How to Wake Up from Woke Ideology


Like many words, ideology is overloaded with meanings. I have even heard it used to describe things like a sports strategy: “The Chiefs’ passing ideology has worked well this season.” The definition I offer here is drawn primarily from the work of Eric Voegelin, although Michael Oakeshott and Aristotle have contributed to it as well. It runs:

 An ideology is a collection of axioms and their supporting slogans used for constructing and keeping intact a second reality.

By a “second reality” is meant a fantasy, a dream world, a wish about how the world really ought to be, that is taken to be, in some sense, more real than the actual world the ideologue lives in. Of course, all practical action seeks to replace what is with what ought to be. If, in 1870, I “dream” of a bridge across the East River, I may be able to succeed in getting the Brooklyn Bridge constructed. But I can do so only by accepting the truth of reality as it is when I first imagine my dream: there is no bridge at that moment, to construct one is going to take a lot of resources and some great engineering, I must work to persuade many people it is feasible, and so on.

The difference between this and an ideological “second reality” is that in the latter case what we have is not a practical plan for moving from the current, realistically appraised state of the world to a different state deemed more desirable but rather a denial of reality as it is, and the attempt to blot out that reality with the magical invocation of an alternate reality in which essential aspects of “first” reality are banished by incantation. To the ideologue, primary reality is in some sense a fake world, a shadow of the ideologue’s dream. For instance, Marxism is not a reality-based, practical plan for improving the conditions of the working class—Marx and Engels despised such efforts—it is an attempt to replace the real world, in which life is hard and people suffer for a myriad of reasons, with a fantasy world in which life is simple and endlessly joyous . . . or at least it would be if not for the existence of those rotten capitalists.

This brings us to a second aspect of an ideology: Given that there is an obvious discrepancy between the actual world and the ideological dream world, what explains this divergence? Ideologies generally explain this gulf by asserting that their dream world would be real if not for the existence of some nefarious group working to block its realization. For Marxists, this is the capitalists. For Nazis, it is the Jews. For neoconservatives, it is those who “hate our American values.” And for the current “woke,” it is “white, cisgendered males.” And the obvious corollary of such a finding is, “Well, if we could just eliminate all of the [fill in the evil group here], then the dream world would become real!”

The final, general consideration I want to introduce here is how the “arguments” that make up an essential part of an ideology are not really “arguments” at all, in that they are not attempts to respond rationally to criticisms of the ideology. Rather, they are defensive measures designed to prevent reality from penetrating the ideological dream world. This point is most easily understood by considering some examples.

Defending Second Reality

A few years ago, I noticed a poster hanging in the hallway of the institution in which I was teaching at that time. The poster showed a legless person sitting in a wheelchair, and under that image, in large text, was written, “My only disability is in your mind.” Now, the members of the human race present to us a glorious variety of abilities and disabilities. I, for instance, am only 5’9″ tall and not much of a jumper. I don’t for a moment believe that these limitations of mine make me less of a person than someone who is 7’1″ tall and can leap like a deer. But it would be absurd to say, “The only disability keeping me from playing center in the NBA exists in your mind.” No, I’m (relatively) short and don’t jump that well: these are very real shortcomings for playing center in the NBA, and they certainly do not exist only in the mind of others.

Furthermore, I will note that I am strongly in favor of helping those who have a disability such as having no legs, by, for instance, building wheelchair ramps to enable them to access buildings where they could not climb the stairs to get in. But the very fact that we ought to build such ramps, when feasible, testifies to the truth that these disabilities are not only “in the mind” of the “ableists” but exist in reality. After all, if the wheelchair-bound person’s disabilities were actually “only in our minds,” then all we would have to do to enable the person to get in the building would be to stop thinking that they had any problem getting in. No ramp would be needed.

Given its obvious falsity, what purpose does this slogan (“my disabilities exist only in your mind”) serve? First of all, it is a bit of raw material in the construction of a “second reality,” in which such things as a person’s not having legs or being blind or being only 5’9″ and not a very good jumper are not facts about that person but instead are merely the arbitrary beliefs concerning that person of some “privileged” social group that has legs or is “sighted” or is tall and can jump. But what I think is even more important, the slogan provides a piece of a defensive shield that protects the ideological second reality from being dissolved by exposure to primary reality. The preponderance of the contents of an ideological system consists of ritualized responses to any interrogation of the system’s assumptions. Such responses protect the adherent of the ideology from having to engage rationally in discussion with anyone who has not already embraced the ideology’s dream reality.

