What caused wokeness? Why are people so concerned with social justice issues nowadays, and why do the solutions to those issues take their particular forms?
Is it a few academics producing weird terms like toxic masculinity and then indoctrinating students? Is it just that young people are intolerant, privileged snowflakes who can’t bear to hear ideas that are different from theirs? Is it snooty, over-educated white liberals who have taken over institutions and imposed their values on others?
No. No. and No.
I think I have the answer to what caused wokeness. But before diving in, it is essential to clear up some confusion. What do we mean by woke? The definition of woke and the connotations associated with the term are likely different based upon the media one consumes.
The Many Meanings of Woke
For me, woke means an awareness of social justice issues. You are “awake” to those issues. This is roughly similar to how Merriam-Webster defines the term. Sometimes I also add a second component: a willingness to do something about those issues. As far as I can tell, this term originated in the black community, where the phrase “stay woke” is a part of the jargon. Indicators include the 2019 book Stay Woke, the 2020 Hulu series “Woke”, or any number of hip-hop lyrics.
People who may see themselves as woke likely don’t use the term. Instead, they probably would describe themselves as advocating for social justice or progressive issues. Their wokeness is something they do, not something you name.
But over the past several years, activist intellectuals who may be described as “antiwoke” have worked hard to change the connotations associated with wokeness. Wokeness for these intellectuals connotes a totalitarian progressive worldview that censors people for thinking differently (cancel culture), reduces individuals to their group identities, and views the world in terms of oppressor (white, male, heterosexual) and oppressed (black, female, homosexual). Their preferred verbiage is wokeism. The “ism” denotes woke as an overarching ideology or religion.
Arguably the most well-known “antiwoke” person is James Lindsay, the mathematician, author, and social media personality. Lindsay has been a prolific commentator on wokeness, including an appearance on Dr. Phil and BNC News with Dr. Lamont Hill. Other antiwoke activists include the writer Helen Pluckrose and former professor of philosophy Peter Boghossian.
Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian were the architects of the Grievance Studies Hoax. They fabricated data and managed to publish several research articles in journals catering to critical disciplines. Because the articles published seem so preposterous (one article purported to show that dogs having sex was an indicator of rape culture), they argue that the disciplines routinely publishing in those outlets are trafficking in preposterous ideas. Ideas emanating from these disciplines like toxic masculinity, heteronormativity, and systemic racism, are not actual academic concepts but political tools with no evidentiary bases.
Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian may be on the fringes of mainstream institutions, but there are many antiwoke academics and writers who are safely ensconced in ivory towers and media organizations. John McWhorter, New York Times columnist and Columbia University professor, and Conor Friedersdorf, staff writer at The Atlantic, are “antiwoke.” As is Brown economist Glenn Loury and political commentator Andrew Sullivan.
My general sense is that many people who I would label as antiwokes have come to be anti because they genuinely feel that wokeness is a threat to the version of society they hold dear. If one believes in colorblindness, then the focus on racial identity is problematic, and something like affirmative action or racial preferences is reverse racism. If one values free speech, then policing language or attempting to cancel someone is problematic.
But I believe that a larger number of people have jumped on the “antiwoke” bandwagon not because wokeness violates some principles or values they hold, but because of the political implications of wokeness. Many people in society see the platforming of racial minorities, trans persons, and women as a threat. Saying you are against wokeness provides plausible deniability. It allows a person to be against these groups without saying so (e.g., “I am not transphobic, I am just against wokeness”).
Here is how a Wikipedia clone website, Wokeism.Org, defines wokeism:
“Wokeism is a Marxist inspired movement that started off with well-intentioned people that wanted to stop racism and social injustice. It has now morphed into a cult that seeks to silence all of those that disagree. At first, using social humiliation, but now graduating to violence through Antifa and Black Lives Matter riots. Wokeism demands equity not equality. It seeks to destroy all norms, to redefine words, and destroy objective science in order to create a Marxist Utopia. Instead of reducing racism, this new anti-racism is just racism by a different name.”
This is clearly aimed at people who have a personal or political grievance, especially as the definition seems to be hyperfocused on race when in reality, being woke encompasses so much more.
We also see the political motives behind many people’s anti-wokeness in how the Republican Party now uses woke as a type of dog-whistle for their primarily white, primarily Christian base. Just recently, the Republican governor of Florida Ron DeSantis called Disney a woke corporation. It was in response to Disney’s CEO speaking out against the Florida “Don’t Say Gay” bill that would limit classroom discussions on sexual orientation. DeSantis can say he is not against gay people, only against the woke idea of talking about sex and sexual orientation to young kids.
The Quality of Life
And so woke means different things to different people, with different motivations. My use of the term moving forward, as you would expect, is an awareness of social justice issues and a willingness to do something about those issues.
Now I can explain why people are woke. Why are people so concerned nowadays with social justice issues, and why do the solutions to those issues take the particular forms they do?
