A Woking Nightmare
Oh No, The Woke!
There’s an interesting new pejorative doing the rounds in the centre-right of Aotearoa New Zealand’s media, you’ve already heard it. It’s the ‘woke’ you see. They’re in control, and they stop you from doing and saying things. They’re the new Puritans, they’re the East German Stasi on social media.
Except, just what the hell is it that people mean by ‘the woke’?
Dr. Bryce Edwards recently declared that Prime Minister Hipkins, by not using the word ‘Aotearoa’ in his first public statement, was moving away from woke. Does that mean using Te Reo Māori is ‘woke’, or that the word Aotearoa — which features in God Defend New Zealand — is ‘woke’. Was Jacinda Ardern, one of the most competent communicators to hold the office of Prime Minister, woke?
Or is it that calling it Aotearoa enrages some people who see it as an imposition of language because they’re quite happy with the anglicisation of the Dutch name given to these islands some 380-odd years ago, thank you very much.
The way that ‘woke’ is described, you’d think that they (whoever they currently are) have the power of billionaires, or global superpowers to force people to conform to their woke ways. A recent opinion piece by Janet Wilson even equated them to the puritans, and implied they would end up conducting the modern equivalent to the Salem Witch Trials.
Actually she didn’t quite do that, instead, Ms. Wilson quoted extensively from British right-libertarian comedian Andrew Doyle’s new book. Mr Doyle is a fascinating person, in the way that a car crash is fascinating. A writer for Spiked, a legacy media entity formed after its predecessor was sued out of existence for denying the Bosnian Genocide, Mr. Doyle supports Brexit, has a free speech show on right-wing British media outlet GB News. He claims to be left-wing, and has consistently insisted that ‘wokeness’ is ruining everything, and cancelling people.
Mr. Doyle is also the creator of the Titiana McGrath twitter account, which is a parody of a type of activist that exists purely in the imagination of the right-wing. As a result of woke cancel culture, Ms. McGrath has written three books and had her own Edinburgh Fringe show — and recieved glowing reviews from the right-wing press — presumably for presenting them with the thing they believe is real under the banner of satire.
What Is Wokeness, Ms. Wilson?
Ms. Wilson did provide a neat summary of her own view of ‘wokeness’ in her article though, and it’s curious how close the issues she has identified are ones which Mr Doyle has spent years writing articles for Spiked, The Spectator, Unherd and other right-wing British media about, and which are at the centre of the right-wing’s culture war:
It criminalises comedians for telling jokes about religion, demands statues are pulled down and berates Pākeha for the colour of their skin while describing women as ‘menstruators’, ‘people who bleed’ and ‘individuals with a cervix’.
Let’s break this down;
“It criminalises comedians for telling jokes about religion”, this is a curious one as the only example I can find of a comedian literally criminalised for a joke they once told comes from India, the case of Munawar Farqhi who was arrested and jailed for a joke about a Hindu deity that he had not told for over a year before his arrest, and had deleted the video of. He was arrested by the son of a prominent BJP party member, the right-wing Nationalists of Narendra Modi. I’m not sure that counts as ‘woke’, by any means.
Maybe it’s hate speech legislation, then, that Ms. Wilson means. This is that tired “you can’t say anything these days” that you see from Dave Chapelle and Ricky Gervais, two skilled comedians who can be found saying all the things you can’t say these days on their multi-million dollar Netflix specials, very loudly. Let’s move on.
“Demands statues are pulled down”, to date in Aotearoa New Zealand (woke again, oh no!) one statue has been removed. It stood for 7 years, between 2013 and 2020, and was of Capt. John Hamilton who led British forces in the colonial invasion of Māori land, was killed at the Battle of Gate Pa and subsequently had Kirikiriroa named after him, as Hamilton. It was not pulled down, it was removed.
There’s a long history of statues being attacked in Aotearoa, with the Lord Kitchener statue in Auckland being decapitated in 1931 with an axe and never replaced as an interesting highlight. Could “woke” extend back nearly a century? The Hamilton statue didn’t, unlike Capt. Hamilton’s sword and belt which can still be viewed at the Waikato Museum.
