I am writing this because I have no other country, and I need this one to get itself together.
In a moment when America faces great big questions about who we are and what we wish to become, we are turning into a society so perpetually offended by one another that we are less and less capable of actually arguing about our future. And citizens who cannot argue are begging to be ruled.
Everyone is offended all the time, on both sides of the political divide. Taking offense is, in fact, one of the few things that brings us together. A Hollywood award show, a thermoplastic restroom sign, a visiting lecturer in a cardigan, a question about where one is from, a claim that black or blue or white or all lives matter — anything is fodder for the great American war of offense.
Yet as spring, with its promise of new possibilities, rolls in, I want to propose an armistice. What if we allowed ourselves to go deeper than merely being offended? What if we remembered how to engage with and argue with each other over these big questions about the country we love?
It won’t be easy, for the left and right have come to be so easily offended by each other that Russian bots can come between blood relatives and high school friends. Outrage has become rewarding. It gives you an identity, a crew. You are what offends you. Are you more offended by racism, sexism and other -isms, or by people offended by those things? By the persistence of white privilege, or by the term “white privilege”? By all the men who degraded women, or by the implication in the air that it was “all” the men? By the original sin of American slavery, or by the idea that your country has an original sin ― one for which you are somehow responsible?
Answer these questions one way, and you belong to Woke America, which regards itself as the vanguard of a new country a’coming, where inclusion will reign and the most marginalized will be championed. Answer another way, and you are part of Great America, where one celebrates the nation first and addresses warts later, where one tells it like it is, where it is said that all lives matter and one doesn’t think in terms of race or groups, perhaps because one’s race and group are secure.
Woke America and Great America have lost the habit of genuinely arguing with each other. It takes a certain curiosity about, and hope for, other people to argue with them, and we seem to have fallen out of both those things. And yet I hold out hope that we might arrive at a better place if Woke America and Great America were each to try on the following thought: that the other camp’s offense-taking is an unintended gift.
A friend once gave me useful advice about editors. Editors, she said, are often wrong about what the problem with your piece is, and even more wrong about how to fix it. But they are invariably right that there is a problem. A writer should hear them, look beyond the specifics, and trust that they are pointing toward something worth knowing. The armistice flows from this idea.
Here is what it asks of Great America. Listen not to what Woke America says, but to what it is telling you. It is telling you, above all, that certain things are harder to see because of who you are. This message is a gift. The Harvard economist Dani Rodrik asks a question that I love: “If you have an understanding of the world that’s currently faulty, how are you going to find that out?” It becomes harder to find that out when you live on the powerful end of a power equation.
And so when people in Woke America shut down lectures that to you seem harmless, when they fuss over terminology that to you seems interchangeable, when they are hypersensitive about a question about origins, look beneath the specifics. Though you may feel they are overreacting, they may be telling you something of use: that they walk the earth feeling unwelcome and ignored, that every room they enter feels like a fortress they must penetrate. They are giving you a chance to correct, in some small way, your understanding of the world. They are inviting you to expand it to accommodate more of reality.
When in the fury of the Me Too movement, some women confess that they don’t care about the guiltless getting due process, read this not as a policy prescription but as an expression of a truth you can use. Perhaps they are telling you that, for them, this moment is a revolution, an emancipation so overdue that they do not, right at this moment, want to do anything that carries the risk of interrupting it. This may tell you something about what they have been living with.
When those in Woke America seem to endlessly criticize the country or disregard values like free speech, understand what they are telling you: that the country’s values have been unevenly distributed, that they haven’t given everyone the protection they have given you, and that you should invest in making them work for more people if you want more people to cherish them. If you think America is great, remember that every person telling you otherwise may carry a clue to making it greater.
Learn from Max Boot, a conservative thinker who has written of how he used to “scoff at the notion of ‘white male privilege.’” It didn’t fit his worldview. Over time, though, as he learned about women’s experiences in the workplace and African-Americans’ experiences with the police, he realized his visions needed revision. He still calls himself a “classical liberal,” who is “disturbed by attempts to infringe on freedom of speech in the name of fighting racism, sexism, or other ills.” But, Boot adds, “I no longer think, as I once did, that ‘political correctness’ is a bigger threat than the underlying racism and sexism that continue to disfigure our society.”
