Why Wokeness Refuses to be Named
Monday Notes
Why Wokeness Refuses to be Named
How do you criticize something that doesn’t exist?
Published on: Feb 14, 2022  

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What we name political movements—particularly the ones we don't like—has always intrigued me. Should Islamists be called "Islamists"? After all, it's a made-up word, and it has that "-ism" at the end, which makes it sound like one is accusing the people in question of making Islam into an ideological project. But that's precisely what they're doing, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Presumably, they don't think it's a bad thing, otherwise they wouldn't be doing it. In any case, I'm more than comfortable using Islamist, because that's what Islamists call themselves in Arabic—Islamiyoon, which is just an Arabized version of the word in English.

What about the "far-right"? What should we call them? This is something I've had to deal with as part of a Brookings project on Islam and right-wing populism in Europe. As part of the project, we brought together local Muslim activists and members and supporters of right-wing populist parties in the same room and told them to talk to each other. As an experiment, it was a success, perhaps, but only because it was a failure. We learned something important about the limits of dialogue, and now I'm glad that I know it. From the start, definitions were an issue. The far-right participants didn't like the term "far right," so we avoided using it. "Right-wing populist" seems more neutral, since it steers away from making judgments about how extreme a given party is on the ideological spectrum. In many cases, after all, these parties are fairly mainstream, representing the second or third largest parties in their respective countries. Some of their opinions, particularly when it comes to attitudes towards Muslim immigrants, are something close to popular.

Luckily, in both of these examples, we have a mostly neutral term that is widely accepted by both the parties themselves as well as their opponents. When there isn't an accepted term for an ideological—even "revolutionary"—movement, however, things become a bit more complicated.

It's only today, as I write this, that it's finally dawned on me why it's so difficult to extend an olive branch to what might be called the "woke" movement. In recent episodes and on Twitter, we've said that we want to invite on the podcast someone who can properly be called a defender of the "woke" turn in the Democratic Party. We want to "steel-man" their worldview and better understand their starting premises, just as I've done with Islamists and right-wing populists, including podcast guests like Sohrab Ahmari who are fine with the label "illiberal." (Even here, I prefer to use more neutral descriptors like "anti-liberal" or "post-liberal.")

If we wish to better understand wokeness, presumably it would be a good idea to talk to the very people who believe in it. And, at Wisdom of Crowds, it's part of our ethos to listen to ideas we disagree with and even find somewhat dangerous and give them a fair hearing. But, as you can see from the paragraph above, I'm not really sure what to call them. "Woke" has become almost entirely pejorative, so I get why they may not appreciate my use of the word, despite the effort to blunt its impact with scare quotes.

The problem, I worry, may be deeper than this. It may very well be that the people who hold to the loose constellation of commitments otherwise known as "wokeness" don't want to be called anything at all. This makes dialogue difficult, because it's not clear who to have the dialogue with. Is there really anyone who's willing to defend, for example, race-based rationing of potentially lifesaving COVID treatments? After I wrote a piece about it for The Atlantic, I  found almost no one who was willing to defend such policies on their merits, and perhaps understandably so. Who wants to defend the indefensible? Yet these ideas are quite real, and they've been reflected in the actual (and not merely imaginary) policies of various hospital systems and public health departments spanning at least six states.

All of this raises an intriguing question: How do you fight back against policies that no one actually admits to supporting? A recent post by Freddie DeBoer, a leftist critic of wokeness, crystallized the dilemma for me. I couldn't quite put my finger on what made the whole debate around race and medicine slippery and slightly out of reach. It was frustrating, but maybe it's supposed to be frustrating. I started to feel like I was being gaslit. If no one actually self-identifies as woke and no one's willing to defend the starting premises that lead to various woke policies, then maybe I was imagining that this was real when it really wasn't. But I wasn't imagining it. And so we find ourselves in an unusual position, and one that—at least in my lifetime—has no real precedent: "A large, complex, and profoundly influential element in our political debate lacks a name that anyone within that element will answer to." DeBoer calls this "Voldemorting," which apparently has something to do with Harry Potter (I once wrote about this phenomenon as it related to John Kerry refusing to call ISIS by its name. My colleague Will McCants, who co-wrote the piece with me, helpfully had young Harry Potter-reading children).

What is the purpose of Voldemorting? Here it's worth quoting DeBoer at length, because he captures my budding frustration almost perfectly:

Voldemorting has an obvious political purpose: that which you cannot name is made that much harder to discuss, and that which is harder to discuss is harder to criticize. That they would hide within these discursive tricks does not say good things about the content of their politics or their ability to defend them. What's more, the people who act this way seem to think that there is no reason to give their faction a name because what they want isn't politics, it's just "the moral arc of the universe," just progress, just the way things ought to be. There's no need to talk about what they want because their politics are just right.

They don't believe that they have an ideology in the first place. The more that I think about it, the more I'm impressed by this gambit. It's just the way things are, and the way they should be. It's the air one breathes. It's both everywhere and nowhere, always slightly out of reach but quite palpable nonetheless. Like porn, you know wokeness when you see it.

It's similar to how liberals don't recognize liberalism as an ideology, even though it's something many of them believe in just as someone might believe in a religion or some other moral system. At least with liberalism, we have a name. With wokeness, however, it seems we are doomed to discussing and debating something that doesn't exist with people who don't admit to existing.