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To Woke or Not to Woke, That is the Question. Is the answer Fundamentalist Wokism?
Several thoughtful readers and friends have discussed whether using the emotionally charged term, Woke, is helpful when trying to make a point.
As regular readers of Critical Mass will know, I have become increasingly concerned over the past several years about the intrusion of ideology into academic scientific research and teaching and with the the increasing reliance on political correctness and social justice as criteria to censor and constrain free speech and open inquiry. I have likened these vocal efforts to cull perceived intellectual heresy in academia as a kind of secular religiosity.
As a kind of shorthand term encompassing this trend I, and others, have used the term “woke” as a pejorative adjective. Several readers and friends have recently questioned this choice of terminology, and have caused me to rethink my choice of words. I am not sure I have fully resolved this question, but I have realized that the comparison of secular religion to organized religion may be useful in this regard..
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As far as I can tell, the term ‘woke’ is meant to describe, in a positive sense, being aware of various systematic historical examples of inequality and their sometimes ongoing negative consequences. Take for example, one legacy of racism in US cities in particular. Historical inequalities in the access to wealth and other resources has tended to result in areas where poverty and lack of health and social services have been concentrated. Recognizing the existence of these situations is presumably a necessary first step in trying to explore ways to improve the quality of life for everyone—a laudable goal.
The problem arises when this recognition becomes the sole filter in which to define all aspects of existence, so that every experience reflects inherent inequities and that victimhood becomes endemic. That historical racism has existed in society does not mean that it exists everywhere nor that every example of apparent ongoing inequity can be attributed to that history. An equitable society needs to provide equal opportunities to succeed, and that means providing access to education, health care, and a safe physical environment for all children. It does not, however, mean that the demographics of centers of excellence, be they academic institutions or sports teams, needs to reflect the underlying demographics of society.
Moreover, the importance of having a free and open conversation about these fundamental questions is useful and perhaps essential for rational social policies to be enacted, and also for all individuals to more productively navigate their way through the complex dynamics of modern society. In particular, it does not mean that assumptions about the source or impact of inequity are not subject to questioning.
I have framed these issues as I have because it makes the analogy between secular religiosity and traditional religiosity cleaner. In particular, one can distinguish ‘wokeness’, a characteristic that may not be inherently pejorative, from what one can choose to call ‘Fundamentalist Wokism’, which is inherently pejorative, in precisely the same way as one might distinguish ‘Christianity’ from ‘Fundamentalist Christianity’ or ‘Islam’ from ‘Fundamentalist Islam’.
The latter distinction was impressed upon me when I began to write early on about the ridiculous backwardness of certain theocratic societies, such as, for example, the current regime in Afghanistan or Iran. Both involve Islam, but many people, in response, have stressed that the truly backward or even inherently evil features of these society involves Fundamentalism more than Islam itself.
For many people, their Islamic faith is a source of comfort, charity, awe, humility, and community, just as Christianity is for many Christians. To deny this is to deny reality, even if one can argue, as I often have, that the net negatives that have historically resulted from organized religion have outweighed the positives.
The commonalities between all of these kinds of fundamentalism, both secular and religious is striking: the need to color all aspects of the human experience with a dogmatic paintbrush, and the need to ferret out and punish heresy, not only for actions but for language itself. For the fundamentalist religious zealots, their God is concerned with every waking moment of their existence and every social institution must be tailored to honor their deity. To question the existence of God, or to act in ways contrary to their sacred texts requires ostracism and shame at best, and death at worst. For Fundamentalist Wokism, every human interaction must be viewed within the lens of systemic inequity, privilege, and victimhood. To question this reality in any context is to only further confirm one’s personal contribution to the evils of modern society, and the consequences range between relatively mild shaming or vilification on social media, to full cancellation, including loss of one’s job, social connections, and public voice.
So, in an effort to fairly distinguish between what I view as secular evils and religious evils, I am going to try to be consistent in focusing on the evils of fundamentalism versus the potential evils of ideology. The admittedly trite way of doing this is invoking my new term Fundamentalist Wokism rather than the more commonly used pejorative Woke, or Social Justice Warrior, since the latter potentially include people of good will and positive actions.
Having said this, I also acknowledge that language evolves, and it may be too late to impose such fine distinctions. Extremism has already tainted terms like Islam, Woke, Feminist, Liberal, and Republican. But it doesn’t hurt to try to be clear if one can…