Sleeping Woke: Cancel Culture and Simulated Religion

Alexander Beiner
Jul 17, 2020 · 13 min read

A new religion has erupted. It has taken over newsrooms, radio waves, HR departments, social feeds and film scripts. It dictates your playlists on Netflix. It tells you what language is acceptable, and what will be punished. It is not religion as we know it, but a simulated religion; a uniquely decentralised and leaderless cult of the internet age.

Incubated in the critical theory of the far left, it was birthed by an ideology that views reality as socially constructed and defined by power, oppression and group identity. Now, it has metastasised into its own entity. It has been given many names, but I will call it Wokeism.

Many on the political left are now trying to make sense of it, and push back against its excesses. A rift has formed; on one side, the more traditional left arguing for liberal values. On the other, social justice activists who are concerned primarily with deconstructing systems of oppression. What makes this an extraordinary moment in history is that, while this war is raging, Wokeism is simultaneously being adopted at an astonishing speed by late-stage capitalism. In much the same way Christianity was absorbed by a declining Roman Empire, it is moving from the fringes into the very heart of power.

This essay will attempt to explore the theological roots of Wokeism, its sacred tenets, and how they can explain the cultural shifts we’re seeing. We will delve into the postmodern critical theory to understand what constitutes a simulated religion, double-click on the early history of the internet, grapple with the meaning crisis, and ultimately descend into the hell of redemptive religion to fathom the soul of a culture on fire.

Systemic Change vs Wokeism

This is not an attempt to disregard the corruption or injustice that many have been protesting against. Nor is it a suggestion that anyone who sees value in some intersectional arguments (as I do) is a religious fanatic.

It is clear that there are serious systemic issues and inequalities in our culture that urgently need to be addressed. This essay is about drawing a boundary between two very different things; a compassionate awareness of systemic inequality, and Wokeism as a religion. I will not be exploring the former in detail as others have done a much better job than I could. For an excellent recent analysis, I’d recommend this episode of the Dark Horse Podcast featuring a panel of leading Black intellectuals.

Instead, this is an attempt to do something that for some may seem mad; empathise with Wokeism. This doesn’t mean agreeing with it, or setting no boundaries. It means seeing the world through its eyes, feeling the raw human longing beneath the incomprehensible paradoxes it preaches. In doing so, we can start to make sense of it from another angle and find better ways to respond.

Cancelling Culture

Nothing demonstrates Wokeism’s religious tenets more than what has come to be known as cancel culture. This is a term used to refer to the tactic of trying to erase someone from public discourse — either through publicly shaming, de-platforming or demanding they be fired. Many infringements can lead to cancellation — whether it’s a tweet from a decade previously that’s considered racist or transphobic, or simply a ‘problematic’ essay like this one.

It is nothing new to point out the religiosity of this tactic. However, what is often lacking is an understanding of how to engage with it on its own terms. Prominent figures on the left are now speaking out against it, using many of the same tactics of those on the centre and on the right who have been doing so for half a decade: appealing to reason and liberal values around the free exchange of ideas.

A watershed moment came recently when 153 prominent figures across the political spectrum signed an open letter in Harper’s Magazine. They called for a free and open exchange of ideas in the face of “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” Signatories included Salman Rushdie, JK Rowling, and New York Times writer Bari Weiss. Since then, Weiss, a rare political centrist on the New York Times editorial staff, has resigned from her post, citing a culture of bullying and aggression at the paper.

It is essential that boundaries are set against cancel culture, but the Harper’s letter is a prime example of where it is only partially effective. It has, predictably, created another explosion of articles and Twitter feuds in opposition. Researching this essay I spoke to a number of far-left activists about cancel culture, and was told several times it didn’t exist. What was happening, they said, was that people were being called out for intolerant speech. When questioned as to who decides what is tolerant or intolerant, they often responded that this is self-evident. This is a moral response, and as Jonathan Haidt’s research has shown, the moral foundations we value differ between people. Wokeism values three moral foundations very highly; preventing harm, fairness, and sanctity.

This is the moral core of the religion, but these conversations also revealed something deeper — its decentralised nature. Wokeism has no leader, no centre, and no boundaries. When we argue against it, we grasp at phantoms. It is a non-linear entity; at once a cultural movement, an offshoot of critical theory, an ideology of disrupting power dynamics, a status and power game in itself, an attempt to protect marginalised voices, and none of these. To reason with it is to fight chimeras, chasing wraiths through hyperreality.

This combination of rigid morality and non-linearity is not only a tactic of narrative warfare, but a value set built into the very essence of Wokeism. To understand why this is so important, we have to travel back in time and plunge our fingers into the theoretical soil that birthed it.

Things Fall Apart

It is 1917. Men are dying in their thousands in the trenches of the first world war. Led to the battlefield by the certainty of national identity, they are being ground to shreds by its uncaring machinery.