So, for instance, any person possessed of a normal degree of common sense encountering a poster like the one I described above would likely say: “But wait a second: that person in the picture has no legs. Certainly that makes doing many things that I take for granted extremely difficult for that person.” (And that commonsensical person, if possessed of a minimal degree of charity, might furthermore entertain the idea that “Thus, we should really try to give that person, lacking legs, help in getting through life.”) But no! The “anti-ableist” ideologue responds, “The fact that you think the person depicted in our poster has some inherent problems dealing with stairs, 100-meter dashes, or what have you is just a symptom of your oppressive, ableist mindset.” The crucial fact to recognize here is that the response of the ideologue to any criticism arising from outside the ideologue’s second reality is not an attempt to engage rationally in dialogue with the critic: it is a means of sustaining belief in the second reality.

I think it is important to note that this understanding of ideologies is not a partisan, “conservative” strategy for dismissing all “leftist” thought. Quite to the contrary, this critique of ideological thinking cuts across conventional left-right boundaries and is shared by, for instance, a left-leaning semi-anarchist such as James C. Scott. Moreover, it can equally be used to critique right-wing ideologies such as neoconservatism or doctrinaire belief in the unmitigated beneficence of unfettered free markets. For example, many neoconservative ideologues forward a dream world in which the United States has always and everywhere been a force for peace and justice, and in which the only reasons America has not been able to reach the “end of history” in a perfect, global republic of universal, democratic capitalism is the opposition to this earthly paradise on the part of “Islamo-fascists” and other reactionaries, such as “Russian authoritarians” or “Christian fundamentalists.” If it is pointed out to them that perhaps Iranians who suffered under the autocratic rule of the U.S.-supported shah, or Filipinos whose relatives died fighting the American efforts to “Christianize” the Philippines (which had been Catholic for three hundred years by the time the U.S. sought to Christianize its people), or Iraqis “liberated” into total chaos by the U.S. invasion of 2003 might be skeptical of plans to place the entire globe under U.S. hegemony, the person noting this will be accused of “blaming America first.” This comeback serves the same purpose as the response to the “ableist” described above: neither are attempts to engage rationally the critic of the ideology in question. Both serve instead to dismiss the voice of any outsider criticizing any aspect of the ideology in question: such critics most emphatically should not be heard, because to engage their critique would be to give encouragement to . . . well, whatever enemy the ideology in question has identified as the demonic resistance to the establishment of paradise on earth, whether they be “the capitalists” or “the Jews” or “the Islamo-fascists” or “the patriarchists” or “the cis-gendered” or . . . well, you get the idea.

Reasoning Is Futile

To see that the ideology virus is not particularly a left- or a right-wing disease, and that identifying it is not a partisan campaign but a mission of public service, it will be helpful to look at several more examples. In each, we see that the ideological response to reasonable criticism is not an attempt to engage with or rationally refute the critic but instead is a way to erect a defensive shield that renders the ideology impenetrable to criticism from outside.

My first example has little to do with politics, and the adherents of this dream world, in fact, range all over the political spectrum. Their dream world insists that “computation”—something many of them understand well, as this ideology is particularly popular with programmers and other computer professionals—is an all-encompassing description of reality. A mathematician friend of mine, faced with a “computationalist” ideologue, asked, “Well, don’t you think an incomputable number like pi is real?” The response he got was, “If you think noncomputable numbers are real, then prove it by computing one of them for me.” Quite clearly, from any reasonable point of view, this response is complete nonsense: if someone thinks that a noncomputable number like pi or e is real, they are claiming that these numbers are real, despite the fact that they cannot be computed (because their decimal expansion is infinite and nonrepeating). To demand that such a person prove that these noncomputable numbers really exist by computing them is like asking that someone prove that there are no living dodo birds by shooting some and bringing in their corpses. Given the complete irrationality of this response, it should be clear that its purpose wasn’t to engage rationally with this argument against computationalism but rather to block it and prevent it from disturbing the dream world of the computationalist.

