Table of Contents
- The Left
The argument about what woke means is part the American polical “culture war” in the early 21st century.
The conservative writer Ross Douthat suggested in an article in the liberal New York Times, that “woke” marks a change to left wing “progressive” or modern values in American politics, and the understanding of liberalism:
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.Ross Douthat, What it Means to Woke, New York Times, March 18, 2023
The writer Ian Buruma, arguably not a modern progressive, notes:
… the word itself … has been a term of abuse employed by the far right, a battle cry for the progressive left, and an embarrassment to many liberals.Ian Buruma, Doing the Work, Harpers Magazine, July 2023 1Harpers has a paywall that limits views of some material
The Oxford English Dictionary entry for “woke” is: “Originally: well-informed, up-to-date. … Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.” The Urban Dictionary adds: “Being woke means being aware… knowing what’s going on in the community (related to racism and social injustice).”
Woke is an English adjective meaning “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination” that originated in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). Beginning in the 2010s, it came to encompass a broader awareness of social inequalities such as sexism, and has also been used as shorthand for American Left ideas involving identity politics and social justice, such as the notion of white privilege and slavery reparations for African Americans.Wikipedia, January 2023, Woke
The witer and professor Yascha Mounk avoids using the word “woke” but has written about the “identity synthesis”2political ideas synthesized into an antiliberal, censorious, segregationist dogma on college campuses and online in the early 2000s. This “ideology” went mainstream in the mid-2010s, especially in medicine and education, where institutions began to adopt theoretical frameworks under which it was believed the best way to achieve equity for students and patients was not to treat everyone equally, but to offer “preferential treatment” and exclusionary experiences to members of marginalized groups. in articles and in the book The Identity Trap (2023).
Representation is another word that has been modified by modern usage. Wikipedia uses Representation in its vernacular sense of visibility in the media in entries including Representation of African-Americans in media. 3Wikipedia has used the term Representative and several related terms in the titles of entries referring to Representative Democracy and uses the term “Representation” mainly in entry titles about philosophy, linguistics and semiotics such as representation in Art.
Woke describes the people who hold left-wing views, i.e. progressive, in the modern sense 4American “progessives” during the Progressive Era at the end of the 19th century wanted a society that rewarded farmers, workers, and also promoted efficient capitalism, regulated by an efficient political system. Some progressives were reformers and some were militarists and imperialists. An article in the old Britannica discusses disagreements in the American Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. on political, social and ethical issues. The left-right ideological spectrum is a way of discussing politics and society, discussed by academics in the context of European and American history. Academics, writers, or citizens can disgree about about who is left or right, and on the methods of sorting people.
Liberal connote generosity, faith in humanity, modernism, or progressive ideas. Liberal mainly refers to a political idea emphasing freedom from something – aristocatic government, monopoly, tradition, restraint. It was an idea or ideology of the left in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and America, but is regarded in modern times as a centrist or conservative idea.
Americans largely accepted laissez-faire economic principles in the gilded age at the end of the 19th century, New Deal policies, and Cold War Liberalism in the 1950s and 1960s. The American economy was strong in the decades after World War II. Its internal and international politics were anti-communist. The American right, influenced by business, was against government. The American Left, in the New Deal order, put more faith in government to protect the freedom and living standards of Americans. By the 1950s, many American followed their interests while also practising the culture of hard work, good jobs and self-advancement.
Cold-war liberalism was an American attempt to reconcile the founding myth that the United States of America is a beacon of democracy with a mission to the world to the pursuit of money and power in the world by Americans. Cold war liberalism promoted the idea that a person could be a good person even as a citizen of a plutocratic state that used national power for business goals. More formally:
This distinct body of liberal thought says that freedom comes first, that the enemies of liberty are the first priority to confront and contain in a dangerous world, and that demanding anything more from liberalism is likely to lead to tyranny.Samuel Moyn, Liberalism in Mourning, Boston Review. August 10, 2023 (Extract from Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times)
Sociologists and political scientists argue about what the 1960s Counterculture was. It was a cultural movement in favour of new things, freedom, and rebellion against conformity.
