Freddie deBoer has some questions

November 9, 2021 • 9:15 am

I’ve recently read a few things by Freddie deBoer, described by Wikipedia as “an American academic and author”, as well as an “author and a socialist,” and so far he looks like a prominent person to follow. Reader cesar clued me into this piece on his eponymous Substack column, which you can read for free. (But remember to subscribe if you keep reading the site.) This is a very short piece so I won’t quote much, but it makes two assertions with a great deal of wit:

1.) Members of the Woke Brigade object to every term, phrase, or definition used to describe them—especially “woke”. (And yes, I know where the word came from.)

2.) They do this on purpose to avoid criticism.

Click to read:

deBoer was prompted to write because of the tweet below from Adam Serwer, a writer for The Atlantic.

I have no idea whether Serwer is woke, but I for one would be glad to explain what I mean: “woke” refers to those people who want to effect social justice (an admirable goal) but do so by either performative, non-effective acts or going to ludicrous extremes of writing or speaking. In general, wokeness either harms or has no effect on true liberalism. Two cases in point: preventing Dorian Abbot from giving a lecture on climate change at MIT, and protesting “Kimono Wednesdays” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  And let’s not forget all those “Grievance Studies” that Pluckrose et al. were mocking: real papers on stuff like the unbearable whiteness of pumpkins, or yogurt, or Pilates, or glaciology. Enough said.


Two excerpts from deBoer, and you’re invited put your own definition of “wokeness” in the comments. I will keep using the word in the sense described above.

. . . no [using] woke, it’s a “dogwhistle” for racism. (The term “dogwhistle” is a way for people to simply impute attitudes you don’t hold onto you, to make it easier to dismiss criticism, for the record.) But the same people say there’s no such thing as political correctness, and they also say identity politics is a bigoted term. So I’m kind of at a loss. Also, they propose sweeping changes to K-12 curricula, but you can’t call it CRT, even though the curricular documents specifically reference CRT, and if you do you’re an idiot and also you’re a racist cryptofascist. Also nobody (nobody!) ever advocated for defunding the police, and if they did it didn’t actually mean defunding the police. Seems to be a real resistance to simple, comprehensible terms around here. Serwer is a guy who constantly demands that he and his allies be allowed to do politics on easy mode, but he’s just part of a broader communal rejection of basic self-definition and comprehensible terms for this political tendency. Also if you say things they don’t like they might try to beat you up. Emphasis on try.

and one more:

The basic stance of the social justice set, for a long time now, has been that they are 100% exempt from ordinary politics. BlackLivesMatter proponents have spent a year and a half acting as though their demand for justice is so transcendently, obviously correct that they don’t have to care about politics. When someone like David Shor gently says that they in fact do have to care about politics, and points out that they’ve accomplished nothing, they attack him rather than do the work of making their positions popular. Well, sooner or later, guys, you have to actually give a shit about what people who aren’t a part of your movement think. Sorry. That’s life. The universe is indifferent to your demand for justice, and will remain so until you bother to try to change minds. Nobody gives you what you want. That’s not how it works. Do politics. Think and speak strategically. Be disciplined. Work harder. And for fuck’s sake, give me a simple term to use to address you. Please? Because right now it sure looks like you don’t want to be named because you don’t want to be criticized.

DeBoer desperately asks readers to give an acceptable term for Wokeness, but I think it’s a losing cause. “Wokeness” has already stuck, and most people have a pretty good idea of what it means. Any attempt to change it will meet the fate of the word “Brights” suggested by Dan Dennett to refer to “philosophical naturalists.” Have you heard anybody use it in the last couple of years except to mock it?

48 thoughts on “Freddie deBoer has some questions

  1. Yes, I saw the pieces yesterday where people now say “woke” is a racist insult. I would say it is an insult, and not racist. I find the entry on Woke/Wokeness at New Discourses to be useful. But I like Peter Boghossian’s definition tweeted yesterday:

    Woke is a derangement syndrome that parasitizes the moral mind. Symptoms include: unfettered urges to destroy western civilization; perpetual offense; perceiving reality exclusively via oppression; viewing oneself as a victim; an inability to defend ideas.

