The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Noelle's new book, Awake, Not Woke, now available at The Mercantile.
By Noelle Mering
The importance of language on popular thought can be overstated as much as it can be underestimated. Words today are considered to be acts of violence, and yet malleable enough for us to manipulate in service of our preferred agenda. Either way, they are a sort of weapon—threatening to wound us in our nebulous sense of self, or else a type of revolutionary shot fired—a proclamation of our existence to a world against us. Each of us is ruler of his own constitutive reality—distrustful but needy, fragile but hot-tempered.
A breakdown in our common understanding of words leads to a society in chaos and frustration, inevitably miscommunicating and plagued by distrust. We become suspicious, not only of each other, but of ourselves and our ability to grasp reality. Rather than a fallible people struggling imperfectly toward a harmonious common good, we are a cacophony screaming across a chasm for recognition and moving through the world without a destination.
In his book The Beginning of Wisdom, Leon Kass writes of the breakdown of common language at the Tower of Babel. “And because language also bespeaks the inner world of the speakers, sharing one language means also a common inner life, with simple words accurately conveying the selfsame imaginings, passions, and desires of every human being. To be ‘of one language’ is to be of one mind and heart about the most fundamental things.”
When our shared language becomes compromised, we lose not only the utility of it, which enables us to convey basic facts about the practical realities of daily life, but also any common and universal meaning toward which our daily lives and our interior lives might point.
It does not take much convincing to see our society as it currently stands is experiencing this crisis of meaning, not just in the form of communication or means, but also about ends and purposes—our understanding of which indicates and informs our understanding of everything else. Increasingly, this crisis not only threatens the relationship between Christians and secularists but fractures Christian communities from within. Christian community life depends on the interior life of each believer. In disorienting our hidden life, we exponentially fracture our communal life.
Consider how drastically we have altered the meaning and usage of simple words like love, hate, man, woman, and marriage. Consider the new vocabulary that we have introduced into our cultural psyche (the day before yesterday): words such as intersectionality,
Of this, George Orwell writes:
"Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible."
Far from a peevish culture war, this is an attempt to revolutionize the way in which we see the world in and around us and the meaning imbued within those realities. Once we cease to see words as having a power to reveal reality, they are reduced to reflections not of reality but of ourselves. Rather than a bridge of communication, we are left with a staircase to nowhere as words become unintelligible altogether.
Love and Truth
The dichotomy which pits love against truth is also commonly used to avoid or delay difficult realities in an effort to spare the feelings of another. We can easily imagine how this is defensible advice in certain circumstances. Even if he is correct, a Christian ought not be a pedantic scold going around pointing out the error in the thoughts or actions of others. To do so might be to speak something true, but it would be imprudent and unloving. Furthermore, a society long accustomed to watching shadows on the cave wall must be led gradually, yet resolutely, into the light. St. Paul speaks of this: “I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it” (1 Cor. 3:2). Truth must be balanced with prudence and charity.
If either of these examples were all that is meant by the admonition that it is better to be kind than right, then it would be fine, and even helpful advice. But the admonition to censor hard truths under the guise of kindness has gone far beyond curbing the scold or safeguarding a marriage. Rather, what is often intended is the elimination of such teachings altogether.
What should not be said soon becomes what cannot be said, either due to the force of law or the demagoguery of political correctness. With a semblance of love, truth is soon abandoned altogether. The weakness of most Christians today is not that we are too strident but that we are too cowardly.
“The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad,” writes Chesterton. “The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.” Isolated from one another, each virtue ceases to even be itself.
Though truth is now commonly subjugated under the pretense of an appeal to compassion or with the intimidation of societal shaming, for the Christian, no such dichotomy can exist. In losing a moral vocabulary, we lose the ability to name what is wounding us. In acquiescing to these categories which seek to pit love against truth, Christians lose an understanding not only of how we ought to live but why we ought to live.
The capacity to speak the truth is intimately tied to our freedom to live meaningful lives. When a student is brought before the headmaster at my children’s school for some misbehavior, he sometimes asks the student to tell him the story of Rumpelstiltskin. In this story, a princess has made a deal out of desperation with an unnamed creature who came to her aid. In exchange for some of his magical power to spin yarn into gold, she must give him her future firstborn child. Her only chance to escape this pact is to discover the creature’s name. In contemplating this story, the student is taught the lesson that we must look with sincerity at our- selves and our situation and we must speak it. We have to name a thing in order to be free of it.
This book is an attempt to name what is poisoning us. In order to do that, we have to understand the history, premises, and tactics of woke ideology, which is fundamentally an ideology of rupture. The term woke refers to the state of being alert and attuned to the layers of pervasive oppression in society. While it originated specifically with regard to racism, it has since broadened to include all areas of social oppression commonly considered to be along the lines of gender, race, and sexuality. Specific acts of injustice are used to serve the larger goal of furthering the ideology that sees all of human interaction as a power contest. Growth for the woke movement is measured by fracturing. Indeed, it is an ideology with fundamentalist and even cult-like characteristics that is on a collision course with Christianity.
It is not only destructive, but incoherent. It is a war of words against the Word. It is a revolution which elevates will over reason, the group over the person, and human power over higher authority. What is rejected—reason, the person, and authority—are the three characteristics of the Logos himself. The Logos is the mind of God, communicated in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the author of, and authority over, all. Whether explicitly or not, he is the ultimate target of the woke revolt.
It is a revolt that manifests itself in various ways in every age, and one which St. John knew in his day. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (Jn 1:1–3). “And the word became flesh.” God, the logos, the word, is being itself. He is “Who am.” Where the very nature of God is ordered, unitive, and generative, the spirit of this counter movement is at its core the very nature of the devil: chaotic, divisive, sterile.
While woke ideology appears as a benevolent fight for justice, it is far from that. It lures us in with an appeal to our better natures, then replaces intelligible principles with distorted ones, resulting in incoherence and chaos. What if under the guise of eradicating bigotry, we have entrenched it? What if in trying to coexist, we have siloed ourselves into warring tribes? What if where once there was civic friend- ship, we have introduced resentment and division? What if in undermining the source of authority, we have imprisoned ourselves in an endless scramble for power?
While it is easy to dismiss wokeness as being a movement on the fringe or “out there,” to do so would be short sighted. We are called to engage with the world in which we find ourselves. To write off a growing phenomenon which is both affecting and reflecting real persons is to shirk that duty of engagement. Charity demands that we make a real effort to understand, rather than just hold in contempt, the people falling prey to this ideology.
People are looking for meaning in their lives and answers to human questions such as why are we here and how ought we to live. If we aren’t providing these answers in a compelling way, they won’t remain unanswered; they will be answered in distorted half-truths that promise, but cannot deliver, real solutions.
Woke ideology has crept and dripped like a poison into corners and cells of an unsuspecting body of people. It corrupts Christianity by turning it into a religion without justice, without mercy, and ultimately without Christ. The stakes could not be higher. Let’s begin naming it.