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"Woke" is a new ideology and its proponents should admit it
When a new thing is created it needs a name
Forget the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Zack Snyder’s DC films. If you really want to experience acrimony in its purest form, tell people what you think of the “woke” stuff.
I point this out because unfortunately, I have a take on it that I want to tell you about.
Why? Because I hate myself. And because it is in the terms of service that if you write on Substack, you’ve got to eventually bang on about wokeness.
But also because as tiresome as it is to even say the word, ‘wokeness’ does represent a salient dividing line in our society. On an enormous range of topics, it’s possible to neatly sort opinions about that topic into a pair of rancid buckets marked “woke” and “anti-woke”.
What I find most fascinating about the wokeness1 culture war – and what makes it interesting – is that it is incredibly difficult to define what it is actually about.
To your most achingly right-on friends on Facebook, “woke” is just a word that means you are “alert to injustice in society”. To its smarter opponents like the controversial right-wing Professor Matthew Goodwin, “woke" is the name of a dangerous new ideological force in society.
If you’re the sort of person who reads nerdy Substack posts – and you are – you’ve probably seen this exact dynamic play out countless times on your own social media: Someone asks “why can’t people just be kind?”, someone else responds complaining about “woke snowflakes”, and the whole thread ends in bitter acrimony, blocked accounts and terminated friendships.
So it would help to agree what we’re arguing about. How should we define “woke”? Surprisingly, my view is actually closer to that of controversial right-wing Professor Matthew Goodwin.
Don’t worry, this isn’t the moment I come out as a firebrand anti-woke culture warrior, and dedicate the rest of my career to explaining why Wakanda would be more prosperous if it had been part of the British Empire.
But what I think Goodwin correctly identifies is that wokeness does represent a new and distinct set of political ideas, that are anchored by different values and priorities to what would traditionally be characterised as left-leaning, liberal and progressive2.
To be clear, I’m not attempting to explicitly argue whether or not these ideas are good or bad3. That's a debate far too big and tedious for this one post. You can make your own mind up.
But whether or not you like these new ideas or not, they have proven influential in politics on both sides of the Atlantic. “Woke” ideas, for better or worse, are influencing public policy, how political actors behave, the shape of the political discourse, and ultimately, our lives.
And even worse from my perspective is that it makes Twitter even more annoying.
So I think we should try to understand what (heavy sigh) Elon Musk calls a “mind virus”.
And this is why I find it strange that some of the new ideology’s most vocal supporters seem almost afraid to admit that their ideas are new and that the term “wokeness” captures more than just being kind.
But I don’t think they should be afraid. Whatever side of the debate you are on4, it should be possible to admit that yes, these ideas are new, and yes, they form a somewhat coherent ideology, and yes, we should seek to understand the implications of this.
Oh god, what am I doing wading in on this topic, of all things? But hey, if you like mildly contrarian takes you may also enjoy my other writing. So sign up to this Substack now for less contentious takes, like the one where I slag off environmentalists, or the other one where I defend the honour of the world’s most richest and most annoying man.
Defining the “mind virus”
Let’s start with what is obvious. “Woke” itself is a terrible word, because it has already been stretched beyond any possible conceptual coherence by detractors5. In many cases, it is used as a wafer-thin euphemism to disguise proper, old-fashioned racism.
For example, here’s actor Rakie Ayola, responding to the premise that a show is “woke” (and, therefore, bad) because there is a black person in it.
But the definition has also been stretched by non-racists too, who instead just want to bash a square peg into a woke hole. Obvious examples of this are a moronic Tory MP suggesting that civil servants should stop “woke-ing from home”, whatever the fuck that means, or the Daily Mail suggesting that builders have "gone woke” because a PR survey claimed that construction workers sometimes discuss their feelings.
But just because the word has been rendered meaningless doesn’t mean there isn’t a new thing that needs a label. Donald Trump rinsed all possible meaning out of the phrase “fake news”, but that doesn’t make the reality of “deliberately false news articles exist to spread misinformation” false, nor remove the need to give the real phenomenon that exists in the world a name.
Similarly with “woke”, I think that it’s definitely possible to identify some core characteristics that are often shared by things labelled “woke”, much like how “socialist” can still be a useful term for describing someone’s broad political views, even though it is regularly used to refer to everyone from people who think the government should maybe own the railways to unironic Stalinists.
So at risk of being wildly unscientific, I think with a lot of “woke” stuff, you know it when you see it. If you’re as in deep with the culture war discourse as I am6, it’s easy to learn what norms and characteristics define whether a thing (a policy, an opinion, a person, an animal, a smell) gets coded as either woke or un-woke7.
The Woke Test
Let’s get to the meat of this. What characteristics lie at the heart of this new woke ideology? What makes it different to the small-l liberal political consensus that existed before? How can we decide whether something is deserving of the label “woke” or not? These are my suggestions for The Woke Test. If a thing shares some8 of these characteristics, then I think it is accurate to label it “woke”.