    1. Gad Saad, the Canadian professor who has written an excellent book entitled The Parasitic Mind, would certainly agree both with Boghossian and with James Lindsay, the young mathematician behind New Discourses. Saad, who is very amusing on Twitter, often refers to the anti-rational and incessantly moralizing acolytes, apostles, and apparatchiks in the cult of “wokeness” as the Woke Taliban.

      1. I totally agree with the sentiment, but we need something catchier than “Woke Taliban”—something that rolls off the tongue quicker.

        1. I like Woke Taliban because it has the best chance of being recognized and understood. If the person doesn’t know what “Woke” means these days, then they are unreachable, and everyone knows and hates the Taliban. If you want to shorten it, try “Wokiban”, but I like it as is.

    2. I used “Wokoharam” for a while. It kinda rolls off the tongue but was criticized by a fellow anti-woke person as not being serious enough and possibly misogynist. Maybe because the 2nd part sounds kinda like “harem”? Not sure, she didn’t explain her objection to it. Maybe Wokiban is less subject to miss-understanding, although one would think Bokoharam has been in the news enough to make the former word almost as easy to parse.

      1. I like “Wokoharam” a lot. I don’t know how Bokoharam is supposed to be pronounced but if you pronounced Wokoharam as -hah `rahm, (accent on last syllable, in case my accent marks don’t come out right here), the unintended and non-useful connotation of harem would be avoided. The obviously non-English -haram would force the listener to do the parsing.

        Wokoharam is a keeper!

  2. What a refreshing read – a kind of moment when I wonder why nobody expressed it before.

    … I thought/imagined “woke” originated in colleges/universities where, being students discovering the workings of knowledge behind the curtain of juvenile life, feel as if awakened to the depth and breadth of how things got where they are now.

    The students – or perhaps any working or any other non-student lifestyle – all finding lower barriers to information, feel as in Plato’s allegory of the cave – they feel as if woken up to reality.

      1. Wikipedia :

        Black American folk singer-songwriter Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly, uses the phrase near the end of the recording of his 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys”, which tells the story of nine black teenagers accused of raping two white women, saying: “I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”[7][8]

        (End quote)

        I forgot to add – and this makes a lot of sense to me – the word “woke” is spoken with attitude, with edginess, and can sound hip or “with it”.

        Like “brights”.

    1. The title of that interview is “Could the GOP Become the Party of Women? Sen. Tom Cotton Says it Already Has”. But searching through the article for the word “abortion” draws a blank. That seems to be a pretty egregious oversight, given what’s happening in GOP-run states right now.

      1. Maybe for the women the GOP are trying to reach, it’s not an oversight to omit abortion rights — if it’s not on the radar of your target audience, no sense drawing attention to it yourself. The pro-choice people are either 1) never going to vote for you anyway, for 99 other reasons, or 2) quietly in their hearts pro-choice but willing to compromise so that their born children aren’t told they are evil because they’re white, if that’s the choice that must be made. While many or even most women are pro-choice when they talk to pollsters, the consequences of anti-abortion legislation fall heavily on only a neglectable few of them.

        This second group (plus some non-zero number of anti-‘s) could even convince themselves that if they or their daughters ever needed an abortion they’d be able to get one somehow. Even in Ohio,

  3. This is an old strategy and reflects the fact that so much of wokeness originated in academia.

    “You can’t criticize us because we don’t exist” has been a favorite move of the postmodern/poststructuralist/capital T Theory set for decades, and that includes objecting to any term used to designate them.

    1. Yep. Likewise history and (idea) ownership. Anything we did in the past, or any idea we supported in the past but don’t currently hold, is not us and was never us, because ‘we’ aren’t a thing.

  4. Why not just say ‘PC’? Has anyone really gained anything by replacing the term ‘PC’ with ‘woke’?

    1. I think there are different components to Wokeness that aren’t implied by political correctness, among them the emphasis on racialism.

      1. So it’s just … fourth (?) wave PC. It’s still PC, and it is still a convenient term. We don’t lose anything in holding on to the term. As Abe says below, it’s just the same ol’ thing we’ve seen for 50 years. Once every generation or two, there is a revolutionary movement as a younger generation pretends to reject the older generation… before turning into them. The hippies of the 60s were the yuppies of the 80s.

