Why does wokeness drive me crazy?

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Dave Chappelle.
Dave Chappelle. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

Nothing irritates me like wokeness.

But why? What is it about a transgender activist on National Public Radio lecturing me about the awfulness of Dave Chappelle's latest Netflix stand-up comedy special that provokes me to shut off the radio? Why am I driven to apoplexy by the story of geophysicist Dorian Abbot getting disinvited from delivering a scientific lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because he also opposes some aspects of affirmative action? How come I feel like screaming when I hear that another climate scientist, David Romps, has resigned as director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center after he tried to invite Abbot to speak there and was rebuffed by colleagues?

The answer isn't obvious.

I know that objecting on principle to "cancel culture" is nonsensical. All cultures rule some moral views out of bounds. I wouldn't have any objection to a company firing an employee for advocating Nazism or defending child molestation. Once that has been conceded, the question becomes not "should cancelation be allowed?" but "should this specific example of cancelation be defended?" And it's not obvious why the specific examples of Chappelle and Abbot should matter to me. I don't know them personally. Chappelle is probably too big to cancel, and I'm not a huge admirer of his comedy. And Abbot's political writing doesn't especially impress me.

I also recognize that plenty of people who get canceled/fired/pushed out of positions for their political views (I'm thinking of David Shor, Bari Weiss, and Andrew Sullivan, among others) end up bounding back to greater success and notoriety than they ever enjoyed before the cancelation.

Then there's the fact that the political reaction to wokeness is often more pernicious than the offense itself, as when Republicans attempt to use state power to police speech and thought in schools and the workplace.

Then why does wokeness nonetheless drive me crazy?

The beginning of an answer can be found in the fact that wokeness makes me feel like I'm attending Sunday school in a denomination and parish I never chose to join. I just turn on the radio or open the paper or scroll through Twitter — and the next thing I know, a finger-wagging do-gooder with institutional power behind him is delivering a sermon, showing me The Way, calling on me to repent, encouraging me to be born again in the moral light.

Why is this antagonizing? Two main reasons.

First, there's the speed of ostensible moral change. In a recent New York Times piece, we learn that Broadway shows are taking advantage of the pandemic pause in performances to make changes to scripts and staging in order to eliminate scenes or gestures that now supposedly offend moral sensibilities. As James Monroe Inglehart, who plays Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton, puts it, "We used to say a show was frozen, but the show is never frozen now…. The shows are evolving, and they will evolve as the world evolves."

But this isn't quite true. As the article also notes, it's standard for adjustments to be made to shows from decades in the past when they are brought back as revivals. What's unique about what's happening now is that "an assortment of hit shows [are] reconsidering their content midrun" — adding disdain toward Jefferson to Sally Hemings' movements in Hamilton, clarifying that one of the characters in Jagged Little Pill is nonbinary, giving more agency to the Ugandan villagers in The Book of Mormon.

This represents an incredible acceleration of change, with a rate of moral development that used to take decades now supposedly taking place in just a handful of years. That's incredibly destabilizing, like trying to remain standing on a cultural tilt-a-whirl without so much as a stable handrail to grab onto. And it's combined with a total lack of reflection on precisely how or why this change is taking place. How can it be that things considered perfectly fine in 2019 have become "problematic" just a year or two later? What is the process involved? How can we know that the new standards currently being imposed and enforced won't be superseded by, say, mid-2023?

That's where the second source of antagonism comes in. As the article about changes on Broadway also notes, those choosing to make alterations to shows "are responding to pressure from artists emboldened by last year's protests, as well as a heated social media culture in which any form of criticism can easily be amplified." So … activists insist on the change, backed up by likeminded social media mobs. That's it? That's the authoritative, trustworthy process by which our common moral world purportedly "evolves" over time?

I'd say that's a pretty inadequate account of morality and social change — though it's one with a long history on the antiliberal left. The theory has two aspects: first, the conviction that whatever is most recent is morally superior, because history inexorably unfolds in the direction of moral progress, with even apparent setbacks serving as a dialectical advance toward an ever-better future; and second, the view that progress is led or directed by a moral vanguard. Vladimir Lenin thought this vanguard would take the form of a revolutionary political party. But there's no reason why it couldn't take a different form, contributing to moral progress by working through those "emboldened" artists and Twitter mobs mentioned by the Times.

Either way, this is a vision of moral change or evolution in which a self-appointed class of moral reformers pronounce judgment on the prevailing views of their time and insist that they change. Some, hoping to end up on the right side of history, will defer to this moral vanguard, acting as the amplifiers and enforcers of its will. Others, morally retrograde members of society, will resist and face denunciation for their recalcitrance. And then the process will continue. What is held out as the cutting edge of moral truth today will inevitably be surpassed and replaced by an even more perfect moral truth tomorrow, or maybe even later this afternoon, with left-wing activists directing the ever-accelerating process every step of the way, ever onward, ever higher.

It should be obvious that this isn't an especially small-d democratic process. It's one in which a single political faction uses a form of moral blackmail to seize control of the cultural reins and then deploys that (often sub-political) power to bring about a certain kind of social change. Its members set themselves up as our moral betters, dictating what's right and wrong, redefining what's socially acceptable and what isn't, determining what's in and what's out of bounds. Never mind that the members of this faction do not command majority support in public opinion, they were never elected to representative office of any kind, and they lack broad-based authority and legitimacy.

Despite that, these moral busybodies profess to exercise a form of sociocultural rule, telling the rest of us how and when we need to change our views of people and groups, our taste in the arts and entertainment (including comedy), and our judgment of scholars and journalists.

No wonder I find it more than a little irritating.

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