Politically, many Americans turned against government over racial segregation and other racial issues, Vietnam, war, oil prices, consumer protection, and enviromental issues. Some supported the New Left politics of the American Left, as it was in the 1960s and 70s. The European New Left in that era, was more anti-American, and more socialist.
At the same time, many accepted the neo-liberal economics that American business demanded for the next 5 decades either was true, or an existential fact that could not be changed.
Woke has been called “Social Justice Culture” to indicate a belief system which can be a source of meaning, purpose, community, and ritual. The core belief is :
… racism, sexism, & other forms of bigotry & injustice must be struck down at all costs in order to achieve a better, fairer world …Tara Isabella Burton, Strange Rites, (2020)
This belief system promises self-actualization, like religion, with personal experiences and personal truth as the ultimate guide for fulfilling one’s potential. Many people who can be identified as “Spiritual but not religious”, and/or as members of alternative religious groups (e.g. Wiccan, Satanic, Jedi, New Age) may be woke.
… “Left Modernism”, or “radical progressivism”, is a pseudo-religious belief system organised around the sacralization of racial, sexual & gender minorities, which prioritises subjectivity/lived experience over empirical evidence.Twitter, November 9, 2021; Twitter, July 17, 2022
Woke persons may be social justice warriors or hold one or more of the sets of belief held by members of some of the left ideologies. A Woke person may be a liberal, progressive, feminist, anti-racist, antifa, socialist, or hold other views.
In December 2022 James O’Malley suggested 6 markers of “wokeness”, including these:
… 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 progressive.
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 some of these characteristics, then I think it is accurate to label it “woke”
 “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”.
… 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 right-side norms over accuracy norms
One essay I keep coming back to is Jesse Singal’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 … “woke” communities often value being on “the right side” over accuracyJames O’Malley, Odds and Ends of History, December 14, 2022, “Woke” is a new ideology and its proponents should admit it Substack (a paywalled internet publication, accessible in this instance)
Posing, Publishing & DEI
Some business enterprises have adopted woke capitalism, using Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) training, and marketing messages supporting left-wing values or causes of otherwise portraying organizations as “woke” to exploit the supposed values of a demographic generation to advance business interests. Some conservative critics have said that publishing industry is hiring woke (i.e. young progressive) employees who want to publish progressive books, and letting the woke silence conservative voices:
Some speakers and writers govern their language adhere to rules published in an equity language guide or to conform to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (“DEI”) rules or guidelines:
Equity-language guides are proliferating among some of the country’s leading institutions, particularly nonprofits. … most of the guides draw on the same sources from activist organizations: A Progressive’s Style Guide, the Racial Equity Tools glossary, and a couple of others. The guides also cite one another. The total number of people behind this project of linguistic purification is relatively small, but their power is potentially immense. The new language might not stick in broad swaths of American society, but it already influences highly educated precincts, spreading from the authorities that establish it and the organizations that adopt it to mainstream publications … .
Although the guides refer to language “evolving,” these changes are a revolution from above. They haven’t emerged organically from the shifting linguistic habits of large numbers of people. They are handed down in communiqués written by obscure “experts” who purport to speak for vaguely defined “communities,” remaining unanswerable to a public that’s being morally coerced. A new term wins an argument without having to debate.George Packer, “The Moral Case Against Equity Language”, The Atlantic, March 2, 2023
Sociology is one of the “social sciences” taught in post secondary institutions in the U.S.A. Economics is another social science, respected by wealthy elites. The social sciences have a foundational belief that human beings have common needs, emotional tendencies, attitudes, interests and beliefs. Some of the social sciences attempt to identify and measure the aggregated effects of billions of individual decisions and events. The social sciences often base theories on facts determined by what people say, how they use resources and how they respond to surveys rather than to the physiology of human beings and physical facts about their environments and products.
It is not possible to discuss changes in culture or in American culture without recognizing the size and complexity of the human population and the many ways it is divided. Sociologists consider people in groups by age in generations.