      2. Agreed, wokism is much more sinister than your good old PC-ism
        PC nearly was a way to be polite, sometimes a bit tortuous. Wokism is an ideology, a religion, the equivalent of the Red Brigades during the Cultural Revolution.
        And I have a particilar chip with this smooching with fundamentalist Islam
        In my modest opinion at least

      1. **shrug** Ah, well. This is why I like being an expat. If I close my eyes for five minutes, the terms may have changed again, but it’s still just the same old story. All the while, I have a fully legitimate excuse to remain politically disengaged and not up-to-date with the latest terminology. The only thing that has changed in the last 20 years seems to be that the New Left has become just as stubborn, unwilling to compromise, and as inclined to demonize their opponents as the New Right has. It just took them a decade or two to catch up.

        1. Yes, just as stubborn, but let’s not forget that the Right here in the US is no longer interested in fair elections and is intent on replacing our democracy with some kind of autocracy. The Left is mostly just trying to cure racism and doing a bad job of it.

    2. Slang evolves continually to exclude outsiders. If you persist with the old terms you come off as behind the times. But if you use the new terms your kids roll their eyes. But in the end it’s all just like Johnny Carson’s take on New and Improved Cheez-Whiz: “Less cheese, more whiz.”

    3. The problem with “PC” is that it became overused a long time ago. In the 90s a co-worker described the move to ban smoking from bars and restaurants as “PC”.

  5. There is nothing new under the sun here. As far back as my University of Chicago days in the 1960s and residency in the Integrated Hyde Park neighborhood in the 1970s it was common for activists to demand that no one outside the Movement should ever be allowed to define you or define your terms.

  6. Wikipedia has a nice quote:

    Writer and activist Chloé Valdary has stated that the concept of being woke is a “double-edged sword” that can “alert people to systemic injustice” while also being “an aggressive, performative take on progressive politics that only makes things worse”. (in the Broadening usage subsection)

  7. Even though deBoer claims at the end of his piece that he really, really does want a better term, it still seems to me that he’s simply trying to point out that the Woke need to engage with criticism and defend their ideas. Of course, the Woke have discovered that they can get many people to accept their ideas by bullying and shaming so I imagine they’ll continue to do that. We have to keep fighting and we have a long way to go.

  8. I don’t think that the work of woke people is entirely superficial, performative, and sometimes harmful. That stuff does happen among them, but meanwhile society has been palpably moving forward on several fronts for social justice and I think that “wokery” has definitely played a part in that. So I would not define the woke in only negative terms. It’s all about context, manner, and tone.

    1. Yes, this. I’d also note that sometimes thinking strategically requires pissing off sizeable numbers of people. But doing so for the fun of it is not going to help the supposed cause. (The actual cause is often sartorial, as Jon Gallant aptly puts it.)

  9. The Left, like the Right, is always afflicted by a large contingent whose choice of a political posture is not based on questions like “does it make sense?” or “what will it accomplish?”, but on this single question: “how will it look on me?”. The gauchiste version could be called the sartorial Left, or the performance Left. Its current expression, as James Carville and AcademicLurker above point out, is filled with language made fashionable in the grievance studies precincts of academia. I think referring to them as wokies is perfectly serviceable. However, if the wokies fancy themselves to be an oppressed, marginalized “community”, then perhaps we should refer to them as Wokex.

  10. This gentleman was a guest on Bill Maher last week. Here is a clip from an appearance on Joy Reid.

    “There is a black mouth moving but a white idea running on the runway of the tongue of a figure who justifies and legitimates the white supremacist practices.”

    The person vituperating against Virginia Lt Gov-elect Winsome Sears is Dr. Michael Eric Dyson. Dr. Dyson is a professor in the College of Arts and Science and in the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University.

    1. Yes, as not a few here know, in a debate with Jordan Peterson and Stephen Fry on one side and Dyson and I forget who on the other, Dyson called Peterson “a mean white man.” Later in the debate Fry alluded to Dyson’s ululations as “snake oil.” (That’s not all Fry said; it’s all I can remember at the moment.)

  11. Great! That’s my main gripe for ages, which is more or less in every second comment I wrote here on wokeness, social justice etc., e.g. here, here or here.

