Suddenly, America is consumed with a debate about whether we should all start using the term “pregnant people” rather than “pregnant women,” because the former term is more inclusive of transgender and non-binary folks who aren’t women but who can still get pregnant.
I’ve personally taken to saying, “pregnant women and other folks who can get pregnant,” because, while I’m pro-inclusivity, it seems to me like female erasure and female empowerment are things too.
One thing I wouldn’t have considered if I hadn’t lived outside of America for the last four years? The rest of the world is closely listening to this oh-so-American debate too.
In fact, the world listens to all of our debates. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had non-Americans tell me, “What happens in America affects me more than what happens in my country. Your elections are more important to us than even our own elections.”
When America sneezes, the whole world really does catch a cold.
I’m not sure most Americans understand just how truly powerful we are — politically but also culturally.
And with social media, non-Americans are now even more aware of what’s going on in America.
So here’s the current status quo: America often sets the agenda for the entire planet, but the rest of the world has almost no say in that agenda.
Seems rather unfair, doesn’t it?
Of course, this isn’t to say the rest of the world doesn’t have opinions about the things we say and do.
Electing Trump, for example. Literally everyone I’ve met, even people who lean right, thought America had gone completely insane.
Keep in mind that — as I always say in these articles — these are just my impressions, which are absolutely open to confirmation bias.
But that said, I talk to a lot of people, and it doesn’t feel to me like the rest of the world is on board with America’s sudden passion for “woke-ism.”
Then again, I’m not sure the current incarnation of woke-ism is all that popular even in America. It seems popular right now because of how quickly and thoroughly it’s been adopted by the cultural elites and institutions. But I think this might be yet another example of the cultural elites and institutions being out of touch with everyone else.
I watched the infamous Dave Chappelle special — and, yes, I did think it was transphobic — but I did agree with him on one thing: Twitter isn’t a real place and it’s not an accurate representation of anything except Twitter.
To me, this all feels very predictable. I lived through the 90s and 00s, and I saw the fall of the Religious Right. In the end, they lost Middle America, and I think a lot of brave, smart, tactical LGBTQ activism was a big part of the reason why.
But the other reason they lost was because of the way the evangelicals acted. They were, well, evangelical: arrogant, judgmental, intolerant of other opinions, dogmatic, hypocritical, and inconsistent in applying their stated values, and convinced they possessed the one and only Great Truth and that anyone who disagreed with them had to be severely punished.
In short, they acted like jerks, and it eventually caught up with them.
I’m a progressive, so I’m far more in tune with the goals of woke-ism than I was of the Religious Right. But the more woke-ism feels and acts like the Religious Right, the more I think people will turn away in the end.
What does all this mean for the rest of the world?
There was recently an election here in Prague, Czechia, where we’re currently living, and one of the issues being debated was same-sex marriage, which is currently illegal (though there is domestic partnership).
The argument that the opposition used? That legalizing same-sex marriage will lead to people having to say, “pregnant people” rather than “pregnant women,” like it did in America.
You can say this is cheap and alarmist, playing on people’s fears and bigotries. But you can’t say it’s wrong exactly.
Anyway, this counter-argument worked. Liberals didn’t do as well as expected in the election, and same-sex marriage is now off the table for the foreseeable future.
I know the woke response to all this because I’ve read all the talking points fifteen zillion times: Conservatives are going to attack us no matter what we say, so we might as well do and say what’s right.
To which I respond: This is true, but a political attack is always going to be more effective when it’s based on truth. Again, the conservative opposition here in Czechia simply told the truth.
And in an era of rising nationalism around the world, when even America truly seems to be a single election away from losing its democracy and collapsing into outright fascism, is this really the best time to pick a series of very pointed, extremely high profile fights over a series of unpopular, mostly symbolic issues? To take a maximalist stand on virtually every social justice issue — and then fight with your friends over who can find an even more extreme stand?
But at some point in the last couple of years, American progressives have decided that you’re not allowed to question the real-world consequences of their rhetoric or their strategies, because…well, I’m not exactly sure why.
Again, I know the talking points: Progressives need to stand up for marginalized people who I obviously want to throw under the bus. And Democrats think about “strategy” a lot, but they still haven’t solved all the world’s problems, so there.
What I find frustrating is that the rhetoric and tactics that so many activists now employ — and the debates they’re choosing to highlight — are affecting more than just America. The whole world really is listening — and, trust me, some of these countries are far less progressive than Texas or even Alabama.
This isn’t to say that America should only limit its debates only to issues that even more conservative parts of the world can accept. The fact is, a lot of the world’s social progress has occurred specifically because brave Americans of the past choose to tackle issues that were extremely unpopular at the time.
