While battles about what’s called the “woke left” now dominate political discussion in many countries, it’s time to ask whether woke really belongs on the left—or if woke represents a distortion of the core principles of the left, a drift into a philosophy of tribalism.
Not so long ago, universalism defined the left; international solidarity was its watchword. This was, above all, what distinguished it from the right, which recognized no deep connections, and few real obligations, to anyone outside its own circle. The left demanded that the circle encompass the globe. That was what standing left truly meant: to care about striking coal miners in Wales, or the Republican cause in Spain, or freedom fighters in South Africa, whether you came from their tribes or not. What united the left was not blood but conviction—first and foremost the conviction that behind all the differences of time and space that separate us, human beings are deeply connected in a wealth of ways. To say that histories and geographies affect us is trivial. To say that they determine us is false.
The opposite of universalism is often called “identitarianism,” but the word is itself misleading, because identity is a fluid concept whose meaning and importance vary in space and in time. As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah reminds us:
Until the middle of the twentieth century, no one who was asked about a person’s identity would have mentioned race, sex, class, nationality, region or religion.
Our identities also change throughout our lives. We are all someone’s children, a fact that recedes in importance if we are busy raising our own, but you need only step into your parents’ home to shift back to the moment when your primary identity was “child.” It shifts again when you leave your lover in the morning to take up a professional role at work. Is one of these identities more essential to you than the other? Always?
I prefer the word “tribalism,” which beckons at barbarity, although a well-meaning colleague of mine expressed concern that the word might be offensive to Native Americans. But the idea wasn’t invented in the Americas; it’s as old as the Hebrew Bible. Tribalism is a description of the civil breakdown that occurs when people, of whatever kind, see the fundamental human difference as that between “our kind” and everyone else.
Today, those who condemned essentializing not two decades past are content to whittle all the elements of our identity down to two: race and gender. The historian Benjamin Zachariah comments:
Once upon a time… essentializing people was considered offensive, somewhat stupid, anti-liberal, anti-progressive, but now this is only so when it is done by other people. Self-essentializing and self-stereotyping are not only allowed, but considered empowering.
The reduction of the multiple identities we all possess to race and gender is not, at core, a question of looks. The focus on these two dimensions of human experience is a focus on those dimensions that have experienced the most trauma. While this focus begins in compassion, it not only reduces a wealth of identities to a fraction but also essentializes those over which we have the least control. The reduction thus embodies a major shift that began in the mid-twentieth century: the subject of history was no longer the hero but the victims. It’s that shift that led to a very different set of values around personal identity on the left.
The impulse to shift our focus to the victims of history began as an act of justice. History had been the story of the victors, while the victims’ voices went unheard. This condemned the victims to a double death: once in the flesh, once again in memory. To turn the tables and insist that the victims’ stories enter the narrative was just a part of righting old wrongs. If victims’ stories have claims on our attention, they have claims on our sympathies and systems of justice. When slaves began to write their memoirs, they took steps toward subjectivity and won recognition—and slowly but certainly, recognition’s rewards.
So the movement to recognize the victims of slaughter and slavery began with the best of intentions. It recognized that might and right often fail to coincide, that very bad things happen to all sorts of people, and that even when we cannot change that we are bound to record it. As an alternative to preceding millennia, when the survivor of a massacre by Roman legions or Mongol invaders could expect no more than a laconic “shit happens,” this was a step toward progress.
Yet something went wrong when we rewrote the place of the victim. The impulse that began in generosity turned downright perverse. The limiting case of this trend is the story of Binjamin Wilkomirski, the Swiss man whose claims to have spent his childhood in a concentration camp turned out to have been invented. Earlier rogues sought to hide troubled origins, inventing aristocratic genealogies as a way to climb. Anyone, after all, might be the son of an errant knight or a wayward pope. In the process of wrestling with the world wars and the accumulated traumas of slavery and imperialism, that cachet had given way to another: claiming a more miserable birth than your true one guarantees new forms of status.
