If Everything Is “Woke,” Nothing Is
Opposition to left-wing “wokeness” is becoming, not just a successful political cause, but a bandwagon. That’s cause for a certain amount of celebration, but also for caution, because where there’s a bandwagon, there are bandwagon-jumpers. Some of them are going to try to take the energy and momentum of a broadly appealing anti-woke coalition and try to divert it for much narrower purposes of their own—or break it all to pieces.
A leading indicator of the condition of wokeness is the sinking ship of “Latinx,” a word that emerged somewhere around 2014 from the fever swamps of the academic and online left as a gender-neutral alternative to “Latino” or “Latina”—but in a way that makes no sense in the Spanish language and is used nowhere else in the Spanish-speaking world. There’s been a growing drumbeat of evidence that even in America, it is not used by anyone but a tiny sliver of those with a Hispanic background.
Only 2 percent of those polled refer to themselves as Latinx, while 68 percent call themselves “Hispanic” and 21 percent favored “Latino” or “Latina” to describe their ethnic background, according to the survey from Bendixen & Amandi International, a top Democratic firm specializing in Latino outreach.
More problematic for Democrats: 40 percent said Latinx bothers or offends them to some degree and 30 percent said they would be less likely to support a politician or organization that uses the term….
“The numbers suggest that using Latinx is a violation of the political Hippocratic Oath, which is to first do no electoral harm,” said Amandi, whose firm advised Barack Obama’s successful Hispanic outreach nationwide in his two presidential campaigns. “Why are we using a word that is preferred by only 2 percent, but offends as many as 40 percent of those voters we want to win?”
By the way, I have always used the term “Hispanic” to describe this demographic and I am now feeling very vindicated.
“Latinx” is just a marker for a larger trend. This report also notes that Republicans have begun gaining Hispanic support by appealing to other culture war issues on which Hispanic voters are a good deal more conservative than left-wing activists.
This is a great example of one of the key characteristics of wokeness: representation without authorization. The woke present themselves as the spokesmen—excuse me: persons of spoke—for the preferences and agenda of various minority groups, without ever really asking those groups what they want or need. But this should be no surprise. It is just an extension to race and gender of the old Leninist idea of a “revolutionary vanguard,” a committee of coffee-house intellectuals who appoint themselves as the voice of the toiling masses.
This failure has created a sense of opportunity, and that naturally leads to opportunism, the attempt to hitch popular rejection of wokeness to some other agenda.
A warning sign for this is a chart being circulated by Michael Shellenberger purporting to be a “Taxonomy of the Woke Religion.”
You will find on here some of the issues we would associate with wokeness, like racism, transgenderism, and (in the era of “Defund the Police”) crime. But then we also have global warming and…the drug war?
I am a fan of Shellenberger’s work elsewhere, and I think I understand where he’s coming from. He is attempting to draw a wider picture and bring out the parallels between, say, woke racism and apocalyptic environmentalism. And there are definitely connections. For example, all the elements of “cancel culture”—the blacklisting, the personal smears, the attempt to shut down debate as inherently illegitimate—were thoroughly explored and tested in the global warming campaign before the recent rise of wokism.
But Shellenberger presents this chart with the disclaimer: “we are publishing it because we recognize that we might be wrong, either about matters of fact or classification, and hope it will encourage a healthy discussion and debate.” Taking him up on that challenge, let me offer the case against this reckless expansion of the concept of “wokeness.”
It was the inclusion of “drugs” in this chart that really caught my attention, because opposition to the drug war and support for legalization is a cause long associated with the conspicuously non-woke libertarians. Shellenberger could argue that they are mistaken and have accepted myths about the benefits of legalization. But it is tendentious to dismiss this all as religious zealotry, much less as originating with the woke religion.
Or take global warming. I am as skeptical of that cause as Shellenberger, and probably more so. But it is not merely an outgrowth of wokeness. It has a separate origin and a different meaning. Many decades ago, one of the first people to publicize prognostications about catastrophic global warming was Carl Sagan, an old-fashioned liberal who also spoke eloquently against the suppression of ideas. It’s hard to say where Sagan would come down on wokeness if he were alive today, but I’m betting it would be closer to Richard Dawkins than to Bill Nye (though you will never be woke enough, so even Nye has had his troubles).
