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“I am human, and I think nothing of which is human is alien to me.”
~ Publius Terentius Afer, Roman playwright (195/185 – c. 159 BC)
Anyone who has been paying attention to politics and culture, particularly in the US, has most certainly encountered the term “woke.” It refers broadly to being “alert to injustice in society.” But it has become a vague umbrella covering anything from transgender bathroom access, to the mental health of athletes, to the #MeToo movement, to BLM protests against police state violence, to Meghan Markle, to the stunt by Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats, kneeling and wearing Kente cloth. And it has become a weaponized term by several factions on the political right, center and left. At its core, it has to do with identity politics, the culture wars, and late capitalism trying desperately to save itself. But there is a nuanced approach to the topic which has largely been ignored.
The Democratic Party has long used identity politics to mobilize certain sections of its base, whether they are women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ, etc. By speaking directly to and promising to address the unique challenges and injustices that each group faces, the Democrats have been able to ignore other, more unifying issues such as economic class disparity, the lack of universal healthcare, corporate crimes, the lack of affordable housing, increased surveillance and policing, never ending war and rampant environmental degradation.
It is a cynical, but rather effective, method. And many liberals, as well as Democratic Party officials, have used it to tar the reputation of anyone who dissents from their neoliberal policies. For example, many leftists who opposed Barrack Obama’s drone wars, record deportations, or attacks on whistleblowers were labeled racists. Progressives and leftists who refused to support Hillary Clinton were often labeled misogynists. The Republican Party, too, has used identity as a way of uniting their traditional base. Evangelical Christians, the white middle class and white men, to be exact. But lately, there has been a growing backlash against “wokeness culture.” On the right, the paranoid hysteria being peddled is about the ludicrous threat of censorship and “cultural Marxism.”
All of this was to be expected. American society has never fully grappled with its oppressive and murderous history or its enduring legacy. And with the spotlight being put more and more on police killing of unarmed Black people, the entrenched discrimination against women, or longstanding anti-gay policies, this denial was bound to come to a head. But there is also pushback from the left. Much of this is due to the almost complete absence of capitalism and class in any mainstream discourse about societal injustices or “wokeness.” Now even corporations and the military/surveillance state can be “woke” sans irony regarding their egregious and abusive histories. Even an agency like the CIA, whose history is littered with crimes against humanity, can make risible claims about their “commitment to intersectional feminism” and inclusivity.
That Goldman Sachs uses Critical Race Theory or that there are rainbow flags flying at the US State Department does not mean that those entities are suddenly “woke.” Powerful corporations and state agencies have always made symbolic gestures to appeal to the public. But just because they employ certain inclusive practices does not automatically negate or discredit those practices or the theories behind them.
Indeed, there is a danger in downplaying or completely erasing the issue of identity from the discourse on the left. People are targeted everyday for their identity alone. Certainly, the wealthier you are the better access to resources you will have. But to some leftists, capitalism is the only true evil in this world, and if were to be dismantled all other forms of injustice or inequality would magically disappear over night. I am exaggerating, of course, but I have read many commentaries that appear to imply this.
As ahistorical as this is, to even talk about the existence of different forms of injustice, or to use terms like intersectionality or systemic racism in some leftist circles is to be cast as a “liberal social justice warrior,” a “reformer,” or worse, a “grifter.” Some suggest that the “woke” crowd aren’t “real leftists,” which is basically the old logical fallacy of “No True Scotsman.” They insist that every opposition to an injustice, if it is not fundamentally anti-capitalist, is merely performative or a “grand display of liberal virtue signaling.” They claim they don’t want gatekeepers, yet seem to be happy to take up that occupation for their own flock.
These accusations have, in fact, become a rather de rigueur pejorative in some online circles. What’s more is that many of the people who make this jump in logic often become very defensive when criticized for it. Thus, the false assumption that they are being “canceled” when someone merely disagrees with them, as well as ridiculous histrionics about the supposed dangers of “woke culture.” Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Bill Maher and the philosopher Slavoj Zizek come to mind.
Certainly, canceling does occur. And it is usually nasty when it does. But this has to do with a combination of factors, including the noxious culture of social media, doxing, trolls, and the rapid, mob “justice” campaigns that all of this often encourages, more than any “woke” movement for social justice. And there is something rather humorous to the notion of “cancelling” when it mostly comes from people who have enormous platforms, which they continue to maintain, with scores of followers.
On a personal note, I know what it feels like to be “canceled.” In fact, anyone who has been involved in Palestinian solidarity knows what it is like to be silenced or censored. To be excluded from certain forums. To be unfairly labeled a bigot. Yet, most people in this movement continue nonetheless, and do so without continually complaining about this kind of suppression. Censorship has always been used against those who dissent. But the way it is being framed now makes it seem like it is some new, liberal, authoritarian menace that will wipe out freedom of expression once and for all.
Without a doubt, real censorship is something that should be fought. And freedom of speech and expression are under threat. But that threat comes more from far right lawmakers who are criminalizing protests and the corporatocracy we are all living under, rather than some fictitious “woke” mob. And there are certainly more pressing issues than any individual group’s rights or concerns. Global capitalism, ecological collapse, climate change, the pandemic, war, all of these are existential issues that affect all of us, regardless of our identities. We have more in common with each other than we do with the ruling, uberwealth class. This should unite us.
But human beings are not a mono-crop. We have personal and shared identities based on how we look, speak, act, whom we love, how we worship (if we choose to worship) and from our experiences of being different from the dominant group in our society. To deny that people are, indeed, persecuted, discriminated against, or even killed for their identity alone, is the height of disconnection from the lived reality of billions of people around the world. Yes, capitalism makes all of that exponentially worse. Yes, it must be dismantled if we are to have any future. But the ironclad law of the left is solidarity. So if that is what some consider “woke,” I will gladly adopt that moniker.