Do you remember political correctness? For members of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, the PC boom of the Eighties and Nineties was part of growing up. Like today’s wokeness, it was all about policing language. For instance, instead of saying “disabled” we were meant to say “differently abled” or “physically challenged”.
The jargon didn’t stick. Indeed, it was widely mocked, with wags competing to contrive faux-PC terms like “circumferentially challenged” (meaning “fat”) and “metabolically different” (meaning “dead”).
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Of course, during any reform of manners there are always those who take things too far — putting skirts around piano legs and the like. Fortunately, society as a whole is more sensible; we curb the excesses and move on to a kinder, gentler stage in our development.
This model of permanent-progress-with-temporary-excess is how some conservatives seek to contextualise the current moment. For instance, David Brooks of the New York Times argues that while the “thing we call wokeness” produces “fringe absurdities” it also has “at its core… an honest and good-faith effort to grapple with the legacies of racism.”
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Furthermore, he has faith in the “American establishment’s ability to co-opt and water down every radical progressive ideology.” The rise of the woke corporation is not therefore a sign that wokeness is taking over, but rather proof that the process by which capitalism defangs the Left is once more in operation. We weren’t turned into hippies by Coca-Cola teaching the world to sing 50 years ago and we won’t be turned into wokelings by the posturing of corporate PR departments today.
Tyler Cowen makes a similar argument, referring to another song from 1971 — John Lennon’s Imagine. This was an immediate and enduring hit — the biggest of Lennon’s solo career. But despite us imagining the idea of “no possessions” for the last five decades, capitalism continues to sell them in ever greater quantity.
Thus Brooks and Cowen seem to have history on their side.
But there is a counter-argument, made by Rod Dreher who is a friend of Brooks, but horrified by his complacency. For a start, says Dreher, there is no good side to wokeness — it is a “naked attempt to exercise tribal politics, and to do so by (brilliantly) deploying moral language and victim status to disguise what it is being done.”
If that’s true, then wokery isn’t the latest in a long line of vehicles for social justice, but quite the opposite. It has hijacked the struggle against oppression to perpetrate a divisive and destructive ideology of its own. Thus nothing good can come from its growing influence. As Dreher puts it: “the core of our disagreement is over the effects of having a leadership class radicalized by wokeness. David thinks it’s not all bad, but it will fade in time. I think it is entirely bad, and that even if it fades — I’ve got my doubts — the damage it does in the process is going to be immense.”
A yet more disturbing scenario is presented by Ed West. He too doubts that wokeness will fade away. Indeed, he compares the current moment to one of the most important turning points in world history: “In The Final Pagan Generation Edward Watts recalled how the cohort growing up in the mid-4th century watched, helplessly, as their culture was overwhelmed by the tidal wave of Christianity. Bit by bit, decree by decree, their religious supremacy and then freedom was hacked away.”
In this analogy, wokeness is the new Christianity — a belief system that moved from the fringes into the mainstream and ultimately all the way up into the highest echelons of the establishment. As in the 4th Century, it is already too late to do anything about it. The reactionary spasms of the 21st century, like the Trump presidency, are as futile as the reign of the last pagan emperor of Rome — Julian the Apostate — who tried but failed to reassert the old order. Neither he nor Trump ever stood a chance.
How robust is this analogy? Let’s begin with the observation that by Julian’s time, traditional Roman religion bore little resemblance to its old self. All sorts of new belief systems has spread across the Empire. However, most of these were assimilated — often fused with traditional Roman gods.
One could say the same about the West today. Modernity has opened the way for all sorts of new influences on culture and politics at the expense of tradition. And yet, as Brooks and Cowen describe, the established order has nevertheless endured — by taming and co-opting the challenger ideologies.
Christianity, though, was the challenger ideology that would not and could not be assimilated. Just how far Christianity assimilated Rome is matter of debate, but the concept of “Christendom” grew from Rome’s ruins — defining Europe, the West and ultimately the modern world.
The question therefore is whether wokeness today is remotely comparable to the role Christianity played as Rome crumbled. Note that I’m not talking about how much wokeness owes as an ideology to the worldview that Christianity built — I’ll leave that debate to the likes of Tom Holland. Rather, I’m asking whether wokeness has the capacity to offer a unifying vision of such compelling power as to overwhelm and supersede the existing order.
And here the answer is clear: it does not.
First, wokeness is too geographically limited in scope. The impact that it’s made so far depends on conditions that apply specifically to the United States of America — especially in regard to that country’s history of slavery, segregation and ongoing racial discrimination. The global reach of social media helps to explain why the Black Lives Matter movement made waves far beyond America; but it does not change the very different context of race relations in other countries.
Even a country with as revolutionary a history as France has made it abundantly clear that American-style wokeness will not be taking root in French soil. Whether that’s expressed by the ruling establishment centred upon President Macron or a youth vote that’s shockingly skewed towards the far-Right, we English-speakers need to remember that we are not the world.
Second, unlike the Christianity which spread among ordinary people before converting the establishment, wokeness comes from the elites and continues to wield its greatest influence there. It is not a popular movement; it is remarkably unpopular, in fact.
Perhaps, like Protestantism during the Reformation, it doesn’t have to be. Given the control that the elites have over political, economic and cultural institutions, it may be that rest of the population just follows along behind: Cuius regio, eius religio (‘whose realm, their religion’) as they used to say in the 16th century.
Except that these days, voters aren’t so keen on being treated like a bunch of peasants. In the wake of Brexit, the Labour Party tried to pull that trick in their heartlands and it didn’t end well for them.
Third, wokeness doesn’t even begin to match Christianity’s intellectual depth. White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo? It’s not exactly Saint Augustine’s City of God, is it?
No doubt that’s an unfair comparison, but if you put the intellectual heavyweights of the contemporary Left up against the best people from the other major schools of political thought — liberalism, conservatism, even classical Marxism — there’s no doubt as to who’d win the wooden spoon.
The jargon and buzzwords of wokery are easily grasped, a rhetorical framework that just about anyone can assemble and deploy on Twitter. But with so little substance behind each component, they quickly become worn out. Already, terms like “safe space” and “trigger warning” are beginning to sound very last decade. The biggest threat to wokeness isn’t whiteness or the patriarchy, but fashion.
Fourth, wokeness is viral in the proper sense of the word — i.e. it doesn’t do much except reproduce itself (and even then parasitically, by subverting pre-existing institutions). The demands of the movement centre upon changes to language, symbols and patterns of thought. Beyond that, real world policies such as “defund the police” are so wildly impractical as to have rhetorical relevance only.
Clearly, wokeness appeals to people with legitimate complaints against the status quo — especially younger people. But in focusing on extremely generalised theories of injustice rather than specific, fixable failures in the system, the contemporary Left is singularly useless as an agent of practical change.
Finally, the ruling establishment doesn’t have to keep stitching up the younger generation. There is no need for a radical new ideology to fix problems like student debt, unpaid internships, the housing crisis and all the other ways in which Millennials and Post-Millennials have been let down by their elders.
Indeed, the more that the elites adopt woke ideology to distract attention from these failures, the sooner that the young will realise they’ve been had — and the sooner they’ll move on to the next protest movement.