The Emperor Constantine is said to have embraced Christianity after a dream told him to adopt the chi-rho symbol as part of Roman military insignia. Constantine ordered this Christian symbol to be painted on his armies’ shields, and won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge the next day. That he did so under the sign of the chi-rho was the founding moment of the Holy Roman Empire, the hinge event that turned Christianity from a minority sect into a power both spiritual and political.
Today we’re watching something similar: the transition of wokeness from fringe cult to mainstream public morality. It’s happening both in our plague-racked and protest-riven urban public squares, and also in a digital public square whose rulemakers are largely already converts to the new faith.
Some might protest that Twitter isn’t the real world, and it doesn’t matter what people do in its bubble. But the story of Constantine shows how mass adoption of a new worldview can owe as much to elite champions as deep inner conviction. Plenty will embrace whatever seems to be the new status faith, because they don’t care much either way and don’t want to miss out on promotion.
Imagine you’re a centurion in the Roman army. Your legion has been commanded to paint over your shield insignia with the chi-rho symbol, thanks to an edict from your new woke emperor. You, a regular worshipper of household gods, Caesars and other deities, will most likely shrug your shoulders and do it, because it doesn’t much matter either way and orders are orders.
Similarly, where the celebrities, politicians, billionaires and tastemakers on Twitter go, the rest of the world follows. Because of this, Twitter arguments over what you can and can’t say in fact matter a great deal. But the defenders of Reason have already lost, because they’re arguing from sacred values that wokeness has long since abandoned.
In our Roman legion, a few stubborn hold-outs might complain. How can you only have one god? Who’s supposed to guard your household? No one listens, though, because that sort of thing can get you in trouble, and besides, didn’t you know household gods aren’t even a thing nowadays?
There are analogous hold-outs against wokeness, including not just conservatives but sincere liberals too. The recent Harper’s letter decrying ‘cancel culture’ gathered just such worthies, to mount a defence of open debate and objective standards that should apply to everyone.
Then in the last week, the fact that it took Twitter nearly a week to permanently ban grime artist Wiley after a bilious anti-Semitic rant mobilised much the same constituency in a boycott of Twitter to protest the site’s seeming tolerance of racism against Jews. In the latter case, the defenders of the old faith eventually won – but such protests, while they may win the odd battle, are still likely to lose the war.
This is because from the vantage point of wokeness, being criticised for not treating all groups the same is like a monotheist being told off for not honouring the household gods. If you don’t hold something sacred, you won’t care if someone accuses you of sacrilege against it. And for the woke, objectivity and even-handedness are not just impossible, they’re stalking-horses for privilege. So the old-school liberals of both left and right can only stare with mounting outrage, as people carry on professing wokeness despite the fact that its doctrines aren’t reasonable, or fair, or even trying to be objective. Read more»
Mary Harrington, “Why It’s Time to Take ‘Wokeness’ Seriously” UnHerd July 30, 2020 (HT: Steve White)