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The woke don’t want to save the world Evil does not matter to a movement that only cares about itself


June 10, 2021   4 mins

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.

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.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Simon Denis
SD
Simon Denis
2 years ago

You say that “wokeness” locates evil in “highly abstract concepts like whiteness”. Whiteness is not a highly abstract concept. It is the colour of many a person’s skin. Attack it and you attack them. Would you excuse the BNP on the grounds that “blackness” is just a “highly abstract concept”? I doubt it. Isn’t this, then, just the double standard which you correctly identify in America’s differential approaches to Saudi and the Holy See? And the double standard rests on toxic ignorance and distortion, designed to make “white” societies the scapegoat; to load them with blame for all ill. This is not some harmless fad but a deeply sinister wave of hysteria. It connives in Saudi and other non-western crimes against minorities, women and those whom they designate sinners or deviants, by ignoring them. Conversely, it libels ordinary western conservatism, not to mention the Christian religion as full of “hate”, when they merely disapprove. It covers for self-destructive rates of migration into western territory which disable assimilation and encourage division. The woke may well be selfish, frivolous, inconsistent, warped. They are indeed engaged in spiteful tantrum with no beneficial intentions or results. But they remain powerful and everyone today is sensible of that power and cowers under it. The wretched story of that unfortunate young cricketer shows how stupid and abusive that power has become. Lenin, a strutting, pontificating, hectoring fanatic, was laughed at right up until the time when people realised he was in charge; and it is the same with the “woke”. They and their poisonous distortions have got be stopped as soon as may be.

Sue Blanchard
Sue Blanchard
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Simon, I could not agree more with your assessment.

Simon Denis
SD
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  Sue Blanchard

Many thanks. I think it’s increasingly clear to the wobbly people in charge of the official centre-right that they must formulate a more than cosmetic response to the current, hard left threat. Whether they will do so in time remains, alas, a moot point.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

 “This is not some harmless fad but a deeply sinister wave of hysteria.”
* This is not some harmless fad but a deeply sinister wave of naked racism.

ralph bell
RB
ralph bell
2 years ago

Great article
Aside form the woke ideologists, its the spineless leaders of organisations and corporations that are the real villains in kowtowing to their demands.

Ian nclfuzzy
Ian nclfuzzy
2 years ago

My company is on a pride frenzy rn, and does business in KSA. We don’t have a ME twitter, but if we did, no way it would have rainbow colours plastered all over it.
This just shows the emptiness of the virtue signalling. Sadly, all those noughties gender studies students from the old polytechnics had to go somewhere. They did – corporate HR departments.

A Spetzari
AS
A Spetzari
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian nclfuzzy

Indeed!
I saw a post the other day showing the BMW logo from the 1930s with a certain prominent nationalist German logo emblazoned across it, juxtaposed with their current multicoloured offering.
Now of course those are two very different things in detail, but shows how organisations are weather vanes when it comes to this.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

I don’t see the difference.

Andrew D
AD
Andrew D
2 years ago

It’s got a lot more boring since those naughty, noisy, non-fare-paying kids at the back of the UnHerd bus were chucked off (or left)

Al M
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

You’re not wrong. Dull as dishwater the last few days. Very few of the old wags and their repartee. Many more long-winded essays and fewer pithy ripostes. Not sure I’ll renew if it stays this way.

Last edited 2 years ago by Al M
Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  Al M

Not really a witty riposte, but I think the expression is ‘as dull as ditch water’. Although I do agree that dishwashers are very dull.

Al M
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Ha ha! I meant ‘dishwater’ and have used that rather than ‘ditch’ for many years. Well spotted.

Life was certainly not dull when I worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant, but that’s another story.

Last edited 2 years ago by Al M
R S Foster
R S Foster
2 years ago

…and of course, taking useful action against the CCP in respect of their racist genocide against the Uyghurs…or Islamists for their misogyny, homophobia, or transphobia…might result in some hard-faced Han Imperialist, or knife-wielding Jihadi beating you senseless or cutting your head off…even on our streets should you do so by public protest at an Embassy or a Mosque…
…they are self-serving and self-obsessed cowards, who think themselves “heroic” because they are successful in persecuting those weaker than themselves…but would soil themselves in terror if they experienced real physical resistance without the Police present to protect them from the consequences of their vile and repellent behaviour…

Tony Buck
TB
Tony Buck
2 years ago

Woke has failed as an agent of constructive change in the real world ?

