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Thoughts on the origins of wokeness
The ideology of 2010s America, and where it came from
The 2010s were roiled by a massive upheaval in American political culture and society. Many now refer to the resulting collection of social movements, changing norms around race and gender, outlooks toward history and nationhood, and associated social behaviors as “wokeness”. Some consider this a pejorative term, and indeed many of the people who oppose the changes use it that way — but not me. I think it’s important to have names for things that deserve to be thought of as cohesive wholes, and although it will be at least a decade before we can fully define what wokeness was and what it did, it’s clear that it was as cohesive as the hippie movement or the Progressive movement in earlier eras.
I went back and forth over using the past tense in the previous sentence. It’s clear that wokeness is still an incredibly important force in our country. At the same time, it has lost most of the intellectual dynamism that characterized it in the 2010s; the main people fighting to implement its precepts now are decreasingly likely to be street activists or young online crusaders, and increasingly likely to be middle-aged people within the ranks of established institutions. What was once a Cambrian explosion of memes and ideas has now been canonized, standardized, and institutionalized. Meanwhile, at the level of grassroots youth culture, a quiet backlash is already in progress, and people who participated in the efflorescence of wokeness in the mid-2010s are already starting to feel nostalgic. Like most pervasive social changes, wokeness is a prairie fire, burning out at the center but still flaming at the edges.
And this means that I’m finally able to think about wokeness from a more detached, analytical perspective. I want to write more about how it changed our society — and which changes were good and should endure, and which need to be rolled back. But first I thought I’d collect my thoughts about where wokeness came from in the first place.
In early 2021, when this blog was just getting started out and had a much smaller audience than it does now, I wrote two posts about why I think wokeness emerged in the 2010s in the form that it did. They didn’t get a lot of attention at the time (and they were also paywalled), so I thought I’d repost them now, as a sort of preamble to upcoming posts that continue on this topic.
The first of these posts is my theory as to why wokeness exploded in the 2010s. The basic idea is that America is a very disrespectful society, and that this lack of respect increasingly clashed with rising diversity and the strides toward racial and gender equality that previous decades had produced. So I think that to a large degree, wokeness was a redistributionary movement aiming for a leveling of social respect.
The second post is my theory of where wokeness comes from, and why it focused on the issues and ideas that it did. The U.S. has a long tradition of semi-Protestant social crusades to uplift the marginalized, dating back at least to the Abolitionist movement. This tradition has never been an outgrowth of European Marxism, as some anti-woke people allege; instead, the animating ideas have come partly from Black thought and partly from Protestantism, and sometimes from both at once. So wokeness should really be seen not as something new, but as something deeply American, which emerges every once in a while.
Anyway, whether you’re a deep believer in wokeness or a dedicated opponent, I urge you to read these posts with an open mind. My goal is not (yet) to judge, but only to understand. I don’t claim to be a scholar or arbiter of these things, but I hope these thoughts can contribute a bit to our general understanding of the forces reshaping our society.
Wokeness as respect redistribution
About seven years ago, I wrote a blog post about an idea I called “respect redistribution”. My thesis was that America is a highly disrespectful country where people look down on others because of their social class, and that redistributing social respect was a higher priority than redistributing wealth. Here are some excerpts from that post:
I feel like the America I grew up in could learn a thing or two from Japan in this regard. I don't know if the word "loser" was a common insult before the 1980s, but in recent decades it has become ubiquitous. People who work in the service industry almost always seem ashamed when they tell me what they do for a living. Low-skilled workers are treated in a peremptory way, constantly reminded that they are "losers". Americans wear T-shirts that say "Second place is the first loser", and "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."…
Whether we're questing after a narrow money-based vision of equality or callously celebrating the "competitiveness" created by material inequality, we Americans seem to have mostly forgotten about equality of respect…I want to move back toward a society where being a good parent or a friendly neighbor earns as much respect as making a hundred million dollars on Wall Street.
I now regard this post as one of my more interesting failures, for a number of reasons. One reason is that material inequality and social inequality are far more intertwined than I made them out to be. But an even bigger reason is that in my focus on class, I neglected the far larger deficits of respect faced by minorities and women. Service-industry workers and low-income people should certainly get more respect, but identity-based disrespect was and is a festering open wound in our society.
