It’s said that the past is a foreign culture. We can’t understand colonial America or Victorian Britain unless we first understand that they thought differently from people today.
Paradigm shifts happen throughout history, and one is happening right now. Unless we understand that woke progressives think differently from classical liberals, we can’t understand woke culture, or the Trumpian adaptation of it.
Liberalism in decline
Liberalism is retreating, and it’s not just the rise of Donald Trump. Progressives are also leaving liberalism behind.
Liberal is often used as a synonym for leftist. But originally, liberalism meant universal human rights, equality under the law, democracy, capitalism, and limited government.
Classical liberalism a big umbrella. You can be conservative and classically liberal, or you can be center-left and be classically liberal. But the far left rejects capitalism and limited government. And the far right rejects equality and can lean toward authoritarianism.
The rise of wokeness starting in the mid-2010s and accelerating in 2020 has been decades in the making. If you’re woke, you see oppression and privilege everywhere, even in the most mundane things. You believe oppression is systemic. You regularly check your privilege, confess your implicit biases, and value the lived experiences of marginalized people over data and science, which are biased because of our racist, sexist, and transphobic culture.
In the beginning…
How did this get started? Let’s take a trip back to 1776. Scottish philosopher Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, sort of a capitalist manifesto. Smith claimed that capitalism is mutually beneficial. A baker sells bread, makes money and buys other things, contributes to global trade, and creates jobs when his business expands.
But in the mid-1800s, Karl Marx was like, “Not so fast.” He claimed that capitalism is exploitative. It’s a zero-sum game: a business owner’s gain is a worker’s loss. The only solution is revolution. Workers must unite, overthrow their oppressors, and abolish private property in favor of collective ownership.
In the 1930s, Neo-Marxists applied Marxist conflict theory to society in general. They also added Freudian ideas to the mix. False consciousness explained why upper middle class intellectuals were more enthused about Marxism than workers were. The working class needs to smarten up and raise their awareness.
There were other cracks in the edifice. Marx thought history would follow a predetermined course. Medieval feudalism gave way to colonial mercantilism, which gave way to capitalism, which will give way to socialism, and finally communism.
But history had other ideas. The United States and Western Europe should have gone commie first. But instead, Russia decided to skip a few steps and went straight from feudalism to communism. But by the late 1960s, even left wing Western intellectuals were beginning to realize that communism wasn’t doing so well.
Postmodernism became popular among disillusioned French Marxists in the late 1960s. Their ideas were obscure, abstract, and often incomprehensible, so mainstream society took little notice.
Postmodernists were like a more sophisticated version of Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Our teenage antihero was convinced that everyone was phony, but lacking self-awareness he failed to realize that he also was full of it.
Postmodernism is also disillusioned with modernism. Writer Helen Pluckrose joined with James Lindsay, mathematician turned social critic, to write Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody. They go back in time even farther, pointing out that postmodernism, like premodernism, is a reaction against the Enlightenment—but for different reasons.
The premodern worldview was far less individualistic. It was a world infused with supernatural beliefs. Superior or inferior positions in society were thought to follow from nature or the will of God.
But starting in the 1600s, the Enlightenment gave rise to science and reason, and it challenged prevailing power structures like the Roman Catholic Church and hereditary monarchy. The eventual result was liberalism: democracy, capitalism, and human rights.
But the Enlightenment’s technological advancements also enabled European colonization of foreign lands, bringing slavery and genocide in its wake. Besides, postmodernists thought liberalism didn’t accomplish enough quickly enough, so they saw liberalism as just another metanarrative that the man uses to keep you under his thumb.
Postmodernists claim that we can’t really know anything. Or, as Nietzsche put it, there are no facts, just opinions. There’s no way to know if there’s any objective truth to this or that metanarrative, or explanation about why the world is the way it is. Maybe even the existence of truth is nonsense.
Besides, society’s metanarratives serve the interests of those in power. Pluckrose and Lindsay emphasize that postmodernism’s two key concepts are that knowledge is just a social construct with no objective reality, and hegemonic metanarratives are power plays to oppresses people who fall outside of the mainstream.
Further, language (or discourses) is how societies construct metanarratives. However, words only refer to other words, like when you look a word up in the dictionary and just get more words. As James Lindsay explains on his blog, postmodernists claim that “meaning exists only in the relationships between words, and power is baked into the relationships between words.”
The task, then, is to fight the man by deconstructing his metanarratives. And postmodernists really had it in for Marxism, Christianity, and science.
But while Marxism sees power as the elite pushing down on the oppressed, Pluckrose and Lindsay describe the postermodernist view of power (and later, Critical Theory) as being like a grid. Power permeates everything. It lives in the power dynamics between words—discourses—so racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia can self-perpetuate through these discourses even if we were to reach the point where almost no individuals are personally bigoted.
By the 1980s, abstruse postmodernist theory (“high deconstructionism,” as Lindsay and Pluckrose put it) had become clearer about its agenda (“applied postmodernism”). This is when Critical Theory became prominent, with numerous subdivisions: Postcolonial Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory, and gender studies (in contrast to women’s studies).
