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Three Propositions On "Wokeness"
Wokeness is a spiritual problem. It deserves a spiritual answer.
I don’t love writing about “woke”-related issues, in part because I don’t really respect woke ideas or think they’re coherent enough to merit careful attention. Right-wing politics might be noxious, xenophobic, and otherwise dark, but at least I know where it comes from and what the theory of the case is. Wokeness on the other hand is best understood not as a political ideology but as a series of affections that resemble, but aren’t the same as, religious convictions. Along these lines, I wanted to share three propositions to help us better understand what “causes” wokeness and then to think about what to do about it, if anything.
This is a really important point from the political theorist Joshua Mitchell. He writes that identity politics is the "religious pandemic of our time." This has important implications. The pandemic can't be resolved by government action. A spiritual question requires a spiritual answer. I’ll leave you all to guess what that might be.
America is a democracy. So at a basic level, if "wokeness," like any other ideology, is culturally dominant, it's because enough people thought it was compelling—or they thought enough other people thought it was compelling to justifying finding it compelling themselves.
Turnstile jumping in the subway (or Metro if you’re a Washingtonian) is the new broken windows. Well-meaning, mostly white liberals often view it as harmless. But it's theft and creates a climate of lawlessness. If enough residents thought it was bad, we'd find a way to end it. But either they don't—or they're too afraid to do the right thing.
This suggests that a certain kind of cowardice—coupled with a thorny collective action problem—explains the persistence of woke ideas in our culture. If all the people who disliked wokeness, or even just had concerns about how far it’s gone, actually said so and acted accordingly, we’d find the wall crumbling quite quickly. But there are still considerable costs to individuals when it comes to challenging the status quo, particularly in left-leaning environments like journalism and academia.
At some level, for this to change, those individuals have to become financially and professionally secure enough to take certain risks. Or, they must be willing to take certain risks, irrespective of the financial and professional costs. For those with privilege, to choose not to take these (for them, relatively minor) risks, can seem like a question of integrity and not having enough of it. At the same time, I appreciate and even sympathize with the desire to live a quiet life where one avoids being embroiled in the most charged controversies of the day. Life, after all, is elsewhere.
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