A robot writing.An iron rule of technology is that any technology that can be used for pornography will be used for pornography. A more recent one is that any technology that can be used for grifting will be used for grifting. One grift involves  using AI to generate science-fiction stories  to sell to publishers.

Amazon, with its Kindle books, has seen a spike in AI generated works, although some people identify the works as such. Before these text generators, people would steal content from web pages and try to resell it as books. While that sort of theft is easy to detect with automated means, AI generated text cannot currently be readily identified automatically. So, if a publisher wants to weed out AI generated text, they will need humans to do the work. Fortunately for publishers and writers, AI is currently bad at writing science fiction.

Unfortunately, some publishers are being flooded with AI generated submissions and they cannot review all these texts. In terms of the motivation, it seems to mostly be money—the AI wranglers hope to sell these stories.

One magazine, Clarkesworld, saw a massive spike in spam submissions, getting 500 in February (contrasted with a previous high of 25 in a month). In response, they closed submissions because of a lack of resources to address this problem. As such, this use of AI has already harmed publishers and writers. As would be expected, some have blamed AI but this is unfair.

From the standpoint of ethics, the current AI text generators lack the moral agency needed to be morally accountable for the text they generate. They are no more to blame for the text than the computers used to generate spam are to blame for the spammers using them. The text generators are a tool being misused by people hoping to make easy money and who are not overly concerned with the harmful consequences of their actions. To be fair, some people are probably curious about whether an AI generated story would be accepted, but these are presumably not the people flooding publishers.

While these AI wranglers are morally accountable for the harm they are causing, it must also be pointed out that they are operating within an economic system that encourages and rewards a wide range of unethical behavior. While deluging publishers with AI spam is obviously not on par with selling dangerous products, engaging in wage theft, or running NFT and crypto grifts, it is still the result of the same economic system that enables, rewards and often zealously protects such behavior. In sum, the problem with current AI is the people who use it and the economic system in which it is used. AI has is just another tool for spamming, grifting, and stealing within a system optimized for all this.

As noted above, AI generated fiction is currently bad. But it can probably be improved enough to be enjoyable, if low quality, fiction. Some publishers would see this as an ideal way to rapidly generate content at a low cost, thus allowing them more profit. This would, obviously, lead to the usual problem of human workers being replaced by technology. But this could also be good for some readers.

Imagine that AI becomes good enough to generate enjoyable stories. A reader could go to an AI text generator, type in the prompt for the sort of story they want, and then get a new story to read. Assuming the AI usage is free or inexpensive, this would be a great deal for the reader. It would, however, be a problem for writers who are not celebrity writers. Presumably, fans would still want to buy works by their favorite authors, but the market for lesser-known writers would likely become much worse.

If I just want to read a new space opera with epic starship battles, I could use an AI to make that story for me, thus saving me time and money. And if the story is as good as what a competent human would produce, then it would be good enough for me. But, if I want to read a new work by Mary Robinette Kowal, I would need to buy it (or pirate it or go to a library). But, as I have argued in an earlier essay, this use of AI is only a problem because of our economic system: if a writer could write for the love of writing, then AI text generation would largely be irrelevant. And, if people were not making money by grifting text with AI, then they would probably not be making AI fiction except to read themselves or share with others. But since we do toil in the economic system we have; the practical problem will be sorting out the impact of text generation. While I would like to be able to generate new stories on demand, my hope is that AI will remain bad at fiction and be unable to put writers out of work. But my concern is that it will be good enough to generate rough drafts that poorly-paid human will be tasked with editing and rewriting.

A fake Banksy Thanks to AI image generators such as  Midjourney and Dall E of Open AI it is easy to rapidly create images almost as fast as you can type in a prompt.  This has led some to speculate that this will put artists out of work and perhaps even be the doom of creativity.

In addition to being a philosophy professor, I also create stuff for tabletop role playing games like D&D and Call of Cthulhu. In addition to writing, I also create maps and images. As such, I do have a stake in the AI game and disclose this as a potential biasing factor.

