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Wokism On A Mission
The Aware -Part 2 of What is Woke And What It Isn't
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It has been widely noted that the term woke linguistically conveys the connotation of being awake and not asleep. As Joanna Williams noted, ‘Spring awakens nature, passion can be awakened, and people become awake to new knowledge’. The claim to being woke is inextricably linked to the practice of awakening those who are still asleep. In contemporary parlance, the pursuit of this practice is referred to as the raising of awareness. This now enjoys formidable cultural valuation, and those at the forefront of promoting this activity proudly embrace the designation of being aware. That is why those who reject woke as a term of self-designation are nevertheless happy to describe themselves, and people who are like themselves, as ‘the aware’. From their perspective, being aware is not simply a state of mind but an important component of identity.
There are good reasons why the possession of awareness has acquired an ideological connotation and why the activity of raising it has become politicised. The very gesture of ‘raising awareness’ involves drawing symbolic distinctions between those who possess this quality and those who do not. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of being aware has shifted from being ‘on guard’ to becoming ‘well-informed’ in recent decades. In its 2008 revision, the OED added that being aware meant ‘generally concerned and well informed’ and being ‘sensitive’ and ‘savvy’. It noted that the word ‘aware’ is frequently linked to a ‘modifying adverb indicating the relevant issue or field’ such as ‘politically aware’ or ‘socially aware’.
Political and social awareness are implicitly relational concepts. ‘The aware’ assert that they are not just well informed but possess a consciousness that most of society lacks. That consciousness endows them with a morally superior cultural status. They have the incentive to flaunt their status and to underline the distinction between themselves and those who are not aware. That is why they highlight and problematise the supposed flaws and illusions of those who are not aware. There is no term for formally designating the unaware, but those who possess awareness act on the assumption that the unaware are their inferior moral opposites. Furthermore, those whose awareness needs raising constitute a large section of society.
The relation between ‘the aware’ and the unaware resembles, in a caricatured form, the distinction that leftist commentators drew between false consciousness and class consciousness in the past. They are in the business of what Peter Baehr calls illusion attribution. Baehr noted that ‘before the nineteenth century, it was common for theologians and secular moralists to deplore the illusions of humanity’.Twenty-first-century awareness raising offers a 21st-century version of this tradition.
There is, though, a significant difference between the concept of false consciousness developed by sections of the 19th-century progressive and Marxist movements and the contemporary framing of unawareness. The authors of the idea of false consciousness believed there was the potential for working people mystified by their illusions to acquire real or class consciousness. They even assigned them a historical role of transforming the world. Today, the unaware do not possess a historic mission. They are not simply unconscious but also ignorant, uninformed and need constant awareness raising. They do not simply lack awareness but have negative characteristics such as racism, prejudice, and authoritarian forms of behaviour.
The term ‘raising awareness’ implicitly draws attention to the superiority of people over those who are not aware. The state of being aware serves as a mark of cultural distinction, connoting an identity of superiority towards those who are presumably unaware and still in the dark. Stewart Justman wrote that awareness is a ‘good impossible to question and a power impossible to oppose’.Initiatives designed to raise awareness, provide participants with virtues and moral qualities that distinguish them from those who do not see the light. The very gesture of ‘raising awareness’ thus involves drawing symbolic distinctions between those who possess this quality and those who do not.
Those who are aware enjoy cognitive privilege. In their book, The Bell Curve, Herrnstein and Murray referred to such people as the cognitive elite. They claim that the cognitive elite enjoys cognitive privilege, which is another way of claiming that they possess the kind of intelligence and cognitive ability that distinguishes them from the mass of society. Cognitive privilege is the prerequisite for achieving ‘the aware’ status, and the claim to possess awareness is the primary qualification for membership in this elite.
