What Was The Woke Tipping Point?
(In case you didn't know, the image above is Trigglypuff, the name the Internet gave to Cora Segal, a student feminist who exploded in rage at a 2016 Hampshire College event featuring speakers who held ideas that she didn't like. See here.)
Watching news over the weekend of the mass shooting in Los Angeles, and one in Baton Rouge, I reflected on how bizarre America looks from Budapest. This is the capital city of a European country that is not remotely as wealthy per capita as the United States, yet you can walk around this city anywhere, at any time of day, and not be afraid. You can't do that in Paris or London, come to think of it. It's not because there are police everywhere, either, or that this is some kind of authoritarian state. It's just safe, and orderly. That's how things are here. When people ask me what Hungary is like, I tell them that it feels like what America did when it was normal.
The other night I met with a group of Hungarian students. You'll find that Hungarians love the US, but are also very wary of it, afraid that what has happened to America (the Great Awokening) is going to happen to them if they aren't careful. One of them put a great question to me: If you could change one thing about the last twenty years, what would it be? In context of the discussion, he was asking me for the single event that was the tipping point, the crossing of the Rubicon, that led America to its current mess.
It's not an easy question, is it? You have to stop and think about what, exactly, constitutes "America's current mess." The Great Awokening covers sex, gender, and race, and it's hard to come up with an event that entails all three (though maybe you can). It's also tricky to think in terms of cause and effect. I told the questioner that I would say the loss of the one-male + one- female binary as the exclusive model for marriage was the turning point. You lose that, and you lose so very much else, I said (I was thinking of transgenderism).
As I thought about it later, though, I realized that Hungary doesn't have the same civil rights laws as America does, so the phenomenon of identifying particular characteristics as constitutive of personhood, such that it triggers civil rights protection for a minority, isn't in effect here. Still, there's no denying that granting same-sex marriage rights to gay people (a sexual minority) was the necessary precursor to the entire panoply of trans rights. I don't find the granting of marital status to gays to be nearly as radical and revolutionary as the demolition of the gender binary, which did not have to happen, but did. Strictly speaking, the T doesn't have to do with the LGB, but in popular culture, and now, increasingly, in the law, gender expression is granted the same ontological status as sexual desire. Recognizing that wokeness is a broad phenomenon, if I had to pick a single event that can be seen as the most causative in terms of advancing wokeness, I would say the 2015 Obergefell decision constitutionalizing same-sex marriage.
But I'm not comfortable with making that judgment, because I believe that for the most part, Obergefell simply ratified a shift most of the country had already made. For me, the real turning point was the summer of 2006, when the Federal Marriage Amendment officially died in the Republican-controlled House and Senate, with a Republican in the White House. The FMA would have written the traditional marriage model into the Constitution. That didn't cause wokeness, but it did reveal the weakness of the opposition. After the FMA failed, I knew without a doubt that we would have same-sex marriage in this country, sooner or later, because the underlying support for the older model -- Christian faith and cultural tradition -- had eroded beyond repair. The summer of 2006 wasn't a causative element in wokeness as much as an epiphany about how feeble the opposition to its gay expression was.
Naturally anti-woke gay people like Andrew Sullivan, Douglas Murray, and Bari Weiss think of all this as an advance, and would therefore have a different answer to the Hungarian student's question. (I'd be interested to hear it, actually.) To be very clear, it is not my belief that if no Obergefell, or if we had been able to pass the FMA, then wokeness never would have happened. As I've said repeatedly here, wokeness is a broad and disparate phenomenon.
I wish I could go back and answer that young Hungarian man's question again, because if I could, I would say that the single most important event that led America to its current morass of wokeness is the shift that occurred in our media around 2012 -- the language shift that political scientist Zach Goldberg first observed, and wrote about in Tablet. In the Tablet piece, he tracks the use of race-related terminology in the media (the chart below is one example), but elsewhere, Goldberg was able to show, using the same deep dive into the Lexis/Nexis database, that other woke terminology took off like a rocketship at the same time.