Looking back into the shallow depths of human history, professions are changed or even eliminated by economic and technological shifts. Fads in fashion or food can result in significant economic changes, such as the case of the beaver pelts once used in men’s hats. Once a lucrative market and source of income, the fashion trend ended, the trappers had to find other options. In other cases, the change technological. For example, New England was known for its whaling industry and whale oil was used extensively for lighting. When alternatives, such as kerosene, became available, this whaling industry ended. Kerosene was itself mostly replaced by electricity, also resulting in changes in employment. And, of course, there is the specific technological change of automation, when machines reduce or eliminate the need for human workers.

For most of human history, machines tended to impact  physical jobs—although there is the example that electronic computers eliminated the need for human computers. Back in the 1980s when I first debated about AI as an undergraduate, most people thought that AI would not be able to engage in creative activity. This was often based on the view that machines would never be able to feel (which was assumed to be critical for creativity) or that there is some special human trait of creativity a machine could never replicate. As a practical matter, this seemed to hold true until AI started producing images and text good enough to pass as created by competent humans. This has led to the practical worry that AI will put creatives out of work. After all, if a business can get text and images created by AI for a fraction of what it would cost to pay a human, a sensible business will turn to AI to maximize profit.

This shows that the true problem is not AI but our economic system. A sci-fi dream has been that automation should be used to free us so we can spend more time doing what we want to do, rather than needing to grind just to survive. But AI used in this manner would free people from employment opportunities.

While a creative might like creating to earn the money they need to afford food and shelter, they are creating primarily for economic reasons and usually not doing what they really enjoy. I distinguish between people who make some income from their creative hobby (as I do) and people who must create to earn their living. While someone who depends on creating to live might enjoy their work, AI is only a problem if they need to create to pay the bills. After all, if they were creating out of the love of creativity, to express themselves, or out of pure enjoyment, then AI would be irrelevant. They would still get that even if AI took all the creative jobs. Since I do not depend on my game creations for my living, I will keep creating even if AI completely dominates the field. But if AI replaces me as a professor, I will keep doing philosophy but I will need to find new employment since I have grown accustomed to living in a house and having food to eat.

As such, the problem with AI putting people out of work is not an AI problem but a problem with our economic system. Part of this is that creative works are often mere economic products. It just so happens that the new automation threatens writers and artists rather than factory workers. But this threat is not the same for all people.

I titled this essay “AI: I Want a Banksy vs I Want a Picture of a Dragon” because of the distinction between the two wants and its relevance to AI images (and text). Suppose I want a work by Banksy to add to my collection. In that case, no AI art will suffice since only Banksy can create a Banksy. An AI could create a forgery of a Banksy, just as skilled human forger could—but neither creation would be a Banksy. While such a forgery might fool someone into buying it, as soon as the forgery was exposed, the work would become valueless to me—after all, what I want is a Banksy.

When people want a work by a specific creator, the content is of far less importance than the causal chain—they want it because of who created it, not because of what it looks like, what it sounds like, or what the text might be. One example that nicely illustrates this is when Harry Potter series author J.K. Rowling wrote a book under a pseudonym. Before the true authorship was revealed, the book sold few copies. After the reveal, it became a top seller. The exposure of a forgery also shows this. A work can be greatly valued as, say, a painting by Picasso, until it is revealed as a worthless forgery. Nothing about the painting itself has changed, what has changed is the belief in who created it. In these cases, it is the creator and not the qualities of the work that matters. As such, creatives whose work is sought and bought because it was created by them have little to fear from AI, aside from the usual concerns about forgeries.  But what if I just want a picture of a dragon for my D&D adventure? Then AI does change the situation.

Before AI became good at creating images, if I wanted a picture of a dragon, I would need to get one from a human artist or create it myself. Now I can just go to Midjourney, type in a prompt and pick between the generated images. I can even direct the AI to create it in a specific style—making it like the work of a known artist. As such, while AI is not (yet) a threat to creators whose works are sought and bought because they created it, it is a threat to the “working class” of creators who sell their work to those who are seeking a specific work rather than a work by a specific person. AI is a real threat to them, but a real boon to those who want works for the lowest price and want them quickly. AI is also a threat to those who might have been the next Banksy. If artists cannot earn a living while they work towards the fame that makes their works desirable because they are their work, then there will be fewer such artists. Of course, the value of such works is also largely a result of features of our economic system—but that is a matter way beyond AI and art.

