Thursday's Child Has Far to Go
Like Lisa Duggan, I’m frustrated by a lot of the latest social media spat over “wokeness”, kicked off originally by an essay by Sam Adler-Bell. I want to work that frustration out slightly differently, because I think the complaint against “wokeness” that is now so familiar across both mainstream media and social media involves the compression of many potentially legitimate discussions and observations into a kind of unpleasant stew that is used to malicious ends.
The whole in this case is much less than the sum of its parts. When you pull the entire discourse apart, here’s what I think you get:
The economic prospects of all college-educated Americans are notably different than the economic prospects of all Americans with just a high school degree or less. This distinction is not about elite selectives versus non-selective colleges, it’s not even about 2-year versus 4-year degrees. It’s all college versus all non-college. This is a change in the socioeconomic structure of the United States over the last thirty years. As such, this distinction also has a complicated age-related character. E.g., the socioeconomic status of people over 50 still tends to significantly reflect a different pattern of attainment, even though people over 50 have been affected by the credentialization of the economy (as well as by the decline of the union movement and the deindustrialization of many parts of the country. Note that this doesn’t entirely sort out to one class position versus another: there’s been a spate of analyses in the last few years pointing out that some of the wealthiest people in the United States are individuals owning relatively local businesses like car dealerships, who don’t necessarily need the credentials of a college education.
The credentials gap does, however, produce forms of resentment between the two groups. It’s the one incontrovertible distinction between Trump voters and anti-Trump voters that survives any kind of analytic attention. And that resentment can cling to any conversation between the college-educated and the not-college-educated. It’s not a question of incomprehensible jargony wokeness, it’s more basic than that by far. It’s also a performative, theatrical kind of resentment that the not-college-educated can and do turn off and on depending on whether the speaker is willing to fawn and defer to them. That’s why Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, George W. Bush, Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and many other right-wing politicians who are the products not just of college education but elite selective institutions and who have relied on that credentialization to get started in their professional and political careers, are able to get away with railing against the elite and never get called on it. It’s also why they are eager to entangle all the things I’m pulling apart here: it distracts from the fact that they are beneficiaries of the credentialized economy that at least some of their voters have been excluded from. (And this is why Adler-Bell should know better than to enable that entanglement.)
There is an attainment of cultural status that is “class-like” if not in some simple sense corresponding to actual wealth that is conferred in part by elite selective higher education. The graduate of an elite selective college or university who is making $45,000 as the associate director of an urban non-profit may be granted a kind of cultural and social deference that is not shown to the graduate of a regional public who owns a car dealership that makes him $5 million a year. That is not primarily about the political ideology expressed by the former versus the political views of the latter: it is a kind of halo effect that persists regardless of the content of what the two groups say or do. To some extent, it mediates access to certain kinds of professional opportunities, but it more commonly structures a whole range of status markers, forms of address, and especially access to the “attention economy” or to mass media. What Adler-Bell and others call “wokeness” is just a small subset of this kind of sorting. The halo effect is both a product of the social networks of these graduates and virtually anything they say, even when its content is conservative or apolitical. It’s possible to kick over the traces of this distinction enough in a conversation to obscure or dampen the effect but it takes either conscious effort or a lifetime spent in contexts where the status premium is a liability.
There is a generalized attitude towards language, representation and cultural work that has pervasive underlying power within a particular subset of Americans who are loosely aligned with liberal-left political sensibilities. This orientation derives some of its propositional character from postmodern and poststructuralist thought, but it’s perfectly possible to operate from this generalized perspective without knowing anything about that body of thought or to have any from-first-principles kind of reasoning involved. To some extent, this orientation suffuses any activity, discourse or leisure activity associated broadly with humanistic thinking or cultural work. (Which is why some people who identify as conservatives also understand this propositional orientation quite well and are quite adept at operating within its framework.) What is this orientation? That language and representation cause or structure society, personhood, and politics, and that you can change deep structures and redistribute political power if you change language and representation. This is not necessarily something that comes from a college education or from academic intellectuals (here I disagree a bit with a point made by Chad Orzel) in that there are people with no college education or with a diffident relationship to their college education who nevertheless embrace the idea that language and representation are the battleground of political transformation. It’s more that there’s a kind of self-interested tautology involved: this is about privileging the kinds of tools you have access to and facility with and convincing yourself that even if you had a choice, you would choose those tools to pursue political change.
