Lucinda Elliot

Review of ‘How Woke Won: The Elitist Movement That Threatens Democracy, Tolerance and Reason’ by Joanna Williams (2022)

This isn’t going to be a popular post. It will be a highly contentious one. In fact, I’m expecting to lose a good few followers by publishing it. But people should speak  out about the threat to free speech  and democracy created identity politics and woke cancel culture.

I was dismayed to find that I agreed with almost everything in this book.  I would much rather have believed that ‘woke ideology’ is fired by over enthusiasm, simplistic ideas about history and culture, the nature of oppression, and the naive belief that if you savage opposing beliefs enough, people will humbly come round to your point of view.

No doubt some of it is; but I do have to agree with the author that it has other, more sinister aspects.  

The sad thing is, that I’d rather disagree with the arguments and conclusions in this book. I can’t; they are presented too thoroughly and convincingly.

I found it a fine explanation of the development and approach of the current woke ideology. In particular, it explained why its proponents, if challenged, go in for a spot of good old gaslighting: ‘Woke? Culture wars? I don’t see a thing; must’ve gone the other way. You don’t believe that right wing conspiracy theory, do you?’ 

I would like to emphasize, though, that when I write about those who further the woke side in the culture wars, I am not writing about those who subscribe to some of these views, but who take the view that everyone has the right to their own ideas on the matter, or some such moderate position. I mean those who have a focused, exclusive, commited approach towards identity politics, who take part in cancel culture while denying its existence.

For a few years now, I have had growing concerns about the rise of ‘woke’ ideology and censorship to the status of the dominant viewpoint throughout so many public institutions and private companies.

For one thing, it isn’t exactly good for free speech – something which we should protect at all costs – even at the expense of causing offence and hurt feelings.

Also, a lot of people are too alarmed to speak out, either at work or in their communities or on social media. They are scared of being labelled a TERF if they object to the term ‘woman’ gradually being eradicated, or a racist if they object to Muslim extremists trying to impose Sharia law in the UK.

The rise of ‘woke’  ideology is of course, an import from the US, like chewing gum and rock and roll, only less enjoyable.  I make no claim to have more than a vague idea of how it took off in the US. I do have general understanding of its historical development in Britain.

This is much the same as Joanna Williams’ account, that its roots date from the ‘politically correct’ orthodoxy of those who regarded themselves as the enlightened  left of centre in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  As the author says, there was:

 ‘A growing sense that words mattered, and that policing behaviour in the name of social justice came to dominate mainstream left-wing politics. On university campuses, the students’ union policy of ‘No Platform for Fascists’ began to be extended to other groups, such as anti-abortion activists.’

Gradually, this ‘no platforming’ approach was extended to all those expressing views that might ‘offend’ ‘vulnerable groups’. Soon enough the ability of these groups to take offence made the late Mary Whitehouse look broad minded. 

All this coincided with the gradual estrangement of the working class from the Labour Party with its move to appeal to ‘Middle England’ under Tony Blair. This led to the Labour and Liberal Parties’ adoption of the identity politics and woke thinking of the young recruits who had come from the massively expanded university sector.

Most had no connection with the socially conservative and economically liberal views of traditional Labour supporters. Instead, they had been influenced by the new seemingly radical orthodoxy  permeating the universities.

Joanna Williams suggests this unquestioning acceptance by so many institutions of this new ‘radical’ orthodoxy seeping out from the universities was due to a lack of sense of direction, combined with a collective sense of guilt about the shadier episodes of the history of the British Empire. This made them incapable of defending the massive intellectual accomplishments of Western culture.

Accordingly, the universities and public institutions rolled over in submission like a dog in old days trained to, ‘Die for your country’ (Well, I suppose these days, the liberal elite train their pets to act out dying for the European Union).  

Virtue signalling and woke policies have now been adopted by the private sector. There’s nothing surprising about capitalistic virtue signalling,, as Joanna Williams indicates. Profit making companies are very eager to distract attention from their often grotesquely unscrupulous practices and inflated profits.  If claiming to be ‘inclusive’ and offering courses on ‘microaggressions’ and making up posts championing ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ does that, then  they’re happy to oblige.