In closing, creators like Rowling and Banksy will be just fine for now, but the “working class” creators will be facing increasing challenges from AI. This obviously should not be blamed on AI, but on those who create and perpetuate a system that allows people to inflict such harm on others just because they become less economically useful to the business class. The heart of the problem is that creative works are a commodity and that some people insist that others must labor for their profit—and ensure that violence is always ready to maintain this order.

Being nerdtastic by nature, my nerd sense picks up disturbances in nerd culture. One of the loudest types of disturbances is when people express outrage at gender and race swapping involving established characters. For example, when word that there would be a non-white Spider-Man, social media erupted with rage about wokeness. But are such criticisms automatically bad?

On the face of it, there can be reasonable criticisms of such swaps. One common criticism is that the swap is motivated by a desire to pander to a specific audience and this pandering should be condemned. A problem with this criticism is that while pandering could result in a worse work of art, pandering does not entail that the work is therefore bad from an aesthetic standpoint. An obvious problem with this criticism when it focused only on swapping is that what is labeled derogatorily as pandering is likely to be an attempt to appeal to a target audience. Those who bash works for pandering via swapping generally do not bash works that have white male characters (and actors) selected to appeal to a target audience. As a specific example, it would seem odd for most critics to bash the Top Gun movies for pandering to an easily identified target audience. And I certainly would not attack Top Gun for doing this. After all, if you want people to watch your films or read your books, you do need to appeal to your audience. Naturally, if efforts to appeal are done badly and harm the work, then this would be a reasonable criticism but this has no necessary connection to wokeness.

Another common criticism is that such swapping is the result of laziness and that new characters should be created instead of swapping existing characters. There is usually also the criticism that the swap is made to cash in on an existing intellectual property and not due to a good aesthetic reason, such as meaningfully exploring the swap. This criticism does have some bite but is more a criticism of the way capitalist media companies operate rather than proof that wokeness is killing art. Companies certainly engage in this practice, since they can churn out more content dressed in an established IP without the effort and risk of creating new characters. But to be fair, this does make good business sense. At least until the audiences become exhausted with the companies milking their IP. Once again, there is no necessary connection to wokeness.

A third common criticism takes us into the matter of aesthetic identity of fictional characters. In metaphysics, the problem of personal identity is the challenge of determining what (if anything) makes an entity the same person across time, distinct from all other people and things. This is a difficult problem because you need to work out the metaphysics of personhood and identity. In the case of aesthetic identity, the problem is a bit less daunting. For in-world identity of characters, this is settled by author fiat. For example, if a person is a soul in a fictional world, whatever body has that soul is the same character. But this does not settle the matter of aesthetic identity in the real world, which is the problem of sorting out what makes a character the same character. I think the easy and obvious answer is that aesthetic identity is a social identity: being the same character is a matter of the audience accepting the character as the same. But, of course, people can make good faith rational arguments about why people should or should not accept a character as being the same. As an example, Batman has changed over the years and there have been heated fights over the various actors portraying the character in the movies. But Batman is generally accepted as still being Batman, despite these variations. In the case of Batman, a gender-swap could probably be criticized in a good faith manner. After all, Batgirl and Batwoman are already established characters. In the case of Black Panther, swapping in a white or Asian person could be criticized because of the centrality of Black Panther’s blackness in the character. That is, a white Black Panther would not be the same character. That said, someone could make a good story looking at a female Batperson to explore what would be different if Bruce Wayne had been Betty Wayne or what impact having a white person as the Black Panther might change. In any case, valid aesthetic criticisms of swapping would seem to have no meaningful connection to wokeness or lack of wokeness.

