Elon is not the only right-leaning member of the online chatterati experiencing a frisson of existential fear as he contemplates “wokeness.” Even here on Medium, the Woke Scare of the Early Twenty-First Century pops up now and then. For example, I engaged a while back with the author of a piece entitled “Wokeness and Cancel Culture are the Real Cancer of the 21st Century.” My response to that essay has been one of the more popular responses I’ve contributed so far; this made me think, “maybe I should turn that text into an article in its own right…” and I have finally got around to it. Slightly edited to be less obviously a response/comment…
It amazes me that with our climate tipping into dangerous instability, far-right ethno-statism on the rise in multiple locations around the world, Russia invading Ukraine with a view to re-establishing the Empire of Peter the Great, ecosystems in collapse… anyone would seriously opine that “wokeness” is the real cancer of the 21st century. As if the natural, eternal overzealous performances of young people discovering their principles and rebelling against the status quo… were some terribly dangerous thing.
Today we call it “woke,” but a generation ago we called it “PC” or politically correct.
Being politically correct (aka ideologically sound) — as a concept — originates with doctrinaire Marxists of the 20th century. They really did use those terms very seriously, and (under Stalin) with the gravest of consequences.
Even where no firing squads were involved, the old CP used “PC”” just as seriously as the religious extremists who rabbit on, even today, about “rooting out sin and impurity” from their congregations. It’s a recognisable recurring pattern in human nature, or psychology, or sociology, or something. Purity tests, loyalty tests, shibboleths, exclusive argots and clique-formation, language policing, an appetite for uniforms and badges are just… humans being humans. Often uncharitable, usually counterproductive, but in most cases mercifully nonlethal.
On the other hand, embracing politically incorrect as an identity — and condemning “PC” as the worst thing since Hitler — has long been the brand & trademark of those who oppose all movement towards social justice and away from the rule of straight-white-rich-old-men. Being “politically incorrect with pride” has, for my entire longish lifetime, translated into someone claiming the right to insult, disrespect, and/or exploit other people with impunity. When called on their sh*t they invariably sneer, “Oh, spare me your political correctness!”
I wasn’t born yesterday — this ain’t my first rodeo, as they say — so I’ve heard this all before. The same rhetorical flourishes employed by contemporary wokophobes, I read and heard 40 years and more ago directed against feminists who protested against rape and domestic violence and job discrimination. Against anti-war protesters. Against the first gay rights protesters. Against environmentalists. Against civil rights activists. Over and over again, the people who get off on despising other people, or indulging in destructive behaviours, get very angry when the majority opinion turns against them — when they start to experience negative consequences and bad PR for being rude, hurtful, harmful, bigoted and unpleasant.
Those folks, resentful and defensive, then eagerly seize on any excess of zeal or cliquiness among (usually younger) idealists, and claim it proves that whatever social justice struggle is at issue, it’s a Bad Thing and can only lead to the Collapse of Civilisation. Rewind, replay… every decade… with every fresh generation of (a) Social Justice Warriors and (b) Social Injustice Defenders.
Every reform movement triggers pushback, often in the form of fearmongering. Tory business owners back in the 19th century swore that any attempt to regulate or abolish child labour would inevitably doom British industry to failure and collapse — that child labour reformers were undermining the nation. In even earlier days, many conservative men subscribed to the theory that teaching women to read would destroy the nation — because literacy would derail women’s fertility and cause birth rates to plummet.
Rightwing political rhetoric traditionally leans on bogeymen under beds.
We all have the right to our own pet bogeymen of course; but I would remind those suffering from Woke Panic that it is not the “politically correct” or “woke mob” who actually formed an armed mob and invaded the US Capitol in an attempt to overturn the democratic process and invalidate a national election. It is not the “politically correct” who in recent years have held public book burnings, or weeded out all the “gay” books from school libraries, or proposed to ban the teaching of American history wherever it touched on racism or slavery, or firebombed a donut shop because some drag queens held a performance art event there, or threatened to kidnap the Governor of Michigan, or threatened poll workers…. or rather, let us acknowledge that these stunts are the work of a “politically correct” faction: the other politically correct faction, for whom any deviation from white supremacist, male supremacist ideology is unacceptable and must be punished with threats and violence.
Now that’s what I call real political correctness enforcement.
Trying to cancel a national election — that’s some serious cancel culture at work — compared to which the harassment of a few celebrities, or boycotts of a few media industry products, or scoldings administered on social media, are weak sauce.
Nor is it the “woke mob” pumping out increasingly deranged disinformation under the brand of QAnon or antivaxx or election denial or climate denial. They may be creatively generating new templates of speech that strike the old guard as pretentious or awkward, they may seem at times to be marching in lockstep or following trends or fads… but they’re not trying to undermine democracy, disenfranchise voters, or bring back authoritarian populism. Their “political correctness” doesn’t scare me nearly as much as the other brand.
I can meet the author partway — I can agree that some over-earnest, self-righteous young people are taking themselves terribly seriously; I can agree that they seem to be having the lively sectarian squabbles and purity competitions that earnest young activists always do have in every generation. Some of them may have mislaid their sense of humour for a moment, or perhaps they seem to be over-relishing a bit of vigorous finger-waggery. But that is not a headline. That is not to panic over. That is not an existential threat to the body politic. That is just a generation picking its battles and finding its feet… like every generation before it.
I don’t find the “woke cancel culture” nearly as frightening as the people plotting to murder the Speaker of the House, or the influence of Russian money and bot-warfare on US elections & online discourse, or the corporate capture of governance, or the ongoing attempt to replace American democracy with theocracy and a rollback of civil rights to 1950 or earlier — the people planning to cancel democracy itself.
Think I’m exaggerating? Steve Bannon, would-be Richelieu of the New Far Right International, is frank and open about his ambitions to rewrite the US Constitution.
And if all that Far Right, Far White Renaissance stuff doesn’t frighten you even a little, can we talk about world wide trends in inequity — particularly in the US where CEO compensation ratios reached nearly 400 to 1 in 2021? Can we talk about decreasing social mobility? Can we talk about concentration of corporate ownership in essential sectors such as food? How about fragility of supply chains? Can we talk about climate destabilisation and its knock-on effects? How about a mass extinction event? Coming not “someday” or “next decade,” not the stuff of sci-fi, but happening here and now?
These — not “pronouns” — are the kinds of factors that figure largely in the failure of nation states and (in the case of climate change and extinction cascades) the failure of civilisations.
Now tell me again how the “real cancer of the 21st Century” is online squabbling between various factions of LGBTQ folks and their supporters? Surely we have bigger things to worry about.
 as so charmingly satirised by Monty Python in The Life of Brian.
If you liked this essay, it’s just possible that you might also enjoy…
Popper’s Paradox and our Present Predicament
Bully For Them: the politics of the Bully Party
The inherent absurdity of compound interest
QAnon, conspiracists, and Ptolemaic astronomy
On the problem of disinformation in the internet age (long read)
There is no such thing as “anti-government”