Two new columns, and a definition and exposition of “wokeness”

October 12, 2021 • 12:00 pm

Reader Paul called my attention to a “newsletter” on Arc Digital by journalist Cathy Young; it started in April and I overlooked it, though a) she writes very well and is thoughtful and b) it covers topics that many of us are concerned with (check out the list of columns here). Some of the content is free while other stuff requires a subscription. As always, if you’re a frequent reader you should subscribe.

Young’s column, “Defining Wokeness”, is free, and answers a challenge posed by a senior correspondent on the wokey Vox site:

Click to see her column:

Young takes up the challenge and lists what she sees as the defining characteristics of wokeness, many of which are also the defining characteristics of Critical Race Theory. She expands on each of them, but I’ll just give the list. If you want a reference post on what “wokeness” really is, this is a pretty good one.

Her “core tenets”:

Modern Western societies are built on pervasive “systems of oppression,” particularly race- and gender-based.

Everyone who belongs to a non-oppressed category in some core aspect of identity (white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, Christian, non-immigrant) possesses “privilege,” enjoys unearned benefits at the expense of the oppressed, and is implicated in oppression. 

Because various oppressions are so deeply embedded in everything around us, all actions that do not actively challenge it actively perpetuate it.Challenging oppression and inequality requires not only combating injustices and reforming or dismantling oppressive institutions, but eradicating the unconscious biases we have all learned.

Challenging oppression and inequality requires not only combating injustices and reforming or dismantling oppressive institutions, but eradicating the unconscious biases we have all learned. Language plays a key role in perpetuating oppression, and must be reformed and controlled to achieve equality.

Language plays a key role in perpetuating oppression, and must be reformed and controlled to achieve equality.

Social justice advocacy must be intersectional—that is, must support all movement-approved forms of advocacy for oppressed identities.

Moral judgments of virtually any situation should be based primarily on where the people involved stand in the power/privilege hierarchy.

Ancillary tenets

All claims and accounts of identity-based oppression, abuse, or prejudice must be accorded the presumption of belief; to challenge or deny them is oppressive. 

The privileged can easily harm people with marginalized identities by “appropriating” their voices or aspects of their culture such as dress or food.Institutions and cultural products are irrevocably tainted by historical connections to oppressive practices or bigoted beliefs, whose effects remain deeply embedded.

Western civilization (loosely defined as Europe and the “Anglosphere” of North America and Australia) is uniquely brutal and oppressive.

I would add two more tenets here, which are really subtenets of the ones above:

Science and its methods are not better at arriving at truth than are personal “lived experiences”. If data contradicts one of the tenets above, the data are to be ignored.

Freedom of speech is overrated, and in fact should be suppressed if it causes harm to those seen as oppressed. One form of “harm” is simple offense. 

If you have other tenets to add, by all means list them below.

Young then discusses at length the consequences of these tenets, and not all are bad. As she says:

One reason “wokeness” or “social justice” has fairly wide appeal, at least in its more moderate guises, is that many of its ideas contain partial truths. Racism, sexism, and other bigotries have an ugly history and are still with us, and we should strive to overcome them. If you advocate for a minority group, you should also favor human rights for other groups. Small indignities based on membership in a traditionally disadvantaged group can have a damaging effect, especially if they accumulate. Entertainment, literature, and everyday language can normalize insidious biases, accidentally or not. Humor that feels innocuous when directed at the majority (“All these white girls look alike!”) can become odiously bigoted when it “punches down” at a minority that has been the target of prejudice and discrimination.

This is correct; the sentiments behind most (not all) social justice initiatives are admirable. What I decry is when they are taken to such extremes that they become counterproductive: moving people right into the clutches of the Right—and perhaps another Trump victory. And that’s what Young spends the rest of her piece on:

However, Social Justice takes such ideas to bizarre extremes increasingly detached from common sense and reality.

There’s a long list of examples of the extremes; I’ll give just one:

But perhaps the most alarming aspect of Social Justice, as far as its effect on a liberal society, is the extent to which this ideology provides a justification for pervasive, quasi-totalitarian policing of speech, thought, and private behavior.

