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Opinion

Is Anti-Woke a Grass-Root Movement?


 
Woke, adjective; woker, wokest. Chiefly US slang – Being aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice). Disapproving: politically liberal or progressive (as in matters of racial and social justice) especially in a way that is considered unreasonable or extreme.

Webster’s Dictionary

STOCKHOLM, Sweden, Feb 8 2024 (IPS) - “Woke” was for a century, especially among black people in the US, an inspirational concept. However, almost overnight it turned into a pejorative. Like using the term “politically correct” as an insult, calling someone “woke” came to imply that the referred person’s views are excessively ridiculous, or even despicable. Being “anti-woke” has become an indication that you do not belong to an assumed group of “do-gooders”, who at the expense of right-minded “ordinary” citizens assert the demands of interest groups, which declare themselves to be discriminated against due to their ethnicity/race, gender, sexual preference, and/or physical or psychological disabilities.

Originally being woked meant to be attentive to injustice, in a sense indicated by Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

    One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. But today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.

In those days to be woke meant to be knowledgeable about and attentive to threats to tolerance, compassion and human rights. Or like the R&B group Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes sang in 1975: “Wake up everybody, no more sleeping in bed, no more backwards thinking, time for thinking ahead!” Martin Luther King’s statement and the R&B tune might be compared with opinions currently expressed by former US -, and maybe would-be, president Donald J. Trump:

    … political correctness is just absolutely killing us as a country. You can’t say anything. Anything you say today, they’ll find a reason why it’s not good.

    I don’t like the term “woke” because I hear, “Woke, woke, woke.” It’s just a term they use, half the people can’t even define it, they don’t know what it is.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that the Biden-administration is “destroying the country with woke”, accusations repeated by European right-wingers declaring that their nations also are destroyed by woke, like Hungary’s Orbán who stated that “we [the Hungarians] will not give up fighting against woke ideology”.

The “woke nightmare” of anti-woke activists might be compared to a futuristic short story Kurt Vonnegut wrote as a warning of threats to self-expression. Harrison Bergeron is a dystopian satire taking place in the year of 2081, 120 years after the story was written. According this nightmare a US, “politically correct” Constitution dictates that all Americans have to be entirely equal. No one is allowed to be smarter, better-looking, or more physically able than anyone else. Ruthless agents of a Handicapper General enforce equality laws by forcing citizens to wear so called handicaps, i.e. masks for those who are too beautiful, earpiece radio-transmitters for the intelligent, which blast out noises meant to disrupt their thoughts, and heavy weights for the strong and athletic.

To many, this equality delirium is now becoming a reality. “Woke” is found at the epicentre on both the left and right side of the political spectrum. It has become a pervasive catchphrase for a wide variety of social movements related to issues concerning LGBTQ rights, feminism, immigration, climate change and marginalised communities. The woke concept is accordingly an abhorrence for people opposed to phenomena like the toppling, or besmirching of statues deemed to honour villains. Another “woke initiative” making opponents agitated are efforts to ensure an environment supportive of transgender and/or gender non-conforming individuals, by advising against using “gender identifying” terminologies like father/mother, male/female, brother/sister etc., while propagating for the installation of separate toilets for transgender people. Another alleged woke proposal, which tend to upset people, are attempts to rebrand religious holidays by recommending a “neutral terminology” and even decide against their open celebration. Related to this is the implementation of measures to please religious fundamentalists, like separate gender-based rules when it comes to dress, sports, education, etc. To large swaths of the general public such a development indicates “political correctness” gone mad.

However, the problem with assaults on “political correctness” is that they might go too far, emboldening obscurantists, who have been lurking in the shadows, to bring their hate speech into the light of day. Anti-wokes are also lowering the bar for what is considered to be an acceptable discourse among politicians and other leaders, while forcing them further to extreme positions. “Woke” has become a slur dividing the world in “us” and “them”, without exploring the reasons for different beliefs. Influencers have declared that what they call The Great Awokening has become a cult of “leftist social justice”. An almost religious, fundamentalistic sectarianism with followers demonstrating a fervour similar to that of born-again zealots, who want to punish heresy by banishing sinners from society, or coercing them to public demonstrations of shame.