In his Tablet essay, Goldberg says this data do not prove that the elite media's indulgence in this terminology caused the kind of racial hyperconsciousness that we associate with wokeness, but it at least shows a correlation. He speculates that the left-wing bias of newsrooms (yes, even the WSJ; it's only the editorial page that's consistently conservative) meant that reporters and editors were heavily on social media, where militant progressive thought thrives. This might explain it.
Take a look at this 2021 paper from David Rozado et al., tracking the same things. Here's a chart from it, showing how the NYT and the Washington Post used certain key woke terms over time:
It's propaganda, straight up. So, I would place whatever happened around 2012 to cause the mainstream media to adopt the language of woke ideology, and to report obsessively on stories promoting the woke line, as the one thing I would change about the last twenty years. It's a great example of how culture precedes politics. But how could one possibly have changed it? We don't live in a country in which the state tells newspapers what they can and can't write (in theory, at least; the relationship between the CDC and FBI on one side, and Twitter and Facebook on the other, suggests otherwise). I believe that the relentless propaganda of the news and entertainment media on behalf of wokeness has been the most important factor in dragging America to this point.
The entry of Big Business into the culture war on behalf of gay rights in the state of Indiana in the spring of 2015, over the RFRA legislation, was another major red line crossed, because it marked the birth of Woke Capitalism as a political force. You might say too that the 2007 introduction of the smartphone into the consumer marketplace was a turning point too, because it enabled social media activism.
Anyway, enough from me. What do you think? How would you have answered the young Hungarian's question? Part of the reason for my answer was that I know that this country, Hungary, does not have to worry about racial wokeness (its population is largely homogeneous), but it is under constant pressure from the European Union to scrap its constitutional provision saying marriage is only between one man and one woman (gays can have civil partnerships here), and to get rid of any laws that inhibit or prohibit the LGBT aspects of the Sexual Revolution from progressing. The younger generations here are more liberal than their parents and grandparents on issues of sex and gender, and in any case, Hungary is not a religious society. Still, I wanted him to know that if you lose the privileged position of traditional marriage, everything else inevitably follows. Why? Because if marriage isn't rooted in something transcendent, and if we can redefine it at will, then on what basis do we say marriage is this and not that? Very quickly you slide down into subjectivity and individual rights, and it begins to seem obvious to people that if Love Is Love, and the sex of the partners don't matter for marriage purposes, then maybe sex is fluid, period. You can make all kinds of logical objections to this position, but that's not how things go with the crude logic of popular opinion -- especially when the media are firmly on the side of total "liberation."
For you readers who want to contribute to the discussion but who can't comment below, please send your thoughts to me at rod -- at -- amconmag -- dot -- com, and put WOKE in the subject line.
UPDATE: Whoa, lots of answers! Let's get to them:
-The election and reelection of Obama. Obama didn't really care about this stuff, but his election put the young generation of activists in positions all over the place. LBGT issues are much more important to them, race issues having been settled a generation ago.
At the same time, disappointment with Obama inflamed these people. Obama was, despite being an exotic black guy, just another corporate Democrat. The fact that he personally did not push for these things made them all the more determined.
-The financial crisis. This shook people like nothing since the Depression. It ignited, very famously, conservative and right wing activism in the Tea Party and the alt-right, but the influence was much stronger on the left. Economic activism has been carefully made impossible, so social issues are the only way to go. You can't agitate for prosperity, comfort or even basic economic dignity, but you can for gender expression and drug legalization. Corporations are happy to keep people stupefied with marijuana and perversion and keep their money.
This goes back to the 60's. Blacks are getting rights, but what is everybody else getting? Sexual liberalization, through divorce and abortion, and availability of drugs were the consolation prizes for everything else that would be lost.
-And the internet, by whatever means of delivery, but especially phones. Young people didn't use desktops much, or notebook computers too much, but use phones a lot.
