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Woke is the New Cool

photo credit: still frame from

photo credit: still frame from

Recently, Scott Beauchamp posted about how online progressivism, with its focus on “educating yourself,” closely resembles the Gnostic Catholic doctrine of salvation by knowledge. From Catholic Encyclopedia:

Whereas Judaism and Christianity, and almost all pagan systems, hold that the soul attains its proper end by obedience of mind and will to the Supreme Power, i.e. by faith and works, it is markedly peculiar to Gnosticism that it places the salvation of the soul merely in the possession of a quasi-intuitive knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and of magic formulae indicative of that knowledge. Gnostics were “people who knew”, and their knowledge at once constituted them a superior class of beings, whose present and future status was essentially different from that of those who, for whatever reason, did not know.

I have no experience with Gnostic Catholicism, so I can’t really say whether online progressive circles resemble it or not, but I do feel that Beauchamp come close to a sad reality of modern progressivism. The idea that there are a superior class of beings that are made that way through having the proper knowledge echoes a lot of what I’ve seen in online progressive spaces. It’s doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head, though. In my experience, to be considered part of the superior class by modern progressives takes more than knowledge. It takes style.

What is “Cool”?

The essence of cool is exclusivity. In his book The Authenticity Hoax, Andrew Potter traces the history of coolness from its start in the 1950’s:

Norman Mailer set the agenda in the 1950s when he wrote that society was divided into two types of people: the hip (“rebels”) and the square (“conformists”). Cool (or hip, alternative, edgy) here becomes the universal stance of individualism, with the hipster as the resolute nonconformist refusing to bend before the homogenizing forces of mass society. In other words, the notion of cool only ever made sense as a foil to something else, that is, a culture dominated by mass media such as national television stations, wide-circulation magazines and newspapers, and commercial record labels. The hipster makes a political statement by rejecting mass society and its conformist agenda.

To be cool was always defined by its difference from the mainstream. To be cool was to be in a minority, which meant that staying cool meant constantly changing. The cool thought leaders would do something new, and by the time mainstream society caught up, to stay cool, the hip kids already had to be on to something else. By the time your style was sold in shopping malls, you had either already developed a new style or else you weren’t cool anymore.

Being cool has never been actually been political, but has always portrayed itself as such. Potter writes that being cool had power as a political symbol “by allowing us to situate everyone on one side or the other of a great divide. Either you are over here with the hipsters, or you are over there with the conformist (and latently fascist) squares.” In the 1950’s through the end of the century, this divide was easy to maintain because cultural transmission took time. If the hip kids in NYC were wearing a certain style, talking a certain way, or listening to a certain sound, it took months or years for that trend to make it out to middle America. Potter writes about this phenomenon that

Cool people were just those who had early access to new cultural trends, which gave them a great deal of status. Not only did it allow them to portray themselves as political radicals, it also allowed them to treat those who were not “in the know” as the mindless dupes of mass society.

In the 1990’s with the rise of mass communication technology like cable TV and the internet, the time-lag of cultural transmission was destroyed. Suddenly anyone could watch MTV and see the hippest trends in music and fashion. What cable TV started, the internet finished. Suddenly, everyone had access to what was cool, just a Google search away. Being hip and trendy was no longer the domain of a privileged few, and thus it stopped being cool. The iron law of being cool is that for something to be cool, it must be exclusive. Potter writes: “In the end, rebel consumerism died when it became a game that anyone with an Internet connection and a decent-paying job could play.”

Coolness was killed by mass communication and left somewhat of a status vacuum. Status-seekers had to turn to other methods which were the domain of a privileged few. Being hip and trendy was replaced in part by being quirky and hyper-individualized. Because now anyone can be cool, to be high-status now one must develop exclusive tastes and styles in other ways. Clothes, makeup, music tastes, and speech need to be different from what everyone else is doing to be high-status. There’s a reason that the stereotype of the ultra-cool hipster listens to music nobody has ever heard of, has a litany of restrictions on his diet, dresses in an eclectic mixture of thrift shop finds that nobody could possibly reproduce, and uses language that less cool people don’t understand. Quirkiness wasn’t enough, though, and the rest of the status vacuum was filled by social justice.

In particular, speaking a certain language has always been part of being high-status. “The kids today” have always had their own jargon that uncool people just don’t understand. The biggest mark of an uncool loser is that they try to imitate the language of cool people, but do so clumsily. That’s the whole joke in the Parks & Rec clip above.