To turn to a more political example, in one of Rod Dreher’s recent blog posts at The American Conservative, he objected to a public school bringing a drag queen who had worked as a prostitute into the school to read stories to young children. One commenter responded: “You don’t want your children to even know that gay people exist.” This response is, quite obviously, not an effort to engage seriously Dreher’s case that “inviting drag queen prostitutes to read to young children might be a bad idea”: to jump from that to “you don’t want your children to even know that gay people exist” makes no rational sense. So why in the world would a commenter post this?

Once again, we are witnessing an ideology as consisting of “axioms and slogans for constructing and keeping intact a second reality.” The axiom in play here is that any person who objects to any aspect of the ongoing sexual revolution, whatever his argument might be, in reality is just a reactionary puritan. The axiom is then given efficacy by being formulated as a slogan. The utility of adopting this stance is that the adopter never needs to address any actual arguments put forward by anyone who dissents from the ideology: such people are just repressed neurotics who wish to impose their own inability to “realize themselves as sexual beings” on others. Given this identification of the foe as “oppressive other,” the need to deal with any of his actual arguments is swept away.

But let us again turn away from hotly contested political examples and look at another case that has little to do with any left-right alignment: in this instance, the ideology in question is “physicalism,” which holds that the only aspects of what we experience every day that “really exist” are those that appear as measurable by physics. You think you are in love? Well, that is “really” just some electrical activity in your brain. Perhaps you had an experience of contact with some transcendent reality? Nope, that too was just electrical activity in your brain. In fact, everything you think you “know” about the world is really just your experience of your own brain states. Prominent entrepreneur Elon Musk recently expressed a cornerstone of this ideology when he tweeted: “We are literally a brain in a vat. The vat is your skull. Everything you think is real is an electrical signal.” Once again, the problem with this sort of statement ought to be obvious, at least to anyone seriously engaged in contemplating reality and not just trying to shore up some previously embraced dream world: If our ideas about what is real don’t make reliable contact with what is real, then how does Musk know that human beings really have “skulls”? After all, aren’t “skulls” just another one of those items we believe are real but are, in fact, just “an electrical signal” in our brains? Going even further, how does Musk even know there is any such things as “electrical signals”? After all, our only evidence for the existence of electrical signals comes to us through our perceptual apparatus . . . which, according to Musk, can’t be relied upon as being genuinely in touch with reality. Since it is only through these “electrical signals,” which may have little inherent connection to reality, that we know about skulls, or even about electricity . . . well, Musk’s whole profound insight falls apart as self-undermining rubbish.

Nevertheless, more than eight thousand Twitter users “liked” this bit of nonsense. Why? Because it offered them a concise statement of how they could shield their physicalist ideology from being penetrated by reality: if, for instance, you argue against it by noting that affection between living creatures seems to be commonplace and not simply physical, the physicalist can respond, “Well, you think so just because of some electrical activity in your skull.” The trope serves to defend an ideology against penetration by reality, not to respond rationally to criticism from outside the ideology.

Assigning Blame

Having looked at the way in which ideologies function, let us at last turn to “wokeness.” In the United States, much of Europe, and many other areas of the world, what is often called “woke” ideology has had significant influence and been the target of much criticism. But too often, I suggest, people have sided for or against “wokeness” based on partisan considerations: Does this movement promote policies I like? Do the “woke” tend to vote for candidates from my party? I suggest that such methods of judging whether to support an ideological movement are misguided, since any success such movements achieve comes at a cost that even those nonideologues who support many of the policies endorsed by an ideology will find too high. I contend that:

  1. Woke ideology shares significant features with the many other “political religions” (ideologies) that have arisen over the past several centuries.
  2. Recognizing those common characteristics is beneficial to those who wish to protect social order from the pathogenic effects of all political religions.
  3. Identifying such commonalities among the political religions could, most hopefully, even aid those suffering from infection by one or the other of them in recognizing the thing from which they suffer and point the way toward a healing from such an affliction.

So how do these musings on ideology help us understand the tide of “wokeness” that has inundated many U.S. (and other) college campuses and that courses through the public pronouncements of a multitude of major corporations?

