Before we begin, I want to admit that I’m on the anti-woke end of the spectrum. Nevertheless, I hope my definition of wokeness is still useful to those living to the woke of me. After all, unless you are Ibram X. Kendi or Robin DiAngelo, there will always be someone more woke than you. So if you find yourself yearning to critique the argument of a person who out-wokes you, I humbly submit this breakdown for your consideration in preparing for your endeavour.
I also hope this analysis is a useful reference point for those who would like to debate woke policies but are sometimes blocked from entering the discussion if they don’t have an exhaustive definition handy. In my view, such definitional demands on potential discussants are tools of avoiding genuine deliberation. Wokeness is like humour: despite being all around us, it is difficult to identify in words; yet I think we all know it when we feel it. Nevertheless, I offer you my hard-thought but surely imperfect definition of woke behaviour as an opening bid that might assist you in gaining access to those restrictive conversations.
PART I: DIVIDING WOKENESS
Among those who discuss the moral code of wokeness, I notice that we have a surplus of definitions. So, with arrogance in my heart, compassionate anti-woke bias in my soul, and clarity as my goal, I will now attempt to define what I think most of us intuitively mean by “wokeness” (or “political correctness” when it was run under previous management).
Those of us who criticize wokeness and those who abide by it seem to be speaking of two nearly distinct philosophies. According to the woke themselves, wokeness is alertness to injustice. (Wokeness sounds noble when they put it like that.) Yet, according to critics of wokeness, it is something like justice advocacy that determines who is eligible for its services via identity markers that are generally associated with historical maltreatment; moreover, it insists that all claims of injustice by—or on behalf of—those woke-protected individuals are undeniable; therefore, anyone who doesn’t agree to its descriptions and/or corresponding prescriptions must be punished socially, occupationally, and, where feasible, legally.
Sometimes both of these pro-and-anti-woke descriptions could be true at the same time: a woke person could have a fair point about a particular injustice and yet still be puritanical in how they make it. So, by criticizing woke assumptions, tactics, and recommendations, we anti-woke babblers are frequently presumed to be opposed to every stated goal of wokeness, including the most honourable ones, such as declawing racism. But, if I may speak for the majority of anti-woke thinkers, we tend to favour the enlightened values that woke activists claim in their titles but don’t, in our view, exemplify in their actions and arguments.
For that matter, it’s not just the anti-woke who are skeptical of woke tendencies. In my experience (and perhaps yours?), even defenders of wokeness admit that there is a point where they too see the woke elite “going too far.” (See political comedian/commentator Bill Maher who often irritates both sides of these debates because he cheers on certain woke talking points in one monologue only to mock woke gospel in another.) For instance, whereas a woke-inclined person may defend most ethnicity-related woke justice claims, they might be skeptical of the woke commandment to censure so-called “cultural appropriation.” Instead, such generally-woke-aligned-but-skeptical-of-particular-cases thinkers might assess the notion of certain cultures owning certain types of expression as extreme and contrary to their own value of cultures being free to influence and be influenced by each other.
So, if I’m right that even the woke-sympathizing among us view the influential moral disposition as sometimes overreaching, then we can conclude that almost all of us perceive wokeness as not identical to the simple call for justice, equality, and the humanitarian way. Wokeness includes bonus material beyond its gleaming self-description. By analogy, in my country, the party in current power is called the “Liberal” party. Yet I think the Liberal leader has some authoritarian (i.e. anti-liberal) habits. (For instance, in 2022, he said that approaching protestors possessed “unacceptable opinions.”) Nevertheless, despite my anti-Liberal-leader critique, I am fond of liberal values. When I criticize the capital-L Liberal Prime Minister, that does not mean I am opposed to small-l liberal ideals such as free speech and equal marriage access. Instead, I am a critic of particular policies and rhetoric that my Liberal government uses in the world, which I believe ethically contradict their title principles.
So I am pro-liberal and anti-Liberal at the same time. Similarly, by its own definition of itself, I am technically pro-woke: after all, I too am opposed to injustice. And yet I simultaneously disagree with nearly all of the arguments and tactics expressed by woke representatives.