The Political is Personal

The hippie movement of the 1960’s was ostensibly about protesting the Vietnam War. However, if you talk to anyone who was part of the movement, you know that while being anti-war was a requirement for being a part of the scene, it was mostly about sex, drugs, and rock & roll. A drug-fueled music festival is the emblematic hippie gathering. The war gets mentioned, but not nearly as much as free love and good tunes.

Likewise, the online progressive movement started out being about social justice activism, but has since achieved a level of size and cultural cachet that’s it’s become the new cool. Progressive politics was a good match, as being cool was always about portraying oneself as morally superior and part of a more enlightened, awakened group. Being cool always involved raging against the establishment in superficial ways, and the current environment is just an extension of the old hipsters/squares conflict. Ultra-left politics is also a good match because it can be kept exclusive. If society catches up to the cool politics of last season, the cool kids have already shifted left to more extreme positions.

It’s now high-status to be progressive. The most popular musician in the world identifies as a feminist. Teens can buy social justice-themed t-shirts at their local shopping mall. Celebrities trip over each other trying to appear enlightened (just watch the Oscars). In ultra-progressive Portland, white people aren’t even allowed to sell burritos. Social justice is in.

Because being woke is high-status, the social justice community is being overrun with status-seekers. For people with the right demographics, this often takes the form of competition over who is more oppressed, with people inflating and exaggerating their claims of oppression in order to be viewed as the most downtrodden, and thus the most deserving of elevation. This is so ubiquitous in progressive circles that it has its own name – the  Oppression Olympics. In shallow progressive circles, membership in a historically oppressed group basically grants you free license to win any conflict with a person less oppressed.1For example, in this article, Woman A stepped on Woman B’s yoga mat. Woman B gave Woman A a nasty look, and Woman A shouted at her in front of the entire class. Who is the victim? Most people would probably conclude it’s Woman B until realizing that Woman A is black and Woman B is white. Once the demographics are known, it’s clear that, obviously, Woman A is the victim deserving of sympathy and attention. 2See also “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus” by Laura Kipnis. I don’t endorse everything in this book, but it contains many, many examples of women using allegations of sexual misconduct to get what they want Because oppression is tied to status is this way, people are incentivized to make their oppression appear as awful as possible, and to minimize any oppression that they don’t personally experience.

Tag your gorepomegranates asswipe - Imgur

Arguably even more high-status than being oppressed is expressing outrage about oppression. Toxic call-out culture pervades online progressive spaces, often to ridiculous extremes. The smallest disagreement can get a person – formerly thought of as the most virtuous of allies – labeled racist, sexist, transphobe, or other term meaning “outgroup.”  Often, “you see social justice warriors from within the same community—people who know each other and have common ideological ground—tearing each other apart on social media over relatively minor disagreements.” Asam Ahmad writes:

What makes call-out culture so toxic is not necessarily its frequency so much as the nature and performance of the call-out itself. Especially in online venues like Twitter and Facebook, calling someone out isn’t just a private interaction between two individuals: it’s a public performance where people can demonstrate their wit or how pure their politics are. Indeed, sometimes it can feel like the performance itself is more significant than the content of the call-out.

A hero creating justice for all

A hero creating justice for all

Evidence shows that such callouts are self-serving, being more about assuaging our own feelings of guilt than about an altruistic pursuit of justice. Study authors found that “outrage driven by moral identity concerns serves to compensate for the threat of personal or collective immorality.” Not addressed by the study is the fact that it also gets you ally cookies.

In progressive circles, there is an extreme focus on language. To be considered adequately socially conscious, one’s language must conform to a constantly changing set of rules that only the most plugged-in can ever really know. Much like the “cool” of the 20th century, using language on the cutting edge of the trends is one way of demonstrating status. However, because of how fast culture can transmit, trends in language can shift day to day. Asam Ahmad explains:

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that there is a mild totalitarian undercurrent not just in call-out culture but also in how progressive communities police and define the bounds of who’s in and who’s out. More often than not, this boundary is constructed through the use of appropriate language and terminology – a language and terminology that are forever shifting and almost impossible to keep up with. In such a context, it is impossible not to fail at least some of the time.

Case in point: it’s no longer woke to say woke. People will tell you it’s about not appropriating black vernacular. Must just be a coincidence that it fell into disfavor at right about the time that uncool people started saying it.

