Is Wokeism bringing back a colorblind aristocratic class consciousness?

Matt Yglesias argues that the old British class system had a lot of features that were eerily similar to recent trends in political correctness. For example, educational institutions, particularly at elite levels, have embraced DEI. Now, there is no evidence that DEI programs reduce racism, so the main thing that that DEI programs can teach is inclusive language and behavior. Inclusive language happens to be evolving into a very complicated system, just like the etiquette of the old European aristocracy. One of the main reasons that aristocrats sent their children to elite schools was to teach them the complicated mannerisms that were required to be considered upper class. Style was more important than substance to a remarkable extent in that newly rich people who didn’t follow the complicated mannerisms of the established upper class were considered gauche and frowned upon whereas upper-class individuals could loose most of their many and continue to be seen as elite because their manner of speech and tastes conformed to the elite norms. Of course, money could buy access to elite places, and wealthy people are always tolerated in elite circles, and a certain amount of wealth was necessary to gain access to the places where their children could learn elite behavior.  Those who lost all their money would have difficulty keeping their offspring in the elite social class if they couldn’t afford to raise their children in elite circles, but style was the ultimate key to being accepted as an aristocrat. Those aristocratic norms were always changing and very difficult to learn which was why places like Oxford and elite boarding schools for youths were so valuable. They were worth paying the tuition in order that youths could learn how to be accepted in elite society and what behaviors to reject as low class. People who couldn’t afford to grow up soaked in that milieu simply couldn’t hope to pretend.

Similarly, Yglesias argues, “inclusive” language is becoming a marker of class because as elite schools increase their investment in DEI training, “inclusive” behavior is becoming ever more complex. Recently, one university tried to ban the word “field” as being racially insensitive and suggested “practicum” as a woke alternative.  Yglesias gives some examples of the kind of language that is currently woke.  If you don’t know this, you probably haven’t been going to the right schools:

I am quite fluent in why we don’t characterize non-white people as “minorities” anymore, and even why affirmatively characterizing them as “people of color” is in favor rather than saying “non-white,” which tends to center whiteness. I know what it means to “center” something. I know that URM stands for under-represented minorities, and that we tend not to spell it out because “minorities” is out of favor. I also know what URM means (not Asians), and how URM is distinguished from BIPOC. I don’t talk about third-world countries… Elite institutions and codes of manners are not egalitarian… because their purpose is to be inegalitarian. Changing “field” into “practicum” doesn’t include more people — it’s a new means of excluding people whose information is out of date.

Wokeism may be bringing us back to a society that is segregated by social class rather than race just like aristocratic Europe. One of the symptoms of its success is the growing political polarization by education across Western nations at the same time as wokeism has become a core mission of educational institutions across the West. It would be ironic if an ideology that is hyper-focused upon racial identity would morph into a colorblind class consciousness that is focused upon in-group etiquette just like the aristocracies of old.

Of course, I’m all in favor of etiquette that serves the purpose of helping everyone communicate more respectfully and feel better about themselves, but the more baroque styles of etiquette purely exist to reinforce tribalism and make some people feel more fashionable than other people. For example, last summer I heard a white college student profess to feel harmed when he heard another white person say the n-word, not as a racial epithet, but simply in discussing how the use of the n-word has changed. The same student had enjoyed listening to rap music where African American rappers call people the n-word as a racial epithet. So it is woke to listen to rap that uses the n-word as a racial epithet but it is harmful to hear a non-Black person pronounce the word for any reason? This is getting baroque and this is part of modern wokeism.  For example, a professor was suspended for saying a common word in Chinese that sounds like the n-word. I lived in China for almost two years where I heard people constantly use that word. It means “that”, but is also what Mandarin-speakers say instead of “um” when there is a pause in their thinking, so they tend to repeat it over and over in situations where English speakers would say uuuuummm.  It sounds a lot like the n-word although Chinese vowel sounds are slightly different, so it is like the n-word with a Chinese accent. Making that sound is enough to lose one’s job even when everyone agrees that the sound was made without any ill-will intended towards anyone.  Another school let an art professor go because she showed a famous 14th-century Islamic painting of the Prophet that some Muslims adore and other Muslims hate.  Not woke enough.

I’m fairly fluent in understanding most of woke terms like BIPOC, because I work in higher education and read a lot and that is a good way to learn about what terms are de rigueur (although even professors slip up as in the above examples).  I want to call people what they want to be called and I want to be woke about being polite because I want to be able to work with people from all backgrounds, but some parts of wokeism are less about bringing us together and more about dividing the sheep from the goats.

In thinking about the past five or ten years, it may seem like racism has gotten worse in America, but almost everyone agrees that over the past half century, America has become a lot more woke and that the problem of racism, while still a problem, has gotten better.  But over the same time period, economic inequality has soared within every racial group which means that problems of social class are getting worse. If these trends continue, we should expect to see a new aristocracy of elites who are more multi-racial than past aristocracies, but like in most of history, they will be more focused upon class and cultural upbringing than upon race for excluding the “other”.

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Posted in Discrimination, Philosophy and ethics

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