The Great Awokening is gathering speed.
Hardly a week — and sometimes barely a day or an hour — goes by without a fresh incident of “cancel culture” or another “woke” scandal breaking in the news.
Whether you think the trend a good thing, a bad thing, or a trivial thing, you know exactly what I mean. To list just a few of the stories from recent weeks: Longtime New York Times reporter Donald McNeil was fired for quoting a racial slur in conversation with high school students on a trip sponsored by the newspaper; six Dr. Seuss books were discontinued by their publisher because an advisory committee flagged racist images within them; the incoming editor in chief of Teen Vogue has gotten into hot water for tweeting anti-Asian remarks 10 years ago, when she was a teenager; the host of the TV show The Bachelorette has been pushed out because he defended a current contestant who, according to CNN, “was reportedly photographed at an antebellum plantation-themed fraternity formal in 2018.”
But the surge of censoriousness isn’t just taking place in the worlds of journalism, media, and publishing. It’s also leaving lasting marks on a wide range of universities, producing anger at elite prep schools, inspiring sweeping decisions by public school boards, and having a strong influence on how corporate departments of human resources and government agencies lay down expectations for employees and otherwise deal with members of their staff.
How should we explain this wildly proliferating trend? Where did it come from? And where might it be going?
As you’d expect from a huge story having a big impact on the lives and livelihoods of writers, we don’t lack for explanations. Though most of them fall short of the mark.
The most common one takes its cue from academic champions of the woke trend who describe their scholarship as “critical race theory.” That has led critics, especially conservative ones, to treat the woke movement as a form of “critical theory,” which is itself derived from the Marxism developed and promulgated by thinkers affiliated during the middle decades of the 20th century with the Frankfurt School for Social Research. Critical theorist Herbert Marcuse is frequently named as a popular progenitor of woke progressivism.
The genealogy works something like this: Back in 1965, Marcuse published an essay about “repressive tolerance” that went on to influence and inspire some radical professors of law and African-American studies, who then influenced and inspired Millennial and Gen-Z students at elite universities, who now form mobs online and within organizations to demand firings and other forms of retribution against anyone who fails to advance a far-left political agenda.
The problem with this account is that social change doesn’t work this way, with ideas spreading like a viral contagion that infects (and corrupts) large swaths of a culture once it is unleashed. (Indeed, some champions of woke ideas make precisely this assumption about the viral character of ideas they don’t like, using it to justify “cancelling” people who supposedly make politically dangerous arguments.) Yes, authors can exert a powerful influence on the world, but the way their ideas are received, interpreted, and deployed is always a function of a complex interaction between those ideas and other influences in the culture’s present and past.
This isn’t to deny certain family resemblances among the ideas of Karl Marx, Marcuse, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, Ibram X. Kendi, and Robin DiAngelo, But it is to say that pointing to those resemblances doesn’t tell us very much about why the ideas contained in their writings (which were first formulated in the mid-19th century and first revised for a modern American audience 56 years ago) have caught on now. What we need above all is an account of the reception of ideas — why an argument or assertion that falls on deaf ears in one time and place ignites a cultural firestorm in another.
Where does that leave us in trying to come to grips with the woke revolution going on around us? With a lot of work to do, I’m afraid. But that doesn’t mean tentative intellectual advances haven’t been made. I’m especially fond of author Wesley Yang’s evocative description of woke ideas and arguments as liberalism’s “successor ideology.” That’s because the phrase manages to capture the trend’s origins in liberal ideas of meritocratic fairness, while also signaling that in decisive respects it has moved beyond (and turned against) liberal assumptions and aspirations to become a distinct ideology the precise contours of which remain undetermined.
Beyond that, I can see three potentially fruitful paths for further exploration of where the successor ideology comes from and where it might be going.
Religion: It’s become an interpretive cliché to describe impassioned social movements as forms of “secular religion.” But in this case, there’s something to it. The very name “woke” is a play on the Christian Great Awakenings that swept across the United States at various times in our past, revitalizing old faiths and giving birth to new ones. And as Yang and other thoughtful critics of the trend have noted, there are important sociological and moral connections linking the political sensibility of the woke activists, ensconced within elite institutions of American culture, to the old liberal Protestant mainline, and from there all the way back to the officially sanctioned moral rectitude of Puritan New England.
In many respects, the successor ideology isn’t a political movement at all. It eschews policy positions in favor of a call to individual moral purification. It proposes to achieve this end through denunciation of sinners who are invited to confess and give public testimony of their transgressions, with punishment taking the form of social ostracism. The purity of the accusers, meanwhile, is demonstrated by the severity of their denunciations and by their refusal to countenance mercy or forgiveness. The social dynamic has reminded some critics of the “struggle sessions” of China’s cultural revolution, but there’s no need to invoke secular totalitarianism and mass murder. The comparatively smaller-scale terror of the Salem witch trials is a more apt analogy.
Business: In a pair of highly suggestive essays for City Journal, Jacob Howland, an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Tulsa, has explained how the school has been remade in recent years, with its commitment to the liberal arts abandoned in favor of an outlook of “corporatist progressivism.” Shuttering humanities majors in favor of technical training, mandating “woke” reforms of the remaining curriculum, and pursuing profits for the wealthy financiers bankrolling the university — these moves have reinforced one another, with the embrace of outspoken left-wing anti-liberalism allowing those bulldozing the liberal arts to claim the moral high ground. Much more work remains to be done in analyzing the rise of “woke capital” and the part it plays in fostering and encouraging current trends, but Howland’s writing gives us a good start.
An International Crusade for Justice: The successor ideology is no longer simply an American phenomenon. When French President Emmanuel Macron blames the spread of woke ideas in his country on the insidious influence of professors in the United States, he is reproducing the error of American conservatives who cast aspersions on German philosophers. But just as it is incumbent upon us to come up with an alternative theory of its spread at home, the rise of cancel culture abroad demands its own explanation.
What can account for the appeal of these ideas in other cultural contexts? One possibility is that the successor ideology answers a longing among idealistic young people around the world to devote themselves to a grand spiritual crusade in the name of a transcendent ideal of justice — and it does so at a moment when the only political ideal on offer is democracy and its moral corollary: equality or egalitarianism.
Whereas liberalism treats equality as one valuable ideal among many (including liberty, solidarity, and piety) and seeks a pluralistic balance among them, those in the grip of the successor ideology find this aspiration toward equanimity an intolerable compromise with moral evil. Moreover, they view their own privileges — their own part in contributing to liberalism’s failure to achieve an egalitarian ideal — as a source of disgust, guilt, shame, and self-loathing. Those emotions are notoriously volatile because they’re so painful to endure. That can lead those suffering from them to create a scapegoat who can become an alternative object of ire — a person or group in the world who can be made to take the blame and suffer just punishment, allowing the sins of the punisher and the punished alike to be expiated.
That’s just the barest sketch of what might be behind the Great Awokening roiling our politics and culture. Until we make more progress in coming to terms with its deepest motives and ultimate aims, we will find ourselves at a loss in how to respond.