The Pathological Nature of Wokeness

It is not often that two contrasting mainstream media events reveal so completely the nature of the deep dysfunction of modern culture. Yet that is precisely what happened last month. 

Those two events are as follows: First, contrarian Substack writer and known anti-woke crusader Andrew Sullivan appeared on Jon Stewart’s new show, “The Problem With Jon Stewart.” I do not think I am being uncharitable when I call the appearance a disaster. Which, to be fair, is not entirely Sullivan’s fault, seeing as he was thrust into what was effectively a three-on-one fight (more like a dozens-on-one fight, if you include the studio audience). He was the lone dissenter against a pack of braying fanatics, egged on by a motley trio consisting of a grifter and two useful idiots, one of whom is the most famed enforcer of liberal dogma from decades past. 

Yet even facing those difficult odds and taking charitable account of them, Sullivan did poorly. He failed to anticipate the most obvious answers to his objections, ignored the fact that Stewart handed him a softball question at the start which could have easily set up his wider critique, and overall came off looking like a scared old man who resented the very idea of discussing real issues purely because they caused him discomfort. His subsequent Substack piece, had it been reflected in his appearance, was far better on the merits, but reads like sour grapes when you know what came before.

The second event was the appearance of former New York Times tech journalist Taylor Lorenz on MSNBC, where she broke down in tears describing the alleged online harassment she has received for (as she tells it) just doing her job, and how it has given her PTSD. The interviewer was infinitely more charitable, as were Lorenz’s fellow guests. Yet in spite of every attempt to make Lorenz look like a wounded victim, her appearance still prompted memes and derision, as well as some very well-deserved criticism from one of her alleged “harassers.” 

Lorenz’s tears were almost certainly effective with people who already agreed with her, but as a persuasive gesture to those who didn’t, it seems very clear that they failed miserably. That is, assuming they were intended to be persuasive to anyone who disagreed. More likely, Lorenz knew her tears would only persuade the deep blue audience she was speaking to (as well as other members of the liberal intelligentsia) and spared not a single thought to how they would look outside that bubble. Therefore, if we are to score both moments as an attempt to persuade the sorts of people who watch MSNBC and Jon Stewart, Lorenz’s venture was a fantastic success, while Sullivan’s was a dismal failure.

I think, if we are to understand the Left, it behooves us to ask why these two events should be scored this way. The easy answer would be that Lorenz confirmed leftist prejudices, while Sullivan tried unsuccessfully to combat them and ended up reinforcing them by mistake. And while this explanation no doubt has merit, it misses a fundamental difference between Lorenz and Sullivan that almost certainly played a role in why Lorenz knew how to play her emotional reaction so perfectly for a liberal audience, while Sullivan did not. That difference can be summed up in a single word: age.

The Role of Tumblr In Advancing Wokeness

Andrew Sullivan is 58. Just one year younger than Jon Stewart, and therefore in the same part-Boomer, part-Gen X no-man’s-land that comprises their generational psyche. Sullivan is also a former president of the Oxford Union, a former editor of The New Republic, author of six books, and now a highly paid Substack writer. He has spent decades persuading people and, based on his résumé, is clearly highly talented at it, particularly among the blue-state set, given his past academic and publication laurels. What’s more, he has described the likes of Lorenz with cutting precision in his description of Rhodes Scholars:

The sad truth is that as a rule, [Rhodes Scholars] possess none of the charms of the aristocracy and all of the debilities: fecklessness, excessive concern that peasants be aware of their achievement, and a certain hemophilia of character.

For anyone who has familiarized himself with Lorenz’s  journalistic “accomplishments,” this description (particularly “excessive concern that peasants be aware of their achievement,” and “hemophilia of character”) rings like the deepest note from the largest gong. Yet Sullivan cannot understand how to talk to the increasingly young left-liberals who now make up his intellectual peers, not merely on Stewart’s show, but at his former employers, whereas Lorenz has an avid following among them. 

There is a very simple reason for this: Andrew Sullivan never had a Tumblr account. Taylor Lorenz does, and according to her, it was at least partially responsible for her choice to enter journalism as a profession. As someone who has written about Tumblr at length, especially (and infamously) the “Glee” fandom, this is the equivalent of the Bat-Signal, given my belief that Tumblr is responsible not just for wokeness, but for its entire melodramatic, maudlin, adolescent girl aesthetic and style of communication. 

