As the nice people who occasionally read my blog know I wrote this in its embryonic form a couple of days ago. I wasn’t happy with it, but posted it anyway because I kinda have writer’s block and just wanted to get ANYthing posted to hopefully snap me out of it. (not to mention I think everything I write is awful when I post it.) But I still wasn’t happy with it after sitting on it a couple days so I felt I needed to make some changes. The situation we’re in is too important not to deserve the best essay I can write and there are too many bad-faith actors out there who are willing to misrepresent anything not stated with the utmost of clarity. So as I should have done in the first place, I’ve split the original essay into two interconnected and hopefully-better essays that with any luck are more capable of communicating what I’m trying to say here.
I learned something recently.
Apparently there’s this expression called “rootless cosmopolitanism” which is an anti-Semitic term. An acquaintance of mine claimed it was such a well known term that everyone who saw it in her social media bio immediately knew it meant she was Jewish. And she went on to claim that anyone using the word “cosmopolitan” in a negative way was being subtly anti-Semitic, a dog whistle, as they say. (I have a screenshot, I’d rather not post it, please just trust that I am not creating a straw man here).
Well, I didn’t know. I could have walked by that expression a million times and never even had the slightest clue what it meant. And cosmopolitan ALONE?? That’s a magazine or something that Carrie Bradshaw drinks, right? Cosmopolitan means to me living in a city and being sophisticated. And that’s it. I’m a some-college-educated 50 year old woman who reads history books, is obsessed with words, and hangs out with a fair number of people who happen to be Jewish. Yet I didn’t know that “cosmopolitan” had any dark meaning whatsoever. The vast, VAST majority of people I know, also wouldn’t have known or even guessed at that, not in a million years.
Please understand I’m not saying she’s wrong – she may very well be right for her ingroup (super highly educated upper class people who work in either academia or the media and live in big cities) and maybe the alt-right or something, IDK. But I am not in her ingroup or the alt-right, and so any assumption that “cosmopolitan” is in any way a reasonable basis to assume widespread anti-Semitism across the entire population, to me seems incorrect. Expecting everyone regardless of their level of education, cultural heritage, and regional background to know what appears to me to be a peculiar, specialized usage of a relatively common word seems to be asking a lot of people. And even more incorrect would be to judge someone’s motivation if they used the term inappropriately. The dismissive, la-di-da ease at which this person (who probably should have known better, being super highly educated and all) threw out an accusation of anti-Semitism over a commonly used word came off positively Marie-Antoinette-ish, considering lives are being ruined left and right by these sorts of accusations.
That got me thinking about Error Management Theory. EMT analyzes the ways in which humans are programmed to either overestimate or underestimate threats based on how much they personally a)potentially benefit from them or b)are potentially harmed by them. If you think about it, it makes intuitive sense – the person who overreacted to things that might harm them, or took a chance on slightly hinky gambles that could pay off for them in the long run, might end up better off than an individual who tried to always make accurate guesses about the risks involved in any set of circumstances. The human brain approaches the world with a curious combination of erring on the side of caution and carpe diem, whenever there’s a potential upside to day-seizing.
The best-known example of error management is called sexual overperception bias. Men chronically tend to overestimate a woman’s sexual interest in them, while women generally underestimate men’s sexual interest in them and overestimate the risks men pose. The reason for this is believed to be that there’s an evolutionary benefit to men to overestimating women’s sexual interest (after all, if you don’t try, you’ll never score) while women benefit by being distrustful, because that way they’re less likely into put themselves in situations of danger where they trust prematurely or where the man is less than committed to a relationship (you want to be with me? ok, first prove your stability before I give you my number, and then your commitment to our ongoing relationship before I put out).
What does all this have to do with classism, you may ask? Well, bear with me.
I wonder – and there very well may be scholarship to this effect; I just haven’t seen it – if there’s some sort of error management issue coming into play when it comes to -isms (any of them. insert your favorite prejudice-related-ism here). Could it be that those of us who benefit from seeing -isms everywhere see them constantly, and those of us who benefit from not seeing them, don’t?
