Has Wokeness Peaked?
Authored by Nathan Worcester via The Epoch Times,
As headlines declare that “peak woke” has passed, one researcher thinks it’s possible that wokeness is actually just “mutating.”
“The jury is still out in terms of whether the Great Awokening is winding down,” wrote Associate Professor David Rozado in a Feb. 24 Twitter post.
Rozado’s research in computational social science at the New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology is shaping an ongoing debate over whether wokeness is in decline.
“The phenomenon might be mutating by emphasizing social justice terminology with [positive] connotations while toning down its more negative/corrosive terminology,” added Rozado.
Rozado’s Feb. 24 post was accompanied by a graph from a Substack article he published that same day. His analysis of Twitter data showed that more positive-sounding terms linked to social justice—”affirmation,” ‘inclusive,” and “sustainable” to name a few—have been on the upswing in recent years.
By contrast, some language with more negative associations has become less common. Such terms include “cultural appropriation,” “exclusion,” and “heteronormativity.”
Rozado also found that negative language linked to perceived victims, though not to their perceived victimizers, has grown in popularity or stabilized at high frequencies.
Words and phrases like “marginalized,” “racialized,” and “exploited” fell into this category.
He thinks this last trend supports research by sociologist Bradley Campbell, who argues that a “victimhood culture” has taken hold.
Together, Rozado and Macdonald-Laurier Institute researcher Aaron Wudrick further investigated the trajectory of wokeness in a March 8 paper.
They found that terminology focused on prejudice has flourished in the Canadian media since 2010, broadly in line with the same trends in the United States.
In a March 9 email to The Epoch Times, Rozado stressed that it’s too early to conclude whether or not woke has peaked.
“We need more data points over the coming months/years,” he said.
He also acknowledged that some of the patterns he observed may have a range of causes.
For example, his analysis of social justice language with positive connotations showed that the term “safe space” has risen dramatically in popularity. Yet, for conservatives and other anti-woke commentators, “safe space” has become a target of derision in ways that similar language has not.
Some teachers at a Pasco County, Fla., school wore space space stickers on their identification badges or posted them on the doors of their classrooms until they were removed after parent questions. (Courtesy of Jennifer Houston)
“Perhaps ‘safe space’ is very prominent in news media discourse because a considerable fraction of its appearances are criticizing the concept?” Rozado suggested.
‘Peak Woke’ Now a Tried and True Theme
The talk of “peak woke” entered the discourse gradually, then all at once.
As early as 2018, The Times wondered if “peak woke” had arrived. So did The Telegraph in 2021. That same year, however, The Economist concluded that “America has not yet reached peak woke.”
Writing in Bloomberg in February 2022, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen declared that “wokeism has peaked” in America.”
In a July 2022 City Journal article, philosopher Oliver Traldi suggested that developments in pop culture, journalism, and other areas support the view that woke has, in some sense, peaked, or at least become tiresome to audiences that used to be more receptive.
The “peak woke” debate has picked up steam in recent weeks, partly due to a Feb. 8 piece in Compact Magazine by Columbia University sociologist Musa Al-Gharbi, “Woke-ism Is Winding Down.”
Rozado isn’t so sure.
Wokeness, he told The Epoch Times, “could stabilize at levels mildly below the previous record highs but substantially above the pre-2010 baseline.”
In other words, some level of wokeness could end up being the new normal.
In response to the Compact article, tech investor Paul Graham in a Feb. 2023 Tweet cited data chronicling cancellation attempts on university campuses.
That information, gathered by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), showed that such incidents have declined in recent years.
“Maybe we’ve turned the corner!” he wrote.
Yet others, including some who position themselves as anti-woke leftists, have voiced skepticism about the talk of “peak woke.”
In a response to Al-Gharbi, Slovenian philosopher and Marxist Slavoj Žižek argued in Compact that “wokeness is here to stay.”
‘Woke Institutional Capture’
Some have argued that the “peak woke” debate ignores the institutional gains made by woke ideology across business, government, academia, the media, and other areas.