In this case, however, I do not want to rely on my own writing as evidence. Rather, I want to rely on the work of a young writer named Helena Kerschner who has explained Tumblr from firsthand knowledge in a way that I despair of equaling:

Tumblr, though, wasn’t only a place to post art and make friends. Being such a secluded platform with a fairly homogenous user base not only demographically (mostly teenage girls, many of whom white and middle to upper middle class), but especially in terms of personality type, it developed its own culture, distinct from the youth culture of the general population. Because many of its users were like me, using Tumblr as an all-day alternate reality escape from the real world, this ‘culture’ should be understood in the most literal sense of the word. One should think of Tumblr, especially from 2009-2016, as a secluded island nation whose people rarely interact with the outside world, and thus have language, customs, hierarchy, and history that is entirely unique and at first incomprehensible to people from other nations visiting the island. There’s something about it that almost selects for a particular type of person, and I’ve heard so many times from normal people (for lack of a better word) that they “tried Tumblr, but couldn’t figure it out . . .

A major aspect of Tumblr culture has always been social justice ideology. Things that are now being played out and witnessed by the general public on platforms like Twitter and TikTok, like dissociative identity disorder LARPers, demisexuals, neopronouns, otherkin, and everything you see on @LibsOfTikTok, have long existed in an uncannily identical form on tumblr.com. The oppression hierarchy of racial and gender identities now being written into law in many of our once serious nations was the state religion of the People’s Republic of Tumblr long before your political junkie uncle knew the term ‘CRT.’  As cultish religions tend to operate, open devotion to the religion is mandatory. Perhaps the outsiders most likely to understand the way social dynamics worked on that website would be survivors of Scientology or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. On Tumblr, the situation was such that any claim to being ‘oppressed’ would accumulate social credibility, while any unfortunate ‘privileged’ status was justification for verbal abuse. As a ‘privileged’ person, you were expected to constantly grovel and apologize, you had no right to speak on any issue involving the group you were ‘oppressing’, and you could not object in any way to any mistreatment hurled against you because of your race, gender, or sexuality.

I found myself in a bit of a double bind. On one hand, I had found what felt like the perfect group of friends who understood me on an intuitive level, who I was able to talk to openly about the things I liked and made me ‘weird’ in real life, but on the other hand I was a ‘cishet white girl’ in an environment where that was one of the worst things to be. Since Tumblr users are mostly biological females, the ‘cishet white girl’ holds the position of most privileged and therefore most inherently bad group. In this climate, you are made to feel guilty and responsible for all the horrors and atrocities in the world. No hardship you could possibly go through could ever be as bad as the prejudice and genocide POC and LGBT people face every. Single. Day. Insert clap emoji. LGBT people and POC can’t even walk out of their houses without being murdered by cishet white people just like you!

The reader should direct his attention to something crucial in Kerschner’s quote: the hierarchy of oppression.  The reason a “cishet white girl” would automatically have her suffering dismissed on Tumblr if she was born with the wrong skin color and wrong gender identity and sexual orientation, is because on a female-dominated website there were no cishet white men to persecute, so cishet white women became the “most powerful” group. This shows very well how easily the Left will turn on itself when the bogeyman of the straight white male ceases to exist. This is why they have such a fervent desire to keep up the scapegoating of that one group. It is all that protects their other constituents from having empathy for them cut off.

But more than that, consider the options this hierarchy of oppression presented for young Helena. She could either accept her place as a cishet white girl, and gain approval by spending her entire life trying to make other people’s lives better, explicitly at the expense of her own mental well-being, or she could adopt a trans identity. That she chose the latter speaks to the sheer unreasonableness of the demands wokeness makes on its adherents.  

But, you may ask, why does Taylor Lorenz get away with crying, then, seeing as she is (to all appearances) a “cishet white girl” with no particular inner-conflict about her sexual orientation or gender identity? Well, because Lorenz’s antagonists are (or are presumed to be) white males, the only group higher on the food chain than she is, and therefore, her trauma can be validated without risking the oppression hierarchy. 

Andrew Sullivan, on the other hand, may be a gay white man, but his feelings of anger and indignation at critical race theory are direct attacks on the Tumblr religion, so they are dismissed, reviled, and then ignored. In other words, when speaking to an audience of Tumblr-fied leftists, Sullivan should have adhered to the dictum that “people don’t care what you know until they know you care.” And, given he was on a panel with a grifter who uses black suffering as a means to extort wealthy white women, he could have very easily won the “caring Olympics” if he had tried.

But something else needs explaining, as well, which persistent Lorenz antagonists Glenn Greenwald and Tucker Carlson have both asked incredulously: Even arrayed against white male antagonists, how can anyone believe someone not merely white, but also straight, rich, and objectively privileged as Taylor Lorenz, could be a vulnerable victim in any way? Surely that must cause some cognitive dissonance for the Tumblr Left . . . right?