One political pressure group infected by anti-woke feelings are Climate change deniers, who use pseudoscience to contradict a scientific consensus about the threat of climate change. Efforts are made to sweep legitimate concerns about this lurking danger under the rug. One of many examples of dangerous white-washing is the Fox Channel-promoted and influential Republican politician and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, whose 2023 The Kids Guide to the Truth About Climate Change, falsely minimize fossil fuel emissions’ contribution to global warming.

Such storytelling might be considered in the light of President Trump’s environmental policies, which erased or loosened almost 100 rules and regulations concerning pollution in the air, water and atmosphere, as well as they were instrumental in the US withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Such actions critically influenced and slowed down global efforts to reduce emissions and prompted other governments to downplay scientifically based warnings about the urgency of putting a stop to fossil fuel burning.

One of many indicators of a growing support to anti-wokers is the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC), which in October 2023 celebrated its first conference in Greenwich, London, featuring 100 speakers, attracting 1,500 delegates from 71 nations The event was labelled as “one of the largest gatherings of the global centre-right in recent British history”, an “anti-woke Davos”. The ARC is an international organisation, which purpose is to replace a “sense of division and drift within Conservatism and Western society at large, with a renewed cohesion and purpose”. The Conference was inaugurated with a speech by Philippa Stroud, “the Baroness Stroud” a Conservative Party Peer in the British House of Lords and leader of several conservative think tanks. She greeted the participants with the words: “You are all here because you are personally invited, since you are people with courage, vision and a transformative way of thinking.”

This was different from the Trumpist movements’ less unpolished and forthright anti-woke meetings. The ARC conference was more lavish, polished and academic, though even if the packaging was different the messages were similar. Conservative and liberal speakers were critical of what they considered to be a failed liberal social order, fomenting climate alarmism, totalitarianism, “cultural Marxism”, and lack of parental responsibility.

Climate change was not dismissed, but reporting on its dangers were described as misleading and dishonest. The climate change activist Greta Thunberg was described as suffering from a “histrionic personality disorder” and it was declared that the climate movement had similarities to narcissism and hysteria. The conference’s opposite and more “positive” message was that energy and prosperity are interconnected and that a continuous use of fossil fuels is decisive for lifting countries out of poverty. Climate change will reduce prosperity, but not eradicate it. A somewhat spurious assertion.

A double-edged message is common for most anti-woke affirmations and the ARC conference’s self-proclaimed “positive attitude” was an example of this. The individual’s value, personal responsibility and right to self-determination were emphasized and contrasted to “the woke culture’s” insistence on structural explanations for group adversity. Not a word was uttered about inequality and/or the State’s concern and responsibility for equal rights to education and health care, instead it was declared that “State interference is not the solution, but the problem”.

The nuclear family was described as a recipe for success. Mothers had to be encouraged to stay at home for at least three years, but it was not explained how this would be socio-economically realized. Nothing was said about the fact that not all families are happy, or the importance of a loving home where chores are shared, instead there were obscure statements about “conservative family values”, attacking abortion and same-sex marriages.

The anti-woke movement, as it emerged during the ARC conference, claims to be a revolt against the Establishment. However, many of the speakers were extremely privileged, or even millionaires, being representatives of the same elite, which the movement declares it wants to distance itself from. What made Donald Trump so successful was not that he was like his voters, but that he made them consider him to be one of them. It’s one thing to formulate a story, another to achieve it in reality. In many ways, the anti-woke movement appears to be a myth to live by, rather than a serious attempt to wake up to a threatening reality and do something about it. In many respects, the anti-woke movement appears to be more of a hankering for bygone times than a search for innovative visions for the future. On a wall in the conference room was a huge poster with a quote from the US social anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” One might wonder – What kind of change?

Main sources: Ekman, Malin (2023) ”Petersons massmöte vill stoppa ‘woke-sjukan’”, Svenska Dagbladet, 12 October. Vonnegut, Kurt (1968) Welcome to the Monkey House. New York: Delacorte.

IPS UN Bureau

 


  
 
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