This essay, on the polarisation between “woke” and “anti-woke” arguments, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 14 February 2021, under the headline “Woke warriors on the march? Don’t forget the bigotry of the ‘unwoke’”.
Want to rid an Oxford college of a statue of an imperialist? That’s “wokery”. Too many immigrants? Blame the woke. Insufficiently appreciative of the British empire? You’re in the “Woke Orthodoxy”. Want to strangle Andrew Neil’s new radio station even before it airs? That’s the “woke warriors”. Joe Biden in the White House? “The high priest of the cult of woke.”
Suddenly everything in the world seems to be a confrontation between the woke and the unwoke. It’s a framing that’s neither edifying nor illuminating.
I have long been critical of ideas that some may call “woke”. Of viewing white people as the problem. Of seeing racism where the problem may be other forms of discrimination. Of the concept of white privilege. Of presenting disagreement as bigotry. Of the politics of identity.
The anti-wokeness shtick that has suddenly erupted is, though, equally unattractive. Part of the problem is that so many words critical to political debate have lost meaning. Fascism. Radicalism. Racism. Words used so promiscuously that their value is only as a means of political positioning. To say “Boris Johnson heads a far-right government” or “JK Rowling is a bigot” is not to engage in discussion but to signal the tribe to which one belongs.
Dismissing something as “woke” is similarly a means of marking out territory rather than engaging in meaningful debate. When the anti-immigration group Migration Watch claims that not to create hysteria about cross-Channel migrants is “woke”, or when Ukiper-turned-SDPer Patrick O’Flynn insists only the “woke” oppose “full-throated patriotism”, they are not seeking to discuss the issues but to label particular views so as to damn them.
To view social problems through a single lens, whether of whiteness or wokeness, is to distort reality. Consider the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, Oxford. I have been critical of many aspects of movements to pull down “unacceptable” statues, from the often black-and-white view of history, to the attempt to use the past as a means of contesting the present. But equally there are issues raised about the opposition to it.
There has been much criticism of taking down statues as the “rewriting of history”, but little recognition that many statues themselves were erected to substantiate an often distorted historical narrative. Monuments, whether to Winston Churchill or to the Bristol slaver Edward Colston, or indeed to Mary Wollstonecraft, are not just dumb pieces of stone. Each is designed to tell a particular story.
Oxford theologian Nigel Biggar, a defender of the British empire as a moral good, claimed that Rhodes “was an imperialist, but British colonialism was not essentially racist, and wasn’t essentially exploitative, and wasn’t essentially atrocious”. Rhodes was merely “a supporter of the British empire as a modernising force for good”.
If we want to discuss the rewriting of history, those words are as good a place to start as any. For this is the same Rhodes who believed that non-white areas of the world were “inhabited by the most despicable specimen of human being” needing to be “brought under Anglo-Saxon influence”. It’s the “not essentially racist” colonialism about which the Liberal politician Charles Wentworth Dilke could boast that “nature seems to intend the English for a race of officers, to direct and guide the cheap labour of Eastern peoples”. It’s the empire so modernising that during the course of British rule, India’s share of the world economy fell from 23% to less than 4%. Biggar is not against the rewriting of history. He just wants to rewrite it with his own myths.
Perhaps the starkest illustration of how reducing everything to single frames of vision can distort understanding comes in the debate about antisemitism. In his new book Jews Don’t Count, David Baddiel shows how the view of Jews as “privileged” or “white” leads many progressives to ignore antisemitism, even collude with it. Baddiel seems more interested in ensuring that Jews can join the carnival of identities than in challenging identity politics; nevertheless, his central point about the failure of many to recognise antisemitism remains important.
Many view such blindness to antisemitism as a product of “wokeness”. But the unwoke can be equally unseeing.
Consider the strange case of James Lindsay. An American mathematician, last year he published with Helen Pluckrose Cynical Theories, a critique of postmodernism and critical theory. Lindsay has a particular bugbear about woke Jews. “Extra rightwing antisemitism”, he tweeted recently, “is arising because lots of progressive Jews are nonsensically Woke.”
He claimed, too, that the Frankfurt School – a group of German and German-American Marxists that emerged in the interwar years – wanted “to end Western Civilization and is almost wholly comprised of Jews. This allows antisemites to recruit new antisemites”. Critics who rightly condemned this as blaming Jews for antisemitism were accused of spreading “smears”. An obsession with wokeness, as much as with whiteness, can make you blind.
At the same time, the charge of “antisemitism” can itself be stretched to punish or silence critics of Israel. An exhibition by Brian Eno was recently cancelled in Germany because of his support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Filmmaker Loach faced calls last week to be barred from an Oxford college. Many critics of “woke cancel culture” are happy to applaud the cancelling of the wrong kind of criticism. Another form of blindness.
The twisted consequence of the unwoke perspective was highlighted last week in the Yorkshire Post, one of our most important regional papers. An opinion piece by GP Taylor headed “Don’t let ‘wokes’ rewrite history, let’s learn from the past” told those with “anti-British thoughts”: “If you do not like the history of the country that gives you shelter, protects, feeds you and allows you free speech, then get out. Go!”
It was a remarkable rant, not least in the implication both that the “woke” are migrants who don’t truly belong, and that challenging historical narratives amounts to having “anti-British thoughts” that cannot be accommodated by “free speech” – or even in this country. Such is the reactionary end of reflexive unwokeness.
Bigotry can be both woke and unwoke. So can censorship. Framing everything as woke vs unwoke makes it harder to challenge either.