Wrong. In fact, these people fail to understand the extent to which Tumblr’s notion of who is vulnerable and who isn’t depends not on objective circumstance, but on something that explicitly favors the most objectively powerful: namely, Tumblr does not care about who is physically or financially vulnerable except as a proxy for what it really cares about. 

And what is that? 

Look back at Kerschner’s quote. What she describes is not simply a hierarchy of oppression, but also a rationing system for empathy. If you were a cishet white girl, not only did your suffering not matter and have no claim on anyone’s empathy, but you were actually expected to allow other people to cause you trauma as reparations for what people like you had done to people like them. Tumblr is the logical conclusion of what the philosopher Richard Rorty described as the “Freudian Left,” i.e., a version of leftist care for the vulnerable that cares only about those who are psychologically vulnerable, rather than physically or financially vulnerable. In other words, “if it bleeds it leads” is the literal Mandate from Heaven as far as Tumblr leftism is concerned. 

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The Scarcity of Empathy

So, we must ask ourselves, who is often the most psychologically vulnerable? Obviously, the mentally ill is one answer, hence why Tumblr leftism elevates transgenderism (i.e., gender dysphoria) over even race as the civil rights issue of our time. But notice what their remedy is for gender dysphoria: not therapy (“conversion therapy!” the leftists shriek), but rather hormones, surgery, and changing the structure of society to make the dysphoria no longer false. Similarly, Tumblr’s solution to trauma around rape, sexual assault, or any number of other disturbing topics is not therapy to make the trauma less, but rather to slap trigger warnings on everything so that the traumatized never have to move past their pain. In short, Tumblr’s solution to mental illness is affirmation of the mental illness’s truth. In other words, if you’ve been hurt, don’t adapt, make reality adapt so that your hurt can never happen again, and you never need to be reminded of it again. The ambition would be impressive, if the reason for it weren’t so pitiable.

But mere mental illness is not the only factor that determines a person’s “vulnerability” in the minds of the Tumblr Left. Something else matters, too. I will once more let Helena Kerschner explain using her profile concerning which children are most at risk of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD)—the sorts of people who turn trans on Tumblr due to social pressure:

The most fundamental personality trait that I have observed among ROGD-susceptible people is greater emotional intensity and sensitivity. Some may even call it ‘hypersensitivity’. Emotional sensitivity occurs on a spectrum, with some people having very low sensitivity to emotions, some experiencing their emotions very intensely, and most falling somewhere in between.[ . . .]

As children, emotionally sensitive people may be much more needy than others. They may have a greater amount of separation anxiety and have a harder time starting school, going to a daycare, being watched by a new babysitter, or even being set down instead of constantly held as infants. They may need extra reassurance and a lot of time being comforted and encouraged to do new things, take risks, or recover from perceived hurts and setbacks. They form strong attachments and feel compassion very strongly, which can lead to becoming upset easily if they feel something is unfair, hurtful, or a rejection. They care—so much—about everything. From a young age, they have a strong sense of what they think is right and wrong. They have an incredible tenderness and consideration for how other people and animals are feeling. They may more easily believe a person or an animal is suffering or being unfairly treated and become severely distressed. They may be exceptionally clever and witty themselves yet struggle with accepting even light jokes or teasing from others.

In other words, yes, the mentally ill are the most “vulnerable” in one respect, but the truly vulnerable people, according to Tumblr, are not merely the people most at risk of experiencing emotional pain, but also those who will feel it the most deeply when it strikes. The sensitive are the oppressed, and the cruel or even just the resilient are the oppressors. If Jesus Christ were to speak to his disciples in terms Tumblr could understand, he might have said, “It is easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a psychologically resilient man to enter the Kingdom of God.” 

Now, one might object at this point that sensitivity is hardly a trait confined to the Left. In fact, judging by how they treat conservatives, the Left is very obviously willing to be nakedly cruel and to laugh at sensitivity when it comes from their opponents. How to square this? Well, let us return again to the hierarchy of oppression for a moment. Recall that according to Kerschner, Tumblr was made up mostly of girls who had trouble fitting in. In a very real sense, all of them felt oppressed, alienated, and wounded, and most likely they felt it more deeply than other girls, given their proclivity for ROGD, and given that (according to another Tumblr user), they did not experience events on television shows like “Glee” as if they were happening to a fictional character like them, but rather as if they happened to them. In such an environment, where everyone is hurt, every single user would’ve been swamped with demands for empathy. 

