I’m honestly perplexed. So many phrases have been introduced in recent years that I simply cannot keep pace. ‘Cancel Culture’. ‘Woke’. ‘Liberal snowflakes’. Who, exactly, do they describe?
I partly assume they’ve been adopted in unhappy response to some of the progressive changes we’ve experienced. I’m just not clear on who the actors in this emerging culture war are. Well, media commentators in far-Right conservative press like GB News, or America’s Fox News, are pretty obvious. But who are their opponents?
These commentators find themselves angered by a number of stances. Members of the LGBTQ+ community, those who wear masks, those who denounce racists, climate activists, and weird things, like when Hasbro rebranded Mr. Potato Head, to ‘Potato Head’. I mean, how dare they?
Some issues are more serious. The #MeToo movement has been likened to a ‘War on Men’, implying men should never have to be accountable for their actions.
But with the Right established, who does the term ‘Woke’, encompass?
Who is ‘Woke’?
By definition, it refers to people in society alert to injustices, like institutionalised racism. That’s positive, right? Compassionate concern is healthy. Our society can only grow through empathy. But there’s a prejudice in the word. The Oxford example of a sentence is, “we need to stay angry, and stay woke”.
That’s obviously telling – the key word being ‘angry’. It must, therefore, be a pejorative term. It conjures some militant extremist desperately seeking something to be angry about. It’s a small stretch to infer they are the source of conflict, not the original injustice.
Being ‘Woke’ is not an especially challenging job, as injustices flood every corner of society, but it does become a loaded description. In fact, how can it be interpreted as anything other than an insult? I suppose it’s very much akin to accusations of virtue signalling.
Still, I’m not entirely sure it’s all-encompassing. Anger implies aggressive impulsiveness. But there is a clear distinction between tackling a problem with fury, and with passion, the latter being equally energised but more constructive. Additionally, without the negative connotations, I believe far more of society is ‘Woke’ perhaps without even realising it.
I think the best thing about Britain is the eclectic mixture of viewpoints. We are a progressive nation. That’s owed to our, generally speaking, open-mindedness. A few loud voices are all bluster and no substance, but I like to believe that, even when people might read tabloid headlines as gospel, we can listen to and respect each other. The rift is very apparently widening in other nations, but extreme polarisation has yet to invade the shores of our island. Our beliefs can vary issue to issue, informed by influences unique to our character. They are not enshrined in an over-arching doctrine.
Naturally, there are varying degrees and contradictions and nuances, but I think we are all, to some extent, awake.
Crushing the ‘Woke’.
I noticed a pretty ridiculous, front-page headline recently.
“Woke culture war seek to crush all dissent”
I mean, it is a pretty unassailable argument, since to disagree is to prove their point. But I just don’t understand who this terrifying group consists of, intent upon destroying the fabric of society and imposing a near-totalitarian ideology of diminished freedom of expression. It’s ironic, that the ‘Woke army’ appear to have transformed into the very autocrats they once sought to destroy.
From my perspective, the term ‘Woke’, seems to be a complete fabrication imposed by those who benefit from scaring their conservative supporters with baseless threats. It’s an attempt to transform progressive movements, which fundamentally invite more voices to converse and discuss, into something deeply negative, in the hopes of repressing all change without debate themselves. Opening discussions does not equate to crushing an opposition. How could enhanced inclusivity ever mean that? Branding those who are ‘Woke’ as militants demanding silencing does, however, achieve exactly that.
Whiplash towards the Right?
As a woke, liberal snowflake, I’m far more concerned by the recent Cabinet reshuffle than I am remembering someone’s preferred pronouns. I wasn’t particularly shocked by any appointments, in part because I recognised few names without conducting reactive research, after which I was even less surprised to find a collection of greedy yes-men (and women!) eager to become Boris’ next scapegoat.
I can definitely say my views don’t feel represented by the new Culture Secretary. In fact, if Nadine Dorries’ past Twitter activity is any measure, we live on different planets.
Of course, people fall on both sides of her statements. It’s important to remember whatever outcry she does or doesn’t face will have literally zero bearing on her political career. Some people were relishing the ire, counter-intuitively suggesting anger at the appointment justified it.
I’m sure plenty of people are delighted at how riled the angry woke mob has become. I just don’t understand her statements. They’re so vacuous. Anyone could replicate the opposite sentiment with baseless statements.
What comedy has been destroyed? Statues are a matter I’ll happily explain again. Universities offer some of the most comprehensive access to books anywhere. Dumbing down panto? Atheism is on the rise. That hardly equates to people smashing depictions of Christ at Christmas. Also, you literally tweeted this on a global platform. You’re an MP. How has your free speech been suppressed? I’m not calling for you to be silenced. It’s the reverse. I appreciate that Twitter doesn’t facilitate lengthy explanations, but I’d love to hear one in an extended thread. Whatever’s about to happen to music, I want to be prepared.
