Has the cultural left taken on a censor’s role previously held by the religious right? It’s a running theme in contemporary American cultural discussions: From removing “problematic” books from circulation, to shaming public (and not-so-public) figures over minor past missteps, something along those lines is certainly going on; what’s up for debate is whether it ought to be a major concern, or has altogether replaced its right-wing equivalent. Some observers point out the rigidity of progressive norms and the ritualistic requirements of adhering to them (social-media apologies, privilege confessions, etc.) and liken today’s social justice advocacy to a religion. The comparison itself may add up, but what to take from that isn’t a straightforward question.

The novelist Leigh Stein offers a way out of an unresolvable loop in debates over whether “wokeness” is in fact a new religion. Stein, the author most recently of Self Care, a novel satirizing wellness influencers, a forthcoming pandemic poetry collection, What to Miss When, and a recent New York Times op-ed, “The Empty Religions of Instagram,” examines contemporary culture and politics in a way that overlaps with critiques of “wokeness” but has a frame of its own. Stein is concerned both about hypersensitive politics in the absence of a culture of forgiveness and about a wider blurring of boundaries between preacher and influencer, activism and marketing. Of the secular, liberal Millennials, she wrote, “Our new belief system is a blend of left-wing political orthodoxy, intersectional feminism, self-optimization, therapy, wellness, astrology and Dolly Parton.”

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: The religious-like fervor surrounding contemporary American political engagement can be quite overt. A segment of the Reply All “Test Kitchen” podcast—from that moment before Reply All itself imploded—was called, “Original Sin,” the “sin” in question being a food editor’s alleged casual racism. In an argument you recently made in the New York Times, what you describe as filling a religion-like role isn’t just politics, or even so-called “wokeness,” but something a bit more specific, and hybrid. What is it?

Leigh Stein: I can start to answer that by talking about how I came to see politics as religion myself—which was from my feminist organizing experience, running a Facebook community and organizing conferences for feminist writers, and burning out on that, and then maybe a year later joking that I had escaped a cult. It started as a joke, but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s true, because there was definitely an orthodoxy you had to subscribe to, and a groupthink that was so pervasive that I really had a fear of speaking out for myself or questioning the orthodoxy. And this is something I really connect to in [the linguistics professor and cultural critic] John McWhorter’s writing about antiracism as a new religion. It’s the fact that you can’t question the dominant orthodoxy. And I see this among my peers, who are largely secular, left wing, Millennials.

And this summer there was this collision between wellness, self-help, and activism on Instagram. So suddenly, all the women you were following for tips on how to take care of yourself became the same women telling you how to be a good antiracist, that it was a little confusing that someone could offer all that at once.

When I think about someone like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was both a reverend and an activist, and the kind of moral leadership he showed the nation, and that we’re getting ecstatic in a very emotional, spiritual way about women like Glennon Doyle, I have a lot of questions about the role she’s doing in her fans’ lives and whether we’re expecting too much, if we’ve lost something when we turned away from religion.

There are of course, valid reasons for people to turn away from religion. Our new leaders and moral authorities can’t offer us true moral guidance when they built this whole industry around themselves as gurus, like it’s all about the ego. Are we naive about who we’ve made into our moral authorities?

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Bovy: It seems that along with politics as a religion, there’s also a blurring of categories. Influencers on Instagram, who one goes to for fairly fluffy things, were suddenly called on to become activists, whether or not they were suited to that role. Influencers whose personal brands were very much about thin, rich, white women—where a lot of what was supposed to be aspirational about them had to do with those traits—rebranded themselves over the summer as antiracist influencers. What is this?

Stein: It’s politics and lifestyle brands intersecting in a curious way. And it’s almost like there’s no choice: You had better get woke, you had better read [Robin DiAngelo’s] White Fragility, because now your fans are holding you accountable.

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