The human species is discussed in the social sciences by reference to groups of persons living at different times and in different places. Some of the social sciences study cultures, subcultures and counter-cultures. Other disciplines with consider groups of individuals by some common features include genetics, language, and biology. Some social sciences discuss social generation (birth cohort), or generational cohort. The use of generational generalities by is common, but has been abandoned by some writers. The Australian economist and writer John Quiggan:
Dividing society by generation obscures the real and enduring lines of race, class and gender. When, for example, baby boomers are blamed for “ruining America,” the argument lumps together Donald Trump and a 60-year-old black woman who works for minimum wage cleaning one of his hotels.John Quiggin, “Millenial Means Nothing” NY Times (Opinion) March 6, 2018; “Pew Quits the Generation Game”, Crooked Timber June 6, 2023
Woke is used, loosely, to describe the social, ethical and political values of a millennial or Gen Z person – in the early 2020s, a member of a younger social generation (birth cohort), or generational cohort. According to the consensus of sociology, “woke” is not a demographic term that can be applied to a generational cohort. Nor does it refer to educational credentials.
Sociologists have theorized that a social generation may tend to be against the values of older cohorts, or transgressive. The interdisciplinary political scientist Peter Turchin 6I am not convinced by his methods and theories observes that the U.S.A, where elites control politics to increase their wealth, educates young people and gives them elite status, has a problem with equality and political governance:
… our social pyramid has become top-heavy. At the same time, the U.S. began overproducing graduates with advanced degrees. More and more people aspiring to positions of power began fighting over a relatively fixed number of spots. The competition among them has corroded the social norms and institutions that govern society.Peter Turchin, “America’s Dysfuntion has Two Main Causes”, The Atlantic, June 2, 2023
Most of the Woke are a subset of the age and occupational groups of millennials, Gen Z and students, visible in the way that hippies, the counterculture, and the New Left were visible in the 1960s. Woke ideology can express the social and economic frustrations of millennials, Gen Z and students with their access to resources, opportunities, power and status the same way that the ideologies of the ’60s expressed the frustrations of boomers at that time. At this time, many millennials, members of Gen Z and university students are reflexively and passionately Woke.
Millennials and Gen Z. are different from previous generations; the young generations are versed in social media as a way of communication, among other experience in life in society. There are differences within social generations. All millenials have dealt with woke capitalism and cancel culture as existential facts.
Many American boomers, during the ’60s, were
- conservative, career-oriented, patriotic, and in favour of US involvement in the Vietnam War, or
- blended liberal attitudes to some issues with conservative or neo-liberal views on personal freedoms to take drugs or possess firearms, act freaky and explore lifestyles.
Millennials, GenZ members and students share some generational beliefs, values, assumptions, attitudes and language about:
- people, psychology and sociology, and
- about ambition, age,
even while they so not share beliefs and values. Millennials, GenZ members and university graduates share some beliefs, values, assumptions and language even while they are apart on the left-right ideological spectrum. They:
- Have a common language and experience, including the use of social media as a medium of communication,
- Use business jargon,
- Hold beliefs that markets, individualism and consumerism are unchangeable and irresistable forces of nature,
Some millenials are pro-business, individualist, neo-liberal and right-wing. They may be woke to extent that woke capitalism tries to avoid alienating any market segment.
American, WEIRD, or International
Americans respect the wisdom of people who think like them while deploring the ignorance and recklessness of people who do not think like them. For generations, Americans have been:
- oriented to individual choices and preferences;
- asserting individual morality and authenticity;
- emotional or sentimental;
- confident in their own judgments, including judgments based on intuition, faith and emotional feelings;
- deprecating education and expertise as elitist;
- maintaining that they are humble, normal or common
- not acknowledging their advantages and privileges but reluctant to give up any political, economic or social advantage or privilege.
Respect for the competent, hard, individualism of the frontier has continued in American literature and culture. The English writer, D.H. Lawrence, writing in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) commented on the early 19th century author James Fenimore Cooper’s fictional frontiersman Natty Bumppo (aka Hawkeye):
But you have there the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted.D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, cited by A.O. Scott, paywalled (?) article/essay, New York Times, July 29, 2023
Several generations of Americans have used some parts of some of the languages of personal growth, psychology, sociolology, economics, and other social sciences. Some ideas in those sciences are reported in the media and become part of a cultural awareness. Post traumatic stress disorder 7See Wikipedia entry and see Tell Me Why It Hurts, Danielle Carr, New York Magazine, Intelligencer Section, July 31, 2023 now recognized as a psychiatric disorder, was and is controversial in many ways. However, trauma has become accepted, in many cases, by millions of Americans, as an explanation for unusual thoughts and actions.