So, when discussing wokeness, are we referring to the official definition of the thing or the way in which the concept is actually used? I believe that the public debate around wokeness is almost universally pointed at its actions and policies in contrast with its headline principle. For that reason, I will now attempt to define wokeness as I see it behaving as opposed to how its PR department portrays it.
PART II: DEFINING WOKENESS
Wokeness, I submit, is led by a maxim that identity groups can and should be sorted into permanent victims vs. permanent villains. Woke philosophy presumes, that is, that particular historical injustices have prominent and unyielding tentacles in every modern-day institution and social interaction. (See the woke’s use of bulk “privilege” diagnoses wherein all members of certain demographics are described as advantaged regardless of their particular encounters in the world.) And that irresistible notion inhibits the woke’s ability and/or willingness to consider instances where their analysis might go wrong.
If you’re a human reading this then you have likely at some point taken part in motivated reasoning and/or confirmation bias to guide you to a favourite conclusion. Such preference-guided thinking is not easy to avoid even among those with ironclad integrity. For that reason, the scientific method includes double-blind protocols to help the most logical of researchers avoid jumping for the unearned inferences that their brains want for them. The trouble that I see with woke moral reasoning is that it incentivizes us to disregard our own sleights of mind and instead to lean in to our prized assumptions. (See “The Grievance Studies Affair” by Boghossian, Lindsay, and Pluckrose in which they seem to have demonstrated anti-scientific woke bias within academia. To do so, they invented outrageous conclusions and then justified them utilizing woke language but no scientific evidence; the trio of authors subsequently had seven purposely “broken” papers accepted in academic journals. While the intentionally unscientific work couldn’t be supported with scrutiny, it aligned with the already-established inclinations of those publications, and it was rewarded.)
I have no doubt that certain woke premises and even conclusions sometimes have merit, but the woke method of justifying their arguments greatly reduces woke thinkers’ chances of spotting their own errors along the way. Unlike the scientific method which facilitates spotting leaps of logic, I contend that woke philosophy rewards faith-based groupthink, using three leading means to motivate us to defer to its pessimistic conclusions.
(1) Woke representatives insist that their descriptions and prescriptions represent unimpeachable virtue that only bad people would question. Given that wokeness has appointed itself the official spokes-value against many of the worst injustices of history, those of us who prefer to be good people (and/or seen as good people) are compelled to join a cause that claims to be on the opposite side of those moral catastrophes. (See how the woke refer to their openly discriminatory advocacy as “anti-racism.” Who, in their modern right mind, doesn’t want to be anti-racist?)
(2) Now under cover of their dogmatic insistence that they are the most virtuous among us, the woke announce revolutionary moral conclusions, seasoned with phrases that on first taste make them seem as though they are doing nothing more than protecting the demographic victims of history from further abuse. However, hidden beneath the woke’s flowering of sweet-smelling phrases, there lies in the soil not-so-fragrant machinations that are required to maintain the beauty above. (See the common woke incantation “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” which looks bright and cheerful on its surface, but which—through its equity call for demographic matching in the roles it targets—directly implies and leads to policies of “positive discrimination” against “over-represented” identity groups.)
Perhaps those unspoken components can be justified, but woke policy is to deny the existence of—and distract us from observing—any possible ethical quandaries and victims that come along with their effervescent platitudes. Consider Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2015 justification for using a sex-based quota to choose his cabinet ministers. (From 50 female and 134 male MPs, Trudeau promoted 15 of each to the top positions.) When asked why he did so, Trudeau explained “because it’s 2015,” suggesting that his discriminatory policy was, by definition, evolved to match the modern year in which we were living and that questioning his magnanimity would be akin to discriminating against women. Predictably, none of the reporters present dipped their toe into Trudeau’s linguistic trap, and he received no good-faith questions about whether there could possibly be an ethical downside to the government choosing its leaders—and excluding certain candidates—on the basis of sex.