Wilkomirski was hardly alone. To escape racist discrimination, light-skinned African Americans once passed as white, leaving families behind to live freer if sadder lives in the dominant class. Recently, however, several white Americans have lost jobs they gained by falsely passing as black. An African American actor was jailed for staging a racist attack on himself. A Jewish German pop star provoked attention and outrage by inventing an anti-Semitic incident that hundreds of hours of police investigations could not confirm. Orchestrated victimhood is perfidious because it mocks the victims of real racist attacks, but I’m less interested in the harms of these incidents than in the fact that they occur at all. What was recently a stigma has become a source of standing.
Even without imposters, the valorization of the victim raises problems. What’s been dubbed the “victimhood Olympics” has reached international dimensions. The injunction to remember was once a call to remember heroic deeds and ideals; now “Never Forget!” is a demand to recall suffering. Yet undergoing suffering isn’t a virtue at all, and it rarely creates any. Victimhood should be a source of legitimation for claims to restitution, but once we begin to view victimhood per se as the currency of recognition, we are on the road to divorcing recognition, and legitimacy, from virtue altogether.
It’s a sign of moral progress that we no longer dismiss victims’ stories, as we did for so long; they deserve our empathy and, wherever possible, reparations. My question is rather about what we mean when we call for recognition. Jean Améry, whose description of his own survival at Auschwitz may be the most searing ever written, did not even want to erect a monument to the victims of the Third Reich. As he wrote, “To be a victim alone is not an honor.” Améry’s claim sprang from an assumption that now seems old-fashioned: monuments should be reserved for those whose deeds we admire, whose paths we hope to follow. In At The Mind’s Limits, Améry wrote admiringly of Frantz Fanon, whose Black Skin, White Masks proclaims: “I am not the slave of the Slavery that dehumanized my ancestors.”
More recently, the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò has argued that:
Pain, whether born of oppression or not, is a poor teacher. Suffering is partial, shortsighted, and self-absorbed. We shouldn’t have a politics that expects different. Oppression is not a prep school.
Táíwò argues that trauma, at best, is an experience of vulnerability that provides a connection to most of the people on the planet. “It is not,” he writes, “what gives me a special right to speak, to evaluate, or decide for a group.” He argues that the valorization of trauma leads to a politics of self-expression rather than social change.
Speaking from the perspective of the left, I’d prefer we return to a model in which your claims to authority are focused on what you’ve done to the world, not what the world did to you. This wouldn’t return the victims to the ash-heap of history. It allows us to honor caring for victims as a virtue without suggesting that being a victim is one as well. Defending convicted murderers facing execution, Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, argues that everyone is more than the worse thing they ever did.
Do we want to be reduced to the worst thing that ever happened to us?
Susan Neiman is an American philosopher and writer. She is the author of many books, including Evil in Modern Thought (2002) and, most recently, Left Is Not Woke (2023).
This essay is adapted with permission from Susan Neiman’s new book Left Is Not Woke (Polity Books, March 2023).
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"Today, those who condemned essentializing not two decades past are content to whittle all the elements of our identity down to two: race and gender."
There are many aspects of wokeness worth criticizing, but the reduction of individuals to their race and gender is, in my opinion, one of its biggest and most consequential failures. I've not lived in the US since 2016, but when I did, I had friends, acquaintances, and colleagues of different races and sexes, and I barely even noticed it. I certainly never thought anything of it. If anything, I found that I got on better with my female friends than my male ones, but that's a different story.
Same goes as it relates to a transgender university instructor I had circa 2007. In that classroom, we were just students and a teacher. People seeing and treating each other as other people. Gender identity mattered not at all. Nor did anyone's race. But because we now look at everything (obsessively, I would say) through the lenses of race and sex (not to mention introduce ourselves by gender), it's like we simultaneously want those to be the most and least defining things about us, and as a result, I find it much harder to just see and treat people as people. That's on me. Not on wokeness. But still, it's a struggle for me now when it wasn't 10 years ago. Unfortunately, I suspect I'm far from alone in that. And as I mentioned up top, we should regard that as a massive failure of wokeness (by which I mean the excessive and counterproductive reality that the term represents, not the original definition of it that gets thrown around as an unimpeachable moral good, and that distorts its dissenters as monsters against good.)
"Until the middle of the twentieth century, no one who was asked about a person’s identity would have mentioned race, sex, class, nationality, region or religion."
A brief review of just about any book in the bible would soundly refute this statement.