Where Next for Wokeness?
As no one reading this will have missed, the social justice movement described (and indeed, self-described) as ‘woke’ has made gargantuan strides of late. From humble and unpromising beginnings, it has managed to achieve great things: an entire lack of historical perspective and empathy on a scale which has not been witnessed in the UK, Europe, and America for many a generation. This, combined with its intensity of fervor, which could only be compared to that of a fanatical religious cult or the dogmatic depths of the Soviet Union, is certainly a frightening situation to behold. The slumbering beast of mob-mentality has indeed ‘awoken’.
While this great creature has shown its head over the last decade, it is only recently that it has truly penetrated and worried the collective unconscious of the western world. The death of George Floyd, a man killed under the knee of an American police office, has over the last few weeks led to protests which have broken the Coronavirus lockdown and in the process endangered countless lives, regardless of race. The officer in question is currently being charged with unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and manslaughter, while the other three officers involved in Mr. Floyd’s death face charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder.
The circumstances and reasons for George Floyd’s death are contested: people who knew him remember him as a warm-hearted, fun-loving ‘gentle giant’, whereas other commentators looking at his track record see the jail sentence he served for armed robbery, and the official autopsy report indicating intoxication as a factor in his death.
This opinion piece isn’t intended to focus on Floyd’s lamentable death, but instead on what the responses to it show about wokeness, its triumphs, its role in our culture, and where its progressive edge should be turned next. Even with the officers involved in Floyd’s arrest and death now facing charges, the American police force and nation appear unable to shake off the shackles of their racist, slave-owning past. Here you can see a victory for wokeness, even if you wonder whether this systemically racist America might have been seen more starkly if the officers had not been charged.
The most striking victory of all has been won by the protests, in the USA and the UK, which have thwarted the racism systemic in Western civilization through the looting of the personal property of innocent individuals, committing arson on public buildings, and perpetrating acts of violence against both the police and public. Naturally, the phenomenon varied across geographical areas, but protesters understandably tend to distance themselves from the looters, whom they claim were opportunistic criminals making the most of the chaos created by the protests. The issues arise in the cases where looters were carrying protesting signs, but even here it is entirely possible to justify burglary and vandalism as a demonstration of solidarity against the economic and social systems of racial inequality. Another triumph here.
Then, in the UK, there was the deliberate vandalism of historical monuments, most notably the statue of Edward Colston, a seventeenth-century Bristol-based merchant, philanthropist, and slave-trader whose effigy was torn down and hurled into Bristol Harbour. It has since been recovered and is under the care of Bristol City Council’s conservation team. Friends of mine who are fellow historians seem laissez-faire about this act, seeing it as an interesting episode in our culture which people will, years in the future, be able to read about when the statue is in a museum, probably displayed alongside signs held by the protesters, some of whom decided to spell ‘racism’ with an ‘s’ rather than a ‘c’.
Yet while I see these historians’ point of view (as I too think it is exciting to be living in this historical moment), the protesters seem to have neither understood the reasons why the statue had been erected in the first place (as a celebration of Colston’s philanthropy benefiting the citizens of Bristol), nor the most prevalent associations evoked by it in the present (Colston’s philanthropy benefiting the citizens of Bristol). These, again, are all surely remarkable advances in the history of civil rights and the timeless struggle for equality.
Yet focusing on recent events doesn’t do justice to the achievements of wokeness: such events merely furnish a succinct illustration of how far its ideas have permeated our society’s worldview. As a member of a university, I have over the past week or so received several emails, from the Chancellor down to faculty level, affirming solidarity with ‘Black Lives Matter’ and to any black (or, interestingly, BAME) students who might feel unsafe or victimized at this difficult time.
Very careful thought has evidently gone into each and every one of the missives, as their drafters sought to appear sympathetic to the cause, and simultaneously scrupulously avoid any possible accusation that their institution is – ‘institutionally’ – racist. The fact that they, along with every other British and American university, had previously allowed and supported numerous ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests, as well as committing themselves to the initiative known as ‘Decolonising the Curriculum’, while admitting numerous black students over the decades, are all facts which seem to have slipped their minds when faced with such a serious test of character and – more importantly, it seems – reputation. Anyone with a connection to a university has seen these signs of solidarity. Yet apparently it is impossible to ever be free of this species of original sin, a curse passed on to us through some of our ancestors, for which no amount of penance, good works or public self-flagellation will prove redemptive.
