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Wed 19 February 2020
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James Melville argues that ‘wokeness’ is the latest concept to be hijacked by the right-wing to make a stand against equality, democracy and justice.

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Right-wingers have cultivated a bogus enemy of political correctness which they have now rebranded as ‘woke’. In effect, they are demonising common decency to legitimise bigotry.

So when actor Laurence Fox declared his all-out battle cry against ‘wokeness’ on BBC Question Time, he was jumping on the bandwagon of an ever-increasing demonisation of political correctness that’s been bubbling away for years, along with a mainstream backlash against progressiveness since the 2016 EU Referendum and the US Presidential Election.

Being ‘woke’ means being conscious of racial discrimination in society and other forms of oppression and injustice.

Brexit and Trumpism have become the pegs on which a culture war has been hung in Britain and America. It has become an unedifying battle between a series of tribes ranging from ‘remainers’ versus ‘brexiters’ or ‘woke’ versus ‘gammon’ or ‘snowflakes’ versus ‘bigots’. This turf war has spread to new frontiers covering climate change, transgender rights, #MeToo, Stormzy criticising Boris Johnson, knife crime, and Harry and Meghan. 

The discourse has become toxic and evidence-free at a time when we desperately need more insight, respectfulness and empathy. Shouting down the other side has become more commonplace than the basic courteous art of listening. Repugnant narratives are justified on the basis of ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘telling it like it is’.

It has become incredibly boorish. It is debate thuggery. It has become a culture war. 

The term ‘woke’ has been hijacked by the right-wing and its meaning turned inside out. Instead of meaning ‘being correct’, it has been rebranded as constituting a liberal elite political programme of thought control of our political, legal, educational, media and cultural institutions; another expression of ‘political correctness’. This new definition implies that a ‘woke’ person is acting in bad faith by being fake in order to advance an agenda.

Political correctness has become a term that is used by the right-wing to plant the idea that there is a deep divide between ordinary people and the liberal elite – who the right-wing claim has sought to control the speech and thoughts of the public. But, in effect, the right-wing is doing the same thing they claim the liberal elite are doing: trying to control public thought and opinion. Their opposition to political correctness is also arguably about providing a smokescreen for their own bigotry.

Tragically, the tactic appears to be working. More in Common, a campaign organisation that works on initiatives to address the underlying drivers of division, and polarisation, to build more united, resilient and inclusive societies, conducted a survey in 2018 in which 80% of the Americans surveyed said that they now viewed ‘political correctness’ as a problem.


What Progressives Can Do

Brexit was the Trojan horse within this anti-PC campaign. It emboldened influential commentators to frame the narrative of a country that had lost control to progressive liberals who were shutting down sovereignty, patriotism and identity because they were subserviently letting foreigners ‘tell us what to do’ or enabling immigrants to ‘steal our jobs’. The ‘treacherous saboteurs’ of the liberal elite were undermining national identity and taking control away the people and the country.

Efforts by liberals and the left to fight back are portrayed as fake, aggressive and ‘woke’. The reluctance by many liberals to take part in this race to the bottom of a culture war of political discourse is embodied by the famous Michelle Obama mantra of “when they go low, we go high”. But, the answer isn’t to avoid playing the game at all, but to play the game better. 

So how do liberals and the left win this messaging culture war? 

We think of the culture war as a toxic debate in which both sides scream at each other and division widens. Yet, progressives have won on most social issues over the past 20 years in areas such as gender, racial and sexual equality. But, in the case of the US and the UK, progressives have lost political power in the process.

It’s now up to progressives to frame the messaging without coming across as condescending or shrill. It is one thing to persuade and another thing to win by debating with patronising shrillness. Using a sanctimonious cultural superiority argument to silence foes risks deeper division and a further backlash which ends up with the rise of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Brexit. They may have the power, but it’s up to the progressives to find the toolkit to dismantle it.

Progressives must however, never ever lose sight of the fact that being politically correct is not an insult. Political correctness gave us the NHS. Political correctness gave us democracy. Political correctness gave women the vote. Political correctness gave us freedom of speech. Political correctness gave us human rights. It’s called political correctness because it’s correct.

Political correctness was always about treating people with dignity and respect, including the weaker and more marginalised members of society. What sort of person are you to find that objectionable?

Being ‘woke’ means being conscious of racial discrimination in society and other forms of oppression and injustice. In mainstream use, woke can also be used more generally to describe someone or something as being “with it”.

I’m with that, who isn’t?


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