The late, great radio commentator Rush Limbaugh regularly played soundbites from mainstream media before offering his opinion on any given political situation. His intent was to show the sameness of what passes for political analysis by demonstrating how the media deploys the same words or phrases to describe each event. Whether it was coordinated or not, they all seemed to say the same things. It was at once funny and telling. Not only did these alleged journalists lack any analytical imagination, they also dutifully exposed themselves as cogs in the ideological machine.
In Between Two Millstones, by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, he noted the “uniformity of opinion” that characterized Western (and especially American) intelligentsia. Today it is alive and well. But now that we have dueling media landscapes on both the right and the left in America, that push for uniformity has extended beyond the boundaries of the usual leftist ideology Rush noted. Whatever conservatism is today, many of its adherents seem to want to turn it into ideology. And for too many, terms like “woke” or “wokeism” have become a catch-all for anything that is anti-tradition, or let’s face it, anti-normal.
This is not to say that the word “woke” is completely devoid of meaning, or that there are not times when using it makes sense. Certainly, there are reasons to go after the targets for which it is common to use the label “woke.” Through repeated and mindless usage, however, we seem to be negating the possibility of clear thinking and the word is becoming a lazy slur divorced from its original meaning. Indeed, its use on the right is more and more like the left’s indiscriminate hurling of the ever-present and ever-boring “racist” cliché. Does anyone even know anymore what is meant by the expectorating of either of these words?
Of course, this is the problem—our politics, our philosophy, our literature have all become just one cliché after another. In his 2001 collection of essays, The War Against Cliché,British writer Martin Amis wrote: “… all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart. When I dispraise, I am usually quoting clichés. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy, and reverberation of voice.”
This assessment can extend beyond writing and into speaking and politics. Joining in the repetition of clichés an easy way to remain in the intellectual status quo, and it represents the activity of a truly “closed mind” (using that term in its true sense, not in the sense in which it has become yet another cliché of leftists to hurl in the direction of conservatives). Once ideology takes root in a mind, the weak mind will follow the path of least resistance, seeking false comfort of an ideological cliché.
Whether we call today’s iteration of ideology “woke” or something else, much of the explanation for it goes back to the oppressive presence of political correctness, which in turn originated in communist ideology. In his 2016 essay, “The Rise of Political Correctness,” the late Angelo Codevilla pointed out its origins, which can also be found in the Communist Party’s bureaucratic attempt at humor—a short dialogue between two party leaders that goes something like this:
“Comrade, your statement is factually incorrect.”
“Yes, it is. But it is politically correct.”
The central fact of this statement, as Codevilla writes, is that “the [Communist] Party’s interest is to be treated as a reality that ranks above reality itself.” But any ideological movement facing failure must understand that its power is “insecure.” Because of this “progressive movements end up struggling not so much to create the promised realities as to force people to speak and act as if these were real: as if what is correct politically—i.e., what thoughts serve the party’s interests—were correct factually.”
All of this can be applied to any ideological movement whether it is buffeted by an official political party or not. The aim is to control and even change the notion of reality so that confusion and disorientation reign. In a way, the current ideological movement attacking free speech, family, and life itself, has accepted the “conservative” attack on so-called “wokeism,” at least semantically speaking. They’ve embraced the term. Conservatives, by continuing to engage only by pointing out how “woke” something is, have relinquished the power of thought, political or otherwise.
The cacophony of voices condemning “woke” is gradually developing into a uniformity of empty voices. We see one set of talking points from the “left” and another from the “right” (although it’s quite difficult to even explain what these two factions mean anymore to people not caught up in the performative denunciations). What they have in common are their respective sets of opinions and vocabulary which bind members to denounce things to be proscriptively avoided or embrace things prescriptively followed. No one should deviate from the points for fear of upsetting the movement to which they belong, yet it is precisely this lack of deviation that perpetuates the polarized and unthinking status quo, certainly in terms of discourse. If we follow the ideology of our tribe, we become creatures who lack imagination, and even inhuman as we are reduced to the status of ciphers.
Going back to Martin Amis’s statement about cliché, it’s important to see that the problem is not just one of over-usage of a particular word, such as “woke” or “racist.” More than anything, we are faced with a metaphysical problem, or a way of being. When we give in to ideology and incessant semantic repetition, not only do words begin to lose their meaning but reality itself is in danger of being ignored. We end up experiencing the world only on the surface or looking only at the shadows of existence. Being human is something far more complex and beautiful than the habit of ideological repetition can show us. We miss that if we submit to the current morphing of reality in the service of clichés that condemn us to an inanimate fake life. We should not give up on the reality of being human.