Victim. Privilege. Fragility. Lived experience. Systemic. This is just a sampling of the new woke lexicon, into which many Americans are rapidly being catechized. Underlying such supposedly empowering woke-speak is the premise that individuals are powerless in the face of forces beyond their control. Adolescents may claim to be woke to power dynamics, intersectional identities and systemic injustice, but they are asleep to the possibilities of personal agency and human flourishing in community.
As a history teacher at a large, diverse high school in the American South, I am struck by the connections between today’s woke adolescent and Richard Weaver’s “typical modern,” whom he claims in a 1948 book, “has the look of the hunted.” Can this phrase help explain my students’ passivity and anxiety—or their cynicism, anger and growing militancy? Perhaps this cocktail is a combination of what Weaver describes and the victimhood thinking that is now so prevalent.
The Look of the Hunted Then
Richard Weaver wrote at a time of intellectual and moral questioning in the aftermath of World War II, which had shaken people to their core. He writes that his book Ideas Have Consequences “was in a way a reaction to that war—to its immense destructiveness, to the strain it placed upon ethical principles, and to the tensions left in place of the peace and order that we professedly sought.” Weaver traced this back to the moment “when the reality of transcendentals was first seriously challenged.” For Weaver, the best of our philosophical, scientific and religious traditions all point to an objective reality with accompanying universal principles that have informed and inspired humanity. Without such foundations, “modern man [suffers] from a severe fragmentation of his world picture.”
The widespread rejection of objective reality and universal principles in today’s constructivism, intersectionality, gender theory, standpoint epistemology and the like seems to corroborate Weaver’s basic argument. Situated at the nexus of postwar life and postmodern thinking, Weaver perceived this fragmenting trajectory sooner than most. He suggested that modern man’s “look of the hunted” had two main causes: meaninglessness and powerlessness.
Weaver attributed the look to the fact “that we have lost our grip on reality,” as postmodernism’s radical deconstruction of transcendentals and metanarratives robbed life of any deeper, meaningful reality beyond material existence, leaving only what Charles Taylor calls a “closed immanent frame.” Without a goal or an objectively true and purposive framework to situate being-in-the-world, the result is, according to Weaver, “disintegration.” As Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay explain in Cynical Theories, postmodernity contributed to a sense of “aimlessness and loss of purpose,” even a “profound hopelessness.” Weaver argues that such meaninglessness produces “deep psychic anxiety, the extraordinary prevalence of neurosis.”
Weaver also attributed the hunted look to the fact that man’s “daily experience is one of powerlessness.” Despite vast technological advances and resulting increases in human control over the natural world, personal agency and independence have been eroded. Weaver noted that the modern workplace of his era contributed to this sense of powerlessness as “every other kind of independence” was sacrificed “for that dubious one known as financial.” Not only is the worker a cog in the machine, “he is cribbed, cabined, and confined in countless ways,” leading to “frustration, and hence the look, upon the faces of those whose souls [are withering from] hunger and unhappiness.”
The Look of the Hunted Now
In my classroom year after year, I often see the look Weaver described. Meaninglessness and powerlessness frequently merge in discussions about life goals. Many students have only the vague and nebulous goal of going to college, while others hope to make a lot of money. Very few have familial, religious or community aspirations, let alone a personal drive for moral and intellectual development. This is especially evident in the growing difficulty adolescents have in transitioning to adulthood. Teens are offered unending life choices, but have few objective or moral evaluation tools left, and thus struggle to devote themselves to any of these multiplying options. As Ben Sasse notes in The Vanishing American Adult, in our unique historical situation, “a large portion of our people in the prime of their lives are stuck in a sad sort of limbo.” A vibrant life of personal agency and action seems a rarity. Interpersonal initiative atrophies, as people are hidden behind buttons, screens and swipes. This is a perfect recipe for ending up “cribbed, cabined and confined.”
I find this unsurprising, since, for thirteen years of schooling, students are encouraged to nurture career aspirations above all else. But at least the postwar worker of Weaver’s day had the good fortune of rising wages and industrial growth. No such promises can be made today. As Jean Twenge explains in iGen, this leads students to “feel increasingly demoralized about whether they will be able to succeed,” since they are afraid that their lives are “controlled by outside forces.” All of which, she states, contributes to a “slow path to adulthood.”
I’ve seen further evidence of the meaninglessness Weaver references whenever students engage in debates about moral issues. Very few students ground their opinions in universal principles, rationality, natural law or objective truth—looking instead to popular opinion and personal feelings. Of course, this is nothing new. In his 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom quips, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” Bloom’s claim has held true for decades. According to a 2002 Barna report, 83% of teenagers believe moral truth is dependent on circumstances, while only 6% describe it as absolute.
