Ten Ways Woke Ideas Spread and Stick
I’ve long been fascinated by the varied explanations of why woke ideas spread. Here are the ten that I find most compelling. There are three kinds of explanations among the ten: one looks at the contagiousness of the woke ideas themselves; a second looks at the underlying cultural conditions that explain the receptivity to woke ideas; and the third looks at how these ideas become established and canonized.
While I do not consider each explanation equally illuminating, I also don’t view any one or two of them as definitive. Rather, taken together, I believe they give us a picture as to how wokeness has gained so much cultural currency. Knowing how these ideas wedge themselves into the popular discourse helps us devise strategies to contain and dislodge them.
- Anti-rational memes. The physicist and philosopher David Deutsch wrote about how “memes”—idea viruses—spread in society. Rational memes vary and replicate because they are true and improve people’s lives. Anti-rational memes, however, spread by disarming their host’s critical faculties. The anti-rational woke meme states: if you criticize me you are racist or fragile. It short circuits the critical process that rational memes are subjected to and spreads because people don’t fully analyze the meme and feel compelled to share it. Cancel culture, of course, is one of the anti-rational meme’s most potent weapons: to further deter critical analysis, the anti-rational meme tries to sideline anyone attempting to criticize it.
- Trojan horses. Anti-rational woke ideas also spread by latching on to recognizable concepts deeply embedded in our collective consciousness. Bad woke ideas ride the coattails of familiar good ideas into popular acceptance. Opposing discrimination on the basis of race is a good idea; labeling all of Western society as racist is a bad idea. People are lured in by these radical woke ideas because they strike a familiar note and tug at our conscience. We all likely support equality and civil rights, for example. The woke use these very same concepts and the language around them to push for a highly radical agenda that has little to do with and may even be inimical to equality or civil rights. Unfortunately, many well-meaning people take the bait.
- Idea laundering. Philosopher Peter Boghossian explains that “idea laundering is the mechanism for how people in the academy discharge their moral impulses” and canonize woke ideas. It often starts with a professor creating an academic journal with like minded peers. Other scholars publish in the journal or a similar journal, quoting each other in an echo chamber. It goes in one side as an idea and comes out the other as “knowledge.” Woke activists can then point to the series of scholarly articles in the ideologically homogeneous journals as justification for their radical activism. Students take college classes in these areas, further spreading the “laundered” ideas.
- Bureaucratic risk. Eric Weinstein argues that over the past 50 years our institutions have become predisposed to rooting out independent thought and creativity. He states that they “select specifically for hierarchical game playing and intrigue and against anyone who thinks from first principles and is willing to stand up for something she/he believes in to the point of self-sacrifice.” Such an institutional environment is fertile ground for a woke-diversity orientation, which serves to mitigate institutional risk by protecting against lawsuits from disaffected employees or smear campaigns from woke activists. “What we have now,” argues Weinstein, “is an institutional culture that is uniformly, to a leader, hostile to letting subject matter choose our experts and leaders for us and reward them with deep academic freedom and protection from targeted harassment by administrators and the bureaucratic class.”
- Generational gaming. This is one of the most novel takes I’ve heard on dissemination of wokeness. Jordan Hall argues that Millennials, the generation most associated with the ascendancy of woke ideology, have come of age in an environment with a much higher presence of authority than previous generations. Boomers, their parents and grandparents, have maintained power longer and more ubiquitously than previous generations and coddled their children in ways that would have been unthinkable to previous generations. In this cultural milieu, millennials developed a felt sense of lack of agency. They learned to influence reality not through their own labor and creativity but by manipulating boomer authority. Their center of agency is in their capacity to influence authority figures and they became experts at exploiting boomer power structures. They’ve figured out that one way to get boomers, who are particularly susceptible to charges of discrimination and bigotry, to accede to their demands and to cede power is by ramping up woke claims.
- Crisis of meaning. Coleman Hughes speaks of the innate appeal of woke ideology for a younger generation who have eschewed traditional religion and possess no other grand meta-narrative. They are hungry for a system of meaning to help make sense of the world, a vacuum that woke ideology eagerly filled. At his time at Columbia University, Hughes says that “intersectional politics was the primary way people built a sense of self.” Sociologist Musa al-Gharbi explains “Unmoored from religious tradition, many reach for political fundamentalism to provide a sense of identity and purpose for their lives, and pursue political activism as a means of engaging in fellowship with like-minded believers.”
- Academic careerism. One way woke ideas get amplified in academic circles, and then spread to students, is through academic competition and careerism. Academia has become a subculture of intersectional positionality. In order to curry favor and advance their careers in an environment dominated by CSJ discourse, academics one up each other by slamming their fellow academics for being insufficiently woke, and thus create ever more radical iterations of CSJ ideas. In the words of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, “CRT [Critical Race Theory] is a self-flagellation cult for cynical opportunists seeking a virtue-signaling edge in their careers.”
- Power structure replication. James Lindsey argues that woke forces within institutions seek to gain control by recruiting more people like themselves. He argues that woke forces specifically target women and people of color to be “agents of change” who “remake the system.” In other words, the woke established themselves in the power structure by recruiting “party activists” into key roles, who serve to perpetuate and grow the increasingly totalitarian system.
- Educating educators. One key vector of transmission of woke ideas are colleges of education. Lyell Asher argues that while these colleges have long inculcated leftist ideas to teachers of K-12 education, in recent decades they have also trained the administrative bureaucracy in higher education. He asserts that “this influx of ed school trained bureaucrats has played a decisive role in pushing an already left-leaning academy so far in the direction of ideological fundamentalism that even liberal progressives are sounding the alarm.” Faculty at most of these schools teach a particular ideology—that traditional knowledge is repressive by its very nature—“without directing their students to any substantial readings that question the educational implications of this view.” The growing ranks of the university administrators coming out of education schools reinforce the academic monoculture where wokeness lives and spreads.
- Hunting-in-packs. Toby Young argues that the woke “hunt in packs and we don’t.” Unwieldy rationalists, blessed and cursed with nuance and independent thought, behave very differently than a woke mob hungry to de-platform the latest heretic. Hunting in packs sends shock waves into institutions, generating the exaggerated sense of being inundated by angry customers or stakeholders and raising apprehensions of what might happen if they refuse the pack’s demands. The institutions frequently accede to the demands, emboldening the woke mob to move on to its next target. I hope this helps people better understand how and why woke ideas spread and gain power. Understanding this is a first step towards combating their entrenchment.
David Bernstein is a freelance writer and nonprofit executive. Follow him on Twitter @Blogunwoke.