It was early morning when I swung my feet onto the floor and glided through the still-dark cabin
There are two levels of self-deception going on in the class politics of “woke” progressivism. The first is the inability to see themselves as a class. The second is the inability to see the mimetic nature of their moralising. (The latter term may be a little mysterious: I will explain presently — mimetic desire is desire copied or imitated from others.)
The inability to see themselves as a class is straightforward, though it goes beyond seeing themselves as a meritocratic elite, and so not a class. “Woke” progressivism is overwhelmingly concentrated in the human-and-cultural capital class. The most “woke” industries are the ones most dominated by the possessors of human-and-cultural capital: entertainment, education, news media and online IT. The industries that constitute the cultural commanding heights of contemporary society. The sense of being members of a cognitive meritocracy (and elite) converges with a sense of being members of a moral meritocracy (and elite). This is, to invoke a touch of Rene Girard, mimetic moralising: mimetic desire being desires copied from another. They copy moral postures from each other based on a common desire to be, and to be seen to be, members of the moral meritocracy.
Unlike other forms of mimetic desire, mimetic moralising is not inherently rivalrous. On the contrary, moral agreement creates a mutually reinforcing sense of moral status.
This common desire to have a mutually self-reinforcing sense of moral status, not merely cognitive status but also moral status, creates a powerful tendency towards conformity. Specifically, it creates prestige opinions, opinions that mark one as a good, informed person. Opinions that make one a member of the club of the properly, intelligently, moral.
Expansive stigmatisationIf mimetic moralising is the highest (status) good, then reason, evidence and consistency must be subordinated to it. Indeed, those who invoke reason, evidence and consistency against any of the prestige opinions are enemies of (mimetic) righteousness, because they fail to converge with the righteous opinions and they contest the mimetic elite’s ownership of morality. They thus proclaim their failure to join the club of the morally meritorious. Worse, they threaten the very gatekeeping distinctions that creates the status of being morally meritorious, that make club membership valuable.
Such stigmatisation of those outside the boundary of the morally meritorious has more power if it levers off things already widely accepted as being wrong or abhorrent. Thus, the accusation of racism! works so effectively, not because people are generally racist but precisely because they are generally not. The more racist society actually was, the less effect, the less negative resonance, the accusation would have. Conversely, the less racist society becomes, the more potential effect the accusation of racism has (with some adjustment for diminishing returns from over-use). This pattern is aided by the cognitive tendency to expand the ambit of a category or concept as the thing originally captured by the category or concept become rarer.
As this is a status strategy, the demand for grounds to stigmatise will be driven by the conveniences of club-gatekeeping rather than what is actually happening. Thus, the demand for racism and acts of racism as weapons of stigmatisation will (and does) tend to exceed, often quite significantly, the supply of actual racism and racist acts. There is thus a double inflation: acts that are not racist (or may not even have occurred) will be denounced, hence the startling high rate of hate-crime hoaxes. Meanwhile, actual acts of racism will be inflated in their significance.
There will also be an ongoing search for new grounds of stigmatisation to continue the separation of the morally meritorious from the not so. The multiplication of belief sins (all the -ist and -phobe accusations, those of cultural appropriation and so forth) is precisely what one would expect in a time of mimetic moralising as a status strategy by members of the human-and-cultural-capital class.
There is also an obvious capacity for purity spirals. And for more junior employees to leverage their moral commitment against more established staff less au fait with the linguistic and moral nuances. Or who retain lingering normative commitments outside the mimetic moraliising.
Display versus signal
It is useful to understand the difference between display in general and signalling specifically. In biology and economics, signalling involves the incurring of costs: the greater the cost incurred, the stronger the signal.
The mimetic moralising outlined above involves moral beliefs being on display but it rarely involves incurring any cost in such display. On the contrary, moralising as a status-game is all about the benefits of displaying one’s membership of the morally meritorious.
Even so, keeping up with shifts in linguistic taboos and prestige opinions does take attention, so does work as a signal. Not giving heed to the inconsistencies between, and hypocrisies within, the prestige opinions also works as a signal. Especially if it means wearing derision or critique from those pointing out such inconsistencies and hypocrisies. Thus, inconsistency and hypocrisy acts as more of a feature than a bug: it provides a signal of commitment to the club of the morally meritorious, a willingness to pay the membership dues.
Moral norms are norms held unconditionally: things people believe are morally right regardless of the expectations of others. Social norms are norms based on the expectations about what others will do, and what others expect people to do, that have associated social sanctions. Descriptive norms are norms simply based on expectations about what others will do and do not have associated sanctions. (This is the framework for norms developed by philosopher Christina Bicchieri.)Unawareness required
The capacity for manipulation of all this by self-serving actors is very high. Nevertheless, in general, all this only works if the mimetic elite does not fully and consciously understand what they are doing. There is a real sense in which it is vital that they do not see themselves. For if they saw their attempt to control legitimacy, to possess morality as their property, to stigmatise disagreement, to protect their moralised sense of status, for what it was, it would stop working.
Prestige is a bottom-up status process, so if it is fully revealed, and accepted to have been so revealed, the mimetic prestige game would not grant moral prestige. The social dominance would become obviously raw self-interest. Their stigmatising exclusions, in all their projective exaggerations, transparently self-serving.
Conversely, if this mimetic moralising is the highest good, then mobbing is natural and inherent. Mobbing — that is, scapegoating stigmatisation — unites and protects the mimetic moralising, the shared sense of being a moral meritocracy. They are united in, and by, the stigmatisations that protect their sense of status, of being of the moral meritocracy.
What are the sins that they are stigmatising folk for? Typically, for failing to conform to righteous moral harmony, a society entirely without bigotry or ill-feeling. If some grand social harmony is insisted on, but does not yet exist in society, then someone must be to blame for the lack of harmony. Hence the scapegoating of those who disturb harmony is natural to the grand elevation of social harmony as the proper goal. Harmony being a much more all-pervasive and controlling ideal than mere order.
The more this wonderful harmony-to-be-created looks different from the morally-disorderly past, the more the past can be scapegoated. The past cannot answer back, after all. Unless there are scholars brave enough to stand against the mimetic moralising of their colleagues, and the stigmatisation that is likely to engender. (What was remarkable about the 1619 Project was not that so many of the morally meritorious rolled over for it, following the dynamics of mimetic moralising, but the number of historians who were willing to speak against it; in part due to more traditional leftists pushing back against identitarian progressivism. They had norms external to the mimetic moralising that they were willing to stand up for.)
Separating people from their past also separates them from norms and framings that might be invoked against the mimetic moralising.
This scapegoating of the past leads to further self-deception. People whose moral postures are utterly conventional in their social circles (as being morally conventional, and so mutually meritorious, is precisely the point), who shift their moral postures to keep up with what is conventional, who are assiduously morally conventional within their social milieu, laughably claiming that they would not have adopted the moral postures that were conventional in the past.