Who’s the Most Woke? The Cultural Anxiety of Righteousness

My Sunday afternoon research had a welcome addition with Tracy Breaks the News skit, “You Woke?” featuring Tracey Ullman.  Anyone from across the political spectrum would have a hard time not laughing along, except for the very shrill—dare I say “damaged”—object of ridicule here: the most “woke” of all. Indeed, this skit went right to the point in its critique of the millennial obsession with righteousness by suggesting that this group has “no fun at all” hence, they must seek help in a support group.

I laughed and I winced at this representation of young people coming together in a support group as we were treated to their constant tripping over themselves to correct their other SJW cohorts. The group facilitator, Ullman, introduces the new member to the group and states that “young people” are “ruining their lives by being overly virtuous” to which Jamie, one of the group members states, “That’s actually a micro-aggression to say ‘young people’ because it carries subconscious bias towards the elderly.” Another woman responds, “Actually, what you’re doing is denying agency to the elderly which is arguably much worse.”  As much as this video is accurate and hysterical, it reveals a painful truth for the many twenty and thirty-somethings who are engaged in a militant authoritarianism of all that is good and true, each one having a more woke response to the situation. As the facilitator says, “You can’t go through your twenties worrying about every aspect  of everything.”  Or can you?

It is the race to the finish for those who can actually understand the differences between the social justice “Left” and the “Alt-Right” as both these groups exist largely online and both represent extreme forms of identitarian politics.  Yet, it is the social justice left which has led this latest stage of the culture war which seems to be no longer of the left versus the right, but of segments of the left against itself. Or should I say, “xirself”? Or would that offend those who use “hirself”?  And I seek an answer to these questions I have already discovered that the ostensibly revolutionary terms have merely recycled the old and we are back to square one of bickering over which is better, steel or BPA (bisphenol) plastic—and should we be worried about it!

The dilemma with obsessing over social problems is that we create a Trojan horse where all the potential warriors for effecting real change, are merely readying themselves for the battle of the easiest and most superficial element of all: the modification of language.  And that’s not much of a battle at all if you consider that it is waged on the stage of political impotence where laws go unchallenged

I remember when conservatives were upset when the BBC stopped using BC and AD and instead started using BCE and CE (“Before Common Era” and “Common Era”) or when they were outraged by the European Parliament banning the use of terms that denote marital status for women. But arguably, these were moves meant to democratize access to employment and state functions by women without their private lives having to enter into the equation and similarly that time could have a measurement that was not hinged upon the mythical placement of a “full stop” imposed by the Church.   But is it politically useful to ban words like “brainstorming” because it might cause offense to epileptics or to bar children from having a “best friend” because some believe this promotes exclusion? Do we really want to mandate language that comes from the imagery of a poetically-driven tempest of the mind or to control the natural human social relations that will transpire no matter how many bans one sets into place?

Many activists today are now more concerned with attacking language and policing private behavior, in a complete mirroring of what the moral majority was up to some thirty years ago. The irony is not lost on those of us who recall Jesse Helms’ 1994 statement to the U.S. Senate indicting what he termed “disgusting, insulting, revolting garbage produced by obviously sick minds is somehow art” in referring to the work of Robert Mapplethorpe.  Today, we have the inverse where MAGA hats are deemed conterminous to Nazism and where feminists who make well-founded and coherent critiques of prostitution are labelled SWERFs.  Even clapping and cheering has been declared discriminatory by the National Union of Students as discriminatory towards the deaf (to which someone pointed out that using “jazz hands” is discriminatory towards the blind). There is little nuance in political discussions among the woke because the bottom line, in a twist on G.W. Bush’s mantra, “Either you are either with us or you are with the terrorists.”

Even the UN has had cultural appropriation at the forefront of its “to-do list” since 2001 where a special committee has been working on three key pieces of international legislation that would expand intellectual-property regulations to protect things like Indigenous designs, dances, words and traditional medicines. While it is understandable that indigenous groups around the planet who have been dispossessed of their land and rights want a piece of the “pie” as it were, I have to wonder if such moves towards banning “cultural appropriation” are at all helpful in addressing political and economic wrongs.  Moreover, should this go forth in law, the United Nations would have to put such laws onto paper sealed and signed by many. And that itself is culturally appropriative of Chinese who invented paper during the Eastern Han period (25–220 CE) who, in turn, may very likely have appropriated that idea from the ancient Egyptians who wrote on papyrus dating back to the First Dynasty (approximately 3100 BCE).  And we haven’t even covered pens and writing systems yet!

We are living in a particularly tempestuous era where a differing political opinion is viewed as a crime against humanity, despite our society undergoing a massive opioid crisis and where treatments for rapidly-mounting mental health issues and addictions are virtually out of the financial reach for most. It seems to me that the focus of our political efforts—and anger—ought not to rest with someone who says “sportsman” or “you guys,” but instead such energies should be used to look towards why in the United States alone 1.56 million people are homeless.  We can squabble all we like over language, but one thing language cannot do is to change reality. If only by declaring oneself middle class one could cure one’s homelessness!

Why is this generation of political activism more concerned with people hold differing political views over addressing the political issues themselves and taking action? Why is there a deference to the need to assuage feelings over attacking reality-based problems of class struggle, poverty, and healthcare?  While the entertainment part of me can understand why the petition circulating a couple years back urging that Idriss Elba be tapped as the next James Bond, I have a hard time understanding how equity can result by fiat and insults instead of through education and dialogue. As cultural attitudes regarding racism and homophobia have changed over the years, social justice activism has dug its heels to become even more “radical” because in order to win at this “game” of moral superiority, one must keep increasing the stakes. As Kristian Niemietz writes in his article, “The Economics of Political Correctness”:

The PC brigade has been highly successful in creating new social taboos, but their success is their very problem. Moral superiority is a prime example of a positional good, because we cannot all be morally superior to each other. Once you have successfully exorcised a word or an opinion, how do you differentiate yourself from others now? You need new things to be outraged about, new ways of asserting your imagined moral superiority.

What will the new outrage be tomorrow? How will we know where to stand, how to speak, or even if we are permitted a misstep or apprehension. The Church of the ultra-woke is here and now and they are seeking out new items of despair to hold up for the inquisition’s gaze as we are all reminded how unworthy we really are. 

What we, on the left, must undertake in the coming weeks and months is an analysis of our own political positions where some of us might have previously added our names to a petition to no-platform another for mere political dissension and to stop reacting to disagreement with yet another reductio ad Hitlerum.  When all is said and done, we are constraining ourselves—not only others—from critically engaging with the world as we increase, on a daily basis, the list of taboo words, subjects, and thoughts to expunge from our social and political landscape.

Like Tracey Ullman’s character who ends the session for woke people suggesting a hobnob when Jamie chimes in stating, “I find the word ‘hobnob’ very phallocentric,” it is increasingly difficult to react to such rigidity expressed by these unhappy social justice quislings without telling them, “Fuck off, Jamie!”

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com