In 2019, an hour into his now infamous debate with Slavoj Zizek, Jordan Peterson is asked by Dr. Zizek who the ‘post-modern neo Marxists’ are. Surely if this group is to blame for the decline of Western civilization and the infantilization of academia, he would be able to identify at least a few prominent living neo Marxists without any difficulty to lay the blame on. Dr. Peterson, caught off guard by this demand for evidence, fumbles around and prevaricates, unable meet his interlocutor’s request, and the effect is made even worse by having to read from his laptop as if he’s trying to Google the answer. Sure he names Foucault and Derrida, both of whom were not actually Marxists and are long dead. From there it becomes painful to watch. I remember watching it and wanting to pull him from the stage, as if to pull him out of the hole he had fell into. Either he was unprepared, or this existential threat that is the bete noire of his massive YouTube and public self-help career may just be a figment of his imagination or greatly exaggerated. Or is it? Can he be blamed for not knowing who ‘they’ are, if that is the point?
I have been thinking about why wokeness is so persistent and resilient even if a lot of people, especially online, oppose it. [As evidenced by YouTube’s recent decision of disabling dislikes on its videos, because videos of Biden and Jen Psaki were getting as many downvotes as Rebecca Black’s “Friday”.] And I think a reason is, it’s hard to identify who the key leaders are, so this means it’s hard to blame anyone individual or entity for wokeness even when it’s everywhere. If you ask someone “who are three major woke advocates” maybe the only example they can cite is Ibram X Kendi. Maybe Dan Price? I dunno if he’s woke, but he is quite popular among the left and has a large Twitter presence. There are plenty of people who are sympathetic to wokeness or endorse it, like Robert Reich or AOC, but are not technically of ‘the woke’.
With no effort it’s easy to find individuals who hold anti-woke views and their opinions…guys with huge platforms like Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, Tim Pool, and Christopher Rufo, as well as many popular Substack writers, but comparably harder to find the woke opinions and individuals. There is no woke equivalent of Jordan Peterson who can speak for the movement or canonical texts. Even Dr. Kendi’s platform is small relative to anti-woke people as measured by followers and engagement.
A google search of woke Twitter accounts is equally unpropitious, showing no examples of actual popular woke Twitter accounts, or only old articles that may only be tangentially related to wokeness as it’s understood today, such as the 2015 article 13 Black activists my friends follow to stay woke and engaged.
But overall, the woke tend to be more obscure…people like Frederick Joseph, a left-wing black author who only has 100k Twitter followers, not 2 million followers like Dr. Peterson. Although the official New York Times (@nytimes) Twitter account has a whopping 52 million followers, its tweets have terrible engagement metrics and no virality, getting on average just a couple hundred ‘likes’ and a dozen or so comments per tweet (by comparison, Elon Musk’s tweets routinely get hundreds of thousands of likes and thousands of comments). A Ben Shapiro tweet denouncing the left gets way more likes and re-tweets than anything published by the NYTs.
The inability to name/identify the woke is a recurring pattern when criticizing the actions/behavior of the woke. For example, Paul Graham latest’s essay, Heresy, which went viral about how people get fired for holding views that are deemed heretical, fails to cite or name any individuals or examples:
There are an ever-increasing number of opinions you can be fired for. Those doing the firing don’t use the word “heresy” to describe them, but structurally they’re equivalent. Structurally there are two distinctive things about heresy: (1) that it takes priority over the question of truth or falsity, and (2) that it outweighs everything else the speaker has done.
As someone in the comments notes:
Great essay as always, however the deliberate withholding of examples is irritating me. I’m not looking for witches to burn, but names or examples of “grumpy, censorious people in a group — the ones who are always first to complain when something violates the current rules of propriety.” would be helpful to identify the described mentality.
Here are some examples he could have cited-the 2020 firing of David Shor for merely citing a study that went against the aims of BLM, or in 2021, Dorian Abbot, a professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago who was invited to speak at MIT but whose invitation was rescinded for opposing affirmative action. So evidently it does happen, but these stories only make a splash for a week and are quickly forgotten, so when writing an essay critiquing wokeness or cancel culture, reaching for examples can be difficult, because it’s not like it’s easy to recall a briefly news-worthy event from many years ago that otherwise didn’t have any effect on your life. Finding individuals who are to blame is even harder, such as who specifically was responsible for disinviting Dorian Abbot, assuming it was a single person and not a committee.
The disinvitation of Dorian Abbot follows a predictable pattern: public pressure, such as on Twitter or by students, leads to swift action higher up. But no particular individual can be held accountable for this decision. Sometimes many months go by without any notable cancellations. The woke are smart to not go overboard with the cancellations and disinvitations, knowing that if they do it too often, then people will start to have better memories and may be inclined to take action or start digging deeper as to who the woke actually are.
Thus, wokeness tends to be defined or framed by what it does or its manifestations (like people being fired or teaching CRT in schools), than actual individuals. It’s a conglomeration of generally low-key academics, functionaries, and activists who hold a constellation of views about structural racism and inequity in America that is influential in discourse. Thus, this decentralization and surreptitiousness is a feature of wokeness and is why it’s hard to fix wokeness, because we don’t even know who the key players are or their roles, making it impossible to un-elect or ‘fire’ the woke like you would a politician or a CEO, especially given that the woke are often not in elected positions of power.
To quote Moldbug from the article The Cathedral or the Bizarre:
The fundamental historical problem of the current period is why, though we can buy our ideas from any stall in a huge open-air bazaar, they all seem to come from the same manufacturer—exactly as if made in some cathedral. Yet there is no such conspiracy—and certainly no such agency. No person or institution is coordinating the party line.
What is the source of this anomalous unanimity? What makes a nominal bazaar behave like a functional cathedral? It must be some type of what economists call spontaneous coordination: a Darwinian arrow. Like genes, the formulas themselves become in a sense the power.
This spontaneous, as opposed to centralized, coordination seems characteristic of the woke.
Maybe we can blame George Soros, but how much of an influence does he have on Hollywood or tech companies. He can fund causes he supports, like BLM or antifa, but he cannot compel a company as powerful and profitable as Google, Nike, Disney, or Facebook to ban people’s accounts or change the races or sexual orientations of its characters. And as rich as Soros is, his wealth, along with the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, is pocket change compared to today’s tech billionaires and tech companies. In the above video, Zizek describes the purported postmodern neo Marxists described by Peterson as ‘utterly impotent’. But if guys like Shapiro who have millions of followers cannot stop wokeness, who are really the impotent ones.
I could write an essay on this but won’t. Writing essays is the problem. Suffice to say, for a number of reasons normal, sane white guys aren’t the cool kids anymore. For example, Californians want to enslave themselves to blacks. Or more specifically, rich Californians want to enslave poorer white Californians. It helps to be crazy.
Who are the woke?
Here’s a hint:
Gluttony (fat shaming)
… you can google the other four 😉
In many ways I think you are correct. But, say, Episcopalians are puritanical. So are many lawyers. They are woke. Maybe they embrace the sin of pride, I suppose, but aren’t gay.
You could say they are afflicted with hubris, overweening pride, and invite nemesis.