The human mind is not capable of infinite empathy. Rather, a concept amusingly called “the monkeysphere” explains that humans are only capable of seeing about 150 other individuals as even human at all, at most. Tumblr had hundreds of millions of users. You have 150 empathy slots to give away. How do you decide who gets to count as human?

You could do it individually, but that obviously leads to turf wars between different monkeyspheres and doesn’t really say what criteria you, individually, should apply. So, how would you set up a standard that a website full of wounded people would have to abide by in order to have an orderly distribution of empathy? Answer: You’d do what most humans do when faced with abstract strangers. You’d choose to care about the person who needed it most and who posed the least threat to you and the rest of your monkeysphere. 

In other words, you’d come up with something like critical theory, which assigns people “oppression” based on immutable characteristics and makes the process of deciding whose pain to care about infinitely simpler, because it’s just a matter of narrowing down the categories of “oppression” the person belongs to until you can be sure they’re at the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy and therefore need your precious empathy more than anyone else. And as a highly sensitive person, who feels pain (both yours and others) more deeply than others, you’d want to be sure you only gave your empathy to the most deserving person, because otherwise, you’d be wounding someone who needed you unintentionally by caring about someone who didn’t need your help as much as them. That’s why the hierarchy of oppression exists. Because it’s meant to ration empathy among people who are all emotionally sensitive. In other words, emotional sensitivity is a necessary, but not sufficient condition to getting empathy on Tumblr. Without being seen to be emotionally sensitive/empathetic, nothing else you experience matters, no matter how awful it is, but just being emotionally sensitive and empathetic alone isn’t enough to matter when there are millions more like you clamoring for the same emotional support.

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Who is Tumblr’s Enemy?

But still, this doesn’t tell us why Taylor Lorenz, a wealthy, straight, white female, would be able to get empathy for her tears from a group brainwashed into this doctrine. To explain that, we first need to return to the criteria I laid out above: if you had to offer empathy to one random stranger, you’d want it to be the person who needs it most, and who poses the least threat to the rest of your monkeysphere. This is where Tumblr goes from empathetic smol bean cinnamon rolls to being closet Carl Schmitt devotees. What their philosophy basically instructs them to do is offer empathy to anyone who a) needs it most, and b) is not an enemy. So who, then, is Tumblr’s enemy?

We don’t have to guess at the answer. We know it from seeing it happen. Tumblr’s enemy is 4chan, and the entire ethos of “toxic” straight, white, male deliberate callousness and sadism that it represents. Whereas straight, white, males are only theoretically harmful, 4chan loudly and proudly trumpets how much it loves doing harm for the “lulz.” In other words, when you strip the social media trappings away, sadism is the enemy. “Abusers” are the enemy. “Toxic” people are the enemy. People who cause pain and enjoy it are the enemy. Which means that, theoretically, if you wanted to get empathy from the Tumblr Left, you could do it by being a particularly effective “ally,” i.e., a protector against the sadistic. 

Taylor Lorenz has made it her mission to be a Woke Grand Inquisitor sniffing out the indiscretions of online influencers (someone who can prevent people from offering a spot in their monkeysphere to unworthy candidates). She is thus one of the most formidable allies Tumblr leftism has. So on one level, of course she gets empathy. She has PTSD and has subjected herself to trauma in order to protect others from those who inflict it. Taylor Lorenz is a human trigger warning, a shield against being wounded by closet sadists. The least Tumblr leftism could offer her is empathy, given she’s doing all this for them, or at least, so she says.

But that’s not all, because this is presuming a world where everyone is trying to decide where to offer their empathy among identical faceless strangers. In practice, that is not the world any human being faces. There is one key ingredient that surpasses even need and loyalty in deciding who to allow into one’s monkeysphere, and that is familiarity. This is why I said that Taylor Lorenz was a monkeysphere policewoman: because the people she targets are famous. Famous. Literally a word for “familiar.” 

Lorenz exposes the most familiar people for failing the test of needing empathy, or of deserving loyalty, from the Tumblr Left. As a result, she herself becomes very familiar indeed. And because she is familiar, she automatically leaps the queue when it comes to deciding who gets empathy for their suffering. In other words, at bottom, the byzantine empathy rationing system of critical theory-inflected Tumblrism can be hacked using two simple things: fame and popularity.

This is why I said that all of wokeness was really a scheme to return us to the power dynamics of high school. Because in high school, being popular is the only real power source that students can amass, and they can do this most easily by conforming to what other popular people do. So in effect, all of the talk about making people more “empathetic” that the Left spews out really amounts to just demanding that people have more empathy for the popular, agreeable conformists, and less for the unpopular, disagreeable nonconformists. Ignore the nerds; they aren’t people. 

