A few days ago, someone asked me if I was woke. I got the impression that this was a question they had posed to a few different people, usually receiving answers either confirming or denying the respondent’s wokeness. To me, the obvious answer is ‘I’m woke about some things, but not about others’. I think the campaigns by The Times and other British newspapers against transgender people is pretty nasty and concerning, but I think that big companies putting LGBT flags everywhere (especially companies known to operate in countries where they definitely don’t put LGBT flags in their branding) is irritating. I think that attempts to be inclusive can be silly and counterproductive, but I’m not someone who cringes when I see ‘she/her’ in a Twitter bio. I think that attempts to restrict speech on university campuses have probably gone too far, but I also think that lots of the reaction against those speech restrictions is over the top and itself a threat to free speech - weirdly, many people who ostensibly support free speech at universities in the UK are also supportive of attempts to ‘defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down’, which often seems to involve silencing left-wing activists. The only consistent view I have on wokeness is that people (including me) talk about it far too much.
These seem like a totally coherent set of beliefs, and it strikes me that the concept of ‘wokeness’ is actually pretty incoherent. If your answer to ‘are you woke?’ is a simple yes or no, I don’t think you can have thought about what the question means very much, or you are a worryingly low entropy thinker (meaning it is particularly easy to predict your opinion on issue X simply by knowing your other opinions). There is good evidence that the concept of ‘wokeness’ is incoherent - one example that always makes me laugh is the Conservative MP Jake berry last year claiming that members of the civil service who opted to stay home during COVID rather than go into the office were ‘woke-ing from home’, something which as far as I can tell has no meaning whatsoever. I hope I’m not being ungenerous to Berry here, I genuinely cannot see any connection between working from home and the concept of wokeness as I understand it - is it that those who work from home tend to be more woke but that there is no causal connection? Is it that not going into the office is somehow inherently woke? Is there just something I’m missing here? I’m really not sure.
I think this is in part why the Conservative attacks on the woke in the UK have mostly fallen flat. For one thing, 56% of Britons say that they don’t know what ‘woke’ even means, with 29% saying they do know what it means. And of those 29%, only 37% consider being ‘woke’ to be a bad thing (compared to 26% who say that they think it’s a good thing). I’ve read a lot about being woke and written a small amount about it, and even I’m not sure what it means. Is supporting Black Lives Matter woke? I don’t have ‘he/him’ in my Twitter bio and probably won’t put it there any time soon - is that a sign I’m part of the anti-woke resistance? I still couldn’t tell you!
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I think the emergence of wokeness as such a contentious issue among elites in the UK is partially a result of the declining salience of immigration - since we voted to leave the EU in 2016, the number of people saying that immigration is one of the most important issues has seen a huge decrease, and the salience of material issues like healthcare and tax/spend has increased accordingly (as has the importance of climate change). I’ve pointed out before that this decrease in the salience of immigration and other cultural issues is bad news for the Conservatives, and trying to play up the culture wars seems like a pretty obvious response to this electoral problem. But the problem is that most British people aren’t anti-woke, whereas a huge number of British people are opposed to immigration. I’m just not sure that playing up the culture wars is a winning hand for conservatives.
But there’s a weird thing here - huge numbers of articles talk excessively about being woke, blogs decrying wokeness seem to get loads of hits, British newspapers have become filled with articles about why this or that celebrity is too woke or not woke enough. I’m part of the problem - this blog post and another of mine (of 8 in total so far) have been about being ‘woke’, whereas I haven’t really ventured at all into talking about material issues. The reason for this strong focus on wokeness is, I think, that people who are very engaged with politics have a disproportionately strong interest in cultural and social issues that are not immigration or, in the UK, Brexit.
Take, for instance, transgender issues. They were a major theme during the last Labour conference, there are viral articles about transgender controversies (see: Kathleen Stock, JK Rowling, the Tavistock Clinic over the last few years) literally every week or so, and books about trans issues (‘Trans’ by Helen Joyce, ‘The Transgender Issue’ by Shon Faye, and so on) have become best-selling and widely discussed books. But most of the British public basically doesn’t care about transgender issues - YouGov polls people on what they consider to be the most important issue, and has done for a while. The only two issues relating to ‘wokeness’ even slightly that lots of people care about are Brexit and immigration. Almost nobody ever mentions transgender issues as among the most important - the same applies to ‘wokeness’, it applies to free speech on university campuses, etc.
When asked what they do think on transgender issues, the public are extremely ambivalent, almost to the point of being contradictory. They believe (by a margin of 50% to 27%) that people should be allowed to self-identify as a gender different to the one they were assigned at birth, but they’re opposed to making it easier to legally change gender. They support transgender women being able to use women’s toilets, but only if they have undergone surgery. They don’t think that transgender women ought to be able to participate in women’s sports. Overall, it’s a really mixed bag of responses.
My guess is that the transgender issue is pretty broadly representative of the debates about being woke in general - people take the ‘woke’ view on some things, and the ‘un-woke’ view on others. I know this is true of me, and it’s probably true of you too. It’s why I have so much trouble giving a yes or no answer when asked whether or not I’m woke, and it’s why I think the concept of ‘wokeness’ is so incoherent as to be almost meaningless. If you want to tell me whether I’m woke or not, that would be appreciated. But until then, I’m just going try and talk less about being woke and just think about specific issues individually.