Theater of Cruelty

The showdown with woke

Eivind Tjønneland
Eivind Tjønneland
Historian of ideas and author. Regular critic in MODERN TIMES. (Former professor of literature at the University of Bergen.)
WOKE / The crime community is pushing people over to the right, which is growing because people feel alienated by woke and identity politics. Moreover, the left has become more interested in monitoring each other than forming a common front against the right. Is solidarity and compassion for the suffering of others a limited resource?


Danby Choi argues in his latest book Cancel me if you can (Aschehoug 2023) vs Woke- the culture on a liberal basis. Choi is an openly gay Norwegian-Korean and editor of the online culture newspaper Subjekt and takes as a starting point the terrorist attack against gays in Oslo in June 2022. Choi won many against by supporting the gays, but still being against Pride. He was accused of facilitating terrorism through alleged hate speech against Pride.

His diagnosis of the woke phenomenon is clear: the intermingling of "opinions, statements and deeds threatens freedom of expression because the room for criticism is closed". The Woke paradox consists in the fact that under the guise of being 'tolerant' and 'inclusive' you can demand that a dissenter be "gagged, fired and cancelled". Choi points out that 52 percent of young people refrain from speaking out for fear of being frozen out, according to the report UNG 2022 from the market analysis agency Opinion.

Choi links this development to identity politics, which according to Large Norwegian encyclopedia is "political activity or activism that is based on the experiences and history of a marginalized group of people, usually a minority".

Distinctly politically correct, oversensitive

The term woke goes back a long way in history, but has changed character since the time of the civil rights movement. It is now used as a label for what is distinctly politically correct, oversensitive or bearing the stamp of 'violation hysteria'. It is not just a label the right uses to ridicule political opponents: Radical right and radical left mirror each other in personality profile through character traits from the "dark triad" of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy, claims Choi.

A high ceiling in the debate prevents extremism, according to a so-called pressure cooker theory. The FRP keeps right-wing radicalism in check, while bans feed underneath extremismn.

Choi does not particularly go into the relationship with postmodern philosophy, which is a main point of Susan Neiman (see below). He briefly mentions Cynical Theories (2020) by James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, who argue that woke is an offshoot of postmodernism.

An original move is Choi's application of Bourdieu's sociology of taste to woke: People with a certain moral finesse draw the line between the initiated and the uninitiated by defining the correct cultural codes. "What woke means is that different symbols reduced to assets guarded with an iron fist by vulnerable and exclusive clubs.” Choi insists that culture must never be reserved for certain groups of people, "For reactionaries influencere, it seems to be mostly about undisturbed bullying, insulting and threatening everyone who stands for something progressive."

"Growing up with the abusive society like mother's milk was going to create fragile, helpless and self-centered individuals."

This is an enlightening and well-written book from a liberal who has been at the center of indentitythe fights – and despite the fact that he does not emphasize it himself, has extra credibility because he belongs to both an ethnic and a sexual minority.

Culture war

The writer and cultural critic carline Tromp#'s book Culture war (2022) about the backlash and the reactionary wave is primarily about the rise of the right and not about the woke phenomenon. But she describes the actions against author JK Rowling as "cancellation culture at its worst", and says that "the treatment of Rowling" has "given water to those who believe that an illiberal 'woke culture' threatens freedom of expression and rational debate". Tromp raises the question of whether the vent side should be antiwoke, and mentions in that connection Susan Neiman's Defense of Universalism (Left Is Not Woke, 2023) and Sahra Wagenknecht#s attack on lifestyle socialists in the book The self-righteousærdige (translated from German to Danish by Lars Onslev, 2021). Tromp's conclusion is nevertheless:

"I still believe that the fight against woke is a derailment, because the expression itself is a straw man – a scaremongering that serves to rally people in the fight against the values ​​Neiman defends. In Hungary, Italy, Florida (and Russia), the war against woke creates a society where the authorities scan the bedroom and the bookshelf for deviations. For reactionary influencers, it seems to be mostly about undisturbed bullying, insulting and threatening everyone who stands for something progressive" (p. 107).

This summary is probably too one-sided, but still rightly emphasizes that stage denial and cancellation are more widespread on the right than within the woke movement.