There’s something to this point, in fact. Why else are people who identify themselves as the ‘sensible left’ or the ‘rational middle’, etc. so ardently against what they slang as ‘wokeness’? Because they think that you can change a political orientation by trying to make it embarrassing to be ‘woke’. Anybody who is working social media in the neo-Skinnerite way that we all do, trying to behaviorally condition other social media users into what we consider optimal practices, shares some part of the proposition that the words we use and the frames of reference we adopt have sociopolitical consequences that go beyond the semantic content of what was said in any given exchange. To some extent, much of the left is stuck in the space of believing that language, representation and knowledge have power as a result of the fading prospects of conventionalized mass mobilization and mass action after 1975 but also an increasing inability to believe that conventional persuasion of ostensibly rational subjects can or does happen—a viewpoint that has been increasingly validated by cognitive scientists and by anybody who is an attentive observer of social media.
This entire perspective is why most college students leave college with at least some sense that the words you use have power that goes far beyond their ostensible semantics. And again, this is something that not only the American right believes but in fact has frequently demonstrated the validity of. Look at the recent weaponized use of words and phrases like “grooming”, “critical race theory”, “the Deep State” and so on. That said, one of the major problems with progressive politics in the era of social media has been that it is like a kid with a hammer thinking everything is a nail: the proposition that choices in language and representation create politically meaningful sociopolitical changes is over-applied to situations where that makes very little difference and is over-attributed for changes that have actually happened.
Perhaps more importantly a preoccupation with changing language or changing common tropes or genres of representation tends to drive progressives with great intensity into situations where they have tools sufficient to accomplishing those goals or institutions which are pliable to the force of their critique. The tools are “algorithmically intensified communicative attention on social media”—e.g., getting what seems like a very large number of people to pay a very large amount of attention at extremely rapid speed to a single instance of discourse that illustrates a change that needs to come—and the institutions that are pliable tend to be cultural forms that have very intense dependence on fans or niche audiences and institutions that have extreme sensitivity for whatever reason to what customers or clients think (universities are one example). That’s arguably too much energy and attention for the outcomes that such efforts can secure. It’s also a mode of acting politically that can cause a lot of collateral damage and that is easily misdirected by malice.
The specific use of specific kinds of jargon as a specific tool for attaining and maintaining power within highly bounded institutional, associational and affiliational contexts is real and it is something that academia does model for many students. This is Chad Orzel’s point and I agree that it’s significant. Loosely speaking, this is even what Michel Foucault actually meant by “discourse”: a particular way of speaking combined with particular privileges venues or contexts of speech combined with a kind of material assemblage of tools, settings and affect adding up to power within institutions or social groups and sometimes power over or between institutions and social groups. A doctor isn’t going to drop their full technical vocabulary on you as a patient, but neither are they going to ask you if your arm is hurty-wurty or if you feel an ouchie in your tummy, unless you’re five years old. They need enough of their vocabulary to constitute themselves as a doctor whose observations and recommendations need to be respected and obeyed, even if some of what you’re being asked to do is unpleasant or painful.
Again, it’s not exclusive to academia, either. If a plumber with a 2-year CC degree says “there’s a dingus down there in the floor that needs $5,000 worth of work so that the stuff will do the whatever kind of right”, I’m not likely to sign on the dotted line for that work.
What’s at stake in “wokeness” in this respect is I think what Olúfémi O. Táíwò is talking about in his new book Elite Capture, which is that the use of a precise technical language is in some cases about people within progressive movements or constituencies finding a way to continue holding leadership roles, informally or formally, that the current turn of progressive politics should mitigate against. Most particularly, it lets white, straight and/or male participants continue to act as initiating voices who discipline others for their technically improper language, or to act as “explainers” who serve as a gateway into activism. So, for example, the time I listened to a perfectly well-meaning white student lecture a more diverse group of students about why he was ashamed that some students graduate from college without having been taught about the concept of intersectionality, as if knowing the concept in technical terms is the only gateway for understanding it, when in fact it’s something that at least some people in the room (arguably all of them) live and have their own ways of describing.
That can also lead to what Adler-Bell is critiquing, and I agree that it definitely happens and it’s a political own goal when it does, which is someone who is trying to be a progressive or liberal political actor actually discouraging other people from joining in that politics by schooling or disciplining their technical language.
The point is not to conflate that moment with all these other issues, because that’s how you end up seeing a particular kind of error that happens under particular kinds of conditions as a huge, ubiquitous problem—and as something that the self-anointed sensible centrist liberal gets to wholly disassociate from himself. All of these cleavages are active and all of them have some relationship to higher education, but what is inside the set brackets for each is quite different, with only a narrow overlap that belongs to all four sets.