“Woke” has become a ubiquitous term in our vocabulary. What once indicated an alertness to social injustice seems to have been corrupted. A term that encouraged sensitivity and guided us towards a fairer society is now wielded as a blunt instrument to chastise those who deviate from heterodoxy.
And thanks to its primacy, we have seen countless livelihoods sacrificed at the altar of public opinion. Niel Golightly was pushed into stepping down from his role as head of communications at Boeing after a 33 year old article surfaced that argued women should not serve in the military.
Students at the University of Cambridge called for the resignation of a porter for holding views on trans women that did not tally with their sensibilities.
The acknowledgment that people can make mistakes but it needn't ruin their lives seems to have gained traction
Wokeness, and its compatriot “cancel culture”, collapsed into mob justice: a dubious mechanism to censure one another for perceived moral transgression, and an engine to impose severe punishment on normal people, irrespective of the scale of the crime.
But the potency of the woke movement is waning. In 2013 Justine Sacco sent a poorly judged tweet before boarding a plane to Cape Town: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get Aids. Just kidding. I’m white!” By the time she landed she was viral on Twitter, and was soon sacked from her job in PR. That tweet and the seismic backlash blew up Sacco’s entire life.
Fast-forward to 2020, and it is New York comedian Catherine Cohen’s turn. A video she made in 2016 was unearthed and calls for her cancellation grew. The video – another poorly judged attempt to satirise racism that ended up being highly racist itself – depicted a character singing about her former slave-owning family, while she stood beside a black man.
Both offences were egregious. But Cohen released a sincere apology, took a break from her podcast and social media, and within months was back on the airwaves and has recently published a book. She was – by and large – forgiven. Was this evidence that cancel culture had reached its apotheosis?
It certainly seems that way. Within the seven years between Sacco’s and Cohen’s time in the outrage-spotlight, the worst impulses of cancel culture seem to have been tempered. The acknowledgment that people can make mistakes but it needn’t ruin their lives seems to have gained traction. Forgiveness has emerged as a possibility.
The consciously unwoke are having their moment in the sun, too. Take the once off-beat but now mainstream podcast Red Scare. Hosts Dasha Nekrasova and Anna Khachiyan leave no cultural schism unexamined as they talk freely about the #MeToo movement (they consider it a scourge), Bernie Sanders (they are fans), Hillary Clinton (they loathe), and body positivity (they are unconvinced). The pair even fawningly interviewed Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon.
They are hugely popular among otherwise sensitive liberals, those who would never dare to criticise #MeToo. Perhaps the duo’s disavowal of consensus is refreshing after years of puritanism. Maybe their iconoclasm appeals because people are bored of the alternative. It does not follow that their views are taken seriously, however.
Faced with great pressure, governments are behaving in unexpected ways. Right-wing parties are expanding the state
As the excesses of wokeness struggle to maintain relevance, and cancel culture splutters, corporations are failing to keep up with this change. Over the summer, Pringles (the crisps) suspended their Twitter for #BlackOutTuesday, a social media movement designed to protest against police brutality in the United States.
The move – by no means unique – was met with raised eyebrows. And the absurdity of companies co-opting serious justice movements became glaringly patent. Who wouldn’t laugh at the proposition that crisps could take a meaningful stance against systemic racism? Flogging products under the pretence of social progress may have flown a few years ago, but the landscape is changing.
We might ask what the genesis of this change is. All social movements have a shelf life, and after years of primacy they are met with backlash. But we would be remiss to ignore the impacts of the pandemic. Amid global crisis, and significant personal tragedy, the requirements of wokeness have become too demanding.
Awareness of injustice hasn’t gone away, and nor should it. But perhaps the inclination to humiliate those who make mistakes, with no recourse to redemption, has diminished. In a pandemic we might just lack the bandwidth to pursue moral crusades against those who deviate from our world view. And Covid-19 might have exposed the shallowness of the project. But if there is any truth in that, what comes next?
Faced with great pressure, governments are behaving in unexpected ways. Right-wing parties are expanding the state; and in liberal democracies police are granted greater power than ever before. Maybe this is due to unique circumstance, and we should expect a reversal as the pandemic draws to a close. Or maybe we are looking at longer-term societal shifts that will persist far beyond the demise of Covid-19. Hopefully the emphasis on community over the individual will be here to stay too.
It is hard to predict. We ought to hope that our heightened sensitivity to social injustice will persevere no matter what. But as we head out of the pandemic and consider what structures and philosophies will guide us into the future, Woke isn’t even at the races.