In recent resurgent debate about the meaning of the term “woke,” one important component of the concept, especially when the term gets used in a pejorative way, is “highly sensitive.” Whether you take that to mean “admirably empathic,” as do many on the left, or “oversensitive to the point of making communication impossible,” as do many on the right, the sensitivity seems baked into the usual working definition of the term now.
And if oversensitivity is by definition bad, both right and left must be condemned for being woke as hell these days, albeit about different matters.
Somewhere right now, there might even be a member of the right-adjacent Q cult angry at me for mocking one of their slogans with the title of this column (for years, they anticipated a “storm” of arrests for treason among Trump’s enemies, not Trump’s own arrest for improper hush-money payments to porn star/mistress Stormy Daniels). Certainly, Trump and his most earnest supporters are a tad prickly, and we’re past the point at which one could plausibly maintain that if all of Trump’s scandals were happening to a left-wing politician, no one would criticize that politician.
A persecution complex looks a lot like a form of wokeness, in the negative sense of the term. If a man threatened with arrest risks stirring his followers to another J6 melee—but in the heart of Manhattan this time—he just might be doing so out of oversensitivity and thin-skinnedness. I say this even while thinking it’d be delightful if Trump avoided sedition charges, were thus legally able to run for president again, and, if elected, made good on his recent vow to “destroy the deep state”—better yet, if he destroyed the state, meaning government, altogether.
These events are unlikely, though, to put it mildly. So, Trump and likely more than a few of his followers are left with feelings of wokeness—pardon me, frustration—comparable to those of, say, the angry and semi-amnesiac (but thoroughly sympathetic) domestic terrorist character played by Chris Pratt in the awesome Amazon espionage TV series The Terminal List—which had a telling, high 94 percent audience approval rating when it came out last year and an equally telling, low 40 percent critics approval rating.
I suspect the critics, ever alert for something dangerously non-woke, noticed that the series’ combo of villains—the military-industrial complex, deceitful pharmaceutical companies, the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the Chinese Communist Party, and to some extent the media—wasn’t exactly the array of polluters and sexists the critics want to see heroes fighting and furthermore bore a great resemblance to Trump’s own list of enemies.
But the series raises the necessary question of whether its protagonist has crossed an inappropriate line by turning to violence, and likewise we can reasonably ask whether anyone should flip out, pitch a fit, or get into Weimar-like street brawls over small political disagreements. At the very same time, we can also reasonably ask whether people are going too far by shouting down speakers quietly lecturing in college halls, covertly banning their foes’ social media accounts, or insisting that old-fashioned pronoun use is a form of murder.
With help from tech, people flip out over so many topics in such rapid succession today, as compared to the glacial pace of the 20th-century politics, that certain “strange attractors” should by now be faintly visible, patterns amidst the seeming chaos. One main lesson: whatever the purported issues of the moment, the major political tribes will fight like hell as if each disagreement is a hostile border crossing likely portending a brutal strike at the heart of their (philosophical or literal) territory.
You know the issues themselves are malleable and easily replaced by others when, like me, you’ve lived long enough to see, for example, conservatives go from saying adultery and porn are existential threats to the republic to seeing them ready to man the barricades to defend their leader from being arrested over an affair with a porn star. If you tell me with a straight face that this is in no way a shift in or compromise of right-wing principles, I say you’ve suffered as drastic an impairment of your senses of humor and irony as if—well, as if you were a woke leftist upset about something.
The real dividing lines, in short, are increasingly tribal, not philosophical. It’s fitting that I’m compelled to admit one great insight on tribal conflict comes from the mind of a white supremacist writer who thinks we may be living in a computer simulation—no doubt making him, in some readers’ minds, doubly or triply disqualified to comment on reality. Far-right writer Vox Day, tired of hearing religion blamed for causing most of history’s wars, admirably went to the trouble of checking what mainstream historians say were the actual causes of each known war in history, and unlike most of us who blather on such topics, he dutifully toted up the wars resulting from each major type of cause.
Acknowledging that there will always be vagueness and disagreement, he nonetheless reached two interesting conclusions. First, religion wasn’t an especially likely cause. Second, on the other hand, almost anything—very much including religion—that can be used to demarcate two tribes, or two halves of one tribe, is likely to become at some point an excuse for warfare. Two faiths? Two political creeds? Two skin colors? A river that runs through the middle of the contested land? Two languages? Shirts and skins? Red and blue? Table A vs. Table B, to summarize one of many psych experiments testing this principle? If you can tell two groups apart, they’ll at some point likely fight over the distinction, basically. And each group will probably think the other is overreacting.
Even the conservative writer who sparked this month’s resurgent debate on the meaning of “wokeness”—Bethany Mandel, who froze when asked in a video interview to define the term, despite co-authoring a book denouncing the phenomenon—can be prickly and sensitive if she thinks it’s her tribe under attack. I don’t recommend deliberately saying or thinking anything anti-Semitic, but I think it’s fair to say from some of her past comments that she gets downright woke very fast if that happens to be the form of insensitivity on display.
I think she may once even have made a veiled comment implying I’m anti-Semitic, but it was after one of those muddled online arguments in which you’re not entirely sure which comment is a response to which prior comment when, so you conclude you’re better off leaving it alone than trying to puzzle it all out, even if leaving the issue unresolved may mean abandoning what had seemed like a casual but thoroughly non-hostile friendship up until that exchange. Mandel has accused many people of anti-Semitism, though, including National Review, so she may have a hair-trigger on that topic—understandable in light of history and all but still arguably unbecoming in a newly self-appointed anti-wokeness professional.
I don’t for a moment mean to suggest her tribe is special in this regard. On the contrary, go back and read about the freakouts by Christians over the deliberately sacrilegious artwork “Piss Christ” circa 1990 and try telling me conservatives are thick-skinned. Or lob some Ayn Rand jokes at the Objectivists and see how they like it. It all tends to depend on whose ox is being gored, as they say—and I still hold to the startlingly unfashionable opinion that the best route out of it all is to think like rational, tolerant individualists, to the extent we can, instead of tense tribal border guards.
—Todd Seavey is the author of Libertarianism for Beginners and is on Twitter at @ToddSeavey