And (3) once the woke’s policies land in our consciousness, they do not simply disagree with critics: they accuse them of being loathsome and irredeemable sinners who are unworthy of public participation. (See Canadian NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh, who in 2020 put forth a bill to diagnose the RCMP as systemically racist. Only one of 338 MPs—across all parties—voted against Singh’s dogmatic conclusion, and, for the holdout’s skepticism, Singh accused him of racism too.) Such reflexive demonization surely then scares away other would-be critics who might have had some legitimate counterarguments.
All totalled, here is my one-sentence definition of present-day political correctness:
Wokeness is a virtue pyramid scheme that collects adherents, as well as casualties, via dogma, intellectual trickery, and intimidation.
My critique of wokeness as a doctrinaire and scary fraud is not meant to suggest that all woke-leaning people are evil and that woke moral conclusions are always wrong: I don’t doubt that there are well-intentioned woke-aligned individuals and that the woke have some worthwhile insights. My criticism is that wokeness is to moral philosophy what astrology is to science. Your horoscope may sometimes correctly point out something true about you that you might not have otherwise noticed, but, since the horoscope writer is using an unscientific method, we ought to be extra careful of using it to guide us in our daily decision-making.
So I would not count the late 20th and early 21st-century activism in the West that called for equal marriage rights for same-sex couples as woke. After all, those gay rights campaigners didn’t cheat in their arguments—perhaps because they didn’t need to: the discrimination they described was present and accounted for in the laws of most Western countries, so they were easily able to use good faith and reasonable arguments to arrive at their pleas for equality. Similarly, almost every modern moral thinker agrees that Martin Luther King was a hero of history who fought to undo clear American violations of equality and human dignity. Yet, the fact that the woke may agree with many of MLK’s conclusions doesn’t make King woke, just as a meteorologist who occasionally predicts the same weather as an astrologist is not necessarily using an astrological method to reach those results.
PART III: EXEMPLIFYING WOKENESS
In the hopes of validating in your mind the above three-part definition of wokeness as dogmatic, dishonest, and punitive, I will now attempt to show how wokeness consistently exemplifies that critique.
(1) Wokeness is Dogmatic:
This one’s the easiest to justify since it’s right there in the name. Being “woke”—i.e. morally awake—includes a metaphor for objectivity. Those who are awake are seeing what is truly there (in contrast with those of us in the dream state who are seeing a fanciful view of life). Such a claim of infallible access to truth is an essential component of woke rhetoric: any alleged injustice is always closed to disagreement. The woke are not merely making arguments about society: they are—according to their language and actions—truth holders. They are “educating” the rest of us as they replace subjective terms such as opinion, perspective, and belief with objective reframes such as “My truth,” “Lived experience,” and “Different ways of knowing.” And, whereas the Western legal system is theoretically grounded on the notion of innocent until proven guilty, woke feminists have argued that we should “believe victims” independent of investigation.
The woke also insist that they possess infallible access to the minds of presumed perpetrators. Recall the infamous 2018 Philadelphia Starbucks case wherein two not-quite-yet customers tell us they were waiting for a business meeting at a table in the coffee shop without having purchased a beverage. According to even the woke-leaning New York Times version of the story, the might-eventually-be consumers were asked to purchase something or depart. Our soon-to-be famous fellows declined both options, and the manager subsequently called the police, apparently to have the unpatrons removed. The police then also asked the beverage-free table-dwellers to exit and were told No again, so they arrested the visitors on suspicion of trespassing. The story subsequently morphed into an internationally-discussed incident of presumed racism against the customer impersonators. Starbucks accepted the condemnation and shut down 8000 stores for a day to give their employees woke-approved “Implicit Bias” training. No evidence was supplied for assuming that the manager was motivated by racism other than the races of the alleged victims. In this and countless even more punitive examples, the woke successfully claim the talent of mind-reading among their powers of infallible perception.
