11 November 2021

A Word on "Woke" and anti-"Woke" sentiment.

A minor news trickle today tells us that John Cleese has cancelled a planned talk at Cambridge University because he disagrees with the University's "woke rules" that led to them blacklisting another speaker who had previously performed an impersonation of Hitler. He's not wrong that people should not be unfairly blacklisted because they criticised something as close to objectively evil as it is possible to be through the medium of parody/satire.

However, in damning such actions as being "woke" Cleese has fallen into a pernicious trap that many people seem to be struggling with at the present time. What he objects to is the performative and arbitrary actions of people with a poor understanding of what is required to respect others. Essentially, performative virtue signaling.

The concept of being "woke" is completely different. It is, and should always remain, a term that means being conscious of systemic bias and abuse towards minorities embedded in culture. To be woke if you are part of those minorities is to be "on guard" against the inevitable inequities and injustices that will infect your life. If you are part of the privileged majority to be "woke" is to be aware of the systemic inequalities and to make reasonable efforts on a personal level not to be part of the problem.

It is an understandable confusion to conflate being woke with acting out performative virtue signaling. There is a conversation about how to assess another's actions in light of the blurry line between one and the other. But going round banging on about how woke is a terrible thing that is a blight on our society is exactly the kind of behaviour that contributes to the climate where woke is even a necessary concept.

Also, it allows people who are engaged in performative virtue signaling off the hook somewhat. 

Performative virtue signaling is carried out in bad faith, where as trying to be woke should always be good faith. As a sentient species we are, and I believe always have been, very bad at recognising bad-faith actors when their impact on our lives is at a certain level of abstraction.

If I have a pie and someone steals that pie I have no problem with that, I call them a thief and react to that kind of bad-faith action in the way I have systemically deemed appropriate. However, if I have a concept, an important concept, that if I accept its existence and relevance and attempt to act in the service of, and someone else undermines it by, essentially, being the living embodiment of reductio ad absurdam in regards to that concept I am at risk of losing sight of what that concept is all about in the first place.

I have to say that I don't believe that Mr. Cleese ever knew what woke was supposed to mean in the first place, and I don't think he's alone in that. I also think that the previous incarnation of woke, political correctness, suffered from many of the same problems, but also the fact that the concept inherently allowed latitude to bad-faith actors to allow them to muddy the concept. Political correctness even sounds like a bit of a weasel-concept.

This is why woke is, essentially, a much better concept. It says know your boundaries, mind your business, don't presume to know what someone else is going through and don't be naïve about the consensus reality of the world you live in. It parcels that all up in a neat concept, single word. It's a concept of deep and valuable nuance.

For which reason right-wing concept-jacking of the term to rob it of power is exactly the kind of thing that should be deplored and called out. It's a gift to such people that the range of effects of performative virtue-signaling is so broad from "silly and pointless" to "unfair and hurtful" to "actually quite damaging". It also helps a lot that no one's come up with a nuanced word that means "performative virtue-signaling".

It would have been cognitively uglier and harder for Mr Cleese to say: "I believe these rules are an act of performative virtue-signaling and I will not be associated with an organisation that seems to have such lax consideration for those they damage with such arbitrary rules and the real struggles of people whose lives are impacted by real systemic inequalities." It's not snappy, or glib, or quotable. However, it would have been kinder, more accurate and, well, more woke.

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