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On Wokism and Broken Homes


Recently a reader of my piece on David Webb’s book, The Great Taking, wrote me a letter in which he gave a link to an article of interest to him. He quoted this sentence from Webb’s book: “Presently, as we well know, families are divided. People are experiencing a kind of isolation, perhaps not physically, but in spirit and mind,” and referring to the relevant article, proceeded to write that “No one is addressing this breakup of the family, some estimates as high as 27% of adults are estranged from family.” 

This is indeed a phenomenon of concern, and in my response to the reader I surmised that it is probably related to the ‘woke’ agenda, which appears to me to be related to, if not harnessed for the deliberate destruction of the family and family values. Although the article he alluded to does not focus on woke culture, but instead elaborates on strategies that parents of estranged children might pursue to effect a reconciliation with their offspring, I believe that this dismaying alienation between parents and their children is, in all probability, related to woke ideology. So, what is ‘wokeism?’  

Woke culture comprises an ideology, or, if one prefers, a discourse, and a virulent one to boot. One may think of an ideology as a set of ideas, more or less coherently articulated, but with a crucial corollary; namely, that it either explicitly calls for action commensurate with the body of ideas, or it tacitly implies such action. More succinctly one might say that an ideology instantiates meaning in the service of power – something I learnt from social theorist John B. Thompson decades ago. 

A discourse is closely related to an ideology, but entails a shift from ideas to language. One might say that a discourse amounts to asymmetrical power relations embedded in language. The most familiar example of a discourse is probably patriarchy (which is also an ideology; every ideology has a discursive manifestation), as shown in the power-related effects of using ‘mankind’ instead of ‘humankind,’ and masculine pronouns only, instead of both masculine and feminine, in sentences like ‘When a person pushes this button, he will find…’ instead of ‘he or she will find,’ etc.

Such a discourse subliminally entrenches the idea that men have a prior claim to being human than women. Note that this happens at an unconscious level, which is why someone who uses ‘mankind’ instead of ‘humankind’ could (sincerely) argue that it is not ‘intended’ as an implicit devaluation of women. Intention is conscious; discourse functions unconsciously.

What does this have to do with the ideology, or discourse, of wokeism? As an ideology, it is a more-or-less coherent (though arguably questionable) set of ideas; as a discourse it comprises a use of language to promote a certain complex of power relations, while simultaneously disrupting another, traditional framework of power. Its ideological status may be discerned in the aggressive manner that it has shaped (particularly American) academia over at least the last three decades.

This is evident in what an ‘anonymous dissident Women’s Studies PhD’ writes in her chapter, titled ‘The University as the Woke Mission Field’ (in The Abyss of the Woke Cultural Revolution, Book 1, ed. Pierre Riopel and the Team, DIFFUSION BDM INT, 2023; a text I received from a friend, but which I cannot trace on the internet). After having been exposed to the terrain of woke (or as it is also known at American universities, Critical Social Justice) for two decades, she became disillusioned with it, prompting her to write (p. 7): 

I no longer believe that the fundamental ideas of Women’s Studies, and of Critical Social Justice more generally, describe reality; they are at best partial explanations—hyperbolic ideology, not fact-based analysis. I have seen this ideology up close and seen how it consumes and even destroys people, while dehumanizing anyone who dissents. 

I’m sad to say it, but I believe that Critical Social Justice ideology—if not beaten in the war of ideas—will destroy the liberal foundation of American society. By liberal I mean principles including, but not limited to, constitutional republican government, equality under the law, due process, a commitment to reason and science, individual liberty, and freedom—of speech, of the press, and of religion. 

Because Critical Social Justice ideology is now the dominant paradigm in American academia, it has flowed into all other major societal institutions, the media, and even corporations. Far from being counter-cultural, Critical Social Justice ideology is now the cultural mainstream. A diverse spectrum of liberals, libertarians, conservatives, and all others who, to put it bluntly, want the American constitution to continue to serve as the basis for our society have to team up to prevent this ideology from destroying our country. 

