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The man shouting ‘f**king woke shite’ outside the vaccination clinic summed up 2022

The war on woke isn’t about language, vaccines, live cribs, sex education in schools or why the latest series of Game of Thrones has less sex. It’s about middle-aged male insecurity

The moment that summed up 2022 for me happened last spring outside a medical clinic. As we queued in the weak March sunshine, a man stopped for a gawk. He looked as though he’d seen a few things in his time, possibly even that morning. And it wasn’t even 11am.

He took in our masks and vaccination cards and announced that he wouldn’t be “injecting that poison into this veins”, with a slur that suggested other kinds of poison might be all right. He staggered on, with a final disdainful shout: “F**king woke shite.”

“PC gone mad” used to be the default dismissal for everything that made you feel irritated or out of step with the modern world. Now it’s “woke”, “wokeism”, “f**king woke shite” or sometimes, just for a bit of variety, “virtue signalling”.

Getting vaccinated in a pandemic clearly has nothing to do with wokeness, which is a term derived from African-American culture and means being attuned to subtle or systemic racism. You’re not offering unconscious bias training to the queue, or handing out non-binary gingerbread men. You’re just getting a vaccine. But in reality, woke has long since severed ties with its original meaning and has become, as the New Statesman put it recently, “a synonym for annoying”. Those who oppose woke culture style themselves rational libertarians, pitting their notion of individual freedom over the power of the “woke army”. They are right in one limited sense: little good comes from purely binary discussions in which people are afraid to even ask a question. But that’s rarely what the rants are about.


I can’t help noticing that those most exercised about wokeness tend to be chaps of a certain age. The war on woke isn’t actually about language, vaccines, live cribs, sex education in schools or why the latest series of the Game of Thrones has less sex; it’s about middle-aged male insecurity.

Recently, sniggering at woke excesses – and there are a few – took a dark turn. Jeremy Clarkson’s disturbing fantasy about Meghan Markle arrived as a grim full stop to a year in which violent rhetoric was increasingly normalised as part of the culture wars. He wrote in his Sun column that he “hated” her, more even than serial killer Rose West, and was “dreaming of the day when she is made to parade naked through the streets of every town in Britain while the crowds chant ‘shame!’ and throw lumps of excrement at her”. He added a rallying cry to his fellow anti-woke crusaders: “Everyone who’s my age thinks the same way.”

The real risk is that there are others out there who take it all literally, who read Clarkson’s words and see them as legitimising violence against women, women of colour in particular

Elon Musk is another of those crusaders – so desperate is he to tackle the “mind virus” of “wokeness” which is “pushing civilisation towards suicide” that he spent $44 billion on a social media platform worth $25 billion, with a plan to restore it to its glory days of hateful conduct, fake news and incitement to violence. Florida governor Ron DeSantis ran his campaign as an attack on “woke capitalism”. Boris Johnson’s political persona was constructed around the idea of him as some old-school, Shakespeare-quoting woke-basher, a vibe Rishi Sunak also – less successfully – attempted to channel.

In reality, for men like Clarkson, Johnson, DeSantis and Musk, and the occasional woman such as Suella Braverman, ranting about wokeness and woke people is as much a performance as it was for the angry fellow outside the vaccine clinic. It is just theatre. A way of saying “look at me”. A genuine grasp at relevance in a world they sense is moving on without them. Rarely are the stakes actually very high – even the cancellation Clarkson claims to dread is meaningless, so rapid is the invariable comeback.

The real risk is that there are others out there who take it all literally, who read Clarkson’s words and see them as legitimising violence against women, women of colour in particular. Or they’ll see Conor McGregor’s recent online outburst about comedian PJ Gallagher and infer that the appropriate response to someone with mental health difficulties is to taunt them or challenge them to a physical fight.

Ostensibly, McGregor’s deranged rant was precipitated by a relatively benign joke by Gallagher. In reality, he seemed to have been triggered by the comedian’s recent, courageous revelations about his mental health difficulties. “PJ Gallagher, you little sad pox of a thing. Sit up right and smile for a change will you? You sad little c*** hahahaha ... your crying in the paper bout depression,” McGregor tweeted in a vitriolic volley most of which he subsequently deleted – not before, presumably, it was seen by a chunk of his 9.7 million followers.

The good news – and it is Christmas Eve so good news is mandatory – is that there are still decent people out there who won’t be goaded into cruelty in the service of a manufactured culture war. Gallagher was surrounded with thousands of messages of love and support, leaving McGregor to whine that he was the real victim of bullying. Clarkson’s column prompted an appalled response across other media, elicited over 17,500 complaints to the UK press regulator, a letter from 60 MPs to the editor of the Sun, and a post from his own daughter distancing herself from him.

The truth is that men like Clarkson, Donald Trump, McGregor and Musk belong to the time they seem intent on returning us to: when the casual objectification of women and girls was tolerated, when you could say what you liked without consequences, when “real men” didn’t have mental health problems. They might claim to be pushing back against virtue-signalling, liberal elite culture warriors, but what they’re railing about has little to do with social justice. It is fear of their own obsolescence. And of that, they’re right to be afraid.

Happy Christmas. Yes, it’s still okay to say that.