Since the end of the Second World War, most of the world’s conflicts have been civil wars. The average length of an international war is less than six months; for a civil war it is seven years. The heretic is often treated more contemptibly than the infidel. Freud described the phenomenon by which we hate those closest to us as the “narcissism of small differences”. This also explains, to a great extent, the culture wars in Britain today.
Many people, like Oliver Dowden, the chairman of the Conservative Party, think that the culture wars in Britain are between the woke Left and the conservative Right. This is only partially correct. They are also between the liberal-Left and the woke Left; they are also civil wars.
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Dowden made a speech a couple of weeks ago at an American think-tank called the Heritage Foundation. It wasn’t exactly Churchill in Fulton, Missouri, but it made a splash. Dowden denounced woke ideology as a terrifying force: “a social media mob,” he said, “can cancel you merely because you have dared to challenge one of the Left’s fashionable nostrums.”
Dowden’s analysis of woke politics is slightly misplaced; and so too is the criticism of the speech made by the former MP and government minister David Gauke in the New Statesman. Gauke is wrong because, though he admits cancel culture is a problem, he sees it as a minor nuisance.
I can understand how: if you think it’s simply a battle between academics and conservative journalists, it can seem like a minor conflict. One that is only played out in the hyperactive transient world of social media and radio talk-in shows. But it is not just a clash between Scylla and Charybdis. It is also a family fight. And this is why the word ‘woke’ should be used.
It is now fashionable among a certain type of Left-liberal or centrist to say ‘woke’ is a meaningless term. It is certainly true that it is much abused. Some newspaper columnists relish going after ‘woke snowflakes’ with the zeal of indiscriminate big-game hunters. I can see why one would want to remove themselves from that. It’s all so vulgar, and disavowing the term ‘woke’ thus seems like a cleaner choice.
But there is no point denying that there are conflicts around the issues of gender, free speech, race and culture. And that these conflicts are not only waged by the Right-wing press, but are in fact found within many institutions largely staffed by liberal-Left people. The culture wars, which are often derided as fake and drummed up by the Right, are real. They are an extension of politics — and politics is by its very nature oppositional.
Woke also has a sharp Anglo-Saxon sting; it’s a name that sticks. “Social Justice Warriors” is too long and its acronymic version SJW is dull. Progressive is too loose and airy. Woke gets straight to the point, and is useful in conveying, in its aggressive consonantal force, the internecine nature of this conflict.
The transgender debate, for instance, is not a conflict between reactionaries and progressives. It is a battle between older liberal-Left women and younger progressive women; between older gay and lesbian radicals and younger ones. Mumsnet and the Observer have done more than conservative think tanks to highlight the tension between biological sex and gender identity. It is not lavishly funded conservative institutions but grassroots feminist organisations such as Woman’s Place UK which are at the forefront of the fight against gender-identity politics in Britain.
It may seem like an intergenerational conflict because older women care less about what people think of them than younger women. But there are many younger people who are privately sceptical about elements of the politics of social justice. The key word here is privately.
We tend to think this conflict is made up of Right-wing cranks and irate historians (and a group of inexplicable feminists!) against an online-savvy Left. But ask many people in the publishing industry about what they really think of J.K. Rowling, Kate Clanchy and sensitivity readers — and the obscuring effect of self-censorship becomes clear. Some of them will be happy to chat to you, over the phone or in a pub, and express their views. But it has to be off-the record.
These people are Guardian readers. They hate the Tories. They support Black Lives Matter, and are gravely worried about climate change. But they are scared stiff about saying the treatment of J.K. Rowling was terrible, that Clanchy made a mistake in responding to a Goodreads comment on Twitter but her detractors have behaved terribly, and that the use of sensitivity readers is crude and patronising. This is what they believe, but they don’t want to lose their jobs.
People who say woke is meaningless are evasive about this intra-Left conflict. They point to people such as Robert Tombs and David Abulafia, who will gladly write columns for the Telegraph excoriating the woke Left. Tombs will (falsely) claim in the Times that Churchill was not a racist. But where are the academics who will argue that Churchill was a racist but also a great man? When is the Guardian going to publish that?
Such people do exist, but if they think any criticism of woke politics will put them in the same camp as people like Tombs, they’ll prefer to stew away quietly. Many of the same people who bemoan the divisive nature of the culture wars are doing absolutely nothing to make it more nuanced. Claiming that certain figures from the past who were racist were not in fact racist is an extreme view; but so is denying that some of these racist people should not be considered heroic or virtuous or praiseworthy in other respects.
In English departments, many academics do not want to be labelled as racists, so they publicly acquiesce to calls to decolonise the curriculum, but many of them are, again, quietly sceptical. They value the principle of diversity; they also subscribe to a humanist approach to literature that affirms great books can’t be wholly reduced to politics. They love equality. But they also love pluralism and honest intellectual discussion.
They know these things should not conflict with each other — we can consider the politics of a text without viewing that text entirely through the lens of politics; we can value both diversity and frank intellectual debate. But they live in an atmosphere in which they are in conflict. And so they do nothing about it because they don’t want to face a backlash.
This is why saying and using ‘woke’ is important. It brings what is obscure into the open. It allows the debate to be had within the liberal-Left, where it needs to be had. It is clarifying.
But many (here, here, here, here, here, and here) argue that cancel culture doesn’t really exist. It’s just a Right-wing talking point. To which I would respond: how do you know? There is so much self-censorship going on that people are not being honest about what they believe about certain sensitive issues. They don’t have the wealth or power of J.K. Rowling; they are scared of losing their jobs. That is cancel culture.
In another liberal-Left organisation, the Labour Party, the tensions are revealed by a poll last year which found that only 25% of Labour Party voters support defunding the police — one key policy of woke ideology. Even among 18-24 year olds, the wokest demographic, it is only 44%. When asked whether we should view society’s problems through the lens of white privilege, the poll also found that only 29% of Labour voters agreed. More than half think “woke practices” have gone too far.
Of course, people have complex views. One might support taking the knee, believe statues of certain slave traders like Edward Colston should be taken down, and believe that we should learn more about slavery and colonialism at school, but such people might still be critical of other aspects of woke ideology. This is why they would be reluctant to describe themselves as anti-woke. To do so might imply opposition to all those things. But they could also describe themselves as non-woke or woke-sceptical; the fact that wokeness can be ambiguous does not mean it is a meaningless term. It just means it can be ambiguous.
Wokeness has a family resemblance to other progressive ideologies — but it is also distinct. Many socialists are non-woke; their analysis is rooted in class politics rather than identity. I also think it’s lazy to simply describe wokeness as liberalism. It is often profoundly illiberal. If woke-deniers think the Right is often misusing the term, they should take ownership of it. Simply saying ‘woke’ is a meaningless term, without offering a more attractive alternative, is a form of evasion.
One reason why this matters on the liberal-Left is because the vast majority of 18-24 year olds now back liberal-Left parties. There is an old adage that people become more conservative as they get older. But if the changes in people’s lives which lead them to become conservative, such as owning property and having kids, are becoming increasingly rare, then that transition to conservatism might not come to pass for many young people. This is why the battle between the woke Left and the non-woke or woke-sceptical Left is especially salient. It has repercussions for all of us.
Questions such as: what is a woman, how should we examine our past, how we should think about race in an increasingly diverse society, and how we should think about free speech and tolerance are all absolutely key for trying to make sense of the nature of public discourse today and in the future. They ultimately boil down to the question of who we are, and what we should do about it.