From a word used to denote awakening against racism, it morphed into an extremist ideology of justice against all majority oppressions, intermittently tasting power in the real world
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
When anger over racism spilled over to US streets following the killing of George Floyd, an African-American, by a white police officer, actress Priyanka Chopra posted on her Instagram account: ‘Here is so much work to be done and it needs to start at an individual level on a global scale. We all have a responsibility to educate ourselves and end this hate. End this race war here in the US, and around the world. Wherever you live, whatever your circumstances, NO ONE deserves to die, especially at the hands of another because of their skin color.’ Every Indian actor who has made it is intimate with every politician who has made it but they are also conditioned to stay away from politics. Chopra’s tweet, though political in nature, was as safe a platitude as can come from a celebrity’s mouth. That was for ordinary times. In the US, where she resides and who were her intended audience, there was no pushback but in India, both the online right and left ripped into her. The comments section below her post became a litany of hate. The questions directed at her being:
She had endorsed cosmetic whitening creams in the past for money. How does that fit into a position on racism, which is primarily a function of skin colour determining value. If white skin is so good that one must try to artificially induce it, what did that endorsement signal about her?
How come, when she spent most of her life and career in India, she had nothing to say about minority rights in this country? When there were mass protests over Muslims and Dalits being lynched, why were her political conscience and voice silent?
The episode is indicative about Woke revolutions that flare up ever so often to jump from social media and exercise power in the real world. They are predicated on moral perfection and, should you jump on the train, you better be sure that there are no small skeletons in your past. They needn’t even be skeletons. How is anyone to know whitening creams would become an issue about racism until it becomes one? That leads to another element of Wokeness—it is umbilically tied to social media, which, among other things, makes the past of everyone permanent and open to scrutiny. It is a past that is evaluated by the values of the present, something which every historian and archaeologist is taught on day one not to do when they enter the field. Unless you were born Woke, there are few who have not made a retrospective politically incorrect misstep in their long pasts, and who cannot potentially be devoured by the tribe that he or she thinks that he/she is a member of.
As another instance of this phenomenon, take non-resident Indians (NRIs) who became vocal as the agitation gained momentum. It was mainly the young among them, in keeping with the demography of Wokeness, which got its energy and following from US universities. It then spilled over to professions where the liberals ruled, like Hollywood and the media. The reason Chopra herself felt compelled to comment was because she considers herself a member of the entertainment industry there. Young NRIs who made their participation with denunciations of racism soon came face-to-face with their own peculiar position. The community has assiduously avoided blacks. They don’t stay in black neighbourhoods. Their friends are mostly other south Asians, and the few that are not, are mostly whites. A lot of them are in professions like Information Technology with few black colleagues. Their children go to schools that are predominantly white in character. By the Woke definition of one being racist even when one does not know it, NRIs were lifelong participants in it. As Hasan Minhaj, the Indian-origin American comedian who uses politics for his material, said on the protests in his show Patriot Act: ‘Asians, we love seeing black excellence: Barack, Michelle, Jay, Beyonce. We spent the last five years praying at the altar of Michael Jordan. We love black America. Yeah. On Screen. On our living room. But if a black man walks into your living room. Or wants to date, god forbid, marry, your daughter. You’d call the cops.’
A popular Instagram account called SouthAsians4BlackLives put up this post: ‘Our approach to dismantling anti-Blackness is calling in our community, being responsible, taking accountability and starting from within. As South Asians we are taking on the labor of educating our fellow South Asians and holding space for the complexities. We know South Asians have a lot to heal from as well as to be accountable for. We want to hold both.’ In having Woke aspirations, NRIs were late entrants to a phenomenon that had begun as a voice of blacks and then been coopted by white young liberals. And the entry fee that has to be paid for such appropriation is owning your guilt and shame first.
Woke, as an ideological definition, is recent coinage but, as far back as 1860, there was a Wide Awake anti-slavery movement in support of Abraham Lincoln who was standing for the US presidential election that year. Its ends and means bore parallels to the present agitation. Jeffrey Epstein, a Washington Post reporter, tweeted on it recently: ‘In 1860, a youth abolitionist network called “the Wide Awakes” sprung up in cities across the north. They would show up uninvited at politicians’ homes in the middle of the night—w / brass bands, lit torches & serenades—to demand support for their antislavery cause.’…“They deliberately targeted young people, calling massive crowds of youths to ‘wake up” … their iconography of an open eye, talk of throwing off past stupor,” a movement led by 23 year olds’.’
The term Woke also appears in a 1962 New York Times headline, ‘If You Are Woke You Dig It’ in an article by novelist William Kelley on idioms used by African-Americans. The word as is now known is a direct offshoot of social media. ‘Stay woke’ was used in 2008 by black singer Erykah Badu for a song about racism. She would again return to the word some years later. Splinter News, a left publication, traced the history of the word in a 2016 article: ‘In February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, and in the following months, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder and subsequently found not guilty. That same year, Erykah Badu came out in solidarity with the Russian rock group Pussy Riot. At the time, the band was being threatened with jailtime for staging a queer, sexually charged protest-performance. Badu took to Twitter expressing her support for the women and urging her followers to stay woke. It’s around this time that other Twitter users began to use the #StayWoke hashtag in reference to remaining vigilant about social issues. When Black Lives Matter became a movement and an ‘iconic hashtag used by thousands of Twitters users to organize and shed light on the stories of even more black lives that had been lost too soon’, Woke went mainstream along with it. ‘Calling someone “woke,” in these years, was a signal that they understood these systemic injustices, and were determined to do something about them,’ says the article.
