Defining "Wokeness"

Yes, there is a distinct ideology behind "wokeism," "social justice," and other terms that refer to progressive orthodoxy—and it's toxic

In the culture-war discourse of the past decade, a variety of terms have been used to refer to the ideology of the socially progressive left: “political correctness” (first coined during an earlier phase of the culture wars, in the late 1980s/early 1990s), “social justice,” “identity politics,” and more recently, “wokeness” or “wokeism” (and occasionally, “cancel culture”). These shifting terms invariably become targets of left-wing ridicule as well as right-wing misuse (so that, for instance, any condemnation of actual bigotry is mocked as “political correctness,” “social justice warrior-ism,” etc.). Meanwhile, critics on the left dismiss the idea of a “woke” or “social justice” ideology as a right-wing myth. The latest such sarcastic dismissal comes from Vox writer Ian Millhiser:

The supportive replies are typical: It’s just “making an effort not be racist or sexist,” or “a meaningless epithet whose unironic use is pure cringe.”

But in fact, the ideology denoted by “wokeness” and “wokeism”—sarcastic riffs on “woke,” a term from African-American vernacular that means being awake to social injustice—does exist. (Writer Wesley Yang has also dubbed it “the successor ideology” to convey its succession to old-style liberalism.) To avoid the pejorative overtones, I will mostly use “Social Justice,” since that term is embraced by many activists themselves.

Its basic tenets can be summed up as follows:

Modern Western societies are built on pervasive “systems of oppression,” particularly race- and gender-based. All social structures and dynamics are a matrix of interlocking oppressions, designed to perpetuate some people’s power and privilege while keeping others “marginalized” on the basis of inherent identities: race or ethnicity; sex/gender identity/sexuality; religion and national origin; physical and mental health. (Class also factors into it, but tends to be the stepchild of Social Justice discourse.)  Individuals and their interactions are almost completely defined and shaped by those “systems” and by hierarchies of power and privilege. The only right way to understand social and human relations is to view them through the lens of oppression and power.

Everyone who belongs to a non-oppressed category in some core aspect of identity (white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, Christian, non-immigrant) possesses “privilege,” enjoys unearned benefits at the expense of the oppressed, and is implicated in oppression. Thus, social justice advocacy must focus not only on the problems faced by the disadvantaged but on the unfair advantages of the “privileged.”

Because various oppressions are so deeply embedded in everything around us, all actions that do not actively challenge it actively perpetuate it. Writer, scholar and new MacArthur Genius Grant winner Ibram X. Kendi, whose 2019 book How to Be an Antiracist has made him an intellectual star of the Great Awokening, puts it most succinctly: everything is either racist or antiracist, with no possibility of anything in between.

Challenging oppression and inequality requires not only combating injustices and reforming or dismantling oppressive institutions, but eradicating the unconscious biases we have all learned. A tweet from academic and TV commentator Mark Lamont Hill last July sums it up.

Again, the “powerful and privileged” here includes anyone who belongs to any non-oppressed category; but it is often argued that even the oppressed need to combat their internalized bigotry against their own group.

Language plays a key role in perpetuating oppression, and must be reformed and controlled to achieve equality. Speech as well as writing, art, entertainment, and other forms of expression constantly “reinscribe” values, attitudes, and beliefs that validate or support oppressive systems and marginalize oppressed groups; thus, they must be constantly “interrogated,” and even the most innocent verbal transgression can cause serious harm.

Social justice advocacy must be intersectional—that is, must support all movement-approved forms of advocacy for oppressed identities. Note, for example, the excommunication of famous novelist J. K. Rowling, a strong supporter of Black Lives Matter, at the height of the antiracist “reckoning” last year over her “problematic” opinions on transgender issues. Kendi provides an ingenious justification for intersectionality as an essential requirement for antiracism: You’re not truly antiracist if you don’t oppose (broadly defined) sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, because that means you don’t oppose specific forms of racism directed at black women and black LBGT people.