The language seems hyperbolic, since “wokists” are not throwing anyone in the gulag. But Social Justice is totalitarian in spirit in the same way that Trumpism is authoritarian: at least for now, both, fortunately, lack the power to enforce their will.

For one thing, Social Justice demands de facto banishment of “wrongthink” from the public square. Plenty of political movements seek to silence critics and dissenters; but Social Justice makes such silencing a moral imperative, since “bad” ideas and words are seen as inflicting “harm” or “violence.” For instance, during the 2020 controversy over the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” published in Harper’s magazine, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp essentially argued that views such as Rowling’s are too detrimental to transgender people to be allowed in mainstream venues. (Rowling has written that while transgender people should have full respect and equality, the reality of biological sex should not be denied and debate on difficult issues—from access to single-sex spaces to transition for minor children—should not be suppressed.)

The Social Justice view of the harms of speech was even more starkly stated three years ago by activists who tried to shut down an event with Christina Hoff Sommers, a feminist who critiques feminist claims about “rape culture” and the wage gap, at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. In their statement, the activist students wrote with the certitude of zealots who have found Truth:

We now understand how language works, and how it can be used to reproduce the systems of oppression we know we must resist at all costs. … Free speech is certainly an important tenet to a free, healthy society, but that freedom stops when it has a negative and violent impact on other individuals. There is no debate here.

The column well repays reading; I’m impressed with Young, whom I haven’t read before. Here’s her ending, dealing with an issue I’m accused of not infrequently:

Many will say that it’s frivolous to focus on the “woke left” when we face an authoritarian menace from the Trumpian right. But you can be against two forms of illiberalism at the same time—especially when they reinforce each other. If nothing else, the fact that the social justice left demonizes Western liberalism as a cover for racism at the very time that liberalism is under attack from the equally grievance-obsessed populist right should give us pause.

If you want her analysis of a specific woke fracas, read her other recent piece (click on screenshot below), about an incident I’ve mentioned in passing:



One of our readers has started a new website on Substack, “Roseland, Chicago, 1972“. It’s a gemisch of a few components. One is an eponymous novel, of which a little more will appear each week (first chapter here). Another bit is a weekly compilation (from 50 years ago) of the columns of legendary Chicago journalist Mike Royko, who wrote for all three major Chicago newspapers over 30 years, producing about 7,500 columns and nabbing a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. There’s also a summary of what was happening in Chicago newspapers 50 years back from the day of the post. Finally, there’s also a social media presence:

Meanwhile, I will take to social media, and hope you’ll follow for new features there. On Twitter, and soon on Facebook and Instagram, I will post two items daily: THIS CRAZY DAY IN 1972, and MIKE ROYKO 50 YEARS AGO TODAY. The first one will cull interesting items from all five of Chicago’s major daily papers in 1972—technically in 1971 until we reach January 1. For the second item, any day 50 years ago that Mike Royko wrote a column for the Chicago Daily News, you’ll find a short synopsis and snappy quote.

Why? Because 1972 was still part of the ancient times when everybody read newspapers, even kids. More on this in Chapter Three. Steve’s family read the Daily News, and the Daily News meant Mike Royko. Also, it’s both infuriating and funny to read about 1972, in real time, as it happened, in the press.

Our Twitter and Instagram handles are @RoselandChi1972. The title of the Facebook page is Roseland, Chicago: 1972,

34 thoughts on “Two new columns, and a definition and exposition of “wokeness”

  1. There is an alternative take on Wokeism and Trumpism. The way the current world works, elected officials do not do the bidding of the people or even their own supporters. Because politics can solve no actual problems for actual people, “politicalness” goes into empty performative gestures, rather than substantive changes in laws or social relations. It makes people feel like something important can happen if everyone starts announcing their pronouns, when, of course, in the real world everything stays on the same grim course.

    There are parallels to the Soviet Union, but the Stalinist Terror was well into the Revolution, when it was abundantly clear that the State was in no danger of withering away, and people got mass starvation and poverty instead of social revolution. The regime had no democratic accountability, and was just as happy to shoot or imprison people as it was to provide them with housing or abortions.

