An article by Ian Kilbride
Woke has gone too far and, in fact, dangerously so.
Like so many words or phrases before it, ‘woke’ has come to lose its original meaning through repeated and frequent over-use. The posh term for this phenomenon is semantic satiation. Woke as a modern term was accepted into the Oxford English Dictionary as late as 2017. The phrase’s shortness has helped it ascend to a catch-all favourite of the 140-character culture of Twitter. Yet this punchy phrase has become at once powerful and toxic, denoting as it does some of the most bitter social divides in modern life.
The origins of the term date back almost a century and find expression in 1930s African American vernacular. While woke is a shortened form of awoke, or to be awake, more broadly this meant to be aware of and alert to your social, economic and political circumstances and surroundings. While only emerging again in popular language, culture and usage in the 21st century, movements such as Rastafarianism kept the spirit of the original meaning alive as did the Black Conscious Movement in the United States and indeed South Africa. The undoubted explosion of the term in recent times is also linked to the Black Lives Matter movement, with its broader appeal against socio-economic injustice and institutional racism.
But the corruption and corrosion of the term is to be found in its adoption and use by ‘Liberals’ and the left to raise awareness of a host of other social ills, particularly those around sexism and gender identity. But other movements relating to climate change, animal rights, veganism for example, have extremist elements embedded within them that don’t just seek to advance their causes, but also see the need to criticise, attack, marginalise and alienate those who don’t support their viewpoint.
The dark side of such extremism is the insidious growth of a so-called cancel culture. There is nothing cultural about this behaviour that seeks to deny the rights of others to hold opposing viewpoints (no matter how odious) and rather than cultivating understanding and tolerance, woke culture is the opposite of the openness it claims to champion. Wokeists’ cancelling of individuals with whom they disagree leads easily to self-righteous persecution with terrifying consequences for those individuals who have been hounded out of jobs, positions and communities. Arguably the most damaging manifestation of this is the ‘deplatforming’ of speakers at universities, which is particularly prevalent in US and UK institutions. This is a fundamental breach of the essence of universities that was established literally thousands of years ago through Socrates’ academy in which free and contested controversial debate formed the ground rock of modern Liberalism. Notably, Socrates was sentenced to death, essentially for disagreeing with the then powers that be.
But beyond political correctness, wokeism is penetrating into many other aspects of life such as the workplace, the media, music, film, television, schools, sport and even religion. While being ‘awake’ to, aware of and sensitive to social ills and prejudice is fundamental to any civilised society, or arena such as the workplace, the manner in which such sensitivity is instilled is critical. Hectoring lectures, bans, boycotts and activist pressure applied in the name of correctness holds the danger of further alienating those you wish to influence. Furthermore, this behaviour is having the opposite effect in many quarters where ‘woke’ is now regarded and used as a pejorative term to describe arrogant, single-minded self-righteousness. Politically, anti-woke sentiment is now a glue binding together right wing and nationalist political movements in the US and across Europe. Indeed, wokeism is backfiring and strengthening its opponents.
Perhaps what ‘Liberal’ wokeists fail to see is just how illiberal, intolerant, authoritarian and fascist (heaven forbid), their own behaviour is. Western civilisation has a long, sometimes painful and often controversial history. But what is distinctive is that all the great leaps forward have to some degree been regarded as heretical and controversial at the time, be this in politics, the arts, science, industry or in social behaviour. It is the very acceptance of divergence, difference, radical thinking and controversy that has provided the incubator for progress. Wokeists attempts to deplatform and cancel those with whom it disagrees (irrespective of the issue) is the antithesis of progress.
But finally, on a personal note, one of the reasons I am wary of wokeism is how it creeps into one’s daily life. It is a source of pride that I enjoy a circle of colleagues, friends and acquaintances from all backgrounds and walks of life. Some are so far to the left in their political views that they would make Karl Marx blush. To be frank, some of the most committed people I have met in the rural communities in which I work are politically to the right of Donald Trump (wherever he may be these days). Some are painfully politically correct, and others are foul-mouthed farmers, but the characteristic that binds us as friends and colleagues, is tolerance and mutual respect. Do I agree with them always on all issues? Hell no! Do I argue with them on issues right across the spectrum? Hell yes! But the one thing that we all agree on is that going woke is going broke!