In any case wokeness just follows the logic of the civil rights revolution. CRT wasn't called that then, but it was built in, and it's what MLK advocated for, if you look beyond the "I Have a Dream" speech. Americans thought they were getting equal, fair treatment for all, but it was always special treatment and privileges for identity groups, which have expanded in number for this reason.
I just read "White" by Bret Easton Ellis, where he talks about being a liberal shocked by the anti-Trump fervor. He is bewildered by the irrational, overwhelming emotion, but I think the irrational, overwhelming emotion, the religious ecstasy, is the whole point. It's a new religion, convert or die.
It's a tsunami, and there's no place to run. Not even Budapest, I'm pretty sure. Us pessimists will remind you we are usually right.
Rod, the woke tipping point was Trevyon Martin. I’m gen X too, and all our adult lives we knew that the media had a liberal slant. But Treyvon was when the gloves came off, and they didn’t even try to hide that they were propagandic one-sided coverage. This was around the same time that TV commercials went to being 75% black people, even though they are 13% of the American population. And the commercials pushed the gay and interracial agenda. The woke / Democrats / Marxists were lining every one up on one side – gay, women, non-white, non-Christian – against what they perceived to be their adversaries – Christians of European descent. That’s when the anti-white, anti-Christian coalition really gelled. (And it was around this time that the demonization of Muslims dissipated, because they needed to add them to the anti-white, anti-Christian side of the room – the “victim” side of the room. Because people like us are to blame for everything past, present, and future.) I theorize it is no coincidence that this woke tipping point happened during Obama’s second term. During his first term, his administration and donors had to be more circumspect so that he would get reelected. But, after 2012, he and his donors had no fear of that. And I assume that they felt completely secure in Hillary being elected in 2016. She felt secure enough at the time to call a lot of us “deplorable.”
Here's the first of a few letters I received from people reaching back beyond the past twenty years. I'm going to publish this one because it's good, but let's keep it to the last twenty years, or at least the 21st century:
Interesting question from your Hungarian friend, and definitely something to ponder.
For myself, I don’t think any kind of policy change would have had any impact at all on the advancing tide of wokeness. Unfortunately, I think your interlocutor doesn’t go back far enough to make much difference.
If I could do one thing, it would have been to absolutely clean house in the universities—especially the education departments—in the late 80s, 90s, and 00s. These were responsible for the development of teachers and policymakers (principals and superintendents) in educating our (by “our” I mean collectively; you’re stuck inside the woke revolution whether you sent your kids to a classical/Christian school or not) kids—the kids who now are the pointy end of the woke stick. Anyone who used the word “intersectionality,” “structuralist,” “poststructural,” “critical theory,” etc,, or anyone who cited Hegel or especially Foucault, would be given an opportunity to explain those concepts or thinkers, and if they couldn’t, they’d be hauling garbage. Even if they could explain the basics of them, I’d want to see them understand the weaknesses of each in order for them to stay. And anyone who bought into any of it wholesale in the ed departments would be gone.
Now there will be people—either ignorant or willfully misleading—who will suggest that these things don’t matter. “We don’t teach critical race theory,” “No kid ever heard of Foucault,” etc. Again, this is just dumb. Someone in the ed department doesn’t know their way around Foucault, for instance, but they certainly understand the working out of Foucault in, e.g., moral relativism and the sexual confusion (which they, with Foucault, think to be a good thing for humans) and they teach it hard. Sure, a teacher may never use the words “critical race theory,” and maybe (probably) really doesn’t understand it, but they certainly grasp the concepts of “systemic racism” and “White privilege” and the like without any kind of critique. The first time I heard “White privilege” was in my PhD program in 2011, and it wasn’t a couple years later that it became a mainstream concept—it’s everywhere! All because it was everywhere in the academy at the time.
All these “theories” in the universities are predicated on the old Marxist myth of life: life is a struggle between those with power and those under power, and those under power should be liberated. Every relationship is looked at from the point of view of “privilege” and power. One of my profs said to begin every analysis with the question “ Who gains?” It’s the most destructive ideology in history, and it is the taken-for-granted-world of the academy. If I could go back 30 years, I’d start it all over again—in all the universities.
