the left

Unlearning the Language of ‘Wokeness’

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty

Several nights ago, I shot up in my bed with a ringing in my ears and the queasy sense that the ceiling was getting closer and further away at the same time. I assumed I was having some kind of post-COVID neurological episode. Or maybe an acid flashback. It was neither. What I was in fact experiencing was a series of thoughts about “wokeness.” And now, dear reader, despite some reservations, I am going to share them with you. What can I say? Misery loves company.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: This discourse sucks. “Wokeness” may once have had a relatively stable meaning, signifying, among 20th-century Black radicals and artists, something like: “staying wise to the persistence and insidiousness of white supremacy in American life.” Now the term has been abused and stretched to a point of such ample unintelligibility that its mere appearance, in text or speech, reliably signals that an unclear or tendentious thought is about to be expressed — inducing, in me at least, a slack-jawed irritation that is phenomenologically not unlike having my ears boxed.

It doesn’t help that its most frequent invokers are so irritating. The pundits who inveigh against “wokeness” tend to fall into two categories. First, there are conservatives who oppose the goals of a more expansive liberatory agenda on principle, and for whom “wokeness” is a conveniently pre-stigmatized shibboleth with which to launder their underlying disdain for a more egalitarian social order. And second, there are the “popularists,” who believe the capture of liberal institutions by overtly left-wing communicators is bad for Democratic Party political outcomes. These latter pundits often conceal their disinterest in — if not disdain for — the goals of the insurgent left behind a plea for strategic unanimity and compromise.

And so, the loudest critics of “wokeness” are usually either (a) reactionaries who would despise left-wing values regardless of the idiom in which we expressed them or (b) liberals who have made such a fetish of electoral margins and campaign messaging that they don’t recognize as legitimate those forms of political activity which are not reducible — or in every instance conducive — to the goal of Democratic electoral gains. Those of us who believe in a more egalitarian racial and economic order (and who doubt the Democratic Party is the only or best vehicle for achieving it) have no particular reason to trust either of these factions. Their critiques of our political strategies are impossible to disentangle from the incompatibility of our political visions.

That all being said, I want to suggest that the critique of “wokeness” may point to a real problem for socialists, feminists, and other radicals, one obscured by our disdain for its messengers and their motivations. This real problem is obscured because it overlaps, at times, with our opponents’ tendentious complaints. So we dismiss it. To elucidate it further, I’m going to offer — God, forgive me — another definition of “wokeness,” one which bears at least some resemblance to the way it is deployed in our jaundiced contemporary discourses.

Here it is: Wokeness refers to the invocation of unintuitive and morally burdensome political norms and ideas in a manner which suggests they are self-evident.

This idiom — or perhaps communicative register — replaces the obligation of persuading others to adopt our values with the satisfaction of signaling our allegiance and literacy to those who already agree. In some cases, this means we speak in an insular language that alienates those who haven’t stewed in the same activist cultural milieu. At other times, it means we express fealty to a novel or unintuitive norm, while suggesting that anyone who doesn’t already agree with it is a bad person.

If you think this phenomenon should not be called “wokeness,” that’s fine; use a different term in your head as you read on. But if you’ve spent any time in progressive or left-wing political spaces in the past decade (campus activism, nonprofits, progressive campaigns, Twitter dot com), I suspect you know exactly what I’m talking about.

It should, I think, be obvious why such habits are destructive to our goals. Radicals believe in things that chafe with the dominant “common sense,” i.e., the ideas and instincts which circulate to justify the existing order of things. It is basically impossible to invite someone into a confrontation with a commonsensical (if dissatisfying) status quo in a language that is foreign or confusing — or worse, which accuses them of a moral crime for failing to already get it. Instead, radicals must speak to people in language that is familiar about ideas that are novel. We have the unenviable task of challenging the prevailing common sense on terms that are legible within it. It’s not easy. But if you believe in progressive change, that’s what you signed up for.

