What does it mean to be woke?

If you find a lot of this narrative persuasive — even filtered through my conservative mind — then whatever “woke” describes, it probably describes you

By Ross Douthat

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Published: Mon 20 Mar 2023, 10:54 PM

Last week, conservative writer Bethany Mandel had the kind of moment that can happen to anyone who talks in public for a living: While promoting a new book critiquing progressivism, she was asked to define the term “woke” by an interviewer — a reasonable question, but one that made her brain freeze and her words stumble. The viral clip, in turn, yielded an outpouring of arguments about the word itself: Can it be usefully defined? Is it just a right-wing pejorative? Is there any universally accepted label for what it’s trying to describe?

The answers are yes, sometimes and unfortunately no. Of course, there is something real to be described: the revolution inside American liberalism is a crucial ideological transformation of our time. But unlike a case such as “neoconservatism,” where a critical term was then accepted by the movement it described, our climate of ideological enmity makes settled nomenclature difficult.

I personally like the term “Great Awokening,” which evokes the new progressivism’s roots in Protestantism — but obviously secular progressives find it condescending. I appreciate how British writer Dan Hitchens acknowledges the difficulty of definitions by calling the new left-wing politics “the Thing” — but that’s unlikely to catch on with true-believing Thingitarians.

So, let me try a different exercise — instead of a pithy term or definition, let me write a sketch of the “woke” worldview, elaborating its internal logic as if I myself believed in it. (To the incautious reader: These are not my actual beliefs.)

What is America all about, at its best? Equality and liberty. What is the left all about, at its best? Transforming those ideals into lived realities.

But this project keeps running into limits, disappointments and defeats. Everywhere you look, terrible disparities persist. And that persistence should force us to look deeper, beyond attempts to win legal rights or redistribute wealth, to the cultural and psychological structures that perpetuate oppression before law and policy begins to play a part. This is what the terminology of the academy has long been trying to describe — the way that generations of racist, sexist and heteronormative power have inscribed themselves, not just on our laws but on our very psyches.

And once you see these forces in operation, you can’t unsee them — you are, well, “awake” — and you can’t accept any analysis that doesn’t acknowledge how they permeate our lives.

This means rejecting, first, any argument about group differences that emphasises any force besides racism or sexism or other systems of oppression. (Indeed, the very measurement of difference — through standardised testing, say — is itself inevitably shaped by these oppressive forces.) Even differences that seem most obviously biological, such as the differences between male and female athletes or the bodies that people find sexually attractive, should be presumed to be primarily culturally inscribed — because how can we know what’s really biological until we’ve finished liberating people from the crushing constraints of gender stereotypes?

It also means rejecting or modifying the rules of liberal proceduralism, because under conditions of deep oppression, those supposed liberties are inherently oppressive themselves. You can’t have an effective principle of nondiscrimination unless you first discriminate in favour of the oppressed. You can’t have real freedom of speech unless you first silence some oppressors.

And all of this is necessarily a cultural and psychological project, which is why schools, media, pop culture and language itself are the essential battlegrounds. Yes, economic policy matters, but material arrangements are downstream of culture and psychology. The socialists have merely gentled capitalism, the environmentalists have merely regulated it. If you want to save the planet or end the rule of greed, you need a different kind of human, not just a system that assumes racist patriarchal values and tries to put them on a leash.

If you find a lot of this narrative persuasive — even filtered through my conservative mind — then whatever “woke” describes, it probably describes you.

If you recoil from it, welcome to the ranks of the unwoke.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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