The cancel culture of the anti-woke brigade
Scottish Review, March 17th 2021
Everywhere you look in the media the word ‘woke’ is used as an insult. It has become a trigger word used by the right, reactionaries, populists – and those uncomfortable with identity politics and what they see as the onward march of political correctness.
Instead, they pose the word ‘woke’ to sow division; to label and dismiss people who stand for things like social justice, racial equality and against homophobia, and to close down debate and demands for change in society.
The origins of the word ‘woke’ can be found in the struggle of black America, black consciousness and the civil rights movement. The term was used by blues singer Lead Belly in his 1938 song ‘Scottsboro Boys’ which told the story of a group of black teenagers wrongly accused of raping young white women, saying: ‘I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open’ – speaking of the fear in white America of black America.
In 1971 the American playwright Barry Beckham used the term in his play, ‘Garvey Lives!’- ‘I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon’ stay woke. And I’m gon help him wake up other black folk.’ More than thirty years later another flip was caused by the American R&B and neo-soul singer Erykah Badu invoking the term in her 2008 track ‘Master Teacher’ which contains the refrain: ‘I stay woke.’
This lineage led American conservatives to appropriate the term to describe not just black America and the pursuit of racial equality, but a wider coalition. They have used it as an insult to ensnare left-wingers, liberals, progressives and anyone who believes in any kind of enlightened social change and diversity and is looking to challenge the status quo. ‘Woke’ went from clarion call to right-wing insult to now being a cliched put-down.
The rise of the anti-woke in Britain
The remaking of ‘woke’ has in the past few years crossed the Atlantic and become part of the everyday conversation not just of the right, but of people uneasy with sections of the left. Examples can be found all over the place particularly around the politics of race and media representation.
In the past week, Meghan Markle’s claims of being subjected to racist press coverage brought forth many claims that she was ‘woke’, including by broadcaster Julia Hartley Brewer who opined: ‘the only negative media coverage Meghan has had is over her obvious self-obsession and her woke hypocrisy telling people to be green while flying on private jets.’
Combative broadcaster Piers Morgan, never shy of a polemic, walked out of his multi-million pound ITV job after being challenged on air on his views on Markle. Subsequently, he used the language of ‘woke’ to present himself as the victim: ‘I think it’s fair to say, although the woke crowd will think that they’ve cancelled me, I think they will be rather disappointed when I re-emerge.’ Nigel Farage declared his support for Morgan: ‘Cancel culture and the woke mob are killing free speech.’
The word ‘woke’ is continually used to define the media with Tory commentator Tim Montgomerie last week talking of ‘the Remainy-wokey media establishment’. Journalist Andrew Neil has made a central strand of his forthcoming channel GB News that it will be ‘anti-woke’, saying: ‘The direction of news debate in Britain is increasingly woke and out of touch with the majority of its people’ and continued: ‘There’s a restlessness, a sense that they’re being talked down to: that much of the media no longer reflects their values or shares their concerns.’ As a factual corrective most of the UK press is verging on the hard right and owned by a few out of touch individuals; Neil’s new channel instead of addressing this will bring us a regular feature called ‘Woke Watch’.
There is even a book called Woke: A Guide to Social Justice by Titania McGrath who describes themselves as ‘a radical intersectionalist poet committed to feminism, social justice and armed peaceful protest’ and who is big in ‘the live-slam poetry scene’ along with ‘deconsecrated churches and genderqueer spiritual retreats’. If you think this sounds a little pretentious and puritanical – and perhaps maybe even a bit ‘woke’ itself, Titania is in fact an alias for Spiked contributor and comedian Andrew Doyle who does a travelling show on the subject of ‘woke’ with neo-conservative Douglas Murray. So this might be presented as satire, but as is often the case, is deeply political and here profoundly reactionary.
‘Woke’ baiting has found a foothold in Scotland via the alt-nat website Wings over Scotland run by Bath-based blogger Stuart Campbell. Campbell regularly lays into the ‘woke SNP’ and their pursuit of politically correct, illiberal, authoritarian policies, doing so with customary intolerance, abusive language and the zeal of someone who never takes half-measures or take any prisoners in his language.
Why this matters
If you think none of this has any real consequences and is just another case of contested language and words being used in a heated way particularly on social media, think again. Rather, the language of ‘woke’ is now being used to frame debates by those with influence and even power which has an impact on all of us.
