Many people have noted that “woke” ideology, which views inequality as an intolerable evil caused by pervasive racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like, has a religious quality: it defines good and evil, explains life and the world, and tells us what we should aspire to and how we should act.
It is also aggressive and intolerant, qualities that make it worrisome for Catholics. For the most part, the worry has more to do with its manner and ultimate logic than the basic concerns to which it has appealed. To the extent the latter have to do with actual injustice and the hope of improving people’s lives they, like many left-wing concerns, can easily be shared by Catholics.
As things are, wokeness has now attained a position of dominance, so that it seems that all significant social institutions, from the Department of Homeland Security to the American Mathematical Society must pay tribute to it.
An aspect of that (and part of its explanation) is the difficulty of contesting it in public discussion. Consider educational testing as an example. Currently, the mean SAT score is 1104 for white students and 924 for black students. What do such figures show?
According to prominent scholar Ibram X. Kendi, who is a university professor, Guggenheim fellow, National Book Award Winner, and New York Times best-selling author, they simply show the pervasiveness of racism. His explanation of the point presents the logic of the woke position with great clarity:
Either there’s something wrong with the test takers or there’s something wrong with the tests… There’s something wrong with the test … And to say there’s something wrong with Black and Latinx children is to espouse racist ideas.
Respectable mainstream people don’t dispute the point, and the result is a growing movement away from testing. The same kind of argument applies to grades, discipline, graduation rates, and other areas of school life where there are longstanding racial differences in result, so we also see attempts to transform these other areas. The burden is on educational institutions to make sure everyone ends up in the same place.
Similar arguments apply to all major social institutions and relationships. For example, the 2019 FBI figures give a black person as the offender in 56% of the murders for which information is available, even though black people are only 13.4% of the population. The figures for London, where most black people in Britain live, are remarkably similar.
But what does that show? Those who share Professor Kendi’s way of thinking would presumably say that the problem is with the police and their statistics rather than the facts on the ground. That line of thought has helped lead people to the view that the justice system is thoroughly racist, so that prison has to be rethought, policing transformed, cash bail abolished, common misdemeanors decriminalized, and so on.
Woke ideology extends to other traditional dimensions of human identity, such as sex. As with the Civil Rights Movement, race is initially the issue, but the same principles get adopted for other human distinctions. So it is now accepted that there are no significant differences between men and women, and all differences in result–in numbers of engineers or whatever—are a direct consequence of sexism. To say otherwise is misogyny.
On examination the theory and its application have some complications. It’s not clear, for example, how Asian-American SAT scores (average 1217 versus 1104 for whites) or the FBI’s attribution of 88% of murders to men rather than women fit into the narrative of white patriarchal oppression through educational testing and law enforcement. And so far the main result of Black Lives Matter, apart from burned and looted buildings, seems to be more dead black people (along with some others). People may feel compelled to defer to current social movements, in part because they want to keep their jobs, but reality feels no such compulsion.
However, the general view seems to be that such issues are distractions from the burning need to correct horrific social injustice. It is evident the remedy will involve rejection of history and abolition or transformation of inherited social institutions. History and existing societies display complexities that stubbornly resist change, such as unequal results for different people at the individual and group level, so everything that has happened and everything that exists is tainted.
It remains to be seen how all this will work, and whether the effort will be more successful than the twentieth century attempt to abolish economic inequality. But if no one stands up against a view, and a great many people push it forcefully, it’s going to prevail and people will try to put it into effect.
So, for now, Catholics must consider the effect of woke ideology and related developments on the environment in which they practice their faith.
One thing they should notice in that connection is its intolerant moralism. It sees itself as burningly righteous and opposition or even skepticism as beneath contempt. Consider, for example, the emotional charge words such as “racist” and “homophobic” carry, and their ever-broader range of application.
That intolerance goes with a need to control outcomes—what actually ends up happening—throughout society. How else can people be made equal? But that means enormous expansion of government and effective abolition of personal agency, since if people are allowed to make choices that matter they will choose unequally and the results will be unequal.
The controls are aimed, among other things, at beliefs and attitudes. Woke ideology requires suppression of forbidden thoughts and those who harbor them. These are defined in ever more far-reaching ways, so much so that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that people generally can’t be trusted with important decisions. In spite of the talk of equality and liberation, woke ideology ultimately means rule by a small number of people who have the superior knowledge, intelligence, and virtue needed to define what views are correct. As always, making abstract principles absolute means tyranny.
In that way and others woke ideology reflects technocratic society, both in goals and methods. It sets itself a single abstract and indeed mathematical goal, equality, and treats social institutions and human relations as technical means for maximizing that goal. Human beings and their lives are thus viewed as raw material and products of a social machine, and if the results are not what’s wanted then redesign and tighter controls are needed.
All these things mean no place for the Church as an independent authority and actor. The social machine becomes all in all, so the Church, as in communist countries, must assimilate or be crushed. She is an historical institution, and all historical institutions are tainted, so she like the rest must be radically transformed on ideological grounds.
And very likely many well-placed Catholics would be perfectly happy to have her assimilate. After all, how does it injure her organizational structure or the careers and rewards of those who make their living by her to line her up with the dominant powers and make their message her own? In an age of mediocrity, who can articulate and stand up for an alternative to the gods of the age?
All of which confirms yet again that now is no time for mediocrity or concern for worldly powers. We want to be Catholic, and that puts us at odds with attempts to reconstruct human life to realize a secular absolute. We have our own very different absolute and far more respect for human nature and particularities. But we also want to be comfortable and respected. A technocratic society won’t let us have both, so we must choose.
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