These theories sought not only to deconstruct or decolonize white, male, cisgender, and heteronormative discourses, but also to reconstruct society anew. And because language constructs these discourses, our use of language must be restructured.
That’s the origin of political correctness. And political correctness isn’t just refraining from racial slurs or not promoting stereotypes. You must not say anything that conflicts with left wing opinions.
Further, all these theories are tied together because people can be oppressed in many ways. Sociologist Kimberlé Crenshaw made the important observation that the prejudice Black women face is more than just the sum of racism and sexism—it’s a unique dynamic. A popular metaphor is that if you’re stuck in the middle of an intersection, you could be hit from any direction. Intersectionality is central to wokeness.
Intersectionality, however, resulted in a new hierarchy where moral status is connected to how many marginalized groups someone belongs to. And the more privileged identities someone has, the more problematic that person is. Positionality—one’s place in the identity hierarchy—becomes a status competition (derisively called the “oppression Olympics”).
And it’s interesting how the far right has tried to co-opt identity politics by claiming that it’s really men, white people, and Christians who are oppressed. This dynamic is a significant factor in President Trump’s popularity.
Pluckrose and Lindsay describe woke social justice activism as reified postmodernism. That is, the third phase of postmodernism takes it to the street and makes it actionable in the real world.
By the mid-2010s, all this stuff had trickled down to undergrads. Campus activism, the likes of which we hadn’t seen since the 1960s, erupted on campuses nationwide. Students shouted down a Yale professor who told them not to get so uptight about Halloween costumes, resulting in her resignation. When Evergreen State College’s Day of Absence shifted from students of color choosing to stay off campus to white student being told to say off campus for a day, a professor was fired for saying it was “a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.” Numerous public intellectuals were invited to speak at college campuses but later deplatformed because of real or imagined right wing opinions. Off campus, there were calls to “cancel” Harry Potter author JK Rowling after she denied that sex is a social construct.
Being woke (which is has parallels to being born again) is about learning to see a hidden reality—the pervasiveness of hegemonic and oppressive discourses. Discourses are even believed to have taken on a life of their own, and oppression exists even at the micro level (microaggressions).
Wokeness and the religious impulse
While being woke is sometimes compared to religion, writer Mary Harrington’s more nuanced description of wokeness as the “re-emergence of religious impulse,” or James Lindsay’s phrase “functionally religious worldview,” is perhaps more accurate.
Part of the similarity is that religion involves beliefs that are taken on faith and are not to be questioned. However, radical postmodern skepticism asserts that we can’t know anything objectively. But this won’t work in the real world, so as Pluckrose and Lindsay point out, Critical Theory compromised: oppression is the central truth.
And because beliefs about discourses structuring reality are too abstract for most of us, activists brought it down to earth by emphasizing lived experience.
This stands in contrast, Pluckrose and Lindsay say, to scientific skepticism, which regards knowledge as universal and evidence based, and which self-corrects by actively looking for its mistakes.
And part of wokeness as a religious impulse involves what Lindsay calls the “liturgy” or ritual of the woke engaging in identity interrogation, “self-reflection, self-critique, and social activism to bring about ‘group justice’ rather than just individual justice.” This includes checking your privilege, admitting your complicity in systemic racism, and engaging in social media campaigns and street protests.
Even if you’re not overtly racist or sexist, still you must be implicitly biased. Denying this is proof that you are, in fact, racist or sexist. But this is unfalsifiable, much like the claim that Bible is true because it says it is, and any denial is due to your sinful nature.
Part of woke religion also involves a shift away from “technological” thought, which is about data not stories, to “mythological thought,” which is about stories not data (based on the work of philsopher Leszek Kołakowski).
Technological thought analyzes and atomizes information, and values reason, logic, and empiricism. Mythological thought is a big picture approach that focuses on the moral of the story and values emotion over reason. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s criticism that “There’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right” reflects the value wokeness places on mythological thought (and this also applies to President Donald Trump and some of his followers’ bizarre conspiracy stories).
The woke shift in language from equality to equity (equality of outcome) is important. Woke progressives in the California State Legislature have voted to repeal California’s ban on discrimination in state college admissions because, as Critical Race Theorist Ibram X. Kendi wrote in How To Be An Antiracist, “The only remedy to racist discrimination is anti-racist discrimination.”
A liberal response to this, Lindsay says, makes a distinction between moral law and civil law. The Bible prohibits murder. But it’s not just about how you act—what you believe about why you should act a certain way matters just as much. That is, biblical law, like woke moral law, is sacred.
But civil law is merely procedural. Murder is illegal, but why you believe murder is wrong is up to you. Your beliefs are personal, and no one can impose their beliefs on others.
Wokeness, therefore, should be legally protected just as we protect religious belief. But we don’t allow religion to force itself on others, and the same should also apply to wokeness or any moral community.