Anyway, just my .02. But I do think if you could fix the ed departments, back then, that’d make all of this different.
I think that “in the last 20 years”, there is no particular point. It’s been “the long march through the institutions”, the work of decades to destroy certain things, and it simply reached a critical mass. There are certain points that stick out a little (as you mentioned), but no single one of them is “the moment”.
Two generations (or more) of owning the public schools and using them for indoctrination is what led us here. Three generations (or more) of owning the universities is what led us there. Ground work for literally generations to get here.
It’s very disheartening, looking at the scale of the problem.
I'm not sure that private schools have been any better, or even some parochial schools. One of my best friends, a Catholic, says his Catholic high school was where he learned not to be Catholic. When I lived in NYC and Washington, I often ran into people who said they were lucky to have been educated by Jesuits, who taught them that the faith was not to be taken seriously.
The two-one combination of Bush vs Gore (the Presidency being denied Democrats by the Supreme Court) followed by 9/11 and a war nobody wanted. Althoug support for Iraq/Afghanisan was a cultural marker for the country's right wing, few will defend that now. They're getting back what was stolen from them in 2000 and not going to stop until the old order is dismantled.
I don't know about that, but I do know that for me, as a conservative, the one-two punch of the Iraq War and the Wall Street crash destroyed my faith in the Republican Party, which since the 1980s were believed by many of us to be the trustworthy party of national security and the economy (though truth to tell, the Clinton Democrats were just as responsible for the Wall Street crash as the GOP). I continued to vote Republican on most occasions because as little faith as I had in the GOP, I had even less in the Democrats. If Ron DeSantis becomes the 2024 GOP presidential nominee, he will be the first Republican presidential candidate -- heck, the first presidential candidate period -- that I will have voted for because I actually favored him, as opposed to voting against the Democrat. I almost voted for Obama to punish the Republicans for Iraq, but I couldn't do it because of abortion.
The country profoundly changed with the presidency of Barrack Obama. It was a veritable explosion. See your own graphs.
thanks for another great column. Fortunately, I think we've hit another tipping point - peak WOKE. Please consider the following:
The NYT has finally acknowledged the risks of puberty blockers, and (gingerly) questioned the ethics of schools hiding transition parents.
'Prestige Dramas' like "The Chair" and "The White Lotus" are casting woke college students as the enemy.
The "woke" Scooby Doo reboot "Velma" has the 3rd lowest review score in IMDB history. Even Slate.com panned it.
England, Finland, Sweden, and France are all hitting the brakes on the "Affirmative Care Model" for trans youth.
The "Black Lives Matter" signs are coming down in wealthy neighborhoods.
I'm sure there's more. This might make a good companion column to your woke tipping point.
Well, I hope so. Gotta see a LOT more evidence, though, before I believe it.
I agree with you that the Obergefell decision was one of the major turning points, but the real tipping point into Woke-mania for me was the 2016 election. I was at university as a freshman during the Obergefell decision and I remember some frank, open, and thoughtful discussions in my classrooms between profs and students about the case and the arguments and what might/might not happen. There was very little animosity and a lot of really honest opinion sharing still back then (albeit, this was at a public college in the South, I doubt they had the same sort of open dialogue at Harvard or Yale even back then) and even after the decision was made, you could still hear people discussing the opposition arguments openly without fear of being shut down for the most part. The underpinnings of what was coming (the "Bake the Cake, Bigot" arguments etc.) were there, but a lot of what I feel characterizes the current political climate wasn't, at least, not all the way.