Right-wing populism and offensive leftists

Glenn-Rudi Skjønberg's the woke paradigm to the absurd by fighting infringement of e.g. height identity:

“Peter has been called low, and other ugly words that demeaningly reduce him to his outward appearance. Peter has experienced exclusion, discrimination and serious violations in several social arenas that do not take into account his height identity, and the height he has and identifies with. The worst thing is that Peter has experienced losing several cases in Krenkenemda because height identity is not taken seriously enough, and because you are not legally allowed to change your height to match what you identify with."

The many reflections and Instagram posts cause the novel to abound with pointed statements and essayistic features: "Growing up with the abusive society like mother's milk came to create fragile, helpless and self-centered individuals without the prerequisites to create or maintain a good society."

The criminal society pushes people over to the right, which grows big because people feel alienated by the woke and identity politics. The novel criticizes both right-wing populism and offensive leftists and is written with a humorous excess that rubs off on the reader.

Original sin with new content

Og Håvard Rem Dag og Tid 15.09.23–13.10.23 has an impressive series of articles in five parts about woke. Collective guilt is central both in the geopolitical worldview of the 68s and in "white play studies in the Woke movements". A number of identities are weakened in the West: national and religious identity, gender identity and class affiliation. Therefore, the blame revolves more and more around the ethnic identity, claims Rem. Inspired by African-American linguist John McWhorter in the book Woke Racism (2021) he links woke to Lutheran Christianity and collective guilt in the form of original sin.

Rem notes that "while the majority of whites have become less and less racist, the woke movement has found that white racism goes deeper and deeper. He is systemic and structural, so to speak inborn, at least inherited, like original sin". This is apt, and expresses the paradox of the whole woke movement.

"What many people dislike about woke is not the cultural radicalism, but for one thing: tools such as stage refusal, cancellation, professional bans and dismissal actions. And secondly: the shift from economic equalization politics to group-based identity politics." Identity politics emerged where the church and Christian dogmatics were weakened. Original sin thus gained new content. Ordinary people are still the culprits, while the moralists are no longer priests, "but publicly paid campus ideologues who take over where Lutheranism fails."

The idea-historical perspective of Rem is apt. He gives a cultural explanation for the woke phenomenon that cannot be reduced to economics, as if one were to blame neoliberalism entirely for identity politics. A publisher should as soon as possible ask Rem to publish a book based on these articles.

Identity politics

Woke is also criticized in two newly published books on Polity Press. The Turkish political scientist Umut Özkirimli describes the radical identity politics as individualistic and narcissistic: Personal therapy cannot replace collective political action. 'The Woke Left' has much in common with the illiberal right, which can rub its hands while the left is fragmented. The radical left have become more interested in monitoring each other than in forming a common front against the right, he claims.

"Measures such as stage refusal, cancellation, professional ban and dismissal actions."

Why does identity politics have wind in its sails? Özkirimli refers to the philosopher Nancy Frazer, which explains the phenomenon based on a commodification of politics. The identity must be constantly upgraded – in one identity economy you have to keep up with the changes or be excommunicated. The villain in this narrative is the neoliberal capitalism that creates individualism, narcissism and konsumerisme. The victim receives privileges through identity understood as a commodity. This economic perspective can be usefully supplemented with Rem's criticism of religion.

The discussion of identity politics leads into a discussion about what creates justice, recognition (Axel Honneth) or redistribution (Nancy Frazer). Özkirimli reconciles these positions and thinks of justice as both redistribution, recognition and participation.


The American Jewish Philosopher Susan Neiman is in his woke book Left Is Not Woke less interested in describing the extreme results of identity politics. She argues philosophically against the sophist Thrasymachus in Plato's Staten, who argued that might is right. She defends the Enlightenment, because "woke insistence on a tribal understanding of culture is not far enough from a Nazi insistence that German music should only be played by Aryans".

Along with the demand for justice and faith in progress is universalism (and not tribalism) a necessary condition for belonging to the left. She claims that woke tries to decolonize thinking, but has been colonized by a number of ideologies that actually belong to the right.