I was a bit reluctant to voice my agreement with these criticisms since they are often used as dog whistles for racism and sexism. But they are used in this manner because they do have merit in their proper context. This raises the question of how you can discern the difference between a good faith criticism of swapping on aesthetic grounds as well as criticisms of capitalism motivating companies to make lazy efforts to milk their intellectual property and bigoted attacks on works using the swapping criticism as a dog whistle. This can be challenging, but there are often cases where the critics lay out their explicit sexism and racism.

 

A good example of this is the Battlestar Galactica (BSG) reboot. These days, some have gone as far as to claim that BSG was the last non-woke sci-fi series and now the Kara Thrace (Starbuck) character is well-liked and rarely attacked by the anti-woke folks. But back in the day, BSG was attacked for being a “social justice” show and Dirk Benedict, who played Starbuck in the original series, attacked the decision to cast a woman in the role of Starbuck. While this reboot aired in 2003, Benedict’s criticism will sound quite familiar today:

 

The best minds in the world of un-imagination doubled their intake of Double Soy Latte’s as they gathered in their smoke-free offices to curse the day that this chauvinistic Viper Pilot was allowed to be. But never under-estimate the power of the un-imaginative mind when it encounters an obstacle (character) it subconsciously loathes. ”Re-inspiration” struck. Starbuck would go the way of most men in today’s society. Starbuck would become “Stardoe.” What the Suits of yesteryear had been incapable of doing to Starbuck 25 years ago was accomplished quicker than you can say orchiectomy. Much quicker, as in, “Frak! Gonads Gone!”

 

And the word went out to all the Suits in all the smoke-free offices throughout the land of Un-imagination, “Starbuck is dead. Long live Stardoe!”

 

I’m not sure if a cigar in the mouth of Stardoe resonates in the same way it did in the mouth of Starbuck. Perhaps. Perhaps it “resonates” more. Perhaps that’s the point. I’m not sure. What I am sure of is this…

 

Women are from Venus. Men are from Mars. Hamlet does not scan as Hamletta. Nor does Hans Solo as Hans Sally. Faceman is not the same as Facewoman. Nor does a Stardoe a Starbuck make. Men hand out cigars. Women “hand out” babies. And thus the world for thousands of years has gone’ round.

 

 

While I disagree with what Benedict wrote, I do “respect” that fact that he did not hide behind dog whistles and openly presented his views of women. Someone could, of course, make a good faith criticism of the character change, since the original BSG had female Colonial Warriors, including Viper pilots such as Serina and hence there would seem to be nothing gained by the swap. But Benedict’s “criticism” is not made on aesthetic grounds, but on the grounds that the swap is part of a broader conspiracy to emasculate men and that, apparently, women should be limited to making babies and not piloting fighters. While anti-woke critics often appeal to “realism”, realism is against this sort of “biological realism.” In the BSG series, Battlestar Galactica is leading a refugee fleet of the last known human survivors of the Cylon attack. As such, humanity is in dire straits and needs everyone to participate in the fight. This situation is an even more extreme version of what happened in the real-world during WWII: women had to step into “traditional male” roles, such as factory work and even enter combat. This shows, beyond all reasonable doubt, that women can do such “men’s work” as well as men. Ironically, realism is on the side of “the woke” and this sort of attack is sexism and a denial of reality.

In closing, while there can be good faith criticisms about swapping, the claim that “wokeness” is killing art by forcing aesthetically bad swaps has no merit. There can be aesthetically bad swaps and swaps that can be justly criticized as lazy efforts to milk an IP but these do not arise from “wokeness.”  While some “anti-woke” critics might be operating in good faith, Benedict’s example illustrates what seems to drive much of the criticism: bigotry.

The original Mary Sue was created in 1973 by Paula Smith as a parody of Star Trek fan fiction. A Mary Sue character is usually presented as inexplicably competent, possessing special talents or powers, enjoying the admiration of others, lacking in weaknesses and flaws, attractive, and virtuous. A Mary Sue is usually a young woman, but there are male versions called “Gary Stu” or “Marty Stu.” While a Mary Sue is often a self-insertion by an author, in the “woke wars”, she is often claimed to be inserted into a work because of “wokeness.”