And this point about reputation leads onto the second major societal milestone reached by wokeness. Not only have universities fallen to their knees in an attempt to show support for this movement, but celebrities who never previously gave the most perfunctory care about such issues now feel compelled to chip in, because to be silent, so the movement’s advocates say, would to be complicit in the murder of George Floyd and the spectre of racism haunting every square inch of Western society.
Given that the phenomenon of wokeness ultimately originated in the desires of humanities professors (sympathetic to communism) to use ethnic, sexual and gender minorities as the new anti-capitalist revolutionary proletariat (since the working classes had failed in this quest by the late twentieth century), academic support for the vogue is unsurprising. The few critical minds left in humanities faculties have known this for years.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, actors, artists, and musicians have felt compelled to pledge allegiance too. Let’s be honest: the consequences of not doing so would indeed be dire, for their public image, fan-base, and careers would indefinitely be over – as anyone who has been on social media already knows. This combination of influencing and pressuring individuals for signs of solidarity has been one of, if not the most, important trait of ‘wokeness’ over the last few years.
One of the greatest triumphs of feminism, for example, has been to inspire Taylor Swift to betray her powerful musical and lyrical talents (with help from a New Zealander, Joel Little, who is sympathetic to feminist activism) in order to write the ultra-woke, childishly misandrist track ‘The Man’. Yet, as such an obvious victim of the patriarchal system who has had a failed career precisely because she’s a woman, perhaps this is a genuine cri de coeur from Swift?
To return to the subject of ethnicity, Kanye West’s support for Trump has led to him being denounced by some social justice activists as no longer black. To succeed in justifying such a racist remark as beneficial to the black community is a stupendous feat indeed. And finally, the most striking observation among all these facts is that every contributor to this conversation is living in what is objectively the least racist (and sexist, and homophobic, and transphobic) society the world has ever seen.
Considering that the officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck is currently being charged for second- and third-degree murder, and that almost the entirety of our society is condemning this act, should we not regard the world we live in as one that is opposed to racism? Let’s be real: the world we currently live in is the most tolerant there has ever been (as long as we except and overlook the intolerance embodied by wokeness, of course).
However, we must acknowledge the astounding roster of achievements made by woke activists: university curricula dismembered; humanities degrees reformed to confer on the student not knowledge, but rather cynicism and hatred of Western culture; the emergence of a lack of understanding and sympathy for well-meaning historical figures who held views drastically different from our own and, yes, did some appalling things as well; celebrities sucked into the abyss of anxiety… Not bad going for a few years’ worth of aggressive influencing.
But what’s next for wokeness? After such a victory as the recent one, where should the surgeon’s knife of social justice be turned next? Of course, there are issues other than rights for black individuals (and BAME individuals more generally, as if such ethnicities should be clumped and considered together – why not simply say ‘non-white’ individuals?).
Wokeness, after all, entails a commitment to equality for women as well, in this highly misogynist culture in which the pay gap became illegal decades ago and women, despite the kinds of biological and character-based power they can wield over men, are entirely incapable of pursuing any career they choose and are constant potential victims of rape.
Wokeness also supports equality for gays, a battle which, like women’s equality, was far from won in America and Europe before wokeness came along. Back in those (I suppose ‘unawokened’) Dark Ages of the early 2000s, at the latest, the cinema screen was depicting gay characters without negative judgements, gay actors had every opportunity to land roles, and being gay was socially accepted, too (as films as diverse as The Full Monty (1997) and Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) attest). How disgracefully homophobic!
Wokeness also seeks to support trans rights and equality, a laudable aim certainly, but most laudable of all when it defends the right of a burly bearded man with no vagina and a monstrously erect penis to be considered a woman. Maybe such a woman might, given the inclination, pose a danger to (biological) women? Consideration of this question has led to even Germaine Greer (remember? The Female Eunuch?) being denounced as no longer a feminist.
Yet perhaps such a virile, muscular man had always felt, deep within himself, that he was female; in that case, we shouldn’t question or challenge it any more than we should challenge the rights of women and those born with a certain sexual attraction or skin pigmentation to enjoy the same equality as everyone else. These are accidents of birth, factors over which we have no choice.
