Have you had a conversation about The Wokeness recently? If you’re anything like me, you’ll have had a few. And they generally go the same way. First someone leans close, with a kind of guilty expression, then they whisper something outrageously unwoke like “actually, I do believe only women have cervixes”, or “I’m not entirely sure they should have banned The Tiger Who Came To Tea”.
Sometimes the conversation ends there, with sidelong glances, in case anyone has overheard, and you quickly move on to less contentious topics. Occasionally, however, it goes further, and someone says, with a pleading hint of uptalk in their voice: it’s going to end soon, isn’t it? The madness? Surely it has to end. The pendulum must swing back to sanity.
Until very recently, I’ve agreed. Yes. It will end soon. Has to. Because I have always perceived the Wokegasm, the Great Awokening, the Statue-Toppling Book Burning Cultic Rule of Woquemada – whatever you want to call it – as a Western version of the Cultural Revolution, in 1960s China. That is to say: Wokeness is a brief but intense political-emotional spasm, complete with the same public shamings, struggle sessions and earnest XR-supporting urban teens, AKA The Red Guards.
The other day, however, things changed. I was hunched in the darkest corner of a bar, having another of those whispered, dissident conversations, like two poets in 1930s Leningrad daring to discuss Stalin. My friend was describing the latest lunacy in his world, the banning of the word ‘spooky’ by the National Theatre for Scotland (on the grounds that someone somewhere for some reason used it as a racist epithet, and someone else might now get offended. Somewhere).
After rolling his eyes, and sighing deeply, my theatre-world friend then went on to add the usual, pleading, reassuring words. Surely this it. Peak Woke is close? The craziness will now subside.
This time I reacted differently. I thought: No. Maybe Woke is Forever. Maybe Woke is not a mad fashion, or a fad, it is not the platform shoes of political convulsions, maybe Wokeness is the genesis of a religion, and a mighty one at that. In this light, when we look at Woke, we are seeing something more like the birth of Christianity, in the latter centuries of the Roman Empire. But enormously speeded up.
Consider how embryonic Christianity was received in Imperial Rome. For decades it was deemed trivial: a weird, monotheistic subset of Judaism, just another minor Eastern cult in the all-you-can-eat, pick-and-mix buffet of Roman spirituality. Romans surely laughed at primitive Christians and mocked their bizarre quirks – OMG they actually believe they drink Christ’s blood! – as they reclined complacently on their noble sofas, guzzling excellent Falernian wine.
Within two centuries nobody was laughing. Instead, the Romans were feeding Christians to the lions, or tearing out their tongues, or levelling their churches, or burning Christians at the stake, because Christianity was seen, by the Emperor Diocletian, as a mortal and proletarian threat to the traditional religions and the stability of the Empire.
By then, however, it was too late. Christianity was too powerful to suppress. Constantine the Great, the emperor himself, converted around 312AD. Everyone else took note. Within another century or two the triumph of Christianity was complete, and it was the pagan heretics who were being burned. And the western empire had collapsed.
Is Wokeness a new Christianity? Many observers have already noted the parallels between Wokery and The Faith. Wokeness has its early martyrs (eg George Floyd, now honoured with statues across America). It has foundational texts – eg, White Fragility by Robin di Angelo. It has Original Sins, eg whiteness (of course). It has miracles, conversions, saints, sinners, an overt preference for emotion and unreason over materialism and rationality, and it also has its very own, obscure language: ‘cis’, ‘genderqueer’, ‘intersectionalism’, policed by a new breed of clerics, who patrol the cathedrals of academe and social media, swishing their ecclesiastical silks of self righteousness. They hand out their edicts, so that blasphemers may get cancelled.
If I am right in my pessimism, that Wokeness is possibly the birth-pangs of a new religion, not a passing socio-political fashion, then we should brace ourselves. The Roman Empire was entirely possessed by Christianity towards the end of the 5th century, it would take another 1000 years for the world to rediscover classical learning in the Renaissance, and another 1200 years before the Enlightenment rolled back the darkness of compulsory faith, and people were free to think as they wished. In other words, this could be really, really bad.<//>