While a Mary Sue character will not always harm the aesthetic value of a work (after all, Superman seems to be a paradigm Gary Stu), they can cause problems. Such a character can seem implausible to the audience, they can overshadow other characters in a harmful way, and their capabilities can make their inevitable success seem unsatisfactory. As such, a Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) character could harm a work. But how does this connect to the claim that “wokeness” is killing art?

Given that the Mary Sue character is usually a woman, the usual anti-woke criticism is that the female Mary Sue was created as part of “the message” and “woke ideology.” That is, those who decide to include the Mary Sue character are making the work worse in service to their wokeness—thus, it is claimed, “wokeness” hurt the work. But, of course, a work could include a Mary Sue or Gary Stu for non-ideological reasons and be bad—so even if a character is a badly written Mary Sue, evidence would be needed that the inclusion is the result of ideology and that this ideology is “woke.” Even in such a case, the work would be bad because of the badly written character—unless it is simply assumed or shown that wokeness necessitates writing bad characters or, at least, meaningfully increases the likelihood.

Not surprisingly, the Mary Sue label is often applied by anti-woke critics to characters who do not seem to fit the definition. For example, Naru in the Predator movie Prey does not seem to be a Mary Sue. While she is competent, she earns this competence and while there are implausible elements, they are all well within those that should be expected in an action movie in the science fiction genre. Despite this, the movie was attacked based on the claim that Naru is a Mary Sue. While such critics might be using the term for its rhetorical value, it is worth considering why they would consider a competent female character to be a Mary Sue when such a character, as noted above, operates well within the usual parameters of a science fiction action films. The most relevant comparison is, of course, to the original Predator. Given her background as a hunter, Naru’s capabilities and actions are as plausible as those of Dutch (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) given his background as an elite soldier. While both characters effectively use their intelligence, Dutch relies more on his physical strength—although he is outclassed by the predator in this area. It can be argued that the films do have unrealistic elements (aside from the Predator), such as how Dutch is able to beat the Predator when that same Predator effortlessly slaughtered its way through the movie up until that point. But that is the “reality” of this sort of science-fiction action movie and hence attacking Naru for being an action hero in an action film would say more about the ideology of the critic than the “wokeness” of the film. But someone is likely to say, it is realistic for Dutch to be the action hero because he is a man and not for Naru, since she is a woman.

Films, games, and shows with strong female characters are often attacked for being “woke” even when those characters are clearly not Mary Sue characters. The usual criticism is that a strong female character is written as an action hero capable of doing things like defeat men in hand-to-hand combat. This is seen by the critic as making the work worse and as resulting from the “woke ideology” of those responsible for the character. The criticism is based on a view of “biological realism”, since the usual criticism is that women are, on average, physically weaker than men. Thus, the critic reasons, a female action hero of this type is unrealistic, is included as part of “the message”, and harms the work through being unrealistic.

The easy and obvious reply to this criticism is that it is just an expression of sexism. After all, action movies are usually power-fantasies and these same critics generally do not apply this “biological realism” critique to action films with a male action hero doing things that are “biologically” unrealistic even for the most capable men in the real world. For example, they do not attack the John Wick movies on the grounds that John Wick’s abilities are unrealistic and blame some sort of nefarious ideology for ruining the film. Their “criticism” seems to be that they are mad when women can have a power fantasy about a female character of the sort that men enjoy about male characters. This just shows that “wokeness” is “ruining” the work for them because of their ideology, not because of an aesthetic flaw in the work.

 To consistently apply the “realism” criticism would not be a criticism of “wokeness” but a criticism of how realism is bent or broken in many genres—which would be, it seems, to say that action, fantasy, and science fiction would often be “bad” because of how their heroes deviate from the limits of mundane biology.