Faced with this horror, people began to question the grand narratives that had allowed it to happen. After the war ended, Modernism was born. This new literary and cultural movement tried to make sense of what to do when we lose the certainties by which we define ourselves.

In the 1960’s, culture began a shift from Modernism into Postmodernism. Postmodernism saw this dislocation as an opportunity. It played with the breakdown of structure, throwing off the constraints of grand narratives about the world. Individual identity was no longer fixed, but fluid and socially constructed. The 1960s was heavily influenced by Marxist theory, but it’s a mistake to boil all of postmodernism down to this. Feminism, post-colonialism, and artistic exploration all contributed. It was an important cultural development; it helped set the stage for civil rights movement, opened people’s eyes to cognitive frames that were too narrow, and allowed voices on the margin of society to be heard.

A Time Before Twitter

But how did an aesthetic and cultural movement grow to take over boardrooms and influence government policy? In short, the internet. Wokeism thrives on social media and this is where it wages its war for purity. As Bari Weiss said in her resignation letter to the New York Times,

“Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space.”

We will return to performance and simulation soon, but first we can go back to a time before Twitter and see where it all began: the first website, created by Tim Berners Lee. Its homepage states: “The WorldWideWeb (W3) is a wide-area hypermedia information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents.’

Clicking on ‘hypermedia’ explains that ‘Hypertext is text which is not constrained to be linear.’

A Patchwork Reality

Postmodern theorists were fascinated by the early internet. It is no surprise; non-linearity is built into its DNA, and was already core to postmodern art. If we want to understand why people are toppling statues and challenging historical narratives, we need look no further than one of the first hypertext novels, The Patchwork Girl. Written in 1997 by Shelley Jackson, it was an online, hyperlinked story that loosely retold Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The reader could enter the story at any point, clicking on different links to travel to different parts of the story.

Jackson saw the process as one of inverting tradition, thereby allowing for a more feminine perspective to emerge into culture. In a presentation at MIT in 1997, she explained:

“It is not female, necessarily, but it is feminine. That is, it’s amorphous, indirect, impure, diffuse, multiple, evasive (…) Hypertext is what literature has edited out: the feminine. In hypertext, everything is there at once and equally weighted ….”

The Patchwork Girl provides an early seed of what would become a core belief in Wokeism: deconstruction leads to freedom. Where this matters most is the way it applies to the individual. The postmodern individual has no essential selfhood; they are constructed by webs of language and power relations. Jackson suggested that “it’s possible, and maybe preferable for the self to think of itself as a sort of practice rather than a thing, a proposition with variable terms, a mesh of relationships.”

This is what identity is online. Fragmented, fluid, partial. Online, you can be anyone you want to be, and simultaneously, you are nobody. If this is where we gain our sense of self, we find ourselves adrift in a sea of language and relativistic narratives over which we have no control. Philosopher Ken Wilber has called the result an ‘aperspectival madness.’

From another angle, sociologist Aaron Antonovksy has proposed that a ‘Sense of Coherence’ — in which we which we feel our life fits into a wider scheme of meaning — is crucial for our wellbeing and a sense of meaning in our lives. Wokeism takes away coherence by replacing the sanctity of the individual with the sanctity of the group identity they believe constructs that individual (it could also deconstruct and thereby free them, if everyone would just use the right language). The result is an ever-shifting, dangerous world where you might be erased at any moment. Under this existential strain, it is no surprise that Wokeist adherents swing between compensatory narcissism, depressive nihilism, and find almost everything offensive.

Simulated Religion

Until now, we have been exploring the ideological roots of Wokeism. To see how this ideology became a new form of religion, we can turn to theorist Jean Baudrillard. In ‘Simulacra & Simulation’, Baudrillard suggested that we are living what he called a hyperreality. This is a world in which our signs and symbols, which proliferate through modern media, no longer reference back to something in the real world, only to other signs and symbols. As a result, we become trapped in a self-replicating simulation of reality. Nothing is real, and nothing feels authentic.

Wokeism is birthed from this hyperreality. It has all the trappings of religion, but an underlying emptiness. But how does this make it a simulated religion? To see that, we have to ask what true religion is for.

Religion brings us into contact with something beyond our limited selves, connecting us to a deeper reality. Many religions and wisdom traditions recognise that we are trapped in some kind of delusion. Buddhism teaches us to zoom out of our cognitive loops that trap us in suffering and into an awareness of our essential emptiness and interconnectedness. Sufism talks of the core essence that lies beneath our limited personalities. Christianity teaches us humility, offering eternal life and salvation through Christ.

Wokeism shares many of these qualities; the idea that we are trapped in a system that warps our perception, that we can transcend this by thinking correctly, and that there is a moral good beyond us; however, these tenets are simulations of something deeper it cannot access.

