Some claim that “wokeness” is on the wane. In fact, it is gradually being normalized, conformed to even by those who inwardly doubt it, and practiced by the majority of academic, corporate, and state institutions. This is why it deserves more than ever our criticism—together with its opposite, the obscenity of the new populism and religious fundamentalism.
Let’s begin with Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon’s government pushed woke-ism and LGBT causes (almost) to the end. In December 2022, it hailed a “historic day for equality” after Scottish lawmakers approved plans to make it easier for individuals to legally change their gender, extending the new system of self-identification to 16- and 17-year-olds. Basically, you declare what you feel you are, and you are registered as what you want to be. A predictable problem emerged when Isla Bryson, a biological male convicted of rape, was remanded to a women’s prison in Stirling.
Bryson decided that he was no longer a man only after appearing in court on a rape charge. So we have a person who identifies itself as a woman using its penis to rape two women. It is quite logical: If maleness and femaleness have nothing to do with one’s body, and everything to do with one’s subjective self-definition, then one must put a penis-having rapist in prison with captive women. After protests, Bryson was put into a male prison. Again, this is problematic under Scottish law, since we have now a self-identified woman in male prison.
Sturgeon resigned because she alienated a part of the population that isn’t anti-LGBT, but simply rejects such measures. The point here is that there is no easy solution, because sexual identity is in itself not a simple form of identity, but a complex dimension, full of inconsistencies and unconscious features—something that in no way can be established by a direct reference to how we feel.
The recent controversy about the use of so-called puberty blockers concerns another aspect of this same complexity: The Tavistock clinic in London was ordered by higher authorities to restrict the use of puberty blockers that suppress hormones and in this way pause a child’s development of sex-based characteristics, such as breasts. Tavistock was administering these drugs to youngsters between 9 and 16 who appeared not to be able to choose their sexual identity. Tavistock’s clinicians reasoned that there is a danger that youngsters who can’t determine their sexual identity would make an enforced choice under the pressure of their environment, thus repressing their true inclination (to be trans, mostly). Puberty blockers were necessary to allow such youth to postpone their entry into puberty, granting them more time during which to reflect on their sexual identity before deciding on it at a more mature age.
Puberty blockers were administered to almost all children sent for assessment at Tavistock, including to autistic and troubled youngsters, who may have been misdiagnosed as uncertain about their sexuality. In other words, life-altering treatments were being given to vulnerable children before they were old enough to know whether they wanted to medically transition. As one of the critics said, “a child experiencing gender distress needs time and support—not to be set on a medical pathway they may later regret.”
The paradox is clear: Puberty blockers were given to allow youngsters to pause maturity and freely decide about their sexual identity, but these drugs may also cause numerous other physical and psychic pathologies, and nobody asked the youngsters if they were ready to receive drugs with such consequences. Dr. Hilary Cass, one of the critics, wrote, “We …have no way of knowing whether, rather than buying time to make a decision, puberty blockers may disrupt that decision-making process. Brain maturation may be temporarily or permanently disrupted.”
One should take a step even further in this criticism and question the very basic claim that arriving at sexual identity is a matter of mature free choice. There is nothing “abnormal” in sexual confusion: What we call “sexual maturation” is a long, complex, and mostly unconscious process. It is full of violent tensions and reversals—not a process of discovering what one really is in the depth of one’s psyche.
At many gender clinics across the West, doctors feel compelled to adopt an “unquestioning affirmative approach,” one critic noted, with little regard to other underlying mental-health crises troubling children. The pressure is, in fact, twofold. For one thing, clinicians are cowed by the trans lobby, which interprets skepticism regarding puberty blockers as a conservative attempt to make it more difficult for trans individuals to actualize their sexual identity. This is compounded by a financial compulsion: More than half of Tavistock’s income, for example, came from the treatment of youngsters’ sexual troubles. In short, what we have here is the worst combination of politically correct badgering with the brutal calculation of financial interests. The use of puberty blockers is yet another case of woke capitalism.
To be sure, both of these controversies resulted in at least partial victory for “anti-woke” forces: Sturgeon resigned, and the Tavistock clinic was closed. But the forces at work have a momentum that far exceeds the views of individual politicians and the dynamics of particular institutions. If anything, individuals and institutions are constantly attempting to accommodate themselves to strictures coming from elsewhere, rather than imposing them top-down. It is therefore certain that similar scandals will continue to multiply.
As if interest-group agitation and the compulsions of capital weren’t enough, wokeness can also draw upon reserves of religious strength. In our official ideological space, of course, wokenness and religious fundamentalism appear as incompatible opposites—but are they really?