Interestingly, the anti-woke critics who make use of the Mary Sue criticism and the “biological realism” criticism do not apply this criticism to Ripley in Alien and Aliens or Sarah Conners in the Terminator movies (and other works). I certainly agree that Ripley and Sarah are not Mary Sue characters—their competence is both earned in the film worlds and plausible. But they are certainly both strong female leads acting in ways that anti-woke critics of today should be attacking, yet they generally do not. A plausible explanation is that these films are so well-established as being good, attacking them as “woke” would do nothing but undermine the claim that wokeness ruins works of art. This does seem to be a general theme: a bad work is attacked as woke and used to “prove” that wokeness made it bad, but good works that seem to have “woke” qualities (diverse casts, strong female leads, liberal values, etc.) have their “wokeness” explained away or simply ignored.  It might also be that these films are older, and past works might be protected by the haze of nostalgia.

A sketch of human faces, Not so long ago, diversity in works of art was criticized as the result of political correctness (PC). The current manifestation of this criticism targets Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Such criticisms can be about the content of the work, about the casting, or about the people involved in the creation of the work.

In terms of criticism of content, the obvious claim is that DEI content harms a work of art. This could be, as discussed in the previous essay, because the ideology comes at the expense of aesthetic quality, or it could be a claim that DEI content is inherently bad. But this is not an aesthetic judgment, but an ideological judgment and falls under the non-aesthetic areas of value theory such as ethics and political philosophy.

In terms of criticism focused on the cast of characters, this criticism can be of in-world characters or real-world casting choices. In-world criticism is aimed at the identity of the characters in the world of the work of art while real-world criticism is aimed at the identity of the actors portraying (or voicing) the in-world characters. In many cases, in-world and real-world identities are the same, such as when an African American woman plays the role of an African American woman character. In other cases, the identities can be different, such as a gay actor playing a straight character or a white actor portraying an Asian or Black character. And, of course, there is the famous fact that in early British theatre males played the female roles.

Both in-world and real-world criticisms focus on the qualities such as ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation of the characters or cast. One stock criticism includes claiming a work is somehow harmed by having a diverse cast of characters that the critic sees as somehow inappropriate. For example, a critic might emphasize that white people are either a minority or absent in the work. Interestingly, for those who see diversity as part of the aesthetic value of a work, a good faith argument can be made that unfairly excluding, for example, white, straight men from a work of art would harm the diversity and hence the aesthetic value of the work. But this, of course, rests on the assumption that diversity is a good—which would be a “woke” assumption. As such, the anti-woke critics would be hard pressed to make a good faith criticism of such exclusion. Their own opposition to diversity would seemingly justify such exclusion.

The most benign interpretation of the anti-diversity criticism is that anti-woke critics are accustomed to the less-diverse works of their youth and are responding negatively to this change. They are, in effect, upset that the people in movies, TV and video games don’t look like they did when they were kids. This is, of course, not an aesthetic criticism beyond “I don’t like this.”

Perhaps the least charitable interpretation is that this criticism taps into the ideology of the Great Replacement Theory. In general terms, this is the conspiracy theory that white people are being intentionally demographically and culturally replaced by non-white people. On this view, increasing diversity of casts (characters and actors) would be evidence of this replacement. This is, of course, not an aesthetic concern but one of ideology.

A similar, but less extreme, interpretation is that the anti-woke critics believe that the increasing diversity of characters and actors inflicts an economic harm on white actors and most especially white male actors. This argument does have some theoretical appeal. Historically, movies and television in the United States were dominated by white actors and white male actors. Whites even played many non-white roles (known in two manifestations as yellowface and blackface). This meant that white actors did not need to compete against non-white actors. As roles began to open for non-white actors, this could be seen as roles being closed to white actors. On the extreme side, white actors are unlikely to be cast in yellowface or blackface roles these days, which is a loss of roles. On the less extreme side, an anti-woke critic could argue that too many roles are being taken away from white/straight/male people and given to diversity hires. There are, of course, those who claim they cannot get hired because they are white/straight/male. While complaints about there being too much diversity are nothing new, these complaints are consistently made in the face of the facts: the diversity in the media does not match the diversity in the population. Also, as of 2023 white men are still getting most of the big Hollywood film roles. While some might doubt the statistics, this is easy enough to check if one has the time: grind through the casting of movies on IMDB.

