Wokeness might set you free. No one said it would make you happy.

Those who work for social justice aren’t unhappy by nature. They are affected by the problems they’re trying to fix.

A woman speaks during a protest on Sept. 23, 2020, in Louisville, Ky. A grand jury indicted one officer on criminal charges six months after Breonna Taylor was fatally shot by police in Kentucky. The lack of more charges led to many demonstrations across the nation. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

(RNS) — Truth will set you free, goes the saying. The corollary says it will only do so after making you miserable.

The latter was given more weight as fact by a recent study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology that suggests that people with strong social justice values may be more likely to be depressed, anxious and unhappy. Though its author, Finnish psychologist Oskari Lahtinen, studied only his fellow Finns, “the scale was designed to be used and validated in other Western and possibly other populations as well,” he wrote.

In fact, Lahtinen admits in his study that the woke discourse arose from America, writing “critical social justice (or intersectional or ‘woke’) discourse draws mainly from dynamics within American society.”

Conservatives have responded to these findings with predictable insults and inane questions. “Do progressive ideas make people unhappy, or are unhappy people drawn to the cultural Left?” asked Canadian politics professor Eric Kaufmann in an essay for the Manhattan Institute.

But such questions obscure the oppressive conditions that produce so-called progressive ideas and reframe a societal problem as a personal medical one. In other words, studies like this one convey more about society at large than about their subjects. The findings emphasize a fact already established — that systemic oppression causes mental pain. Instead of spurring an examination of left-leaning brains, they should help us rearrange society around well-being. 

We have to start with the origin of “woke” in Black American slang for political awareness. This awareness is inherently painful because it includes an awareness of how much innocent blood has fueled the expansion of the West. This should be obvious: Bearing witness to so much misery can make people miserable.

Denial about the mental impact of systemic oppression in American culture is long-standing. Drapetomania, a term devised by white psychologists of the time, was used to pathologize African slaves who fled the daily misery of plantation life. During Jim Crow, a new generation of white psychologists claimed Black people didn’t have the mental capacity for depression, amid routine white terror and exploitation.

“The negro mind does not dwell upon unpleasant subjects,” wrote E.M. Green, clinical director of the Georgia Asylum in 1914. “He is happy-go-lucky not philosophical. His peculiar mental attitude is not the result of a knowledge that his poverty, his social position … Depression is rarely encountered even under circumstances in which a white person would be overwhelmed by it.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, schizophrenia had become so conflated with the motivations behind the Civil Rights Movement that drug companies used images of angry Black protesters to sell anti-psychotics.

The last thing racial capitalism wants is serious reflection on the misery it produces. It would rather frame that pain as mysterious, unreasonable or even pathological. Accordingly, the official autobiography of Western society insists that our violence has made — and is making — the world a better place. That lie has been the cornerstone of the racial capitalism since the days of high imperialism.

So, to take seriously the despair that comes from knowing how much Congolese blood goes into making an iPhone is dangerous to Apple’s and other companies’ operations and profits. But American culture prefers to talk about Protestant ideals about hard work and submission to authorities (no matter how corrupt). These cornerstones of American capitalism cause many of us to believe that bootstrapping and obedience are all we need to thrive.

Instead of poking fun at the idea that wokeness causes mental suffering, we might question why profit is a higher priority than human flourishing. A revolution of values is needed to ensure that governments measure their greatness by the well-being of their populations. 

The idea that we would all be happier in a more just society is also backed by research. A 2020 study of the European Union Social Justice Index found that people are happier in nations that prioritize social justice. People who scoff at the idea of letting political feelings shape policy should consider the example of Bhutan, which has been doing just that with its Gross National Happiness Index, based on the tenets of Vajrayana Buddhism, since 2008.

To be sure, there’s something to be said about how we frame our circumstances can determine our level of mental suffering. 

Nevertheless, people aren’t suffering because of their ideas about injustice, but because the injustice hurts.

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