I get that Shellenberger is trying to make wider connections, and if he had described this as a chart of “left-wing orthodoxy” or “luxury beliefs,” I would mostly be on board. My objection is to the impulse to expand “woke” to mean “anything advocated by the left” or even “anything I disagree with.”
That impulse is widespread right now. Wesley Yang, for example, defines “wokeness” so broadly that it could literally be anything. “‘Woke’ means ‘striving to be at the vanguard of today's progressive beliefs, whatever those happen to be.’” Or I recently got an announcement for a podcast that promises to connect “wokeness” to COVID mitigation measures.
This approach is used most brazenly and self-consciously by Christopher Rufo, who started by using “Critical Race Theory” as a “catchall”—his term—for today’s political dogmas on the subject of race. But then he had to go broader.
We have successfully frozen their brand—“critical race theory”—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.
The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think “critical race theory.” We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.
Wokeness, like CRT, is being turned into a catchall for “all of the various cultural insanities.”
(The mitigating factor here is that Rufo’s mania for self-promotion tends to get in the way of his effectiveness. He can’t just use a clever rhetorical technique to manipulate the debate. He then has to tell you how clever he was by describing how he manipulated you, thereby breaking the spell.)
But if everything is “woke,” nothing is.
The success of anti-wokism and of opposition of Critical Race Theory is so obvious that the left is now trying to abandon and disavow these terms. Their defense is that “woke” has become meaningless, a scare term created by the right to target anything they don’t like.
This is an obvious dodge. Wokeness does have a specific meaning and ideology, one tied to Critical Race Theory, as Helen Pluckrose described here at Symposium.
It has some of its intellectual ancestry in Marxist thought and the concept of “critical consciousness,” that is, becoming aware of oppressive power systems—hence the connection with the term “woke,” which uses the African-American Vernacular English word to describe being able to see systems of oppression that are invisible to most people. But Critical Social Justice derives more from postmodern concepts of knowledge, power, and discourses.
CSJ holds that knowledge is not objective but is culturally constructed to maintain oppressive power systems…. Knowledge is thus tied to identity and one’s perceived position in society in relation to power—often referred to as “positionality.”…
Any skepticism of these interpretations is assumed to be an attempt to preserve one’s own privilege if one is of a group perceived to be privileged, or, if one is not a member of a privileged group, it is seen as evidence of one having internalized the oppressive power system. This is, of course, completely unfalsifiable and therefore makes it impossible for any disagreement to be seen as legitimate.
This is what we are talking about when we talk about “wokeness.” It is a specific set of ideas with a specific intellectual history and documented avenues of contemporary influence.
But when someone like Christopher Rufo designates it as a catchall for any idea on the left, he is confirming the left’s claim that the term is malleable and crudely partisan—because for him, it is.
This also threatens to break apart the growing anti-woke coalition. It tells our potential allies on the center-left that if they want to be anti-woke, they need to also become global warming skeptics and sign up for the drug war.
The reaction to the “Latinx” fiasco and the growing fear that the woke kids are costing Democrats their base of support among minority voters has led some on the center-left to begin advocating for the party’s return to a semblance on sanity. It would undoubtedly be good for the country and the culture if they succeeded. But we make it harder if we hand them a matrix of other views they have to agree with in order to be sufficiently non-woke.
Maybe this makes sense if you think the battle has already been won, that we don’t need to recruit allies any more and can now indulge in an internal battle over who gets the spoils of victory.
Yet consider the cases that keep pouring in. You may have heard of the transgender college swimmer who switched from the men’s team to the women’s team and promptly smashed all of the women’s records. The important part of this story is not what we think about transgender athletes. It’s the fact that the young female athletes who objected to this had to do so anonymously.
Even after a Wednesday team meeting where a source says Penn administration “strongly advised” its swimmers to avoid talking to the media about the situation surrounding transgender Penn swimmer Lia Thomas, a second female Penn swimmer has stepped forward to speak out via an exclusive interview with OutKick.