Well, duh. I think that’s stating something incredibly obvious and inarguable about human nature, something that seems particularly relevant nowadays, and anyone who argues against the notion is probably suffering from some sort of bias themselves. Some people who benefit from seeing oppression are invariably finding it in the oddest places, and some people who don’t are at times ignoring it right under their noses.
As it so happens, I actually started this essay quite some time ago after the Cosmopolitan Incident, and set it aside because it felt like unnecessary pot-stirring at that point in time. But since the pot has got bubbling all on its own, I guess me adding to it a little won’t do any harm. I got to thinking about EMT errors and -isms again recently because of cookbooks. That’s how far this woke nonsense has infiltrated our brains, we’re looking for racism in cookbooks – and as predicted by EMT, finding it.
A woman I follow on Facebook for canning recipes was publicly flagellating herself over her white privilege because she had gone over her entire cookbook collection didn’t have any canning cookbooks that were written by black authors. (I have a screenshot, I’d rather not post it because I don’t want this poor clueless well-intentioned woman to get dragged, but it happened precisely as I characterize it – again, not a straw man). Then, to rectify this horrible injustice she had inadvertently committed, she did research to find cookbooks that black authors had written or participated in writing that involved food preservation, and bought them.
All of them. Every food preservation cookbook on the market with a black author or co-author. New. Hardcover. The words “small” and “fortune” come to mind.
Seeing this display of wealth used to buy the modern day version of a papal indulgence, it struck me for the umpteenth time how the Cult of Wokeness is so reliant on its followers having this massive amount of leisure time available to sit around thinking up things that somehow reveal one’s many, many problematic assumptions or the assumptions of others. It struck me yet again how the only people who can keep up with the everchanging demands of wokistry are rich and entitled folk who have the time and money to waste on empty gestures of virtue signaling whilst ignoring actual problems because they aren’t affected by them directly.
Performative Wokeness often devolves into a supreme display of privilege as it did with Cookbook Lady. It’s certainly not something a working person putting in a full day at the office taking care of kids and trying to keep a house clean-ish while maybe scraping together 10 minutes for themselves would have the time or the energy to do. And yet we’re supposed to applaud this extremely privileged woman for somehow doing the “hard work of anti-racism” when all she really did was take a free afternoon and rearrange her cookbooks, then went out with her clearly very adequate money and bought some new cookbooks.
If Performative Wokeness is something only rich intellectuals have time and money and a thorough enough educational background to pull off (meaning, they know the sordid history of the word “cosmopolitan”) then being publicly woke really is out of reach of the majority of everyday folks. Should we continue down this path where there’s an unspoken prerequisite of Performative Wokeness to take your place in polite society (because after all, silence is violence, silence is complicity, and we’re supposed to all do the hard work of being anti-racists and never shut up about it), it’s surely going to end up creating a class divide where only certain sets of people are able to perform the various rituals required to prove themselves pure.
Or broaden the class divide, because it’s already there.
Some would say that these people may be misguided, but their motives are pure, not tainted in the ways that EMT would predict. They’re just trying to create a better world, and I should respect that. But I tend to disagree about the better world they’re supposedly creating and I DEFINITELY disagree about the purity of their motives. Ostentatious displays of Performative Wokeness are not borne from kindness or thoughtfulness. People…including unscrupulous people…benefit from them in terms of social currency. The person willing to go through the motions out of sheer self-interest is seen by many as “better” than the person who refuses, even if the latter person’s ethical compass might be far more true.
Performative Wokeness, 2020, reminds me of intraspecific competition (competition within a species – think two buck deer locking horns). Proving that you are a good/cool/stylish/superior person by buying something others don’t have or showing off some arcane knowledge that you possess that people around you lack, and then implying that others are less good or less successful because they haven’t bought said thing or aren’t aware of the arcane knowledge, benefits YOU. It means that you are able to forge social connections with others who are impressed by you, and social connections are incredibly valuable things for human beings (particularly of the female variety, since we are generally less talented at using brute force) to have. Social connections can mean survival when times get tough – greater access to resources, protection from mob violence, and in the long run, better opportunities for your children.
