What is Woke, Anyway?

A coda to my column on Scientific American Goes Woke

Thank you all for the warm and enthusiastic reception to my first Substack column on how and why Scientific American went woke, and the many thoughtful comments readers posted. This is exactly what I was hoping for on this platform—an open dialogue with readers. Why? The answer comes straight out of Steven Pinker’s new book Rationality, in which he quotes the psychologist David Myers’ “essence of monotheistic belief” that (1) There is a God and (2) it’s not me (and it’s also not you), and adds the secular equivalent: (1) There is objective truth and (2) I don’t know it (and neither do you). Pinker then draws the rational conclusion (p. 40):

The same epistemic humility applies to the rationality that leads to truth. Perfect rationality and objective truth are aspirations that no mortal can ever claim to have attained. But the conviction that they are out there licenses us to develop rules we can all abide by that allow us to approach truth collectively in ways that are impossible for any of us individually.


As most readers will know, I don’t believe in God (so it’s not me, you, or anyone else). But I do believe in objective truth that is out there to be discovered, only I don’t know what it is (and neither do you), so we need to work together through open dialogue to figure it out through what Karl Popper called “conjectures and refutations”. My purpose in writing that essay was most assuredly not to get readers to cancel their subscriptions to Scientific American (no more “cancel culture” please!); it was to address the many conjectures on offer in that publication that group differences between races and genders are primarily explained by racism, misogyny, and general bigotry, and to explain why those conjectures are refuted by counterfactual examples. This is why I provided that bar graph showing fields where, for example, women dominate in earning graduate degrees, and the dearth of conjectures of reverse bias against men. Here it is again in case you missed the previous column:

Some readers objected to my use of the word “woke”. Because it carries pejorative connotations I am sympathetic to the objection and even went out to my Twitter followers to ask for alternatives, but none were particularly compelling. I do like Thomas Sowell’s “the anointed” (in his aptly titled book The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy) and John McWhorter’s “the elect” in his new book descriptively titled Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America:

Author and essayist Joseph Bottum has found the proper term, and I will adopt it here: We will term these people the Elect. They do think of themselves as bearers of a wisdom, granted them for any number of reasons—empathic leaning, life experience, maybe even intelligence. But they see themselves as having been chosen, as it were, by one or some of these factors, as understanding something most do not. “The Elect” is also good in implying a certain smugness, which, sadly, is an accurate depiction.

As a linguist, McWhorter has also tracked how the word “woke” has mutated into a pejorative in what the psychologist (and linguist) Steven Pinker calls the “euphemism treadmill”, in which purely descriptive words that carry no connotations (e.g., “moron” was a technical label for an I.Q. score range in which an adult tests at the mental age of 8-12), take on pejorative meanings until they become politically incorrect and are replaced with a neutral term (“developmentally disabled”) until that morphs in a derogatory direction, and so on. “Woke,” McWhorter says, “migrated from Black vernacular to mainstream use” and that the expression “stay woke,” “went from being insider progressive-speak to a term of derision for a progressive agenda.” At its worst, McWhorter concludes, the word “allowed many progressives, supposedly attuned to injustice, to signal their commitment to combating it without actually demonstrating an understanding of its causes or remedies.”

This is the deeper reason I used the term “woke” to describe what is going on at Scientific American: they don’t seem to demonstrate an understanding of the causes and remedies of actual injustices, which still exist (even while the world becomes ever more socially liberal and inclusive). This is what I tried to do in my book The Moral Arc, and why we included on the cover Félix Parra’s classic painting of Galileo demonstrating the instruments of science at the University of Padua to a tonsured monk (illustrating my thesis that science has been the primary driver of progress, not religion). Perhaps McWhorter’s characterization of woke racism as a new religion is apropos here.

Coincidentally (or was it?), this morning the Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American, Laura Helmuth, whom I did not know in my time there, tweeted out a thread about Substack writers and the use of the word “woke” as an insult:

Okay Laura, and readers herein, I am open to suggestions for with what we should replace “woke”. Twitter followers suggested “equalitarians” and “equitarians”, which aren’t bad, and do seem to capture the belief many who call themselves “woke” seem to hold, namely, the goal of a just and equitable society should be equal outcomes, not just equal opportunity. (And, thus, any outcome differences between groups are, ipso factor, unjust and must be corrected.)

Honestly, I’m not looking for a fight. Before such terms hopped on the euphemism treadmill I would have called myself woke and a social justice warrior, inasmuch as I believe in civil liberties, civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, animal rights, and the continued expansion of the moral sphere to include all sentient beings. As my book is a 500-page defense of the principles behind these now-pejorative terms I hardly think I can be accused of being arrogant, self-righteous, and offended by social justice efforts. To the contrary. I’m not God. And neither are you. So let’s find the right language, practice epistemic humility, and apply the tools of science and reason to further bend the arc of the moral universe toward truth, justice, and freedom.

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