“Berates Pākeha for the colour of their skin”, ok this is just ridiculous reactionary reductive nonsense, a horrible little bit meant to diminish attempts to engage with structural racism by attempting to portray it as merely anti-white prejudice, rather than an evidence-backed interrogation of why outcomes in Aotearoa New Zealand vary so differently, and poorly, for people who aren’t Pākeha.
It’s possibly an oblique reference to last year’s brouhaha, when ACT’s David Seymour claimed a white child had to apologise for their white privilege, which later turned out not to have happened at all according to the principal of the school he named. Is a manufactured media beat-up, from the libertarian right, a problem of ‘woke’…?
“while describing women as ‘menstruators’, ‘people who bleed’ and ‘individuals with a cervix’.” One of the most tiresome things about the right-wing and libertarians is their utter commitment to being transphobic about anything that even begins to include trans people. You would be surprised that most, but not all women, are menstruators. Some men are too. That’s not a flight of fancy, that’s legally what they are. Most women menstruate, bleed, and have a cervix. Some men do. Not all, of either group, do.
By using inclusive language, it means everyone is included. In a healthcare context, ensuring everyone who can and should benefit from specific healthcare recognises what they should have access to is important, in fact, it is vital.
Does this tell us what ‘woke’ is really? An unsupported claim about comedy, an equally dubious one about statues, a media beat-up from the ACT Party and some rank transphobia. Oh, let’s add in Dr. Edwards’s Ctrl + F for the word Aotearoa in PM Hipkins’ speech as well. It’s pretty thin gruel, and it’s meant to be, because it’s not meant to be critiqued, it’s meant to be accepted. But hold up a second, wasn’t that the thing Ms. Wilson was accusing the woke of, literally in the paragraph before?
At their worst the woke engage in circular absolutist arguments that avoids critical thinking and imposes restrictions on what can and can’t be said.
Yes, it was.
The New Salem
What really interests me about this piece is not that out of the 831 words, 538 are ideas and words attributed to Andrew Doyle, leaving just 275 for Janet Wilson. I mean, that is interesting because the social and political environment that Mr. Doyle has thrived in is very different from the UK. There is no successful Aotearoa New Zealand Andrew Doyle — there are some candidates, but all of them exist raving on the fringes about the wokerati and trans people and basically any culture war material they pick up from overseas.
No, it’s the framing device of the Salem Witch trials. Accusing the ‘woke’ of being equivalent to Elizabeth Hubbard is ridiculous. It makes sense from the point of view of Mr. Doyle, and Ms. Wilson, when you consider this nugget of his wisdom:
Language manipulation he says is achieved through “concept creep” where words lose meaning through misapplication of terms such as “far right”, “fascist” and “alt-right”, which raises the temperature of political debate.
What Mr. Doyle objects to is being called right wing, or that people he respects and has on his podcast or TV show or is friends with are called right wing, far right, fascist or alt-right. Even if those people hold views about issues of immigration, refugees, LGBTQI rights or non-christian religions that are mainstays of fascists and the alt-right.
For instance he has toured with Douglas Murray, noted right-wing anti-Islam and anti-immigration writer whose views hew very closely to the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory believed by White Supremacists. Their tour’s name? “Resisting Wokeness”. Obviously woke is good for business when attacking woke is your business.
But if this is Salem, then Mr. Doyle and his friends, and Wilson by sharing this point of view — they are innocent, they are accused of witchcraft by the woke. Indeed, Ms. Wilson quotes Mr. Doyle who says “…culture warriors have only been successful because society’s elites have been happy to do its bidding” in this New Salem, the woke have captured society’s elites and are in fact in control.
This is all starting to sound a little conspiratorial, is it not? Especially given this idea comes from someone living in the United Kingdom, whose Conservative Government of the last 12 years and counting could not even charitably be described as “woke”, even if the term had some genuine meaning to it.
