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Wokeness as respect redistribution
The battle to create an America that doesn't tell Americans they're trash
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.