    People view “totalitarianism” as a system of politics, but it may be a system of de-politicization, as the masses and the army really matter going into the revolution, and then as the regime consolidates, don’t matter anymore. What to do with that popular energy, if not purges and crimethink enforcement, to keep them busy, keep them scared, and keep them from revolting.

    1. Because politics can solve no actual problems for actual people, “politicalness” goes into empty performative gestures, rather than substantive changes in laws or social relations.

      Tell that to a woman trying to get an abortion in Texas.

      1. Ah, but no one expected the Supreme Court not to enjoin it. So on occasion, politics can happen by accident if legislators misread the judiciary.

        1. Actually, those who crafted it, as well as those of us who have been hollering about this, very much expected them to not enjoin it. We saw this coming years away.

        2. It was politics what put the people wearing the robes on the bench. And, as Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley said over a century ago, “the Supreme Court follows the election returns.”

          True it is that politics is not the be-all and end-all it’s too often made out to be. And, lord knows, way too much of it IS strictly performative. But, on occasion, it can have a major impact on the lives of ordinary citizens. Obamacare, for example, afforded millions more Americans access to healthcare. And the reconciliation bill pending in congress would lift millions of children out of poverty. That ain’t nuthin’.

          1. Its not nothing, but if you look at the transformative legislation you saw during the Progressive Era in the early 20th Century, and the stuff FDR passed, and even Johnson, and the crappy half-loafs that get whittled down to a stale bread crust today, it kind of make sense that politics becomes mostly symbolic and performative, rather than about solving any kind of policy problems, even if wrongly.

            We have a minimum wage, but if we didn’t, I don’t see how you could get it through Congress today. You certainly can’t raise it to a decent working wage. Worker’s Comp, if it didn’t exist, would just end up being a tax payer subsidized hand out to insurance companies like Obamacare.

          2. Okay, I’ll accept that. But you’ve moved the goalposts a bit from the seemingly universal declaration in your initial comment.

  2. I really liked Cathy Young’s nuanced treatment of the Bright Sheng case and also the comment by her reader Robert Eno and Cathy’s response. Measured discourse without hysteria, histrionics, personal animus and heavy partisanship.

  3. Thank you. As a former feminist, leftist, academic, the woke Lleft is now almost as disturbing as the Trump Right. They are becoming mirrors of each other in their desire to suppress reasonable debate and free speech.

  4. During World War II, the western democracies of the United States and Great Britain, led by FDR and Churchill respectively, allied with Stalin’s Soviet Union to defeat Hitler and fascism. Did these two leaders ally with Stalin because they thought he was a fine fellow and Soviet communism was a not so bad socio-economic system? No. Did they stand on the sidelines, criticizing both fascism and communism, and doing nothing to help either side? No. What they realized is that leaders have sometimes to make difficult choices. They made the correct determination that at that time in history fascism was clearly the most immediate threat to democracy and world stability. The threat of communism and how to deal with it was to be left for another day. This being the case, they provided the Soviet Union with an abundance of aid and refrained from saying bad things about Stalin.

    We have an analogous situation today. People must ask themselves these questions. The first is: does trumpism represent an immediate and existential threat to democracy and liberal values? The second is: does wokeism represent an immediate and existential threat to democracy and liberal values? Notice the word “immediate” in these questions. If the answers are “no” to both questions then I think those people are living in a world of delusion. If the answers are “yes” to both questions then they have their work cut for themselves in attempting to thwart two powerful forces viewed as equally bad or at least their ‘badnesses” are not of significant difference. If the answers are “yes” to one question and “no” to another then as FDR and Churchill did, the effort must be to crush the immediate threat and leave the other to be fought when the threat from the immediate one is over. For myself, the answer to first question is “yes” and the second one is “no.”

    1. Your calculus in choosing the first makes sense from an historical perspective but it comes at the very real risk of being overwhelmed by the second, either due complacency or an incorrect assessment of the actual risks. IMO, I don’t believe we’ll be able to fight off either, no matter the order they are taken on.

