The Problem of Wokeness


Recently I was listening to a popular podcast when the presenter, for reasons in no way connected to the topic at hand, mentioned ‘those woke people’ with a denigrating tone.

I stopped listening to that podcast and the next time it pops up in my feed, I’m going to have to decide whether it’s worth it to listen. And this really disturbs me. In most other ways, I find the presenter to be smart, fun, interesting, and informative.

As I see it, there are two competing views of what’s going on here: On the right, the view is that ‘woke’ is a moralizing, intolerant, judgmental way for the left to attack people who are just trying to get on with their lives. It is a way for a radical left to apply racial, social, gender-based agendas that may seemingly be made up of whole cloth to destroy good people’s lives.

And, as a middle-aged, middle-class white man, I have some sympathy for that view. I have been accused of (unintentional) racism, it upsets me when I see comedians being thrown from gigs at college campuses, and I have no time for your pronounced ‘preferred pronouns.’ It’s difficult enough for me to remember your name, so if you also need me to keep track of random pronouns – especially if odd or which don’t match the way you present in the world, I’m mostly going to decide I just don’t need to deal with you.

And then there is cancel culture, or the hyper-ventilating piling on of over-eager woke people to condemn and destroy someone for an unpopular view, or misstatement, or gaffe, or something taken out of context. Now usually the people who are ‘canceled’ aren’t really ‘canceled’ but are simply made to go through a bad patch. And, some people do need to be called out, but the level of self-righteous hysteria makes the whole thing ugly and indefensible.

But here’s where we get to the other side of this and the reason I get ‘triggered’ when I hear people like that podcaster casually use ‘woke’ as a blanket insult word.

At heart, I try to think of myself as a decent person, and I hope that can leave the world a better place than I found it. I don’t care what color, race, sexual preference or whatever you are, I think you have exactly the same rights I do – to work, to use government services, to marriage, adoption, to access to decent education, to respect, …

I also know that, at least in the US as I am an American, that certain groups have historically and continue to face discrimination blatant and systemic. I know that I personally am not perfect and may have views or practices that hurt others in unnecessary ways. As a decent person, I want to remain open to hearing about those things and I want an opportunity to do better if I can.

I earlier said that I have been accused of acting in a racist way. I won’t go into detail here, but when we got to the bottom of what I had actually done, I was able to look at the facts and say, ‘Oh, hey. He’s right.’ I learned and got better.

But I needed to hear that guy’s side of the story before I could do that. He needed the right to speak, and he needed to be respected enough to be listened to.

So, my problem with ‘woke’ is on both sides. For the left it is an ill-defined purity test that can be used to hysterically attack people who should be allowed their say in the discussion. Even when I’m told ‘you’re woke’ as a compliment, I admit I don’t like it.  It implies things I may not be willing to agree with. I’m not woke, I’m just trying to be a decent person as I understand it. I am not going to continually check myself to see if I am being socially just. I don’t have the bandwidth, but if something is brought to my attention, I’ll do what I can.

For the right, woke has become its own kind of cancel culture. Every time someone on the right says ‘woke people,’ what they really mean is ‘shut up, I don’t want to hear it.’ They imply ‘so what if I’m racist, sexist, homophobic…’ It shuts down the opportunity for people to bring up legitimate, lived, and often terrible circumstances.  It’s a way of saying ‘I have my bubble and don’t you dare think about piercing it.’ This is industrial cancel culture as it doesn’t shut down a person, but whole groups of people.

I admit fully that I am not color blind and that I have feelings about things like homosexuality normal for someone of my age (being called a fag was the worst thing you could be called on the playground when I was growing up). I also view my role life, for myself especially, but also for my society, to make it a more tolerant, more inclusive, more just place for everyone.

For this, they hysteria and dismissal needs to be toned down.