To give just one example, here’s something my friend Nikitha Rai recently tweeted:
This story is not particularly special or unusual; almost every Asian America has plenty of these, and they’re just now coming out on social media because of the spate of anti-Asian attacks. In fact, explicit insults toward Asian Americans were more or less culturally acceptable in our country until…well, maybe right now. It’s worth noting that Jay Leno just now apologized for years of jokes at the expense of Asians. Just five years ago, Chris Rock was making Asian jokes at the Oscars. And of course, the same disrespect that manifests as tasteless humor at awards shows or late-night comedy ends up being cruel taunts, physical bullying, and a constant stream of aggressions both macro- and micro- in the real world. In fact, a poll last year found that Asian Americans are the group most likely to say they’ve been subject to slurs and racist jokes:
Of course, I don’t mean to single Asians out here; plenty of Black people are subject to regular expressions disrespect in America, as are Hispanics, Muslims, women, trans people…
…And hey, guess what. As I type that list, it’s starting to sound like a typical “woke” litany of marginalized groups. That’s no coincidence. I’ve come to believe that wokeness was, in part, a rebellion against America’s deep inequality of respect.
(Note: I know some people think the words “woke” and “wokeness” are derogatory, but I don’t use them that way. I just don’t know any other short, catch-all description for that collection of attitudes, ideas, and cultural practices. And besides, I think that if you let your rhetorical opponents constantly chase you away from terms you invent, it signals weakness and forces you to do the labor of coming up with new terms.)
Anyway. I sort of believe in Ian Morris’ principle that “each age gets the thought it needs” — when I see a new ideology develop, my first question is always “Which pressing human problems does this address?” It’s possible to fool yourself this way, and to turn the history of thought into a series of just-so stories. But for years leading up to the so-called “Great Awokening” in 2014-15, I had felt a nagging sense that the country wasn’t quite changing in some of the ways I had hoped and expected it to. In the 2000s and early 2010s, as the country and its elite both became more diverse, I had expected the popular image of what constitutes an “American” to gradually and easily shift away from “a White person, or occasionally a Black person”. It did not. Asian and Hispanic people were rarely represented in popular media, largely ignored by politicians, and generally “othered” with stereotypes and assumptions of foreign-ness. I now see what I should have seen then — the erasure couldn’t go on, and a backlash had to come.
For Black people, the Great Awokening has been more about material concerns, especially police brutality and the persistent income/wealth gap. But there’s also a deep sense in which many Black people feel disrespected, which has to do with history. A lot of Black Americans feel that the history of the bad things this country did to their ancestors is not sufficiently recognized or highlighted in politics and popular culture. And wokeness, with its focus on history, is in part an attempt to fill that lacuna.
And for women, a big part of the Woke Era has been about respect in the workplace. The 90s backlash against sexual harassment made some headway, but many men were still in the habit of talking about sex to their female coworkers in a way that made it clear that they thought of those coworkers as sex objects. And that is a deep and grating lack of respect.
Thus, I think wokeness is in part an attempt to renegotiate the distribution of respect in American society. So many of the things we associate with wokeness — pronoun culture, “canceling” writers who appear to traffic in stereotypes, re-centering American history around Black people, the whole idea of “centering the voices of marginalized groups”, and so on — are explicitly about respect. Wokeness does include social movements with real material aims (e.g. defunding the police), but mostly it’s a cultural movement whose goal is to change the way Americans talk and think about each other.
So when I wrote about redistributing respect, I had the right idea; I just totally missed the dimensions along which the demands for respect would come.
But actually, I think my post had one additional huge, fatal flaw. I framed it as a question of redistribution, as if respect is a zero-sum quantity. That was a mischaracterization; respect is something that you can produce more or less of, in the aggregate.
It’s wrong to think of respect as a synonym for social status. Status is a hierarchy; what matters is the ordering of who is on the higher rung and who the lower. Respect is not like that. If a CEO treats her workers with dignity instead of lording it over them, some people might think it diminishes her relative status, but the total amount of respect in the world has simply gone up. If you start calling someone by their preferred pronoun, you haven’t abased yourself; you have generated new respect, and added to the world’s total supply.
Similarly, if all of America’s identity groups — races, genders, etc. — start respecting each other, we can build a respectful country whose culture isn’t centered around telling each other that we’re trash. That’s easier said than done of course; it’s more of a long-term goal, or maybe an idle daydream. Right now we’re about as far from that daydream as can be.