The exercise of cognitive privilege does not simply mean acting intelligently but constantly having to demonstrate one’s cultural superiority over others. From their standpoint, cultural superiority requires psychic distancing from prejudices and illusions, particularly those associated with Western society's traditions, values and practices. It also means perpetually inflating the difference between ‘the aware’ and its ignorant opposite. The highlighting of differences and cultural distinctions requires the ceaseless denigration of the unaware. Those who claim awareness are committed to the moral devaluation of traditional western culture and the kind of people who continue to embrace its supposed outdated values.
Despite its innocuous and feel-good appearance, the word ‘awareness’ is a politically loaded one. To be aware is to be informed, but it also signifies being watchful, vigilant, being on one’s guard. In its most neutral form, raising awareness can mean enhancing people’s consciousness of a problem. But in practice, the call on someone to raise their awareness is a demand to adopt the awareness raiser’s outlook and values. Raising awareness targets ostensibly outdated norms and values, customs and forms of behaviour and claims to unmask the prejudice, hurtful and dangerous assumptions that underpin them. The possession of awareness is a marker of superior status, while its absence represents moral inferiority. That is why the refusal to abide by the exhortation to ‘be aware’ invites the act of moral condemnation.
Awareness raisers do not merely seek to impose their views on others but also to attack and discredit those who refuse to conform to their ideals. Although the cognitive elite contends that they are tolerant, inclusive, and pluralistic, they cannot accept the moral legitimacy of their opponents. That is why in the United States – where the Cultural War is most developed – the language deployed by its protagonists is so intemperate and inflammatory. The language used to attack identities that stand in the way of the cognitive elite is no less hateful than the rhetoric used by racist demagogues. The moral contrast drawn between what Hillary Clinton described as the irredeemably flawed deplorables and her superior and aware network serves to both flatter her class and denigrate those on the wrong side of history.
They Hate The Deplorables
The former American President Barack Obama personifies the project of the awareness-raising demagogue. He wrote that the ‘point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable’. However, as his practice demonstrated, raising awareness meant attacking the unaware people who refuse to embrace his attitude and lifestyle. One of the most memorable expressions of the intensity of this politicisation of awareness occurred in April 2008 when during the American Presidential Campaign, Barack Obama gave his ‘Bittergate’ speech. This was the name given to the controversy caused by Obama’s remarks at a fundraising event in San Francisco. Obama was talking about his difficulty in winning over white working-class voters in the Pennsylvania primary when he said: ‘[It’s] not surprising they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.’ This casual and knowing putdown of people not like him sent a very clear message about the cultural fault line that divides America today. He is blue (Democrat and liberal); they are red (Republican and traditionalist); he is aware, and they are bitter.
What underpinned Obama’s contemptuous description of the small-town folk of the Rust Belt is the conviction that they inhabit a different moral universe from that of enlightened America. Differences in lifestyle between ‘the aware’ and the unaware have become politicised to the point that what you eat, how you bring up children or have sex or regard religion and relate to wider culture have acquired a politicised moral dimension.
The imputation of intelligence, sensitivity, broadmindedness, sophistication, and enlightenment ensure that campaigns oriented towards awareness raising provide an important cultural resource for its participants. Those who draw on these resources are incentivised to inflate the behavioural and cultural distinction between themselves and the rest of society. That is why awareness-raisers are preoccupied with constructing lifestyles that contrast sharply with their perceived inferiors.
Raising awareness can be about anything touching people’s behaviour and lifestyle. There are hundreds of different Health Awareness Days in the UK and the US every year. It is a trope rooted in psychology and the therapeutic ethos. Unlike its 1960s predecessor of ‘raising consciousness’, it does not simply refer to what we do to ourselves but to others. Campaigns devoted to raising awareness often focus on altering lifestyles and health-related behaviours. It can refer to changing the behaviour and practices of parents to demanding that a particular group’s hitherto unacknowledged issues be recognised. It serves as an all-encompassing device for re-educating its target audience on various disparate subjects. Unlike traditional methods of socialisation, its target audience is not confined to children and young people. Raising awareness need not be about a particular cause. It is represented as a value in its own right. As one higher education institute website declared, ‘both the Student’s Union and University will be looking to continue raising awareness’.[vii] The act of raising awareness is perceived as good in and of itself. Why? Because it signals an openness to attitude and behaviour change. In some instances, it refers to the willingness to change oneself – in others; it implies a commitment to help others change how they behave and think.