The truce I propose also makes demands of Woke America, of course. Its partisans celebrate a country passing into new hands, looking at its past more frankly, making space for — and amends to — all who have been demeaned, talked over and plundered. And what they so often experience from Great America is anger and resentment at all they are calling forth — emotions that express themselves in forms ranging from unpleasant social encounters to chauvinistic policies to bullets.
These sentiments and deeds make it vital for many in Woke America to defend themselves first and foremost, to resist what threatens their basic humanity. Yet doing so can sometimes distract Woke America from what is also essential to its security: winning over every American who remains ambivalent between the politics of exclusion and inclusion. If it is in resistance that the woke find immediate safety, it is in persuasion that they will find more durable peace. We are reminded daily that in a democracy, even one with rights on parchment, you have to sell the country you want to live in to other people for your freedom to be secure.
Thus Woke America, too, might heed the advice about editors. Even as you resist the other side, ask what they might be telling you that is of use to keeping safe and achieving a better country.
“Anger,” says the radio host Krista Tippett, “is often what pain looks like when it shows itself in public.”
For its own sake and the country’s, Woke America might remind itself that there is woundedness and fear beneath the rage it meets. This is what many in Great America are telling you. They feel safe in the country that they have, or had. Perhaps they feel mocked by the country that is coming. Many are losing what they never deserved to possess — which is right and proper as a matter of fairness, but makes it no less hard. Many have been led to perceive threats that aren’t real, but psychologists will tell you that the perception of a fictional threat can become a hormonal fact. As Toni Morrison has her character Pilate ask in Song of Solomon, “What difference do it make if the thing you scared of is real or not?”
To be sure, there is a segment of Great America that is simply hateful and not worth your civic energy. But there are multitudes within it who hover on the fence between pluralism and chauvinism, neither woke nor hateful. Is there a place among the woke for the still-waking?
Persuading the waking will require the woke to treat wokeness like a gospel. Convert the fearful. Tell them they will be safe, show them who they will be, after the country they love has passed and the next kingdom has come.
Those in Woke America who feel secure enough might use moments of misunderstanding or worse to teach the waking. When people offend you with a question about your roots or a suggestion that you must think like X as a Y, stand up for yourself. But do so in a way that makes them better, trains them in a way of thinking no one may have bothered to teach them. The burden of citizenship is accepting that what is neither your fault nor your responsibility may be your problem.
For many in Woke America, the hand-to-hand combat of reconciliation may feel like too much to ask. Still, they can shape the larger movements that defend the new America in their name. They can urge the leadership of these movements to make wokeness an expansionary cause, not only circling the wagons but also expanding the circle. They can help ensure that wokeness never lapses into being prickly, small-hearted, and cynical, but is joyful, exuberant, and ardently patriotic.
To succeed, they must work to frame wokeness as a conversation starter, not a conversation stopper. There is a fine line between saying “this is why you’ll never understand me” and “here is what you’d see if you were me.” The intellectual underpinning is the same; the mission differs.
“The sooner we stop treating woke like a weapon and see it as an invitation, the sooner we can get to freedom,” Brittany Packnett, a St. Louis-based activist and Black Lives Matter leader, has written.
Americans today are bobbing in a roiling ocean of change. Donald Trump is merely a barnacle on a shell in an estuary off that ocean. A big, messy, powerful country, with high ideals and a history of trying and failing and trying again to realize them, is being remade. The idea of an American is being rewritten. People seldom listened to are taking center stage.
It’s a lot. We all need a little grace. Those who await the country that is coming might recall how hard it is to surrender what you have long possessed, even if it wasn’t rightly yours. Seeing those marooned from an older America, the woke might throw them a raft and pull those willing to be saved into the next country. And those who fear and resent this new America in the making might consider how it has felt all these years not to be part of the dream, wholly or at all, and might conclude that they have a stake in making the country what they have always imagined it to be.
It will take grace — and work. Our war of all against all isn’t going to end unless we all try something different. If we don’t, the casualties will mount, the greatest of which may be our country itself.
Anand Giridharadas is a journalist and the author of three books, including the forthcoming Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.