A minor culture-war squall recently happened over the definition of “woke.” Activists have taken to responding to conservatives who use the term by asking them to define it. The various definitions are usually decried as incorrect, then followed up with QED. certainty that conservatives have no clue what it means, and use the term merely as a question-begging epithet and a political smear.
The word is indeed a political weapon, one adaptable to various political ideologies. But that doesn’t mean the question of meaning is idle. There are various dimensions of the idea of “woke” that originated over a century ago and continue to shape our culture for the worse. A closer examination of “wokeness” reveals that at its heart lie some of the most destructive ideas of modernity that have been spuriously repackaged as cutting-edge novelties.
Like most definitions, a recent one in Atlantic by Thomas Chatterton Williams captures some of the components of the concept, though the author begs the question by writing that conservatives “end up using this word as an epithet to refer—vaguely—to seemingly anything changing in the culture that they don’t like.” That’s not a fact, but an unsubstantiated assertion of “woke” received wisdom.
The author’s own definition begs even more questions: “The constellation of social-justice concerns and discursive lenses that have powerfully influenced institutional decision making does [sic] work to sort individuals into abstract identity groups arranged on spectrums of privilege and marginalization.”
But what specifically and empirically comprises concepts like “social justice,” “privilege,” and “marginalization”? Lurking behind these cant-terms are questionable assumptions about the role of socio-economic status in personal success, and the contested, often subjective metrics used to define “privilege” and the “marginalization” the follows from its lack.
Worse yet, such statements all depend upon the dubious idea of “race,” a zombie word that grossly simplifies the genuine diversity of individuals, ethnicities, regions, mores, customs, education, faiths, and political beliefs. That’s how poor and marginalized white people supposedly still have more “privilege” and are less “marginalized” than a college-educated, affluent, professional “person of color.”
Moreover, a metaphor like “discursive lenses” suggests that just as “lenses” can distort as well as sharpen an image, these “discourses” are shaped to achieve illiberal identity-politics aims. And the postmodern “woke” openly endorse this relativism with phrases like “my truth,” without bothering to square the internal contradiction that their own “discourse” perforce is likewise determined by prejudices and ideologies that serve their political interests.
If there exists a “truth” that is limited to a specific ethnic or sex identity, and hence exclusive of those of others, then there is no truth, only “discourses” locked in zero-sum political struggles for dominance and privilege––that is, propaganda, not truth. What is factual, moral, and good then is a chimera, and has no relevance to other citizens with their own different, “truths.”
Another old troubling idea that vitiates the meaning of “woke” is its reliance on the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” the assumption that the reality of, say, systemic injustice and oppression is camouflaged by the official “discourses,” fabricated and controlled by hegemonic institutions, that lie hidden from view, disguised by specious ideals like “freedom,” “equality,” “patriotism,” and other “lies.”
This technique for discovering the reality allegedly concealed by unjust institutions, and their false narratives justifying their power, can be found in the 19th century. Freudian psychology, for example, asserts that beliefs in religion, or myths, fantasies, and dreams are “illusions,” psychic artefacts that compensate for the neuroses created by psychological trauma inflicted usually by parents in early childhood. Mental health can be achieved only by talk-therapy that exposes the true causes of neuroses and removes the defense mechanisms that hide them.
Similarly, Marxism posits a “false consciousness” that obscures the oppressive reality of industrial capitalism with its institutions like the “opiate” of religion, “a mistaken attitude to the world,” as Marx put it. True justice and equality will come only with the revolution once the proletariat’s consciousness is raised and awakened, and they rebel against the owners and bosses, abolish private property, and collectivize the means of production.
“Wokeness” is the latest version of this old idea. Uncovering the hidden oppressors is the first step in recognizing the unjust, racist reality in which certain “marginalized” peoples, especially “of color,” have to live. Only those “awakened” to that hidden truth will come to understand that, as Williams writes, the “idea that patriarchy, white supremacy, transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, and other ills inexorably saturate our lived realities and that the highest good is to uncover and oppose them is” the essence of wokism. Of course, claiming that all those “ills saturate our lived realities” including our whole society and culture, is yet another begged question.
The problem is very little empirical evidence supports these claims. For example, the idea of “systemic racism” built into our political order from our country’s beginning, must ignore or rationalize the very real progress black Americans have made even before the Civil Rights legislation dismantled legal segregation. Similarly, allegations that because of this “systemic racism” police wantonly murder black men have been repeatedly exploded by statistical data.
Ignored too are the malign effects on the underclass of all races created by redistributionist welfare policies that erode character and compromise the family, not to mention the widespread commercialization of hedonism and sexual license. Yet the smearing of law enforcement remains a potent tool for “woke” activists and politicians seeking political leverage, no matter how many black lives are damaged when police protection is reduced in their neighborhoods.
Finally, the resistance of the “woke” to empirical data and coherent arguments raises the question of what attracts people to such dubious, and decrepit, political ideals. Gaining political power and financial rewards, of course, have been the perennial motives for endorsing destructive ideas since the demagogues of ancient Athens. The mostly unaccounted for millions of dollars raised by the anti-police outfit Black Lives Matter are a case in point.
But there is something more going on than just greed and grifting. Much of “woke” behavior is redolent of political religions and cults, bespeaking its origins in Marxism. As historian Michael Burleigh has written, from the start Marxism “was a religiously inspired mythopoetic drama carefully camouflaged within various scientific-sounding accretions.” The term “woke” itself echoes the experience of religious converts. Indeed, the memoirs of former Marxists in the classic The God That Failed often explicitly describe their embrace of Marxism in terms of an awakening typical of religious conversion.
Arthur Koestler, for example, wrote in 1950 that “I became converted because I was ripe for it and lived in a disintegrating society thirsty for faith.” He goes on to describe his conversion in the imagery of a sudden awakening similar to St. Paul’s on the road to Damascus: “the new light seems to pour from all directions across the skull; the whole universe falls into pattern . . . . There is now an answer to every question, doubt and conflict are a matter of the tortured past . . . . Nothing henceforth can disturb the convert’s inner peace and serenity.”
This state of mind explains the “woke” penchant for absolute, intolerant certainty, indifference to empirical evidence, hysterical attacks on critics and heretics, an amoral “any means necessary” credo, and an eagerness to suspend or “cancel” the civil liberties and freedom of political opponents––all features of political cults and fanatical religions alike. Just think of Greta Thunberg’s juvenile temper-tantrums, or Al Gore’s fire-and-brimstone climate-change sermons at Davos.
“Wokism,” then, in many respects is a substitute religion filling the void created by Christianity’s decline, especially for Millennials and Gen Z’ers. According to a recent American Enterprise Institute report, 34% of Gen Z, and 29% of Millennials are unaffiliated with any religion, compared to 18% for Boomers, and 9% for the Silent Generation (1928-45). Being “woke,” then, satisfies the younger generations’ search for meaning and certainty in the romance of revolution, their obsession with the latest political fads and memes, and their need for a justifying narrative that sorts out the “woke” sheep from the sinful conservative goats––all with without the accountability for one’s actions that traditional religions demand.
In the end, what matters about the idea of “woke” is not the word’s usage, but its illiberal, un-Constitutional policies that strike at the heart of our unalienable rights and freedoms, not to mention the manifest practical failures and lunatic policies of “woke” ideology––a tyranny of the minority just as dangerous as any other.