What Is “Wokeism”?

The terms “woke” and “wokeism” have been ubiquitous on the right for the past year or so. Charlatans like Chris Rufo, James Lindsay, and Jordan Peterson regularly rail against this or that alleged manifestation of it, Robby Soave’s main shtick at Reason is recounting the latest incident of some paragon of scholarly reasonableness who was “cancelled” by the “woke mob” for “just asking questions” or “censored for his opinions,” and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has made stamping it out his entire political brand.

It’s pretty hard to pin down a stable or consistent meaning for the term, because it’s been applied to an entire category of things whose main feature in common is that they are things that right-wingers — or their centrist accomplices in venues like the Atlantic or the NYT editorial page — don’t like. Right-wing columnist Bethany Mandel, pressed to define the term “woke,” responded with half a minute of embarrassed silence.

But on closer examination, the things that get classified as “woke” do have one thing in common: they’re all things that involve not being an asshole, and that only assholes have a problem with.

If you object to calling someone their chosen name or respecting the pronouns they’ve asked you to use, you’re an asshole.

If you insinuate that even acknowledging the experiences of transgender children in schools, or providing them with information about gender-affirming care, is “grooming” — when your own right-wing political or religious movement is rife with actual groomers and pedophiles — you’re an asshole. If you present drag queen story hours as a threat to children’s innocence — when a typical week’s arrestees for child sexual abuse consists entirely of Christian pastors and athletic coaches, without a single drag queen or transgender person — you’re an asshole. If your hatred and fear of “transgenderism” is such that you leak confidential patient information — carefully cherry-picked with your own dishonest framing — or you breathlessly circulate that information with a false narrative, you’re an asshole. If you imply that minors get bottom surgery other than in the most exceptional cases, or that kids immediately get ushered into hormone therapy for identifying as “attack helicopters,” you’re an asshole. And if you’re a “journalist” who picks up on and circulates such false narratives because “but what if it’s true?” (yes, Jonathan Chait and Jesse Singal, I’m looking at you), you’re a finalist in the King Asshole of the World competition.

If you cause gynecologists and obstetricians to flee a state because treating a miscarriage or stillbirth could result in prosecution for abortion, and transform miscarriages and stillbirths themselves into a grave risk for criminal prosecution, you’re an asshole. And if you sell such policies with lies about “precious unborn babies” having heartbeats or eyes at so many weeks of gestation, or imply that late-term abortions occur in any significant numbers, you’re doubly an asshole.

If you throw a full-blown toddler tantrum about “woke moralists” because of a bathroom sign asking you not to waste paper towels, or feel compelled to comment on the looks of a plus-size model on a magazine cover and regard her very presence as a case of “authoritarian tolerance” — while framing yourself as the victim and denouncing the “vile” responses to your unsolicited opinions on her appearance — you’re an asshole.

If you spend half your time writing articles about professors who were “silenced by the woke mob” because they were simply mocked or criticized for foolish things they said, and then spend the other half writing articles mocking or criticizing professors for the “woke” things they say, you’re an asshole. If you print articles, dripping with bathos, by conservative students who “self-censored” out of an alleged fear that they would be criticized for stating their views — and then you print articles criticizing other students for stating their “woke” views, without seeing the contradiction, you’re an asshole.

If you present yourself as a “lifelong liberal Democrat” who had to vote for Trump out of spite because a woke person talked mean to you, you’re an asshole.

If your takeaway from every new account of an unarmed Black person being murdered by police — including by having a knee on their neck for minutes after they became completely unresponsive — is “what about black-on-black crime,” “they should have complied,” or “they died of a fentanyl overdose,” you’re an asshole.

Upon examination, all of these examples of anti-wokeness involve being an asshole in similar ways. And all the different manifestations of “wokeness” they object to have similarities.

Ron DeSantis, or rather his chief counsel Ryan Newman, defined “woke” in a rare moment of honesty as “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.”

Newman added that DeSantis doesn’t believe that there are systemic injustices in the United States.

“To me, it means someone who believes that there are systemic injustices in the criminal justice system, and on that basis they can decline to fully enforce and uphold the law,” Newman said.

So anyone who acknowledges the existence of systemic, or structural, injustice and inequality in American society — whether in regard to race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — is “woke.” That’s a good term, because anyone who seriously denies the existence of these things is either a liar or sincerely sleepwalking.

Anti-wokeism is just the latest appearance of a much older fascist ideology. Its key identifying features are resentment and status anxiety. You can see it in the language. The very existence of non-white people in advertisements or on TV shows, the sight of a same-sex couple holding hands in public, someone speaking Spanish or wearing a hijab — virtually any indication that people like you are no longer the default or unquestioned norm, that people previously regarded as “other” can now relate their own experiences and speak with their own voice rather than having you do it for them — indicates that the country has been “taken” from you, and you need to “take it back.”

In systems of unequal wealth and power, those at the top depend on creating a stratum of people whose entire sense of status and self-worth depends on the existence of an “other” that they are better than. Rather than seeing those at the top as the enemy, and fighting for genuine equality, they see the main threat as coming from those below who attempt to rise above their station and undermine the middle stratum’s precarious sense of superiority. The Nazis came to power appealing to the petty bourgeoisie’s fear that labor unions, communists, or Jews would destroy whatever sense of relative respectability they maintained. In the southern United States, the Boss Hoggs and Eric Endicotts stayed in power by appealing to fear of integration and “race-mixing.”

But here’s a news flash: It isn’t LGBT people, People of Color, “illegal aliens,” or feminists who constitute the real threat to you. Instead try looking up at your employer and landlord, the banks charging 28% interest on your credit card, the giant corporations, and the billionaires — the people and institutions who are not only robbing you, but using the money they stole from you to fund all the anti-“woke” witch hunts to distract you from their robbery and divert your anger against powerless people who aren’t really in a position to do you any harm.

So start asking yourself who benefits from you being asleep. Get woke. Stop being an asshole.

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