I have form. I was a social worker, and we have long been regarded as the ‘woke police’. I have also written previously about my feelings regarding so-called ‘political correctness’, saying this; If it is ‘political correctness’ to seek speak of people who have been broken and marginalised with dignity and respect- then I am all for political correctness. For some, these confessions will render invalid any further comment on what ‘woke’ might mean, and that is part of the problem. The debate is so polarised, so politicised, so that it has become almost impossible to be thoughtful or neutral.
Where does the word come from anyway?
Given the normally pejorative way we hear the word ‘woke’ used, it may be a surprise (or perhaps not) to hear that the word began as black resistance against prejudice and oppression. It was almost unheard of until it began to be used as a call to stay awake following the killing of Michael Brown in Missouri by police in 2014. In the febrile partisan (and institutionally racist) US environment, the term soon began to be used as a single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory. This framing of “woke” wass soon entirely bipartisan: It was used as a shorthand for political progressiveness by the left, and as a denigration of leftist culture by the right.
The anti-woke backlash
How do we try to understand this new phenomena of antagonism towards all things ‘woke’? Is it just reactionary crankery, or perhaps something more sinister? On the right there appears to be a firm consensus that ‘woke’ liberalism is a direct enemy of ‘freedom’, defined loosely by the percieved (or actual) de-platforming of writers/artists/speakers whose views do not fit the liberal ideal. Liberalism is then seen as corrosive to the traditions of society.
It is of course notable that hose rendered victims by this woke liberalism are noticably different from the people that the original ‘wake up’ was meant to protect. They are whiter and from much more privileged backgrounds. Their victimhood is celebrated as surprise as much as outrage.
Meanwhile those pointing out the actual victims of widening inequality within society can be dismissed as ‘woke warriors’. In this way, we see a familiar switcharoo – a way to claim victimhood in the face of the victimhood of others, in a way that could be described as ‘gaslighting‘.
Perhaps there are real victims of woke liberalism; people whose views do not fit the mould, and so have been cast out of their positions as writers/broadcasters/journalists/speakers/comedians/musicians. I am sure Morissey would define himself as one of these. Or perhaps their freedom to hold certain views directly result in a lack of freedom for other people. There is no equivalence here, surely? Hundreds of years of slavery and exploitation weighed against the calling out of historians like Andrew Roberts and Lawrence James for their defense of Empire?
What motivates those who fight against the woke?
Here in the UK, we have a government at the end of its own extreme neoliberal rope. One of the sidenotes of Liz Truss and Suella Bravermans time in the public eye was their apparent commitment to fight the good fight against the woke. Who can forget this;
Nothing unites like a common enemy, and much of this feels like the search for just that. The puzzling thing for me is the degree to which it remains a successful ploy. People I respect seem genuine in their disgust at something that may or may not exist and is as easy to hold on to as smoke.
Are they seeing something I am not because of my own woke lefty prejudices? Or perhaps the sense of being boxed off from our own identities by the rise of something ‘other’ it iself a universal fear, particularly in a society in which our grounding and identity has been splintered and eroded by consumerised individualism. Without a strong sense of our own collective identity (we are above all social apes after all) we are all the more fearful of losing what we have left.
When we add things like replacement theory to this mix, it becomes highly toxic. Arguably it is this combination that has allowed the logic of the ‘toxic environment’ our government has proudly promoted in relation to refugees entering the UK.
Wait- have we not seen this before?
Of course, the anti-woke backlash is not new. For example, it is fairly well understood now that British antipathy towards the European union that was finally consumated in the Brexit vote had its origins at least in part in the writings of the clown king himself, Boris Johnson, during his tenure as a right wing commentator. He was able to spread lies and distortions to create in the minds of the British public an idea of the EU as political correctness ‘gone mad’, characterised as a tangle of red tape and unbent bananas. This article in the Irish Times says it all. Johnson used the same old switcharoo, making victims where there were few if any.
In the USA, the stain left by the civil war has left racial fracture lines deep in the psyche of the nation. Racism and half-percieved fear-based prejudices are political engines exploited to this day, not least by Trump and his fanatical supporters. He has overtly supported far right groups and railed against the poor immigrants he wanted to keep behind his great big beautiful wall. When the facts of injustice were not on his side, the anti-woke blunderbus was aimed at critical race theory, as if this was the cause of the very problems it was trying to highlight.
If you are caught out in a lie (as Johnson and Trump have been repeatedly) most liars do not tell bigger lies, rather they find ways of making liars out of those who have called out the lies in the first place. This is the anti-woke trick – a way of nullifying injustice by whataboutary and putting on the clothes of victimhood. It is as old as the hills.