Bo and Ben Winegard ponder woke piety and its contradictions:
Even Woke language for popular consumption is complicated by a quickly changing list of taboo epithets. Is it wrong to say homosexual relationship? Is it all right to say African-American? Will I be berated if I say Mexican-American? These changing prohibitions function well to distinguish elites from hoi polloi because they require devotion, erudition, and the right social acquaintances to understand.
Using arcane language and adhering to constantly changing norms about acceptable epithets are not particularly effective for attracting people from the broader population to one’s cause. In fact, they almost certainly alienate many average, and otherwise sympathetic, Americans, who understandably disdain indecipherable prose and elite superciliousness. Therefore, this signalling function of the Woke faith is actually antithetical to the stated goals of Wokeness (i.e., creating a more just social world—which requires a broad coalition of different classes of people).
Also antithetical to the stated goals of Wokeness is the tendency of its most popular preachers to castigate sinners instead of calmly attempting to persuade them of the justness of the Woke doctrine. Antithetical, but perfectly comprehensible from a signalling perspective. Those who are Woke don’t really want to inhabit an entirely Woke world without the bigoted masses; instead, they want to occupy a world of good and evil, of the just and the wicked, of the high status and the low status, of the elite and hoi polloi.
As noted here previously, it helps if you think of woke piety as a kind of positional good, a marker of in-group status, jealously defended and forever in peril; and hence the unattractive desperation and crab-bucket dynamic that so often accompany such displays. For the woke, it’s always winter, but never Christmas. As Kristian Niemietz put it,
A positional good is a good that people acquire to signal where they stand in a social hierarchy; it is acquired in order to set oneself apart from others. Positional goods therefore have a peculiar property: the utility their consumers derive from them is inversely related to the number of people who can access them… PC-brigadiers behave exactly like owners of a positional good who panic because wider availability of that good threatens their social status.
The PC brigade has been highly successful in creating new social taboos, but their success is their very problem. Moral superiority is a prime example of a positional good, because we cannot all be morally superior to each other. Once you have successfully exorcised a word or an opinion, how do you differentiate yourself from others now? You need new things to be outraged about, new ways of asserting your imagined moral superiority.
And so the goal posts have to move, and keep moving, leading to ever greater contrivance and ever more absurd definitions of oppression. There’s an in-built neediness that leads to escalation and all manner of bizarre phenomena. From “social justice” activists fabricating ‘hate’ crimes for lack of any real ones, to agonised Guardian articles about the menace posed by heteronormative cupcakes and spellcheck software, and about how men discussing barbecues is not only “oppressively penetrating,” but about as “oppressively penetrating” as a thing can be.
And this insatiable, theatrical woe has little to do with how the world actually is. It does, however, have a great deal to do with how the woke wish to seem. In order to maintain a pretence of heroic radicalism and intellectual heft - and in order to justify funding and status - new and rarer forms of exploitation and injustice have to be discovered or conjured into being. Which leads to extremism, intolerance and absurdity, not because the mainstream of society is becoming more racist, prejudiced, patriarchal or oppressive – but precisely because it isn’t.