Who is In, Who is Out

Scott Alexander makes a convincing case that the people who really bother us are not the people whose beliefs are the opposite of our own or who want to see us destroyed; they are they people who are almost like us, but have small differences:

So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.

When we want to hate someone, we don’t look far. Alexander’s theory is that in America, rather than hating the enemies of America, the “blue tribe” (liberals) hates the “red tribe” (conservatives), and vice versa. Toward the end, though, Alexander realized that he, an ostensible member of the blue tribe, had fun writing a giant, long post criticizing the blue tribe.

I had fun writing this article. People do not have fun writing articles savagely criticizing their in-group. People can criticize their in-group, it’s not humanly impossible, but it takes nerves of steel, it makes your blood boil, you should sweat blood. It shouldn’t be fun.

Alexander concludes that he must not be blue tribe – that he’s part of a third “gray tribe” whose outgroup is the blue tribe and the red tribe. I think this is close to accurate, but not quite. Alexander spent the beginning of his post explaining how conservatives were so rare in his social spaces that they might as well be made of dark matter. If an outgroup is “proximity plus small differences,” the red tribe fails on the “proximity” element.

My theory is that the blue tribe doesn’t really hate the red tribe. They don’t encounter the red tribe enough. What the blue tribe hates is the light blue tribe. The outgroup of progressive are moderate liberals, not conservatives. Have you ever heard a vegan talk about vegetarians? They hate them. Alexander, a moderate liberal, had a grand old time criticizing the far left. I consider myself extremely left-wing, yet here I am writing a long blog post criticizing the people who are more extreme than me. The outgroup are not our enemies. The outgroup are the people who are like us, but with small differences – which means people on our side of the political spectrum.

In social justice communities, this means that the most extreme anger and hatred are reserved for other liberals who have minor disagreements or who have made small mistakes. More energy is dedicated to attacking self-described “allies” than is spent in pursuit of actual justice. The result is that online progressive circles function like high-school cliques, where every action is scrutinized and one faux pas leads to excommunication. Who is “in” one day is “out” the next.

Defending the Status Hierarchy

Because being woke is high-status, and status relies on exclusivity, the status gatekeepers relentlessly defend their territory from unapproved people. There’s a very predictable pattern in the online left. Someone who is not well-known for being a social justice warrior – often someone white or male (or just white people in general) – starts getting attention for doing something progressive. About two days go by, and suddenly there are a dozen high-profile articles tearing down whoever it was getting all the credit. Macklemore write a dumb, kind of tone-deaf song supporting gay rights? Serious activists write about how it’s a problem that our society would rather pay attention to what a straight guy has to say about gay rights than actual queer people, but all the conversation on social media is status-seeking hacks hating on Macklemore and talking about how it’s somehow Macklemore’s fault that society works that way. I bet you even cringed to see his name brought up. I cringed a little writing it, because of how much of a social justice pariah he is. See also safety pins and that Heineken ad that people liked for two seconds. See also the difference in popularity between people who seriously engage with mens issues (which is something that anyone who actually cares about social justice would take seriously) and people who laugh at “male tears” (spoiler: male tears jokes are way more popular)

This post about rainbow Facebook profile pics perfectly illustrates this attitude: The author correctly recognizes that gay rights is being used as a fashion statement, but rather than lament the fact that our society now views social justice as just another high-status behavior along with wearing trendy clothes and listening to Kendrick Lamar (is he still cool?), the author decries that non-queer people have access to that status. To the status gatekeepers, the status hierarchy isn’t the problem, the only problem is that the wrong people have access to it.

Real Activists Hate This Shit

As performative status-seeking becomes the norm, actual activism gets pushed to the side. Freddie deBoer explains:

Over-the-top wokeness is now obligatory in media and academia, which means that much of it is performed in bad faith, with the cynical and the opportunistic now adopting that language and those tactics for their own selfish ends. Meanwhile, decent people who are sincerely committed to the actual ideals that underlie that language are forced to self-censor or else to drop out entirely.

