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The Woke Equilibrium

Osita Nwanevu
7 min read
The Woke Equilibrium
Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash

Hey all,

I thought I’d take a post to share some of the culture writing I’ve liked in recent weeks. These are all pieces about identity politics, a subject that I’ve essentially tired of addressing myself. In most of the pieces I’ve done in this lane, I’ve made the argument that woke panic is partially about denying that cultural progressives have the capacity to reason ⁠— if “woke” ideas are just the ravings of “religious” fanatics or the mentally unwell, they can be dismissed out of hand. But, obviously, cultural progressives have the capacity not only for reason and debate but for self-criticism ⁠— I don’t think it’s trivial that “political correctness,” being “cancelled,” and staying “woke” were all terms of ironic self-deprecation before they were adopted by conservatives and reactionary liberals. The positive shifts we’ve seen in the public’s attitudes on race and other cultural issues have been accompanied by excesses; there are plenty of identity grifters running about. I don’t think that can be denied. But I think we’re reaching a point of level-headed equilibrium and consensus with cancel culture and all the rest that ought to have been expected by those who jumped straight into their Mao allusions at the outset. And I think these pieces capture the new mood well.

At Gawker last month, Jenny Zhang wrote a widely and deservedly praised essay on what she calls “Identity Fraud” ⁠— the transformation of identity, by cynics, strivers, and sociopaths, “ into a rhetorical cudgel, alternately used to silence detractors and assume a kind of moral posture”:

What are we asking for when we say there aren’t enough people of color in a place of cultural power and influence? Where I would have once staked my ambition on becoming one of the few diversity hires (😉) atop a masthead, or joining the few accomplished names winning prestigious awards, I now see that so much of how I and others talk about diversity, inclusion, and progress in this context is rooted in barely couched professional self-interest rather than a real commitment to upending the insular elitism that defines so much of how this industry works. There are newsroom leaders, like disgraced Ozy CEO Carlos Watson — and plenty more, I promise you that — who make diversity essential to their image to mask ineptitude, dishonesty, or mistreatment of employees. It’s hard not to feel that much of the endeavor, while perhaps worthwhile in some regards, ultimately rings hollow.
There are countless other examples of how identity is used as a shield and a tool. Some of them date back decades; it was 30 years ago that Clarence Thomas, accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, called the hearings against him “a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.” [...] But even more common and overwhelming are the instances that can be found online, especially on social media platforms like Twitter, where the lexicon and behaviors of progressivism are modeled, disseminated, and distorted by journalists, activists, fauxtivists, politicians, entrepreneurs, academics, screenwriters, celebrities, fans, teens, shitposters, and all the other kinds of people awash in the discourse froth at any given moment. It is a place for one-uppance and clout building, not nuance or good faith.

Other worthwhile pieces on the same wavelength include Bertrand Cooper’s July piece in Current Affairs on pseudo-representation in the entertainment industry and Georgetown professor Olúfémi Táíwò’s piece earlier this year on “standpoint epistemology” ⁠— the name we ought to be giving to the progressive logic and rhetoric of “lived experience.” I think Táíwò’s piece is particularly good in its illustrations of how flawed that understanding of representation can be⁠— even when its being promoted by well-meaning non-grifters acting in good faith. “The call to ‘listen to the most affected’ or ‘centre the most marginalized’ is ubiquitous in many academic and activist circles,’” he wrote. “But it’s never sat well with me.”

Broadly, the norms of putting standpoint epistemology into practice call for practices of deference: giving offerings, passing the mic, believing. These are good ideas in many cases, and the norms that ask us to be ready to do them stem from admirable motivations: a desire to increase the social power of marginalized people identified as sources of knowledge and rightful targets of deferential behaviour. But deferring in this way as a rule or default political orientation can actually work counter to marginalized groups’ interests, especially in elite spaces.
Some rooms have outsize power and influence: the Situation Room, the newsroom, the bargaining table, the conference room. Being in these rooms means being in a position to affect institutions and broader social dynamics by way of deciding what one is to say and do. Access to these rooms is itself a kind of social advantage, and one often gained through some prior social advantage. From a societal standpoint, the “most affected” by the social injustices we associate with politically important identities like gender, class, race, and nationality are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, underemployed, or part of the 44 percent of the world’s population without internet access – and thus both left out of the rooms of power and largely ignored by the people in the rooms of power. Individuals who make it past the various social selection pressures that filter out those social identities associated with these negative outcomes are most likely to be in the room. That is, they are most likely to be in the room precisely because of ways in which they are systematically different from (and thus potentially unrepresentative of) the very people they are then asked to represent in the room.

