Some time after 2010, something interesting happened to the way Americans talked about race. As PhD student Zach Goldberg describes it, the number of news articles discussing “diversity and inclusion” began to rocket. So did the number discussing “whiteness”, “critical race theory”, “unconscious bias”, “white privilege” – the list goes on, with each graph featuring the same cliff face pattern. This shift reflected a change in the attitudes of the wider population as views in line with those now preached globally by Black Lives Matter movement came to be adopted.
Describing “wokeness” as a new religion is not an uncommon pejorative on the right, but that doesn’t mean that it’s untrue. Just as a new faith brings with it new concepts of blasphemy, the spread of American liberalism is creating a startling shift in the delineation of what is and is not an acceptable view to hold and promote in public discourse.
But while the right has a useful framework for understanding what is happening, it seems to have less of a sense of why, and in particular why now. The brutal death of George Floyd is not so different from the shooting that sparked the Ferguson Riots in 2014, and a theory that relies on it being the straw that broke the camel’s back doesn’t explain why the rest of the world would react so strongly to a build-up of American brutalities.
I think if we want to understand what’s happening here, the best place to look is China. From the Song dynasty to the early 20th century, the practice of footbinding was widespread among all Chinese families other than those where women were expected to work as labourers. Then, after roughly a thousand years, the practice died out in a single generation.
The common factor between footbinding and political correctness is that they are both examples of social norms. A norm is a sort of behaviour that is self-enforcing within a group; if you expect people to behave in a certain way, then you want to behave in that way as well. This feedback mechanism means that norms can behave in some very peculiar ways; while they can persist for long periods of time while barely responding to changes in the world around them, when they do shift they can do so very suddenly indeed; feedback that was previously a force for inertia accelerates the transition to a new equilibrium.
Evolutionary game theorists describe this pattern as one of “punctuated equilibrium”; norms are persistent, but vulnerable to sudden “tipping” points. Because norms are based on our experience of interacting with each other – as opposed to interacting with the law or other grand institutions of the state – they are built from the bottom-up, and it’s this characteristic that generates the twin phenomena of global diversity and local homogeneity.
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Within a given population, self-enforcing behaviour compresses the range of behaviour on display; people conform to the local culture and rules. But because communities are insulated from one another on a larger scale, the range of norms on display globally can be incredibly wide; on a very small scale we can think of behaviour in queueing, or good table manners, and how these vary across countries.
Interestingly, this framework also gives us a simple explanation for why these changes are jumping national borders. Norms are driven by interaction, and we are all interacting with each other continually online in a way that transcends national boundaries. The idea that activity on the internet might feed back into real life shouldn’t be surprising; it’s one of the main selling points of the social media platforms and their meteoric rise – one that happens to coincide with the rise of wokeness.
What’s happening in the West has all the characteristics of a shift in social norms. As an illustrative example, in 2016 quarterback Colin Kaepernick dropped out of the NFL after kneeling during the national anthem. In 2020, long-time star Drew Brees has been shamed into issuing an apology for saying that he felt this protest was wrong. On a smaller scale, people are being called out and shamed for failing to say the right things or share the right posts, while writing “All Lives Matter” can be enough to get you fired.
In Britain, meanwhile, we can look at the reaction to the idea that it is wrong to allow a mob to tear down a statue of a man who profited from slavery. The idea that selective upholding of the rule of law should not only be desirable but wholly obvious would have seemed very strange a few years ago; today’s activists view it as unusual to disagree with it.
Norm shifts are by their nature bottom-up processes that are tricky to guide and manage. This doesn’t mean we can’t think about the directions we’re encouraging them to take, and the precedents we’re helping to set. In particular, while the left appears to be in the ascendancy, it might be useful for cooler heads to consider whether legitimising attacking people’s livelihoods for political disagreement, the destruction of symbols people dislike, and of violence and property damage in the pursuit of social change is altogether wise.
Making excuses for the extremes of your movement may seem like a good idea when history is flowing your way, but a moment’s pause would surely give rise to an unpleasant thought: do you really want to put these tools in the hands of the hard right?