But that’s the play, that’s the scheme. Much like Mr. Doyle’s Titiana McGrath, this melodramatic performance of oppression from someone claiming that the woke are going to cancel them and that they can’t say anything, while continuously being able to say it, is for an audience of people who desperately want to believe that they are victims. And he does very well out of it.
These are people who hold right wing views who do not want to be held accountable for them. They want to fantasise that the minorities they express prejudice towards are in fact the ones with the power here — even to the point of imagining that groups seeking social, racial and economic justice are able to bend ‘the elite’ to their will?
They are desperate to see the tide of recognising inequality, giving voices to those unheard and pursuing genuine justice turn back, and they’re willing to uncritically accept any old shit to just believe it.
A World That Needs To Change
Look at those examples Ms. Wilson cited again. Comedians being ‘criminalised’, is about the likes of Chapelle and Gervais being criticised for being transphobic, statues being torn down is about minority ethnic groups objecting to monuments to people who sold their ancestors as property, or stole their land, the skin colour stuff is about racial equality and justice in a deeply unequal world and the transphobia about inclusive language is just the same tiresome transphobia you come to expect from the right-wing.
Pointing at the people who want better life outcomes and equality for trans people, to address the stark racial inequalities in most societies, or want history to not gloss over the horrors committed by those who have monuments to their greatness and saying — ‘You are the same as the accusers at Salem’ is fucking dog behaviour, particularly at this moment in time.
In the United States, this week, footage has been released of police beating a man to death on the street. For all the protests after the murder of George Floyd, nothing has substantively changed. Ok, maybe one thing has changed, the officers murdering a black man, in this case, were also black.
In the U.S right now, there are multiple states attempting to pass legislation that would criminalise trans healthcare, or class caring for trans youth as child abuse — as they did in Texas last year.
In the U.K, there’s a minor constitutional crisis as the Westminster Parliament has blocked the assent of the equivalent to NZ’s BDMRR which was passed in the Scottish Parliament after SEVEN YEARS OF SCRUTINY AND CONSULTATION.
In Aotearoa New Zealand, the far right, the fascists and the alt-right all cheered the resignation of Jacinda Ardern. Presumably, Dr. Edwards, because she was too woke. That didn’t stop someone from accosting her and her child in a cafe and screaming violent threats at her this week.
In London a street was renamed from “Black Boy Lane” to “La Rose Lane” in honour of black cultural writer John La Rose. It was immediately vandalised, and someone even fabricated a new sign to screw into the wall above it.
In Aotearoa New Zealand, the town of Maxwell was renamed Pākaraka as Sgt. Maxwell, who the town was named after, had murdered three children aged between 6 and 12. The day the new signs went up, they were torn down.
Perhaps most ridiculously, most emblematic of this willingness to believe that “woke” as they have imagined it is real, is the Aretha Franklin thing. A parody twitter account posted that trans people wanted “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman” to be taken off playlists as it was transphobic. Within a day, right wing media organisations around the world had picked up the tweet and run it as news. Nobody attempted to contact the owner of the account.
If the “woke” were able to get the elite to do their bidding, if they had control over culture and society as proposed by Mr. Doyle and Ms. Wilson, would any of these things be happening?
Wake Up Already
I am not saying that there is not an upswell of people looking to achieve social justice, right structural inequalities, address historical and material issues of colonialism, tackle the patriarchal society which harms women, continue the fight for LGTBQI rights — and that these people aren’t willing to call out petty bigots and their prejudices. Hell yeah, they exist, and the work they do is important.
But this right-wing conceit of ‘the woke’, of ‘the wokerati’, that things are ‘too woke’? It doesn’t exist outside of the right-wing’s own circular absolutists arguments, and it’s used to attack those who seek a better world in a dismissive and sneering tone. It’s woke, that means its bad, it’s bad because it’s woke. Everything I don’t like is woke, and I won’t explain further.
Because, and this is the fun bit, if you ask them precisely what it is they oppose, what exactly is the “woke” thing they dislike so much, they usually will reveal whatever horrendous view they have about people who are different to them, and then get offended when you tell them to stop being a such a cunt.