But we are also witnessing a shift from the tolerant my truth, your truth mindset to a my truth, or else militancy. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write in the 2019 The Coddling of the American Mind: “Something is going very wrong on college campuses, as we can see in the growth of call-out culture, in the rise in efforts to disinvite or shout down visiting speakers.” Bloom’s tolerant collegiate relativists are going extinct, to be replaced by ideological dogmatists. As R. J. Snell writes:
Perhaps [students] remain theoretically committed to relativism in the sense that they lack a justified account of moral sources, but a good many are fundamentally dogmatic in their prescriptions. While Bloom described his students as committed to relativism as a moral postulate … many have pivoted considerably: now dogmatic conclusions not open to debate are asserted as the conditions of a just society.
I’ve increasingly seen this inconsistency between theoretical relativism and practical militancy surface in the course of class discussions and student writing at the high school level. The first essay and roundtable my American history students participate in each year is an evaluation of Christopher Columbus, facilitated by selected primary and secondary sources that offer different viewpoints on Columbus’ legacy. There are always a few students who display a mature historical perspective, recognizing the complexities of the human experience. But the most frequent conclusion from students is that Columbus was a very bad person.
Many of these same students claim to be moral relativists, who do not believe in objective meaning or truth. By what standard are they measuring Columbus’ badness? Postmodernism’s deconstruction of transcendentals and metanarratives has left room for the paradoxical ascension of a new narrative taken as True—that of oppressor and oppressed. As Pluckrose and Lindsay explain, “What has happened is that applied postmodernism has come into its own, been reified—taken as real … The Truth according to Social Justice [has] … turned into a dominant metanarrative of its own. It has become an article of faith or an operational mythology for a wide swath of society.” Postmodernism’s offspring now assert “the objective truth of socially constructed knowledge and power hierarchies with absolute certainty.”
My students’ conclusion that Columbus was a very bad person displays a simplistic understanding of a complex topic. Trite responses like this bespeak an ignorance of human nature and of the insights available from the best of our religious and intellectual traditions. To be sure, none of this is the students’ fault per se. The problem is the nature of the world many students inhabit, where they are rarely exposed to alternative viewpoints that provide a richer, more transcendent view. Few students have read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who discerned from behind the barbed wire of the gulag that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” I frequently see slight nods of approval or reflective gazes from students when they hear such profound truth. Its takes more, however, than a few periodic flickers of soul-satisfying truth to overpower the mainstream narrative that views the world as one gigantic, simplistic blame game, turning everyone—past and present—into ideological winners and losers.
Has the Hunted Become the Hunter?
The woke concept of the victim echoes Weaver’s the hunted, as both seem powerless to change their situations. Yet those with victim status are increasingly becoming the hunters, with unchecked potential to pronounce judgment on the privileged. This makes the privileged the hunted as well, for they too are powerless to remedy their inherent oppressor status. On both sides of the divide, individual human agency is out of fashion; systemic problems and power dynamics are in.
Both sides end up powerless, and, according to the underlying constructivist epistemology, with no meaningful, mutually shared experience, common language or transcendent truth to bridge the gap between them. This is all premised, Pluckrose and Lindsay explain,
on the idea that people with different marginalized identities have different knowledges, stemming from their shared, embodied, and lived experiences as members of those identity groups, especially of systemic oppression. Such people can both be disadvantaged as knowers, when they are forced to operate within a “dominant” system that is not their own, and also enjoy unique advantages, because of their familiarity with multiple epistemic systems.
These are perplexing juxtapositions. What Weaver observed has undergone an intensification: anxiety has turned to anger, powerlessness to cynicism and fear to hatred. With constructivism’s self-prescribed limits on transcendent meaning, and a feeling of powerlessness to boot, the disintegration Weaver predicted is on full display and his words seem prophetic: “And the fear accompanying it unlooses the great disorganizing force of hatred.” This progression from fear to hatred is especially evident in the growing militancy, iconoclastic impulses and the willingness to use violence that we’ve seen from extremes on the right and the left in recent years.
This semester, I have been teaching the American founding. One of the questions I set my students is “What actions are justified in protest against government?” I’ve used this writing prompt for years, but this semester I noticed a marked increase in students who responded that violence was justified to achieve desired outcomes. This seems to track with recent studies that found more Americans on both left and right willing to justify political violence if it helps attain their goals.
The meaninglessness and powerlessness of postmodernism that Weaver diagnosed years ago has now mixed with anger and militancy, making for a potent cocktail, imbibed by students via schooling, media and popular culture. Sozzled on such strong drink, their sight is too blurred to realize that ultimately the hunt will come for them too. There is no escape. In such a cynical world, meaning has been problematized into oblivion and individuals are powerless, trained to be victims. Agency has, ironically, been externalized and outsourced to the oppressor.
We need individual responsibility, agency and meaningful narratives, especially those that describe objective reality. This combination could allow people to live empowered lives and flourish within their communities and could offer a true, lasting and sustainable path towards a genuine awakening that has nothing to do with being woke.