, moral and artistic endeavours. They believe that anyone who disagrees with them deserves a public shaming and a general deprivation of their titles, possibly their job, any honours that they’ve had. The elect is not the left; the elect is not the hard left. The elect is the hard left who are mean.
If there were no such thing as Twitter, there could be no elect. It’s “if you disagree with us, we’re going to call you a racist on Twitter.” A lot of people, frankly, are scared to their socks to be called something like that. There have always been one or two people like the elect in any room, in journalism and in academia. But now they have a disproportionate power. And it’s not right. The vision of the world that they have starts with something sensible, but then takes it way too far.
Here are some thoughts from the excellent Substacker Freddie deBoer:
In an effort to be minimally inflammatory I will today use the term “social justice politics” to refer to the political movement you are all aware of, the one which combines several schools of academic progressivism such as intersectionality, trans-inclusionary feminism, and anti-racism with a focus on interpersonal relations as the primary site of political activity, resistance towards economic class as a political lens, and a belief in the essentially immutable prevalence of bigotry, all expressed through an abstruse vocabulary that signals adherence to this movement and its social culture.
Here is Lean Out podcast guest and How Woke Won author Joanna Williams on the word “woke”:
Clearly the term has become a bit of a political football over the past few years. And it’s changed a lot since its origins in a Black street culture, as a warning to Black people to be aware of real and present dangers — either from the State or from people who were genuinely threatening their lives. But it has clearly morphed along the way. What it seems to be now is partly an insult. Let’s be honest about it: An insult to a group in society who are perhaps extremely politically correct, have very strong views — particularly around identity politics issues, issues to do with race and gender — that are kind of notionally egalitarian and progressive. But I would argue actually take a very authoritarian and very regressive form. It’s very concerned with labeling people according to identity groups, putting people in boxes, and dictating how we should think and how we should relate to people according to those hierarchies that become constructed.
And here is socialist scholar Adolph Reed, who offered me this analysis:
I’m not sure I can [define woke] because it’s pretty diffuse. But what I can say is that it is rooted in a perception of insurgent politics that is more performative and expressivist than I think is helpful. I’m not sure that it has a particular positive program. And if it does, it’s not clear to me that it’s a program that comports with the historical ambitions of what I grew up understanding to be a left politics. That feeds into the second part of your question. I think the focus on disparities is understandable because we are conditioned to see the most meaningful or most actionable dimensions of inequality as occurring along the lines of race or gender, or other categories of identity. And by that, I mean identities that are based on what one supposedly is, as opposed to what one does.
A colleague and good friend Preston Smith has articulated what I think is a very helpful framework. And that is one that posits a distinction between two norms of social justice. Each one of which is perfectly defensible in the abstract, on its own terms. One is what he calls the ideal of racial democracy, which basically boils down to a genuine and more extensive ideal of opportunity, the measure of which would be that Blacks or people from other targeted groups would be distributed up and down the social and political and economic hierarchy in society in numbers that are roughly proportionate to the numbers in the overall population. Smith juxtaposes this to the ideal of social democracy, which I imagine you and most of your audience would be familiar with, where the focus is more on narrowing inequalities at the top and the bottom of society.
One of the limits of the ideal of racial democracy is that it doesn’t necessarily take account of the state of inequalities in the society as a whole. From that standpoint, you can have a society in which one percent of the population controls 90 percent of the resources but it would be considered a just society provided that 12 percent of the one percent were Black, 14 percent were Hispanic, half were women et cetera. But the reality would be that if the pattern of inequality was a dynamic one, increasing numbers of people in any one of the targeted categories would find themselves on the bottom. That is, I think, what the distinction in the left in the United States comes down to at this point.
Note that none of these people are American conservative politicians.
With the work of defining “woke” now out of the way, I would like to have that conversation that was promised.
Here’s my opening question: What would you like us to call your political movement?
Freddie deBoer has, in fact, previously posed this very question, in his essay “Please Just Fucking Tell Me What Term I Am Allowed to Use for the Sweeping Social and Political Changes You Demand”:
If you ask these people, are you part of a social revolution?, they’ll loudly tell you yes! Yes they are! They’re going to shake society at its very foundations. Well, OK then - what do I call your movement? You reject every name that organically develops! I’ll use the name you pick, but you have to actually pick one. You can’t just bitch on Twitter every time someone tries to describe your political cohort, which again you yourself say intends to change the world. Name yourself or you will be named.
I, too, am more than happy to use any name that anyone comes up with.
But let’s agree that we do need one.
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