First, it is important to identify the “woke” movement as an ideology and recognize its kinship with other ideologies, such as Communism and Nazism. That recognition alone could awaken many to the dangers of wokeness: since ideologies promise heaven on earth but can never actually deliver on the promise, to continue in existence they must continually discover more and more pockets of resistance that are thwarting the realization of the kingdom. Thus, in the Soviet Union, if reality continued to fall short of the Communist paradise, the solution was to ferret out more and more “enemies of the people” and eliminate them. If Nazi Germany’s plans for European domination were experiencing setbacks, the only explanation permissible from inside their ideological “second reality” was that they had not yet achieved the “final solution” of the “Jewish problem.”

And so, even as “wokeness” has achieved one after another of its aims—diversity departments in every major corporation and university, the legalization of gay marriage, bathroom rights for transsexuals, and “multicultural” curricula in public schools—the woke continually become ever more shrill and dissatisfied about how oppressive our culture remains. (I use scare quotes around “multicultural” above because, while I would enthusiastically endorse real multiculturalism in schools—for instance, requiring students to become fluent in an Asian or a Native American language, to master some polyrhythmic West African or Indian music, or to learn to read the Koran in Arabic—what passes for multiculturalism today is generally just a very superficial “museum tour” of a gallimaufry of trendy cultures: the Cubans, don’t they have great music! The Chinese, great vases!)

Once we understand the pattern common to all ideologies, their promise to create heaven on earth, coupled with their inherent inability to deliver on that promise, and thus their need, if they are to continue in existence, to assign blame for that failure to a demonized enemy who resists the coming of the kingdom, we can understand the dynamic at work wherever the woke are in charge. Thus, whenever anyone refuses to learn the ever-increasing number of new pronouns that the woke demand we use or objects to confused young children being subjected to hormonal therapy to “help” them become their “true” selves, that person is labeled “transphobic” and ordered to check his or her cisgendered privilege. White people who find themselves members of an ever more woke organization must declare their very genetic heritage, a thing that they certainly did not choose to adopt, to be in itself a mark of their sinfulness for which they must continually atone.

Once we understand this dynamic, common to all ideologies, it is clear that there is no “reasonable, middle ground” upon which the “nonwoke” can reach a modus vivendi with the woke. Every concession made to woke ideology will soon enough prove to be inadequate, since each concession will not result in the realization of the kingdom of heaven on earth. A demand that elementary schoolchildren read books like Heather Has Two Mommies will, once the effect of the concession has proved to be inadequate, be followed by a demand that one of those mommies, who turns out to be a drag queen, be allowed to come to school and read to the children. And once it is admitted that that has not been enough to perfect earthly life, those children will be asked to play out roles in which they are the opposite sex of their own or to write love letters in which they romance a potential same-sex partner. And when that doesn’t work . . . well, I leave it to the reader’s imagination as to what will come next, if they have the stomach to do so.

Separating Wheat from Chaz

Coming to recognize the pernicious effects of all ideologies, of all attempts to act as though one’s dream world were real and reality only a conspiracy foisted on us by some Satanic foes of everyone else’s happiness, does not entail supporting (or resisting) Donald Trump, embracing (or opposing) Brexit, rejecting (or advocating) the existence of the Federal Reserve, voting for (or against) affirmative action, working to lower (or raise) tax rates, or, in general, adopting any particular policy position or political platform at all. In fact, it is probably the case that every ideological movement contains within its construct at least some true insights into social problems, without which it would lose all plausibility. Marxism is nonsense, but Marx himself was a genius, albeit a twisted one, who often had brilliant insights into social reality. We can and should recognize the value of those insights, even while we reject the dream world Marx built around them. Similarly, rejecting woke ideology should not mean that we reject wholesale every complaint the woke voice about our current situation: many of those complaints are valid, or at least contain a kernel of validity. It is the fact that “the woke” are saying many things that are true that attracts people to their movement, just as the fact that many capitalists were greedy bastards made Marxism plausible.

Rather, once we reject the siren song of ideologies offering easy answers to the complex problems of the real world, we can accept that fixing those problems is usually difficult and fraught with unforeseen side effects, that our own judgement of the optimal way to address them is at best an educated guess, and that acknowledging these facts is not some sort of cowardly compromise with evil but, in fact, the only real way to move forward.

Gene Callahan is the author of Economics for Real People and Oakeshott on Rome and America.

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