Promoters of ‘awareness’ frequently exhibit an enthusiasm not unlike those shown by zealous ideologues. Awareness entitles one to frame a problem in a manner that is not susceptible to discussion and debate. A narrative that attaches itself to being aware of a problem is not just a version of the truth but the truth itself. Frequently such truths claim to draw on the authority of science and assert that it is beyond dispute. The implicit intolerance towards dissident views shown by impatient awareness raisers is strikingly communicated in the recently invented put-down of choice, ‘Educate Yourself’. ‘Educate Yourself’ does not mean go to a library and read some books. It means re-educating yourself and accepting our values and outlook on the world. In many public and private institutions, educating yourself is not an option, and people are instructed to attend awareness-raising courses, seminars, and workshops on various subjects such as unconscious bias, gender sensitivity or consent.
Calls for raising awareness and to re-educate yourself represent a demand for re-socialisation. In practice, it represents the expansion of socialisation from the sphere of young people to adulthood. Since it calls for a behaviour change, it is not surprising that its practice resembles those of social engineers. Technocratic-minded social engineers argue that since it is not enough to campaign to raise awareness, their professional skills are essential for changing people’s behaviour. They contend
‘Because abundant research shows that people who are simply given more information are unlikely to change their beliefs or behavior, it’s time for activists and organizations seeking to drive change in the public interest to move beyond just raising awareness. It wastes a lot of time and money for important causes that can’t afford to sacrifice either. Instead, social change activists need to use behavioral science to craft campaigns that use messaging and concrete calls to action that get people to change how they feel, think, or act, and as a result create long-lasting change’.
Whether behavioural science achieves its objective of ‘long lasting change’ is not evident. However, what is certain is that, at the very least, its project of re-socialisation unsettles prevailing cultural norms and practices.
The ethos and practice of raising awareness are based on the unstated and often unacknowledged assumption that behavioural change is important for both the individual and society. It is often devoted to gaining support for attitudes lacking significant societal support. Awareness raising is not a response to public demand for new ways of conducting life. On the contrary, it aims to create a demand for social and cultural practices that a relatively small coterie of self-ascribed awareness raisers believe are good for its putative beneficiaries. Although its promoters perceive themselves as part of a movement to raise awareness, it is far more accurate to characterise it as a top-down affair. It is also an activity that assists possessors of aware views in forging a sense of cohesion and group consciousness.
The Exercise of Cognitive Privilege
The possession of the identity of awareness comes into its own through its exercise of cognitive privilege. That is why it needs a terrain to exercise its privilege. In practice, awareness does not solely depend on knowledge or knowing more than others but also on distinguishing that knowledge from the outlook of the unaware. Advocates of ‘awareness’ interpret this practice in the following way:
‘Awareness is a state of mind and a habit of behaviour rather than a finite quality that can be measurably achieved. There is never a point at which you can say “Right, I’m aware now, what shall I do next?” Like a coin-fed electricity meter, awareness has to be constantly topped up if it is to continue to provide energy for the various activities it supports’.
The subjective or psychological necessity for constantly topping up awareness assumes the external expression of finding new awareness-raising targets. The maintenance of cognitive privilege demands the constant problematisation of the taken-for-granted dimension of the human condition. Its exercise requires rejecting and devaluing what was acceptable in the past.