Trump's win in 2016, on the other hand, sparked some kind of crazed mania on the part of our liberal elite leadership. I remember going to work at my student job the morning after the election results came out, being approached by my boss and offered something in the way of condolences and a one-sided conversation along the lines of 'this is a hard day for us all, let me know if you need anything.' I remember being stunned and having little to no words as I watched the normal atmosphere at my college and workplace turn into a giant series of hushed conversations and suffering-saint-esque dispositions. Then we got a formal letter from the president of the college telling us all the same thing my boss had said that day, along the lines of "we're so sympathetic to your sadness, please take advantage of the university counseling services if you need them". It was obvious people were shocked about the results given how strongly Clinton was predicted to win in polling (I happened to be in a mass media course that semester, and my prof spent several excited hours talking frankly about how and why polling failed to predict the upset) but never, never in a million years would I have expected to hear in my own university, and then in the media all over the U.S., an attitude towards the election as if we as a nation had just undergone a tragedy on 9/11 proportions and weren't sure what to do with ourselves. And post this, I sincerely feel that all this focus on educating and re-educating the opposition has been because of that upset. Especially after Obergefell, I don't think the liberal core of our politics ever expected to fail so miserably at securing the presidency, and I can't remember a moment since that I've seen media or politicians withhold from baring their claws against anyone toeing the party line, to say nothing of the savage attitude they have for anyone who ever did support Trump even momentarily.
To pinpoint the exact spot where it all went wrong is difficult, but in a nutshell, somewhere between June 2015 and the 2016 presidential election we somehow went from a nation where open dialogue about complex issues was possible and ended up in a place where we acted like the election of a president (but not the one "we" wanted) was a matter worthy of national tears and mental health days. I don't know how to figure that out, and I'm still personally living in the shock of that first conversation with my boss on that day, where I went to work expecting to carry on as usual, and was greeted as if my cat had died overnight. It just goes downhill from there.
I have been a feminist for my entire life – until now, that is. Recently I have been reflecting on the unintended consequences of feminism (I’m referring here to second-wave feminism that began with the publication of Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique). While there were many strands of this ideology, the two that most penetrated American life were liberal and radical feminism. While socialist feminists focused on capitalism and the state, liberal and radical feminists turned their anger towards men, and in particular, white males. This was the beginning of decades of disrespect and condemnation of males that inevitably led to notions of “victimization” and “oppression.” Feminism opened the door, and the hordes of self-defined victims rushed through. Every victim group in the woke pantheon traces its oppression back to white males. Today’s trans extremism, gender fluidity ideology and same sex marriage are all outcomes of the movement to de-center male authority, destabilize male-female relationships, and replace the “power” of the oppressor with that of the “victims.” Despite all the blather about justice and equity, I never for a moment believed that wokism was about anything but power.
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While I agree with you that most high-profile “woke” events of the past 20 years were more symptoms of a mass change in attitudes, rather than the cause, if I had to pick one event as the tipping point it would be Ferguson, in 2015. The shooting of Michael Brown, and the subsequent protests, seemed to really set off the popular support for racial wokeness, which in turn has fed support for other identity-centric radical politics and culture. I don’t have any explanation for this, just my experience. I’m a millennial, born in ‘89. Prior to 2015 I had a few friends who were politically active, some right but mostly left. We knew we disagreed and occasionally debated or sparred but it never rise to the level of affecting our relationships. After 2015 is when things seemed to REALLY take off: left-leaning friends went far left, like into communism, some started “transitioning” or announcing themselves as some kind of LGB-whatever, attending marches in 2020. It became very clear that “whoever is not for us is against us”. It’s been sad, my wife and I were closet conservatives among our peer group for awhile. Now we just mostly don’t communicate with them anymore, there’s not much point. Every problem in all of their lives always has to be due to capitalism or the patriarchy or racism or fascism. It’s tiring. Anyway, looking back now, it seems like that’s when things really took off in mainstream culture, at least from my perspective.
OK, this last one violates the "last twenty years only" rule, but it's worth reading:
For me the turning points were actually in the late 80s and early 90s. Almost everything (from gay marriage to legalized euthanasia - only the trans nonsense was missing) was already well baked into the elites by that point - they had already decided on their course, even if they didn’t have popular sway just yet. You see, I went to an elite college prep school (The Columbus Academy, who has garnered notoriety in the last few years for out woking the woke). When I started there as a first grader, we were still an all boys school. But when the later Boomers started landing seats on the schools board of directors, they pushed hard to make the school more “modern”, and bit by bit it all changed (if you’ve ever read That Hideous Strength, it felt like that, but in slow motion). If you ever want to know what’s coming in 10-20 years, look of course at the Ivies, but also look at the schools that feed them. My school was one such.
