One of the most frequent criticisms of so-called wokeness is that it consistently operates in bad faith, strawmanning complex systems and individuals as racist, misogynistic, etc. But how can one criticise wokeness itself in good faith, while using that label to refer to it?
Although woke began as an African-American vernacular term meaning conscious of one’s own oppression, the word is now primarily used ironically and pejoratively by those who identify as anti-woke, rather than as something people self-identify as. Woke has become a bad faith term: “the term of the playground, not of serious political analysis.” But I cannot eschew the word altogether. It is useful to have an umbrella term for the declarations about race and gender that are increasingly common among—though not exclusive to—the graduate classes. If wokeness is not ideal, neither are the alternatives. Progressive seems too charitable. Liberal and left-wing seem inaccurate, since many critics of wokeness identify with those traditions and see them as incompatible with it. Virtue signalling can be applied to a whole range of things many would not consider woke—from wearing poppies on Remembrance Sunday to “clapping for our NHS.” It also implies insincerity on the part of the signaller, which may be applicable in some cases but seems too uncharitable in general.
So, until someone suggests a better word, I will use wokeness, if only because it is commonly used, and I think I can recognise it when I see it. Besides, it is not the only word used lazily and insultingly on social media: see centrist, liberal, reactionary, tankie, and so on.
Perhaps one reason why wokeness is so difficult to critique with nuance is because its most frequently encountered manifestations—social media posts with hundreds of thousands of shares—are almost invariably cliched: simplistic stereotypes that lend themselves to easy repetition. Indeed, this might serve as a starting point for a definition of wokeness: conformity with certain cliches seen by their proponents as anti-racist, anti-misogynistic or generally progressive. This admittedly imperfect definition allows that the speaker of woke views may well be sincere, while recognising that her views defer to the maxims held by other members of her class. Certainly, it is preferable to the Cambridge Dictionary definition: “the state of being aware, especially of social problems such as racism and inequality.” This definition, which echoes the original meaning of the word, implies that the woke person has correctly identified what form these societal problems take.
The certain cliches that characterise wokeness in my definition can be conceptualised as the kitsch of wokeness. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera argues that political movements are not so much defined by rational ideologies as by images, words and archetypes (kitsch) that, brought together, deny more complicated realities: “In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions.” Crucially, indulgence in kitsch brings with it the feeling that one is part of something greater—joining with others in being moved to happiness, sorrow or anger. These feelings come from the heart.
This theory resonated strongly with me this summer, when British Instagram was suddenly full of black squares intended to show solidarity with African-American victims of police violence. But whereas Kundera saw kitsch as excluding anything “which is essentially unacceptable in human existence,” the kitsch of wokeness draws attention to the unacceptable—racism, sexism, transphobia, etc.—across the western world. To modify some sentences from Kundera’s book: the kitsch of wokeness causes two tears to flow in succession. The first tear says—not, as in Kundera’s original text, “How nice to see children running on the grass,” but—How terrible to see someone being racist! The second tear says: How good to be angered, together with all mankind, by that someone being racist! It is that second tear that makes kitsch woke kitsch.
Of course, cliche has always been integral to the rhetoric of political justice. Indeed, we critics of wokeness have our own kitsch: the liberal arts professor indoctrinating her class; the snowflake student, etc. As Kundera says, kitsch is inescapable. But what is the defining kitsch of wokeness?
Most obviously, it takes the form of slogans: Black Lives Matter, Decolonise the Curriculum, Trans Women Are Women, Believe All Women and—though it has fallen out of fashion somewhat—Check Your Privilege. While such slogans are an easy target, the criticism seems justified by their ubiquity.
Let’s tackle one of the most common: Educate Yourself. One can hardly disagree with the idea that people should read widely and teach themselves things. The problem with the instruction as used by the woke is that it emphasises independent learning, but not independent thought. The activist, without wanting to put in the hard work of teaching themselves, wants others to come to agree with her beliefs. The slogan implies that education should lead to moral and ideological conformity—whereas the opposite is more often true. There is a large body of work on race and identity by politically and ethnically diverse authors out there, but the woke reading lists tend to repeat the same few recommended books by Kendi, Coates and Eddo-Lodge. The reader is to learn from these writers to attack particular systems and supposedly mainstream attitudes—but expresses dissent from the orthodoxy expressed by such authors themselves at her own peril. These books should not be automatically dismissed—we can learn things from stuff we disagree with—but, like anything else, they should be read with an open but critical mind.
The defining images of wokeness are the African-American murdered by the racist cop; privileged, tiresome, bigoted white people; the middle-aged Karen spouting TERF bile; the public monument to the slaveowner; the crowd storming down the street with raised fists to confront a complacent establishment.
The problem with these images is not that they are unimportant or necessarily devoid of truth. Indeed, in accordance with Kundera’s theory, they would probably not be as potent as they are if they had no basis in people’s experiences. Most of us watched the footage of George Floyd’s death with horror; most of us understand why people feel that black lives matter still needs to be said; most of us can recall hearing disparaging remarks about women and minorities. The problem is that these images are superimposed on everything else until the mere existence of things, facts and opinions that do not conform to them is deemed morally unacceptable. So David Shor was fired from a political consultancy firm for tweeting a link to an academic paper that connects violent protests with lower electoral turnout; Matthew Yglesias left Vox, unable to speak his mind without offending some of his younger colleagues; tributes to figures progressive in their own time but not by the standards of ours have been erased; and not a month goes by without students and academics signing an open letter denouncing someone or other for wrong-think.
The impenetrability of much academic verbiage is often commented upon, but wokeness has transformed such writings into retweetable, agreeable, simplistic messages—into kitsch. This is one reason why we should distinguish between wokeness and the critical theories that may have influenced it—about which this magazine’s editor Helen Pluckrose has co-authored a comprehensive book. When seventeen-year-olds post a black square on Instagram, they are directly echoing, not Foucault, but social media influencers and their friends. When a corporation with fuzzy dealings in China releases a statement saying that it stands against racial injustice, it is parroting both other companies and its graduate intake. In such cases, the collective pressure to do something, to do that one simple thing, has become overwhelming.
This is why I like Kundera’s approach so much. He suggests that, even when facing a power as stifling as the Soviet government, where sometimes the choice may be between playacting and no action at all, it is understandable if you do not want to join in with every march or shout every slogan. Sabina in The Unbearable Lightness is reluctant to join a demonstration against the occupation of Prague because, she feels that “behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions, lurks a more basic, pervasive evil … the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.”
An individual might value her independence over the demand for uncompromising conformity—even when it comes from her own friends and allies, rather than from a totalitarian regime. Collective action can lead to positive change and some marches have juster aims than others—nonetheless, the line between a force for good and an oppressive force can feel terribly thin.
I am not sure my definition has stopped me strawmanning—or at least weak-manning—wokeness. Academics frequently complain that critics of wokeness spend more time obsessing on social media posts than considering the possibly more nuanced arguments found in journal articles or books. But when particular phrases are being shoved in your face every day, it seems reasonable to take issue with them. It is unfortunate that the word woke itself has become a cliche, but it is apt given that the things that make up wokeness are cliches, too. Indeed, wokeness might work better as a categorisation of the aesthetics and linguistics of social justice beliefs than of the beliefs themselves.
Yet whether anything critics say will be enough to stop the rise of wokeness is another matter. It fits rather neatly with Kundera’s definition of the best of all progressive ideas: “The one which is provocative enough that its supporters can feel proud of being different, but popular enough that the risk of isolation is precluded by cheering crowds confident of victory.”