The dictum stay woke first came into vogue when it was used by the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, as an instruction to people of colour to wake up from their politically anaesthetised state and see the reality of the systemic violence all around them. To be woke is to exist in a state of hypervigilance about social and political issues affecting marginalised groups. To be unwoke, by contrast, is to remain wilfully blind.
Opponents of wokeness justifiably argue that this kind of identity-driven thinking is divisive. Wokeness has its roots in critical theory, a philosophy that essentially divides society into two classes: the oppressors and the oppressed. Critical theorists hold that every individual has a social identity, and that some of these identities come with unearned privilege. Society is thus a labyrinth of power relationships, manifested in uneven structures like patriarchy and white supremacy. This kind of collectivist thinking popularizes a vocabulary of victimhood for the underprivileged, and subjects the privileged (mostly straight white males) to a tirade of vitriol from the rest of society.
But wokeness not only divides, it distracts—and that’s what the political left should be most concerned about. The social justice doctrine demands our undivided attention: one must demonstrate that one has fully awakened from one’s stupor, and display unwavering public complicity in order to appease the radically woke. To remain silent on any issue of perceived injustice is to side with the oppressor, and to be apolitical is now profoundly political. But being completely cognizant of all society’s inequities is an impossible feat—made harder by the growing arsenal of derogatory terms used for the unwoke: bigot, sexist, racist, alt-right, neo-Nazi, victim-blamer, TERF and so forth. You can be a proud feminist, but if you’re not vocal about the specific rights of queer and trans women of colour, you’re not woke enough.
With companies, celebrities and the mainstream media distilling everything down to identity, it’s become impossible to focus on anything else. So while we’re busy debating the newest additions to the postmodernist lexicon, or considering whether everyday behaviours and expressions are acts of literal violence, we’re distracted from more fundamental social injustices. Tied up with polemics about the utility of the term womxn as an anti-patriarchal alternative to woman, we run out of empathy for the young girls undergoing genital mutilation procedures in the Middle East and North Africa right now. Tethered to Twitter threads about which acronym is more inclusive for the queer community, LGBTQQIAAP or LGBTQIA+, we forget about the countries in which gay people are still being stoned to death for their sexuality. Authentic left-wingers, who seek practical solutions to the tragedies and inequalities of this world, are being drowned out by the noise.
A Welcome Distraction
“Love Conquers Hate,” reads the website of BAE Systems, Britain’s largest arms manufacturer. “We are committed to advancing a culture of inclusion.” As the lead sponsors of Surrey’s 2019 Gay Pride, employees of the security company have attended several parades in support of the gay community, sporting rainbow leis, flags and headbands. But their apparently innocuous activism is difficult to reconcile with the fact that BAE’s third biggest market is Saudi Arabia, a country in which homosexuality is still punishable by death. Since 2015, BAE Systems has supplied the Saudi military with £15 billion worth of arms, fuelling a bombing campaign on Yemen that has led to more than 17,500 civilian deaths and injuries. Is BAE Systems’ apparent concern for gay rights an attempt to deflect focus away from these inconvenient facts? I suspect so. As corporations pander to the identitarian left, real injustices like the bombing of innocent people are simply pushed under the radar.
I don’t adhere to the view that company executives and government bureaucrats invented wokeness as a smokescreen for their malfeasance—but it’s certainly a welcome distraction to them.
Take the example of Tampax. “Fact. Not all women have periods,” the tampon company tweeted recently. “Also a fact: Not all people with periods are women.” Replies ranged from praise of their bold step toward inclusivity to calls for a boycott of their products. The brand are owned by champions of corporate wokeism, the multinational corporation Procter & Gamble (P&G). P&G oversee an array of publicly woke brands including Gillette, the men’s razor company and masterminds of the infamous 2019 “Toxic Masculinity” advertisement, which proudly displays men as condescending, aggressive and sexually inappropriate.
But perhaps P&G should address their own malpractices before lecturing others. They certainly don’t have the cleanest record for a hygiene company, especially one that is so adamantly progressive. A 2016 report by Amnesty International revealed that P&G’s palm oil provider, Wilmar International, has committed serious human rights abuses on its plantations, which use child labour, discriminate by gender and provide dangerous working conditions that have resulted in injuries from outlawed toxic chemicals. P&G have also been linked to palm oil producer Felda Global Ventures, an agri-business implicated in human trafficking, and failed to hold them to account even after 160,000 global consumers demanded action. But, instead of honing in on that, the woke left are busy applauding Tampax’s diversity, while the political right are caught up in deriding the contentious claim that not all people with periods are women.
Everywhere, corporate social justice activism is playing into this distraction game. Even institutions designed to address grave global injustices are preoccupied by identitarian politics. For instance, UN Women, an entity set up to tackle gender equality across the globe, regularly tweets about things like how “you can avoid being a mansplainer” and how to use gender-inclusive alternatives to offensive words like landlord, mankind and even boyfriend and girlfriend. This is the same body tackling female genital mutilation, child marriage, sexual violence, sex trafficking, honour killings and rape as a weapon of war—yet these issues receive only a fraction of our attention. For example, a @UN_Women tweet about gender-inclusive language attracted 40.7k likes, whereas one about ending rape in war amassed just 555. Fatigued by wokeness, we’re now asleep on the job when it comes to real issues.
The Forgotten Left
Perceiving the world solely through the lens of identity comes with an opportunity cost. Rather than discussing substantive policies, we’re trapped in interminable debates about group identity. Elections revolve around a candidate’s wokeness or anti-wokeness, not her plans for the economy, violent crime or healthcare. And woke politics also erodes the credibility of those who are trying to draw attention to serious social injustices. The identitarian left cry wolf too often. Since racism, sexism and homophobia have by no means been eradicated from western society, identity politics itself is not the problem. It’s when identitarian ideologues are more outraged by a company’s failure to posted a black square on Instagram than by their involvement in human trafficking that we have a problem. Of course, those who invoke identity politics may be sincere in their zeal. But the more things that are labelled sexist, racist and homophobic, the more serious offences are trivialised, and the more people will refuse to see sexism, racism and homophobia anywhere. What happens when the wolf really does show up? If we call J. K. Rowling a Nazi for stating that biological sex is real or Steven Pinker alt-right for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and optimism about human progress, how will we fare when the real tyrants come, and all our ammunition has already been used up?
I believe in social justice. But I don’t believe that it requires policing speech, branding the apolitical violent and oppressive or weaponizing terms like neo-Nazi to discredit anyone not fully on board with its ever-changing aims. Authentic leftism values freedom of speech and thought: that’s what drove the civil rights movements of the past. It seeks to uphold human rights, regulate free markets and correct moral injustices where possible. Focusing on these things—rather than on staying conscious of everyone’s racial, sexual and gender identities, and keeping up to date with the changing nuances and intricacies of language—is by no means ignorant or apathetic. Social awareness is important, but the woke sixth sense, the intuitive ability to detect grievances in every scenario, is more regressive than progressive. It cannot be the future of the left.
Whether they are well intentioned or see wokeness as a handy smokescreen, corporations, institutions and public figures are constantly creating this distraction. But we, the consumers, help set the algorithms. Each time we’re intrigued or outraged by trivial identitarian debates, click on them and share them with our newsfeeds, we incentivise the media to keep on distracting us. We must attuned to what’s really important, and pay attention to the voices of the legitimate left. Everyone wants to fight genuine prejudice and violence. But we must maintain reason and nuance in doing so. Those political insomniacs who see identity-based injustice everywhere will only derail our progress.