And in a way, it makes sense that many other countries are bemused or alarmed by woke-ism — especially more traditional Muslim and Asian ones. I’d like to see some real changes in these countries, especially for women and sexual minorities
But I still wish more woke-tavists would at least try to see the bigger picture — and pick their battles and their strategies much more wisely.
At the very minimum, pick a strategy. Because the point is still to change people’s hearts and minds, right? To win the battle of ideas and not just boldly assert some kind of cultural dominance?
Because that didn’t work out well for the Religious Right, and I don’t think it will work for progressives either — not even if they’ve gotten NPR, Disney, and all the big corporations on our side. In fact, if you’re already fighting a reputation of being an “elite,” that last part may hurt more than it helps.
I know this charge of “elitism” drives progressives crazy — understandably, because even if we have a lot of cultural power right now, we have far less political power than our numbers warrant. And thanks to a series of quirks in our geography and our constitution, the prognosticators say things are almost certainly going to get much worse in this respect, not better.
But right now it’s that rising cultural power that’s driving the movement. And it may be why progressives are acting more and more like the evangelicals of old. Compromise? Never! Why would we when we have morality on our side? Cue the language-policing, and calling out, and canceling, because anyone who disagrees with us is obviously a victim of some -ism or -phobia. Either that or a timid, morally compromised sell-out.
Yes, yes, I know woke-tavists say cancel culture isn’t real — that conservatives have the real cancel culture. There’s truth to this, but it’s also become just another deflective talking point. Clearly, something is going on among the left-leaning.
So may I humbly suggest we look at all this from an international point of view?
Americans already have a reputation for being arrogant — and also completely indifferent to the rest of the world.
And frankly, that reputation is well-deserved.
So imagine how all of this uncompromising “pregnant person” activism looks to the rest of the planet. Could this be just a slightly more diverse group of American elites yet again dictating their values and priorities to everyone else? I’m not sure it helps that they claim to be doing it in the name of the marginalized and oppressed.
I’m not even convinced that the marginalized and oppressed in America agree with what they’re doing. In poll after poll, on most issues, it seems like these activists are speaking for young, privileged, mostly white, college-educated Americans. Meanwhile, non-white voters are trending away from progressivism.
When you look at the big picture of the whole world, which is far less white than America and much more poor, woke-ism looks even more like an “educated rich white liberal” phenomenon.
At some point, you leave intersectionalism behind, miss the turn into magical thinking, and go sailing straight off into Fantasyland.
Me? I’m hoping we pull back from the ledge before it’s too late — and the next presidential election, whoever the Republicans nominate, is definitely “too late.” Because while America is caught between two warring factions, the conservative faction, which now openly embraces authoritarian and anti-democratic values, scares the fucking shit out of me.
Maybe you’re entirely on board with woke-ism — you think the whole thing is long overdue and if that are any excesses at all, they’re being wildly overstated by cynical Republicans.
That’s your right. But my sense is most people disagree with you, both inside and outside of America. And if we’re right and you’re wrong, it’s not just America’s marginalized communities who are going to pay a huge price.
If I am right, what’s the solution?
Unlike a lot of people, I actually think it would technically be fairly easy to unite Americans of all races and orientations against the Republicans — that, in a way, the country is calling out for exactly this unity.
But big changes need to happen first. Put me in the camp that says progressives need to start wielding our cultural power more shrewdly, more strategically, and, yes, more kindly — not because we’re timid sell-outs, but because this strategy is much more likely to work.
Incidentally, this doesn’t mean not talking about “pregnant people.” It just means talking about the issue in an entirely different way. If you tell people you’re a huge, disruptive threat to stability, and you’re going to destroy their values, well, guess what? People will believe you, and they’ll fight like hell to defeat you.
But if you tell people you’re not really a threat, as LGBTQ smartly activists did with same-sex marriage, a lot people will believe that too. The way you say and frame things really do make a difference.
So let’s emphasize our popular ideas and common values. And act like a group of people outsiders would want to join.
In short, don’t act like jerks.
I know social media makes this difficult because the algorithms are designed to reinforce and reward all the wrong things. Outrage literally sells. Plus, there’s a nasty generational divide that’s frustrating everyone and complicating everything.
But I still think it’s possible. When in doubt, remember the Religious Right from the 1990s and do the opposite of those dreary, humorless scolds.
Look at me, trying to police other people’s tone! Maybe I’m the real hypocrite.
Anyway, the rest of the world really is listening to America — hanging on to our every word. If our message wasn’t so self-righteous and chaotic, who knows? Maybe we could even unite them too.