One thing I worry about, though, is that wokeness will make the same mistake I made in my 2013 blog post, and see respect as a zero-sum game. It’s seductively easy to believe that America’s chronic shortage of respect can be fixed simply by heaping disrespect on groups that have traditionally been respected — White people, men, cis people, and so on.
I thought about that when I witnessed the following Twitter exchange:
And of course that reminded me of the famous Sarah Jeong tweets:
Will telling White people that they’re stinky dog/ape chimeras or groveling goblins make our society a better one? I mean, maybe you could argue that White people need to be insulted and kicked around a bit in order to force them to get off their high horse and empathize with groups they’ve traditionally disrespected, and that eventually this will lead to a more respectful society all around. Maybe if White people are forced to spend a decade or two as penitents, walking around with their heads bowed, thinking “I’m a stinky dog-person!”, we can reset American society on a more universally respectful footing afterwards?
I don’t think it works that way. Instead, I think what we’ll get is just a society with an even lower aggregate level of respect. For one thing, White people will continue to be drawn to ever-crazier backlash movements. But even more importantly, when society becomes accustomed to the use of targeted disrespect as a praxis for social change, that weapon will become universal. American society will become even more of a war of all against all, with fights over material resources, status, or other scarce quantities manifesting via ever-greater heapings of scorn and belittlement. You don’t need White people, or men, in order to have those fights.
Instead, we need to recognize that respect is not a conserved, limited quantity. You can make as much of it as you like. It’s possible to have a society where everyone gets treated like trash, and it’s possible to have a society where no one gets treated like trash.
We should be thinking hard about how to bring about the latter.
Wokeness as old-time American religion
“In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.”
— Julia Ward Howe, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”
This is the second of a series of posts in which I try to think about “wokeness” — the collection of social justice movements, discourse, and attitudes that has risen to prominence in America since around the mid-2010s. In the first post, “Wokeness as respect redistribution”, I argued that America’s culture had become increasingly incompatible with the demographic and economic changes in the country, and that wokeness arose in part as a way to try to resolve that contradiction. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. Though there were new reasons for wokeness to emerge, the idea itself is not entirely new — it’s a modern manifestation of some very old American impulses and ideologies. I see it essentially as a combination of abolitionism and Protestant Christianity.
The anti-woke story of wokeness’ origins
Among the people who publicly and loudly oppose wokeness, a particular story about the ideology’s origins has become conventional wisdom. Their story is that wokeness is a branch of Marxism, modified to emphasize cultural rather than economic issues. This modification, they believe, was chiefly done by the Frankfurt School, an early 20th century group of European leftist scholars. James Lindsay, one of the chief anti-woke shouters on Twitter, constantly refers to the Frankfurt School and to related thinkers like Gramsci as the supposed creators of social justice, critical race theory, and other terms that he uses interchangeably with “wokeness”:
There are many more examples; I could keep going. Lindsay wrote a book about this origin story, but he’s hardly alone in believing it; the Daily Signal, the Heritage Foundation, and many others make the same claim.
Wokeness, the anti-wokes believe, is therefore a foreign, communist imposition — an alien idea that successfully wormed its way into America and subverted the country’s traditional values.
To be blunt, I do not buy this origin story at all. It’s certainly true that within academia, some of the academics who invented Critical Race Theory and Critical Legal Studies saw themselves as more closely allied to so-called Critical Marxists like the Frankfurt School than to traditional Marxists. And to gain respect within the academy, scholars of Critical Race Theory certainly had to cite some scholars who came before them, and the Frankfurt School people were probably the most convenient to cite.
But that doesn’t mean CRT was actually inspired by the Frankfurt School. As any academic who has dealt with the dreaded Reviewer 2 knows all too well, citations are often an institutional genuflection rather than an indicator of true intellectual influence. Instead, as this excellent essay by Bradley Mason explains, they were inspired by the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, and the abolitionist movement that had come before.
Just to check, I asked some very woke friends in a humanities department what authors woke academics read for inspiration, and received the following list:
W.E.B. Du Bois
Zora Neale Hurston
Patricia Hill Collins
Kimberlé W. Crenshaw
Combahee River Collective
From talking to other woke friends, I might append some additions to the list:
Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields
Ibram X. Kendi
None of the Frankfurt School authors are listed here. All of these authors are Black, and most are Black Americans. And that should remind us of a very important fact: Black Americans have been thinking very hard about how to change American society for a very long time. To focus on the scholarly contributions of some European leftists is to ignore the much richer veins of Black thought that have been in America for centuries.