Never has Martin Luther King’s dream that his children would one day live in a world where they were judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character been more comprehensively reversed, insulted, and yet simultaneously represented as an honoured predecessor of the current social justice movement. Today, the colour of skin, or the genitalia or sexual tastes one was born with, are the only things that matter. The content of character is irrelevant (which, given the content of most woke activists’ characters, may or may not be a cause for everyone’s celebration). The entire history of civil rights has thereby been inverted and set back along divisive racialised and sexualised lines. This has become so severe that we are now seeing a recrudescence of racism, sexism and homophobia in newer, meretricious, woke disguises, as well as – backlash! – their older and more obviously hideous forms. And this all happened just as those older guises seemed to be passing away. Again, I say it: what an astounding achievement.
Given that accidents of birth are very much the sole concern of wokeness, to the extent that they trump competence in job applications and shape the composition of workforce’s along lines of ‘diversity’, perhaps it is these which should pave the way forward. They have been sweepingly successful, after all. So, what other accidents of birth have a detrimental effect on individuals’ abilities to fulfill their dreams in our society?
“we’ve got to start wielding an attractiveness penalty; we’ve got to start punishing the attractive people and telling them to shut up”
Foremost among these, we can all agree, is sex appeal. Douglas Murray has recently outlined the essence of this suggestion on the Mark Steyn Show, where Steyn called it ‘attractive privilege’. It is easy to see the wisdom in Murray’s advice that ‘we’ve got to start wielding an attractiveness penalty; we’ve got to start punishing the attractive people and telling them to shut up’. After all, with regard to attractiveness, some people are born with a propensity for it, and some are not, and it goes without saying that those who have it do far better in their careers and personal lives. Surgery can augment it, certainly, but doesn’t always do so and often has quite the opposite effect. And besides, sex appeal is largely about attitude, comportment and raw charisma, which surgery cannot manufacture. And this has been the case throughout history, across all ethnicities, genders, and sexualities. What reparations can be given to the less attractive people living today to level the playing field? Perhaps quotas should be instated that would ensure that less attractive people have just as much representation in workforces as their more attractive competitors? Or, at the very least, they should be given more representation in Hollywood films. These would be but humble beginnings as reparations for years of injustice. We can deal with how to calculate subsequent reparations later.
Next on the agenda comes height! Taller people obviously have a more commanding presence, they can reach further, run faster, and are largely considered (at least from the perspective of the female gaze) to be more attractive. Yet shorter people, despite finding it easier to find shoes that fit, often have to experience discomforting stereotypes such as being considered ‘endearing’ and ‘sparky’. These will be real problems in the future of debates over equality, and they should be addressed at once. Maybe one day, as Murray phrased it, we’ll be lucky and progressive enough to hear, or even better say, the words “You shouldn’t talk about that, you’re over six foot”.
To close, let us turn to issues closer to the theme which opened this discussion. Several episodes from TV shows have been pulled from online platforms (most notably Netflix) out of a concern that their depictions of attitudes or make-up choices of which we no longer approve will contribute to racist violence. The ‘Spirit of Jazz’ from the Mighty Boosh and the entirely non-racially-black yet black-faced character of ‘Papa Lazarou’ from The League of Gentlemen (a figure based on a Greek landlord the writers of the show used to know), have disappeared. Furthermore, an episode of the US show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which criticised the use of blackface, has also been pulled. Further examples could be given… and I really could go on, but for now let’s leave it here.
Next, I would propose that any makeup or costume designed to make a character of a certain race or gender look as though they’re from a different race or gender should be banned. The same should go for individual personality. Since no-one can fully understand the experience of being anyone else (human or, in the case of ‘Papa Lazarou’, possibly not human at all), it seems unfair to try to represent them, especially in an artistic form such as acting. The same ethos might be extended to fiction, songs or poems written in the voice of a character other than the author of the work in question. Unfortunately, throughout the world’s history these art forms have always relied upon such techniques of imaginative empathy and ventriloquising, but who needs art which explores if you have propaganda which dictates?
