Opinion | What It Means to Be Woke
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By Ross Douthat
This week the conservative writer Bethany Mandel had the kind of moment that can happen to anyone who talks in public for a living: While promoting a new book critiquing progressivism, she was asked to define the term “woke” by an interviewer — a reasonable question, but one that made her brain freeze and her words stumble. The viral clip, in turn, yielded an outpouring of arguments about the word itself: Can it be usefully defined? Is it just a right-wing pejorative? Is there any universally accepted label for what it’s trying to describe?
The answers are yes, sometimes and unfortunately no. Of course there is something real to be described: The revolution inside American liberalism is a crucial ideological transformation of our time. But unlike a case like “neoconservatism,” where a critical term was then accepted by the movement it described, our climate of ideological enmity makes settled nomenclature difficult.
I personally like the term “Great Awokening,” which evokes the new progressivism’s roots in Protestantism — but obviously secular progressives find it condescending. I appreciate how the British writer Dan Hitchens acknowledges the difficulty of definitions by calling the new left-wing politics “the Thing” — but that’s unlikely to catch on with true believing Thingitarians.
So let me try a different exercise — instead of a pithy term or definition, let me write a sketch of the “woke” worldview, elaborating its internal logic as if I myself believed in it. (To the incautious reader: These are not my actual beliefs.)
What is America all about, at its best? Equality and liberty. What is the left all about, at its best? Transforming those ideals into lived realities.
But this project keeps running into limits, disappointments and defeats. Everywhere you look, terrible disparities persist. And that persistence should force us to look deeper, beyond attempts to win legal rights or redistribute wealth, to the cultural and psychological structures that perpetuate oppression before law and policy begins to play a part. This is what the terminology of the academy has long been trying to describe — the way that generations of racist, homophobic, sexist, and heteronormative power have inscribed themselves, not just on our laws but our very psyches.
And once you see these forces in operation, you can’t unsee them — you are, well, “awake” — and you can’t accept any analysis that doesn’t acknowledge how they permeate our lives.
This means rejecting, first, any argument about group differences that emphasizes any force besides racism or sexism or other systems of oppression. (Indeed, the very measurement of difference — through standardized testing, say — is itself inevitably shaped by these oppressive forces.) Even differences that seem most obviously biological, like the differences between male and female athletes or the bodies that people find sexually attractive, should be presumed to be primarily culturally inscribed — because how can we know what’s really biological until we’ve finished liberating people from the crushing constraints of gender stereotypes?
It also means rejecting or modifying the rules of liberal proceduralism, because under conditions of deep oppression those supposed liberties are inherently oppressive themselves. You can’t have an effective principle of nondiscrimination unless you first discriminate in favor of the oppressed. You can’t have real freedom of speech unless you first silence some oppressors.
And all of this is necessarily a cultural and psychological project, which is why schools, media, pop culture and language itself are the essential battlegrounds. Yes, economic policy matters, but material arrangements are downstream of culture and psychology. The socialists have merely gentled capitalism, the environmentalists have merely regulated it. If you want to save the planet or end the rule of greed, you need a different kind of human being, not just a system that assumes racist patriarchal values and tries to put them on a leash.
You think this is too utopian? Consider a proof of concept, what we’ve already seen with gay rights. There the left overthrew a system of deep heteronormative oppression by establishing a new cultural consensus, in the academy and in pop culture and only at the end in politics and law, using argument but also shaming, social pressure and other “illiberal” means.
And look what we’ve learned: That once homophobia diminishes, millions upon millions of young people begin to define themselves as what they truly are, as some form of L.G.B.T.Q.+, slipping the shackles of heteronormativity at last. Which is why the backlash against the spread of transgender identification among kids must be defeated — because this is the beachhead, the proving ground for full emancipation.
If you find a lot of this narrative persuasive, even filtered through my conservative mind, then whatever “woke” describes, it probably describes you.
If you recoil from it, welcome to the ranks of the unwoke.
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