Is Wokeism bringing back a colorblind aristocratic class consciousness?

Updated March 29, 2023

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, but there is no evidence that DEI programs reduce racism, so the main thing that they can teach is inclusive language and behavior. Inclusive language is  evolving into an increasingly complicated system, much like the highly-refined etiquette of the old European aristocracy.

In fact, 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 money 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, but it was one’s style of behavior that distinguished one as a discriminating member of the upper class and not money.

And money was key to maintaining elite status because 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. The 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 and if you don’t know these nuances, you probably haven’t been educated in 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.

Similarly, the AP recently decided that calling them “the AP” is dehumanizing because the word “the” is bad, so instead of talking about “the French”, we should instead write, “people of French nationality”:

(This will come as a surprise to the highly-paid consultants who convinced The Ohio State University to officially add The to its name and trademark the “the” last year!)

The complexities of wokeism may be bringing our society back to being segregated by social class like aristocratic Europe rather than by race. 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 highly baroque styles of etiquette exist purely 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 pronounce the n-word, not in a racially insensitive way, but simply in discussing how the use of the n-word has changed in recent history. The same student enjoyed listening to rap music where African-American rappers use the n-word as a racial epithet, so the student likes hearing Black people rap the word, and just objects to hearing a white person utter the sound.

So it is woke to listen to rap that uses the n-word as a racial epithet but harmful to hear a non-Black person pronounce the sound in an academic discussion about race? Modern wokeism is producing an increasingly baroque set of etiquette rules.  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 it 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 with a Chinese accent because Chinese vowel sounds are slightly different. 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 woke etiquette and evolving terms like BIPOC, because I read a lot and that is a good way to learn about what terms are de rigueur (although the above examples demonstrate that well-read professors do slip up badly sometimes).  I even understand that although woke liberals prefer the term “Latinix”, I avoid using it around Hispanics because they overwhelmingly do not like it. I know that people with disabilities dislike the term, “disabled person” because they prefer the person-first language whereas most deaf people tend to prefer identity-first language and although most autistic people also prefer identity-first language, a few prefer “people with autism”, so one must check with one’s audience about what terms they prefer.

All of language and ettiquette is hyperstitious.  “A hyperstition is a belief which becomes true if people believe it’s true.”  If people believe that a word is insulting, then it is.  So queer was a slur back when people believed it was a slur, but now it is a term of pride simple because most people have changed their mind about the term.

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. I once got reprimanded for saying the word “queer” in a children’s story because a parent questioned if I had a ‘gay agenda’.  Now the legitimacy of the phrase “knocked up” and the verb “master” are under assault.  When was/is the word “Negro” ok?  What pronouns should you use when talking about a new baby?  It is getting baroquely complex.

John McWhorter argues that languages tend to become more complex over time.  New languages are created when children are taught a pidgin and turn it into a creole language which have the simplest grammars and vocabularies.  As languages age, they evolve and unnecessary genders and irregular verb tenses agglomerate onto the grammar and vocabulary is added which increases complexity.  Some of the additional complexity is useful for separating people into different tribes within the group because new kinds of language are costly signals of in-group membership.  This is still happening today in the West where every generation of kids creates new vocabulary to separate themselves from the older generations and youth subcultures that desire more in-group identity commonly create new linguistic complexities to help signal separation than outsiders.

Some feel like racism has gotten worse in America over the past five or ten years, which, if true, would be ironic given that we have more woke rhetoric now than ever before.  Fortunately, if we expand our time horizon to the past half century, I think almost everyone agrees that America has become a lot more woke, and that the problems of racism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia, etc. while still problematic, have gotten better.  But over the same half century, economic inequality has soared within every racial group which means that problems of social class are getting worse while racial divisions have declined modestly. Sixty years ago, the achievement gap between Black and white students was roughly twice the size of the gap between rich and poor students, but today studies have found the reverse. 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 likely be more focused upon excluding lower classes using a complex etiquette developed through expensive cultural upbringing rather than race for excluding the “other”.

A focus on wokeism is much cheaper than bringing greater equality of economic opportunity.  It doesn’t require much sacrifice of those who are inculcated in the woke milieu.  It is literally lip service.  Changing true economic opportunity would have a much bigger impact on people’s lives than wokeism, but increasing economic opportunity is expensive.  I tend to agree with Richard Kahlenberg and the Marxists who argue that race and identity politics are primarily used to divide the masses and distract them from the expensive stuff that really makes a difference.  I think Martin Luther King agreed and that is why he focused on solidarity among all working-class people. He didn’t focus on wokeness even though there was a much greater need for better racial etiquette when he lived.  Some of elite America’s excessive obsession with race is aligning the interests of rich people and creating racial animosity which ultimately hurts poor people who are disproportionately Black and brown.

Posted in Discrimination, Philosophy and ethics

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