Insight was recently provided into the nature of "woke culture" when Ellen DeGeneres made the mistake of sitting with George W. Bush at a football game. She made matters worse by suggesting that it is acceptable, perhaps even desirable, to have friends whose politics you might disagree with (in this case, those of her friend, the former president).
That someone like Ellen, a lesbian and liberal in otherwise good standing, would have to go to the trouble of making such a claim, and it might actually be resisted in certain quarters, tells us how truly sick woke "cancel" culture has become.
The central source of that sickness is what another former president, Barack Obama, recently called the "idea of purity" and the demand for it on the radical left. Precisely because you can never be woke enough, those who consider themselves woke must perpetually find more occasions to engage in performative wokeness; to, in effect, insist upon ever greater conformity on all matters political, which for the woke is all matters.
To lead a woke life is to consequently use increasingly stringent political standards when deciding what restaurants to frequent, where to shop, what TV shows can be watched, and even who you can be friends with (as Ellen discovered).
Given the central woke assumption that anyone who isn't woke is deplorable, there is inevitably a small and dwindling pool of non-deplorables among the citizenry for the woke to associate with. Co-workers, fellow students and neighbors become increasingly suspect as the standards for purity become impossible for fallible human beings to meet (or want to meet). Surrounded on all sides by those less enlightened than they, by homophobes, bigots and white supremacists, the woke lead lonely lives consoled only by the knowledge of their own virtue.
Wokeness logically degenerates into armies of one because no one measures up.
Kevin Williamson calls this "cootie politics" and suggests it resembles more the social relations in a junior high cafeteria than public discourse between adults in a system of self-government.
Another comparison might be with highly fundamentalist religious sects constantly searching for heresy and seeking to mete out punishments to apostates. There is thus a certain irony in the way wokeness comes to resemble a secular alternative to the fundamentalist religion the woke otherwise denounce.
The demands of wokeness require the woke to constantly try to determine what the safe positions on an expanding array of increasingly trivial issues must be. How to cook a Thanksgiving turkey or which pronoun to use can become decisions freight with dire political consequences and woe to the woke activist who fails to have the right racial ratio of guests at their dinner party.
At root, wokeness thus involves a perhaps unprecedented politicization of life. Such politicization leads to intense polarization because when everything becomes political, people sort themselves into warring political tribes that argue about everything. Tribes, by definition, divide people into those who belong and those who don't and those who don't are no longer simply wrong on desultory political matters, but enemies to be cast out of approved (woke) society.
Such intolerant tribalism leads to perpetual indignation and preening self-righteousness (virtue signaling through denunciation) and thereby undermines civility and basic decency — when you become convinced of your moral superiority those who resist your demands become not just misguided fellow citizens but Nazis, racists, and white supremacists. Wokeness is hyper-exclusionary and intolerant at the same time it claims to be combating exclusion and intolerance.
All of us tend to make some aspects of the personal political. I've tried to avoid Jane Fonda movies ever since that little sojourn of hers to Hanoi back during the Vietnam War (which is sometimes problematic, since one of my all-time favorite movies is Klute). With a son who is a police officer and another who used to be one, I probably won't be buying much Colin Kaepernick-endorsed Nike apparel anytime soon either.
But that's about it. And a good thing, too, for as a libertarian academic I've spent the vast majority of my adult life in workplaces pervaded by colleagues who see the world very differently than I do. That hasn't prevented many of those people from becoming good friends, however, and when you start to worry about who other people are sitting next to at football games, there is a problem, and the problem is you.
As strange as it might sound coming from a politics professor, politics isn't everything, or even the most important thing. And those who think it is are likely to be miserable people who are miserable to be around.
So some advice to our hair-on-fire woke folk — get out and about some (as Obama put it, "get over that"). Take the dog for a stroll, spend a week at the beach (pelicans and palm trees tend to have a wonderfully soothing effect on the nerves), maybe even cheer on your favorite college basketball team while sitting next to a guy wearing an NRA jacket.
In short, get a life. So that the rest of us can better enjoy ours.
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, Arkansas, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.