One Cheer for Wokeness
I just had a piece published at Discourse making a (very) qualified defense of “wokeness.” It is obviously not wokeness per se that I am defending. But there is something about conservative anti-wokeness that has been bothering me for a while, and two recent events crystallized it for me.
One is conservative writer Bethany Mandel’s now-infamous response when asked on a television appearance to define “wokeness.” She had no answer, and my experience is that many other obstreperously anti-woke conservatives would have about the same response. Robby Soave’s attempt to rescue her by saying we can’t define wokeness but we know it when we see it is arguably worse.
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.
The other inspiration for this article is a series of cases where, under the banner of opposing “wokeness,” conservative busybodies have banned or attempted to suppress necessary and indispensable parts of a child’s education.
Here are the examples, that I cite in my article.
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.
I go on to argue that we need a faculty of self-criticism and that “we always need someone to criticize the way things are and keep us awakened to our past failures and misdeeds.”
But what we don’t need is a neurotic, out-of-control faculty of self-criticism, which is precisely what wokism is.
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?
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.
Also, I just realized that The Atlas Society has released a panel on emerging technology that I participated in at their annual gala late last year. See the video here:
Or check out a (slightly rough) transcript here.
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