    I also believe there is not much behind it, which was pretty much already the impression by whoever coined the original “social justice warrior” definition on Urban Dictionary (since replaced) by 2011. Ultimately, certain Very Online progressive people want to be seen social-justicer-than-thou on social media, i.e. seen in eternal history as people like MLK or Rosa Parks. Admired by their grand children. For this, they need to guesstimate frontier identity topics where they guess the arc of history is going, but not too much, and fight someone in proximity to them (i.e. callout someone in the same or adjacent community) to demonstrate their morally superior ideas, that’s how the most intense climate exists in places like Young Adult Fiction writing (also probably because of its proximity to Literary Theory, i.e. old postmodern pastures).

    However, there is a risk: you also need to say whatever everyone else is saying, or you could become a target for “problematic” views as well, since anything can be creatively twisted around by these people. So the optimal strategy is to never explain anything, minimise actual activism, because the cost is too high that while explaining or advocating, you might be problematic, yet join in with pile-ons, and say the slogans that are “safe” enough to repeat. (yes, there’s a lot more to it)

    1. since anything can be creatively twisted around by these people

      This really does seem like a recurring behavior among the woke. In particular, they use the etymological fallacy to attack their opponents.

      For example: during a Twitter feud with Ibram Kendi, an internet pundit named Jack Posobiec said, “I broke Kendi,” which presumably meant that he crushed Kendi in debate. Kendi, however, responded that this was a reference to “buck breaking” (a supposed practice used by slave owners in the Antebellum South of publicly abusing and humiliating slaves to prevent disobedience), even though there was no evidence of that in the original tweet. Kendi even claimed that Posobiec’s intention didn’t matter—that inadvertently invoking a racist trope was a misdeed in itself. (I don’t mean to endorse Posobiec’s far right politics, but Kendi’s accusation was a bit far-fetched.)

      In any case, Kendi et. al are playing a word-game in which they dredge up obscure word histories from the past and use them to read sinister meanings into their opponents’ statements. With enough creativity and historical research, one could link any innocuous statement to racism or some other form of bigotry. It’s a red-herring tactic that the woke use to derail the debate when they realize that their opponent has gotten the better of them. People don’t behave this way when they’re winning the argument.

      I’ve seen other examples on the Internet, almost all coming from the woke left. If I had the time, I would write it up in an essay because it is an interesting topic worth exploring.

  12. Instead of asking what Don’t-Call-Us-Woke people should call themselves, I propose to name my own faction. I call myself a Social Justice Worryer. I worry that progress on social justice will get lost between performative wokeness language-policing on one side, and crypto-fascist labeling of any accurate history of slavery as CRT on the other. (And yes, I know I spelled worrier wrong, but the y helps to jar the reader’s eye and avoid inadvertent misreading.)

    1. Interesting. I’ve also seen “Social Justice Worrier” used as a pejorative against Wokiban propagandists, presumably referring to the fact that the Woke worry about social justice but don’t actually accomplish anything, and worse, actually (possibly inadvertently, but in light of Lindsay’s New Discources podcast, I’m coming around to the idea that it might be deliberate) facilitate far right initiatives to reverse some of the progress in social justice made in the last 5 decades or so.

  13. The term “woke” is now a boogeyman for everyone who doesn’t like something or is being criticized. Aaron Rodgers now labels the people criticizing him for his ridiculous anti-vax views as a “woke mob.” Yeah, right. This woke mob apparently includes Terry Bradshaw and Jimmy Johnson from Fox NFL. It has lost any actual meaning. It is now just a boogeyman.

    1. On the radical left, the phrase “white supremacy culture” serves a similar purpose—a general catch-all term to describe a host of attitudes and behaviors that one dislikes. The term is used so frequently that it has become virtually useless for conveying meaning. (E.g. Asking students to show their work on math exams is an example of “white supremacy culture.” There are plenty of silly examples in the news today, some of which have been cited on WEIT.)

  14. I think a primary feature of ‘woke-ism’/’social justice’/’antiracism’ is the need to avoid definition as a specific set of beliefs because doing so would allow for criticism of specific parts of their program. Any disagreement, no matter how minor, is treated as an admission that the critic is beyond the pale (which, by the way, is clearly the most toxic shade).

  15. FWIW, Google Trends show that “Brights” has a steady interest as search term over the last 5 years, but the search request has unnatural spread.

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