In the early 21st century, people of all generations, in many places, use business jargon, and hold beliefs that markets, individualism, and consumerism are unchangeable and irresistable forces of nature. Many accept that markets can resolve all social, political and economic issues and that is possible to do well (succeed financially) by being good (acting ethically). Whether an individual has a “Left” ideology, and regardless of age, the majority share some of the views of older generations about society, history and values:
- progress is a historical movement from older values to their values, which will liberate them and would liberate oppressed groups – racial groups, gender groups, etc.,
- a sense that if they did not acquire power and resources fast enough, oppressed groups can force the issue.
- a sense that their historical time has come, and
Woke American and WEIRD (members of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies) millennials are woke to white privilege, calls for inclusive rights by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons and other concerns.
Asian millenials may be more woke to colonialism and imperialism than to white privilege than white WEIRD millennials, but seem to be as focussed on career and accumulating wealth. Any millennial may be versed in the language of popular psychology and may be a sensitive snowflake in a social way. More conservative WEIRD millennials may assert an individual sense of justice, morality and authenticity as being “based”.
The New Left 1960-2012
The American New Left, like the “old” American Left in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, was a term for millions of individuals. Some had liberal beliefs in the American republic, democracy and progress. Some were interested in advancing the interests of workers in better wages and working conditions against business. Some believed that society was divided into classes. Some believed in socialism, Marxism or anarchism. Some had versions of those ideologies 8for instance Afro-centrism and the Black power movements of the 1960s New Left refer to European anti-colonial concepts as well as racialized beliefs. Some had religious views. Religious groups had formed communal organizations for centuries, and continued in the era of the New Left 9Stories of communal movements are studied and discussed by academic writers and by members of modern religious communal movements. For instance, see Macedonia Morning in the Plough Quarterly, August 2023..
Marxist parties were popular in Europe, and Marxist ideas were part or the European academy across Eastern and Western Europe. The European Left respected the philosophy, sociology and economics of Karl Marx including the idea that members of the working class were not aware of the cause of their oppression because of False consciousness. The Frankfurt school reframed the idea as a structural feature of the cultural hegemony of the capitalist class, and as a cultural metanarrative. On this basis, the members of the working class who believed in the values of the ruling classes were both deceived by a story, and oppressed. Later Continental philosophers, political scientists, social scientists and literary theorists developed Critical Theory. Critical theory was used to attack theories accepted by many older thinkers, and accepted widely.
The Paradox of Tolerance – that in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must retain the right to be intolerant of intolerance – proposed by Karl Popper in 1945 as criticized by Herbert Marcuse in his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance” in A Critique of Pure Tolerance Marcuse argued that tolerance has become a means of repression. He argued that “pure tolerance” should be replaced with “liberating tolerance,” which, he states, “would mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left.”
Marcuse’s argument proceeded from the assumption that the culture industry, was aligned with “the right,” not because of the political sympathies of those who worked in the industry, but because it ideologically reproduced capitalist relations. The culture industry, from this perspective, cannot challenge the dominant forces of society because it is itself one of those forces. Hence, from Marcuse’s point of view, it’s unimaginable that media and technology corporations could under be the vanguard of “liberating tolerance.”
African, Caribbean and South American writers became influential with European thinkers and with writers addressing decoloniality, and “civil rights” and racial issues in the USA. For instance:
The American Left encountered European Left beliefs from immigrants, from travellers, from visiting scholars and from Americans who studied European philosophy and social science. Marcuse’s view of tolerance was popular with the American New Left.. It can be regarded as foundational to the modern Woke position, having laid the groundwork for the censorious leftism that first arose in academia and has become more influential in the broader culture
Part of the new Left was based on concerns that government institutions failed to properly protect the public by failing to recognize and enforce certain rights and interests. Part of the New Left was inclined to explore ideas about how a society could function without a government with the power to punish and compel. Critics of government on the Left developed new positions that weakened government and allowed business interest to avoid regulation or build monopolies.