One prominent form assumed by the exercise of cognitive privilege is linguistic engineering. They delight in correcting people’s language and are ceaselessly devoted to reforming society’s vocabulary. The main reason ‘the aware’ are so obsessed with language is that it provides this group with a cultural resource for cultivating their hegemony. Through linguistic engineering, they have sought to impose their values and worldview on society. At the same time, through constantly demanding changes to our vocabulary, they can invent new problems and targets for awareness raising. The invention of Latinx – an alternative to Latino or Latina – illustrates the linguistic restlessness that characterises the behaviour of awareness raisers. Regularly issuing guidelines on language usage serves as a reminder that society is still under the spell of dangerous illusions and outdated prejudices. It also facilitates cultivating the moral authority needed to police the insensitive speech acts of the unaware.
The condemnation of what in woke terminology is described as ‘outdated and inappropriate language’ has played and continues to play an important role in the project of inverting western culture. ‘Outdated’ has become a favourite term of abuse hurled at opponents by ‘the aware’.
In recent times the meaning of outdated has radically mutated from a term of description connoting old-fashioned or obsolete to a statement of moral condemnation. Today, the very coupling of outdated with the attitudes and behaviour of older generations conveys a sense of moral and intellectual inferiority. That is why in intergenerational discussions and arguments, the response to the views of the older unaware is often the statement ‘they don’t get it’. In effect, ‘outdated ideas’ should not be taken seriously. Instead, they can be legitimately vilified and condemned.
Of course, there is nothing new about criticising old people for their outdated ideas. This has been a widely practised custom designed to devalue the moral status of the elderly. For example, back in 1950, the American sociologist David Riesman drew attention to the project of de-legitimating the status of the grandparent. In his study, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American character, he stated that ‘grandparents stand as emblems of how little one can learn from one’s elders about the things that matter’.
Today it is not only grandparents but virtually any ideal, custom and mode of behaviour that bears the imprint of tradition that is likely to be condemned as outdated by the Anglo-American cultural establishment. Individuals are often accused of using outdated language and words. At times the policing and targeting of outdated ideas become its caricature. Content and trigger warnings on old museum exhibits and films communicate that viewers must beware of their obsolete ideas. A veritable army of offence archaeologists is digging up the past's outdated legacy to insulate society from its supposed toxic effect.
More ominously, ridding the world of outdated views and sentiments has acquired a coercive dimension. In Canada, one school board has organised a book-burning ceremony to celebrate the destruction of publications containing outdated views. The ritual, titled a ‘flame purification ceremony’, aims ‘to make a gesture of openness and reconciliation by replacing books in our libraries that had outdated content and carried negative stereotypes about First Nations, Métis and Inuit people’.
For the promoters of the flame purification ceremony, the corollary of their narrative of the outdated is a palpable sense of hostility towards the past. The legacy of the past is not only deemed irrelevant but is also denounced and attacked. Early traces of this trend were noted in the 19th century by the renowned Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt, who remarked that ‘a very peculiar phenomenon has become manifest, namely the sudden devaluation of all “mere” events of the past’. He also noted that since the French revolution, ‘men took upon themselves the right to indict the past as a whole.’The accusatory orientation towards the past alluded to by Burckhardt has acquired a crusade-like character in the 21st century.
In the contemporary era, the accusatory orientation towards the past provides ‘the aware’ with an opportunity to expand their activity into a vast territory that is, by definition, outdated. That is one reason why in recent times, there has been a momentous shift in the focus of the Culture War towards the targeting of the past. Raising awareness about the wrongs of the past – and it seems that everything is wrong about it – has become the principal focus of awareness raising. Awareness raisers are so busy fixing the problems of the past and ridding the contemporary world of its supposed baneful influence that they have little time to think about the future. So, the exercise of cognitive privilege possesses a powerful presentist impulse. The project of detaching society from its past and liberating it from its influence is underwritten by a form of cultural self-flattery that serves as the psychological equivalent of ‘the end of history’.
The rejection of the past is not motivated by the idealisation of a positive alternative to be realised in the future. Some members of ‘the aware’ may genuinely hope that other members of society will one day overcome their prejudices. Still, they have no ambition to transform society in the future and have no vision of a Utopia. The raising of awareness and the exercise of cognitive privilege is frozen in the present.
