Wokeness, what is it? I’ll be honest, I have no idea. First of all, the meaning of the word is different depending on whether we are talking about the US or France.
The term also has an immense political charge today.
Finally, it must be said that the term is absolutely indefinable.
I have read a thousand academic articles and press articles on the subject, I even followed (from afar, alas) the symposium dedicated to the topic by our French Minister of National Education, organized on January 7 and 8 in the premises of the Sorbonne University, I still don’t know what we are talking about.
I understand that wokeness seems to scare our institutions since the question is widely present – and in a pejorative way.
I understand that – to date – no one in France and perhaps in Europe claims to be woke.
The term originated in the US and is a slang derivative of the terms “awake”, “awaken” and “woken”. It primarily meant being vigilant, engaged, aware and sensitive to issues of racism and social justice. In 1965, Martin Luther King urged students at Oberlin University, Ohio in a speech to “stay awake” during “the great revolution” and to be “a committed generation”.
The term saw a resurgence in 2008 with Eryka Badu’s song, “Master Teacher,” in which musician Georgia Anne Muldrow sings during the chorus, that she “stays awake”.
The Black Lives Matter movement used the term “stay woke” in 2013 and 2014 to urge awareness of police abuse.
As a result, contrary to a common opinion, the term “woke” is not at first glance a pejorative term created by opponents of wokeness but a self-denomination under which people in search of social justice have found themselves.
The debate on wokeness is, as I said, totally different depending on whether we are talking about Europe or the US. The phenomenon had a stronger resonance during the 2020 Summer following the death of George Floyd and finally reached other Western countries.
The pejorative nature of wokeness will only develop later and the expression has now become a catch-all, encompassing movements concerning racism, sexism, LGBTQ+ rights, ecology or even the climate crisis.
However, it must be admitted that today there is no academic definition of the woke concept – in French at least. The only definition available is that of the Quebec Office for French Language, which defines as woke the person who “advocates an increased awareness of social justice as well as an active commitment in the fight against discrimination and inequalities”.
So far so good: who doesn’t want more social justice and equality?
The trick is that beyond this linguistic definition, the word and the concept have been politicized and weaponized over the months.
Well well well.
In France, the Minister of National Education inaugurated on October 13, 2021 a think tank responsible for studying social issues in order to help the government in its decision-making. One of the main objectives of this think tank is to fight the woke ideology and will lead to the infamous conference at the Sorbonne University which I mentioned above.
The French Minister of National Education defines wokeness as “a thought which seeks first and foremost to define people by their supposed identity and which puts this before”.
Well well well.
(If I understand correctly:) what are the arguments opposed by the detractors of wokeness:
– Fragmentation of national unity, everyone clinging to their minority identity (whether race, gender, sex or religion). I can hear the argument on an individual and psychological level: I regret that some people define themselves by a single dimension, that of their suffering, when they are multi-dimensional and rich in a thousand other aspects. But this individual and psychological point aside, the argument of the fragmentation of national unity seems to me a tad brief: the awareness of certain social inequalities is the logical corollary of the application of the perfectly republican principles that are the equality and fraternity.
– The search for a pure and Manichean morality producing a cancel culture, the fact of not being able to say anything anymore and a strong attack on freedom of speech.
A few personal thoughts here: I have already mentioned it here, I do not think that the pure and simple unbolting of the statues is a great idea. Cancelling people from past who are not subject to the same socio-cultural standards as us, seems pointless to me. Educative explanations in museums (for the unbolted statues), educative explanations at the beginning of certain movies (“Gone with the Wind” for instance) are more than necessary to understand History.
As far as contemporary people are concerned, any violation of the rules of law shall be judicially condemned and any litigious discriminatory speech shall be socially silenced.
The question becomes more complex when one enters the gray zone: aggressions which are not, stricto sensu, legal offenses but which are microaggressions that underlie latent discriminations. Microaggressions are defined by the Columbia Consulting Psychology Professor Derald Wing Sue, as “everyday, brief and mundane verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, intentional or not, which transmit to the person or the target group with hostile, derogatory or negative invective related to race, gender, sexual orientation or religion”.
The question is whether one wants a zero tolerance policy or not.
If we talk about this gray area, we have to talk about two points: the culture of victimization and political correctness.
Critics of wokeness lament the rise of a culture of victimization. According to such critics, everyone becomes a victim and this culture generates microaggressions which in turn multiplies the reasons why woke people will feel attacked.
In my humble opinion, a microaggression is only the pale reflection, intentional or not, of a societal aggression already known, and which concerns a discrimination. The fields are actually quite limited and defined.
As far as political correctness is concerned, the detractors of wokeness deplore that freedom of speech no longer exists.
Political correctness presupposes respect for others, because no one deserves to be mocked or attacked because of their skin color, their religion, their gender or their their sexual preferences. Let’s bear in mind that language has always been used as a weapon of oppression and the point is not today to weaponize the lack of language by shutting down the honest exploration of sensitive subjects. The point is to speak wisely and use words carefully because of the power and load they carry.
In an ideal world, moderation and temperance should reign. As Barack Obama says – despite coming from the American black minority – “the world is a mess. There are ambiguities. People who do great things also have flaws. The people you fight against may love their children and even, you know, have things in common with you.”
But we can also understand that discriminated people who still struggle in 2022 to make their voices heard in a consensual way, voice their cause more aggressively.
BLM and #metoo movements raised awareness of racism and sexual offenses. Today, the racist, homophobic and sexist climate within the MET London police lead by Cressida Dick emerges thanks to whistleblowers.
And so on. Anyone who hangs out on social networks sees that the cause of Native American, Uyghurs, Afghan women or political dissidents in China is also advancing.
Let’s be pragmatic for a second: a scandal, a mobilization, a public interest will often be necessary to raise public awareness – because the State apparatus is by nature immobilist.
No one is asked to carry the blame for triangular trade, slavery and institutionalized racism. No one is asked to expiate the fault of the binarity concept born during the Age of Enlightenment, whose mania for classifying and listing everything has had the harmful effect of establishing dominant and dominated categories. No one is asked to carry the blame of patriarchy and its constant institutionalization since the Neolithic.
Having this data in mind, adjusting a thought or a behavior accordingly would already be a huge step.
March 25, 2022
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