Forty years ago, the iconic British comedy group Monty Python released their third feature film, Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The movie follows a young Jewish man who happens to be born on the same day as, and next door to, Jesus Christ and is subsequently mistaken for the Messiah. Now a classic, the film initially proved highly controversial due to its perceived blasphemy.
The film also pokes fun at political correctness, satirizing attitudes that would today be described as woke. It features skits about the left eating itself, a perennial trope. In light of the current state of political discourse, this particular combination of religious and political themes seems almost prophetic.
It’s telling that the Pythons satirize religion and what we today call wokeness in the same film. There is, after all, a religious component to woke culture. There are dogmas, myths, taboos and a tendency to moralize. And dissenters are denounced, or called out, with a fervor reminiscent of the persecution of witches and heretics in centuries past.
Woke thinking is often characterized by a belief in something akin to original sin (white guilt). It promises a path to virtue and redemption and has all the characteristics of a cult. This cult revolves around the sacred values of diversity, inclusion and equity, particularly in relation to race, gender and sexuality (identity politics).
Defined in opposition to white patriarchy (good vs. evil), these totemic values are safeguarded by a high priesthood in academia and the media. There is also an underlying belief that everything is political, which may explain the desire to implement political correctness in every area of life. This dissolves the distinction between the political and the personal, the public and the private. In other words, wokeness is not secular, because, like other totalitarian ideologies, it seeks to establish an all-pervading orthodoxy. Woke people seem to be especially concerned about politically incorrect language.
The idea that language shapes our perception of reality, which has some merit, has morphed into a pervasive superstition—that some words are so powerful and offensive as to be dangerous, regardless of context or intention. For example, it has become completely unacceptable for a white person to use the so-called N-word, even in a metalinguistic context.
Netflix executive Jonathan Friedland’s ouster after using the word in a staff meeting about offensive words is a case in point. Even the word niggardly, which is etymologically unrelated to the N-word, has got people into hot water.