This is yet one more reason Andrew Sullivan ran into so much trouble. An Oxford and Harvard-educated contrarian political philosopher is everything high school popularity contests least value.

It should be obvious at this point why this philosophy is actually deeply regressive, seeing as it privileges the famous (and therefore, those with the resources to take the risks required to become famous) over others. But there is another reason for its regressive character, and it is this: the people most sensitive to pain are often the people who have the least experience of it. And who has the least experience of pain in modern American society? Those who are born rich and cosseted in helicopter-parented households. 

In short, we are talking about the very people who most often end up learning to sublimate their ambition into shows of faux altruism through the college admissions process, and end up with degrees from tony private schools and elite universities as a reward for their diligence—universities whose student bodies, these days, are trending closer to being exclusively female, just like the user base of Tumblr. Indeed, we are at the point now where one can almost tell a person’s class origins the same way people once did: by looking at whether a person has soft or callused hands. Only today, the question is whether they have soft or callused minds. 

This is why Taylor Lorenz feels she deserves empathy and to be shielded from criticism: because she feels it more deeply than others, because she isn’t used to it the way others are, and to be fair to her, why would she be, given her upbringing? Moreover, this is why Taylor Lorenz, who is 36 years-old, tries to cast herself as perpetually young and powerless: because there is one group less used to pain than the privileged, and that is infants. Experience of trauma is the sinful touch of the sadistic Patriarchy in the leftist worldview, and so the only way to be pure is to regress mentally to infancy again, before trauma, experience, and the fallen world touched you. Therefore, infantilizing someone is purifying them. This is not merely a financially regressive politics, it is literally a psychologically regressive politics.

In any case, Lorenz’s tears are an appeal to the easily emotionally damaged, mostly privileged, mostly educated, mostly female, universally infantile constituency whose adolescent empathy rationing system increasingly comprises the central political philosophy of the Democratic Party. 

That rationing system’s criteria are cruel and elegant in their simplicity: If you are emotionally sensitive and empathetic, you may count as human. If you are emotional, sensitive, empathetic, and belong to the least powerful group in society, you are definitely human. If you are sadistic, then unless you are sadistic from a place of being hurt by sadists more powerful than you, then you are not human. You are the enemy. If you choose to live by a different moral code than this, then you choose sadism the same way a Christian believes that a sinner “chooses” Hell, and have just as little room to complain when people are sadistic towards you. They’re not really being sadistic, after all, they’re just defending the people who are human against you, and no amount of sadism is too drastic to aid in the service of that protection. After all, by “choosing” to be conservative (read: sadistic), you are asking for it.

One of the more cringe tweets to be discussed recently came (unsurprisingly) from one of Taylor Lorenz’s colleagues now that she has joined the Washington Post. Melissa Chan, described foreign policy realist scholar John Mearsheimer’s argument as “basically the ‘she wore a short skirt’ justification [for rape].” This tweet was tailor-made for the Tumblr Left, seeing as it framed all of Ukraine implicitly as emotionally sensitive smol beans being terrorized and raped by the sadistic straight, white male  Vladimir Putin. Yet one has to pause to savor the irony that a philosophy, so dedicated to mocking the wounds of conservatives, cishet white women, and anyone else they decide is too powerful for their trauma to matter, is now complaining about telling people they were asking to be hurt. 

So they would say of Taylor Lorenz’s many victims: “They were problematic. They were asking for it.” So they would say of dissident intellectuals like Andrew Sullivan losing their jobs and reputations: “He was a sadist. He was asking for it.” So they would say of every American who voted for Trump to improve their lot in a country where upward mobility is vanishing everywhere except among the already-privileged and neurotic Tumblr set: “They were white/straight/male/not famous enough. They were asking for it.” You don’t have to take my word for it. Say anything against cancel culture when it strikes on Twitter, and you’ll hear a mocking retort from the Left: “Oh no if it isn’t the consequences of my actions.” Translation: They were asking for it. 

It’s about time America stopped letting these toxic mental deficients put their hands up its undercarriage, and started wielding an electoral can of mace to show them that just because they think we were asking for it, it doesn’t mean we have to take it.

Editor’s Note:  A version of this article first appeared at Human Events

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About Bill Hurrell

Bill Hurrell is a dissident and digital culture enthusiast writing from behind the Silicon Curtain in California.

Photo: Rommel Demano/Getty Images