With statues, I’ve discussed them before. In brief, it’s not a culture war thing, it’s a simple question: why do we, as a modern society, tolerate imposing depictions of terrible people in our public spaces? That’s not unfairly judging historical actors by the standards of our time, nor is it an attack on history, nor an attack on ‘British values’. It’s also not about wantonly tearing down statues without basic consideration. That’s why open debates, guided by academics, not politicians, should be introduced.
Leaning heavily upon the reliable Hitler argument, there are no statues of him. Yet we all know of him. Because statues aren’t about learning history, they’re about celebrating heritage. For some people in the UK, certain depictions of individuals make them uncomfortable, because those individuals did horrible things to their ancestors. Just imagine having to pass a statue of a man who’d abused your great-Grandfather on your daily commute.
It’s another term I don’t really understand. ‘War’ signals violence and hostility, juxtaposing the considerably more civil ‘Culture’.
Minor facets of society appear embroiled in conflict over the revision of media to purge racist, homophobic, or otherwise bigoted influences. Inexplicably unhappy with this overtly bias retelling, other members delight themselves by issuing deliberately provocative statements, intent upon fostering outrage.
Principally, it stems from antiquated attitudes. An unfortunate individual or group will, occasionally mistakenly, publicly say something offensive. For this, they will be criticised, their remarks condemned. In the ensuing backlash, they will be considered ‘cancelled’. Choosing to accept that label or not, others will inevitably leap to their defence. ‘Free speech’ and ‘censorship’ will be carelessly evoked, until both lose their meaning, or another celebrity blunders into the cycle.
A continually-evolving backdrop is of the ‘Liberal Woke’ apparently dominating this struggle, crushing dissent and silencing opponents. Personally, I haven’t witnessed it realised.
There is, however, an awful lot of noise insisting that has become our reality. The language is always petty and frustratingly vitriolic. Let’s instead start talking to each other normally again. And let’s start actually listening.
The Liberal Woke destroying popular media
I want to give two examples of TV shows. Both aired around the mid-2000s and both have seen retroactive apologies from cast members over the content. Let’s discuss The Office (US) and Little Britain.
Firstly, I apologise for choosing the American adaptation of The Office, but I never found the UK version humorous so don’t remember it nearly as well. Speaking reflectively, Steve Carell suggested The Office wouldn’t be able to air nowadays, referencing a lack of political correctness. I’m pretty sure he’s wrong. Despite the numerous comments that would probably be regarded as ‘offensive’, the show was good-humoured. Additionally, the joke was always at the expense of hapless boss Michael Scott, not the victims he insulted. Little Britain, on the other hand was often mean-spirited, and tasteless, and entirely about ridiculing those satirised. David Walliams and Matt Lucas have both subsequently apologised.
Comparing two different scenes, The Office has an episode entitled ‘Gay Witch Hunt’. It’s a provocative title, with menacing undertones. But that’s the irony. As the plot unfolds, Michael is the one who ultimately embarrasses himself, and through his blundering in the episode’s climax, gay character Oscar is rewarded by settling a lucrative lawsuit. The Office remains as popular as ever.
Little Britain, however, was far more pernicious. Taking the character of Vicky Pollard, for example, she was crafted to be despised. Her character provided a vessel for middle classes to laugh at their own perceptions of ‘chavs’.. She followed a trend of poverty expeditions, where the middle-classes would ironically dress as ‘chavs’ in fancy dress. Such instances, devoid of affection, are problematic.
The Liberal Woke Mob are not calling for sweeping reforms. It’s not about cancelling anyone for the slightest slip of the tongue. We all make mistakes. It’s about correcting unfortunate periods, and apologising where necessary.
The ‘Liberal Woke Agenda’ has not destroyed free speech, nor has it suppressed all expression.
In the immortal words of Russell Howard,
“Freedom of speech means anyone can say what they want, which means anyone can say what they want about what you said. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequence… Freedom of speech in this country is amazing”.
Say what you want. If you do insult someone, the very least you can do is apologise without pretending to be the victim yourself.
Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts on what remains a deeply contentious issue. I post numerous commentaries like this, alongside short stories and travel blogs. Feature image courtesy of Unsplash.
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The weaponizing of the term ‘woke liberal’ is terrible here in the U.S. there is very little space for good discourse between differing ideologies because there is active, celebrated and codified harm being done (disenfranchisment, laws/policies that are discriminatory, etc). I’m originally from the UK so feel I have a very European-style liberal outlook in life and it’s sometimes viewed as rather odd to those who want to see certain groups of people restricted, controlled and erased. This was a really interesting read — thank you for sharing your thoughts!
It definitely seems like it might be growing dangerous in the US. I recently read ‘How Democracies Die’ which points to the polarisation in ideology as a key factor in undermining the democratic process, and it’s difficult to ignore given the increasingly vitriolic language. It’s often difficult to gauge how far ongoing ‘culture wars’ are a reflection of society, or fringe but loud voices. Either way, it paints a worrying picture
We don’t yet have “woke”as part of our culture in Canada, but I get called woke by a lot of Americans on those blogs I choose to comment on. I thank each one for noticing I am a “woke” person who care about what happens to others. This often shuts them up, for two minutes.