Whenever one uses the term "woke" or "wokeness" in public, some people will argue that those terms are either meaningless or that they are conservative dog whistles--even though plenty of woke people use them. Before getting to the topic of this post I want to try to define it.
Wokeness in my opinion can be defined both specifically and generally, and I will begin with some key specifics relating to three categories: race, gender (that is, relations between men and women), and gender identity. The woke position on race holds that racial oppression is a key founding aspect of American life that persists to this day. Such oppression, it holds, is the only reason why white people have more money and power than black people and Hispanics. (Certain other minorities are now doing better than white people.) Apostles of wokeness like Robin DiAngelo argue that white people don't even understand their own contributions to racism and need training on this point. Wokeness favors large-scale reparations to correct for centuries of oppression. It also regards the criminal justice system as a conscious strategy to lock up black men.
Regarding gender, wokeness holds that the oppression of women by men is fundamental to our society in the same way, and that it, like racial oppression, relies largely on stereotypes of male and female behavior. As with race, this view holds that oppression is the only reason for different average outcomes in men's and women's lives, such as the underrepresentation of women at the top of the corporate hierarchy or in STEM.
And as for gender identity, the woke position is that being a man, a woman, or something different from either one--a "non-binary" identity--is a purely emotional concept, not determined by the body with which one has been born. Going further, its proponents argue that anyone who rejects the gender normally represented by their body has the right to change their body to match their preferred gender, if necessary, and should be encouraged to do so, even before the ages of 18 or 21.
Moving to the more general, woke people tend to regard the whole intellectual, social and cultural apparatus of western civilization as an oppressive machine, because it has promoted a different set of ideas about race, the role of the two sexes, and the issue of gender identity. This tends to discredit any ideas about almost anything that anyone had before about 1968, when the ideas behind wokeness began to break into the mainstream. And last but hardly least, the woke believe that their views are the only moral views on any issue that they care about, that therefore, that other views and those who hold them are simply oppressors with no right to a public platform to express themselves. For the record, I am coming to believe that that part of wokeness--its desperate attempt to silence any critics--reveals an unconscious suspicion that the ideas to which its adherents have dedicated their lives might not be true after all. Opposing views, in my opinion, do not frighten people who are confident of the truth that much.
Now when I returned to the Boston area in 2012, I was delighted to begin receiving both the New York Times and the Boston Globe on my doorstep every morning--but in the intervening years I have wondered on many days why I bother, since they both have included so much woke content, strongly influenced by the above assumptions, so often. This peaked, of course, during the racial controversy of 2020, when a long-time New York Times editor lost his job for greenlighting an unwoke op-ed on urban rioting by a United States Senator. Coincidentally I just discussed the influence of wokeness at another major newspaper, the Washington Post, last week. Today, however, the opinion sections of both my daily papers feature very unwoke articles on two of the three critical topics that I identified above--suggesting to me that their editorial leadership might have realized that the pendulum has swung much too far in one direction and that opposing views now have to be given more weight.
The Globe piece is written by a great favorite of mine, the podcaster Coleman Hughes, who, I believe, is only twenty-seven years old. He grew up in the very integrated community of Montclair, New Jersey, with a black father and a Puerto Rican mother, and entered Columbia University around 2014 or so. He was appalled by the wokeness of much of the education he received there, began writing for Quellette, and now is a very successful podcaster to whom I have been listening to for about four years, and which now numbers 173,000 subscribers. He combines wide-ranging curiosity and a very logical mind with an extraordinarily even emotional keel, and he has introduced me, via his podcast, to many interesting younger people such as Katie Herzog and the twitter sensation Aella, The Globe piece is adapted from his new book, The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America. That book is a new manifesto, putting forth both a severe critique of the woke racial view and a powerful alternative one. Authors such as Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, and Ta Na-hesi Coates, he argues, claim that race is nothing but a social construct, yet insist upon making it the foundation of their world view and of public policy. He calls them "neoracists," and I hope that word catches on. And typically, this child of western civilization recognizes that human beings naturally separate themselves into groups, but also prescribes the antidote which can enable us to live together and thrive. I quote:
"Humans have an inbuilt tribal instinct — a tendency to identify strongly with a group, to aim empathy inward toward its members and suspicion and hatred outward. That tendency appears to be baked into each of us at a biological level. That is our 'hardware.' The question is whether we use our 'software' — cultural ideas, early childhood education, political discourse, art, media, entertainment, and so forth — to amplify our natural tendencies or tamp down on them. The neoracist mindset, wittingly or not, amplifies them."
And here, he quotes two prominent thinkers from the past in support of his view of colorblindness as an ideal:
“'The significant thing about a man is not his specificity but his fundamentum, not the texture of his hair or the color of his skin but the texture and quality of his soul,' King said.
"Likewise, on the subject of interracial marriage, King objected to the term itself. 'Properly speaking,' he wrote, 'races do not marry; individuals marry.'
"Another great antiracist, Zora Neale Hurston, author of the classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, opposed any concept that would subordinate individuals to groups. 'Races have never done anything,' she wrote in her autobiography. 'What seems race achievement is the work of individuals.' Notions like race pride, race consciousness, and even racial solidarity, she argued, are fictions that people accept because they appeal to base instincts."
It's great news that the Penguin Group, one of our largest publishers, has taken The End of Race Politics on, and its also good news that the Globe decided to excerpt it. That hardly indicates a revolution in the Globe editorial offices. The same Ideas section includes a column by perhaps its most woke columnist, Renée Graham, protesting attacks on Representative Cori Bush of Missouri and other black women as racist and sexist. "For many Republicans," she writes, "this policing is about shaming and silencing Black women. These attacks have less to do with what or how something is said. The perceived offense is when Black women dare to speak at all or bring their full selves into corridors that have historically been spaces dominated by white men." But I was genuinely surprised to find Hughes's piece in the paper all the same. The times may be a-changin'.
The New York Times piece that caught my eye today is by an opinion writer, Pamela Paul--although it is very well-researched and well-reported. "Ad Kids, They Thought They Were Trans," it is entitled. "They No Longer Do." This is not the first time that Paul or the Times have questioned the new ideology of gender and its application, but it is by far the most forthright. Paul distinguishes the "gender dysphoria" that some people have felt from earliest childhood from something newer, which she calls "rapid-onset gender dysphoria." This reflects the view which I have heard powerfully articulated by both Katie Herzog and Coleman Hughes that social contagion, much of it through social media, is largely responsible for the explosion of gender transitions among young people in the last decade or so. And many of these young people--including some who have had major surgery to "affirm" their new chosen gender--now feel they had made a mistake. Several witnesses told her they transitioned because it seemed easier to change their gender than simply to acknowledge that they were gay. This is a very important point: because most educated older Americans accept gay people completely, they assume that children and teenagers feel the same way, but self-acceptance for gay ones may still pose big challenges. Many other kids questioning their gender are suffering from autism or depression. These are not new ideas, and many parents have reacted skeptically when their teen-agers suddenly announce that they have decided that are living in the wrong body. What is shocking and well-documented in the article, however, is that the American medical establishment appears largely to have been converted to the idea that teens suffering from gender dysphoria are at risk for suicide and should be encouraged to take medical steps to "affirm" their new view of themselves immediately. European countries, including the UK, have become more skeptical. I checked Twitter quickly, and Paul's piece has unleased violent opposition as well as a good deal of praise. As with the Globe, this is only one piece. If the New York Times ever found the courage to renounce the 1619 Project I would be far more impressed. But both of these pieces confirm a place for forthright, systematic unwoke arguments in leading newspapers, and in the crazy world of 2024, that is good news.