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How to Define "Wokeness"

Edward Feser (at Edward Feser blog)

Photo by Mika Baumeister / Unsplash

A common talking point among the woke is the claim that “woke” is just a term of abuse that has no clear meaning.  Whether many of them really believe this or are just obfuscating is not clear, but in any event it isn’t true.  I would suggest that what critics of wokeness have in mind is pretty obviously captured in the following definition: Wokeness is a paranoid delusional hyper-egalitarian mindset that tends to see oppression and injustice where they do not exist or greatly to exaggerate them where they do exist.

Examples would be: Characterizing as racist “microaggressions” behaviors that in fact are either perfectly innocuous or at worst just ordinary rudeness; condemning some economic outcome as a racist “inequity” despite there being no empirical evidence whatsoever that it is due to racism; condemning as “transphobic” recognition of the commonsense and scientific fact that sex is binary; condemning as “racist” the view that public policy should be color-blind and that racial discrimination is wrong whatever the race of the persons being discriminated against; condemning as “antigay” the view that it is not appropriate for grade schools to address matters of sexuality in the classroom without parental consent; and so on.

If you’re thinking “Wait, what’s wrong with any of that?,” you’re probably woke and should seek help, because these are deeply irrational attitudes.  My book All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory explains what is wrong with much that presents itself as “antiracist” but is in fact nothing of the kind.  (You will find much of the book useful even if you are not Catholic, because the argumentation is largely of a philosophical and social scientific nature rather than a theological nature.)

By characterizing wokeness as paranoid and delusional I am not flinging terms of abuse, but describing real psychological features of the woke attitude.  In their book The Coddling of the American Mind (which I say a bit about in my own book), Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt note that the frame of mind encouraged by woke ideas (Critical Race Theory, Gender Theory, “Social Justice Warrior” rhetoric and the like) is very similar to a mindset that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy identifies as a major cause of psychological disorders.

Features of this mindset include emotional reasoning, or letting our feelings determine how we interpret reality rather than letting reality determine whether our feelings are the appropriate ones; catastrophizing, or focusing obsessively on the imagined worst possible outcome rather than on what the evidence shows are more likely outcomes; overgeneralizing, or jumping to sweeping conclusions on the basis of one or a few incidents; dichotomous thinking, or seeing things in either-or terms when a more sober analysis would reveal more possibilities; mind reading, or jumping to conclusions about what other people are thinking; labeling, or slapping a simplistic description on some person or phenomenon that papers over its complexity; negative filtering and discounting positives, or looking only for confirming evidence for some pessimistic assumption while denying or downplaying confirming evidence that things are not in fact so bad; and blaming, or focusing on others as the sources of one’s negative feelings rather than taking responsibility for them oneself.

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