The ideological status of wokeism is readily apparent in what this brave woman writes. Its discursive character manifests itself more clearly when she continues (pp. 9–10):

When I began my Ph.D. program in 2013 at a highly ranked university, I began to see that something about my new colleagues was different from what I remembered about my colleagues just a few years earlier. At first, I chalked this up to the fact that I was a handful of years older than most of the students, many of whom had recently completed their undergraduate degrees. They seemed angry, self-righteous, and determined, lacking the intellectual humility that I had admired so much in the friends I’d made in my master’s program. 

I now realize that these students were ‘woke.’ Having spent the past couple of years teaching writing to working-class students, I hadn’t been exposed to Critical Social Justice ideology in some time, and I was surprised to see the inroads it had made in the decade since I’d first encountered it…

Yet I don’t think I fully understand [sic] the authoritarian aspects of woke ideology until after Trump won the 2016 election. In late 2016 and early 2017, I witnessed shocking behavior from my colleagues, who began attacking Republicans, white people, conservatives, and Christians as oppressors. They attacked free speech, saying that some people did not deserve a platform because they were engaging in ‘hate speech.’ 

I argued that there isn’t a clear definition of what constitutes hate speech; and that the constitution protects all speech, save for incitement to imminent lawless action. For saying this, I was attacked as stupid, a bad person, a ‘right-winger.’ Early in Trump’s administration, one of my colleagues said that political violence was justified as a response to his ‘evil’ policies. While I’m no fan of Trump, I oppose violence—a basic principle I thought that all Americans shared. It was in this context that I became disillusioned with the ideology in which I had been immersed for years.

A discourse analysis of these passages reveals the undisguised status of wokeism as a discourse hellbent on using language overtly and aggressively to disempower anyone who questions its legitimacy. This comes across in particularly the third and fourth paragraphs, above. From this one may gather that woke ideology (and discourse) arrogates to itself the right to denounce, self-righteously, any person, group, discourse, written text, or cultural artifact which it deems to stand in the way of what it misleadingly calls progressive thinking or social justice. And the point is: it does so without the willingness, for centuries the hallmark of civilised behaviour, to debate the merits of any of its claims.

Orwell Goode provides an illuminating thumbnail sketch of wokeism as a philosophy, which conspicuously casts it in a somewhat more favourable light than the actions of the intolerant ‘wokies’ alluded to by the disillusioned, incognito, ex-woke writer, above (2020, p. 47): 

WOKE. Woke is to be awakened to subtler, nuanced, politics on the hard left side of the aisle. To be woke is to be on the left of progress. To be woke is to reject heteronormativity (where heterosexual pair-bonded couples are the norm), whiteness, eurocentrism, imperialism, -phobias, -isms, socially constructed hierarchies, etc. Social Justice Warriors often consider themselves ‘woke,’ but being ‘woke’ goes beyond mere social justice. To be woke is to claim a heightened state of social consciousness, a new post-enlightenment enlightenment deconstructing most pre-existing pro-Western norms. 

In fact, Goode’s characterisation of this phenomenon makes it sound downright respectable, were it not for the inclusion of the concept (albeit qualified) ‘enlightenment,’ which makes a mockery of the historical meaning of the term, given that it rejects the very notion of ‘reason,’ and the the constitutive role played by European thought in its conceptualisation. But at least, on the whole, his ‘definition’ makes some sense, except for his erroneous use of the term, ‘deconstructing,’ a poststructuralist reading strategy which is all too often used so loosely as to obscure completely what it means. 

This is more than can be said of some writers on wokeism. In the book referred to earlier, edited by Riopel (The Abyss of the Woke Cultural Revolution, p. 34), James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, writing on the ‘Origins of the woke ideology,’ claim that wokeness originated from Marxism and postmodernism, singling out the Marxist idea of ‘false consciousness’ (actually the concept Marxists employ to designate ideology) and the putatively post-modernist notion of ‘fabricated narratives.’

They do this to argue that ‘postmodern’ French philosophers (like Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard) regard everything we know as ‘a construct of power’ – they supposedly ‘believed all knowledge was created and corrupted by power.’ Needless to point out, this is overly simplistic; while most philosophers since Plato have acknowledged the link between knowledge and power (Foucault talks about ‘power-knowledge’), this sweeping statement would undermine all claims to knowledge, their own (and wokeism’s) included. 