To take a pervasive example, it seems contradictory to suggest that America is a deeply racist country with many unexorcised demons, which manifest intricately in individual instincts, institutional structures, and communal customs — and, at the same time, insist that new and more sophisticated anti-racist norms should be inherently legible and agreeable to anyone but a fool or a white nationalist. This doesn’t mean we should be any less relentless in pursuit of instantiating more rigorous anti-racist values, but it does mean we shouldn’t expect to do so simply by treating them as self-evident or haranguing those who don’t already share them.

Explaining precisely why left activists have adopted these self-destructive habits is beyond the remit of this short column. But the two main culprits are the obvious ones. The first is social media, where it is infinitely easier — more satisfying and algorithmically rewarding — to imaginatively signal affiliation with those who already share your values than try to convince anyone who doesn’t.

The second is the university. Conservatives resent elite universities for churning out well-credentialed radicals. And they do, to an extent. Elite college graduates with left-wing values go on to run liberal nonprofits, staff Democratic campaigns, work in media, and become middle managers in the corporate world. Right-wingers envy this privilege, imagining that an indoctrinated managerial elite has taken control of the country’s commanding heights. But they overstate the case. The class interests of the Ivy-educated tend to reassert themselves when they accumulate power. And when college-educated radicals speak for the left, they tend to speak in the language of “wokeness” — precisely as I have defined it — with distorting and destructive effects.

This is due, in part, to the peculiar history of 20th-century campus radicalism. The victories of student activists in the 1970s onward — in creating departments and new curricula through which radical thought could be studied and taught — were pyrrhic. Conceived as beachheads in a broader war against capitalist society, radical departments became sepulchers for radical thought: places where wild ideas could be quarantined from the challenge of convincing anyone outside to believe them.

Absent an incentive to make their ideas legible beyond their clerisy, radical academics reveled in inscrutability and novelty. Meanwhile, the campuses ceased to be sites of a universal moral struggle; the student was no longer seen as a font of wisdom about the problems in society, a protagonist in the moral struggle of the age. Instead she became a figure of myopic, unrealistic, and ungrounded discontent, with no skin in the game of the society she hoped to reshape.

Of course, many good ideas, theories of change, and histories of oppression and struggle have been generated on campuses. The wider dissemination of such stories has been a salutary hallmark of our era. I, myself, am a beneficiary of a radical education. But I have had to unlearn many of the ways of speaking I cultivated as a student radical in order to be more convincing and compelling off campus. The obligation to speak to non-radicals, the unconverted, is the obligation of all radicals, and it’s a skill that is not only undervalued but perhaps hindered by a left-wing university education. Learning through participation in collective struggle how the language of socialism, feminism, and racial justice sound, how to speak them legibly to unlike audiences, and how others express their experiences of exploitation, oppression, and exclusion — that is our task. It is quite different from learning to talk about socialism in a community of graduate students and professors.

The underlying logic of any leftist movement worthy of the name is the logic of solidarity — the idea that we have obligations to each other, as well as power, by dint of our entangled fortunes. That our individual aims for happiness, security, and comfort can better be achieved in concert than alone. It requires us to take what Vivian Gornick once called “the incomparable risk of shared existence.” Solidarity is beautiful, in this way, but it is not self-evident. On the contrary, it seems like a fairy tale. One only comes to believe in solidarity after having personally experienced, or at least glimpsed, its extraordinary possibilities — by participating in a mass movement, a union campaign, civil disobedience, an uprising, or direct action.

In America, by contrast, the dominant common sense is essentially anti-solidaristic: It is the notion that one must look out for himself, for his own; and that others — especially alien or unfamiliar Others — are a natural threat to one’s individual achievement. These are the ideas that feel instinctively true to many Americans, that feel realistic and sensible. And thus, “wokeness,” as I have idiosyncratically defined it, is hostile to the basic logic of leftist organizing. Solidarity requires an invitation, a warm and friendly offer to collude in a risky proposition. It doesn’t work as a sanctimonious entreaty to identify with an existing set of self-evident values. As leftists, we must make this offer — of interdependence in exchange for shared liberation — again and again, in different places, to different people, in different ways and hope that it begins to make sense. That’s the whole game. Won’t you join me?

Unlearning the Language of ‘Wokeness’