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The Great Awokening and the Slave Revolt in Morality

In the “Who I Am” section of her course syllabus, a Virginia Tech faculty member introspects:

I am a Caucasian cisgender female and first-generation college student from Appalachia who is of Scottish, British, and Norwegian heritage. I am married to a cisgender male, and we are middle class. While I did not ‘ask’ for the many privileges in my life: I have benefitted from them and will continue to benefit from them whether I like it or not. This is injustice. I am and will continue to work on a daily basis to be antiracist and to confront the innate racism that is the reality and history of white people. I want to be better. Every day. I will transform: Every day. This work terrifies me: Every day. I invite my white students to join me on this journey. And to my students of color: I apologize for the inexcusable horrors within our shared history. (Italics in original.)

The white savior’s woke syllabus certainly has one merit: it expresses in a glaring fashion the central features of the cultish mania sweeping the ranks of white liberal elites in America, especially those in academia. Some have named the craze “the Great Awokening” to accentuate, by way of allusion, its quasi-religious character. As seen in this syllabus, the Great Awokening’s central features include the fetishization of victimhood, the loathing of self, and, above all, the espousal of imbecilic beliefs in order to virtue-signal one’s devotion to the creed.

Ah, if Friedrich Nietzsche had only lived to see the Great Awokening! He would have much to say about it, none of it charitable. An untimely thinker appalled at the nihilism of Western modernity, Nietzsche attributes our sickness to a spiteful set of moral valuations that have wormed their way into our moral consciousness. He refers to the disease as “the slave revolt in morality.” Understood in the context of this disease, the Great Awokening shows itself for what it is: degenerate slave morality on steroids.

An entirely negative, reactive morality with no positive content of its own and driven by festering resentment directed at psychologically strong individuals, slave morality condemns the character traits of vigorous, accomplished individuals whose wills have creative vitality and efficacy in the world. To be a morally good person is to not be like the strong, self-affirming, creative types, while to be like them is to be evil. The targets of vengeful slave morality include pride in oneself, a disposition and ability to impose form on the world, and the drive to distinguish oneself through exceptional creative accomplishment. Slave morality tars these character traits as vices of arrogance, individualism, and selfishness, and therefore values weakness and self-loathing only because they are the antipodes of these “vices.”

Grasping the Great Awokening as a strain of slave morality, we readily understand its fetishization of victimhood. Victimhood connotes weakness, which slave morality esteems as a moral virtue because it is the opposite of personal strength. Consider, too, its predilection for moralized self-loathing. Self-loathing, recall, is the opposite of the “vice” of pride.

[Related: “When Questions Become Harassment”]

Another stark pathology of the Great Awokening consists in an acute moral asceticism endemic to all variants of slave morality. Moral suffering plagues worldly existence through-and-through: our normative expectations of life and what it dishes up to us are entirely uncorrelated, which causes profound suffering. None of us deserves to die, but we all do. Sociopaths rise to the highest echelons of power and prestige while innocent children suffer horrible abuse at the hands of their parents. Deep pain and anguish result. The moral ascetic, a weakling in Nietzsche’s view, seeks a salve for this-worldly suffering by displacing his moral consciousness to a phantasmagorical, hidden “true world” which has higher existential and moral value than the “merely” apparent world and which redeems the suffering in the latter. I refer to the moral asceticism particular to the Great Awokening as “woke mysticism.”

The central constructs of woke mysticism include the erasure of individual personal identity by way of the reification of race, conjoined with a moral Manichaeism. In the woke true world, individuals disappear under idealized, moralized racial categories. The white oppressor race is pure evil, while the black race appears as pure victimhood, and therefore as pure moral goodness. Asian and Jewish Americans, cast as evil co-conspirators of whites in “systemic racism,” get tarred as “white-adjacent” and “super-white,” respectively. Notice how the Great Awokening, by idealizing each race as either oppressor/evil or victim/weakling, is racist toward all the races, just in different ways.

Dwell for a moment on the not-so-subtle condescension toward black people found in woke mysticism. Idealized as hapless victims of oppression, devoid of self-efficacy and in need of the white savior to rescue them, black people end up fantasized as the most pathetic specimens of humanity that have ever walked the face of the earth. John McWhorter, author of Woke Racism, notes this and goes on to observe that woke ideology is actually anti-black racism masquerading as anti-racism. I would only add that it appears to also be an indulgence for the victim fetish of white liberal elites. Nietzsche’s insight that pity is contempt in disguise seems apt here as well.

Despite the hideousness of the woke true world, with its ugly and demeaning idealizations of humanity, the perfection of moral righteousness also resides in that imaginary realm. This perfection redeems all the hideousness, thereby making it the psychological balm for existential suffering. As portrayed exquisitely in the above syllabus, this imagined paragon of moral virtue is the grandiose, idealized self of the white savior, the white knight in shining armor who, through super-human powers of self-loathing, spiritually conquers her inherent evil whiteness and heroically rides to the rescue of the hapless victims of “white supremacy.” Public spectacles of performative virtue-signaling—washing the feet of black people at Black Lives Matter protests, kneeling in unison while raising one’s palms and solemnly acknowledging one’s “white guilt,” shamefully abasing oneself in a course syllabus, etc.—will, through some invisible, metaphysical process, swing all of us heathen whites over to the cult. The apocalypse will then arrive, and the white knight in shining armor will have vanquished “white supremacy” for all eternity.

[Related: “The Greatness the Professors Denied”]

Turning now to the nihilistic character of the Great Awokening, first note that, by definition, nihilism refers to the collapse of values, and with it, the erasure of the distinction between the worthy and the unworthy in life. By “values,” I refer to the overarching values that give life meaning and make it worth living in the face of suffering, not petty, quasi-hedonistic values, such as valuing a cold beer on a hot summer day. When we, following Nietzsche, think of values in this way, we readily grasp that the Great Awokening has no values, despite its shrill moralism.

Recall that slave morality has no positive content of its own. In his genealogical account of the origins of slave morality, Nietzsche posits that it emerged in late Roman antiquity as an entirely negative reaction, among the relatively powerless but entitled priestly element within the aristocracy, to the “master” or “noble” morality of the ruling warrior class within the same aristocracy. Noble moral valuations have positive content in that they affirm certain character traits, namely those associated with personal strength and individual excellence, as intrinsically good. As a resentful reaction to master morality, slave morality posits that certain character traits, namely those associated with personal weakness and failure, are good only by virtue of their not being the character traits of the strong. Noble morality has values whereas slave morality, at bottom, does not. Therefore, once one realizes this, slave morality, including its contemporary Great Awokening variant, drains life of meaning and significance and is thus nihilistic. Personal realization of the emptiness of the woke moral worldview inevitably sets in when one asks oneself simple, obvious questions about its basic tenets, such as, why are victims morally good people by virtue of their victimhood?

The widespread appeal of today’s Great Awokening is an unsettling testament to the parlous state of Western modernity. This is not a tiny cult with a few thousand crackpot adherents. A substantial share of the American population has bought into it, including most of the elites who run the show. In my casual estimation, about two-thirds of university professors have also bought in, although I realize that some are merely giving superficial lip-service to the religion out of fear of having their careers destroyed at the hands of the woke mob. What kind of cultural soil allows such a poisonous tree to take root? Perhaps the decadent culture to whose face Nietzsche holds up a mirror in his profound and insightful writings.

As seen in Minding the Campus