A Deeper Wisdom

Carl Jung taught that we have two aspects to ourselves. One, the Self, is the real essence of who and what you are. It is bigger than your limited awareness, deeply mysterious and regenerative. The other part of our psyche is our ego.

The values of that Self that make the world beautiful and mysterious are unattainable to the ego, but it desperately wants them. Some form of this wisdom has been shared across cultures for thousands of years. The Gnostics, who heavily influenced Jung, had a profound understanding of this. They taught that, disconnected from its true source, the ego will begin to simulate the values of the Self, creating a kind of Disneyland falseness around it. In Wokeism, true human empathy becomes a performance through virtue signalling on Twitter. True systemic change is simulated by a hashtag over a profile picture. And always the complexity and rawness of being human is boiled down to a single, rigid belief: you are an individual participating in or victimised by systems of oppression.

Wokeism is a performance of religion. It is simulating the transcendent values of empathy, care for the vulnerable, and the desire to end injustice. However, as a postmodern phenomenon it has none of the divine spark, what some Gnostics called ennoia, that emerges from a deeper aspect of being.

When I spoke to Calvinist minister and YouTuber Paul VanderKlay for this essay, he argued that Wokeism lacks another essential quality of true religion: the ability to build and maintain a community. Inevitably, it ends up consuming itself and any community it touches in a cycle of blame, shame and accusation. This would be concerning if we were simply dealing with a fringe religion, but we are now dealing with a state and corporate-sponsored religion.

An Unholy Union

If your deepest-held beliefs can be comfortably absorbed into Starbucks’ PR strategy, it may be time to go on a vision quest.

The ultimate expression of the hyperreality of Wokeism can be found in its adoption by corporations and governments. As Tyson Yunkaporta points out in ‘Sand Talk’, civilisation, and Western civilisation in particular, has an incredible ability to absorb and transform any ideas or practices that could threaten it.

The largest threat toward our civilisation would be a serious challenge to the corruption of our financial and political systems. A serious, concerted effort to address growing wealth inequality, lack of class mobility, environmental degradation and wide-spread corruption. As Adolph L Reed pointed out on a recent episode of the Useful Idiots podcast, the systemic issues that Wokeism sees as identity issues are often primarily class issues. However, solving class issues requires genuine systemic change. Endless argument about identity does not, and is therefore selected for by institutions in order to maintain the status quo.

The reason Wokeism is so easy to adopt into a corporation is that it is also a product of late-stage capitalism; a last gasp of a system running out of steam. Its doctrine can now be found in most major companies. As Matt Taibbi has pointed out, the emphasis Robin DiAngelo and others place on ‘lifelong vigilance’ of power and privilege creates a situation where Wokeism can perpetually insert itself into the workplace– there can never be enough sensitivity trainers to cleanse the sin away. Just as our economies are based on the erroneous idea of infinite growth, Wokeism preaches infinite sin; the unholy union between the two is terrifying.

How to Weather the Storm

For all the madness of this new simulated religion, for all its aggression and absurdity and righteousness, I believe Wokeism is driven by the same longing as true religion; a desire to be truly free. Free from corruption. Free from injustice, and free from existential dread.

If there is a place we can come to empathise, it is here. Because we all want to be free, and we all know what it feels like to be trapped. We all have a different idea about what’s fair, but most of us want to treat others fairly. And like Wokeism, we are all a product of a world in the grip of a crisis of meaning. As a culture, we do not know where we’re going, or why we’re here, or what we’re supposed to be doing. Simulation is increasingly all we have until we can revive some deeper forms of wisdom that bring us back into our authentic humanity.

Most people are not true believers of Wokeist creed. Instead, they are well-meaning people who care about creating a fairer world who resonate with the surface level of the ideas it presents. Or, they feel uneasy but are afraid to speak out, perhaps for good reason.

Left unchecked, Wokeism will bring us further into tribal division and the sense of disconnection that drives the meaning crisis. We are going to have to learn how to push back effectively and compassionately. And that takes us straight back to the core of our own humanity, because to do this, we have to be in our sovereignty as individuals. We have to be able to find that deeper core in ourselves that is connected to a deeper wisdom. From there, one can stand firm while being unfairly called a racist, transphobe, Nazi or TERF and respond with compassion instead of anger.

As mediator Diane Musho Hamilton has pointed out in Compassionate Conversations, you have to come to a point of sameness to create enough safety before you confront someone with a difference in view. This is why it’s important to understand Wokeism through as many lenses as possible, because somewhere in there is a sameness that we can use to connect to one another. From there, we can have a different type of conversation that challenges, while remaining compassionate. Reasoned debate alone will not work.

If we can manage to engage with an attitude of empathy and understanding, perhaps we can create an opening of authentic human connection that disrupts the simulation. There may be something better waiting for us behind it.

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