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By Jason Michael
WE ARE ALL TO SOME EXTENT aware of ‘Woke,’ that nebulous and dangerous other, right now up to its neck in the culture wars being waged in every conceivable arena of social and political conflict in the modern world. Everywhere we see a kickback, be it online or in politics, the Woke — whoever or whatever this represents — appears to be right at the heart of the chaos. The term itself demands a certain degree of disambiguation, as over the past few years, in a process clearly accelerated by social media, the group or groups — the constituency — it attempts to designate has been subjected to a rapidly morphing set of labels; ‘progressives,’ ‘social justice warriors,’ and so on, to the point we are now at where this other is known collectively as the ‘Woke.’
For good reason we ought to be cautious of the use of this term. Woke has a long history of use in the fight against slavery and racism in the United States, reaching back to the Wide Awakes movement of the 1860s. It has been used as a Black Liberation movement identifier and as a warning to African Americans to remain alert to the motives and behaviour of white power. More recently, it has been used to describe the philosophy or the the hermeneutic of suspicion towards white power and its structures in the US and beyond by the Black Lives Matter movment. It has been used to describe African American BLM activists and their allies within the movement.
As a consequence of the solidarity of BLM with other progressive campaigns and as a result of deeply cynical efforts by many on the political right to undermine and delegitimise BLM, Woke has become the latest preferred pejorative to be deployed against — in the main — millennial progressives and left-wing activists. Language is flexible and so, for good or for ill, ‘Woke’ has been adopted as a descriptor for new and young left progressivism. In order to create a necessary distinction, therefore, in this piece we shall refer to this progressivism as ‘WokeTM.’
Looking at this cultural phenomenon from the perspective of liberation theology, rooted in the Preferential Option for the Poor and Marxist theory, it is clear that there are a number of serious problems with WokeTM — most of which stem from demographics rather than ideology (it seems to be pretty light on critical analysis and ideology). Given the broad nature of WokeTM sentiment, it is impossible to nail down and articulate anything approaching a Credo or movement charter of whatever WokeTM is. Perhaps it would be easier to describe it as an emotional response to power and a style of movement politics rather than a praxis.
Strangely, one of the more insightful comments on WokeTM is made by the Australian television series Why Are You Like This?, with its sympathetic examination of a generation of atomised and self-obsessed kids trapped in a social media haze of postmodernism, post-truth, and post-critical thinking. This is not essentially a pernicious culture. Rather, it is one made pernicious by its own poorly-informed sense of morality, mercilessly exploited by Late Stage Capitalism and stuck within the new and emergent Precariat class. WokeTM is a classic case of the road to hell paved with good intentions; a frustrated generation ready to strike out against injustices — real and imagined — but continually distracted by the shiny things on sale at the mall.
Its quixotic readiness to go on crusade against every perceived wrong, hampered at every turn by its lack of maturity and inability to systematically think through some of the most basic tenets of civilisation — the presumption of innocence, for example — has turned it into a mob and created an environment in which unaccomplished yet entitled youths are readily masking their personal failures and inadequacies behind complex webs of manufactured and appropriated grievances. Only this afternoon I counselled an eighteen-year-old man who has been suffering from severe panic attacks after he was maliciously listed as a rapist on a WokeTM vigilante website. No complaint has ever been made to the Gardaí about him and he doesn’t know what this spurious accusation is in connection to, but WokeTM is vigilant and ‘abusers’ must be ‘punished.’
Without much thought and with precisely zero life experience, WokeTM is bullying into existence a new kind of truth, one which is dangerously predicated on how young people emote when confronted with power structures they intuitively know to be wrong. Yet — and here is the thing — these power structures they feel to be wrong are wrong, and our common position on the wrongness of these structures puts us in the traditional left in a strange relationship with this strange new WokeTM ‘progressive left.’
Youthful enthusiasm, distilled through the success of the rights campaigns of the twentieth century and expressed through the intellectually restrictive medium of social media, has produced a modern prometheus; something that means well but which clearly hasn’t the toolkit and the wherewithal to go about actually affecting meaningful change. It is a fashion, in this regard, and little more — itself a product of the capitalism it so dearly wants to challenge. This said, however, it would be a mistake to write this off as simply an immature fad or the work of kids — the whole ‘student politics’ dismissal. There are other things going on.
Much like the obligatory Ché Guevarra posters on our dorm room walls in the 1980s, this too is a prepackaged ideology. Only, this time, this is a lifestyle product — no different to AppleTM and NikeTM products; a fruit of a consumerist culture which is oven ready for deep exploitation by the very capitalist system it imagines as its enemy. Save for the shallow and vapid environment of Tumblr and Twitter, it lacks the intellectual framework needed for wider analysis and theoretical reflection. And it is this quality — its very lack of quality — that makes it a perfect instrument for populist political parties — both on the right and on the left — to gain power. The atmosphere created by WokeTM allows the conservative defenders of the status quo to preserve the structures of capitalism and reactionary politics. Yet, it is not entirely hopeless; this is a movement or a climate of opinions which for the most part truly want to change the world for the better.
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