UK Government ministers now casually dismiss calls for progressive reform in key areas as ‘woke’. One example was revealed last week when three LGBT advisers to a government committee resigned at the inaction of the UK Government on LGBT issues. They revealed that the two Tory ministers responsible – Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch – regularly dismissed issues of equality and specifically LGBT equality as ‘woke’. Evidence, facts, histories and patterns of discrimination and stigma matter for nothing compared to shutting down debate with the language of ‘woke’.
The right love to use ‘woke’ in the context of pejorative terms such as ‘snowflake’, ‘no platforming’ and ‘cancel culture’. But the rich irony is that it is the right which consistently practices a ‘cancel culture’ attempting to censor and curb legitimate concerns. It should be acknowledged in this that some on the left have shown their intolerance and censorious nature through the likes of ‘no platforming’ speakers they object to at universities. This is bundled up into the right-wing claim that there is a ‘war on free speech’ – a contention made by Toby Young and Claire Fox – aiding a politicised campaign about what is and is not appropriate language.
All of this is part of the so called ‘culture wars’ meant to be occurring according to leading voices of the uber-reactionary right such as The Spectator’s Douglas Murray and pivotal to saving Western democracy. Last week on BBC Question Time columnist Dan Hodges framed the entire Harry and Meghan episode in terms of ‘culture wars’ and said that because of this ‘we’re told the country is fracturing down racial and generational lines’ and that unless the left restrained themselves Britain could see the emergence and election of a Trump figure.
‘Culture wars’ are often about the challenges and claims of once silenced and marginalised groups and voices seeking to be listened to and respected. They also go to the heart of the character and power of how broadcast media is portrayed by the right-wing press including papers the Daily Mail and Murdoch empire. The increasingly contested role of the BBC is central – under fire from right and left – and seen by the ‘anti-wokers’ as being irredeemably part of a ‘woke liberal establishment’ which thinks it knows best for the ordinary folk of this country.
Different interpretations of history, Empire, imperialism and colonialism, alongside Britain’s military past and wars, are all in this mix, which brings forth arguments about how the past is interpreted. History is of course a never-ending conversation, but more and more attempts to reclaim and understand in fresh ways Britain’s past are portrayed by the right as being part of ‘cancel culture’: the Daily Telegraph for example having a long running vendetta against the National Trust for England and its attempt to collect data and information about the properties it manages and their connections to slavery and Empire.
A major strand in these struggles over coming to terms with British history has been the issue of statues upon which the UK Government is introducing special offences. Debates have arisen up and down the land about the appropriateness of statues of former slave owners and supporters of slavery such as Edward Colston in Bristol (the one toppled from his plinth and into the city dock) and Henry Dundas in Edinburgh. Often, as in the case of Dundas, campaigners are not looking to remove statues but to correct and qualify the historical context, which is too controversial and charged for some.
This is the cultural and political landscape we inhabit. One with rival interpretations of past and present, and about who has voice, influence and power, and how emerging groups as well as the establishment and elites see themselves. It raises the question: why is this terrain being so fought over invoking such heightened emotions and where might it end?
One interpretation is that in the past ruling elites got their way – whether it was what the BBC broadcast or what statues went up and how they were described. Things are just a bit more contested and challenging now and some in power do not like that.
There is at the heart of the ‘anti-woke brigade’ a deep-seated sense of entitlement from the likes of Andrew Neil, Piers Morgan and Julia Hartley Brewer which invokes a feeling that the present state is not how things used to be and in some a desire to get back to a mythical past and country. In this, people who have influence pull the trick of appearing to speak for those who are powerless, hence presenting a sense of victimhood and being wronged by the ‘woke liberal establishment’ – a charge put by key members of the British establishment.
This touches on the second factor at work which is how the ‘woke’ charge is used as a diversion from huge shifts in society in recent times. While many people are trying to advance progressive causes in what the right calls ‘culture wars’, they are not addressing the wider parameters of power and the fundamental shift in income and wealth in favour of the ultra-rich and capital which has happened in recent decades.
These are the ‘economic wars’ of the past forty years with a powerful ‘cancel culture’ silencing serious challenge and posing of alternative ways of thinking about and organising society. Over this period in the UK and the West we have witnessed the tearing up of the social contract which linked government, business and people; a huge transfer of wealth to the rich and capital; the vast majority of workers not sharing fully in the proceeds of national income and prosperity, and a generational gridlock which has excluded large sections of twenty and thirtysomethings – all while we are told there is no alternative.
The war on ‘woke’ is an attempt by those who gain from, and want to maintain, this rotten state of affairs to prevent the rest of us from realising this and asking difficult questions. Let’s not let them get away with, or contribute, to this deceit and deception. Let’s reflect on who really controls hard power and privilege and whether we want that to continue.