In 21st century America, we’re addicted to our political outrage. We’ve got to have it first thing in the morning to stir it into our coffee. Makes it so sweetly bitter, you know?
This season our outrage-laden coffee topping of choice is “wokeness.” In fact, every morning our electronic media seems to be humming with updates from the latest skirmishes in the “wokeness wars.”
Now keep in mind we live in the age of rising seas, dying oceans, and impending nuclear doom. There’s deadly drought, apocalyptic wildfire and sudden spates of superstorms. Our democracies are disappearing, global inflation is still rampaging, and…well, you get the idea.
And there’s amazing stuff, too, that we need focus on, such as the fast emerging age of fantastically powerful AIs.
So, why do we focus on wokeness of all things?
The Tar of the Demagogues
Look, I get it as a political tool. Wokeness is damned convenient if you’re a demagogue without much of a moral compass. You can harp on it all day long without saying anything of substance.
You grab the headlines and juice up your supporters with shots of outrage each morning. What’s more, it’s not just addictive to your supporters, you can boil it down to a tarry substance used to paint your “lib” enemies as hopelessly out of touch and dangerously radical.
That Sense of Threat
Some folks on the right eat it up, thriving on the thrill of outrage. Others recognize it as partisan rhetoric that nonetheless has an element of truth. They really are annoyed if not downright threatened by talk of “defunding the police” even as crime grows or of kids considering gender change before they’re old enough to drive. It all looks weird and radical and sometimes menacing.
Come On, Grow a Conscience
Meanwhile, the left thinks being woke mostly means having some semblance of a social conscience. It means staying aware of appalling injustices and acknowledging our systems are often used to maintain age-old inequities. It means sticking up for the little people. There’s nothing especially radical or controversial there.
Of course, some on the left actually do hold more radical views but they are nothing like the majority. When coming from the right, however, the term woke is intended to paint all non-rightwing views as radical.
A Word to Divide and Unite
So, the word woke is meant to divide Americans. But it’s also used to unite partisans. If I use the word woke as you do, then I’m in your group. You and I are buddies, friends, comrades in arms. We speak the same language, even if that language is so amorphous as to be meaningless when you try to pin down its meaning.
Ironically, though, it’s a also sign of fearful insecurity on both sides of the political aisle. On the right, those who fear change in values see wokeness as a threat to their more traditional mores and power structures. On the left, those who fear being marginalized and oppressed see wokeness as a way gain greater representation and recognition. In both cases, the fear of the other side is what drives the conflict. There’s typically little genuine desire to listen and understand.
A Bridge Too Far
So the wokeness wars represent an absurd and largely manufactured conflict that distract us from the important issues we should be focusing on. Instead of engaging in unproductive culture wars, we should be working to address the systemic problems in our society and find common ground where we can. This means moving beyond fear and insecurity and engaging in genuine dialogue with those who hold different views.
But that’s bloody hard and humane work. It’s so much easier to get our morning jolt of outrage and move on, our sense of insecure superiority intact. Don’t make us actually think and listen! Bridges to the other side are just bridges too far!