Moral judgments of virtually any situation should be based primarily on where the people involved stand in the power/privilege hierarchy. As David Frum wrote in 2015, discussing many leftists’ rush to blame the victims after Islamist gunmen attacked the offices of the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo in retaliation for cartoons poking fun at Islam, killing 11 people and wounding 11 more, this moral theory can be summed up as: “1. Identify the bearer of privilege. 2. Hold the privilege-bearer responsible.”

These are the core foundational concepts; but there are other important tenets, spoken or unspoken. For instance:

All claims and accounts of identity-based oppression, abuse, or prejudice must be accorded the presumption of belief; to challenge or deny them is oppressive. Above all, a privileged person accused of causing harm to a marginalized person must listen, learn, and show contrition; to protest innocence is to show “fragility” and is itself an act of harm.

The privileged can easily harm people with marginalized identities by “appropriating” their voices or aspects of their culture such as dress or food. Offenses can range from a story, novel, or poem in the voice of a marginalized person to an ethnic Halloween costume .

Institutions and cultural products are irrevocably tainted by historical connections to oppressive practices or bigoted beliefs, whose effects remain deeply embedded. Thus, (inaccurate) claims that American policing had its origins in slave patrols have been used as proof of systemic police racism. An author’s or artist’s racist or sexist views, even if normal for his/her time, are presumed to infect the work. Recent critiques of Dr. Seuss, for instance, argue that The Cat in the Hat subtly perpetuates “racist ideologies” because the Cat’s appearance and mischievous behavior may have drawn on some tropes from black minstrelsy. (No, seriously.)

Western civilization (loosely defined as Europe and the “Anglosphere” of North America and Australia) is uniquely brutal and oppressive. The Social Justice critique of “systems of oppression” focuses entirely on Western societies, modern, and historical. While this does not presume non-Western innocence, both the exclusive focus on Western wrongdoings and the frequent assumption that non-Western countries are victims of Western colonialism serve to promote the idea that the West is the world’s primary driver of evil. The Social Justice movement’s lack of interest in historical and even present-day slavery outside the West is a striking example of such double standards. Attitudes toward misogyny and homophobia in Muslim cultures are another. Thus, in 2015, feminist and LGBT groups at Goldsmiths College, University of London joined in solidarity with the Islamic Society when it tried to deplatform Iranian-born feminist Maryam Namazie on the grounds that her talk would make the campus less of a “safe space” for Muslim students.

One reason “wokeness” or “social justice” has fairly wide appeal, at least in its more moderate guises, is that many of its ideas contain partial truths. Racism, sexism, and other bigotries have an ugly history and are still with us, and we should strive to overcome them. If you advocate for a minority group, you should also favor human rights for other groups. Small indignities based on membership in a traditionally disadvantaged group can have a damaging effect, especially if they accumulate. Entertainment, literature, and everyday language can normalize insidious biases, accidentally or not. Humor that feels innocuous when directed at the majority (“All these white girls look alike!”) can become odiously bigoted when it “punches down” at a minority that has been the target of prejudice and discrimination.

However, Social Justice takes such ideas to bizarre extremes increasingly detached from common sense and reality.

It’s one thing to say that racism, sexism, and other prejudices are still a problem; it’s another to claim that white supremacy and misogyny are omnipresent and life must be a constant struggle session to escape their clutches. It’s one thing to say that we should avoid racial slights; it’s another to demand constant vigilance against inadvertent “microaggressions” (like asking an immigrant, “Where are you from”?) and aggressive scrutiny of language for hidden offenses (like “sell someone down the river,” which originally referred to selling slaves). It’s one thing to acknowledge that Gone with the Wind is a hideously racist book, another to condemn a book because of a character’s racist thoughts. It’s one thing to say that mocking someone’s tweet as “typical white bullshit” is not as bad as tweeting anti-black invective; it’s another to normalize white-bashing as mere rhetorical attacks on white supremacy.

