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Beware the Popular Idea That You Know a Hidden Truth

Shockingly, for thousands of years, people have used this same metaphor.

Key points

  • Across the political spectrum, people talk about being awake to the truth while others sleep. This metaphor has ancient roots in religions.
  • While evocative and appealing, the metaphor may also increase affective polarization and reduce a willingness to listen or collaborate.
  • Listening to those who think differently from you means rejecting the assumption that you’re the only one who knows the truth.

“Are you awake, or are you sleepwalking? Have you faced up to what’s going on around the world?” So begins a recent message from the climate change activist group Extinction Rebellion.

Roots of "Woke"

The term “woke” has been around for at least a century. It gained mainstream prominence in recent years, being used (originally positively, then as an insult) to refer to feeling “alert to injustice in society, especially racism” according to the Oxford dictionary.

Much further to the fringes, essentially the same metaphor can be found on the opposite end of the political spectrum. For example, the men’s rights movement first coined the term “red pilling.” It references the iconic scene in The Matrix where Neo chooses to wake up to the truth that he’s living in slavery with his mind controlled by machines. (Men’s rights activists allege that feminism has created an analogous situation.) Various far-right movements have since adopted this red pill metaphor, claiming to help people wake up to uncomfortable truths about their victimhood and oppression.

It’s striking to see an ever more complicated number of groups, who appear so strongly opposed to each other ideologically, applying the same metaphor.

What’s more interesting still is how this exact metaphor is also found in…religions.

The word Buddha comes from the Pali budh, which means to wake up. So, one translation for the Buddha is “the one who’s awake.” In modern parlance, he might have been called woke or the one who took the red pill. In his case, being awake didn’t mean overcoming ignorance about a hidden political agenda, but a more fundamental ignorance about the nature of reality itself. Mystics in many other spiritual traditions similarly make use of the metaphor of waking up to a higher truth.

Multiple journalists and academics have noted how language and actions among both right- and left-wing activists—even staunch atheist ones—often closely mirror ideas and patterns in religions. The metaphor of having woken up to the truth may be another case in point.

 Ron Lach/Pexels
Source: Ron Lach/Pexels

It seems that feeling as if we’re awake to reality while others around us sleep has appealed to people with very different worldviews and in different places, for thousands of years.

Perhaps this makes sense.

All humans have the experience of going to sleep and of waking up. We generally don’t realize we’re asleep while we are, and waking up is a dramatically different state, one in which everything suddenly feels much clearer.

Consequences of the Metaphor

The metaphor is thus evocative of a common human experience. And it’s appealing (who wants to think of themselves as a sleepwalking zombie?). But metaphors are impactful in conflicts and there are some downsides to this one, at least if it’s taken too seriously.

It presents the world as a simple binary: Either you’re awake or you’re asleep. Either you see things as my side tells you to, or your views can be written off as mere dreams with no bearing on reality. (The anthropologist Charles Laughlin estimates that more than 90 percent of the world’s cultures value experiences people have while dreaming, but those using the metaphor don’t use it to elevate the value of being asleep!)

Feeling like you’re in an elite minority that has woken up to a secret creates a vast, perhaps insurmountable rift between your perspective and mainstream society’s. This could readily contribute to affective polarization—feeling negatively toward those who don’t see things as you do, even dehumanizing them.

The metaphor positions group members as prophets who know it all already and therefore don’t have anything to gain from listening to, or collaborating with, outsiders. There isn’t much that a sleeping person can offer an awake one. This hyper-confidence about knowing the hidden truth could reduce curiosity and intellectual humility when hearing alternate perspectives and experiences. And evidence shows that both of these are hugely beneficial in making conflicts more constructive.

So, if you want to have the best chance of understanding our complex, messy world, you’d do well to listen more, not less, to thoughtful and credible people who think differently from you. Listening to them doesn’t mean agreeing with them; it just means rejecting the too-easy assumption that you’re the only one who knows the truth.

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