Freddie deBoer: Quit pretending you don't know what woke means (plus zebras)

Sarah Durant

I wrote a whole post yesterday about people on the left playing games with the definition of the word woke. As I pointed out, this is the same gambit we’ve seen with regard to Critical Race Theory. So on the one hand you have anti-racists like Ibram Kendi admitting on television that Critical Race Theory is a fundamental part of their agenda (including his book “Anti-racist Baby”) and yet if a conservative claims CRT is being spread widely, progressives will reply that CRT is a theory only taught in law schools. In short, it’s a dodge designed to avoid the subject.

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Today, Freddie deBoer has a good piece on Substack expressing his own weariness over people on the left pretending not to know what woke means (or worse pretending it’s just a way for conservatives to attack minorities). As deBoer says, if you don’t like the term “woke” then please pick something!

As I have said many times, I don’t like using the term “woke” myself, not without qualification or quotation marks. It’s too much of a culture war pinball and now deemed too pejorative to be useful. I much, much prefer the term “social justice politics” to refer to the school of politics that is typically referred to as woke, out of a desire to be neutral in terminology. However: there is such a school of politics, it’s absurd that so many people pretend not to know what woke means, and the problem could be easily solved if people who support woke politics would adopt a name for others to use. No to woke, no to identity politics, no to political correctness, fine: PICK SOMETHING. The fact that they steadfastly refuse to do so is a function of their feeling that they shouldn’t have to do politics like everyone else. But they do. And their resistance to doing politics is why, three years after a supposed “reckoning,” nothing has really changed.

He then goes on to argue that there clearly is a movement that does exist to which the word “woke” refers. He offers his own 7-point description of it which is pretty detailed. Here’s his summarized version:

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“Woke” or “wokeness” refers to a school of social and cultural liberalism that has become the dominant discourse in left-of-center spaces in American intellectual life. It reflects trends and fashions that emerged over time from left activist and academic spaces and became mainstream, indeed hegemonic, among American progressives in the 2010s. “Wokeness” centers “the personal is political” at the heart of all politics and treats political action as inherently a matter of personal moral hygiene – woke isn’t something you do, it’s something you are. Correspondingly all of politics can be decomposed down to the right thoughts and right utterances of enlightened people. Persuasion and compromise are contrary to this vision of moral hygiene and thus are deprecated. Correct thoughts are enforced through a system of mutual surveillance, one which takes advantage of the affordances of internet technology to surveil and then punish. Since politics is not a matter of arriving at the least-bad alternative through an adversarial process but rather a matter of understanding and inhabiting an elevated moral station, there are no crises of conscience or necessary evils.

This is quite a mouthful obviously but I think it’s really quite a good description. It starts from the idea that this is an academic, cultural product. And without directly calling it a cult, he does manage to use some language with religious overtones to describe it. Personal moral hygiene and “inhabiting an elevated moral station” sounds like secular holiness and I think it probably functions that way too in group dynamics. I also like that he’s focused on the abandonment of debate and persuasion in favor of surveillance and punishment. That’s the mob justice part of wokeness which is very obvious online and during campus deplatforming efforts.

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He then focuses in more closely on these elements. I particularly liked this bit on the inherent fatalism of this movement:

Fatalistic – woke politics tend towards extreme fatalism regarding solutions and the possibility of gradual positive political change. Institutions are all corrupt and bigoted, so institutions cannot prompt change. Most people are irredeemably racist, and so the masses cannot create a just society. Constructive police reform is inherently and irrevocably impossible, so the only response to police violence is police abolition, no matter that we can’t actually achieve police abolition. Everything and everyone is presumed to be unapologetically bigoted until proven otherwise. Problems can’t be solved gradually through small steps over time, but only through revolutionary change, which itself will inevitably be blocked by the white-cis-male power structure. Everything sucks all the time, which incidentally justifies yelling all the time for people who enjoy yelling. The purpose of politics is not to sacrifice in the pursuit of change but to occupy the position of eternal Cassandra, someone who identifies the evil but never stops it.

The world is wicked and corrupt and in need of redemption which can only be accomplished by the righteous. These are religious sentiments not political ones. You don’t let the heretics talk, you give them a sick burn on Twitter and silence them.

Anyway, I think deBoer has done an excellent job with this definition and I agree with him it’s long past time for proponents of these views to just pick a word we can all use to describe them.

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I also came across a thread on Twitter today making the argument that the refusal by the woke to accept this or any word to define their movement is strategic. As with my post yesterday, the jumping off point was the viral clip of Bethany Mandel. But as promised in the headline, he eventually gets around to talking about zebras.

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He offers a couple of short definitions and then a longer one.

I think his final point about applying this carefully and accurately is a good one. Not everything that you or I might disagree with as too far left is woke. To the degree we ignore those distinctions ourselves it makes it easier for the people who are woke and who wish to play these camouflage games to do so.

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David Strom 10:00 AM | June 21, 2024
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