Of Course You Know What "Woke" Means
I'd rather use any other term at this point, but can we get real please?
As I have said many times, I don’t like using the term “woke” myself, not without qualification or quotation marks. It’s too much of a culture war pinball and now deemed too pejorative to be useful. I much, much prefer the term “social justice politics” to refer to the school of politics that is typically referred to as woke, out of a desire to be neutral in terminology. However: there is such a school of politics, it’s absurd that so many people pretend not to know what woke means, and the problem could be easily solved if people who support woke politics would adopt a name for others to use. No to woke, no to identity politics, no to political correctness, fine: PICK SOMETHING. The fact that they steadfastly refuse to do so is a function of their feeling that they shouldn’t have to do politics like everyone else. But they do. And their resistance to doing politics is why, three years after a supposed “reckoning,” nothing has really changed. (If there’s no such thing as the social justice politics movement, who made the protests and unrest of 2020 happen? The fucking Democrats?)
The conceit is that “woke” has even shaggier or vaguer boundaries than “liberal,” “fascist,” “conservative,” or “moderate.” And I just don’t think that’s true.
“Woke” or “wokeness” refers to a school of social and cultural liberalism that has become the dominant discourse in left-of-center spaces in American intellectual life. It reflects trends and fashions that emerged over time from left activist and academic spaces and became mainstream, indeed hegemonic, among American progressives in the 2010s. “Wokeness” centers “the personal is political” at the heart of all politics and treats political action as inherently a matter of personal moral hygiene - woke isn’t something you do, it’s something you are. Correspondingly all of politics can be decomposed down to the right thoughts and right utterances of enlightened people. Persuasion and compromise are contrary to this vision of moral hygiene and thus are deprecated. Correct thoughts are enforced through a system of mutual surveillance, one which takes advantage of the affordances of internet technology to surveil and then punish. Since politics is not a matter of arriving at the least-bad alternative through an adversarial process but rather a matter of understanding and inhabiting an elevated moral station, there are no crises of conscience or necessary evils.
Woke is defined by several consistent attributes. Woke is
Academic - the terminology of woke politics is an academic terminology, which is unsurprising given its origins in humanities departments of elite universities. Central to woke discourse is the substitution of older and less complicated versions of socially liberal perspectives with more willfully complex academic versions. So civil rights are out, “anti-racism” is in. Community is out, intersectionality is in. Equality is out, equity is in. Homelessness is out, unhousedness is in. Sexism is out, misogyny is in. Advantage is out, privilege is in. Whenever there’s an opportunity to introduce an alternative concept that’s been wrung through academia’s weird machinery, that opportunity is taken. This has the advantage of making political engagement available only to a priestly caste that has enjoyed the benefits of elite university education; like all political movements, the woke political movement is captured by the urge to occupy elevated status within it.
Immaterial - woke politics are overwhelmingly concerned with the linguistic, the symbolic, and the emotional to the detriment of the material, the economic, and the real. Woke politics are famously obsessive about language, developing literal language policies that are endlessly long and exacting. Utterances are mined for potential offense with pitiless focus, such that statements that were entirely anodyne a few years ago become unspeakable today. Being politically pure is seen as a matter of speaking correctly rather than of acting morally. The woke fixation on language and symbol makes sense when you realize that the developers of the ideology are almost entirely people whose profession involves the immaterial and the symbolic - professors, writers, reporters, artists, pundits. They retreat to the linguistic because they feel that words are their only source of power. Consider two recent events: the Academy Awards giving Oscars to many people of color and Michigan repealing its right-to-work law. The latter will have vastly greater positive consequences for actually-existing American people of color than the former, and yet the former has been vastly better publicized. This is a direct consequence of the incentive structure of woke politics.