The members of the New Left who were young in the 1960s have aged, changed, or died. The Left has changed, and the language and methods have change
In the first decades of the 21st century. progessive millenials were involved in the anti-globalization movement against global capitalist values as recently as the Occupy Wall Street protests. Those protests followed a New Left version of populism. Among other things, they valorized consensus-based decisions in general assemblies.
Progressive writers reconcile the political view of Woke to socialist principles. Malcolm Harris, the author of a collection of essays called Shit is All Fucked Up and Bullshit (2020)
- argued that the American civil rights movement had been prepared for armed resistance.
- took the militant view of the resistance to the Trump administration and to American government policies that privileged capital and oppressed youth and students was justified.
He identifies himself as a Marxist but criticizes “Duplo” Marxists:
Cards on the table: I’m a Marxist. Hi. I believe taking on that label includes a certain amount of respect for the Duplo [i.e. large block, as opposed to small – e.g. – Lego blocks] Marxist story, but that’s not how I learned Marxism … .
To go beyond Duplo Marxism is to see that society isn’t just composed of two blocks, that the owner/wage-laborer relation is not the sole class division. Instead, each of those two blocks are composed of smaller blocks, not individuals, but other class relations. Lego Marxism can handle multiple variables, multiple class relations that are going on at the same time — intersecting even. You could take apart the big blocks and recompose them according to a different social division and still be doing important, useful materialism. …
…. what really inspired me was an essay from the late-70s by French women’s liberation theorist Christine Delphy called “A Materialist Feminism is possible.”…
Delphy’s answer is more direct: Women are exploited by men. There is the capitalist mode of production and there is also a concurrent and interrelated “domestic” or “patriarchal” mode of production, which benefits men (as a class) and exploits women (as a class). She is also careful to note that there are some men exploited by the domestic mode as well, pointing out specifically 307,000 French men who work unwaged on family farms and in family businesses. …Malcolm Harris, July 2016, Lego Marx, published in Medium online
Writers, including Ian Buruma, have noted similarities between the Woke phenomenon and Protestant religious theology and practices:
The ritual of public avowals began in Europe with the Reformation. Whereas Jews and Catholics are ceremonially initiated into their religious communities as young children, many Protestants, such as the Anabaptists, declare their faith before their brethren as adults, sometimes in so-called conversion narratives. The idea of public attestation was especially important to Pietism, a seventeenth-century offshoot of Lutheranism. Pietism, in turn, had a great influence on many Christian sects, including the New England Puritans. Puritan churches, as the historian Edmund S. Morgan put it, ensured “the presence of faith in their members by a screening process that included narratives of religious experiences.”
Protestants have to find their own way to God’s blessing, through self-examination, public testimony, and the performance of actions that demonstrate impeccable virtue. This has to be a constant process. In his famous book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber observed that the Protestant ideal is more demanding than the Catholic aim of gradually accumulating individual good deeds to one’s credit. Sins are not forgiven in rituals of private atonement—cleaning the slate, as it were, for one to sin and be absolved. Rather, salvation lies in “a systematic self-control which at every moment stands before the inexorable alternative, chosen or damned.” God helps those who help themselves. For the chosen, the signaling of virtue can never stop. [Emphasis added]
For Weber, it was the “spirit of hard work” that characterized those striving to meet the Protestant goal of ethical perfection. This could be interpreted literally, as the work of accumulating wealth through honest labor. But this labor, and its material fruit, go together with the spiritual work of moral improvement. There are clear contemporary parallels in what theorists of antiracism call “doing the work,” which functions as both a sign of one’s current enlightenment and of his or her commitment to continuous and endless self-improvement.
Weber argued that Protestant faiths were so well-suited to capitalist enterprise. To work hard is not just a spiritual duty, but a worldly one: if the hard work results in great wealth—well, that too is a sign that one can be counted among the blessed. Moral zealousness in the Protestant tradition is entirely compatible with a belief in progress combined with material success. The Catholic veneration of saints who lived a life of monastic poverty is alien to this sensibility.
