Defining “Wokeness”: Socratic Dialogues with Bethany Mandel

The Bethany Mandel “define wokeness” controversy manages to be illuminating and absurd at the same time. Mandel, for the uninitiated, is an American anti-woke polemicist who’s apparently written a book on the subject of wokeness, and generally made a sophistical career of attacking it. She was recently invited to a YouTube talk show on wokeness, and asked to define the term. Turns out she didn’t have a definition. When asked for one, she managed instead to draw an embarrassing blank on her would-be area of specialization, babble a bit, and look like an all-round idiot.

As it happens, I don’t think “wokeness” is all that hard to define. Depending on who’s using it, the term “wokeness” has either a positive or a negative sense. In its positive sense, “wokeness” is vigilance about or alertness to injustice, along with an eager readiness to call it out, and a refusal to accept complicity in it. In its negative sense, “wokeness” is hyper-vigilance about perceived injustices that are alleged to be there but aren’t,  combined with a tendency to engage in carping criticisms or denunciation of venial or non-existent offenses.

The Left tends to favor the first sense of “wokeness,” the Right favors the second, but partisan allegiances aside, both senses refer to real things in the world. There is a laudable form of wokeness: sensitivity to and intolerance of genuine injustice are obviously preferable to their contraries. And there’s a problematic form of it, as well: it trivializes justice and injustice to find a slight in every assertion, or express a grievance about every action, simply because some way of putting things or doing things rubs one the wrong way. The ideal, one would think, would be to find the mean between these extremes–to express alertness to real injustice while expressing tolerance of or magnanimity about trivial slights. It’s harder to pull off in practice than it is to state in words, but not as difficult as it’s often made out to be, and certainly not impossible.

What should be obvious is that the two senses of “woke” involve a difference of emphasis, not a logical incompatibility. Those who favor the positive sense tend to be impressed by the prevalence or frequency of real injustices in the world, and want to go after them. They have a point; there are plenty of those. Those who favor the negative sense focus on false positives: false accusations, excessive denunciation, disproportional punishment, and the like. They too have a point: there are plenty of those. At the end of the day, the difference between the two senses involves a conceptually trivial distinction between those who focus on one thing and those who focus on the other. It is, of course, possible to keep both things in focus. I recommend it, in fact. Arguably, that’s what real wokeness requires. Or call it perspicacity, if you prefer. 

Three add-on observations. 

(1) I find it amusing that for all of the attacks I’ve heard over the years from non-academics about the failings of academics, I can’t think of a single academic philosopher who would have made the rookie mistake that Mandel has made here (much less of calling attention to it, or making excuses for it, or demanding pity for it in Newsweek). No academic philosopher–at least none that I’ve encountered in a two-decades-long career–would walk into an adversarial discussion of “wokeness” without a definition of the term, or at least something intelligent to say about its meaning, and expect to be taken seriously.

Mandel did. Called out for it, she blamed her interlocutor, took refuge in having a “panic attack,” broke down crying, and demanded our sympathy–all in the name of the right to be meaner to people! I doubt that Mandel, in her current incarnation, would survive the first minute of the average Q&A at a philosophy conference. But insensitive as I am, I’d love to see it happen. Maybe it’s time for non-academics to dial back the derision they seem to have for academics, despite not being able to do what academics regularly do.

(2) A corollary of the preceding observation is that our discourse would be greatly improved if people more regularly demanded definitions of controversial terms, as was done in this case. I don’t mean to imply that every term anyone ever uses is susceptible of a crisp definition, but some are, and those that aren’t require special explanation. A “deer in the headlights” look followed by a set of hand-waving excuses and evasions is not an explanation. 

(3) Finally, what’s clarifying about this controversy is how it divides the semantic wheat from the chaff. What the controversy inadvertently makes clear is that the terms most in need of clarification here are not “wokeness” and its contrary (whatever that happens to be) but “justice” and “injustice.” “Wokeness” is a kind of adjunct to justice and injustice; it’s alertness (or not) to those things. So “wokeness” is not, despite the abundance of commentary about it, a term with a determinate stand-alone meaning. It might be time to recognize that, and speak accordingly. I realize that doing so might impede the progress of a lot careers that revolve heavily around “woke talk” as a free-standing subject of its own. But as someone who doesn’t have such a career, and has little patience or respect for those who do, I can’t say that I care. 

In short, the relevant question is not “What is wokeness?” but “What is justice?” Appropriately enough, that’s the opening question of Plato’s Republic, arguably the foundational text of moral and political philosophy in the Western tradition. And strangely enough, by the middle of the Republic–after discussing justice and injustice–Plato himself starts to talk about “wokeness.” Funny how that works. Could it be that “wokeness” is baked into the very foundations of that much-touted but little-understood thing, “Western Civilization”? Possibly. But to figure that out, you have to turn away from the computer screen, and either read a book, or just think hard about things. Revolutionary, I know. Revolutionary by design. 