And anyone who knows woke White people knows that they take great pains to read, pay attention to, and elevate Black intellectuals and writers. When asked about the Frankfurt School, in contrast, they are typically equivocal and dismissive. (One friend simply responded: “Adorno hated jazz.” It’s true, he did!)
Now, you could argue that the ideas of the Frankfurt School were lurking in the background the whole time, pulling the intellectual strings. That’s a fairly unfalsifiable thesis, so I’ll counter it with one of my own: That’s not how social movements work. The force lurking in the background of academic thought isn’t other academic thought; it’s popular social movements and the exigencies of contemporary politics. For the critical race theorists of the 1970s, as Mason notes, contemporary politics meant a desire to fight back against the Reagan Revolution and continue the work of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
But even more importantly, wokeness is much, much more than Critical Race Theory. CRT is simply a nerdy fringe that hovers at the edge of the movement. At the street level, activists are reading Coates, not Adorno or Marcuse. A few ideas and attitudes may make it into their lexicons and worldviews from musty old European intellectuals, but most of street ideology is spontaneously generated at the street level.
And for many woke people — especially the White people who numerically make up the bulk of the woke movement — that street ideology springs from a very old American tradition. It comes from the abolitionist movement, which itself was heavily influenced by Protestant Christianity.
Christian abolitionism and the Great Awokening
The other day, in the wake of Derek Chauvin’s murder conviction, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted this:
The statement was obviously tone-deaf, and was roundly condemned. George Floyd was a murder victim, not a martyr; he did not choose to sacrifice his life for the sins of America. But I think the framing here, which clearly comes from the New Testament, points to the Christian origins of wokeness.
The abolitionist movement of the 18th and 19th centuries was the original wokeness. That movement, which was begun by Christian activists, entailed a crusading desire to help Black people break the bonds society had placed on them. Abolitionist ideas were spread by Congregational Christian churches, as part of the Second Great Awakening (and by Quakers and, eventually, the Catholic Church). Though Christian denominations in the South became co-opted into supporting the slavery system, outside the South, Christianity remained the locus of opposition. One reason for this was that Black clergymen sometimes preached to White congregations, and inveighed against slavery in religious terms.
So many abolitionist origin stories involve Christianity. William Wilberforce, Britain’s greatest abolitionist, was a member of the anti-slavery Clatham Sect of the Anglican Church. In the U.S., a Presbyterian reverend, John Rankin, was one of the key abolitionists. He was an important figure in the Underground Railroad, and his writings helped convert other famous abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Weld, and Harriet Beecher Stowe to the cause.
John Brown, too, has a Christian origin story. He wanted to be a minister, but had to stop his studies because of eye inflammation. He later set up a Congregationalist church as a locus of anti-slavery activity. When he carried out his raid on Harper’s Ferry and attacked slaveowners, Brown couched his crusade in explicitly religious terms. It is impossible not to see echoes of John Brown in the BLM protesters who charged police lines and got their eyes were shot out in order to fight against a system they felt was destroying Black lives.
The Black conservative writer John McWhorter is a critic of wokeness, but in a pair of essays in 2015 and 2020, he clearly identified the Christian motifs that pervade the woke movement. It’s not just about the kneeling. Just as Christianity holds that Jesus suffered and died for the sins of humanity, wokeness centers around the idea that marginalized people — especially Black people, but many other groups as well — suffer and die for America’s inherent racism, misogyny, and other injustices. Christianity uses Jesus’ sacrifice to motivate Christians to make their own sacrifices in the eternal struggle against sin, even as it stipulates that they themselves can never be free from sin; wokeness uses the suffering of the marginalized to motivate White people to make their own sacrifices in the eternal struggle against racism and other injustices, even as it stipulates that they themselves can never be free from racism. And so on.
McWhorter, remember, is laying this out as a criticism. And to many liberal Americans, long accustomed to thinking of political Christianity as a right-wing opponent, associating wokeness with Christianity might seem like an indictment. But it’s important to remember that religious or quasi-religious zeal has always been an important motivator of social movements, from any side of the political spectrum. Humans might not need faith in the ineffable in order to motivate them to crusade for a better world, but it almost always helps. And wokeness doubtless gives meaning and purpose to many young Americans for whom actual Christianity is a distant memory and for whom the only other alternative is a crass, dissatisfying consumerism.
