Woke is a strange phenomena, but what does it actually mean? Activists and columnists alike declare that being woke is simply being aware of social injustices and challenging racism and sexism. But if that is the case, where are the out and proud woke warriors? Where are the ‘I’m woke’ pin badges and the ‘Being Woke’ clubs for people to join? The more we are told woke is cool, the harder it gets to find someone who self-identifies as woke. So is woke real?
The Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) casts doubt on whether it is. The think tank has published new research suggesting that ‘woke’ is essentially the creation of a handful of elite right wingers.
According to the think tank’s director, Ellie Mae O’Hagan, this powerful coterie kicks up a fuss about fictitious ‘wokemobs’ in order to get opponents bogged down in endless debates and distracted from the important task of ‘defending progressive values’. This is a well rehearsed tune. Left wing commentators have long since argued that the ‘culture wars’ are a ‘fabrication’.
There is much to take up here. First off, O’Hagan argues that the ‘wokemob’ is becoming an increasingly dominant part of British political discourse in the 2020s,’ but who other than O’Hagan uses the portmanteau ‘wokemob’? I have read hundreds of articles on woke while researching my latest book and I can honestly say I’ve never come across it once. Stick ‘wokemob’ into Google and the search engine asks: ‘Did you mean: Pokemon?’.
Far more importantly, it is a bit rich for O’Hagan and other activists to suggest that ‘woke’ is a conspiracy at the very same time they lead the woke onslaught. O’Hagan once told the BBC’s Daily Politics: ‘I actually don't know why some people are women and why some people are men. No one on this panel does.’
But this is simply not true. Anyone with a GCSE in biology knows about chromosomes, hormones and anatomical differences between males and females. The belief that gender - a fluid, non-binary, feeling - is more important than mere biological sex differences is central to the woke world view. And it has been taken on board by politicians, public institutions and even private companies.
Teachers have been so successful in promoting the view that gender is an identity that one pupil who dared politely question whether sex mattered was hounded out of school. Women athletes are losing out to male-bodied competitors. Women patients may no longer be treated on a single-sex hospital ward. Transgender sex offenders are incarcerated alongside women. Leading politicians struggle to say what a woman is.
Woke thinking on gender not only exists; it dominates every facet of our public life. It may be scientifically illiterate, out of touch with what most people think, and actually put women in danger. But it is certainly real and disingenuous to pretend otherwise. As someone who believes in free speech, I will defend the right of O’Hagan and others to spout whatever views they like. But I think it’s only fair to ask whether they are right to claim – as O’Hagan does – that attacks on woke are ‘cynical’ and right wing.
The ‘anti-woke story is usually dispensed to convince people that the biggest threat facing the UK is the nebulous wokemob and not, say, energy companies making vast profits at people’s expense,’ she tells us. Move along, in other words. Nothing to see here.
Most people don’t even know what woke means, advocates never tire of telling us. Their implication is clear: to challenge woke is to tilt at windmills, it’s to fight against fake news. There’s nothing going on other than highlighting a few injustices, they claim.
O’Hagan cites institutions including Disney, the Labour party and the England football team that ‘have all been pejoratively described as woke at some point, simply because they have acknowledged the existence of racism (particularly structural or historical racism) and they have concluded that it is a bad thing’.
But this is – to use a phrase much beloved by woke activists – pure gas lighting. Few object to racism being pointed out. But that does not mean parents are content for their toddlers to be taught about white privilege at nursery.
As I argue in my new book, 'How Woke Won', woke is the dominant ideology driving practice in all our institutions. But the people who are most woke insist on denying the power they possess. They not only deny having won, they go further and deny there was ever a battle.
When a street name is changed, a statue removed, or the school curriculum rewritten, well, that’s just common sense. Simply correcting injustices. It’s those of us who call this into question who stand accused of waging a culture war.
We can’t let them get away with sleight of hand. Woke may have won - for now - but the first step to challenging its dominance is to make those responsible for woke policies and practices take ownership for what they have started.
Joanna Williams is the author of 'How Woke Won'.