It is, of course, quite difficult to define exactly what constitute ‘woke’ views. The author does an excellent job of defining these and how they have been uncritically assumed by so many who see themselves as radical.

This might include the belief that racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia are structurally endemic; that white people are inherently privileged and are racist if they deny this; that gender identity is more important to a person’s sense of themselves than their sex; that Britain’s past is a source of shame; that national borders are an oppressive construct; that community and tradition are regressive fictions; that masculinity is toxic; and that most people are mentally vulnerable.

‘Most fundamentally, the cultural elite shares an assumption that we all have historically based, historically accumulated privileges and disadvantages. We must all learn where to position ourselves and others within an intersectional hierarchy of privilege and oppression, and performatively support those less privileged than ourselves. The new elite’s authority comes from acting on behalf of the oppressed. …(These assumptions) are often presented as value- neutral …’

One of the notable things about the new, woke conformity is that it plays down, or even denies the importance of social class or wealth. Compared to race or sexuality or belonging to some cultural group, it is seen as a being of little importance regarding life chances and power.

According to this frankly extraordinary way of defining ‘victim status’, a multi-millionaire footballer of mixed race is more ‘oppressed’ and ‘vulnerable’ than any low paid white person living in bad housing and having no influence. The later has ‘white privilege’, after all…

Though some of woke’s militant proponents claim to be ‘left wing’ they have, in fact, generally very little sympathy for the ideas and goals of ordinary working people. This came out clearly at the time of the EU referendum, when one Labour or Liberal MP after another insisted that people ‘Hadn’t known what they were voting for.’

 It is no co-incidence that it was about this time of bitter divisions that have persisted to the present day, that the word ‘woke’ started to be used in the UK.

Another irony is brought out succinctly by Joanna Williams: ‘Opposing woke does not necessarily make people right wing. Opposing woke does not mean racism, sexism, homopbobia, or other forms of bigotry and discrimination. Those pushing back against the rise of woke today are most often echoing views which were, not that long ago, considered radically progressive. They are concerned about a shift in left-wing politics that risks pitching groups against each other according to race, gender and sexuality. Many of woke’s critics are concerned about a growing hostility to the liberal values of free speech, tolerance, civil rights and democracy. They are concerned about the inflationary rhetoric that brands those not completely on board with woke thinking ‘homophobes’ ‘transphobes’ or ‘fascists’…critics of woke are trying to resist bigotry rather than uphold it.’

One of the problems in dealing with the proponents of woke seems to be that they either refuse to discuss the arguments of their opponents, or make a practice of wilfully misunderstanding them. The demonization of and attempt to ‘cancel’ J K Rowling for stating the indisputable biological fact that, ‘Only women menstruate’ is a chilling example of this.

 ‘Critics argue that woke ideology deals in euphemism. Code words such as ‘equity’, ‘social justice’, ‘diversity and inclusion’ and ‘culturally responsive teaching’ are supposed to sound non-threatening. They are chosen because they are easily confused with more accepted principles, but hide an  altogether different agenda.’  

For example, students taking a compulsory induction module at St Andrews are told that to hold that equality means treating everyone the same is wrong – it really means treating some people differently.

The author is not depicting the spread of woke as a conspiracy, though it certainly can seem like one, when:

 ‘Woke, the cultural elite tell us, is just a made up, right wing conspiracy theory. What they really mean is, ‘shut up’.  Look the other way when we remove statues and clear books from library shelves without your permission.  Don’t ask questions when we teach children that there are hundreds of different genders…Denying the existence of a culture war makes challenging its impact all the more difficult.’

In previous decades, radicals wanted open discussion.  They could never get enough of it. People used to hurry away in the opposite direction, muttering excuses.

The opposite is true now: supporters of the woke agenda won’t engage in any sort of debate at all. They refuse to accept that any opposition to these ideas can be valid or worthy of discussion.  There is a refusal to engage in rational argument. While this seems partly to be based on a contempt for traditional reasoning (after all, this is a process inherited from a white, male dominated Western tradition)  it is also, partly due to their refusal to admit that there is any such thing as a woke ideology.