Besides, Marx’s philosophy as social critique is far more than claims about false consciousness – it affords one the critical means to analyse many social, cultural, and economic phenomena. Moreover, the three French philosophers referred to are not postmodernists, but poststructuralists, which denotes something entirely different from the former concept. Even postmodernism is not monolithic, but includes two kinds – critical postmodernism (which later evolved into poststructuralism) and reactionary (‘anything goes’) postmodernism (which is where woke ideology belongs). It is ill-advised to talk fast and loose about complex phenomena. 

Hence, what does the preceding discussion of woke ideology tell us about the apparently deteriorating relationship between (grown-up) children and their parents today? Recall that the person who sent me the link to the article about adult child estrangement from their parents referenced one of the things associated with woke thinking, namely Marxism, being used (he claimed) by various people such as therapists and influencers. This is probably accurate, keeping in mind that, like (at least some) professors who advance the connection between the two, such people are likely to be oversimplifying, as I have indicated above.

The article itself lists divergence of values between yesteryear and the present as a probable source of present parent-child estrangement. Traditionally, it points out, parents and family ties were respected, whereas today priority is given to individual identity and happiness, self-esteem, and personal growth. Again, this historical comparison appears to me to be correct, but I do get the feeling that the writer (Batya Swift Yasgur) does not consistently think in historical terms. 

Situate everything that Yasgur has written in the context of the rise of woke culture over the last three or more decades, then it is highly likely that many younger adults would have been influenced to some degree by its tenets. Even if one is not consciously focused on an increasingly prominent phenomenon in the cultural landscape – such that it would appear in the mainstream news intermittently – through a process akin to cultural ‘osmosis’ one is likely to assimilate its cultural and social implications. 

Unless this were so, it would be hard to comprehend the – no doubt programming-dependent – response of ChatGPT to the question of Wokeism’s impact upon family values, put to it by data scientist Amit Sarkar. The AI responded by stating that, ‘while wokeism does challenge established norms, it’s an oversimplification to say that it “destroys” family values.’ This generalisation being hard to verify in precise terms notwithstanding, from all I have written so far it would be counterintuitive to deny it – although one might argue that a left-leaning bias can be detected in the AI’s response. 

On the contrary, when one notices news of a summit on national conservatism, including family values and the ‘war on woke,’ on the Euractiv website, it suggests that the axiological effects of wokeism have become sufficiently pervasive to warrant political attention at the ‘highest’ level. Is it at all surprising, then, that woke could function like a social catalyst to foreground the differences between the older generation and their adult children concerning fundamental values, including those pertaining to gender, race, oppression, whiteness, and so on? It is not impossible (nor even improbable) for adult children to project feelings of guilt about such issues, inculcated by the frequency with which they feature in the media, onto their parents. 

The issue of transgenderism – one of the most controversial aspects of woke ideology – is currently proving to be a hugely divisive matter. When one reads reports such as the following, it drives home the significance of the split between woke-supporters and woke-opponents in no uncertain terms:

Abigail Shrier’s book, Irreversible Damage, about the social contagion of transgender ideation affecting teenage girls across America, had recently been pulled from Target, and Amazon was considering doing the same.

 Amazon had already removed a 2019 book by Ryan T. Anderson When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. Several Amazon employees quit when Shrier’s book was reinstated on the site.

Apparently, the influence of (far left) woke ideology on people’s perceptions and social relations generally cannot be underestimated. When individuals are willing to quit their jobs, and when, at the other end of the political spectrum, woke is approached through the discourse of bellicosity, it is not far-fetched to assume that it is bound to have a negative impact, at least in some cases, on the relationships between parents and their adult children. 

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  • Bert Olivier

    Bert Olivier works at the Department of Philosophy, University of the Free State. Bert does research in Psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, ecological philosophy and the philosophy of technology, Literature, cinema, architecture and Aesthetics. His current project is 'Understanding the subject in relation to the hegemony of neoliberalism.'

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