The Woke Generation: Ethics on the rocks
The world is in the midst of a culture war in which both the left and the right are abandoning long-standing norms and principles taken for granted. While the paranoid right descends into violent depravity, the “woke” left is responding in ways that only make the situation worse
Ethical progress produces a beneficial form of dogmatism. A normal, healthy society does not debate whether rape and torture are acceptable, because the public “dogmatically” accepts that they are beyond the pale. By the same token, a society whose leaders speak of “legitimate rape” – as a former Republican congressman in the United States once did – or of tolerable torture is exhibiting clear signs of ethical decay, and previously unimaginable acts can quickly become possible.
Consider Russia today. In an unverified video that began circulating this month, a former mercenary from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group is accused of switching sides to “fight against the Russians,” whereupon an unidentified assailant smashes a sledgehammer into the side of the mercenary’s head. When asked to comment on the video – posted under the header “The hammer of revenge” – Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group’s founder and a close ally of Vladimir Putin, replied that, “A dog receives a dog’s death.” As many have observed, Russia’s behavior is now identical to that of the Islamic State. Or, consider Russia’s increasingly close ally, Iran, where young girls who have been arrested for protesting the regime are reportedly being married off to prison guards and then raped, on the grounds that a minor cannot legally be executed if she is a virgin.
Or, consider Israel, which proudly presents itself as a liberal democracy, even though it has gradually come to resemble some of the other fundamentalist-religious countries in its neighborhood. The latest evidence of the trend is the news that Itamar Ben-Gvir will be a part of Binyamin Netanyahu’s new government. Before entering politics, Ben-Gvir was known to display a portrait in his living room of the Israeli-American terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinian Muslim worshippers and wounded 125 others in Hebron in 1994.
Netanyahu, who was Israel’s longest-serving prime minister before being ousted in June 2021, is fully implicated in this ethical decay. In 2019, the Times of Israel reports, he called “for a fight against rising Muslim and left-wing anti-Semitism in Europe, hours after the [Israeli] government published a report that said the far-right posed the greatest threat to Jews on the continent.” Why does Netanyahu ignore far-right anti-Semitism? Because he relies on it. The Western new right may be anti-Semitic at home, but it also staunchly supports Israel, which it sees as one of the last remaining barriers against a Muslim invasion.
Unfortunately, all this is just one side of the story. Ethical decay is also increasingly apparent in the “woke” left, which has become increasingly authoritarian and intolerant as it advocates permissiveness for all forms of sexual and ethnic identity – except one. The sociologist Duane Rousselle has characterised the new “cancel culture” as “racism in the time of the many without the One.” Whereas traditional racism vilifies the intruder who poses a threat to the unity of the One (the dominant in-group), the woke left want to do the same to anyone who has not fully abandoned all the One’s old categories of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity.
All sexual orientations and gender identities are now acceptable unless you are a white man whose gender identity corresponds with your biological sex at birth. Members of this cisgender cohort are enjoined to feel guilty just for what they are – for being “comfortable in their skin” – while all others (even cisgender women) are encouraged to be whatever they feel they are. This “new woke order” is increasingly discernible in absurd real-world episodes. Just this month, the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania planned to sponsor a student-organized event for all those who are “tired of white cis men.” The plan was for attendees to “come paint & write about” their frustrations with “comfortable in skin” white men. Following an outcry and charges of racism, the event has since been postponed.
There is a paradox in how woke non-binary fluidity coincides with intolerance and exclusion. In Paris, the prestigious École Normale Supérieure is now debating a proposal to establish dormitory corridors reserved exclusively for individuals who have chosen mixity/diversity (mixité choisie) as their sexual identity, in order to exclude cisgender men. The proposed rules are strict: anyone not fitting the criteria would be prohibited from even setting foot in these corridors. And, of course, such rules would open a path to even tighter restrictions. For example, if enough individuals define their identity in even narrower terms, they presumably will be able to demand their own corridor.
Three features of this proposal are worth emphasising: it excludes only cisgender men, not cisgender women; it is not based on any objective criteria of classification, but only on subjective self-designation; and it calls for further classificatory subdivisions. This last point is crucial, because it demonstrates how all the emphasis on plasticity, choice, and diversity ultimately leads to what can only be called a new apartheid – a network of fixed, essentialised identities. Wokeism thus offers a quintessential study in how permissiveness becomes prohibition: under a woke regime, we never know if and when some of us will be canceled for something we have said or done (the criteria are murky), or for simply being born into the forbidden category.
Far from opposing the new forms of barbarism, as it often claims to be doing, the woke left fully participates in it, promoting and practicing an oppressive discourse without irony. Though it advocates pluralism and promotes difference, its subjective position of enunciation – the place from which it speaks – is ruthlessly authoritarian, brooking no debate in efforts to impose arbitrary exclusions that previously would have been considered beyond the pale in a tolerant, liberal society.
That said, we should bear in mind that this mess is largely confined to the narrow world of academia (and various intellectual professions like journalism), whereas the rest of society is moving more in the opposite direction. In the US, for example, 12 Republican senators voted this month with the Democratic majority to codify the right of same-sex couples to marry.
Cancel culture, with its implicit paranoia, is a desperate and obviously self-defeating attempt to compensate for the very real violence and intolerance that sexual minorities have long suffered. But it is a retreat into a cultural fortress, a pseudo-“safe space” whose discursive fanaticism merely strengthens the majority’s resistance to it.
Slavoj Zizek is Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School