(2) Wokeness is Dishonest
(A) Via Double Standards:
Whereas the scientific method of inquiry might see woke sociological claims as hypotheses that must be tested, woke philosophy notes that all contentions have already been proven by the “lived experiences” of the complainants. The woke need only point out cases where woke-protected individuals or groups fare worse in a situation to claim proof of present-day discrimination. As woke prophet Ibram X. Kendi puts it, “Racism… is a collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity that are substantiated by racist ideas.” Cancelling out the circular parts of Kendi’s definition, we are left with Racism is racial inequity, which is to say that any time two demographics have disparate results, we have proof of bigotry.
I disagree with Kendi’s oversimplified notion, but if divergent outcomes proved ongoing systemic discrimination, then woke scholars would have to admit many counterwoke examples where non-woke-guarded populations fare worse than woke-protected groups. For instance, men are more often victims of violence, suicide, murder, homelessness, and gay-bashing than women, but that is not the sort of inequity that woke thinkers are looking for.
(B) Via Word Games:
Wokeness uses several definition games to protect its arguments. For instance, one means by which woke philosophers avoid accusations of double standards is by defining themselves as morally infallible.
Consider feminism: when criticized for some of their women-first analyses, many leading feminists will note, “No, no, look at the dictionary: we are simply advocates for the equality of both women and men,” suggesting that, by their definition of themselves, they cannot be accused of favouring female people over male people (despite the contrary indication in their title). How feminists were able to achieve such a counterintuitive result in the dictionary, I do not know. But they are right: most dictionaries have given feminism that very feminist-guarding definition. Yet, in action and advocacy, almost all public feminists (save for the occasional Christina Hoff Sommers or Camille Paglia) seem to call for a double standard of care when considering the rights, protections, and dignity of female as opposed to male people.
On the one side of its advocacy, feminism claims that any alleged “microaggressions” against women are evidence of an anti-female society. For instance, feminists successfully cancelled medical researcher and noble laureate, Dr. Tim Hunt, because of his alleged misogyny after he uttered a joke (during a speech in which he was cheering on women in science) that women are more likely to cry in the workplace than men. Feminists are free to take offence to such attempted comedy and even to diagnose its sentiment as sexist if they choose, but why then—on the other side of their advocacy—do they promote much more severe insults of men, such as “toxic masculinity,” “mansplaining,” “manterrupting,” “the male gaze,” “the male ego,” “male violence against women,” “Teach men not to rape,” and so on?
Once again there is a clear distinction between the idealized egalitarian philosophy that feminism tells us about in its dating profile vs. the female-people-only advocacy that it shows up with on its actual dates. Referring to feminism as advocacy for equal treatment only to protect one sex from eyebrow-raising jokes while sending dehumanizing insults to the other is a form of ideological catfishing.
Similarly, woke advocates will sometimes announce that they have changed the definition of certain bigotries to exclude themselves. “Woke-protected race X,” they’ll say, “cannot be racist because racism equals power plus prejudice.” Power plus prejudice is certainly a useful concept worthy of its own term, yet its repurposing (dare I say colonizing?) of the word racism stops us from pointing at a specific and formidable villain of human history (the belief that a particular race is superior to and/or more deserving than another). This is not just a linguistic muddying of our words. By limiting racism to only certain genres of racial bigotry, the woke shield themselves from criticism when they cheerfully unleash pejorative terms such as “whiteness,” “white fragility,” and “white saviorism.” Under the original definition of racism, we could call such demonizing racialized language what it is, pure and uncut racism.
Ironically, of course, if racism were just prejudice plus power, then surely the woke would be identifiable as the most racist of all; what, after all, could be more powerful than defining yourself as infallible and then getting away with it?
Next, the woke manipulate our language by conjoining situations that are non-violent with words of violence. (See “microaggression,” “silence is violence,” and the call for “safe spaces [from ideas].”) Such blending of violent and non-violent concepts surely then creeps into our minds and creates an illusion that the woke are combatting a greater threat than may actually be out there. [The term “Concept Creep” was first expressed in 2016 by Psychology professor, Nick Haslam.]