I’m sure you’ll think some of these characteristics are incorrect, or that I’ve missed others out. But here’s a starting point on what I think “woke” is, and what makes it new.
“Woke” emphasises identitarian deference
The term “identitarian deference” was coined by the writer Matt Bruenig in 2013 to describe how “privileged individuals should defer to the opinions and views of oppressed individuals, especially on topics relevant to those individuals’ oppression”.
For example, this manifests itself as calls to listen to women, or that we should “centre” black voices in the debate about how best to reduce racism in society. And broadly speaking, these are laudable and uncontroversial things to do. Of course it is true that the views of women should carry more weight in debates over abortion, and of course people who experience racism should be part of any conversation about racism.
But what separates out the “woke” view from boring, normie liberalism is when an appeal to “lived experience” is seen as an ultimate trump card in a debate.
And whether or not this is good or bad, I can attest from my own lived experience this is a new thing. 15 years ago, it was common in the liberal-lefty-science nerd circles I moved in to wield catchphrases like “the plural of anecdote is not data”, but under the new “woke” norms, data alone is not seen as enough – instead, arguments are considered the most compelling when they are made by someone who shares an identity characteristic relevant to the issue at hand.
“Woke” prioritises harm reduction over free speech
The ideological shift that has surprised me the most is witnessing “free speech” become coded as a right-wing value, and something that when the phrase is uttered makes people sympathetic to “woke” ideas suspicious.
The argument is that unrestricted speech harms people. There isn’t an equal platform to speak in the first place, so racists and other unpleasant people are able to use the norm of free speech to terrorise groups who are oppressed.
I think the strangest example of this new norm in action was the response to Elon Musk buying Twitter. Traditionally, liberal ideology is fearful of overreach by powerful figures like billionaires, and is in favour of more permissive speech rules and norms as a hedge against their power. But the “woke” complaint about the new owner is that under Musk’s leadership, Twitter will not be censorious enough, and will be too permissive over what speech is allowed on the platform.
“Woke” is totalising
Another key ingredient of the hazy storm of “woke” concepts is the idea of “intersectionality”. This is the idea that “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups”. So, for example, black women may experience both racism and sexism at the same time.
This is (obviously) a real thing that happens and an “intersectional” view can be a useful framework for understanding how different “vectors of oppression” can overlap and multiply the difficulties that people face. However, it also does something else: It makes politics totalising, and makes it harder for the ideologically “woke” to form broader political coalitions.
For example, in the traditional liberal model of doing politics, it may be possible to find common cause with adversaries in other parties on individual issues. A socialist and a free market conservative may work together on a social policy issue, even though they fundamentally disagree on economic issues.
But with the totalising characteristics of woke ideology, it makes building this sort of coalition more difficult: How can a Labour MP work with a Tory MP on climate change, when that same Tory voted for such a monstrous policy towards refugees? How dare speakers share a platform on one issue, when one speaker is so egregiously beyond the pale on another, tangentially associated issue?
“Woke” is communitarian
A foundational principle of traditional liberalism is that of individual rights: That the relationship between the the state and the person, and our rights and obligations are in relation to us as individuals, and not based on our membership particular identity groups.
Obviously the real world is slightly more complex than this, and in liberal democracies we often make accommodations based on group membership. For example, in Britain, we do not require Sikhs to wear motorbike helmets, and in Canada, first nations people are in some circumstances allowed to hunt animals that everyone else is not. But overwhelmingly, the rights of the individual win out most of the time.
Where “woke” ideology differs is that it pushes this equilibrium further towards a communitarian conception of rights. We can see this in terms of how identity characteristics are foregrounded, and the way in which adherents view their relationship to other humans in terms of group membership.
“Woke” is sceptical of ‘progress’
The traditional “liberal” view of history is through the lens of progress.
In the 19th century, only wealthy landowners could vote, women had few rights, and racism was baked into the structure of society. But since then, we have become more enlightened, and the circle of empathy has expanded so that today many people who would have been persecuted or oppressed in an earlier age enjoy many more rights.
The “woke” view, by contrast, challenges this is narrative. For example, Ibram X Kendi offers a more expansive definition of racism, arguing that anything that “produces or sustains racial inequality” is racism. And given we have not yet achieve full racial equality, can we really say there has been any progress?9
“Woke” prioritises right-side norms over accuracy norms
One essay I keep coming back to is's piece on “right-side” norms vs “accuracy” norms, which he uses to explain why arguments on the internet are so toxic. His argument goes that members of different communities follow different rules to remain in good standing with their peers.
For example, in some communities, to maintain good standing, it is important to make sure what you say is accurate. A journalist will lose status for inaccurate reporting, say, or a scientist will lose status if they do not accurately publish the results of an experiment.
