‘Wokeness’ and the backlash against liberalism

During most of the history of the Western world – that is, of nations with a Catholic or Protestant heritage – it was taken for granted that you cannot have a unified society unless you have unified morality supported by an official religion.

Much blood was shed in order to impose or maintain that unity.

Sometime around the end of the Wars of Religion in the 17th century, the idea of what we now call liberalism emerged.

That idea was that we agree to disagree, and unify around rules that enable people of different religions and different heritages to live together in peace. The central liberal virtues were freedom, reason and toleration.

The history of the Western world since then has been an expansion of tolerance to include more and more marginal groups.

This expansion has generated backlash – blood-and-soil nationalism, Bolshevism and fascism.

All these movements are based on narrow, but valid, ideals,such as social justice and patriotism.  All, to my mind, represented the failure of liberalism.  But as substitutes for religion, none of them provides the consolation of Christianity or any other universal religion.

“Wokeness,” too, is based on narrow, but valid, ideals – inclusiveness and alertness to social injustice.  In and of themselves, these are all good things.  The problem is that “wokeness” can be a fanatic, persecuting ideology.

Now you may think that it is a foolish exaggeration to compare “wokeness” in all its forms to totalitarian ideologies such as Bolshevism and fascism. 

You’re not in danger of being put in a concentration camp for misgendering someone; you’re not in danger of being stood up against a wall and shot for objecting to diversity training.

And many things that are done in the name of “wokeness” are good.  We can all benefit from examining ourselves for biases; we can all benefit from being more culturally sensitive.  The Black Lives Matter movement may actually succeed in bringing about reform of policing.

Also, as a practical matter, the “woke” movement is far from the worst threat to civil liberties.  “Wokeness” is not responsible for the USA Patriot Act, the torment of Julian Assange, policing for profit, support for foreign governments with death squads, and much more.

But the perpetrators of all these other abuses are hypocrites.  They pretend to be defenders of the U.S. Constitution and a “rules-based” international order.  They don’t reject freedom and democracy in principle.

What we’re seeing in the USA is a broad and deep mass movement — the biggest such movement in my adult lifetime, including the civil rights movement of the Sixties — that explicitly rejects the premises of liberalism.

I remember back in the Fifties people defended McCarthyism on the grounds that it wasn’t as bad as Stalinism.  Well, that was true, but it was possible to be against both. 

Loss of jobs and destruction of reputations for saying the wrong thing, or having the wrong attitude, are not the worst things in the world, but they’re no joke, either.  They signify the rejection of the liberal compact — the idea that you have your ideas, I have my ideas and that is our individual right.

Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of young people think of the rights to freedom of speech or to due process of law as obstacles to the achievement of a just society.  This is no small thing.

Many are full of rage, for understandable reasons.  They face a bleak future in an unforgiving economy.  But their rage is directed against almost random targets, not against the powers that be.  In fact, the powers that be can deploy “wokeness” to divert attention from themselves.

What the prevalence of “wokeness” shows is the failure of liberalism to inspire loyalty.  Maybe this was an inherent weakness all along.  Maybe what’s doing on today is an unfolding of weaknesses that were there all along.  If so, wishing for a revival of liberalism will not revive it. 

LINKS

Excesses of Wokeness

A Witch Hunt on Instagram by Katherine Jebsen Moore for Quillette.

Jordan Peterson at McMaster University: ‘Don’t let them provoke you’ on YouTube.

Stop Firing the Innocent by Yascha Mounk for The Atlantic.

We All Live on Campus Now by Andrew Sullivan for New York magazine.

Analyses of Wokeness

The Elect: the Threat to a Progressive America from Anti-Black Antiracism by John McWhorter on his It Bears Mentioning Substack blog..

Postmodernism and the Faith of Social Justice by James Lindsay and Mike Nayna for New Discourses.

The Successor Ideology by Ross Douthat, Coleman Hughes, Wesley Yang and Reihan Salam for the Manhattan Institute.

The Enduring Relevance of Czeslaw Milosz’s ‘The Captive Mind’ by Robin Ashenden for Quillette.

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