Wokeism: A Global Civil Religion in the "Age of Profilicity"?
The term “wokeism” is widely used today as a polemic and often pejorative label in North America and Europe. It generally refers to a new type of “identity politics” and “political correctness” that promotes equity and diversity of “marginalized” race, sexual, and gender identities. It is especially sensitive to language use and, for instance, demands the abolition of racist terminology and “sexist” gendering in language as well as the “correct” use of personal pronouns.
Wokeism is often described by conservative politicians and intellectuals as a new form of radical leftism. The public intellectual Jordan Peterson, for instance, regards it as a diabolical combination of Marxism and Postmodernism. A significant minority of leftist academics, however, including Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed Jr., disagrees and sees it as a new type of neoliberalism that supports capitalism and individualism and tends to downplay class struggle. After all, it is heavily employed in marketing by major corporations and mainstream neoliberal political parties, such as the Democrats in the U.S.A.
Given the difficulty to adequately categorizing wokeism in terms of the traditional political distinction between left and right, it is increasingly recognized that it functions less as a coherent ideology and more like a new “religion” (McWhorter 2021) in secular Western societies. An important element within wokeism is “guilt pride”—a form of moral superiority generated through the public acknowledgment of inherited guilt. Following post-war Germany’s successful strategy of establishing a new national identity on the acceptance of everlasting responsibility for the crimes of Nazi-Germany, young Americans, for instance, can build a sense of moral righteousness on the acknowledgment of the enormous sin of “white supremacy.” The very acceptance of such unacceptable guilt paradoxically results in a certain moral glory of the repentant sinner. In this way, wokeism is, essentially, a post-Christian secular civil religion.
Wokeism shares numerous similarities with religions, and, particularly, with Christianity. It is highly dogmatic by focusing on a few “absolute” moral values related to social justice which can only be affirmed but not denied. In this way, it does not invite argumentation or debate, but, instead, fosters moral sentiment and feelings of righteousness. It promises a secular absolution from inherited wickedness and “cancels” heretics. What is more, it operates performatively with a strong emphasis on public display including demonstrations, public gestures (kneeling, etc.), memes, or signs (such as the “one love” armband which caused controversy at the 2022 soccer world cup) and, importantly, speech acts (e.g.; “diversity statements,” pledges, corporate values), typically proliferated on (social) media.
The prime importance of public display in wokeism, and its heavy use of (social) media, signal a connection with “profilicity” — the curation of identity in the form of a public profile or “brand.” This distinguishes wokeism from traditional Christianity. Traditional Christianity differs from wokeism not only by being theistic, but also by its connection with “sincerity,” — an identity technology based on sincere commitment to social roles, especially in the family. Unlike Christianity, wokeism does not encourage individuals to add a religious dimension to their identification with traditional “family values.” Instead, it provides individuals and organizations (corporations, political parties) with an opportunity to enhance their public profiles by infusing them with a civil-religious aura. Accordingly, wokeism can not only be understood as a result of the secularization of Christianity, but also as result of the transition from an age of sincerity to an age of prolificity. It is post-Christian not just because it no longer centers on faith in God, but also because it has shifted from a commitment to social roles to the curation of profiles.
If wokeism is a post-Christian civil religion in the “age of profilicity,” other religions may also develop woke and profilic secular variations. At present, however, it is difficult to predict if alternative forms of wokeism will emerge, for instance, in societies shaped by Islam, Hinduism, or Confucianism.
John McWhorter, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. Edmonton: Portfolio. 2021.