This is sinister, not in the sense of there being any general conspiracy of the woke to take over western society, but rather, because the new liberal elite would rather act through obscure committees and pressure groups than engage in open debate to defend the values they uphold: –

Woke emboldens a cultural elite that lacks the legitimacy of mass appeal by providing it with a sense of purpose…Woke hijacks progressive rhetoric…woke now provides the basis for contemporary forms of discrimination…workplace trainers and social-media activists, who order us to judge people by the colour of their skin and tell us women must give way to males who identify as women…’

Yet, as the author points out, ‘If the cultural elite were truly confident about its beliefs, it would not need to deny them all the time. Indeed, it would welcome public scrutiny, safe in the knowledge that its arguments would win out. Instead, woke activists continually fight shy of democracy.’

Rather, the author points out, the woke cultural elite and their followers have come to see this ideology as common sense, as self -evident fact. Their attitude is that nobody who is capable of reason could possibly oppose these views. Above everything, this new ideology is seen as a moral cause. That, rather than a dogged intent to take over the institutions after the manner of Gramsci, is what underlines their addiction to woke ideas. They are convinced that they are championing the oppressed, the ‘most vulnerable’, not sowing social division and resentments and shutting down free expression.  

Because they believe in the indisputable moral rightness of their cause they,rather like a less lethal version the Committee of Public Safety in the France of the early 1790’s, feel that they are justified in being merciless to their opponents. They, after all, are the champions of the helpless, the oppressed, the ‘most disadvantaged’.

Woke, in fact, might – this is my own suggestion – serve as a new, secular religion, filling the spiritual void left by the decline of orthodox Christianity in the last century. It seems to me that the zeal with which it is preached and the outrage that its proponents feel at examples of hetrodoxy, indicate that for them, it is an ideology with all the hallmarks of a quasi religion.

Such is the authority gained from acting on behalf of victims that it appears to excuse otherwise morally reprehensible behaviour. The label ‘TERF’  – applied to gender-critical feminists by trans gender activits – seems to justify the most atrocious treatment.’ 

This elevation of the victim to an enviable status is another distinguishing aspect of woke:  ‘A culture of victimhood suggests that some groups are more deserving of moral authority and legal protections than others, and that the majority’s rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of conscience must be curtailed in order to protect minoritiesWokeness, with its veneer of egalitarianism and moral righteousness, lends credence to what are often authoritarian and deeply divisive policies.’

To encourage in certain minority groups – and in a whole generation of young people – the view that they are ‘vulnerable’, ‘disadvantaged’ and therefore, have ‘protected characteristics’ meriting special treatment under the law, is the exact opposite of encouraging self determination and resiliance. Victims by nature need others – those in influential positions, in fact – to act on their behalf. That is the very opposite of democratic action, and it fits nicely with the aims of the woke elite and their followers.

The old radicals used to campaign for freedom from state interference in their personal lives and censorship. Woke campaigners – who see themselves as radicals, though their views are in fact endemic throughout  the new establishment – demand more state interference and censorship. They want social justice to be handed down from above. That is a massive and disturbing difference.

The book made depressing reading, in that it confirmed my worst fears about the all pervasive influence of woke ideology and identity politics following its march through our institutions. Nobody likes having their worst fears confirmed (well, possibly my grandfather was the exception: he seemed to enjoy having his gloomy predictions come true).

However, it is always better to know the ‘’orrible truth’ in full detail, rather than have vague misgivings about it.

My main criticism of it is that the author does not devote enough space to the growing resistance now against woke and identity politics.

The author does give some encouraging examples, such as the creation of the Free Speech Union, and the groups of parents who are opposing the contents of classes for pupils being kept secret from parents.  However, there have been many, and it would have been encouraging, after reading of just how much woke ideology has taken over our public institutions, to have encountered more.

 Generally,for all this minor critic ism, this is an excellent book. It is well written, brilliantly researched, and reasoned in tone. I recommend it to everyone, and especially those who hate the idea of the issues it raises, or those who would rather believe that the culture wars don’t exist.

I wish that the culture wars didn’t exist, myself; but it is too obvious to me that they do; and if they do, then the threat to democracy and free speech is too significant for me to be comfortable in keeping quiet about it.

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