This does lead to a question of concern to the “woke” and “anti-woke”: how diverse should hiring be in this (or any) context? But as an economic concern about employment opportunities, this takes us far from the claim that wokeness is making art worse as art.

In terms of making the connection between DEI “wokeness” and aesthetic harm, one stock argument is based on the claim that DEI hiring results in the employment of less capable people. This claim is connected to the reasonable premise that less capable people working as actors, writers, producers, directors, programmers, and such will tend to result in an inferior aesthetic product. Therefore, it is concluded, DEI hiring will result in an inferior aesthetic product. Or, in pop terms, “woke” DEI hiring will kill art.

The second premise is reasonable: the quality of a work of art, such as film, is causally linked to the capabilities of the people involved in its creation. While skilled people can fail and thus produce a bad work of art, they will generally produce better works than those with inferior skills. The movie Lady Ballers illustrates this nicely: a cast consisting mostly of conservative pundits and inexperienced actors directed by Daily Wire CEO Jeremy Boreing would have a hard time matching the performance of more skilled and experienced actors, directors, and writers. The film turns out to be what one would expect, given the talent and experience levels involved. It also serves as an ironic example of what happens when a work is focused on an ideological message first.  But what about the claim that DEI hiring results in the employment of less capable people?

This is, of course, the same criticism used against affirmative action and is based on the same assumptions about identity and competence. That is, it is assumed that certain people (usually straight, white males) are superior to other people and that if someone else is hired, it is likely to be an unmerited DEI hire. After all, it is assumed, a merit-based hiring would result in the right sort of person (usually a straight, white male) being hired because of their superiority. In blunt terms, this anti-woke criticism seems to be based on racism and sexism. One could reply by insisting that this view is not racism or sexism because the superiority is real, but that would seem to only serve to remove all doubt about the racism and sexism behind the criticism. And if it is not claimed that diversity hires are inferior because of the identity of those hired, the criticism of DEI “wokeness” falls apart: without an assumption of the inferiority of some and the superiority of others based on race, sex and so on, it cannot be claimed that a diversity of hiring would entail an inferior aesthetic work. As such, the anti-woke criticism of DEI rests, unsurprisingly, on what seem to be racist and sexist assumptions.

 

 

In America’s ongoing culture war, the right has largely embraced the idea that wokeness is a grave danger. While wokeness is seen as a general threat, there is a special focus on the damage that it is supposed to be doing to artistic media, such as movies and video games.

While The Barbie Movie did not fit the “go woke, go broke” narrative, Ben Shapiro claims to have “destroyed” the movie in a 43-minute review.  Given that the movie was a remarkable financial success that seems to have been sincerely enjoyed by millions of people, it is unclear what this destruction amounts to—but his review does serve as an example of the woke war and the movie is apparently a major battlefront in this war. Nerdrotic and the  Critical Drinker also provide examples of critics focused on wokeness on media. While some might be tempted to dismiss these criticisms as bait for a right-wing grift, I will consider the hypothesis that wokeness is causing the claimed harms.

An obvious problem is that the right uses “woke” as a catch-all term for everything they dislike. This seems to be intentional, as shown by the redefinition of “critical race theory” by Christopher Rufo: “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think “critical race theory.” We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.” While this tactic is useful in right-wing politics, such a vague definition impedes addressing whether wokeness is damaging to media. After all, without having an adequate definition one cannot in good faith say whether it is causing the alleged harm. That said, a look at the criticisms of “woke” works reveals some common threads and these will serve as a focus for the discussion. But first, the matter of aesthetic judgment needs to be all to briefly addressed.

In Hume’s works on aesthetics, he notes that while tastes cannot be disputed, some aesthetic judgments are absurd and ridiculous. Roughly put, a person likes what they like and dislikes what they dislike, and it makes no sense to claim they are wrong. But claims about the quality and merits of works or art can be disputed rationally. While this dichotomy can be disputed, it does provide a good frame for the discussion.

