(The review was originally published by Chintan – India Foundation Blogs on February 17, 2023. Views expressed are personal.)
Thirty years ago, in 1992, when some Hindu youths pulled down the Babri structure in Ayodhya, the liberal world was livid. Yet nowadays their own kith and kin in European capitals and American university campuses are pulling down the statues of US President Theodore Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill today, in the name of hurt sentiments, and the same ‘libtards’ are cheering them on.
Welcome to the new world of woke, the favourite hypocritic pastime of many liberal elite in the West.
‘Woke’ is a new word. The general dictionary meaning of the word is something like – ‘Being aware – Knowing what’s going on’. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as: “Originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”.
But to understand what the ‘world of woke’ is, one should look at its actions. On his first day in office, US President Joe Biden signed an Executive Order permitting boys to compete on female sports teams and enter female toilets and changing rooms. All that they need to do is to identify themselves as girls. That’s the ‘world of woke’ for you. You should look for words like ‘equity’, ‘gender-neutral’, ‘white privilege’ and ‘inclusivity’ to understand you have entered that world.
It is a world of “hectoring, moral grandstanding and the anti-democratic imposition of rules and practices by a cultural elite that is remote from the concerns of most citizens”, writes Joanna Williams in her highly provocative book “How Woke Won: The Elitist Movement that Threatens Democracy, Tolerance and Reason”.
The woke world claims to be a progressive one; but the Urban Dictionary calls it an “act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue.” It is a world of pretensions, authoritarianism, arrogance, and anarchy. At its core, woke is the worst form of identity politics which seeks to push humans into ever smaller silos of sex and racial identities, all in the name of promoting social justice.
In this pretentious world, one comes across words that are not commonly used by people, like ‘Latinx’, ‘people of colour’, ‘cervix-haver, ‘menstruator’ and ‘pregnant person’. And some words, including the most normal ones like ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are prohibited.
“Back in the UK, at the University of Manchester, staff have been advised not to use terms like mother and father and instead to use more inclusive and gender-neutral terms like ‘parent’ or ‘guardian’. Likewise, ‘men’ and ‘women’ should be replaced with ‘individuals’, while ‘manpower’, ‘mankind’ and ‘chairman’ should be replaced with workforce, humankind and ‘chair’. The University of Edinburgh provides a list of transphobic statements that academics and students are urged not to make. It includes ‘all women hate their periods’ and ‘you’re either a man or a woman’”, writes Joanna.
“In all these different areas of our daily lives, we now swim in a woke culture. Those who share woke values are people who think that a person’s gendered or racialised identity is the most important thing about them, who think diversity is an end in itself, who think the past is a source of shame, who think words can wound and should be carefully regulated. Then there are those who continue to see merit in an older set of values. Those who think social class is more likely to determine life chances than skin colour, who think being a woman means having a female body and is not a state of mind, who think equality before the law is fairer than special treatment for some, and who think free speech is more important than politically correct speech. Members of this latter group find themselves increasingly alienated from today’s society”, she bemoans.
One latest manifestation of this woke culture is the ‘cancel culture’ that has become a bane of scholarship in Western academic institutions. It is a crude form of liberal oppression of dissent. A breed of social media activists, whom writer Freddie DeBoer called “offence archaeologists”, dedicate a lot of time and effort to trawl through the social media posts of a target and then indulge in public shaming of their author. Massive campaigns are launched against individual scholars of repute, based on things they may or may not have said, denying them legitimate platforms.
These “offence archaeologists” and their militant enforcers have succeeded in pulling down several statues all over the West that included effigies of Belgian King Leopold II, voyager Christopher Columbus and former US President Andrew Jackson. Victims of this cancel culture include renowned British writer J.K. Rowling and many others who hold relatively conservative views on society and culture.
Woke culture is now targeting children in schools. In Brighton in the UK, a form that the parents need to fill in states: ‘We recognise that not all children and young people identify with the gender they were assigned at birth or may identify as a gender other than male or female, however the current systems (set nationally) only record gender as male or female. Please support your child to choose the gender they most identify with or if they have another gender identity, please leave this blank’.
Stonewall, the UK’s leading LGBT charity, advises schools that transgender pupils should use toilets and changing rooms that match their gender identity rather than their sex. Hundreds of primary and secondary schools have paid to sign up to be Stonewall School and College Champions. In woke schools, children are taught that gender is a matter of personal identity choice and must never be assumed. Girls learn that their need for privacy comes second to the rights of boys who identify as girls.
Calling a spade a spade, Joanna critically observes that “universities, as institutions, become less concerned with the pursuit of truth, or knowledge, and more concerned with the inculcation of woke values…. In reality, the ascendancy of woke has less to do with the intellectual authority of critical theorists and more to do with the abject failure of an intellectual elite to defend Enlightenment values such as rationality, reason, liberty, progress and tolerance”.
“How woke won” is an intellectual treat. It highlights the hollowness of most of the woke theories that are dangerously devoid of truth and wisdom. Joanna’s narrative style also wins the hearts of her readers. However, her treatment of the question of racial cleavages in the West that have resulted in the famous “Black Lives Matter” movement cannot be fully appreciated by all. That there exists deep-rooted racial discrimination that sometimes creeps into the social system is indisputable. The fact that it has become fodder for the woke activists doesn’t diminish the importance of that challenge. Joanna could have been a bit more sensitive to this issue.
Woke ideas seem to be succeeding temporarily but blowback is already taking place. Societies are realising that “woke is not compassionate, kind or politically neutral. Woke divides people according to race, gender and sexuality and, in the process, rehabilitates outdated prejudices”.
“It seems that the more people come to understand woke, the less they agree with it”, Joanna concludes. Hers is an interesting read.