opinion | What it means to be awakened
This week, conservative writer Bethany Mandel had a moment that can happen to anyone who makes a living in the public eye: While promoting a new book criticizing progressivism, she was asked by an interviewer to use the term “awake.” define – a reasonable question, but one that froze her brain and tripped her words. The Viral clip, in turn, provided a wealth of arguments about the word itself: Can it be meaningfully defined? Is it just right devaluation? Is there a universally accepted label for what it is trying to describe?
The answers are yes, sometimes and unfortunately no. Of course there is something true to describe: The revolution within American liberalism is a crucial ideological transformation of our time. But unlike a case like “neoconservatism,” where a critical term was then accepted by the movement it described, our climate constitutes ideological hostility fixed nomenclature difficult.
Personally, I like the term “Great Awakening,” which recalls the roots of the new progressivism in Protestantism—but obviously secular progressives find it condescending. I guess like the British writer Dan Hitchens acknowledges the difficulty of definitions by calling the new left politics “the Thing” – but that is unlikely to catch on with truly believing Thingitarians.
So let me try another exercise – instead of a succinct term or definition, let me write a sketch of the “awakened” worldview and work out its inner logic, as if I believe it myself. (To the unwary reader: These are not my actual beliefs.)
What is America at its best about? equality and freedom. What is the left about in the best sense? Transforming these ideals into lived realities.
But this project keeps coming up against limits, disappointments and defeats. Terrible inequalities exist everywhere you look. And that persistence should compel us, beyond attempts to gain legal rights or redistribute wealth, to look deeper into the cultural and psychological fabrics that perpetuate oppression before law and politics come into play. This is what the Academy’s terminology has long attempted to describe — the way generations of racist, homophobic, sexist, and heteronormative power have inscribed themselves not only in our laws but also in our psyches.
And once you see these forces in action, you can’t lose sight of them – you’re, well, “awake” – and you can’t accept any analysis that doesn’t recognize how they pervade our lives.
This means, first, rejecting any argument about group differences that emphasizes forces other than racism or sexism or other systems of oppression. (Indeed, the actual measurement of differences — for example, through standardized tests — is itself inevitably shaped by these oppressive forces.) Even differences that seem most obviously biological, such as the differences between male and female athletes or the bodies that people find sexually attractive, should probably be culturally inscribed in the first place – for how can we know what is truly biological until we are done freeing people from the oppressive constraints of gender stereotypes?
It also means rejecting or modifying the rules of liberal proceduralism, for under conditions of deep oppression these supposed freedoms are inherently oppressive. You cannot have an effective principle of non-discrimination unless you first discriminate in favor of the oppressed. You can’t have real freedom of speech unless you first silence some oppressors.
And all of this is necessarily a cultural and psychological project, which is why schools, media, pop culture and language themselves are the major battlegrounds. Yes, economic policy is important, but material arrangements are secondary to culture and psychology. The socialists have only softened capitalism, the environmentalists have only regulated it. Anyone who wants to save the planet or end the rule of greed needs another human being, not just a system that embraces racist-patriarchal values and tries to rein them in.
You think that’s too utopian? Consider a proof of concept of what we’ve already seen with gay rights. There the left overthrew a system of deep heteronormative oppression by establishing a new cultural consensus, in academia and pop culture and only finally in politics and law, but also with arguments Shame, social pressure and other “illiberal” means.
And see what we’ve learned: as homophobia subsides, millions upon millions of young people will begin to define themselves for who they really are, as a form of LGBTQ+, and finally shed the shackles of heteronormativity. It is for this reason that the backlash against the spread of transgender identification among children must be defeated – for this is the beachhead, the testing ground for full emancipation.
If you find much of this narrative compelling, even filtered through my conservative mind, then it probably describes you, whatever “awakened” describes.
If you shy away from it, welcome to the ranks of the unawakened.
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https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/18/opinion/woke-definition.html opinion | What it means to be awakened