They are not well-meaning nice people who have gone a little bit too far
The cultural influence of woke has gone from strength to strength because it is rarely challenged and even more rarely challenged effectively. In this final post on the woke phenomenon, we explore the unfortunate tendency to appease it by people who ought to know better.
The principal form assumed by woke appeasement is the contention that the motives and causes driving the cultural politics of identity are on balance positive because their goal is to achieve some form of hitherto denied right or act of injustice. Woke appeasers qualify their praise for woke campaigns by noting that, unfortunately, these movements go too far and create unnecessary conflict. However, they claim that despite all the conflict and polarisation they inflict on society, they should nevertheless be praised for bringing to the public’s attention the injustices suffered by a particular minority group. Yes, these woke campaigns must become more tolerant and circumspect in their behaviour. Still, the standpoint movements such MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Promotion of Transgender Awareness, and LGBTQ+ represent – on balance – a positive contribution to the welfare of society. In any case, the woke appeasers argue that whatever the problem with Wokism, it pales into insignificance in comparison with the threat of populism.
Woke appeasement tends to justify its orientation in one of six ways:
1. Woke campaigns are driven by positive impulses, such as the aspiration for social justice and fighting hate and oppression, even if they sometimes go too far in their zealous advocacy of their causes.
2. Yes, now and again, there are instances of infringements on the exercise of free speech, but the prevalence of cancel culture is greatly exaggerated. It sometimes oversteps the mark but is a relatively rare and minor phenomenon.
3. It is counterproductive and unhelpful to overreact to attempts to impose a new speech code or to censor certain speech acts. It is far better to show understanding and to be sensitive to the demand of trans activists to be known by a different name or a pronoun. Critics of woke should hold back because making a political issue of their behaviour will unnecessarily hurt the feelings of an already insecure and marginal community.
4. Wokish campaigns may well irritate, but it is important to understand that for most of its proponents, theirs is a passing phase. Supporters of movements to decolonise everything or to subvert gender binaries may soon grow out of their youthful enthusiasm, and there is little point in picking a fight over what is likely to prove to be a temporary phenomenon.
5. Language constantly changes, and young people, in particular, always possess a vocabulary different from their elders. So instead of worrying about the demand that we mind our language and embrace a more enlightened vocabulary, adults should understand that theirs is outdated and that they need to keep up with the times.
6. The problem is not woke but the reaction to it. The politicisation of identity can indeed create upset and heighten the level of politicisation of everyday life. But the people who fan the flame of conflict and continually exploit the concern with cancel culture are the real culprits in this political drama. They are the ones who are truly intolerant.
See no evil- hear no evil
The well-known American commentator Francis Fukuyama, widely known for his thesis on the End of History, offers a systematic exposition of woke appeasement. In his article ‘Against Identity Politics: The New Tribalism and the Crisis of Democracy’, Fukuyama raises concerns about the divisive consequences of identity politics.1 Yet, he believes that the politicisation of identity constituted an understandable response to legitimate ‘resentment over indignities’. He writes:
‘The Black Lives Matter movement sprang from a series of well-publicized police killings of African Americans and forced the rest of the world to pay attention to the victims of police brutality. On college campuses and in offices around the United States, women seethed over a seeming epidemic of sexual harassment and assault and concluded that their male peers simply did not see them as equals. The rights of transgender people, who had previously not been widely recognized as distinct targets of discrimination, became a cause célèbre.’
Fukuyama asserts that ‘the left’s embrace of identity politics was both understandable and necessary’. Why? Because apparently, the lived experiences of distinct identity groups differ, and they often need to be addressed in ways specific to those groups. In a tone of understanding, he pointed out that ‘outsiders often fail to perceive the harm they are doing by their actions, as many men realized in the wake of the #MeToo movement’s revelations regarding sexual harassment and sexual assault. Identity politics aims to change culture and behavior in ways that have real material benefits for many people’.
Fukuyama qualifies his claim that identity politics is a ‘natural and inevitable response to injustice’ by decrying that it focuses too much on cultural issues and that this orientation has diverted attention from confronting the problem of socioeconomic inequality. But as far as he is concerned, unlike the challenge posed by populist movements and supporters of Donald Trump, identity politics is something that he is prepared to live with. With a note of frustration, he writes that ‘perhaps the worst thing about left-wing identity politics is that it has stimulated the rise of right wing identity politics’.
From Fukuyama’s perspective, little is truly objectionable about wokish politics. Others, too, agree that identity politics is a normal or natural reaction to injustice and therefore do not see what the fuss is all about.