    2. does trumpism represent an immediate and existential threat to democracy and liberal values? The second is: does wokeism represent an immediate and existential threat to democracy and liberal values?

      What is democracy? Do we live in a democracy? Did Trump represent an immediate and existential threat to corporate lobbyists and high net wealth Americans or business-as-usual in Congress? I would say no.

      Liberal values? Do we have “liberal values”, or as a society do we have transactional values? Did Trump represent a threat to transactional values, or is he the embodiment of them?

      Does wokeism present a threat to the oligarchy and its transactional values (humans as inter-replaceable parts), no.

      The question is can we imagine a possibility beyond a pod people subsisting in a gig economy, and its not clear that trumpism or wokeism are a solution, they are just two sides of the same coin.

      1. “Two sides of the same coin.” Agreed. I hope GCM will come by to reprise his pithy summary from last year (?) when he wrote here that woke neoliberals are ok with 1% of the people owning half the wealth so long as 13% of the 1% are Black.

    3. Historian, you conclude that Trumpism represents a more immediate threat than wokism. I would counter that it represents merely the more obvious threat. Americans are essentially sentimental. They are easily swayed by appeals to altruism and high-sounding catch phrases such as “social justice.” They do not, however, respond favorably to goose-stepping, which is essentially what Trumpism translates to. For that reason, I would argue that the less subtle threat is the more dangerous one and warrants more constant vigilance.

        1. You’re quite right mirandaga. The threat that represent wokism is very subtle and it is by design. It comes from a long and careful analysis of different ways to subvert western culture and societies by various leftwing academics ideologues over decades. It is probably (much) more dangerous than Trumpism. At least we know the kind of society that Trump likes (something vaguely similar to 1950’s America). However, the equality of outcome utopia that wokism is pursuing is certainly vastly more sinister but much more abstract and ill-defined, and therefore perhaps less frightening to many people since they don’t have directly experienced anything like it, at least not in the US.

          I’m always surprised how some people seem to really think that Trump had any real plan and any real chance of establishing himself as dictator of the USA. That seems to me to be quite over the top. I understand that it felt like this could happen for a moment in the immediate aftermath of the last election, but in retrospect, this fear now seems irrational and paranoid to me.

  5. I started reading newpaper columns in 1972, when Buchwald was giving us his take on Watergate. My source was the Grand Forks Herald, which I delivered after school. Mike Royko was one of the other syndicated columnists. If they are included in the substack, it’s worth checking out.

  6. “Free speech is certainly an important tenet to a free, healthy society, but that freedom stops when it has a negative and violent impact on other individuals. There is no debate here.” Precisely how the trans activists tried to shut down debate about gender recognition in the UK, using the hashtag No Debate.

  7. I am pleased to see Arc Digital on Substack, and I just subscribed to it, thanks! I used to subscribe to it on Medium, but I gave Medium up as a new year’s resolution this year, since, though it started with great promise several years ago, it had become the hangout for journalistic wannabes and literary poseurs who think crying “woe is us’ all the time indicates profundity of thought.

  8. I’m going to be brave enough to disagree (respectfully) with something you wrote, Jerry!
    “What I decry is when they are taken to such extremes that they become counterproductive: moving people right into the clutches of the Right—and perhaps another Trump victory.”

    I’d prefer to say the antidote to one extreme is not the other extreme. Just because I can see through Trump as a preening, empty-headed blowhard doesn’t mean I’ll automatically sign up as a true believer of all the tenets of social justice and critical race theories. In the same way, we can see the faults in the woke point of view, but that doesn’t imply we should put on our MAGA hats and foam at the mouth at one of Trump’s Nuremberg wannabees. There’s a lot of room in the middle for reasonable people!
    There does seem to be a tendency for people who oppose one extreme to counter it by going as far as they can in the opposite direction, which I guess is the essence of the political ‘polarisation’ we are seeing. And that’s not just an American phenomenon; politics in many European nations has gone the same way, and I could cite Brexit as a prime example. Is that a generational issue, or a lack of sophistication from failed education, tribalism or what? I don’t know, but a political party interested in winning rather than posturing has yet to discover a simple truth: if you want to beat an extreme rival, the best position to adopt is to be less extreme, but not the polar opposite. That way you get the votes of your side, plus some of the other’s. This not centrism, but a cynical and measured game theory way of maximising your chance of winning. Now that doesn’t sound like the kind of party I want in charge of anything, but something or someone has to break the deadlock of political tribalism. I don’t care for The Squad, nor for Trump, not for the PPC or the NDP in Canada, not the BNP nor Momentum in the UK. Why should there not be someone in between who speaks for the silent majority (pace Nixon)?

