Woke: the new religion?
The new culture has aspects of an old-style Great Awakening, says Toby Young For the past three years, in my capacity as general secretary of the Free Speech Union, I’ve been one of the leaders of the Anti-Woke Coalition. That’s my term for the loose collection of writers, journalists, broadcasters, artists, podcasters, YouTubers, Substackers, academics, The post Woke: the new religion? appeared first on Catholic Herald.
The new culture has aspects of an old-style Great Awakening, says Toby Young
For the past three years, in my capacity as general secretary of the Free Speech Union, I’ve been one of the leaders of the Anti-Woke Coalition. That’s my term for the loose collection of writers, journalists, broadcasters, artists, podcasters, YouTubers, Substackers, academics, intellectuals and politicians who are united in their opposition to the new authoritarian ideology that has swept through the English-speaking world over the past ten years. This movement has many names – postmodern neo-Marxism, the successor ideology, critical social justice theory – but the most common is woke, or some variation on it.
It’s been described it as a cult, as in the “intersectionality cult”, but that implies a small group of people, organised around a charismatic leader, with socially deviant beliefs. Wokeism, by contrast, is a movement that boasts tens if not hundreds of millions of adherents. A recent USA Today/Ipsos poll found a majority of Americans see wokeness as a positive attribute. Moreover, the core beliefs of the devotees aren’t in any sense deviant. They reason that English-speaking countries are systemically racist; that we’re in the midst of a “climate emergency”; that capitalism is responsible for most of the world’s ills; that sex as well as gender is a social construct; that people’s identities are forged by their membership of certain groups (particularly race); and that different identity groups can be ranked according to how “oppressed” they are, with the most beleaguered victims being the most sacred.
On the contrary, they comprise the reigning orthodoxy of the intellectual-professional class in Britain and America – and since 2020 in continental Europe, too. It is those who challenge these shibboleths who are the deviants. Indeed, publicly to dissent from these prevailing attitudes is to risk social ostracisation and professional ruin. Wokeism may have begun life as a cult when it was still being engineered in the grievance studies departments of Ivy League universities by people such as Judith Butler and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, but there’s been a lab leak of what Elon Musk calls the “woke mind virus”. It would now be more accurate to describe it as a religion. That’s hardly an original observation, but it’s worth reiterating. The beliefs outlined above are not based on science or reason, but on dogma. It has its own religious symbols – the rainbow flag – as well as a liturgy, including Black History Month and Transgender Day of Remembrance. It even has its own rites – taking the knee, “doing the work”, engaging in public bouts of racial self-flagellation. And it acquired its first martyr in George Floyd.
The idea that wokeism is the first new religion of the 21st century is why it’s sometimes described, half-jokingly, as the “Great Awokening”, implicitly comparing it to other outbreaks of religious fervour in the modern period. There have been an estimated four “Great Awakenings” in the past 300 years, the first lasting about 25 years, the second and third 50 or more, and the fourth in the 1960s and 1970s lasting about 20.
Paradoxically, even though the rise of this new religion has coincided with the decline of Christian worship in the English-speaking world – particularly among middle-class, middle-aged white women – which suggests it’s filling a “God-shaped hole”, it has made converts within the established Churches, particularly the Church of England. Yet some of wokeism’s most energetic opponents are orthodox Christians, such as Peter Hitchens, as well as Catholic and Jewish intellectuals such as Yoram Hazony. Jordan Peterson (whose wife and daughter are Catholic) peppers his books with biblical and Christian references. They appear to have the best antibodies to the woke mind virus.
Many observers trace the origins of the current awakening to around 2013, making it about ten years old. Does that mean we’re in for at least another decade of wokeism? One reason for thinking it might subside more quickly than previous religious movements is that its growth has been accelerated by social media and – presumably – its decline will be too. Twitter, in particular, has been one of the chief platforms for the dissemination of woke ideology, as well as for punishing those who dissent from it. That has started to change since Twitter was bought by Musk, although it may revert to type if he sells it to someone else.
There are other reasons for thinking the woke pendulum has reached its highest point. One is that it appears to be losing momentum. The extraordinary growth of this new religious movement is partly because its zealots have successfully persuaded people that they’re “on the right side of history”. It’s unstoppable, in other words, so why not get with the programme? This is a conversion technique borrowed from Marxism, but no less effective for that.
However, there are signs that being woke is no longer as fashionable as it was. Take the fact that the unashamedly patriotic Top Gun: Maverick was the highest-grossing film of last year, while films with an overtly progressive agenda –The Woman King, Bros, She Said, Lightyear, Strange World– all tanked.
Batgirl, a new movie set in the DC cinematic universe in which the central character is a woman of colour and her best friend is trans, has been shelved indefinitely by the new head of Warner Bros for being “irredeemably woke”, even though the studio had al- ready spent $100 million on it.
These portents of the zeitgeist make wokeism look less like an unstoppable force and more like a fad whose time has passed. Once the victory of the social justice warriors ceases to look historically inevitable, many of the less committed will begin to fall by the wayside.
Wokeism has also suffered some recent reversals in public policy, most notably over the trans issue. Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to go all-in on the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, risking a constitutional crisis, made it difficult for her to distance herself from the Scottish Prison Service when a male sex offender, who is now a trans woman, was transferred to a women’s prison, ultimately resulting in Sturgeon’s downfall.