How many times have we seen people doing this kind of thing in day to day life? Oh, you don’t have a (insert consumer product here), you’re such a loser! or Who doesn’t know THAT incredibly important thing that I happen to be privy to? As strange as it sounds, flaunting one’s massive and woke cookbook collection may as well be the tail of a peacock or the antlers of a deer – something that impresses because yours is so much bigger than the other guys’. I am better than you because I have this stuff that you do not have. You are worse than me because you do not know about this thing that I know. I mean, that’s what fashionable brand names are all about, is flaunting one’s ability to stay current with the rapidly-changing whims of pop culture, and being able to afford the right products to flaunt. It’s both sad and yet unsurprising that our borderline-insane American consumer culture extends its trendiness into the realm of social justice, with people who are not even registered to vote flaunting BLM t-shirts (29.95 plus 4.95 s&h).
Getting a leg up on the competition in the hunt for scarce resources is a part of human nature we’ve all witnessed again and again, so it’s no wonder it crops up here and now with wokeness running amok. Things are scary right now, and in scary times people are gonna want to strengthen whatever bonds they have with their ingroup (or whatever group they think is the strongest). Virtue signals are flying because a good many people want to prove that they are worthy of an alliance, or at the least are not one of the outsiders.
People selling things – be it consumer goods or philosophies – have been capitalizing on this tendency of people to want to wage class warfare by conspicuous consumption for a very long time. I can assure you a lot of people selling wokeism now care only about their bottom line. A lot of people selling things are happy to capitalize on the people in our nation being at each other’s throats to sell us goods, or a bill of goods. And a lot of people buying are only too happy to buy or retweet their way into virtue without putting in any effort to make the world a better place. (Please understand, I’m not saying anyone is doing this deliberately; just like with Error Management Biases, we’re talking about motivations human beings have that lay beneath the surface, below what we’re really aware of.)
Because it’s impossible to remove personal benefit and selfish motivation from the equation, Performative Wokeness is, at best, a stupid way to judge whether someone is racist (because they’re really just showing off that they’re rich, not good) and at worst is something that actually perpetuates racism by keeping skin color first and foremost in everyone’s mind constantly. The very conspicuous, all-encompassing Performative Wokeness that is apparently required of us here in 2020, is basically an unattainable goal for people who are less well off.
Defining fighting racism in terms of things only rich people can do, is pretty gross, I think we can all agree on that. But you know, incessant virtue signaling would probably be not a big deal on its own. After all, this type of conspicuous consumption as class warfare has been around a long, long time, and it’s not going anywhere any time soon. Those of us who have remained sane (are you out there? I hope) could all laugh about it and move on if it was just relegated to virtue signalling and empty preening.
But that vignette I opened with illustrates the problem. Performative Wokeness is not just about people showing off how good they are. It’s about people showing off how bad YOU are, and as predicted by Error Management Theory, those who benefit from seeing threats where none are intended will find them. People who cannot afford to buy their way in, and who do not have the time or energy or mental acuity to stay fully informed on the rapidly shifting meanings of every word in the English language that now means something totally different than it did a week ago, are now being considered Actual Bad Guys for not having the luxury of being able to indulge in displays of Performative Wokeness. Performative Wokeness + Error Management Bias has devolved into Cancel Culture, and now people aren’t just showing off, they’re tearing down.
Performative Wokeness may be gross and ridiculous and classist, but at the end of the day it’s harmless due to its extreme silliness. Cancel Culture, on the other hand, is toxic and destructive. And none of us are immune to it.
Cancel Culture crosses party lines. Cancel Culture has infected everyone. In fact, I am myself engaging in Cancel Culture by calling out this obviously bored out of her ever-lovin-skull woman who just wanted to do what she told herself was the right thing and fix the rampant white supremacy in her cookbook collection, and then preach/brag to the world about it because someone told her that silence = complicity.
And how am I using Cancel Culture, pray tell? Well lo and behold, just as predicted by Error Management Theory, I care most about the -ism that threatens me directly – classism. I saw classism in the cookbook shit where I’m sure absolutely none was intended. The gal in the vignette I opened with saw anti-Semitism in people using the word “cosmopolitan”, and I, as an Actual Poor Person, saw classism in her claim, and we were probably both totally wrong and out of line to do so.