(C) Via the Problematization Treadmill:
In King’s I Have a Dream speech, he was considering an idyllic, racism-free society. If achieved, it would mean that his goals had been reached such that, in theory, he could retire from that aspect of his activism. At present, however, it is not in the social or financial interest of woke activists to promote or acknowledge improvements for victim identity groups. Indeed, according to their own testimony, woke educators can never actually succeed in their woke work. Expensive diversity trainers, such as sociologist and White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo, famously tell their congregations that the bigotry of white people (including from DiAngelo, herself) is not something they can turn off. The professional woke person’s job then is to educate the alleged perpetrators of the bigotry and, just as importantly, to undermine the notion that such training could ever fully reverse the socially-implanted prejudice of the problematic students.
Notice also that woke changes to our language are running a perpetual updating process that can never quite reach its destination. Once woke corrections to the language are accepted by the majority, those interventions themselves become “problematic” and are discarded in favour of new sets of phrases that will eventually succumb to charges of being “harmful” as well. [As early as 1994, linguist Stephen Pinker spotted the pattern of eternally adjusting acceptable language and referred to the phenomenon as “the euphemism treadmill.”] While in theory, woke linguists claim they are attempting to remove hurtful word choices from our common phrasing, their actual duty is to maintain their critique of society as hostile to particular victim identity groups. Therefore, if the majority uses woke words, those terms can no longer be considered woke and so must be re-critiqued.
(D) Via KafkaTraps:
Perhaps the current champion of woke manipulation games is their use of Kafkatraps in their rhetoric. For instance, the charismatic woke-scholar DiAngelo provides her troublingly white followers two options: they may agree to her critique that they are incurably racist, or—if they attempt to defend themselves—she accuses them of suffering from “white fragility.” The double-edged concept has caught on so well with DiAngelo’s self-accusing crowd that it is now available in feminist speak, allowing men to choose between a diagnosis of misogyny or male fragility.
In other lectures, the woke will give non-woke-protected individuals two options for how they would like to be demonized. If a “straight white male” would like to support a woke cause, they may still be accused of “white saviorism” and/or “mansplaining,” but, if they decline to take part, they will be told they are participating in “white male apathy” and that their “silence is violence.”
If a non-woke-protected person attempts to promote another culture’s designated pastimes, they will be told they are “culturally appropriating.” If, however, such a person does not take part in a variety of cultural products and instead succeeds in advancing their own assigned cultural works, they will be accused of being narrow-mindedly obsessed with their dominant and problematic culture. (See “centering whiteness.”)
The number of woke Kafka traps are too numerous to list here, but I think they can be summed up by the Tina-Fey-led television show Mr. Mayor in which Holly Hunter’s political advisor character attempts to undermine Ted Danson’s mayor character. After asking him if he had had the decency to put up a black square on his Facebook profile during the leading BLM protests, she remarks, “Either way, how dare you?”
(E) Via Gaslighting:
Perhaps the most startling aspect of woke trickery is its denial that it’s up to what it’s up to. Consider the woke’s frequent use of the infamous Motte and Bailey trick where they do something controversial (the Bailey) and then, when questioned about it by critics, they hold out their innocent palms and claim that they are merely trying to support something to which almost no one would object (the Motte). For hypothetical instance, it seems to some of us skeptics that there are many “diversity trainers” as well as university professors and high school teachers who “educate” workers and/or students utilizing far-woke interpretations of history and society (the Bailey), but then, when those educators are criticized for, say, over-racializing and essentializing their supposed learners via privilege tests, the demagogue pedagogues gasp and claim that all they want to do is teach society undisputed facts of, say, American history (the Motte), such as the existence of slavery and Jim Crow laws. If I may speak for the anti-woke, we wholeheartedly support discussions of the cruelties of history, but we have many times witnessed the woke instructors in these matters utilizing their personal ideological interpretations of sociology to guide them. [The Motte-and-Bailey as a metaphor for certain ideological warfare was first utilized by philosopher Nicholas Shackel.]
As always, in some cases, the woke may have a worthy moral point that they are defending, but it’s difficult to have a debate about, say, Critical-Race-Theory-inspired pedagogy in schools when its practitioners are only willing to discuss a heroic interpretation of what they’re doing.
