June 10, 2021

It’s Pride month — and so it’s time to make rainbows. Any medium will do: parades, flags, biscuitssandwiches and, of course, corporate branding. Look at the social media accounts of some of the world’s biggest companies and you’ll see that their graphic designers have been busy adding vibrant colours to normally sober logos.

Or at least they have in some parts of the world. A quick search on Twitter reveals that multinational companies have different accounts for different regions and countries — and not all of then get the Pride makeover. For instance, I’ve yet to find a single major corporation that applies the rainbow palette to its Middle East account. Odd that.

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A possible excuse is that not every part of the planet celebrates Pride. And indeed that would be difficult in countries where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by prison or worse. Arguably, that’s all the more reason for taking a stand, but perhaps the PR budget doesn’t stretch that far.

This sort of inconsistency isn’t limited to the private sector. Just compare the websites of the US Embassy to the Holy See and the US Embassy to Saudi Arabia. There’s a Pride flag prominently displayed on one home page, but not the other. Can you guess which is which?

Of course, no one applies their principles with perfect consistency. We’re all of us hypocrites. And yet there’s something especially shallow and self-serving about the posturing of woke individuals and organisations.

In part that’s because fashionable causes attract people for the most superficial reasons. But the problem runs much deeper than that. While wokeness has been hugely successful in propagating itself as a set of ideas, attitudes and gestures, it has failed as an agent of constructive change in the real world. No wonder the corporates find it so unthreatening.

This is a feature, not a bug. Both as an ideology and as a political movement, wokeness is structurally facile. Let’s start with the ideology.

Wokeness locates injustice in highly abstract concepts like “whiteness” or the “patriarchy”. That might appear to be radical, but it relies on sweeping generalisations that are simply too unmoored from reality to inspire practical reforms.

What you get in place of reform are performances in which liberals signal their agreement with woke principles, without translating them into meaningful action (which is impossible anyway).

This week it was reported that Susan Goldberg, Editor in Chief of National Geographic, signed off a mass email with the following statement: “White, privileged, with much to learn.” If that is what she wrote, one has to ask what the point of it is. I very much doubt that a prominent individual “confessing” to their whiteness and privilege would become any less prominent as a result — if anything their status would be enhanced.

Or to take another example, what exactly changes when white liberals pay $2,500 a plate to be confronted with their white privilege at a dinner hosted by woke activists? Or when a tech lord donates $10 million to a woke academic? Or when a progressive polemic becomes a bestselling book? Or when compulsory instruction in woke theory spreads through workplace training programmes?

Obviously, the ideology itself is propagated and financial resources are mobilised towards further propagation, but what happens apart from that merry-go-round?

Changing hearts and minds is, of course, important to any reform movement, but the struggle to make the world a better place can’t stop there. The campaign against slavery didn’t just seek to persuade people that slavery was wrong, but strove to abolish it. The suffragettes weren’t just out to make a point about equality between the sexes, but to win votes for women. The early trade unionists weren’t primarily interested in theories about class struggle, but in fighting for the right to organise and thus press for concrete improvements to wages and conditions.

In each of these cases, the generalised theory of injustice connected directly to specific injustices which could be clearly defined and then put right.

Another thing these movements have in common is that they arose from outside established power structures. Furthermore, they succeeded in bringing down the most oppressive features of the establishments they were challenging. We can identify laws that were repealed, institutions that were abolished and vested interests that were defeated.

In stark contrast, wokeness is propagated from within established institutions. The movement got its start in academia, where the theoretical underpinnings of the movement were developed. From the universities it then spilled over into other public institutions, the media and, as we now see, the corporate world.

We often speak about ideas “going viral”, but the metaphor works especially well in this case. A virus doesn’t do anything except invade host organisms. It has no metabolism — and depends entirely on its host to do the work of replication.

For all its talk of “dismantling systems of oppression”, wokeness would be nothing without its influence over the institutions of a society it despises. It is therefore in no position to dismantle anything — at least not until it can move to another host.

But if wokeness can’t take down structures, it can certainly take down individuals. As such it has inverted the old model of radical politics which was about dissenters taking on the establishment, not the other way round. Now, thanks to cancel culture, divergence from the norm is punished and purged as a supposedly progressive act. Wokeness dresses up in the spectacle of protest, but at its most powerful it inhabits the role of policeman not protester. (That was literally the case for Marion Millar, the feminist who was charged by the Scottish police last week for sending allegedly transphobic tweets.)

Again one has to ask what is being achieved here. One needn’t feel sympathy for every victim of cancel culture to feel uneasy about a politics of progress that has turned against the weak not the strong. Someone like Ollie Robinson, condemned for some idiotically offensive things he said on social media as a teenager, couldn’t be in a weaker position. If you’re the target of a Twitter mob — and a problem for an employer who wants to shut down a bad news story ASAP — then you’re irretrievably stuffed.

Getting someone like that cancelled isn’t a blow against any sort of privilege or power structure; it’s just ruining the life of some lonely and terrified individual.

The petty obsessions of the woke stand in contrast to their grand indifference on issues that actually matter. If you want to see what real racism looks like — not to mention misogyny and anti-Muslim bigotry — then look at what the Chinese Communist Party is doing to the Uyghurs. A policy of savage oppression amounting to genocide is happening right now in the world’s second biggest economy and it’s being ignored by people who’d freak-out over a teenager’s stupid tweets or one of Boris Johnson’s “jokes”.

But there’s method to their inconsistency. Campaigning against Chinese government policy — or that of any oppressive non-western power — does nothing to propagate wokeness as an ideology or to provide it with institutional advantages. As such it doesn’t matter how great the evil might be, it is irrelevant to a movement that only cares about itself.