Inevitably, since its real aim is destructive change in the real world.

Ian nclfuzzy
Ian nclfuzzy
2 years ago

Quite why HM Home Office has joined in the virtue signalling, I have no idea.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian nclfuzzy

It’s part of the civil service, therefore crawling with virtue-signallers.

Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
2 years ago

Another article on the performative nature of Western Woke. I liked the observation about corporate pride banners and their non application in Saudi Arabia.
Liberal manners, demand a sagacious nodding through of this stuff, it is largely self identification. Lost your job at Stonewall, move to J P Morgan without any step check.
Something in defence of those hated,19th century Empires, they used their reach and power to help eradicate slavery across the globe,not just wring their hands.
Before Covid, I had business with China, now I face a dilemma when or if they come calling,I wonder if I have the moral courage at a time of economic need.

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
2 years ago

“Or to take another example, what exactly changes when white liberals pay $2,500 a plate to be confronted with their white priv ilege 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?”
$10 million in reparations for the Bengali famine? Nope, it went to an academic instead.
Even in their own moral universe, the wokesters fa il miserably.

Last edited 2 years ago by Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Michael James
MJ
Michael James
2 years ago

Also, China is scary and could retaliate, e.g. by withdrawing funds from Western universities. So better not provoke it.

B Smith
B Smith
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael James

test

B Smith
B Smith
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael James

Yeah for all of its faults, the “woke” people can really only control what is going on in their own countries. The U.S. and England don’t fund the Uighur genocide, so there’s not much they can do about it. And if they tried, China wouldn’t care anyway; it would just be a lot of noise to them.

Val Colic-Peisker
Val Colic-Peisker
2 years ago

Patriarchy and whiteness do exist, not just as abstract concepts, Peter. Your race and gender does influence your life, how other judge you and therefore your life chances, and what you can or cannot safely do. Men and people with lighten skins are privileged around the world. In UK, India and Saudi Arabia alike. Everywhere. However, the Wokes are gone completely OTT and require the so call ‘whites’ to ritually self-flaggelate at every (public) occasion; and they are completely confused about gender and patriarhy – attacking and ideologically murdering (‘cancelling’) feminists if they express doubt about people with penises being women is not a way to fight patriarchy. As to their power, the Woke ideology took over the universities in the Anglosphere (certainly Social Science and Humanities departments, and the Unis’ ‘official ideology’). I left my full-time academic job (in Australia) last year because it became impossible to teach a course called ‘Race and racism’ and stay sane, especially while doing it online. Universities are now as ideologically rigid and censored as they were in Stalin’s USSR. Many young people get out with their uni degrees either brainwashed or confused. This is not inconsequential, I’m afraid. The ultimate irony is that corporatised, profit-chasing universities cynically espouse this extreme left, authoritarian ideology and fire people who dare taking their freedom of speech and academic freedom of expression seriously.

Andrew Roman
AR
Andrew Roman
2 years ago

Wokeness has become a status symbol for mobs.

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
GH
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
2 years ago

“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?”

$10 million in reparations for the Bengali famine. Nope, it went to an academic instead.

Even in their own moral universe, the wokesters fail miserably.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

I believe even the funding established for them was shut down

Christian Filli
CF
Christian Filli
2 years ago

“… [wokeness] has inverted the old model of radical politics which was about dissenters taking on the establishment, not the other way round.”
Borrowing from Orwell, all animals are hypocrites, but some are more so than others.

Al M
Al M
2 years ago

I followed the link to the Guardian re. the $2,500 dinners:

“this will help her see how unmonitored thoughts can lead to systemic racism”

Mind control it must be!

Essentially, the idea that much of this behaviour is inconsequential beyond impacts on unfortunate individuals is disingenuous. Companies forcing this on employees en masse, the next example given after the dinners, leads to perfectly reasonable people feeling hectored and undervalued; it does little to improve relations between people and almost certainly increases antagonism and resentment. That’s what changes. Good article overall though.

Last edited 2 years ago by Al M
B Smith
B Smith
2 years ago

test

Andrew Raiment
AR
Andrew Raiment
2 years ago

What is “Woke”… only kidding!