Nor is wokeness the only movement that has combined Christian ideas with a zeal for battling social injustice; various forms of liberation theology are common throughout the Christian world.
And remember also that Christianity began its existence as a movement for the marginalized. Even among right-wing Christians, some sliver of that impetus remains:
Wokeness is very American
Beyond its Christian-derived elements, wokeness is simply an American tradition, gaining strength from the country’s history of democracy and reform movements. Read through American history, and you can find plenty of examples of famous Americans exhibiting sentiments we would now recognize as woke. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a dedicated abolitionist, had this to say about the Civil War:
In the early days of the War of the Rebellion [Emerson] visited Charlestown Navy-Yard to see the preparations, and said, "Ah! sometimes gunpowder smells good." In the opening of his address at Tufts College, in July, 1861, he said, "The brute noise of cannon has a most poetic echo in these days, as instrument of the primal sentiments of humanity."
Then there were the Wide-Awakes, a 500,000-strong militant abolitionist youth movement that sprang up in the North before the Civil War.
(The word “woke” doesn’t actually come from the Wide-Awakes, but it’s interesting that the same word and concept keeps popping up.)
The Radical Republicans of the Civil War and post-Civil War era had many attitudes that today we would think of as woke. They even supported open borders, holding that nonwhite immigrants were equal to White immigrants:
The Civil Rights and Black Power eras of the 50s, 60s and 70s were accompanied by an explosion of wokeness; many of the same sentiments animating today’s BLM movement were present among the activists, protesters, hippies, radicals, and other assorted dissenters of that age. And remember that Critical Race Theory itself got its start in the 70s.
In fact, the very American-ness of wokeness is one of the main things that wokeness gets wrong! In an interview with the World Socialist Website, Civil War historian James McPherson criticized the 1619 Project by pointing out that anti-racism is a key part of America’s cultural DNA:
[O]pposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history…
From the Quakers in the 18th century, on through the abolitionists in the antebellum, to the radical Republicans in the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the NAACP which was an interracial organization founded in 1909, down through the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, there have been a lot of whites who have fought against slavery and racial discrimination, and against racism. Almost from the beginning of American history that’s been true…
[T]here was also a more social dimension to the American Revolution…it coincided with, and partially caused, the abolition of slavery in half of the states, the northern states, as well as a manumission movement among Virginia slaveholders…Out of the Revolution came an anti-slavery ethos, which never disappeared[.]
Wokeness is thus neither a European Marxist invasion nor a recent concoction; it has been with us from the beginning, an impulse woven into American society at the deepest level. It will be with us always, too; just as this is not the first Great Awokening, it will not be the last.
Who can push back against a crusading faith?
But even though wokeness is American as apple pie, its quasi-religious nature raises an important question: How can people push back effectively against its excesses?
Because even though there was a reason for its reemergence, wokeness does have plenty of excesses. The next post in this series will go into those in greater detail, but they’re numerous enough — the identification of positive traits like hard work and progress with whiteness, inappropriate cultural gatekeeping, creepy and potentially counterproductive corporate training sessions, San Francisco school board members saying inappropriate things, stupid performative crap of various kinds, the errors in the 1619 Project, and so on and so forth. I’m not about to join James Lindsay and the anti-wokes; I view woke overreach as an annoyance rather than a crisis at this point, and there are much bigger problems in America. But the existence of these excesses does raise the question of how reasonable, sober-minded Americans can push back, to keep them from growing out of hand.
The more a movement is animated by the burning inner light of faith, the harder it is to criticize it. Not only does faith not admit even the smallest criticism in the intellectual sense, but it often summons a rapid and militant reaction when criticized. Just ask any of the people who fought to keep conservative Christianity out of public schools in small Southern towns in the 1980s and 90s!
“Religion” shouldn’t be an epithet, but it is true that religious and quasi-religious movements are very tough to deal with in the public sphere. Separation of church and state gave America a bit of institutional pretext to restrain the power of political Christianity, but wokeness has no church, and there is nothing to separate it from the state. The same force of belief that makes wokeness so powerful in pushing through social and cultural changes will lead to bruising, exhausting political battles in America for decades to come.