Nearly a decade ago, the ex-Muslim activist Maryam Namazie was invited by London’s Goldsmiths College to lecture on the topic “Apostasy, Blasphemy and Free Expression in the Age of ISIS.” Her talk, which focused on Islamic oppression of women, was repeatedly and rudely disrupted by Muslim students. Did Namazie find allies among the college’s Feminist Society? No. The feminists sided with the Goldsmiths Islamic Society.
This unexpected solidarity is ultimately grounded in the similarity in form of the two discourses: Wokeness operates as a secularized religious dogma, with all the contradictions this implies. John McWhorter, a black critic of racial wokeness, has enumerated some of them in his recent book, Woke Racism: “You must strive eternally to understand the experiences of black people / You can never understand what it is to be black, and if you think you do, you’re a racist”; “Show interest in multiculturalism / Do not culturally appropriate.”
This is no exaggeration. Anyone who doubts the movement’s repressive potential would be well-advised to read “A Black Professor Trapped in Anti-Racist Hell,” Vincent Lloyd’s account in Compact of his encounter with wokeness at its worst. Lloyd’s credentials are impeccable: A black professor and director of the Center for Political Theology at Villanova University, he is the former director of his university’s black-studies program, leads anti-racism and transformative-justice workshops, and publishes books on anti-black racism and prison abolition, including the classic text Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination.
In the summer of 2022, Lloyd was asked by the Telluride Association to lead a six-week seminar on “Race and the Limits of Law in America” attended by 12 carefully selected 17-year-olds. Four weeks later, two of the students had been voted out by their fellows, and Lloyd himself was soon ostracized and booted. In his last class,
each student read from a prepared statement about how the seminar perpetuated anti-black violence in its content and form, how the black students had been harmed, how I was guilty of countless micro-aggressions, including through my body language, and how students didn’t feel safe because I didn’t immediately correct views that failed to treat anti-blackness as the cause of all the world’s ills.
Lloyd compares these trends to “that moment in the 1970s when leftist organizations imploded, the need to match and raise the militancy of one’s comrades leading to a toxic culture filled with dogmatism and disillusion.” His critics relied on a series of dogmas, among them: “There is no hierarchy of oppressions—except for anti-black oppression, which is in a class of its own”; “Trust black women”; “Prison is never the answer”; “All non-black people, and many black people, are guilty of anti-blackness.”
But more crucial than content was the conflict of forms between seminar and workshop. Lloyd tried to practice the seminar, an exchange of opinions: One intervention builds on another, as one student notices what another student overlooked, and as the professor guides the discussion toward the most important questions. Seminars usually focus on a particular text, and the participants try to uncover its meaning patiently. By contrast, in the sort of anti-racist workshop that Lloyd critiques, the dogma is clearly established, and the exchange focuses on how and where somebody knowingly or unknowingly violated it. As Alenka Zupančič has noted, the universe of PC workshops is the universe of Berthold Brecht’s Jasager: Everybody says yes again and again, and the main argument against those who are not accepted as sincere partisans is “harm.” Here is how “harm” works, according to Lloyd:
During our discussion of incarceration, an Asian-American student cited federal inmate demographics: About 60 percent of those incarcerated are white. The black students said they were harmed. They had learned, in one of their workshops, that objective facts are a tool of white supremacy. Outside of the seminar, I was told, the black students had to devote a great deal of time to making right the harm that was inflicted on them by hearing prison statistics that were not about blacks. A few days later, the Asian-American student was expelled from the program.
Two things should surprise us here. First, this new cult combines belief in fixed, objectivized dogmas with full trust in how one feels (although only the oppressed blacks have the right to refer to their feeling as the measure of the racist’s guilt). A critical confrontation of arguments plays no role, which implies that “open debate” is a racist, white-supremacist notion. “Objective facts are a tool of white supremacy”—yes, so that, as Trumpists used to say, we need to generate alternative facts…
To be clear: There is a kernel of truth in this. Those who are brutally oppressed can’t afford the deep reflection and well-elaborated debate needed to bring out the falsity of liberal-humanist ideology. But in this case, as in most other cases, those who appropriate the role of the leaders of the revolt are precisely not the brutalized victims of the racist oppression. The woke are a relatively privileged minority of a minority allowed to participate in a top quality workshop of an elite university.
Second, the mystery resides in the functioning of the big Other (the Telluride administrative authority, in this case): The view gradually imposed on all by the awokened black elite was the view of a minority (initially, even among the black participants). But how and why did these few not only succeed in terrorizing the majority, but even compelling the Telluride Association to take their side and decline to defend Lloyd? Why didn’t they at least assume a more nuanced position? How does wokenness, although a minority view, manage to neutralize the larger liberal and leftist space, instilling in it a profound fear about openly opposing the woke?