Why I Am Not a Feminist by Jessica Crispin is a manifesto dedicated to the idea that feminism has turned into a fashion statement, and thus rendered toothless:

Feminism is:

  • a narcissistic reflexive thought process: I define myself as feminist, so everything I do is a feminist act, no matter how banal or regressive—i.e., no matter what I do, I am a hero.
  • a fight to allow women to participate equally in the oppression of the powerless and the poor
  • a method of shaming and silencing anyone who disagrees with you, inspired by a naive belief that disagreement or conflict is abuse
  • a protective system utilizing trigger warnings, politically correct language, mob rule, and straw man arguments to prevent a person from ever feeling uncomfortable or challenged
  • an attack dog posing as a kitten with a droplet of fresh milk on her nose
  • a decade-long conversation about which television show is a good television show and which television show is a bad television show
  • a bland, reworked brand of soda, focus group tested for universal palatability and inoffensiveness, scientifically proven to leach calcium from your bones, with an enormous marketing budget; tagline: “Go ahead, be a monster. You deserve it.”
  • aspiration. Those below you may be pitiable, but not really your concern. Those above you are models of behavior for attaining the best life. The best life is defined as a life of wealth, comfort, and firm buttocks.
  • all about you.

For these reasons and more, I am not a feminist.

Crispin dedicates 150 pages to the argument that feminism has been so mainstreamed and so far removed from anything that might actually change the world that the label itself is worthy of rejection. Countless other activists have made similar points recognizing that the mainstreaming of social justice has converted it into just another part of a person’s style. Committed social justice activists are even starting to come around to the idea that identities are not arguments.

What Now?

I don’t know. Crispin says the serious activists should all just leave the movement and leave the rest of us to our narcissism. As a part-time slacktivist whose volunteer work is limited to providing pro bono legal services, I don’t know what the real activists should do. I’d be happy as long as people stopped butting into my conversations to show off how enlightened they are with comments like “You are so beyond wrong. And everything yoy have said defends the ppl who perpetuate bigotry” (which got said to me when I suggested that maybe kindness is a thing we should use when it comes to language policing).

Clearly, this entire post is just a self-indulgent rant about stuff that annoys me, so feel free to ignore me, but I know I’m not the only one, and this shit really does contribute to a hostile environment in a lot of places that could benefit from being more welcoming.

UPDATE (6/9/17):

This post is a great example of what I’m talking about. The author is addressing a situation where Laci Green (a feminist Youtuber) was confronted by a group of people in a parking lot who threatened to “kick her cis ass” because five years prior, she had used the t-slur to refer to someone who self-identified that way. The author claims that the appropriate thing to do in that situation was to issue a second apology. I’m just going to paste my (slightly edited) Facebook comment:

I don’t like the point this article is making. Green’s point when talking about the incident was that people harassed her and threatened her with violence over a five-year-old video where she accidentally used an offensive slur, and apologized when it was brought to her attention. I think she rightly pointed out that being harassed and threatened with violence is not an appropriate reaction to that, and I can’t fathom why on Earth that would be controversial. This author seems to think that there is no limit to the amount of contrition people should be expected to perform for doing something problematic. I agree with Green that, given the level of offense, a short-but-sincere apology was warranted but that nothing further should be demanded. This author wants her to keep apologizing over and over every time it gets brought up, even five years later, even to people THREATENING HER WITH IMMINENT VIOLENCE.

Like, can we just focus on that for a second? She gets confronted by a group of people threatening to kick her ass, and this author thinks her first priority should be to focus on how she may have accidentally used an offensive term five years ago? This is feminism?

But yeah, I think it’s shitty to expect people to apologize over and over again for every little thing they do wrong. I think offering a sincere apology SHOULD cause people to drop the subject unless it’s a major offense. And even then, the solution isn’t to keep apologizing. It’s to find some other way to make up for the harm done.

Everyone’s made mistakes. This author’s attitude would justify harassment and threats against anyone at any time. And honestly? I suspect that’s kind of the point – to change our social norms so that if you’re ~woke~ enough, you can do whatever you want to whoever you want, and anyone who calls you on it is a racist or whatever.

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1. For example, in this article, Woman A stepped on Woman B’s yoga mat. Woman B gave Woman A a nasty look, and Woman A shouted at her in front of the entire class. Who is the victim? Most people would probably conclude it’s Woman B until realizing that Woman A is black and Woman B is white. Once the demographics are known, it’s clear that, obviously, Woman A is the victim deserving of sympathy and attention.
2. See also “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus” by Laura Kipnis. I don’t endorse everything in this book, but it contains many, many examples of women using allegations of sexual misconduct to get what they want