Published November 3, 2023
The weeks following the Oct. 7 atrocities, where 1,400 Jews were brutally killed in Israel, have been paradigm-shattering for many who had heretofore considered themselves woke allies.
The vilest acts of terrorism there were regaled here by all the usual woke suspects: Black Lives Matter and LGBT activists, college and high school students, and well-positioned college professors. The shameless celebrations on the backs of terrorism quickly pivoted to an explosion of blatant harassment of Jewish people on campuses and beyond, leaving those still living in the realm of sanity to question what this movement actually stood for all along.
For those looking to “detransition” out from woke possession, and those seeking to facilitate their escape, it is essential to understand how exactly so many were captured by it. The process of leaving the woke movement is similar to that of disentangling oneself from a cult or an abusive narcissist. You must begin to spot the lies and identify the various forms of manipulation. Once seen, such tactics are hard to unsee, and the spell breaks abruptly.
Stages of woke manipulation generally move from pity to fear to force. It starts with appeals to compassion, then preys upon fear of social or civic retribution, and finally moves to force through coercive laws, encroachments on freedom, corruption of agencies and institutions, and finally violence.
Stage One: Pity
The first stage is the most subtle. In any marginalized identity group, there are plenty of examples of legitimate injustices that ought to elicit righteous anger and compassion in response. The #MeToo movement for example had no shortage of boorish and abusive male transgressions to galvanize a societal corrective. The BLM movement capitalized on racial grievances and militarized them.
It’s easy in the moment to overlook the uncomfortable excesses amid any sort of collective correction. If slogans such as “believe all women,” “smash the patriarchy,” or “defund the police,” seemed themselves unjust, well, such rhetoric can be forgiven when people have suffered so much. Likewise, if we need to turn workplaces and schools into DEI struggle sessions and silence or amplify employees and students based on skin color, maybe that’s justified if other groups have been so privileged.
The word “privilege” is a powerful rhetorical device for this form of manipulation. It is a word used not to induce gratitude but to impugn guilt and cement a fundamental redefinition of the person. Traditionally, we have defined persons based on what unites us: We are all rational animals, or we are made in the image of God.
For the woke, we are defined not by the love of God, but by the hatred of mankind. We are defined by what divides us. The appeal to pity then holds power only as long as we see ourselves on one side or the other of this unbridgeable binary of groups who are made innocent by their victimhood and groups who are implicated by their privilege.
Stage Two: Fear
At this stage, some might start to suspect that something is amiss. Perhaps it is not actually compassionate or empowering to persuade people that they are in a permanent victim class. Despite this gnawing suspicion, many will remain silent out of fear. This stage of manipulation is implicit: Even if compassion has worn thin, most people don’t want to appear uncompassionate. Belonging is a fundamental human need, and fear of ostracism is a compelling motivator.
The movement exploits this fear through the militancy in which it demands full-throated endorsement of its tenets. For example, judging people by the content of their character — not the color of their skin — has long been understood to be a good and right goal and one endorsed by our civil rights heroes of old. But in 2020, it became not only insufficient but demonstrably evil, as colorblindness was rebranded as a sign of white supremacy.
Manipulation by fear is not only through social condemnation but also financial and civic retribution. In any given workplace there are substantial numbers of employees who sit silently through DEI trainings and begrudgingly offer their pronouns knowing that to object could cost them their livelihoods. Even if they work independently, platforms such as YouTube have demonstrated their swift and certain ability to instantly wipe away an entire channel of income. The implicit threat of this sort can encourage anyone to self-censor.
Stage Three: Force
The fear stage blends easily into force. What was normalized through weaponized compassion, fear, and silence becomes codified in law and policy.
The force stage is both alarming and hopeful. Before this stage, the movement still seems benevolent to many. It was easy enough to overlook the more militant parts of wokeism or translate them into something reasonable. Force is the acceleration stage where the social justice movement is exposed as neither social nor just.
Evidence that we are firmly in the force stage of escalation abound. The proof is in the rampant rioting and criminality in the summer of 2020, the legal persecution of pro-lifers in 2023, the forced spoon-feeding of gender ideology in grammar schools, and corporate media’s corrupt and desperate running interference in defense of all this. And if the destruction, corruption, and perversions were not enough, maybe the progression to antisemitism and terrorism is. Even if flaccid apologies roll in as institutional donors roll out, the logic of revolution is finally laid bare, and the exposure is too much to walk back.
Though this stage feels not a little terrifying, it presents an opportunity for a burgeoning political realignment. Like the feminists who felt betrayed when the revolution sacrificed them for the transgender movement, many leftists are seeing with clarity the bankruptcy of a cause that can discard allies so easily and abandon moral axioms so callously.
To welcome them and buttress a return to sanity, we need to alleviate the two greatest barriers to taking the off-ramp from wokeism: power and complicity.
Intoxicating Virtue and Power
The greatest intoxication of getting woke is that it imbues a person with a sense of great virtue and power. The movement gives perverse incentive to find one’s moral stature in claiming a victim identity. Every perpetual victim needs a perpetual culprit. This leads to a society of accusers in constant roiling conflict, unable to self-examine — incentivized to find evil everywhere around him but never within.
All are tempted to deflect responsibility, but healthy communities — from a well-ordered family to Christianity — seek to counter it through things like examinations of conscience, confession, or the natural way that the intimacy of family life can hold a mirror to our conscience. The woke movement in contrast seeks to exploit — not counter — this human tendency to deflect and accuse.
Because this habit of victim/accuser identity is hard to break, we ought to fight the woke revolution without devolving into angry belligerent blowhards who would never welcome a woke refugee into our realm. We want to be the sort of people to whom friends can sincerely admit that they bought into a fraud without feeling that we will spike the football on them.
Facing Their Own Complicity
The other obstacle to the off-ramp is complicity. How many of the woke have passionately argued for it, cast off lifelong friends over it, engaged in shameful behavior, or supported horrifying things? Even if they now have a growing awareness that they might have been wrong, it is hard to face and hard to hear. There is no truth more offensive than the one we are trying to silence in ourselves.
The urge to say “I told you so” is strong, but the goal is victory, not valorization. Those who can face their complicity and reverse course have the sort of story and courage that can build a powerful off-ramp for many others.
In this final stage of the woke revolution, it looks to be either nearly triumphant or on life support. Which way we perceive it can determine if we course-correct. Wokeism colonizes the soul by requiring people to lie inwardly so they can accept the lies they must promote outwardly. Normalizing saying true things helps stir change in others, but that groundwork is often hidden for some time. There is good reason to think the spell of ideology is breaking. Keep going.
Noelle Mering is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center where she co-directs EPPC’s Theology of Home Project. She is the author of the book Awake, Not Woke: A Christian Response to the Cult of Progressive Ideology (TAN Books, May 2021).