  9. Wait, isn’t it true, for example, that most societies today were built on oppression of women?

    Or is it fine just to sneer ‘woke’ in order to refute that?

    1. The problem with your statement is that it is not a factual assertion, it represents a conclusion.

      Certainly, before modern medicine, given levels of infant and childhood mortality, the only way societies could have a stable or growing population was by woman being delegated to marrying, having lots of children and raising them, with any professional type opportunities limited to the extreme upper class who could afford nannies, etc. Those that didn’t died off.

      Additionally, because of the sex difference with regards to sexual assault, before modern policing, women were primarily protected from rape and retribution for rape was enforced by extended families, which was an extremely dangerous and costly way to do things, and traditional societies evolved very strict restrictions on women’s freedom to avoid losing too many males in vendettas.

      Before modern medicine and modern policing, opportunities for most women were extremely poor, and their freedom, relative to males, was extremely limited. However, I think that the term “oppression” suggests some kind of deliberate campaign against women, the “patriarchy”, etc. However, the first set of restrictions was necessary for group survival, and the second set was because it was too expensive for families to lose productive workers in family vendettas.

      It is interesting that the psychological oppression narrative, if true, would mean that men would continue to enforce “patriarchal” restrictions on women after modern policing came to the fore, where the job of apprehending and prosecuting rapists was the responsibility of professional police, and so families were off the hook. In countries which adopted modern policing, the restrictions on women’s freedom gradually disappeared. Likewise, with modern medicine and labor saving devices, options for women have greatly expanded. Of course, everything above is all false, because it sees biology and the struggle of families and societies to survive as driving social norms, rather than group of bearded male elders sitting around and plotting to invent arbitrary rules to keep the wymen down.

      The funniest development in 2020 was “defund the police”. If the police disappeared for long enough, and sex crimes went unpunished, within a generation families would go back into business, and you would see social norms straight out of the Handmaid’s Tale and the Taliban suddenly reappear. Professional policing is more important to protecting and preserving women’s rights ultimately than abortion. Certainly, if you wanted to revive the patriarchy, the first step would be to get rid of the police and leave it to families to protect their wives and daughters.

  10. So in other words, when someone accuses me of being “woke”, they are arbitrarily attributing all these extreme opinions to me whether I hold them or not.

    If I say that societies throughout the world are, historically, based on systems of oppression against women and that this oppression still exists in varying degrees in most places, and somebody responds by calling me ‘woke’ then it is also automatically assumed that I am anti science? Doesn’t seem very clever to me.

    In fact I have been called “woke” and “terf” sometimes within 5 minutes. Two very similar terms.

  11. Or, to put it another way, the number of people who hold those views described in the article is a vanishingly tiny proportion of the people who regularly get called “woke” so the article does not provide a definition of “woke” as it is regularly used.

    1. Obviously, you can define yourself as you please.

      Do you agree with the tenets outlined by Ms. Young?

      If not, you are probably not woke and you’ll find that out quickly if you bring countering ideas to a discussion with people who do hold those tenets.

      I’ve heard many on the left complain that they don’t find the term “helpful”. (Well there’s an understatement.) Sure: Then stop telling me I should be woke. Or that being woke is something to aspire to. Or that not being woke is something that ought to be a firing offense at an employer.

  12. There is an obvious typo in the second ancillary tenet:

    “Western civilization (loosely defined as Europe and the “Anglosphere” of North America and Australia) is uniquely *non-*brutal and *non-*oppressive.”

    Fixed it.

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