By the time I was in 8th grade, the school had announced its plans to go co-ed in 2 years (very much in keeping with the then trendy movement to remove any exclusively male spaces anywhere), and to “prepare” us for that change the school brought on what today we would call a “Diversity Director” (at the time she was titled “Multi-Cultural Director” I believe). This director began scheduling a series of lectures and activities to prepare us “barbarians” for the introduction of females into the school. Of course any such shift in the school culture would require preparation, but it was with what materials they chose to prepare us. We got all the Sexual Harassment seminar stuff that the corporate world was then beginning to endure, along with such other lovely lectures as an hour long session on why penetrative sex is definitionally rape (nothing quite like being an awkward 9th grader being told “all men are rapists by nature”), and hearing other lectures on how whites are naturally racist, but blacks definitionally cannot be racist, all of Western Culture was built on theft and oppression, etc. Then there were the gay rights lectures, the introduction of modern feminist literature into English courses, abortion-rights screeds, and the gradual pushing out of older teachers who wouldn’t sign on for the new protocols (many teachers vociferously objected to this stuff, and kept it out of their own classrooms). So basically everything but the trans-whacko stuff was shoved at us. Nothing that came later with Obama surprised me - even the commencement address included a long harangue on gay marriage (this was in ’94).
As I said, by the time I graduated practically everything but the trans-crap had already been pushed at us.
Now mind you, the school going coed was not in itself any sure sign of what was to come, it was popular with most of the parents, and was something my parents were actually glad to see as the all-girls school in town had gone openly hard left much sooner than my school - one of my sisters graduated from the all-girls school, and was glad to get out. My youngest sister instead went to my school, but she was a good 10 years behind me. By the time she graduated, the school had open and faculty-sponsored racial and gay affinity groups. Looking back now, my parents have said they would have chosen a different school for my youngest sister, had they known how it would be by the time she graduated. The motto of the school used to be “In Quest of the Best”, but this was shed as being too “elitist” and “non-inclusive” (never mind that the tuition there now exceeds that of many colleges).
In the nearly 20 years since she graduated, the school has of course continued to trail-blaze for the rest of the Left, with CRT and all the rest. It made national news 2 years ago on this matter: https://www.dispatch.com/story/news/education/2021/07/09/ohio-columbus-academys-critical-race-theory-issue-what-know/7913212002/
That Dispatch article substantially downplays the matter.
None of the woke nonsense ever surprised me - I’d heard it all 20+ years before it went big, and saw how most parents chose to ignore it, or else promote it as the latest fad. And it saw attempts to drill it into my own class, and endured being called a racist, homophobe, sexist, etc. because I objected to it. I have long held to the notion that this woke nonsense is both a product of guilt-ridden late-boomers who missed out on the real radicalism of the late 60s, and thus thought they needed to make their own, coupled to the elite desire to deal in Luxury Beliefs, both as a class marker, and to assuage their own guilt at being rich and powerful. Both groups feel guilty, and peddle this crap as a new sin-offering for their secular religion. They don’t care what they destroy in the process because they don’t understand their own foundations, even as they attempt to smash them. And if you want to be in the elites, you’d better parrot their spoiled brattish behavior. Many of my old classmates peddle it still, now as full-fledged members of the elite themselves. Many are college profs, doctors, lawyers, and other careers of high status, where they are well protected and safe. Ironically, some of the most hard-left of yore now really do see the consequences of what they peddled, but now have admitted to me that it’s all out of their control now. The Trans crap, and the gauche hedonism of the tech-elite especially has shaken some of them, but really they should have seen it coming. It’s nothing new.
But then again, turning points are usually only ever seen clearly in the rear view mirror.