The problem with dogma, whether it concerns original sin, the immortality of the soul, or antiracism, is that it prohibits skepticism. To have reservations about something that is treated as sacrosanct is to be an unbeliever, or worse, a heretic, and thus someone to be cast out.Ian Buruma, Doing the Work, Harpers Magazine, July 2023
Woke positions often are based on identity politics. Wikipedia, in September 2022 refers Identity politics as “… a political approach wherein people of a particular race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, social background, social class, or other identifying factors develop political agendas that are based upon these identities. Identity politics is deeply connected with the idea that some groups in society are oppressed and begins with analysis of that oppression. The term is used primarily to describe political movements in western societies, covering nationalist, multicultural, women’s rights, civil rights, and LGBT movements. Identity politics is intersectional:
[A] person’s social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege. Intersectionality identifies multiple factors of advantage and disadvantage. Examples of these factors include gender, caste, sex, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, disability, weight, and physical appearance. These intersecting and overlapping social identities may be both empowering and oppressing. Intersectionality broadens the scope of the first and second waves of feminism, which largely focused on the experiences of women who were white, middle-class and cisgender, to include the different experiences of women of color, women who are poor, immigrant women, and other groups. Intersectional feminism aims to separate itself from white feminism by acknowledging women’s different experiences and identities.Wikipedia, September 2022, Intersectionality
Intersectionality emerged in the U.S.A. from legal doctrines interpreting the meaning of discrimination under American leglislation, and from political movements and statements such as the 1977 Combahee River Collective statement. The concepts were embraced by European Marxist feminists, and by American leftists.
Work in the humanities is largely based on recorded text. Academic articles, and essays often include references to cultural, literary, imaginative and and fictious texts and other artistic material.
University education in the humanities is faltering in the USA. Students in American Universities take courses in business, professional education, science, and engineering according to the reports of the US National Center for Education Statistics. Some of the social sciences are popular. Explanations:
For many decades, there has been a growing public perception that a humanities education inadequately prepares graduates for employment. The common belief is that graduates from such programs face underemployment and incomes too low for a humanities education to be worth the investment.Wikipedia, The Humanities #Education & Employment, September, 2022
The usual suspects—student debt, postmodern relativism, vanishing jobs—are once again being trotted out. But the data suggest something far more interesting may be at work. The plunge seems not to reflect a sudden decline of interest in the humanities, or any sharp drop in the actual career prospects of humanities majors. Instead, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, students seem to have shifted their view of what they should be studying—in a largely misguided effort to enhance their chances on the job market. …The Atlantic, Benjamin Schmidt. August 23, 2018, The Humanities are in Crisis
The academic discipline of literary criticism was established as means of assessing the quality of works of literature. Faced with mass culture, mass reproduction of art, and capitalism, the idea of identifying quality became contententious. The academic field became concerned with understanding:
- what a writer meant when a work was written,
- the writer’s state of mind, sanity, relationships, politics and sexuality,
- political issues that a writer might be have had opinions on.
Works of literary criticism commonly discuss history, psychology, sociology and politics. as well as taste and aesthetics. Postmodern literary theory is informed by critical theory, feminist theory, and queer studies (not by the historical, Modernist, and New Criticism schools of literary theory):
Today, approaches based in literary theory and continental philosophy largely coexist in university literature departments, while conventional methods, some informed by the New Critics, also remain active. Disagreements over the goals and methods of literary criticism, which characterized both sides taken by critics during the “rise” of theory, have declined. Many critics feel that they now have a great plurality of methods and approaches from which to choose.
Some critics work largely with texts, and theory. Others read traditional literature; interest in the literary canon is still great. Many critics are also interested in nontraditional texts and women’s literature, as elaborated on by certain academic journals such as Contemporary Women’s Writing, while some critics influenced by cultural studies read popular texts like comic books or pulp/genre fiction. Ecocritics have drawn connections between literature and the natural sciences. Darwinian literary studies studies literature in the context of evolutionary influences on human nature. And postcritique has sought to develop new ways of reading and responding to literary texts that go beyond the interpretive methods of critique. Many literary critics also work in film criticism or media studies. Some write intellectual history; others bring the results and methods of social history to bear on reading literatureWikipedia, October, 2022, Literary Criticism
A critical theory is any approach to social philosophy that focuses on reflective assessment and critique of society and culture to reveal and challenge power structures. With roots in sociology and literary criticism, it argues that social problems stem more from social structures and cultural assumptions than from individuals. It argues that ideology is the principal obstacle to human liberation. Critical theory finds applications in various fields of study, including psychoanalysis, sociology, history, communication theory, philosophy and feminist theory.Wikipedia, November 2022, Critical Theory
Critical theory is skeptical of many stories told as knowledge.