And this happened because of this quirk in our brains where we are programmed to either overestimate or underestimate threats based on how much we a)potentially benefit from them or b)are potentially harmed by them. Error Management Theory FTW.
Never, EVER forget that when people benefit from seeing threats, they will overestimate them, and the more they benefit, the more threats they will see/overestimate. This does not mean that racism is not a massive problem in our society that desperately needs to be addressed (that would, of course, be an EMT error in the opposite direction, so please avoid that pitfall) but it DOES indicate not everyone doing Performative Wokeness has pure motives. In fact, a good chunk of them don’t.
Cancelled pundit Kevin Williamson recently wrote about how the divisions in America at their core are a battle between the pretty rich and the slightly more rich and he was dead right about that. Many of the people out in the streets, the spoiled Antifa punks who have never known a day of deprivation in their lives, with their $175 hoodies and attitude problems that only entitlement could create, most of them don’t care about me and they don’t care about you even when they, like, so totally claim to. They are using wokeness as a cudgel to attack others with, and the bigger their wokeness, the more mighty they perceive themselves to be. They’re the equivalent of deer in rut looking for another deer to lock horns with.
This is not a revolution, it’s intraspecific competition. The more woke they are, the bigger their cudgel, and whoever whacks the most people the hardest, wins.
This social unrest is not about changing anything. It’s about pulling down some other privileged people for alleged badthink with the Cudgel of Performative Wokeness so the young upstarts can take their place in the socioeconomic and political hierarchy (even though the upstarts themselves were already extremely privileged.) Cancel Culture is a tool to these faux-revolutionaries, a means to an end, a way to wipe out the people ahead of them in the pecking order not so they can open the doors to the oppressed peoples of the world, but for themselves, so they themselves can replace the old guard who was blocking their way.
You can see this happening in Seattle where protests that started off about George Floyd and an entirely justified demand for police reform became about rich white people cosplaying the Russian Revolution (to paraphrase Williamson, Champagne Bolsheviks have adopted poverty and squalor as class camouflage, the end result of which will be the Goldman Sachs Fund For Racial Equality).
All this Cancel Culture bullshit is not about helping minorities. Minorities are being used by slightly less rich, mostly white people to bring down and replace slightly more rich, mostly white people in the rich, mostly white people hierarchy while most non-rich and/or non-white people get left in the dust, yet again. This Woke Luxury Class demands that we all carefully curate our cookbook collections as it polices the Internet looking for errant use of the word “cosmopolitan”, and then damn near break their arms patting themselves on the back for it as if they’ve cured the -isms of the world by the most meaningless and dare I say, enjoyable of virtue signaling gestures. (Shopping for new cookbooks, even when one is consumed by white guilt, is never bad.) And they do this because they are personally benefiting from it, because it gives them a leg up on the intraspecific competition.
In the meantime people out here in the real world can’t find jobs, they’re getting shot in the streets, innocent people are locked in jail awaiting trial for crimes they didn’t commit and they lose their jobs because they can’t afford bail (perhaps, Chrissy Teigen, this might have been a better use of your money), the schools in our neighborhoods are a disaster, we can’t afford medical care and even if we can the doctors treat us like drug-seeking liars and send us away without treatment or mock our weight, we’re so miserable we’re dying left and right from opioids and alcoholism, we have a pandemic that is killing massive numbers of poor people and very few rich ones, and I could go on for several more paragraphs about all the shit poor folks of every color have to eat daily while rich people sit at their computers eating ethically-sourced bonbons and virtue signaling to each other, but this piece is already too long as it is.
So before you look around at the unwashed masses who disgust you because they haven’t posted a picture of themselves wearing the appropriate consumer goods that you think they should have and saying the magic words you happened to read about just yesterday, stop and ask yourself who you’re really doing your Performative Woke mating dance for. Who is benefiting? Because I think a whole lot of people are doing this to make themselves look good and not to help another living soul, and in trying to make themselves look good, they’re making disadvantaged people already struggling to make a living look bad.