But then the phrase expanded its orbit, both by those who took to it and those who began to mock it. The article added: ‘Today, “woke,” a phrase that was meant to encourage critical thinking about social issues and injustices, has slowly morphed into something that occasionally comes across as a derogatory jab at the very idea of staying “woke”.…Like “bae,” “on fleek,” and “bruh,” it was only a matter of time before “woke” was co-opted by the mainstream (read: white) internet, but there’s a certain tragedy to its loss that’s different and more painful.’
From racism, Wokeism’s umbrella expanded to include injustices against all identity groups and classes. This drew from a sociological theory called intersectionality, which holds that society is a multi-layered hierarchy of majority oppressors and minority oppressed on the basis of identities like race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. At the top are the most privileged—the heterosexual man (also white and Christian in the American context). Below him would be a matrix of females, coloured people, LGBTQs, those of minority religions, etcetera. The lower one would be in the hierarchy, the greater is the person’s claim to a corrective from society. It was an academic theory related to feminism in the late 1980s that gradually made its way out of universities to be conjoined with the Woke awakening of social media. When MeToo exploded two years ago, intersectionality was the basis on which it was demanded that women who made sexual harassment accusations have to be believed, no matter what. But women themselves can be oppressors against someone lower down in the ladder of hierarchies, as is evident from JK Rowling’s experience following a tweet early this month. She had put up the link to a headline of an Opinion piece in a newspaper that read ‘Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate’. Along with it, she tweeted: ‘‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?’ Rowling was labelled transphobic for her belief that only women menstruate. She got hate online and from the media. Gender, according to Wokeism, is a matter of identity and not biology. Anyone, even those with male genitalia, can identify as a woman if that is her choice. Intersectionality puts trans people at the bottom of the hierarchy, and therefore Rowling, a white rich woman, was oppressor here. In response, Rowling wrote an anguished article against trans activism, where she began with how over-the-top political correctness had morphed into harassment against her. Her first brush with the hate had been an inadvertent ‘Like’ some years back. She wrote: ‘When I started taking an interest in gender identity and transgender matters, I began screenshotting comments that interested me, as a way of reminding myself what I might want to research later. On one occasion, I absent-mindedly ‘liked’ instead of screenshotting. That single ‘like’ was deemed evidence of wrongthink, and a persistent low level of harassment began.’ When she followed online a feminist lesbian who believed gender was a biological function, the hate increased. Rowling had left Twitter deeming it toxic for her mental peace and had only just returned to promote a new book. She wrote: ‘Immediately, activists who clearly believe themselves to be good, kind and progressive people swarmed back into my timeline, assuming a right to police my speech, accuse me of hatred, call me misogynistic slurs…’ Rowling spoke, for the first time, of being a victim of domestic abuse and sexual assault herself. She also mentioned some of the criticisms against Wokeism—forcing opposite views to be shut up and socially cancelling people whose views they disagree with.
Woke moments, like the present one and MeToo, are accompanied by demands to ostracise those it perceives as having sinned. Apology is first demanded and when it is offered, it is never in the precise format which is deemed satisfactory. But the precise format itself is never spelt out and so no apology is ever accepted. It is not just public humiliation that such a target faces. With the building of social media momentum, corporations and governments are forced to act against such individuals. Rowling is a billionaire whose books have enormous demand and so can withstand cancel culture. But scores of people have been sacked or permanently barred from public events because something in their past caught up to the online Woke present. There is no proportionality in the punishment—major and minor sinners are tarred by the same brush and forced into exile or unemployment.
Recently, the op-ed editor of The New York Times had to leave following a comment piece they carried in which a Republican senator made a point of discriminating between violent and non-violent protestors and calling the army in to control looting, if necessary. These were rational arguments that, at the most, should get counter commentaries. But there was rebellion in the newspaper’s ranks and a fusillade of condemnation online forcing them to do damage control. Another paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, that had a headline called ‘Buildings Matter Too’, also saw one of its editors resign and the newspaper apologise. Simultaneously, with policing itself branded as evil, police forces were sought to be defunded and disbanded with some cities moving in that direction. News anchors in mainstream channels were justifying the looting of shops of innocent people as necessary collateral damage to be subsumed to the importance of the greater social objective. The philosopher Sam Harris, a freedom of speech absolutist and often a target of Woke hate, came out with a podcast titled ‘Can We Pull Back From the Brink’ on the fear prevailing to voice anything contrary. He said in it: ‘And I’ve been resisting the temptation to say anything of substance, not because I haven’t had anything to say, but because of my perception of the danger. Frankly. And if I feel that way, given the pains I’ve taken to insulate myself against those kinds of concerns, I know that almost anyone with a public platform must be terrified. Journalists and editors and executives, celebrities, everyone has to be terrified that they might take a wrong step here and never recover. And this is really unhealthy, right, not just for individuals, but for society, because, again, all we have between us and the total breakdown of civilization is a series of successful conversations. And if we can’t reason with one another. There is no path forward, right? Other than violence. Conversation or violence?’
Wokeness is made potent by the root idea of justice that no one can disagree with but in practice it is intractable, only willing to accept one extremist position. As David Brooks wrote in a column in The New York Times once: ‘There is no measure or moderation to wokeness. It’s always good to be more woke. It’s always good to see injustice in maximalist terms. To point to any mitigating factors in the environment is to be naïve, childish, a co-opted part of the status quo.’ It dominates the real world when there is a sufficiently shocking trigger like the George Floyd killing but, when the anger dissipates, it loses its appeal because it demands the destruction of norms like due process that make civilised societies function. Those who were swayed briefly see it for what it is then: an impractical and impossible cure.