Social Justice in its current iteration has many troubling aspects that ultimately undermine the cause of equity. Its discourse of “white supremacy” and “patriarchy” provides an absurdly simplistic, reductionist picture of a multiracial, multiethnic society with a great diversity of cultural attitudes and norms. Its shift of language from race-based disadvantages faced by blacks and other minorities to “white privilege” and “whiteness” is in essence a shift of focus from improving the situation of minorities to stigmatizing whites.

What’s more, there is something uniquely pernicious about a concept of “privilege”—“white,” “male,” “straight,” or any other kind—that equates not being mistreated with unfair advantage. It subverts one of liberalism’s core principles: the existence of fundamental, inalienable human and civil rights. It also tends to erase bigotry against minority groups that are not readily defined as disadvantaged, such as American Jews and Asian Americans (who are sometimes classed as “white adjacent”).

While “intersectionality” theoretically introduces more nuance into the discussion of privilege (since the same person can be privileged in some ways or contexts and disadvantaged in others), in practice it tends to turn into “oppression Olympics” in which one “marginalized identity” trumps all others and the others’ unique concerns are cast aside.

Thus, discussions of sexual assault and “believing women” tend to entirely ignore the fraught history of false rape charges against black men in America and the fact that nonwhite college students appear more likely to face dubious disciplinary charges of sexual misconduct. Conversely, Social Justice discourse about white women weaponizing tears to deflect accusations of racism often parrots classic misogynistic tropes. Often-hyperbolic rhetoric about the constant danger to women from male violence is suddenly muted when it comes to concerns about opening women’s single-sex spaces to any person declaring a female identity. And for all the talk of cultural sensitivity, feminist and queer activists’ embrace of the gender-neutral “Latinx”—now firmly entrenched in mainstream media—overrules actual Hispanics, who overwhelmingly reject the term.

Class is so “marginalized” (as it were) in Social Justice progressivism that a highly successful Indian American journalist can mock struggling white agricultural workers as “whiny assholes” and still feel she is “punching up.” When a 2019 study found that a brief reading and discussion on “white privilege” made white liberals react less sympathetically to a (fictional) news article about a poor, unemployed, unskilled white man, the results received virtually no coverage outside publications critical of Social Justice.

But perhaps the most alarming aspect of Social Justice, as far as its effect on a liberal society, is the extent to which this ideology provides a justification for pervasive, quasi-totalitarian policing of speech, thought, and private behavior.

The language seems hyperbolic, since “wokists” are not throwing anyone in the gulag. But Social Justice is totalitarian in spirit in the same way that Trumpism is authoritarian: at least for now, both, fortunately, lack the power to enforce their will.

For one thing, Social Justice demands de facto banishment of “wrongthink” from the public square. Plenty of political movements seek to silence critics and dissenters; but Social Justice makes such silencing a moral imperative, since “bad” ideas and words are seen as inflicting “harm” or “violence.” For instance, during the 2020 controversy over the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” published in Harper’s magazine, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp essentially argued that views such as Rowling’s are too detrimental to transgender people to be allowed in mainstream venues. (Rowling has written that while transgender people should have full respect and equality, the reality of biological sex should not be denied and debate on difficult issues—from access to single-sex spaces to transition for minor children—should not be suppressed.)

The Social Justice view of the harms of speech was even more starkly stated three years ago by activists who tried to shut down an event with Christina Hoff Sommers, a feminist who critiques feminist claims about “rape culture” and the wage gap, at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. In their statement, the activist students wrote with the certitude of zealots who have found Truth:

We now understand how language works, and how it can be used to reproduce the systems of oppression we know we must resist at all costs. ... Free speech is certainly an important tenet to a free, healthy society, but that freedom stops when it has a negative and violent impact on other individuals. There is no debate here.