The second female Penn swimmer to speak out, who was granted anonymity due to what is viewed as threats from the university, activists, and the political climate, wants people to know that Penn swimmers are “angry” over the lack of fairness in the sport as Lia Thomas destroys the record books and brings fellow teammates to tears.
These women cannot speak up for themselves for fear of being vilified or attacked by campus mobs, with the certainty that they would have no support from college administrators. The whole reason why wokeness is a crisis is because it prevents us from having a discussion or debate, so that dogmas become entrenched and errors and injustices are impossible to correct.
The work of pushing back against this is still at its beginnings, so we had better gather together the widest possible coalition and keep our focus on a clearly defined shared mission.
There is more at stake here than just the practical requirements of maintaining a coalition.
If the problem with wokeness is specifically that it quashes debate—that it delegitimizes all dissent—then the way to oppose it is to advocate for open debate, with many different viewpoints being heard. But if wokeness is just a catchall for any ideas held by supporters of a rival party or faction, then the way to oppose it is to oppose any expression of your opponents’ ideas.
That is how we arrived at the conservative political correctness of anti-woke legislation, as described by Jeffrey Sachs.
Consider this language from Tennessee’s anti-CRT bill, which Governor Bill Lee signed into law last month.
An LEA [public school authority] or public charter school shall not include or promote the following concepts as part of a course of instruction or in a curriculum or instructional program, or allow teachers or other employees of the LEA or public charter school to use supplemental instructional materials that include or promote the following concepts: [emphasis added]
The law then lists proscribed concepts, but that need not detain us here. What matters is that the law prohibits mere inclusion of those concepts, as distinct from and in addition to their promotion. That means even a neutral, objective discussion is off the table….
Similar bills recently became law in Oklahoma and Texas. Both prohibit K-12 public school teachers from requiring or “mak[ing] part of a course” one of the proscribed concepts. Not “promoting” or “teaching as true” or “compelling students to affirm.” Just “make part of a course.”…
The problems here are obvious. One of the forbidden concepts is the idea that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.” Banning that sounds reasonable enough, right? Now suppose a social studies teacher in Houston wants to assign Alexander Stephens’ 1861 “Cornerstone Speech.” It is a watershed address in American history and the clearest articulation of the Confederate position. It is also a speech built around the idea that black people are inferior to white people. What is that teacher supposed to do? And given the sensitivities of students, their parents, local politicians, and activists, what must the teacher be willing to risk?
It’s not hard to see what went wrong. Legislators in these states want to ban teachers from assigning antiracist gurus like Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo. They want topics like “white privilege” out of the classroom, no matter how objectively discussed. Unfortunately, they’ve drafted bills so broad and clumsily written that entire historical eras and swathes of contemporary events would be barred from discussion.
The key distinction is a ban on teachers promoting or requiring certain ideas, versus a ban on including an idea. The first targets classroom indoctrination. The second is an attempt to eliminate all discussion. It is censorship as an answer to censorship.
And now we’re getting vigilante censorship. I mentioned before that a conservative activist group that calls itself Moms for Liberty has been offering bounties to citizens who inform on teachers, ratting them out for mentioning banned ideas in their classrooms. Now something similar is being proposed as law under Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s “Stop WOKE Act.”
A key piece of the DeSantis proposal would give parents the power to sue local school districts that teach lessons rooted in critical race theory. This part, which also allows parents to collect attorney fees, is similar to the bounties permitted under Texas’ controversial abortion law. Under that law, ordinary citizens can sue those who provide abortions and collect attorney fees….
The legislation sought by DeSantis essentially calls upon citizens to enforce the state ban on critical race theory teachings.
It is quite an achievement to take a woke movement that has made itself unpopular by being scolding and censorious and deputizing busybodies to harass anyone who utters an unauthorized thought—and counter it with an anti-woke movement that is scolding and censorious and deputizes busybodies to harass with anyone who utters an unauthorized thought.
I expect that in the long run, after a few widely publicized cases of conservative cancel culture, this counter-authoritarian movement will be equally as popular.
Once again, the fundamental question is whether we’re against wokeness or for liberalism and a free society.
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Freedom - the concept - continues to be a difficult idea for people to grasp. It is as essential to our well-being as water and air, and yet seemingly impossible to establish and maintain. Thank you for another well-written defense of it.