Critical theory has been used to criticize imperialism and colonialism, which has led to claim history and monuments to historical figures must fall. The students of the hard sciences mock students of critical theory who dispute physical facts proved by measurement and observation. The Sokal Hoax was a great prank.
Initially emerging from a mode of literary criticism, postmodernism developed in the mid-twentieth century as a rejection of modernism and has been observed across many disciplines. Postmodernism is associated with the disciplines deconstruction and post-structuralism.
Postmodernism relies on critical theory, which considers the effects of ideology, society, and history on culture. Postmodernism and critical theory commonly criticize universalist ideas of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, language, and social progress.
… postmodernism was a mode of discourse on literature and literary criticism, commenting on the nature of literary text, meaning, author and reader, writing, and reading. Postmodernism developed in the mid- to late-twentieth century across many scholarly disciplines as a departure or rejection of modernism. As a critical practice, postmodernism employs concepts such as hyperreality, simulacrum, trace, and difference, and rejects abstract principles in favor of direct experience.Wikipedia, October, 2022, Postmodernism
Postmodern literary criticism is a method of public argument and persuasive speech – a postmodern form of rhetoric.
In the western liberal tradition, freedom of conscience and speech are respected, allowing dissidents to promote their views of facts and values.
The woke claim that disagreement with their views of facts and their beliefs is disrespectful and/or harms them emotionally. Woke arguments are made by persons and groups to advance personal or group claims to resources and power.
Several words are prefixed to the term phobia to criticize reluctance or overt oppostition to granting resources, power and privileges to persons who claim to be members of historically oppressed or victimized groups, as phobias:
- for recognition of marriages between LGB persons “homophobic”,
- for cis male persons to be treated as women “transphobic”,
- to abolish the State of Israel or reduce its territory and power, and create a Palestinian state “Islamophobic”.
In some post-colonial settings, Western science is criticized as an artifact of colonialism, like boundaries, political institutions and religion. In places in Southern Africa, university students react to science by demanding that “science must fall”, and insisting that when science does not repect the intuition and conventional beliefs of colonized peoples, it is suspect.
Liberal and Socialist Dissent from Woke
Fredrik de Boer, the American writer, Marxist and progressive notes “I’d rather have a friendly forgiving plainspoken big tent civil libertarian socialist mass movement, personally. Trouble is, there is only woke and anti-woke. There is no escape.” and:
“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.
Woke is defined by several consistent attributes. …
Freddie deBoer, “Of Course You Know What Woke Means”, March 15, 2023, Substack (a paywalled internet publication, accessible in this instance)
- Academic – …
- Immaterial – …
- Stuctural in analysis,individual in action – …
- Emotionalist – …
- Fatalistic – …
- Insistent that all political question are easy – …
- Possessed of belief in the superior virtue of the oppressed – …
American writer Susan Neiman noted, in an article published at the same time her book Left Is Not Woke was published (March 2023) :
Wokeness emphasises the ways in which particular groups have been denied justice, and seeks to rectify and repair the damage. But in the focus on inequalities of power, the concept of justice is often left by the wayside. Wokeness demands that nations and peoples face up to their criminal histories. But in the process, it often concludes that all history is criminal.