I think I have a possible answer, and I can thank Dr. Ronald Ingelhart (1934 - 2021). Ingelhart was a political scientist and founder of the World Values Survey (WVS). The WVS is an international survey of people’s values, beliefs, and norms. Surveys have been conducted every five years since 1981. The latest survey conducted in 2020, collected data from people in over 120 countries. You can learn more about the survey here, and even download the data.
The major takeaway from the WVS is that economic development and culture are related. Inglehart, along with collaborator Christian Welzel, used several key questions from the survey to develop the Inglehart–Welzel cultural map of the world.
It’s pretty neat.
The map plots countries based on two dimensions (see below). Running from left to right (the x-axis) is the survival versus self-expression axis. Countries to the left on the x-axis have more people who value economic and physical security. According to the WVS website, survival “is linked with a relatively ethnocentric outlook and low levels of trust and tolerance.” Meanwhile, countries further to the right emphasize “tolerance of foreigners, gays and lesbians and gender equality, and rising demands for participation in decision-making in economic and political life.”
Running from bottom to top (the y-axis) is the traditional versus secular axis. Countries at the lower end are composed of people more likely to “emphasize the importance of religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority and traditional family values…These societies have high levels of national pride and a nationalistic outlook.” As one moves up the axis, countries place less emphasis on religion, traditional family values, and authority, and “divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide are seen as relatively acceptable.”
So what does the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map tell us about wokeness?
Countries composed of people that reject traditional life patterns and value self-expression, countries towards the upper right corner of the map, are more likely to develop ideas and movements that we see as woke. This is because people in those countries care about the quality of life (symbolic aspects) as opposed to the quantities of life (material aspects).
I’ll give three examples:
The emphasis on language. The intolerance that is often levied at woke people is essentially an attempt to protect people from the negative impact of words. In woke nations, movements can arise to abolish words like “midget” because it is seen as a slur. The material benefits to using a different word are little to none, but there are symbolic benefits of restricting the use of that word. The word can be disrespectful or hurtful to the person it is directed at.
The emphasis on diversity. Generally, all groups that have not been traditionally the focus - meaning not white, heterosexual, Christian, and male - are celebrated and platformed. The 1619 Project is about platforming the experiences related to black people in the United States. This emphasis on diversity also extends to nontraditional lifestyles like polyamory or jobs that have been stigmatized like sex work.
The emphasis on thought patterns. Concepts like heteronormativity, toxic masculinity, and implicit bias are all about thinking differently. Sure, recognizing that hypermasculine behaviors can be damaging can lead to policy changes. But at its core, the idea is about changing how we think about masculinity. The same goes for ideas like white fragility, where white people are asked to think differently about how they engage in conversations about race.
A few items of note before concluding.
First, because wokeness is a consequence of having the freedom to focus on symbolic, quality of life issues, it is not restricted to progressives. Younger people in the West of all political persuasions have grown up in a relatively safe, wealthy world. And so conservative young people, even conservatives who would label themselves “antiwoke”, are more woke than most people from the bottom left of the World Cultural Map.
As an example, consider gay rights. As far as I know, there are no gay rights in countries like Ghana. Indeed Ghana is attempting to pass the Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill (see here). The law proposes a prison term of up to five years for identifying (that’s right…just identifying) as queer, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, pansexual, or nonbinary. Most people in the West would find this law draconian, and would not support it.
Antiwokes in the West would be woke in countries like Ghana!
Second, there is a tremendous amount of variability between countries and within countries. So saying the West is woke does not mean every country in the West is woke to the same degree. The United States is less woke than Sweden. Also, people within an individual country don’t share the same degree of wokeness. Within the United States, you may have people who would actually find the Ghanaian Family Values Bill agreeable.
This variability is also one of the reasons why I, your neighborhood sociologist, can get into disagreements with fellow progressives. I grew up poor and Christian in the rural south. There is still a lot of traditionalist and survivalist in me!
Wokeness and Success
So why is the West woke?
Well, it is not because of a few critical theorists in academia producing ideas about transphobia or systemic racism. Nor is it because white liberals have taken over our institutions.
Wokeness is likely a result of living in a wealthy, modern country. When people do not need tradition, are not religious, and have their material needs taken care of, they will focus on the quality of their lives. The West has had two generations of people who have lived in a world of relative comfort. We have had no major wars. With the end of the Cold War, we didn’t even have an enemy. Elections have been, for the most part, peaceful. Crime and violence are still a problem but have been steadily declining. Even with downturns and recessions, the standard of living in Western countries has been steadily improving.
In these conditions, people can focus on the quality of life. This is what has caused wokeness, and it is a good thing. Wokeness is an indicator of success.
I like to put is as "in the absence of selection pressures people create their own.'
In the end of his life, the Buddha was asked how he wanted to be remembered. His response: "Remember me as one who awakened."
How much easier it is to go through life fast asleep, blissfully dreaming that the world revolves around yourself.
Thanks for another great post that nudges an older white guy a bit further towards consciousness, Rod. The longest journey begins with a single step.