We’ve witnessed the same public backlash against trans over-reach in the United States, with parental anger over the teaching of gender identity ideology in schools contributing to the landslide gubernatorial victories of Glenn Youngkin and Ron DeSantis. Critical race theory appears to be equally unpopular with parents outside the Democrat strongholds.
Another sign is the boycott of Bud Light beer after it made the catastrophic error of enlisting the trans “influencer” Dylan Mulvaney as a brand ambassador. But before we get too carried away, it’s worth remembering that wokeism has never been contingent on public support – “Get woke, go broke” has been true for as long as the new religion has existed. One of its most remarkable characteristics is that its growth seems to be in inverse proportion to its failure at the ballot box.
As left-wing political parties have been captured by a new generation of progressive activists, they’ve suffered some humiliating defeats, most notably Labour’s catastrophic losses in the general election of 2019. But the Conservative victory in that election didn’t turn the clock back by a single second, to paraphrase Evelyn Waugh. The long march through the institutions continued.
No matter how many elections they lose, the liberal extremists always seem to be winning the culture war. Indeed, political opposition seems to suit the woke warriors better than political power.
Donald Trump proved to be a great recruit ing sergeant, seeming to confirm their fear-mongering about the risk white ethno-nationalism posed to minorities (ignoring the fact that Trump outperformed the 2012 Mitt Romney campaign in minority vote share). Even if the optimists are right and we’ve reached peak woke, a Trump victory in the 2024 pres idential election could act like a defibrillator, bringing a dying movement back to life.
Another reason is that socially conservative political leaders have proved unwilling to repeal the legislation that underpins the activists’ influence, such as the Civil Rights Res toration Act of 1987 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991. As NS Lyons put it in an interview in Aporia last year, unless these laws are repealed, alongside executive orders mandating equality impact assessments and the like, the stranglehold of human resources departments in American workplaces will not be broken and, according to him, they are “the key pipeline pumping cultural pollution from the academy into every corner of society”.
In the UK, the seminal piece of legislation was the Equality Act of 2010. It is this piece of legislation, passed in the dying days of Gordon Brown’s ministry and designed to embed Labour’s egalitarian ideology into the fabric of the British state, that has been responsible for the explosion of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) officers in the public sector.
According to “Defunding Politically Motivated Campaigns”, a recent report from Conservative Way Forward based on FOI requests submitted to 6,000 public bodies, there are now 10,000 EDI jobs – all created under successive Conservative prime ministers – and they’re being funded by the British taxpayer to the tune of £557 million a year.
The NHS employs 800 EDI officers at a cost of £40 million, while Britain’s 175 universities each employ on average four EDI officers at a cost of £30.2 million. In departments across Whitehall, there are a total of 255, costing tax payers £11.5 million a year. That’s not takinginto account the proliferation of similar EDI jobs in the charity sector (subsidised by the state) and the private sector (complemented by corporate social responsibility and environmental, social and governance programmes).
Given such widespread institutional capture, it may not matter if the next generation to enter the workforce is less impressed by critical race theory or gender identity ideology than their immediate predecessors. Most survey evidence suggests Gen Z (teenagers to 30-year-olds) are even more woke than millennials (those in their 30s and early 40s), though not on the continent.
These ideas could go out of fashion and still retain their currency. In the absence of repealing the Equality Act, recapturing Britain’s public institutions won’t be easy. While electorates across the Anglosphere keep rejecting woke polices – even Californians saw off an attempt to lift the state ban on affirmative action in 2020 – there isn’t much public support for repealing woke laws.
One thing about the Equality Act that isn’t widely understood is that it didn’t create much in the way of new law. Rather, it grouped to gether several laws that were already on the statute book, such as the Equal Pay Act 1970, and put them all in a single act of parliament. It’s doubtful the British public has much appetite to repeal laws that in some cases have been around for more than 50 years.
Indeed, the most recent British Social Attitudes survey found that support for equality laws is increasing: 73 per cent of people surveyed thought rights for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals “had not gone far enough” or were “about right”, compared with 62 per cent in 2011.
Yet there are reasons to be cheerful: the prelates of the new order keep cancelling some of the greatest individuals in history. In the past few months, Shakespeare, Picasso and PG Wodehouse have all been cancelled by radical activists. They join Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln, James Watson, the inventor of statistics, Charles Darwin, Philip Larkin, Ezra Pound, JK Rowling, Dr Seuss and Roald Dahl.
At some point you’d think the penny would drop among the activists that fuming about these luminaries alongside their opponents isn’t the best way to discredit them. Ultimately, it is the emptiness of woke ideology, its absence of humour, that will lead to its demise. It’s what George Orwell called a “smelly little orthodoxy”, which is why it has inspired no great literature, no great art. It’s an intellectual desert, a cultural wasteland that could never produce a poem as great as
“The Wasteland”, even if it was written by a dead white European male. Cancel him, why don’t you? We’ll happily admit TS Eliot to our ranks. And in an alliance between free-thinkers of past and present, we’ll return to sanity.
(Toby Young is a journalist and the founder and director of the Free Speech Union)
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