From Appeasement to Denial
In the current era, often, the very existence of a conflict over cultural values is denied. Media commentators insist there is no free-speech crisis and that cancel culture is a myth. The culture war is the invention of groups of bitter, out-of-touch white reactionaries who fear the loss of their privilege, they claim.
This is woke denialism. The principal premise of this denialism is that campaigns against heteronormativity, whiteness, trans-exclusionary radical feminists, cultural appropriation and so on are just struggles for social justice. Even though these campaigns target – sometimes violently – many of society’s long-established cultural norms, apparently, they do not add up to a culture war. Instead, this crusade against Western culture is dressed up in words like ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’. Those on the other side – those who want to preserve the values of their community and who resist woke campaigners’ attempts to take control of language – are accused of waging a culture war.
Culture war denialism is an attempt to normalise and legitimise the crusade against the historical gains of the Enlightenment and Western culture. At the same time, the culture war denialists try to frame the desire to defend the norms and customs of the enlightened, modern democratic society as a dangerous threat to the well-being and identity of specific individuals and groups.
To understand how culture war denialism works, let’s outline some of its different forms.
In recent years, there has been a systematic effort to minimise the significance of the culture war. Numerous commentators claim that the culture war is exaggerated. It only involves a small number of protagonists and therefore does not directly touch most people’s lives, they insist. A headline in the Guardian summed up this view: ‘“Culture wars” are fought by tiny minority.’ Citing a report by the More in Common think-tank, the Guardian claimed that the ‘desire to fight a “culture war” is the preserve of a small group on the political extremes that do not represent most British voters, according to a major new project on political polarisation in the UK’. The scare quotes around ‘culture war’ are designed to drive home how fake this conflict is. The Guardian reassures its readers that a ‘disproportionate amount of political comment on social media is generated by small, politically driven groups’.
Woke denialism deflects attention from the intolerant and censorious practices associated with cancel culture. In particular, it denies the reality of an all-pervasive free speech crisis in the Anglos-American world.
Typically woke denialism goes as far as denying the existence of a Culture War. In its most dishonest form, culture war denialism claims that people who talk about a culture war live in a fantasy world. From this perspective, there is simply no such thing as cancel culture, and you shouldn’t worry about such problems as trans women competing in biological women’s sports. This standpoint is frequently articulated by Charles M Blow, an opinion writer for The New York Times, who dismisses concerns about the promotion of critical race theory or trans culture as a kind of ‘freakout’. He claims that in the United States, it was the Republicans who invented these problems to scare and mobilise their voters. He suggests that what really motivates opponents of wokeness and cancel culture is their concern with white privilege.
In the UK, woke denialism is frequently promoted in the columns of The Guardian. Writing of the ‘Myth of the free speech Crisis’, Nesrine Malik attempts to turn the table on ‘overblown fears of censorship’, which apparently ‘normalised hate speech and silenced minorities’. Malik argues that concerns about a free speech crisis are motivated by the impulse of normalising ‘hate speech or shut down legitimate responses to it’. From her standpoint, denying the claim of a free speech crisis represents a blow against those who wish to ‘destigmatise racism and prejudice’.
Sam Fowles, writing of ‘The Invented Free Speech Crisis’, dismisses the inventors of this crisis as ‘cranks’ and argues that what they are promoting is a ‘pseudo-crisis narrative’. One commentator in The Guardian suggested that the British Government is ‘manufacturing suspicion to fuel a “nakedly political culture war”’ on the free speech issue. The barrister John Bowers and the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, David Isaac, declared in The Guardian, ‘Ignore this manufactured crisis: free speech is alive and well in our universities’.
Woke appeasement and denial reinforce one another to dismiss and devalue millions of people's general concern regarding the threat that wokism poses to their way of life.
It is essential not to make the slightest concessions to wokism. Contrary to the claim that the cultural warriors are motivated by lofty motives and that they have a legitimate case for wanting to put right historical wrongs, their movement is motivated by an authoritarian temperament that wishes to impose an alien way of life on the rest of us. This movement aims not to secure a better future or change the world for the better. They seek to impose their worldview on society and change how we speak, behave and think. They want to achieve this objective by turning the legacy of Western Culture into a source of shame. In this way, they wish to detach communities from their way of life and leave them without the guidance offered by the customs and traditions of their past. Theirs is an anti-civilisational programme that would doom our communities into decadence. Those who wish to appease this movement are, in effect, calling for a modus vivendi with with the would-be grave diggers of civilisation.
If you have the time check out my speech on the phenomenon of woke, given at the European Union Parliament
Against Identity Politics: The New Tribalism and the Crisis of Democracy Author(s): Francis Fukuyama Source: Foreign Affairs, Vol. 97, No. 5 (SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2018