Of course we can define “woke.” We can define it as “left-wing racialist ideology.” We can define it as the attempt to achieve “critical consciousness,” which is a neo-Marxist term, meaning awakening the subject to his own oppression, then recruiting him into left-wing revolution. Or, if we use it as a stand-in for an ideology such as critical race theory, it simply means that “the United States is an oppressor nation that divides classes along the lines of race and then endorses active discrimination in order to create racial equity or equality of group outcomes.
This was a hot topic several weeks ago, but, tortoise that I am, I’m only now ambling over to examine it up close, having considered it from afar. The precise definition of “woke” is unnecessary, of course. We all know it when we see it. Only pedants, activists and academics care about such squabbles. But if idle speculation on irrelevant topics is wrong, then baby, I don’t want to be a blogger.
Anyway, I’ve seen several people define it along these lines. Wilfred Reilly has one of the most frequently-quoted versions:
a “woke” person, or “social-justice warrior,” is someone who believes that (1) the institutions of American society are currently and intentionally set up to oppress (minorities, women, the poor, fat people, etc.), (2) virtually all gaps in performance between large groups prove that this oppression exists, and (3) the solution to this is equity — which means proportional representation regardless of performance or qualifications.
To which I say: OK, but how is this anything other than the basic logic of affirmative action applied as widely as possible, and how is that anything new? In other words, what, if anything, makes “wokeness” unique, not just another way of saying “left-wing”? If a mainstream liberal Rip Van Winkle nodded off in 2003, he would awaken in 2023 to find himself regarded as a conservative, if not a “fascist,” without changing a single thing in his outlook. This dramatic shift is what people are referring to when they say “woke.” What explains this?
Look over the last decade or so, at all the significant trends and events. Race riots? Those were happening before I was even born. Spoiled rich Ivy League students acting like Red Guards against their hapless professors and administrators? Likewise. Political correctness? Nothing significant about it has changed since the first wave of my youth. Cancel culture? I think that’s just what you get when you combine the vindictive, vengeful parts of human nature with the power and reach of social media. Even transgenderism is just the hastily-attached caboose on the civil rights train, a desperate attempt by the St. Georges of the left to avoid retirement after winning the gay rights battle. How much of this is anything but typical left-wing politics, amplified and magnified to the extreme? It just seems to reappear each generation now, like a plague of locusts.
If you ask me, and even if you don’t, the thing that gives this era its particular character is the increasing illiberalism of the left, driven primarily by what Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff called “safetyism.” I don’t particularly care for the term, but I’m not sure what to replace it with. Call it the therapeutic mindset, the victimhood revolution, the glorification of fragility, weakness, and mental illness. Whatever it is, you find it behind all the most characteristic pathologies of our time. How did the left, in the name of anti-racism, come to embrace racially-segregated dorms and graduation ceremonies, something that would have pleased an old Klansman? How did the left, which created the Free Speech Movement sixty years ago, come to disavow the concept and openly embrace censorship in the name of preventing “harm”? How did the left, which made “question authority” into a bumper-sticker slogan, come to embrace the increasingly-fluid integration, or even collusion, between corporate, tech, and government authorities as revealed in the Twitter Files?
I don’t think any of it would have been possible without the safetyism mentality which permeates everything now. Black students have to be kept separate from white ones, not because they’re inferior, but because they need to be protected from the micro, nano, and picoaggressions they’d be subjected to from their white peers. Unfettered free speech carries the high risk of mild discomfort or annoyance for anyone exposed to ideas they don’t already agree with. People who don’t have advanced degrees or the proper cultural conditioning can’t be trusted to make political decisions unsupervised, lest they elect a reality TV star to the presidency, or vote to leave the European Union, so elite guardians have to secretly monitor their media diets for harmful levels of “disinformation.” Even transgenderism is frequently presented like a demand in a hostage situation — if you don’t “affirm” them in their delusions, they’ll supposedly be at heightened risk of suicide, and it will be your fault if that happens.
Say what you will about the pre-Awokening left, it generally claimed to be working toward providing downtrodden people with dignity. The woke left has given up all pretense of that. There is no dignity in being an object of pity and condescension. There is no dignity in an identity constructed entirely on a sense of fragile victimhood and emotional incontinence. There is no dignity in accepting perpetual infantilization. This is the most significant thing that has changed in recent years, the willing exchange of dignity for a sickly sentimentality and endless resentment. This is the climate of opinion under which we live now.