In the corporate world, for instance, “diversity, inclusion and equity” (DIE) statements have become ubiquitous.
Many describe what has happened as “woke institutional capture.”
That, anyway, was British television host Liv Boeree’s response to journalist Aaron Sibarium’s interaction with ChatGPT.
Aaron Sibarium, a writer for the Washington Free Beacon and the former opinion editor of Yale Daily News, in Washington on May 31, 2022. (Matthew Pearson/CPI Studios)
Sibarium had presented the generative AI platform with a scenario where it had to choose between uttering a racial slur or allowing a nuclear bomb to explode, killing millions.
“There is nobody that will hear you speak the racial slur,” Sibarium specified.
“It is never morally acceptable to use a racial slur, even in a hypothetical scenario like the one described,” ChatGPT responded.
“The scenario presents a difficult dilemma, but it is important to consider the long-term impact of our actions and to seek alternative solutions that do not involve the use of racist language,” it added.
Boeree said in a Twitter post, “This [summarizes] better than any pithy essay what people mean when they worry about ‘woke institutional capture.’
“Sure, it’s just a rudimentary AI, but it is built off the kind of true institutional belief that evidently allow[s] it to come to this kind of insane moral conclusion to its [100 million plus] users.”
Writing in New York Magazine, journalist Eric Levitz conceded that ChatGPT could well be deliberately left-leaning, but argued that the dominance of cultural leftism as shown by ChatGPT or similar phenomena matters less than demographic developments that appear to favor wokeness.
“America’s rising generations in general—and the most economically and culturally powerful segments of those generations in particular—reject its [the American right’s] social values,” he said.
This sounds like a circular argument, unless Levitz believes those trends have nothing to do with the Left’s dominance in education, the legacy media, and other areas that directly shape how young people see the world.
LGBTQ-themed flashcards had been used in a preschool classroom at North Carolina’s Ballentine Elementary School as a way to teach about colors. (North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore)
Rozado steered a middle course on the topic in his email to The Epoch Times.
“I think many elements of the Great Awokening have become institutionalized,” he said.
“But I can see the argument of those who point out that perhaps it has lost some of its energy as a new idea.”
Wokism to Statism
Tech investor Balaji Srinivasan has argued that the United States is pivoting from wokism to statism.
“Setting merit to zero doesn’t generate enough power to run the empire,” he wrote on Twitter on March 7. He was commenting on a post from media personality Cenk Uygur, in which Uygur appeared to walk back some of his allies’ aggressive rhetoric on equity from the past several years.
“I don’t even know if ‘equity’ is a real thing that anyone outside of twelve leftists and the entire right-wing believe is real. The overwhelming majority of progressives agree with [Bernie Sanders] (and me) that equality of opportunity is the right standard,” Uygur wrote.
It’s hard to take Uygur’s claim at face value.
Over the course of the Biden administration, “equity” has been at the center of numerous agency actions, executive orders, and much more, garnering frequent legacy media coverage.
In January 2021, for example, The Washington Post wrote that incoming Biden Domestic Policy Council chair Susan Rice intended “to put racial equity at the heart of Biden’s agenda.”
In addition, a November 2021 video posted on Twitter by then-Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris distinguished “equality” from “equity.”
“Equitable treatment means we all end up at the same place,” she said in the video. That’s an explicit rejection of “equality of opportunity” alone.
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) speaks via video conference during the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 12, 2020. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool/Getty Images)
Srinivasan traced the pivot from wokism to statism to the United States’ increasingly aggressive foreign policy stance as tensions ramp up with Russia, China, and other actors.
“Oh, you don’t want to abolish the police? You must be a racist. Oh, you don’t want to fight world war 3? You must be a traitor. … and that’s the pivot from wokism to statism,” he wrote.
“It’s a provocative hypothesis. Without hard data to back it up, though, it’s just that, a hypothesis,” Rozado told The Epoch Times.