Awareness raising does not present itself as overtly ideological, but its exercise is no less zealous than many movements associated with the dogmatic temper of saviourism. Its intolerance is justified by the claim that the unaware are likely to be dangerous to themselves and others. That is why it does not rely merely on arguments but on powerful institutions such as the state to impose moral and physical discipline on others. It depends on formal and informal censorship to silence dissent and encourages the medicalisation and criminalisation of the behaviour of its opponents.
From the vantage point of cultural sociology, awareness raisers can be characterised as moral entrepreneurs and their activities as a form of moral enterprise. The moral entrepreneur is a rule creator, whom the sociologist Howard Becker explains, ‘feels that nothing can be right in the world until rules are made to correct it’. However, since evil is omnipresent, every new rule serves only as a prelude to the next. A moral crusader is a ‘professional discoverer of wrongs to be righted, of situations requiring new rules’. Unlike a campaign focused on a specific objective, a moral crusade can never draw the conclusion that its mission has been accomplished. Awareness raisers tend to assume that more rules are needed and a moral crusade is rarely able to accept that a problem has been solved. That is why a moral crusader tends to ‘discover something new to view with alarm, a new evil about which something ought to be done’. Following Becker's analysis that is also why aware raising is a never ending moral enterprise.
However, they are often ‘fervent’ and ‘self-righteous’; they are not motivated by cynicism or opportunism but by the impulse to help others. Their zealous awareness-raising activities often incite confusion and moral disorientation.
Even though the cultivators of awareness have acquired a hegemonic status, they continue to search for new adversaries. The numerous campaigns launched to raise awareness can be captured by the concept of a moral crusade. In his classic study of moral enterprise, Becker concludes that the ‘final outcome of the moral crusade is a police force’. The late Irish commentator, Desmond Fennell, characterised today’s raft of awareness-raisers as ‘the Correctorate’. Wielding tremendous cultural and institutional power, they use opaque language, consisting of words like ‘inappropriate’ or ‘problematic’, to correct people.
The reason why significant sections of the political, economic and cultural establishment have embraced the outlook of the awareness raisers is that it provides or appears to provide them with a measure of authority. The cultivation of a l’espirit de corps through the attribution of a state of awareness endows its possessors with a group identity. Shared awareness allows those affiliated with the caste of awareness-raisers to recognise one another. Through the possession of aware attitudes, people set themselves apart, reinforce their status and draw a moral contrast between their styles of life and those of others. They can regard themselves as ‘the aware’, as Thomas Haskell called the ‘community of the competent’.[xvi]
Charged with reforming cultural attitudes, ‘the aware’ claim a moral authority, which the ruling class sorely lacks. In this way, they resemble what R.J. Higby called the cognoscenti – a ruling class that thinks it knows better than everyone else. Through signing up to the causes of ‘the aware’, they demonstrate that they ‘get it’ and assert a claim for moral authority. Their hope is to endow their rule with legitimacy.
Part 3 will explore the relationship between the phenomenon of woke and the quest for legitimacy.
Peter Baehr (2019) The Unmasking Style in Social Theory : The Unmasking Style in Social Theory, Routledge: London, p.55.
Justman, S. (2015) The Nocebo Effect: Overdiagnosis and Its Costs, Palgrave : New York, p.159
Cook, R. and Davies, A. (2021) Awareness and Influence in Health and Social Care. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis.
Jakob Burckhardt (1943)Reflection On History, London : George Allen & Unwin, pp.6 & 63.
Becker, H.S. (1963) Outsiders, Studies in the Sociology of Deviance , The Free Press: New
York, pp .147-148 & 153.
Becker (1963) p.148.
Becker (1963) p. 153.
Higby Jr., R.J. (2012) “The Cognoscenti”, The ruling political class who thinks it knows better than everyone else’.