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One Cheer for Wokeness
We need a faculty of societal self-criticism—but not an out-of-control one
From Mickey Mouse to Bud Light, the campaign against “wokeness” has become the defining issue of today’s conservative movement. Anti-wokeness has taken the place tax cuts used to occupy as the bedrock of the GOP platform, with more than one Republican politician betting he can ride this issue all the way to the White House.
This has also set off a curious debate over what exactly “wokeness” means. Conservative writer Bethany Mandel notoriously struggled to define it when plugging her new book opposing wokeness, eventually managing to settling on a description of wokeness as the idea that “we need to totally reimagine and redo society” to oppose “hierarchies of oppression.” This oddly makes wokeness sound appealing, as if it were plain old do-gooder reformism—a position that many defenders of wokeness are taking.
I think we can adopt two rules of thumb: 1.) If your definition of “woke” happens to overlap in a perfect circle Venn diagram with everything you dislike, you’re doing it wrong; and 2.) If your definition of “woke” is totally innocuous and uncontroversial and basically puppies and rainbows and being nice to people, you’re also doing it wrong.
Part of the problem is that “woke” began as a slang term, which by its nature has no formal definition, and only later became associated with a specific ideology. So that leaves it open to wide and vague interpretations by both defenders and critics—and for anti-wokeness to be abused as a political talking point.
It is that abuse, particularly the use of “woke” as a pejorative term to dismiss any criticism of the status quo, that compels me to say a word in defense of wokeness.
What we were originally supposed to be awakened to, in the slang injunction to “stay woke,” is the existence of racial discrimination and injustice. This is where the woke have a point, because this is precisely the issue on which some of today’s anti-woke activists want to put us back to sleep.
As part of a campaign against teaching critical race theory in schools and removing books with age-inappropriate content, anti-woke activists have banned books like “Hidden Figures,” which tells the story of Black female mathematicians working at NASA. Last month, a Pinellas County, Florida, school canceled the screening of a film about Ruby Bridges, the first student to integrate a school in Louisiana. This was in response to a parent’s complaint that “scenes of white people threatening Ruby as she entered a school might result in students learning that white people hate Black people.” But of course, if you watch the footage of the white mob, you know that such hatred is an undeniable historical fact.
As the report on this story concludes, “Lawmakers have made clear that they don’t want books, movies, or lessons about race to create student discomfort.” Irony abounds: For years, conservatives relentlessly mocked the whole idea of keeping people in a “safe space” so they don’t have to feel “uncomfortable” by confronting ideas with which they disagree. Now, they have adopted it. While the cancellation of the film screening was billed as protecting students from discomfort, it’s not hard to guess who’s really discomforted. Remember those white mobs screaming at Ruby Bridges back in 1960, then remember that not all of those people have passed away—nor have all the children these parents told not to play with their Black classmates. Across the American South, there is still an undercurrent of guilt left over from the history of segregation and widespread complicity with an unjust system.
Yes, examining the history of racism and segregation makes people uncomfortable. It should. Discomfort is good for us. Self-criticism is good for us. Even, in the right context, a certain degree of shame and guilt can be good for us.
Self-criticism is a cognitive necessity and a mechanism of survival. It exists to help us learn from our mistakes. It’s a universal experience to suddenly remember a gaffe or faux pas from one’s past—often a moment of acute embarrassment—and have that memory pop up unbidden and bring back a wave of bad feelings and some of that dreaded “discomfort.” It’s a miracle that we somehow manage to survive.
But ask what such moments accomplish. Your subconscious mind is simply trying to protect you. It brings back a painful or embarrassing memory as a reminder: That was a bad idea, and you should never do it again. We learn this as individuals, but we also learn it as a society and a culture.
As a society, a faculty of self-criticism can drive necessary reforms, causing us to do exactly what we did during the Civil Rights Movement. It can also keep arrogant leaders from driving us over a cliff: It was the absence of a culture of criticism, relentlessly suppressed by paranoid leaders, that emboldened Vladimir Putin to launch his disastrous war in Ukraine.
The Itty-Bitty Committee
This is why I offer one cheer for wokeness. We always need someone to criticize the way things are and keep us awakened to our past failures and misdeeds.
But I’m only going to offer one cheer. I’m taking away one of the other cheers because self-criticism can take on an unhealthy form. It can become a relentless, out-of-control faculty of self-criticism, which some call an earthy version of an Itty-Bitty Committee. I like one psychiatrist’s description of how self-criticism gets out of hand: “Self-criticism is a tendency to set unrealistically high self-standards and to adopt a punitive, derogatory stance toward the self once these are not met, as invariably they are not because of their ever-raising nature.”
Doesn’t that sound familiar? One of the conspicuous characteristics of wokeness is the setting of unrealistic and ever-changing standards. You can be a “progressive” in good standing by the standards of a decade or a year or a week ago—and suddenly be denounced as a bigot today. Albert Einstein was a humanitarian hero, then today, he’s suddenly a bigot. You can be a staunch feminist, then find yourself denounced as a TERF, a “trans-exclusionary radical feminist,” for not aligning perfectly with the latest crusade.
When being a critic of “systemic” injustice becomes a career, a lifestyle and a path to a sense of virtue, then you had better start chasing after new injustices—and find them, no matter what.
For all the technical debates about how to define wokeness, this is the one aspect of it that I think people find most rankling: the idea that we as a society, and each of us as individuals, can never be good enough.
The problem with a runaway sense of self-criticism is both that it prevents us from enjoying what is good about our lives (and our country), and also that it has a paradoxically paralyzing effect. If you will never be good enough, why even try?
Sin Without Redemption
This is manifested by wokeness in the idea that everyone and everything is racist and that group conflict is an inevitable, unavoidable aspect of the world. There is no better, more enlightened future toward which we are working. It is a doctrine with plenty of sin but no redemption.
This is a feature of the underlying ideology of “critical theory” with which the word “woke” has become associated. I would define it this way: Wokeness is the idea that we need to be awakened to the hidden power struggles between social classes and groups that underlie literally everything, no matter how trivial or seemingly personal and apolitical—and that there is nothing but power struggles between groups, now and forever.
So while I give wokeness one cheer, I take away one for its runaway, excessive self-criticism, and I withdraw the third cheer for perpetuating the very problem it purports to solve.
But much of today’s conservative anti-wokeness is not the answer, either. By preventing us from facing up to criticisms in the first place, it prevents us from getting beyond them. It is a system of defensive avoidance of criticism, which works poorly for the individual and doesn’t work any better for a whole culture.
We need an active faculty of self-criticism, and we also need to make sure that such criticism takes a healthy and constructive form—one that leads to progress and reform, not wallowing in fatalism, recrimination or denial.