Bo and Ben Winegard analyze today’s “Great Awokening” as a religious movement. They deploy the categories of sacredness and purity, priestly privilege, sin, atonement, and absolution to explain “Wokeness” as a religious movement and a status system.
They admit to that “many of their moral concerns are entirely legitimate,” but admit to skepticism about some claims about contemporary American culture. It doesn’t matter to the analysis, though. They insist that “Even if its claims were entirely true, one could still fruitfully approach it from a status systems’ perspective.” The problem is that the legitimate moral concerns will be overwhelmed by the status system.
In sum., Wokeness is “a status system that functions predominantly to distinguish white elites from the white masses (whom we will call hoi polloi).” It provides “rich signalling vocabulary for traits and possessions such as education, intelligence, openness, leisure, wealth, and cosmopolitanism, all of which educated elites value.”
Preachers in the Great Awokening “obtain status because they (a) signal the possession of desired traits and (b) promulgate a powerful narrative that legitimizes the status disparity between white elites and hoi polloi.” Wokeness is a Pelagian faith. The Woke “are morally righteous and therefore deserve status, whereas hoi polloi are morally backward and deserve obloquy and derision.”
The authors summarize the Woke faith in five propositions:
1)All demographic groups are roughly biologically the same (which we have termed cosmic egalitarianism elsewhere).
2) Bigotry is pervasive.
3) Almost all disparities among demographic groups are caused by bigotry.
4) If we all work really hard, we can create a more just, multicultural society.
5) Diversity is almost always a good thing.
Number 2 is key, a universal explanation: If you think that disparities might have causes other than bigotry, you’re a bigot; if you think that there might be downsides to certain kinds of diversity, you’re a bigot; if you think that some humans are biologically male and others biologically female, or study brain differences between the sexes, you’re a bigot. Just think of the general reaction to Jordan Peterson, and you get the picture.
These tenets are linked to a “sacred narrative” about the victimization of certain groups: “Members of these groups are to be considered the innocent victims of an oppressive and iniquitous patriarchy. Whites, on the other hand, are born burdened with the original sin of privilege, and are therefore presumptively complicit in the system unless they declare fidelity to Wokeness.” This lends a “Manichean” dimension to Woke religion.
Belonging is signaled by language: “Those who preach its gospel often use bizarre concepts imported from postmodern theorists, infamous for their impenetrable prose. Terms such as ‘hegemonic,’ ‘intersectional,’ ‘phallocentric,’ and ‘queerphobe’ are regularly deployed, intimidating the uninitiated and impressing those who wish, in the future, to signal their erudition to fawning fans.” This jargon confers status because it doesn’t come easily. One has to learn the lingo, and those who do earn status.
Understanding Wokeness as a status system explains some of the oddities of the movement. Challenges to the tenets of Wokeness aren’t taken as invitations to debate, but as occasions for denunciation and dismissal. Some Woke tactics seem to work against the ostensible goal of awokening others. Why denounce instead of trying to persuade? Why send status signals instead of working quietly to improve the lives of victims of injustice?
One reason i that “those who are Woke don’t really want to inhabit an entirely Woke world without the bigoted masses.” Manicheans thrive on opposition. Without the dark side, there’s no opportunity for light. The Woke “want to occupy a world of good and evil, of the just and the wicked, of the high status and the low status, of the elite and hoi polloi.”
Treating Woke vocabulary as a quasi-sacrament of identity and inclusion also helps explain the trajectory of accusations: “the more ridiculous the accusation, the better the signal.” Wokeness is marked by “concept creep, in which those vying for status among the Woke compete to call out vanishingly trivial offenses and imagined slights as intolerable manifestations of racism, sexism, and patriarchal oppression.”
This trajectory is explicable as a refinement of the status system. The more trivial the infraction, the more refined and sensitive the accuser. The more outlandish the claim, the more the claimant shows his status as hyper-Woke: “Anybody can believe something that is true. It takes no effort, no talent, and no real commitment. But to believe something that is transparently ridiculous, such as that men and women are biologically the same, and to assert such a belief with force and conviction requires singular devotion to a coalition and to its sacred narrative.”
Preachers of Wokeness, pundits and academics, function as a priesthood, “who guard its doctrines from dissent, who praise the faithful, and who call for the righteous punishment of heretics and sinners.” They also provide absolution for both the hoi polloi, who feel guilty for being morally inferior to elites, and the elites, who may doubt their qualifications for being among the righteous.
Preachers absolve both “by a powerful legitimizing narrative, a narrative that explains why those on the top deserve their status while those on the bottom deserve their rather less charmed lives and, in fact, should be pleased simply to defer to their superiors.” Elites are assured they are more righteous; the hoi polloi are assured that they are right where they belong, given their benighted views.
The Great Awokening has a gospel of sorts, a meritocratic good news that invites sinners to “obtain status by achieving moral purity, by repenting their sins, castigating their former beliefs, and renouncing their own interests.”