4 thoughts on “Defining “Wokeness”: Socratic Dialogues with Bethany Mandel

    • Thanks! I do think I left one important thing to implication, however. In the first sense, “woke” is a success term. In the second sense, “woke” is meant ironically or sarcastically.

      Personally, I use it the first way, not the second. But my point was, whichever way you use it, you have to take seriously the claims of the other way of using it. Both sets of users have a point.

      If you use “woke” as a success term, you have to acknowledge that the success in question is a fallible achievement. In order to succeed, you have to be right about the nature of justice, and right about the degree of attention you pay to what’s salient about it. That’s not self-evident or trivial. The legitimacy of the second, sarcastic sense is explained by the frequency of failures with respect to success. The more failures there are, the more traction that sarcastic sense comes to have. It has traction because there are plenty of failures. But “plenty of failures” doesn’t entail “no successes.”

      I’ve got another post coming on the Michael Knowles “eradicate transgenderism” controversy. Couple of days, maybe.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’ll have to go back to my Plato. What’s wokeness in ancient Greek? I wonder if wokeness or lack of is not just about justice but about guilt and taking responsibility. To some extent there may be agreement on what’s unjust but some of us are keen to take personal responsibility while others reject that idea. So you get the woke earnestly confessing their white cisgender heteronormative privilege while the antiwoke go screw that where’s my white pride Maga hat? We all… mostly…agree that being racist is bad, but some of us refuse to accept that we are. Eventually people respond by going, ok, if there’s no escape from having fingers pointed, I’ll come out and proud. I am a racist, racism is good! Is the challenge of wokeness a matter of how to defend and point out what’s just and right without being a pain in the butt? Which means, don’t go a lot further than the majority are willing to concede, at any given time?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I regard Plato as the first theorist of wokeness, which is why I find the polemicists who argue against wokeness as though it was some offense against “Western Civilization” so ingenuous (or disingenuous). Once you’re primed to see them, the sleeping/dreaming/waking metaphors in Plato are impossible to miss.

      From the Apology:

      [30e] For if you put me to death, you will not easily find another, who, to use a rather absurd figure, attaches himself to the city as a gadfly to a horse, which, though large and well bred, is sluggish on account of his size and needs to be aroused by stinging. I think the god fastened me upon the city in some such capacity, and I go about arousing,

      Socrates was woke.

      I regard Books V-VII of Plato’s Republic, and above all, the Allegory of the Cave, as the Ur texts of wokeness. This passage happens to be about beauty, but could just as well be about justice:

      “And on the other hand, will not those be few who would be able to approach beauty itself and contemplate it in and by itself?” [476c] “They would, indeed.” “He, then, who believes in beautiful things, but neither believes in beauty itself nor is able to follow when someone tries to guide him to the knowledge of it—do you think that his life is a dream or a waking3? Just consider. Is not the dream state, whether the man is asleep or awake, just this: the mistaking of resemblance for identity?” “I should certainly call that dreaming,” he said. “Well, then, take the opposite case: the man whose thought recognizes a beauty in itself, [476d] and is able to distinguish that self-beautiful and the things that participate in it, and neither supposes the participants to be it nor it the participants—is his life, in your opinion, a waking or a dream state?” “He is very much awake,” he replied.

      “Could we not rightly, then, call the mental state of the one as knowing, knowledge, and that of the other as opining, opinion?” “Assuredly.” “Suppose, now, he who we say opines but does not know should be angry and challenge our statement as not true. [476e] Can we find any way of soothing him and gently winning him over, without telling him too plainly that he is not in his right mind?” “We must try,” he said.

      Even the reaction Plato describes is on target. Call yourself “woke,” and people will get angry. Now we have the job of “soothing” them.

      In his Seventh Letter, Plato describes a wordless form of knowledge that “flames up” in the knower: it could without much trouble be translated as “illuminating” the knower. (I don’t have it in front of me, and I’m forgetting the Greek word here.) But that’s a state of wokeness.

      I agree that wokeness is about blaming, shaming, and demanding accountability. I agree that the dynamic you’re describing certainly arises: people pushed too far push back. And an overly judgmental culture will lead people to over-compensate from the other direction. This was a big theme of my wife’s (who was one of the notable over-compensators). But that just suggests that we have to keep blaming and shaming etc. in check or proportion. There may be places where it’s gotten out of control, but there are plenty of places where there’s a huge dearth of wokeness. People have a tendency to focus on very narrow cases (e.g., canceling people for not knowing what to think about gender transitions), but there’s a whole universe beyond those cases.

      “Is the challenge of wokeness a matter of how to defend and point out what’s just and right without being a pain in the butt?” There’s no avoiding being a pain in the butt to someone, somewhere. The challenge is to know how and when to do it.


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