Psychoanalysis has a clear answer to this paradox: the notion of superego. Superego is a cruel and insatiable agency that bombards me with impossible demands and mocks my failed attempts to meet them. It is the agency in the eyes of which I am all the more guilty, the more I try to suppress my “sinful” strivings. The old cynical Stalinist motto about the accused at the show trials who professed their innocence—“The more they are innocent, the more they deserve to be shot”—is superego at its purest.
And did McWhorter in the quoted passage not reproduce the exact structure of the superego paradox? “You must strive eternally to understand the experiences of black people / You can never understand what it is to be black, and if you think you do, you’re a racist.” In short, you must but you can’t, because you shouldn’t—the greatest sin is to do what you should strive for… This convoluted structure of an injunction, which is fulfilled when we fail to meet it, accounts for the paradox of superego. As Freud noted, the more we obey the superego commandment, the guiltier we feel. The paradox also holds in the Lacanian reading of the superego as an injunction to enjoy: Enjoyment is an impossible-real, we can’t ever fully attain it, and this failure makes us feel guilty.
A series of situations that characterize today’s society exemplify perfectly this type of superego pressure, like the endless PC self-examination: Was my glance at the flight attendant too intrusive and sexually offensive? Did I use any words with a possible sexist undertone while addressing her? And so on and so on. The pleasure, thrill even, provided by such self-probing is evident.
And does the same not hold even for the pathological fear some Western liberal leftists have of being counted guilty of Islamophobia? In this telling, any critique of Islam can only be an expression of Western Islamophobia. Salman Rushdie is denounced for unnecessarily provoking Muslims and thus (partially, at least) inviting the fatwa condemning him to death. The result is predictable: The more the Western liberal leftists probe their guilt, the more they are accused by Muslim fundamentalists of being hypocrites who try to conceal their hatred of Islam. This constellation again perfectly reproduces the paradox of the superego: The more you obey what the Other demands of you, the guiltier you are. It is as if the more you tolerate Islam, the stronger its pressure on you will be….
This superego structure, then, explains how and why, in the Telluride case, the majority and the institutional big Other were both terrorized by the woke minority. All of them were exposed to a superego pressure that is far from an authentic call to justice. The black woke elite is fully aware it won’t achieve its declared goal of diminishing black oppression—and it doesn’t even want that. What they really want is what they are achieving: a position of moral authority from which they may terrorize all others, without effectively changing social relations of domination.
The situation of those terrorized by the woke elite is more complex, but still clear: They submit to woke demands because most of them really are guilty of participating in social domination, but submitting to woke demands offers them an easy way out—you gladly assume your guilt insofar as this enables you to go on living the way you did. It’s the old Protestant logic: “Do whatever you want, just feel guilty for it.”
“Wokeness” effectively stands for its exact opposite. In his Interpretation of Dreams, Freud reports on a dream dreamt by a father who falls asleep while keeping vigil at his son’s coffin. In this dream, his dead son appears to him, pronouncing the terrible appeal, “Father, can’t you see that I am burning?” When the father awakens, he discovers that the cloth on the son’s coffin has caught fire from a falling candle.
So why did the father awaken? Was it because the smell of the smoke got too strong, so that it was no longer possible to prolong the sleep by way of including it into the improvised dream? Lacan proposes a much more interesting reading:
If the function of the dream is to prolong sleep, if the dream, after all, may come so near to the reality that causes it, can we not say that it might correspond to this reality without emerging from sleep? After all, there is such a thing as somnambulistic activity. The question that arises, and which indeed all Freud’s previous indications allow us here to produce, is—What is it that wakes the sleeper? Is it not, in the dream, another reality?—the reality that Freud describes thus—Dass das Kind an seinem Bette steht, that the child is near his bed, ihn am Arme fasst, takes him by the arm and whispers to him reproachfully, und ihm vorwurfsvoll zuraunt: Vater, siehst du denn nicht, Father, can’t you see, dass ich verbrenne, that I am burning? Is there not more reality in this message than in the noise by which the father also identifies the strange reality of what is happening in the room next door? Is not the missed reality that caused the death of the child expressed in these words?
So it wasn’t the intrusion of the signal from external reality that awakened the unfortunate father, but the unbearably traumatic character of what he encountered in the dream. Insofar as “dreaming” means fantasizing in order to avoid confronting the Real, the father literally awakened so that he could go on dreaming. The scenario was the following one: When his sleep was disturbed by the smoke, the father quickly constructed a dream which incorporated the disturbing element (smoke-fire) in order to prolong his sleep; however, what he confronted in the dream was a trauma (of his responsibility for the son’s death) much stronger than reality, so he awakened into reality in order to avoid the Real….
And it is exactly the same with much of the ongoing “woke” movement: The woke awaken us—to racism and sexism—precisely to enable us to go on sleeping. They show us certain realities so that we can go on ignoring the true roots and depth of our racial and sexual traumas.