A Critique of Wokeness
(8/9/22: Made some minor edits towards the end of the article.)
In an earlier post, I talked about the right-wing peanut gallery’s moral panic surrounding children, drag queens, and pedophilia. Towards the end, mostly to illustrate how the right was overblowing the issue of pedophilia in the LGBT+ community, I touched on how the left similarly jumps at the shadow of bigotry—racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and what have you. (Islamophobia was also a liberal boogeyman during the early Trump years, but hardly anyone seems to mention it anymore, as far as I’ve seen.) This post is basically going to be an expansion on that idea and the socio-cultural trends that lend themselves to it.
Wokeness, like cancel culture, is one of those things that everyone seems to have a different definition of; being “woke” first entered the lexicon as an African American Vernacular English (AAVE) term for being aware of the social issues affecting society, and for many of those who call themselves “woke,” that may still be the case. Apart from the original meaning, though, there’s a way of thinking—and acting—that a lot of people associate with wokeness. But what is it, actually?
In my first draft of this blog post, I attempted to ascribe several unique features to wokeness, based on how they’re associated with both wokeness as an “ideology” and with its adherents. But I realize now that this wasn’t the correct approach. Wokeness has become an incredibly broad term; if I had to describe or define wokeness, I would say that it’s a left-wing movement that is concerned with different identity groups and how they all relate to one another and the broader culture, with the goal of promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) of marginalized identities within said culture. It was primarily present at colleges and universities but has since spread out to other cultural institutions. It must be made clear that not every progressive or left-leaning individual identifies as “woke” (I certainly don’t, for reasons I’ll lay out later); however, it would be absurd to claim that you haven’t come across “woke” ideas or people if most of the company you keep is left-leaning, especially if they’re also college-educated urbanites under 30.
Now, it must be said that DEI isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, at least depending on how you define it; it’s a natural and even desirable feature of a pluralistic, heterogenous society like that of the United States. But how you define it is the key thing here, and it’s how wokeness defines DEI—as well as the methods favored by many “woke” activists to try and achieve it—that makes it so contentious among those that are politically attentive enough to be aware of it. Those things are also the reasons why I don’t consider myself “woke”—because (1) I think wokeness, or at the very least a lot of “woke” activists, have too-narrow a focus on group identity, and (2) many of the methods and tactics associated with woke activism are illiberal, in the sense that they undermine the principle of live-and-let-live—allowing people to read and listen to whatever content they choose, even if you’re openly critical of that content.
Identity politics isn’t a wholly counterproductive endeavor; it’s useful to be able to discern existing inequities between groups and whether those differences are benign or malignant. Wokeness is correct in this regard; but a lot of the woke activists that I’ve come across take it further than that. While pretty much all of them support DEI, a lot of them treat it like a zero-sum game; for black LGBT+ women to win a place in mainstream cultural institutions, straight white men must necessarily lose a place. This may be true in specific cases, like when an art gallery is trying to diversify the artists whose works it exhibits—there’s no way to do that without having to take down the artwork of someone who’s white, straight or male. But is it necessary to stop teaching our kids about the ancient Greek philosophers, or Shakespeare, or any other “classic” authors or artists? Is it necessary to tear down statues of the Founding Fathers? It doesn’t seem like it to me.
This logic extends to the discourse around privilege, too; if this article takes off, I’ll probably be accused of trying to protect my privilege, since for the most part I won the social, cultural, and genetic lotteries (mild autism notwithstanding). But the idea that I’m trying to “protect my privilege” implies that it’s necessary to take my privilege away so that it may then be given to someone who is, by some account, more deserving—which is, again, indicative of a zero-sum mindset that I would normally associate with the right. In a sense, then, I guess I am trying to protect my privilege—but mainly because I don’t believe “privilege” as an overall concept is something that can be redistributed the same way material wealth can.
And then there’s the thing that turns a lot of people away from modern social justice movements altogether—illiberal tactics and methodologies. It must be stressed that not all “woke” people engage in this behavior. However, enough of them do—and more stand by without objection—that illiberalism is considered one of the hallmarks of wokeness among skeptics. For example, you’ll often hear stories of certain words and behaviors being punished to a disproportionate degree. I’ve already written an article on cancel culture, so I won’t go into too much detail on that. But suffice it to say that a lot of “woke” activists like to use disproportionate social consequences as a cudgel against critics, skeptics, and even ordinary people who make mistakes that could be conceived as being bigoted or insensitive. As such, many decent left-leaning people will refrain from criticizing identity-based movements altogether because they’re afraid of being perceived as bigots. As a result, there’s a disregard for the intellectual/ideological diversity within the groups wokeness is trying to promote, and the qualifications of what constitutes “bigotry” are expanded beyond the public consensus. (And that’s not to mention the fact that conservatives have used these incidents of cancellations, overreactions, and performative outrage to paint the entire left as hypersensitive, holier-than-thou authoritarians.)
I should make it clear that wokeness isn’t the root of all evil here; in fact, most “woke” activists are well-meaning progressives who genuinely want to promote the interests of marginalized groups, and the illiberalism that I just described is not confined to wokeness—or progressivism more broadly—by any stretch of the imagination. But the crux of the matter here is that the movement’s tactics needs to be critically examined—how effective is this at advancing the cause? Does it really grab the attention of those in power, or is it mere virtual signaling—or worse, a circular firing squad? These are the questions that I beg “woke” activists—and indeed, any progressive activist—to answer before engaging in something that everyone else is doing. For every normie who gets excoriated and/or fired for saying or doing something that’s vaguely bigotry-adjacent because they don’t know better, a true bigot gets their wings.