Notably, the speech-policing is by no means reserved for ideological foes. For instance, books targeted by “woke” mobs are usually ones that promote the values of antiracism and inclusion but inadvertently violate identity taboos—whether it’s the young adult novels The Black Witch by Laurie Forest (2017) and American Heart by Laura Moriarty (2018) or the 2020 mass-market novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Charges range from “white saviorism” to “cultural appropriation” to characters having prejudiced thoughts before being enlightened. (The consequences have gone far beyond mere criticism: American Heart lost its initial positive review and “starred” status at the prestigious Kirkus Reviews, while American Dirt had its book tour canceled.) Artist Dana Schutz experienced a vicious backlash for painting a lynching victim while white: when her work depicting Emmett Till was exhibited at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, there were calls for it to be not only removed but destroyed, and Schutz was slammed for “profiting off of black murder.”

This is not about criticizing or countering speech with speech; the goal is to express collective condemnation, exact repentance, and either ostracize or enforce compliance.

The totalitarian tendencies of Social Justice are even more evident in its demands for the submission of everything to ideological diktat, from everyday language to personal life. This ranges from calls to purge idioms that supposedly demean people with disabilities (“that’s crazy,” “blind spot,” “fell on deaf ears”) to claims that overly dark tan can be a form of blackface. One could say this is “nutpicking,” or cherry-picking of rare extreme views; but such extremism rarely encounters pushback in the “woke” community.

Family, friendship, and romance are not exempt, either. Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, The New York Times ran an op-ed suggesting white people should cut off relatives and friends “until they take significant action in supporting black lives.” The “problematizing” of interracial relationships is an increasingly visible trend. Meanwhile, transgender advocates have argued that straight men and lesbians need to “work through” prejudices against sex with penis-having trans women.

A serious attempt to remake society in accordance with Social Justice dogma would require mass coercion on the scale of China’s Cultural Revolution—which, thankfully, is as unrealistic a prospect as the alternative right’s quest for a “white ethnostate” in America. But a more limited crusade toward utopian goals can still do considerable damage (especially since there’s no telling what identities and goals the social justice movement could embrace next: if polyamorists become the next oppressed group du jour, disapproval of non-monogamy will make you a vile bigot).

Totalitarian tendencies in a political movement can be dangerous even when that movement does not run a dictatorship. (As George Orwell noted in his classic 1946 essay “The Prevention of Literature,” freedom of thought is not only doomed under totalitarian regimes but imperiled when intellectuals in free countries adopt a “totalitarian outlook.”) This is especially true when that movement wields massive influence in the media and the educational system and is embraced by numerous public institutions and corporations. When your job includes seminars on “Interrupting Internalized Racial Superiority and Whiteness,” or memos directing people to state their pronouns when introducing themselves, it’s hardly a stretch to see some resemblance to mandatory “political education” at Soviet workplaces.

What’s more, many if not most “wokists” clearly favor the use of state power to promote their agenda. In a 2019 Politico forum on “How to Fix Inequality,” Kendi proposed an “anti-racism amendment to the U.S. Constitution” and a permanent “Department of Anti-racism” staffed by “formally trained experts” (like himself), which would not only monitor public policies and even private businesses to stamp out “racial inequity,” but “monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas.” Kendi’s definition of “racist ideas,” it should be noted, is broad enough to include his own high school talk arguing that black youths are often held back by cultural attitudes that place a low priority on education, as well as Barack Obama 2008 Father’s Day speech noting that father absence is a particularly serious problem in the black community.

That’s hardly the only example of authoritarian dreams of social justice. Last year, as Canada went into lockdown due to COVID-19, Toronto Star “race and gender” columnist Shree Paradkar touted the drastic measures as evidence that “radical change” can happen with enough motivation. Paradkar wrote approvingly that “[p]eople along various points on the political and social spectrum,” including anti-racism activists, “are getting an unexpected glimpse into what an actual enforcement of their demands would look like.”

Many will say that it’s frivolous to focus on the “woke left” when we face an authoritarian menace from the Trumpian right. But you can be against two forms of illiberalism at the same time—especially when they reinforce each other. If nothing else, the fact that the social justice left demonizes Western liberalism as a cover for racism at the very time that liberalism is under attack from the equally grievance-obsessed populist right should give us pause.