Wokeness, most observers would agree, can be defined as the progressive worldview that views all racial and sexual disparities as proof of discrimination, and rejects liberal procedural traditions in favor of a totalizing politics that seeks to dismantle those disparities and silence dissenters. But nobody seems to agree on where it came from. Is wokeness an intellectual, religious, psychological, economic, legal, or institutional phenomenon? Its emergence over the last decade or so has been attributed to everything from academic intellectual trends, declining religiosity, victimhood psychology, corporate self-interest, white-collar class interests, the civil rights laws of the 1960s, and the copycat tendencies of large organizations. These all seem to have some explanatory power, but none seems on its own to account for the phenomenon fully. Let’s consider each in turn.
Ideas have consequences. The idealist account sees wokeness as the offspring of long-gestating intellectual trends. The specifics might vary, but the broad story tends to be the same: influential thinkers developed a critique of reason, objectivity, and neutrality that conquered the ivory tower before infecting everyone from Democratic Party politicians to the editors of Teen Vogue. Whether it was Immanuel Kant, Theodor Adorno, or Jacques Derrida, some philosopher started the process by arguing that humans had insufficient grounds to believe things they once took for granted, since those beliefs were filtered—and distorted—by limited individual faculties, cultural biases, or “systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.” That critical posture toward established truths challenged the foundations of Enlightenment civilization and encouraged a vision of the world as divided among “oppressed classes” and an “oppressor class.” In an American context, the critique took various forms, with radical feminists arguing that the legal system was “a medium for making male dominance both invisible and legitimate” and critical race theorists maintaining that racism represents “the usual way [American] society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country.” These kinds of arguments eventually entered public debate as default explanations for inequalities in American society; American institutions came to be seen solely as vectors of subjugation.
Idealist accounts leave something important unexplained, however: How did these ideas spread? In a review of James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose’s Cynical Theories, a representative idealist account, critic Park MacDougald notes that the book never explains how people came to be persuaded by fundamentally unpersuasive arguments. “At times, Pluckrose and Lindsay write as if these theories are free-floating ideas developing according to their own internal logic. At times, they are analogized to a virus jumping the ‘species gap’ from academia to activism. And at times, there’s no clear agent at all, as when they write that Evergreen State ‘got overtaken by the ideas of critical race theory,’” MacDougald writes. “But how does a college get overtaken by ideas? And why one set of ideas instead of another?” The idealist account, on its own, seems unable to answer these questions.
Psychological accounts. Two explanations argue that wokeness has gained traction in response to specific changes in Americans’ psychology. One posits that wokeness resembles a religion, filling a spiritual vacuum in American life. Author John McWhorter argues that “third-wave antiracism . . . has actually become a religion,” complete with a clergy in the form of writers such as Ibram X. Kendi and Ta-Nehisi Coates, a creed holding that “racism is baked into the structure of society,” and a creation myth involving the African slave trade. Another sees it as a byproduct of the infantilization of young Americans by well-meaning but overprotective parents. In the best-selling The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt blame “safetyism”—which puts a premium on protection of feelings and punishes severely actions or words that inflict emotional harm—as a proximate cause of political strife on college campuses. Lukianoff and Haidt weren’t offering a catch-all theory of wokeness, but their story—that an overprotective mode of parenting that took hold in the late twentieth century produced a generation of hypersensitive kids, who then entered a bureaucratized college system willing to meet their demands for “safe spaces”—is a reasonable stand-in for those who view wokeness as a form of political activism common to millennials and zoomers.