The Sadness of the Woke

COMMENTARY: A study out of Finland confirms what we knew all along about wokeism. Here is a way forward...

Unfortunately, the totalizing nature of ideology means that it becomes the top — and often sole — priority of the institutions it infects.
Unfortunately, the totalizing nature of ideology means that it becomes the top — and often sole — priority of the institutions it infects. (photo: EV McLaughlin / Shutterstock)

A recent study by Finnish researchers confirms what perhaps seems a bit obvious: The woke movement is making people miserable. More disturbingly, the embrace of woke ideology correlates not only with unhappiness, but also with higher levels of mental instability, such as anxiety and depression. While this study is rife for political snark, it should instead be met with concern. As I have argued elsewhere, woke ideology is fueled by breaking people, and this is more evidence of its effectiveness to that end.

Abigail Shrier’s insightful new book, Bad Therapy, underscores one area of the breakdown: the broad expansion of therapeutic approaches on adolescents coupled with the contraction of parental authority. As I see it, this trend manifests in two concerning ways. Firstly, therapy is increasingly imposed unnecessarily in school settings, with a blanket presumption of mental fragility that may or may not exist. This approach risks inducing in students the very instability it claims to seek to cure. Secondly, when therapy is genuinely warranted outside of school settings, it is often so captured by woke ideology that it can exacerbate, rather than resolve, the underlying issues.

Pushing Therapeutic Methods in School

In the first case, the infiltration of therapeutic methods into schools is often done under the guise of Social Emotional Learning (SEL). While controversies over drag queens and pornography being pushed on students rightfully draw attention, the subtler impact of SEL in malforming students cannot be overlooked.

In sifting through numerous SEL videos and worksheets, it is immediately noticeable just how much focus students are prompted to give to their feelings and emotions: identifying them, exploring them, expressing them and analyzing them. In one SEL activity, students are prompted to keep a “Problem Diary” to log their “Trigger Situations.” Examples given of possible triggers range from times they felt left out or treated unfairly. Moreover, students are invited to consider a time when someone important to them, such as a parent, was not present to them when that person ought to have been.

Such prompts might seem defensible enough for someone experiencing a specific trauma. But consider how the habit of identifying areas of personal grievance shapes the patterns of thought in our minds. The phenomenon of selection bias shows how we tend to notice more often that which we are predisposed to focus upon. Women who are trying to get pregnant often notice what appears to be a striking increase in the prevalence of pregnant women in daily life. Similarly, someone considering buying a yellow car will likely begin noticing yellow cars on the road more often.

Children are no different. A school program that trains them to identify instances of emotional injury effectively trains them to scan for opportunities to claim emotional injury. The invitation to place such a daily focus on the ways in which people have hurt you or parents have failed you just might be contributing to the rising rates of depression among teens and adolescents.

In contrast to the “Problem Diary” prompts, think of a normal family dinner table conversation. Parents might ask their children what they learned at school that day or whether they were helpful in class or with their siblings, or perhaps inquire about what goals that might be set for tomorrow. They generally do not — for very good reason — grill their kids each night with questions of who was mean to them that day or who might have hurt their feelings that day. To do so is a bit like a perverse examination of conscience wherein children are habitually asked to examine everyone else’s conscience and never their own.

This is arresting students’ development. All people start life rightly consumed by their needs and desires. Babies are utterly helpless, and so this is fitting. The role of parents, teachers and role models is to coax kids outside of themselves at each stage of development in age-appropriate ways, to encourage them to set aside their absorption with their wants, needs, hurts and hungers and begin to examine their duties and mission, their indebtedness and their gratitude.

SEL assumes mental and emotional instability and, in so doing, encourages it. Teachers who engage in such programs aren’t responding to a demand for mental help; they’re creating the demand and blocking the road to resilience. This shift within education toward fostering a preoccupation in children with their wounds and wants serves well the ends of revolution, which is fueled by societal anger and instability. It does not lead to a happy, stable future populace.

Woke Therapy

In the second case, how does the system fare for kids who are legitimately in a mental crisis? It can vary depending on who is providing the assistance. Christopher (not his real name, to protect his privacy), the son of family friends, attempted to take his life last year at the age of 14. His story is as harrowing as it is increasingly common.

Christopher’s first placement was at a private residential treatment center for boys. For two weeks he lived with boys his age and with them formed a bond like none other. They shared their struggles and were prompted to reframe them in helpful and healing ways. After a couple of weeks, due to insurance complications, he was moved to a public treatment facility.

The contrast between the two facilities was stark. At the public facility, boys and girls were grouped together, and all the therapists but one were female. One of the therapists assigned to him had blue hair and all the “correct” woke flag stickers adorning her laptop and office.

The adolescents were “helped” with identity-exploring activities such as “Mydentity,” encouraging them to consider alternative identities they might uncover within themselves. As Shrier writes, “Participating in group therapy to discuss a problem you don’t already have? That may be sufficient to introduce it.”

Another counselor organized a “Privilege Walk.” In this exercise, participants are instructed to stand in an even line and then to take a step forward or backward in response to various questions seeking to tease out the points of privilege or oppression in their lives. Afterward, they are given debriefing prompts directing them to consider how they see themselves anew in relationship to others and how this bears on their commitments to social-justice matters.

While such an activity is now quite common, its origin is less widely known. One of the pioneers of the Privilege Walk (also known as a “Power Shuffle) was Erica Sherover-Marcuse, who was mentored by and later married the renowned neo-Marxist social revolutionary Herbert Marcuse. Sherover-Marcuse wrote extensively on Karl Marx’s conception of emancipatory consciousness and debuted the Privilege Walk in the California’s Bay Area during the 1980s. Her intention was to help people unlearn oppression through the adoption of collectivized identities and a reductive understanding of what it means to be human.

But back to Christopher. One might assume that a minor, at perhaps the lowest point in his life, could rely on adult professionals to prioritize his well-being and recovery. It's understandable if you wonder how the politics of identity could possibly factor into aiding a 14-year-old grappling with suicidal thoughts. You might presume that Christopher and his parents could trust that the adult professionals tasked with helping him might have had his health and healing as a top priority.

Unfortunately, the totalizing nature of ideology means that it becomes the top — and often sole — priority of the institutions it infects. Even at the age of 14, Christopher understood that his get-out-of-jail-free card could be to play along, denounce his privilege and explore a transgressive identity.

My friends and their son had a happy conclusion: They were deeply invested in his treatment, and he was communicative with them and allergic to the manipulations at play. As soon as they were able to remove him, Christopher left the program, and he is faring quite well now. But what about the kids without such networks and support? They are trapped in a system that purports to empower them, but instead infantilizes them with inducements to gender delusions and the moral arrest that comes from a grievance mindset.

Signs of Life

Numerous other factors contribute to the link between woke ideology and unhappiness, including technology addiction, family breakdown, and the loss of a sense of transcendence and mission that accompanies the pervasive materialism of today. However, the ideological capture of education and therapeutic institutions is one that is deforming a generation.

Many people of goodwill are hard-pressed to grasp what is happening and might dismiss as paranoid what is now simply prudent. But many more see what needs to be done and are seeking or building alternatives where “experts” are not at odds with basic parental goals of health and true happiness. Ideological institutions see their role as a conveyor belt for woke activism and parents as obstacles to get around. To wrest the reins back from their authoritarianism is now the job of parents of all stripes and the emerging institutions that see those parents as partners, not impediments, to a stable, strong and happier future.

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to supporters during a campaign rally at West Allis Central High School on July 23 in West Allis, Wisconsin.

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