(3) Wokeness is Punitive
Wokeness is so sure of itself that it calls for those who have ever been a critic, a friend of a critic, or a non-follower of maximum wokeness to be punished via shame, de-platforming, cancellation of professional relationships, speech restrictions, job insecurity, and reduced access to due process.
In keeping with its gaslighting policy above, woke advocates will often deny that they have a cancellation branch, pointing out, for instance, that eight-hundred-millionaire author JK Rowling (who is a critic of certain trans-advocacy) still has a job. But either unintentionally or (I suspect) intentionally, the woke are confused about what cancel culture means. The term does not suggest that every cancellation attempt will be successful; instead, it refers to a minority but influential group of people who attempt to punish—via de-platforming and job emancipation—those who have non-woke opinions, behaviours, and/or artistic productions. When Rowling offers an officially problematic argument, the woke call for boycotts of her artistic work. The fact that Rowling’s career has not yet fallen is irrelevant to the question of whether a culture of cancellation tried (and continues to try) to take her out. In turn, such hostile advocacy surely scares away many woke-skeptical offerings from writers who don’t have the protection of a globally-successful franchise on their resume.
Despite the dispute, I won’t try to prove the existence of cancel culture to you here. I believe the examples are too numerous and far-reaching to deny in good faith. (If you prefer to have a case study handy, please refer to the example I provided earlier of Dr. Tim Hunt, the medical research superstar who was fired from all of his positions for uttering wronghumour.)
To my ear, the unstated theory behind woke enforcement is that the person caught in the act of being unwoke has not merely made a philosophical error: they are illustrating an intrinsic failing of their humanity, which cannot be redeemed. Therefore, they must be excommunicated from polite society so that their impure thoughts cannot spread to others.
So not only is cancel culture a hostile project which attempts to destroy fellow humans for saying the wrong words, it is, I believe, contrary to the alleged goals of ideological wokeness. If the woke are truly afraid of anti-woke zealots becoming radicalized, the last strategy they ought to employ is marginalizing such people to the scratchy outskirts where they will disproportionately encounter other supposedly evil-minded people. If the woke want to persuade their fellow citizens to join their allegedly anti-racist cause, they ought to promote us mingling with each other, which, as Mark Twain notes, is “fatal to prejudice.”
PART IV: CONCLUDING WOKENESS
Once again, I must insist that not all people who align themselves with woke causes are woke in action. Perhaps you sincerely believe in many woke claims. Maybe you’re right; maybe you’re wrong, but if you make your case with humility (i.e. you don’t claim moral infallibility), intellectual integrity (i.e. when two of your positions seem to contradict themselves, you reasonably attempt to reconcile the apparent discrepancy), and humanity (i.e. you don’t aim to destroy anyone who disagrees with you), then I would describe you as a good faith moral reasoner who happens to share some conclusions with woke thinkers. However, if you are dogmatic, intellectually devious, and/or punitive in your defence of a woke position, then I submit that you are being a woke bully, at least in that moment.
As already indicated, uncritical thinking is not exclusive to the woke. Other groups—including the anti-woke—can take on any of the above-listed patterns. However, what makes the woke so scary, in my opinion, is that even though it is only a minority of people who advocate its teachings, a super majority of us are afraid of its power to punish us. Consider woke’s forename, political correctness. As the description suggests, it is not necessarily providing morally correct insights, but instead politically useful offerings (i.e. maxims that we’d best assent to if we want to politically flourish), regardless of our moral objections to them.
I think it is imperative (when safe to do so) to point out occasions where woke advocates are being dogmatic, intellectually dishonest, and hostile. If, for instance, they racially profile someone as racist, we should ask them if they can see into the mind of the accused. If they respond by noting they are using their “lived experience” to infer bigotry, we should ask them exactly how that standard of assessment is different from bigotry itself. If they point out they cannot be bigoted, because bigotry equals prejudice plus power, we should ask them if there is any greater power than the option to be prejudiced without being criticized for it.
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