If the critics who claim wokeness makes works of art bad (or worse) are merely expressing their dislike of the woke works, then they cannot be disputed. After all, if they do not like a movie because they think it is woke, then they do not like the movie and it would be absurd to try to dispute them. While one could try to convince them to reconsider, this is analogous to trying to argue someone into liking a food they detest. But if this is all there is to the claim that wokeness is making art bad, they are just telling people they dislike wokeness and this is not a meaningful criticism of the work itself, just as a child making a face and spitting out food is no meaningful criticism of the food—it is a mere expression of dislike. Naturally, this could also be performative in the hopes of imitation—that others will dislike the works they dislike. But this is also not criticism and does not show that wokeness is making artistic works bad beyond in any sense beyond their dislike. They could also simply be taking an ideological stance—woke art is “bad” because it is accused of expressing an ideology, they claim is bad. But this is not an aesthetic criticism of the work but of its alleged ideology. As such, a meaningful claim that wokeness makes art worse (as art) requires showing that the wokeness a work has a negative impact on its aesthetic qualities. There are those who do attempt to make this case.

Put in oversimplified terms, one causal argument is that wokeness causes art to be bad as art, or at least worse than it would be without the woke influence. When looking at the alleged causal connections, one must consider whether the wokeness is what makes a work of art bad. After all, a bad film set in London would presumably not be bad because it was set in London; but for other reasons-so a causal connection would be needed. That is, it needs to be the wokeness that causes the harm, not just the fact that a bad work happens to be woke. We would not say that comedy makes a work bad just because there are bad movies that contain comedy.

The causal claim cannot be that wokeness is a necessary condition for badness, since this would claim that if art is bad, then it is woke. There is an abundance of bad art that is not woke.  There does often seem to be the claim that wokeness is sufficient to make art bad, that if art is woke, then it must be bad. But someone with a more nuanced view could claim that the relation is a matter of causal influence—that a woke work is more likely to be bard art, although there could be good woke art. As nuance is usually lost in the culture wars, it does seem that most critics of wokeness see it as a sufficient condition for badness. But how does wokeness allegedly make art bad?

One general explanation is that the emphasis on ideology comes at the expense of the quality and aesthetic components of the work. What occurs, presumably, is that when those in charge must choose between making an ideological point and something that improves the aesthetic quality of a work, they will choose the ideological point. For example, the plot might contain forced and implausible events included to make a statement, even when doing so damages the story. As another example, a character arc might be abruptly terminated or abandoned because it would lead to a message contrary to the ideology that the work is intended to present.

On the face of it, this seems to be a good explanation of how “wokeness” could harm a movie. However, it is actually just a statement of the obvious: if aesthetic decisions are made on the basis of considerations outside of aesthetics, this will tend to lower the aesthetic quality of a work of art. While this would apply to a “woke” ideology, it would also apply to non-ideological concerns like costs or the desire to include product placements. For example, while an expensive special effect might make for a better movie, that effect might be cancelled due to the expense, thus making the work worse than it would have been.

It must also be pointed out that this applies to ideologies on the right. A good recent example is Lady Ballers. While “the left” has been critical of its anti-trans ideology and sexism, an analysis of the work as a work of art lays bare the problems that arise when ideology is chosen over aesthetic considerations.  Critics of God is Not Dead have also made similar points, noting that the antagonists are carboard caricatures created in service of the film’s message.

As such, the “anti-woke” critics are right that putting ideology over aesthetics can harm the aesthetics of a work; but this applies to all ideologies—even their own.  As such, while “woke” ideology could harm a work of art, this is not unique to “wokeness” but is simply a statement of the obvious fact that making aesthetic decisions based on non-aesthetic considerations can lower the aesthetic quality of a work. At best, the anti-woke critics could claim that some works might have been harmed by choosing ideology over aesthetic considerations—but this hardly shows that wokeness is ruining art. Rather, it just states the obvious: bad aesthetic decisions lead to bad works of art, regardless of whether the cause is ideological, budgetary, or a lack of talent.