Neiman refutes that the Enlightenment was the ideology of colonialism. Colonialism existed long before the Enlightenment, and many Enlightenment thinkers spoke negatively about colonialism. She also denies that philosophical positions can be reduced to by-products of lived experience: Woke would explain her defense of universalism by the fact that she is a white Jewish woman, that is, really eurocentrist. That this is refuted does not mean that motives cannot be suspicious. Neiman emphasizes that most actions have several motives. This overdetermination does not, however, undermine the distinction between reason and undisguised violence.

She wants to free universalism from imperialism. The ability to feel pain and the desire for freedom are two qualities that she perceives as fundamentally human. The universality of pain is likely, but universal freedom could need a better justification than the one she gives.

The power

Philosopher Michel Foucault claimed that "power is everywhere". Such postmodernism leads to a lack of sense of proportion: How do you combat an enemy that is omnipresent? In some cases, postmodernism led to symbolic politics: focus on the repression of microaggression, on the 'fascism' of the text and on the repressive nature of language as such (cf. E. Tjønneland: "Deal with Derrida", Morgenbladet 29.10.93). The connection between the woke phenomenon and parts of postmodernismn is clear.

Foucault is the godfather of woke radicalism, according to Neiman.

Practical solutions to urgent problems require prioritization and not tile nailing. Neiman believes Foucaults analysis makes power "hidden and diffuse, expressed through a network of structures we rarely perceive". "All knowledge is founded on injustice," argued Foucault. Then knowledge-based political action that strengthens justice becomes almost impossible. Reason is reduced to an instrument for controlling nature and people. Foucault is the godfather of woke radicalism, according to Neiman.

Reason is not elitist, "every peasant can think for herself, as every professor can fail". Nor is reason merely instrumental, its most important task is to uphold ideals. If reality cannot be changed on the basis of the ideals of reason, any demand for change can be dismissed as a utopian fantasy. Neiman warns against a false universalism that reduces all human striving to lust for wealth and power.

Reactions from the Norwegian left

In the article "The caricature must not be allowed to stick" (Klassekampen 27.09.23) the editor points out Marie Skurdal that the left is portrayed as "oversensitive, politically correct and morally posturing". The left must counteract tendencies in its own ranks that confirm the stereotype from the far right: "No one wants to be part of a community where they are afraid of making a mistake."

Audun The light stand has in the same newspaper issue rejected 'woke' as a description of the left because people have become better at talking about economics, interest politics and class issues. "We must not accept toxic enemy images that divide people along cultural divides." The right-wing actively works in many countries "to create contradictions between people based on conflict lines such as education, lifestyle, gender, orientation and ethnicity". When fascism knocks on the door, "it is quite incredible how much effort we spend on discussing cancellation and stage refusal in marginal parts of the Norwegian public". "Stitching together a class alliance across cultural divides is difficult, but necessary", he writes in the column "Om selmål og selvarakt".

Solidarity and compassion for the suffering of others is a limited resource. Prioritization is therefore more important than ever in a time where problems are queuing up to be solved. The question none of the mentioned publications asks is whether fair distribution alone can engage enough to win the battle against the right. Nor is the left served by pedantic millimeter justice.

Dreams of career, success, of realizing oneself and many other selfish utopias can be used culturally and politically and become good for the community. Identity politics can also have a unifying effect, as Umut Özkirimli rightly points out. We need experts and researchers who can solve the climate problems, and people who can develop models for sustainable forms of life and society. It is more important to develop such people than sports stars.

Because no one ultimately benefits from an excessive struggle for victim status.


  • Danby Choi. Cancel me if you can. My settlement with woke. Aschehoug 2023.
  • Susan Neiman. Left Is Not Woke. Polity Press 2023.
  • Umut Özkirimli. Cancelled. The Left Way Back from Woke. Polity Press 2023.
  • Håvard Rem. "Woke as a religious movement" (article series). Day and Time 15.09.–13.10.23.
  • Glenn-Rudi Skjønberg. The offender. Calidris Forlag 2023.
  • Carline Tromp. The setback. About the reactionary wave and how Andrew Tate won the internet. Publisher Manifest 2023.
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