Wokeness as prairie fire
How I think America's crusading social justice movement will evolve in the 2020s.
“The conservatism of a religion - its orthodoxy - is the inert coagulum of a once highly reactive sap.” — Eric Hoffer
“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” — Hunter S. Thompson
It’s been a while since I wrote about wokeness and the culture wars. Back in 2021, I wrote several posts on the topic. In “Wokeness as respect redistribution”, I argued that America was ripe for social upheaval because its increasing diversity and gender inclusion in the 90s and 00s hadn’t been properly reflected in our culture or in our organizational hierarchies. In “Wokeness as old-time American religion”, I argued that wokeness isn’t a new thing or a European Marxist import, but a deep-rooted home-grown American ideology that resurfaces again and again throughout our history.
Now, almost two years later, I’ve had a chance to see how things have shaken out, and I think I have a more complete picture of where I think the saga of wokeness is headed. 2020 was the climax, 2021 was a major inflection point, and I think the story changes substantially from here on out.
A couple notes. First of all, some people see the term “wokeness” as a pejorative, but I don’t see it that way. I think it has its upsides and downsides. As Eric Hoffer pointed out in The True Believer, any crusading ideology has a tendency to go overboard, and yet without those ideologies it’s very difficult for society move forward. And if you like American civilization, then wokeness is something that you pretty much have to accept to some degree, because it’s a deep and fundamental part of that civilization.
The second note is that I’m not going to get sidetracked by trying to define exactly what “wokeness” means. In an earlier post I called it “the collection of social justice movements, discourse, and attitudes that has risen to prominence in America since around the mid-2010s”, and I’m happy with that definition; attempts to define the word rigorously inevitably go badly.
Anyway, with all that said, the point of this post is that wokeness’ role in American society is evolving as we move into the early 2020s. In particular, I see three simultaneous trends:
An increasing anti-woke pushback from conservatives
Increasing entrenchment of woke ideas and practices within liberal institutions
A general exhaustion with wokeness among thought leaders and young people
The fact that these three trends are all happening at the same time makes me think of the metaphor of a prairie fire.
Prairie fires burn hot at the edges and burn out at the center
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