The Psychology of Wokeness
June 20, 2023
by Steven Willing, MD
Is Wokeness a Mental Illness?
In a recent podcast interview, Katy Faust spoke with CMDA CEO Dr. Mike Chupp about her forthcoming book, Raising Conservative Kids in a Woke City, to be released in September 2023. I highly commend it, and you can listen here.
Now the term “woke” means…well, whatever you want it to mean. It was originally embraced by liberal activists of a certain persuasion. The analogy was that people who did not think exactly like they did were asleep to the world and living in an imagined reality, like the pod people in The Matrix. The “woke” were the enlightened—those whose eyes were opened and saw things as they really were.
In an ironic turn of events, the activists lost control of the semantics. Conservatives began to eagerly embrace the term as a label of derision, a trend that has gained traction and possibly even prevailed. For example, check out this article from The New York Times on August 17, 2021 called “How ‘Woke’ Became an Insult.”
In Superbia: The Perils of Pride. The Power of Humility, I proposed that pride lies at the root of most human conflict and dysfunction. Indeed, the “woke” mindset is demonstrably pride-driven, making it more of a moral issue than an intellectual one. That, I suggest, is the crux of the matter. Wokeness is not a mental illness. It’s just another tiresome manifestation of how pride-driven people behave. Common elements of a prideful mindset include moral absolutism, moral grandstanding and a compulsion to control the behavior of others. Let’s consider each in turn.
A number of people, including many conservatives, imagine that in broader society, moral relativism is the prevailing mindset. That train left the station years ago. While relativism enjoyed some popularity in the latter 20th century, it is inherently unstable. Prideful people derive too much satisfaction from making rules and imposing them upon other people.
“Legalism is like gravity. Its pull is constant, pervasive, and nearly irresistible.” Superbia, p. 29
Some of the prime influencers in Western progressive culture are university faculty and students, particularly in the arts, humanities or social sciences. No wonder, then, that a 2021 study in the American Sociological Review found that increasing levels of university education, especially in the arts, humanities or social sciences, leads to a higher degree of moral absolutism. The authors keenly noted:
“Our results indicate that higher education liberalizes moral concerns for most students, but it also departs from the standard liberal profile by promoting moral absolutism rather than relativism.”
One of the first expressions of pride—rooted in the Garden of Eden—is the will to usurp the role of God by defining right and wrong on our own terms. From that perspective, legalism and license are but two sides of the same old coin. The ostensible moral principles of progressivism, such as justice or fairness, are deeply rooted in the Christian worldview. In practice, though, they are redefined in terms that are neither just nor fair.
Moral grandstanding, also known as “virtue signaling,” refers to a well-documented tendency to advertise our moral superiority through public display. It comes in numerous forms, from ostentatious moral pronouncements to more aggressive and toxic behavior of attacking and tearing down others.
Woke theatrics run the gamut from canceling or shouting down campus speakers, to Twitter storms, to the mind-numbing banality of corporate DEI training. It’s easy to form the impression that the activist is more concerned with being noticed than being heard. Now, human behavior is always complex and multi-dimensional and seldom reduces to one simple motive. I do not argue that such expressions are purely motivated to draw attention to the activist, but the principle of complexity runs both ways. It would be rare that any human behavior is purely driven by altruism, either.
Grandstanding is a common practice and no less common in conservative or Christian communities. Jesus’s critique of performative religion in Matthew 6:1-8 is, first and foremost, an admonition against grandstanding.
Now, because pride blinds us to its presence, we don’t necessarily realize or admit that we are driven by self-interest. More likely, we imagine our motivations are genuine and sincere. Although everyone believes that, it is rarely true.
The Will to Control
“It is pride when we undertake to dominate others.” Superbia, p. 88.
Research into moral self-appraisal has shown that most of us think we’re better than most of us. Since we feel morally superior, it seems only reasonable we ought to be the ones calling the shots for everyone else.
Chapter 5 of Superbia describes how:
“The urge to dominate is a hallmark of our fallen nature and rooted in pride. In City of God, St. Augustine called it the libido dominandi: the lust to dominate. As Augustine relates, the earthly city is formed by love of self and contempt of God; the heavenly city by love of God and contempt of self. In the earthly city, men are ruled by ‘love of ruling’ (libido dominandi), in the heavenly city, by love of serving. Yet as he notes in the preface, the proud are made subject to their own desire. The lust to dominate becomes the lust that dominates.”
Clearly, the objective of the “woke” crowd is not to persuade, but to impose their beliefs and impose their will upon all others. From a perspective of human behavior, it seems, indeed, pride lies at the root of most dysfunction.
Even conceding that their objectives, though, might be altruistic could be granting too much credit. Recent research suggests that self-interest is the true driving factor:
“A 2020 study by researchers at the University of British Columbia examined the causes and consequences of victimhood and virtue signaling. The ones signaling both ‘virtue’ and ‘victimhood’ scored significantly higher in measures of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy; and were more likely to engage in or endorse unethical behaviors. The investigators saw such behavior as a ‘resource extraction strategy’—a way to get stuff from other people. To control them, in other words” (Superbia, page 90).
This is precisely what an understanding of the human psyche, driven by pride, would predict.
The Biblical Mindset
Such behaviors are neither left-wing nor right-wing; instead, they are human. While it is fair to criticize, may the followers of Christ not be equally guilty. Let’s drag those mirrors down from the attic, dust them off and take a long, hard look. Am I (are you) legalistic? Self-righteous? Grandstanding? Controlling?
Instead, may we live according to the injunction of Scripture:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4, NIV).