But other communities may evolve different norms. For example, in a community of political activists or football fans, it may be more important to be on the “right side” of a debate: There is the risk of a social penalty that makes it much harder to concede that the other side made a good point, or the referee’s decision to award the other team a penalty was correct, because it will invite the ire of your friends and colleagues.
Where “woke” vs “non-woke” maps on to this (this is my own editorialising now) is that unlike (to grossly over-simplify) traditional small-L liberal principles, which value accuracy, “woke” communities often value being on “the right side” over accuracy10.
It’s a new thing and that’s okay
Most of the above norms and characteristics represent trade-offs, and it would be a grotesque caricature to suggest that that “woke” people follow these principles maniacally11. Instead, it is probably the case that following the “woke” tenets are like taking one side of a 60/40 trade-off, or choosing different priorities.
For example, it’s obviously true that both “free speech” and “not hurting peoples' feelings” are, in the abstract and in isolation, desirable things, but the two are somewhat mutually incompatible. If you allow more unrestricted speech, more feelings will be hurt. And if you want to protect people from hearing more hurtful things, then speech will necessarily be more restricted.
But if you had to rank which principle is more important, over the course of thousands of specific examples, the ideologically “woke” side would more often opt for not hurting feelings, whereas the ideological liberal side would more often go for “free speech”12.
Woke intentions are good
I’ve attempted to frame this piece fairly neutrally, as “woke – good or bad?” isn’t the point I’m trying to make (not to mention extremely tedious). But it’s also true that it is virtually impossible to write about neutrally, because every choice of words, phrases or framing I make requires me to make certain choices.
So if you read between the lines, you can probably detect that I’m a little sceptical of some of the new “woke” norms. But here’s what I think separates me from the GBNews rent-a-bores: I think that the intentions of “woke” ideology are good.
It should go without saying but because this is the internet and charitable reading is in short supply, I’ll state it plainly: My view is that broadly “woke” policy goals, in the abstract, are almost self-evidently desirable. Reducing racism is good, allowing people to live how they please is good, redesigning institutions to reduce inequality is good, diversity is good. Blah blah blah. You get the idea.
But I also think that it is important that advocates of “woke” ideas to acknowledge as true that what they are advocating is, well, new. And this means approaching (good faith) opponents or sceptics with some humility, as you’re the ones trying to persuade people to adopt the new ideas.
This means, for example, instead of bemoaning “why can’t people just be kind?”, you’ll be more successful if you engage with the arguments actually being made. As mashed in with all of the racists and arseholes are some actual, difficult questions about principles, values and trade-offs, and ideas that actually do deserve to be taken seriously.
Holy hell, you made it to the end! If you read this far you must either think I’m right or you’re absolutely furious. Either way, why not subscribe and get more blazing hot takes direct to your inbox? And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter, where I will hopefully never, ever, be tweeting about this topic ever again. And if enjoyed reading it, please do share it with your friends and followers as it’ll be fun to wind them up.
And yes I do feel faintly embarrassed writing the word “woke” without any implicit sarcasm.
By “traditional” I mean as far back as maybe 2015.
If you want to know whether I think wokeness is good or bad, we can play a fun game where you can intuit my views from the way I have described the tenets of wokeness in this post.
I cannot stress enough how little I need you to tell me which side you are personally on.
Why do I vaguely know who Matt Walsh and Jason Stanley are? I told you, it’s because I hate myself.
Tragically at this point I’m pretty confident that at this point you could show me any Twitter account and I could with about 95% accuracy tell you the person’s stance on “woke” stuff based on what they tweet and who they follow.
But not all! I think definitionally this is more like the definition of the word “sport” - there are certain characteristics you can point to (points are scored, there’s a time limit, it involves intense physical activity, etc) but none are wholly universal (as per the above characteristics: running, tennis, snooker). Instead “woke” like “sport” is more like a bucket you fill with different intermingling concepts.
What I find extremely strange about Kendi specifically is that he is a respected public intellectual, yet once pitched – seemingly half-seriously – that America should create a “Department of Antiracism” that would be staffed by “trained experts on racism” and have a veto over all federal, state and local policies. And yet he wasn’t immediately laughed out of the room.
The most striking example of this I can think of is after America’s racial reckoning in 2020. The example everyone points to here is the firing of Democratic data guy David Shor, but I think the more amusing example is the comically absurd claims that fireworks were being launched in major metropolitan areas as a CIA psy-op to stop Black Lives Matter. I remember someone I know getting into a heated Facebook argument with a friend of a friend, who was very ‘woke’, for daring to suggest that there might be some other explanation for the increase in fireworks in the weeks leading up to July 4th.
The few that do are probably extremely online Twitter users with anime avatars.
The first time I realised that there was something ideologically new going on was a very stark example of this. In 2015, when the offices of Charlie Hebdo was attacked, my social media was split between those who were horrified about the attack on free speech, and those who caveated their horror with a note that the magazine had published racist or offensive cartoons in the past.