Just how many battlefronts have been opened against the woke community around the world? From the Republican battle against critical race theory in American classrooms to whether young progressives are cancelling British history to the latest one mounted by Nigerian feminist-novelist Chimamanda Adichie against the woke call-out culture. Even BJP MP Varun Gandhi accused Twitter of bullying Indians with its “woke propaganda”.
Wokes have been called illiberal, online lynch mobs, an intolerant new religion and ‘souped-up’ Communists. Ever since former US president Barack Obama spoke about how the cancel culture was damaging the liberal cause and likened the progressive social media activists to a circular firing squad, it has become a free pass for everyone to denounce woke thought. Indians are frequently using woke instead of ‘libtard’ and ‘anti-national’ as a favourite social media abuse, calling them out for their privilege.
It’s a McCarthyian panic over wokes. But in all this breathless anxiety, there is a deliberate misreading of who they really are. It’s not about youth or ideology or an intolerant cancel culture. It’s not a culture war either, something that all politics is being deliberately labelled as these days. Woke thought is how moral and intellectual challenges have always been mounted. When it hits home, every generation gets uncomfortable. As British activist Wayne Reid said, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
So before you cancel the wokes, there are several misconceptions you need to examine, otherwise you are falling into the ‘kunji’ version of history that Donald Trump and Boris Johnson follow.
Unease leads to war on woke thought
The term ‘woke’ has its origin in African-American slang, which means to be awake. But over time, it has really come to mean being awake and alert to injustice and having the courage to speak out.
The Black Lives Matter protest in 2020 was an awakening in America, but a year later, the ‘wokes’ feel like Sisyphus. The conversations around race that had deepened after George Floyd’s murder is already evaporating.
A new season of the cliched ‘culture war’ is raging in the US. Teaching school children something as simple as ‘racism is bad’ and that it didn’t end with the civil rights movement is triggering a lot of people who typically say things like ‘I don’t see colour’. Parents on Fox News – or ‘army of moms’ — have said that this injects ‘self-loathing’ in their children even as teachers are protesting to deepen awareness. Donald Trump has accused schools of teaching kids that American history is evil, and Mike Pence said children are being taught “to be ashamed of their skin colour”.
In reality, nobody teaches critical race theory in schools; it is meant to be a graduate-level study. But Republicans are already salivating at the thought of pumping up this issue to take over the Congress in mid-term elections next year.
In Britain, the war on the wokes is led by culture secretary Oliver Dowden. He says woke warriors must not be allowed to bully Britain into cancelling its history; accuses the BBC of sneering at patriotic citizens; comments on wokeness in museums; and criticises the cricket board for suspending bowler Ollie Robinson over his past racist tweets. All part of the classic conservative playbook.
And this in a country where 59 per cent of the population does not even know what the word ‘woke’ means, according to a recent poll.
But that’s the thing about these ‘culture wars’. Politicians speak on behalf of some amorphous, loosely defined offended people — who the media then goes looking for in order to invite them for its TV debates and opinion pages.
Even if it’s a non-cultural issue like climate change or cricket, critics of woke thought just turn it into one by whipping the base into an emotional us-vs-them battle.
Also read: Why Ghanaians are removing Gandhi statues
What to keep in mind before cancelling wokes
This debate has arrived in India too. As if to say woke thought is holding India back, whether it is Disha Ravi ‘toolkit’ or those protesting tree-felling in Mumbai or the stand-up comedy. Former Major General B.S. Dhanoa tweeted this week: “Wokeness is killing humour.”
But before you lash out at woke debates, here are five points to remember. It could do either of these two things: convert you or help you refine your criticism better.
‘Cancel culture’ is a misnomer. It is actually consequence culture. What you do, say and post on social media have consequences. And this isn’t new either. If you use casteist slurs like ‘bh…’, ‘ch…’ and ‘kanj…’ and try to justify them as common parlance or pass them off as old proverbs, there will be consequences. That’s what the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act also entails, among other things. It isn’t just woke Twitter or Instagram. The old years of impunity and immunity are over.
The popular mythology is that only the liberals and Left indulge in cancel culture. But the ones cancelling the teaching of racism in US classrooms are the Republicans. As many as 25 American states, including Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Iowa and Idaho, have moved to restrict anti-racism learning in schools. In Britain, Dowden actually warned publicly funded museums to be mindful of going too woke. The Telegraph called it “go woke, go broke” threat. Everybody is capable of cancelling. Not just woke people.
Don’t make the mistake of conflating youth with woke thought. It isn’t just the millennials or Gen Z who are speaking up. Feminism isn’t a millennial idea. Neither were Martin Luther King Jr nor Babasaheb Ambedkar woke millennials. But both called out more than, or as searingly as, the woke Twitter handles today. The only difference is that both prejudice and justice have amplifiers today in the form of social media. So, stop treating this as a new social, political threat. Anybody who grew up in the 1980s and consumed India’s arthouse movies like Ankur, Aakrosh and Sadgati understood what it meant to question the unjust business-as-usual. The stone the little boy throws at the landlord’s window in the final scene of Ankur was the ‘call-out’ of those days.
Also, assessing history and historical figures from the 21st-century lens isn’t woke thought. It’s standard academic practice. You can no longer say slave-owners were a product of their times. Racist views of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi have been rightly exposed by new scholarship. Gandhi’s views on caste have been called out too – no, not by wokes, but by his own contemporary Babasaheb Ambedkar. You study Madame Bovary through a feminist critique even though the novel was published long before the arrival of modern feminism. It’s the same with post-structuralist (1960s) critique of Kafka (early 20th century); or Marxist critique of Macbeth; or the Ambedkarite critique of the vedas. Applying latter-day prisms is commonplace.
Chimamanda Adichie made a statement that was unsympathetic to the trauma and harassment that trans people face daily, and to the rights they fight for. Instead of apologising, she wrote a three-part essay, which actually used the phrase “expectations of loyalty”. The thing about consequence is you only have to do one thing: apologise, acknowledge your ignorance and privilege, and promise to listen and learn. This is what Adichie didn’t bother to do. And this is what actor Ellie Kemper did this month when she apologised for participating in a beauty pageant that had a terrible racist connection.
“I was not aware of this history at the time, but ignorance is no excuse,” Kemper wrote on Instagram. “I was old enough to have educated myself before getting involved.”
Every generation has its wokes and they are the ones who have helped expand the definition of civil rights over time.
Rama Lakshmi is Opinion Editor at ThePrint. She was the India correspondent for The Washington Post for 27 years, and won the American Society of News Editors Award in 2005 for her coverage of the tsunami disaster. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)