Looking further afield, wokeness should turn its attention to cultures which suffer from evident discrimination, in which women are legally inferior to men, in which gays and trans persons alike are legally killed for their natures, and in which religious minorities or dissidents are executed. All of these are the case in Iran today. The Islamic communities in the West and the Middle-East alike, as the most long-standing perpetrators of such actions, as well as many other incidents of human rights violation which are too well-known to require recollection here, should be the first to go beneath the surgeon’s knife of social justice.
The history of Islamic trading in slaves of multiple ethnicities should also be condemned and erased from our modern society’s consciousness, and, in the absence of many statues of Muhammad which might be toppled and jumped upon, any person bearing the name of that slave-owning prophet should be forced to change it to another more acceptable appellation (and on slavery and Islam, even the BBC were willing to outline it in basic terms in 2009). For that matter, the intolerance seen across almost every page of the Qur’an should lead to its being banned from bookshelves and mosques the world over (if you haven’t read it in its entirety, persevere and do so). The amount of grief caused by these deplorable ideas and practices cannot be calculated, and everyone else has a right to feel safe and not be harmed, let alone offended, by them.
But do I think such things will happen? Of course not. The leading LGBTQ+ organisation Stonewall has proven this very recently in their response to the stabbing of three gay men in a park in Reading. The stabber was a Libyan asylum seeker who had arrived in the UK a few years ago, and his ethnicity and religious convictions, as Stonewall’s statement on the incident show, are proving an obstacle to the organisation’s ability to criticise him.
The official investigation into the killer’s motives is still underway, but almost all reporting on it so far has downplayed the plausible possibility that either Libyan culture or Islamic faith (both rather less tolerant of homosexuality than UK society is) might not be at least factors behind the attack. The popular explanation at present is, instead, the killer’s possible mental instability. When a black man is killed by white Minnesota police officers, woke commentators and activists assume it is because of racism; when three gay men are killed by someone whose religious beliefs and cultural assumptions are homophobic, it cannot possibly have been a homophobic attack. Put bluntly, when three members of the LGBTQ+ community are knifed to death in public, activists who claim to represent their rights fail to be honest about why they were killed. They are dishonest because they want to maintain the intersectionality party line. To their disgrace, such dishonesty will do nothing to prevent such attacks happening in the future.
To briefly describe this party line, if something is not either anti-white, anti-male, anti-straight or anti-capitalist, it has no use to wokeness, because it cannot advance the aim of dismantling Western civilization (which the movement fails to acknowledge was never entirely white, male, straight and capitalist to begin with – just study history, for goodness’ sake). To even consider all of the potential motives for the Reading attack would fail to be anti-white (because it would show that non-Europeans are also capable of atrocities) and so being not even anti-straight but merely and nobly pro-gay, must be sacrificed.
The Reading case makes me genuinely wish that some of my earlier suggestions would happen, but on the whole, I don’t want the deliberately ludicrous recommendations among them to ever occur. My point is merely that if they did, they would be no more deranged than what we are currently witnessing. As an alternative path, we might accept our world’s history in all its complexity, treat everyone as their full personalities seem to deserve irrespective of characteristics over which they have no control, dispense with wokeness altogether, and strive for genuine social justice.
And before the slanders start pouring in, no I’m not writing this because I’m a far- (or, heaven forbid, ‘alt-’) right extremist. I just believe that these things should be said, both so that our present lives might be improved, and so that future generations looking back on our bizarre historical moment won’t think that we were all so divided between left and right that we were all either fanatical Trump supporters or mindless social justice warriors. Plenty of us are still reasonable people, committed to the basic value of equality of opportunity (not outcome), along with the other fundamental, decent values enshrined in classical liberalism.
I feel that it is necessary to return to these core values. The problem with that is the prevalent misconception that modern society is, and has always been, systemically and entirely at odds with them. The sad truth is that in fact, except in regimes of genuine intolerance such as Nazism, there was progressively more equality and respect for persons of any ethnicity, gender and sexuality in our societies before wokeness came along. Back then, artists who saw the world with clearer eyes, and treated people as people, made films, executed paintings, and wrote books and songs which spoke to human experience rather than being propagandistic expressions of an ideology. What was so wrong with that?
If we want our society to survive, and our culture to flourish to the enrichment of all, we must end this new, regressive, distorting divisiveness before it can cause any more destruction. Please can we do this, now? Please?