Editors’ Note: Shadi begins the conversation. Damir responds. The goal, as in all Wisdom of Crowds conversations, is to explore why we believe the things we believe, working through the tensions and contradictions in real time. If you like this post, consider becoming a member to support our work.
What does it mean to build a community of “like-minded” individuals? Or, to put it differently, what are the costs of hyper-wokeness (as well as opposing it)? First, as I mentioned in our last Wisdom of Crowds episode, I think I may have allowed my anger at dumb wokeness to make me want to become their opposite—and that I started to feel that that could be unhealthy for the kind of writer I want to be. I don’t want to be defined by what I’m not. If we define ourselves that way, it means we’re reacting against something, and that inevitably requires contrasts. It primes us to take the silliest and sometimes quite pernicious examples of wokeness (and, sadly, their number appear to be growing) and use that as our starting point. The contrast, then, is everything, and then the incentive, even if somewhat subconsciously, is to search out that contrast. What’s a good way of thinking about this?
I frame this differently. I see wokeness as nothing more than an obnoxious kind of externalized piety, which is something I have never had much sympathy for as a quality in other people. It irritates; but at the same time, it’s not that hard to ignore.
Put a slightly different way: “wokeness” is a secular religion that violently demands that others convert. Never having felt any need for redemption, I don’t feel moved by the demands. It’s not that I am so sure of myself that I never reflect on my own choices and actions. But at my age, I am no longer so easily knocked off balance by accusations of immorality. And the threat of “cancelation” rings hollow if you don’t aspire to the club of respectability.
Does that mean there are no negative externalities to overzealous faith? Of course not; witches have been burnt throughout history. But that, to me, is a problem of a different category. Even if motivated by admirable goals, mobs tend to be dangerous things. And the most dangerous thing about wokeness is not the content of the faith, but that it is animating ever more and more people, in unison.
I’ve found wokeness harder to ignore, probably for two reasons. First, I’m a believer (in God), which means that I’m suspicious of secular claims to religious certainty. If you’re going to do religion, do religion. In some ways, secular religion is the worst of both worlds: it mimics the certainty and conviction of religion in the service of a false God. One of the appeals of actual religion, in theory if not necessarily in practice, is that it defers or postpones judgment. If God is the only true judge—and the only true punishment, if it comes, comes later rather than now—then it allows for a letting down of the guard, and hopefully there’s an epistemological humility that results. In this life, there are victories and there are defeats, but they are never final. And that’s a relief.
The second issue does have to do with the content of the faith (I mean, if there was a mob in support of peacefully supporting democracy in Egypt I can’t imagine I’d find it nearly as problematic). There’s something about the idea that individuals have some loyalty or responsibility to a constructed collective identity, merely by accident of birth, that I find particularly troubling. Individuals are stripped of what makes them distinct or unusual, and they are expected to “be” Arab, black, latino, Jewish, or white in a particular way because other people have decided, in the name of racial or ethnic solidarity, that there is one way to be. Anyway, it’s just anathema to me at a core level. It brings us into the realm of the immutability of identity, and that’s never a good thing. I would never want people to assume something about my views on some controversial issue just because I’m a person of color, an Arab, or a Muslim. I speak about my community, but I do not speak for my community.
What makes all of this pernicious is that it leads to a chill on speech. Some things are “settled” as beyond the pale: Slavery, eugenics, mass slaughter. We know that they’re settled because no one is trying to unsettle them. Most of the things we debate, almost by definition, are “unsettled” (otherwise we wouldn’t be debating them). On those things, no one should feel compelled to hide their true position or suppress their core commitments in the name of respectability. But the current climate requires such suppression, particularly if you happen to find yourself in respectable, liberal circles. To go against that requires a strong desire to swim against the tide, and the vast majority of people do not have the stamina or dedication to swim against the tide. So they won’t. It’s not that they’ll be canceled (although they might), it’s just that it takes a lot of effort. And it shouldn’t require a lot of effort to say what you actually think is true.
Points taken about the nature of God and his role in engendering humility. At the same time, religions are rarely simply spiritual things or intellectual frameworks. Perhaps for the ideal believer, God is a source of humility, but for many across the globe, religion serves as more of an organizing principle of the group—as a marker of identity. Just speaking from the Balkan perspective, the extent to which Catholicism is tied to Croatianness as opposed to Serbian Orthodoxy is… not a trivial thing. As someone who has rarely stepped inside a church without a camera, I note this fact with some bemusement. But it is, alas, a fact.
Indeed, your antipathy to this kind of essentializing identity puts you at odds with most of humanity. Partly that’s because you’re an intellectual, and you find identities constricting. Most people, however, live in identity like a fish in water: they literally couldn’t survive without it, though it is completely transparent to them that this is the case. Furthermore, you’re an American intellectual, so you especially prize individualism in these matters. (Just as a counter-observation, there’s nothing more amusingly confounding to me as an immigrant than the American “pick your own religion” tendency. It reeks of self-help—another puzzling American invention.)
On mobs—I’m suspicious of all mobs, even those I agree with. If I find myself on the side of the majority on some issue I’m likely to check my priors. And as for the speech-chilling aspects, sure, it takes stones to be an iconoclast. But it’s always been thus—and that’s a good thing! Is the ideal society one where the vast majority of people don’t feel any strictures on voicing their opinions? I’m not sure it is. Indeed, if I have a working theory of the meltdown at the NYT and the ongoing drama at WaPo, it’s that a whole cohort of young employees has felt empowered to openly undermine the organization without fear of reprisal from management. In a less stupid world, if you work for a newspaper your contract would explicitly have prohibited you from having a public Twitter account.
Usually you’re the grouchy one, infused with darkness about the coming strife, and I’m the optimist (within limits of course, what are we monsters?). It appears that the roles have been reversed. But, seriously Damir, this is one of the more optimistic takes on the present moment that I’ve seen. I think I needed to hear that.
This just about sums it up: “Your antipathy to this kind of essentializing identity puts you at odds with most of humanity.” I guess part of the problem is I don’t practice what I preach. A lot of my work has been about the irreconcilability of competing identities. Tribalism makes sense to me—as an observer and analyst. But there’s this other part of me, particularly when it comes to my own country, that insists on pushing back. I see what it has done to other countries, and I have become afraid of it.
I’m also an “agonist,” or at least that’s what I want to be, because I think it’s the only way to live with deep difference, assuming deep difference is a given. Or maybe I’m, at my core, more of a boring normie liberal than I thought. Maybe I don’t have as much stomach for ideological combat as I once thought.