‘Woke’ is the New ‘Saved’
Alan Jacobs has written a really important essay for anyone who cares about free speech or higher education. It’s in highly academic prose. I earned a Ph.D. in English, which entailed studying abstruse “critical theory.” But I found Jacobs’ essay slow going. That’s fine. He was speaking to his fellow professors. Because his message is so crucial, let me translate it. If you have college-age kids, you need to know what they’re in for. (I edited a book-shaped vaccine against college-based insanity, Disorientation, which many have told me proved useful to their students.)
There’s a reason why so many college students don’t care about “free expression,” “open debate,” and rational discussion. Not when the views presented offend them. For centuries, we thought of most colleges — apart maybe from seminaries — as places where students would have to encounter such views. The liberal arts, which depend on open debate and dispute, were born in medieval universities. They carried on in deeply Christian colleges after the Reformation on both sides of the Tiber.
A New Gospel
Nationwide, with some exceptions, students, professors, and administrators have turned their backs on this tradition. The reason? As Jacobs shows, it is religious. Before him, Andrew Sullivan proposed the provocative thesis that the movement uniting radical students and teachers today, “Intersectionality,” is really a whole new creed. And an intolerant one. As Sullivan wrote:
“Intersectionality” is the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy. On the surface, it’s a recent neo-Marxist theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power. …
It is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy,” and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.
Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.
The New Road to Faith
Jacobs builds on Sullivan’s insight and goes into much further depth. He shows how the social justice movement on campus does much of the work that a real religion would do. It offers some of the same psychic rewards.
Here’s how it works: By listening to professors, or following peer pressure, a student discovers that the world is deeply wrong. Permeated by evil. Its evil is inequality. And that evil has an author: straight white males.
Realizing the depth and extent of this all-pervading evil comes as a kind of conversion. One wakes up. Then one is “woke.” That’s SJW-speak for “saved.” Hence the first moment of faith. “I once was lost but now am found./ Was blind but now I see.”
Joining the Righteous
If a student belongs to any other group but straight white males, then she is in luck: She’s certified as a victim. She deserves special treatment from everyone from college deans to government bureaucrats. Even better, she should feel virtuous for wallowing in anger and resentment. No matter if she’s Malia Obama. She can righteously seethe with rage at jobless white coal miners, or homeless white veterans. Her sense of victimhood gives her the “blessed assurance” that she is part of the Elect.
By listening to professors, or following peer pressure, a student discovers that the world is deeply wrong. Permeated by evil. Its evil is inequality. And that evil has an author: straight white males. Realizing the depth and extent of this all-pervading evil comes as a kind of conversion.
This creed offers salvation even to the worst of sinners, straight white males. The price is steep: a life of self-denial and penance. But for those who walk this path, rewards await. You can attain justification. Not by your own efforts — but by the righteousness that suffering, innocent victims (non-straights, non-whites, non-males) can impute to you. As an “ally” of the less privileged, you earn the same right to despise the mass of oppressors. And feminists will date you, for whatever that’s worth.
Growing in Wokiness
Go deeper into the cult, and the disciplines get more rigorous. Now white women must admit their role in oppressing women of color. This requires some of the groveling that white males must endure. But it offers the same benefit: a sense of forgiveness, and spiritual progress. Likewise black males must atone to women of color. All straights must bow down to gays. Even gays must make amends for their insensitivity to “trans” people. I am not sure to whom “trans” people of color must apologize. But give intellectuals time, and they’ll find someone. Or invent them.
This new religious movement apes the structure of a Christian conversion, and of subsequent life in the Spirit. It does so, of course, at a much shallower level. It replaces worship with protest. Spirituality with unhinged histrionics. Examination of conscience with the scapegoating of others conveniently dead or out of power.
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The Fall and Redemption
This creed also mimics Christian salvation history. The straight white male is the phallic serpent in the Garden. In one place after another, these aggressive oppressors found a pre-lapsarian paradise. And in each case, we paved it and made it a parking lot.
To keep up this myth of the Fall, and its tempter, progressives have to ignore a lot of facts. They have to whitewash:
- The fact of Arab-run slavery in Africa before Europeans arrived.
- The cruelties and slaughters of the Muslim conquests from Spain to India.
- The savage wars, routine torture, and environmental devastation that marked the lives of North American Indians.
- The ritual cannibalism practiced by the genocidal Aztecs.
- The theological tyranny wielded by upper-class Hindus over millions of “untouchables.”
Likewise in sexual politics, social justice warriors must wish away:
- The brutal cost of abortion in innocent lives and women’s mental health.
- The collapse of the human birthrate everywhere that feminism has arrived.
- The decline of marriage, and the explosion of single mothers dependent on the government.
- The obsession of gay male culture with promiscuity and youth, including underage boys.
- The abundant evidence that biological sex is real, and “trans” fantasies are symptoms of mental illness.
Playing Martyr and Burning Witches
Accepting any of these facts would shatter the sweet certitude of a life of faith. Those who try to speak of them in the name of “academic freedom” are in fact committing blasphemy. They aren’t challenging students’ views, but attacking their new identity. They’re not educating students, but trying to contaminate them. So believers must flee the occasion of sin — or better yet, expel the unbeliever. No wonder students need “safe spaces” in which they’ll feel protected. To them these are the catacombs, and conservatives on campus are Caesar’s soldiers, come to seize the holy books and desecrate the altars.
You can’t really argue with zealots like this. They’ve constructed a palace of funhouse mirrors in which to live. Their new, fantastic religion takes up all the space where real faith in Christ could live. And that’s the best evidence we have of its origin: demonic.