The concept of universalism once defined the Left; international solidarity was its watchword. This was just what distinguished it from the Right, which recognised no deep connections, and few real obligations, to anyone outside its own circle. The Left demanded that the circle encompass the globe. …
The opposite of universalism is often called “identitarianism”, but the word is misleading, for it suggests that our identities can be reduced to, at most, two dimensions. … The reduction of the multiple identities we all possess to race and gender isn’t about physical appearance. It’s a focus on those dimensions which experienced the most generalisable trauma. This embodies a major shift that began in the mid-20th century: the subject of history was no longer the hero but the victim. The impulse to shift our focus to the victims of history began as an act of justice. History was told by the victors, while the victims’ voices went unheard. To turn the tables and insist that the victims’ stories enter the narrative was just a part of righting old wrongs. The movement to recognise the victims of slaughter and slavery began with the best of intentions. It recognised that might and right often fail to coincide, that very bad things happen to all sorts of people, and that even when we cannot change that we are bound to record it. Yet something went wrong when we rewrote the place of the victim; the impulse that began in generosity turned downright perverse.
Identity politics not only contract the multiple components of our identities to one: they essentialise that component over which we have the least control. I prefer the word “tribalism”, an idea which is as old as the Hebrew Bible. Tribalism is a description of the civil breakdown that occurs when people, of whatever kind, see the fundamental human difference as that between our kind and everyone else.
Universalism is now under fire on the Left because it is conflated with fake universalism: the attempt to impose certain cultures on others in the name of an abstract humanity that turns out to reflect just a dominant culture’s time, place, and interests. This happens daily in the name of corporate globalism. But let’s consider what a feat it was to make that original abstraction to humanity. Earlier assumptions were inherently particular, as earlier ideas of law were religious. The idea that one law should apply to Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Muslims, lords and peasants, simply in virtue of their common humanity is a relatively recent achievement which now shapes our assumptions so thoroughly we fail to recognise it as an achievement at all.Susan Neiman, The true Left is not Woke, UnHerd, March 18, 2023
Susan Neiman’s book Left Is Not Woke was criticized by academics who are more sympathic to modern progressive movements:
Left Is Not Woke, at its occasional best, is a plea for hope in progress. At times, Neiman does express sympathy for contemporary progressives, recognizing their “best of intentions” and acknowledging shared goals. …
But … Neiman has missed the point of the contemporary Left—a messy grouping of activist movements facing off against the intersectional crises of the present: climate change, gun violence, war, famine, fascism, police violence, carceral violence, transphobia—the list goes on. In fact, by lumping these groups into a monolithic whole, Neiman has imposed order, hierarchy, and coherence where there are, in fact, often little more than complex and overlapping sympathies among an inherently fractured political Left.
What these groups do share is the certainty that if we have any hope of confronting the future—of even surviving into the future—we need new ways of thinking. We need doubt about the structures and ideas that brought us to this point. If we are living in a world that the Enlightenment made, a world that in the centuries since Kant’s first editions has suffered imperialism, genocide, climate change, and more—much of it imposed by “enlightened” Europeans—it is worth asking if the Enlightenment is all its advocates purport it to be.Samuel Clowes Huneke, “Critically Cringe: On Susan Neiman’s ‘Left Is Not Woke’”, LA Review of Books, September 17, 2023
The conservative commentator David Frum criticized “political correctness” by modern American radicals, academics and students but did not use “woke” in his article “Liberals and the Illberal Left” in the Atlantic in 2015.
Woke can be used by a classical liberal or by a “silent majority” conservative to criticize “woke” values or behaviours.
The term “woke” used by people who hold right-wing views, can suggest disapproval. In 2020 – 2023 Conservative Republicans seeking some electoral traction within or for their party claimed that “woke” values are wrong.
Right-wing commentators accuse leftists of being members of an educated elite that is out of touch with the conditions or the work and life of “ordinary” people.
Some right wing commentators claim unless the left changes rhetorical course, its language and purity-policing will leave it isolated from the masses. Some accuse leftists of being members of a condescending elite which embodies the progressive tendency towards depoliticisation: contests over material conditions give way to therapeutic journeys for those at the top, with working-class people cast as the oafs and bigots in need of being coerced into enlightenment.
Some right wing commentators, as of 2023, argue that they have won the culture war against using woke as a positive term:
- Musa al-Gharbi, Woke-ism is Winding Down, Compact online February 8, 2023;
- Musa al-Gharbi, The “Great Awokening” of Scholarship May be Ending, February 16, 2023, Heterodox Academy Blog.
People on the far right use the term to trivialize the demands and goals of groups who identify themselves as marginalized or the victims of harms, including the effects of historical injustices.