Recently and relatedly, The New York Times’ Jay Caspian Kang took on the practice of assigning book reviews to writers by identity:

In 2019 the author Victor LaValle tweeted, “Reviewing books while Black often means being given books with no relation to your field. You & the author are both black so … good enough! That [expletive] gets tiring.”
For the first 10 or so years of my career, I was asked to review only Asian books. I would usually agree, even though I assumed that my identity was why I had been chosen. After a while, I stopped taking those assignments because I felt as if I had been pigeonholed and also because I didn’t think my personal background really brought any particular insight to the book. When I would pitch reviews of books by non-Asian authors, I would usually be ignored.
It should also be said that review segregation does not take place across the board. Many reviews are still written by critics, especially those who are on staff, whose identities don’t necessarily match up with the characters’, subject matter or authors'. I have been a close observer of this phenomenon for years, and from what I can tell, identity pairing seems to happen most often with books that are young adult fiction or memoirs or are about race.
[...] Today’s instances of review segregation seem to me to be pretty reductive. Is an Asian American, for example, seen as fit to review another Asian American’s book with the full assumption that those very important “lived experiences” match up in some meaningful way? If so, I think that is nonsense. No people are a monolith.
There is certainly value in having reviewers who have gone through something that may inspire a deeper, more impassioned review, but in my experience, the rules of review segregation rarely ask any questions beyond “What box did you check on the census?”

Lastly, on a slightly different tack, Michael Hobbes of the You’re Wrong About podcast has become a pretty skilled and committed debunker of anti-woke anecdotes. I used to spend a lot of time on Twitter doing the same, but I really don’t have the heart or patience for it anymore, and I’m glad there are more people taking that up now. In a recent Substack post, he tackled a pair of pieces in The Atlantic and The Economist exemplifying the habits and distortions that sustain wokeness discourse and moral panics more generally:

The writers and editors of these stories, when pressed, often claim that they’re simply exploring a social phenomenon. What’s the harm in talking how norms on the left are changing?
This is a bait and switch. The articles we’re discussing here are called “The New Puritans” and “The Threat From The Illiberal Left.” Nothing about their presentation implies that the danger of the left is minuscule compared to right-wing authoritarianism. A far greater number of people will see the title, skim the content or glance at a newsstand than will ever read these stories in full, much less internalize their self-admitted weaknesses.
This is how moral panics happen. In the 1990s, hundreds of articles warned Americans about the dangers of “political correctness,” a right-wing swamp fungus that functioned almost exclusively as a tool to discredit progressive demands. In the 1980s we got “stranger danger,” a nationwide ulcer of anxiety about creeps in white vans kidnapping children. By the time journalists got around to debunking it (there’s only around 100 stranger kidnappings per year in the entire U.S.), we’d already passed a wave of laws that expanded mass incarceration — and did nothing whatsoever to keep children safe.
Same thing with the “frivolous lawsuits” panic. According to a 2016 poll, 87 percent of Americans still think there are “too many lawsuits filed in America.” Irresponsible coverage of the McDonald’s hot coffee case, as well as credulous retellings of other non-representative anecdotes, resulted in a significant erosion of legal rights for consumers. It is now much harder for Americans to sue corporations that harm us — and it was already hard enough when Stella Liebeck pulled up to that drive-through.
Moral panics entrench misinformation and foment reactionary backlash. The parents storming town halls and taking over school boards to ban critical race theory have been explicit that their efforts are in response to the alleged “wokeness” of K-12 teaching. This is precisely, word for word, the narrative that the Economist and Atlantic articles, and dozens like them, have promoted.

Let me know if there’s other writing on identity you think I ought to check and shout out: Good night.