Structural in analysis, individual in action - the woke perspective is one that tends to see the world’s problems as structural in nature rather than the product of individual actors or actions. Sometimes the problems are misdiagnosed or exaggerated, but the structural focus is beneficial. Curiously, though, the woke approach to solutions to politics is relentlessly individualistic. Rather than calling for true mass movements (which you cannot create without the moderation and compromise the social justice set tends to abhor), woke politics typically treats all political struggle as a matter of the individual mastering themselves and behaving correctly. The fundamental unit of politics is not the masses but the enlightened person, in the social justice mindset, and the enlightened person is one who has attained a state of moral cleanliness, particularly as expressed in language. The structural problems (such as racism) are represented as fundamentally combated with individual moral correctness (such as articulated in White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, which argues that racism is combated by white people interrogating their souls rather than with policy). The only real political project is the struggle against the self; the only real political victory is the mastery of one’s thoughts. The distinction between the effective political actor and the morally hygienic thinker is collapsed. You combat homophobia by being gay-affirming. You combat misogyny by respecting women. You combat all social ills by relentlessly fixating on your own position in society and feeling bad about it. Nothing political can escape the gravity of personal psychodrama and no solutions exist but cleansing the self.
Emotionalist - “emotionalist” rather than emotional, meaning not necessarily inappropriately emotional but concerned fundamentally with emotions as the currency of politics. In woke circles, political problems are regularly diagnosed as a matter of the wrong emotions being inspired in someone. Someone feeling “invalid” is no longer an irrelevant matter of personal psychology best left to a therapist but instead a political problem to be solved, and anyone who provoked that feeling is someone who has committed a political crime no matter what the context or pretext. Good political action makes people feel better. To the extent that material victories like feeding the hungry are celebrated, they are celebrated because they inspire good feelings rather than solve corporeal problems. The famous woke antipathy towards the concept of civil liberties and personal freedoms stems from the triumph of emotions; things like rights are no match for the claims of any individual of psychic distress. Economic, legal, and political inequality are all relevant only to the extent that they make people from minority identities sad. The fixation on emotions fits snugly in the assumption of the individual as the basic unit of politics. It also ensures that woke politics assume the possibility of a frictionless universe in which everyone feels good all the time.
Fatalistic - woke politics tend towards extreme fatalism regarding solutions and the possibility of gradual positive political change. Institutions are all corrupt and bigoted, so institutions cannot prompt change. Most people are irredeemably racist, and so the masses cannot create a just society. Constructive police reform is inherently and irrevocably impossible, so the only response to police violence is police abolition, no matter that we can’t actually achieve police abolition. Everything and everyone is presumed to be unapologetically bigoted until proven otherwise. Problems can’t be solved gradually through small steps over time, but only through revolutionary change, which itself will inevitably be blocked by the white-cis-male power structure. Everything sucks all the time, which incidentally justifies yelling all the time for people who enjoy yelling. The purpose of politics is not to sacrifice in the pursuit of change but to occupy the position of eternal Cassandra, someone who identifies the evil but never stops it.
Insistent that all political questions are easy - woke people speak and act as though there are no hard political questions and no such thing as a moral dilemma. Everything is obvious if you’ve only done the reading and done the work, which woke people assure you they did long ago. If you don’t know what the right thing to do or say is, it’s only because you aren’t really dedicated; if you think you’ve hit upon a real dilemma of conflicting but legitimate concerns, you’re simply lacking in education and wisdom. It’s funny, actually, that you don’t know the exact right thing to think, right now. I’m actually laughing.
Possessed of belief in the superior virtue of the oppressed - what was assumed by Bertrand Russel to be obviously misguided is now assumed to be true without evaluation: virtue is not just common among the oppressed, virtue is a function of oppression. The correlation between virtue and oppression is one.
Enabling people who aren’t Black or Southern to say “y’all” - this one is unforgivable.
I could go on. And some will disagree with this or that. But whether you think this is an accurate portrayal of the kind of politics that became dominant in progressive circles in the last 10-12 years, something happened. Something changed. Of course something changed! I find it so, so bizarre that people still insist that nothing much changed in progressive discourse or politics in that time period. Go back and read stuff that was getting published in liberal outlets in 2010 and tell me it’s the same. Come on. Give me a break. Grow up.
I’d rather woke politics win than conservatism. But I’d rather have a friendly forgiving plainspoken big tent civil libertarian socialist mass movement, personally. Trouble is, there is only woke and anti-woke. There is no escape.