Waking up to ‘Wokeness’ and ‘Cancel Culture’

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines ‘wokeness’ as ‘A state of being aware, especially of social problems such as racism and inequality.’ Should you search the dictionary’s longstanding rival, the Oxford English Dictionary, you will find there: ‘Originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.’

The term has indeed undergone a metamorphosis. It has become an accusation and derogatory slur in some quarters, while, in others, it is a badge of honour. According to an article in The Week magazine:

Factually the term can be traced to an essay called ‘If you’re woke you dig it’ by African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley that was published in The New York Times in 1962, though some have traced its use as far back as the 1940s.

Not the new enlightenment

‘Wokeness’, in my opinion, is not the new term for enlightenment as some may think. In its current form, it is the antithesis of enlightenment. It has become another term for being partisan to a dogmatic ideology. The consequence of sticking unquestioningly to this ideology results in the perpetration of the same bias or prejudice that its adherents actively seek to denounce. Perhaps the word ‘woke’ will reclaim its origins in time and with some perspective. Currently the term is a cause for divisiveness. Unquestioning adherence to its demonstrably changing definition leads to bias and is both anti-intellectual as well as anti-freedom of speech.

A definition of wokeness should encompass the imperative to search for knowledge, understanding and truth in order to address social injustice, but at the present time, the term has been co-opted for use as a battering ram by pseudo-liberals. The current ‘woke’ are certainly neither open nor ‘awake’ to opinions or ideas other than their own. ‘Wokeism’, in my opinion, is the antithesis of liberalism.

I have been perturbed for a while now regarding the fact that I believe that schools (and all educational institutions) are being used as pawns in the game of wokeness.

At many schools, principals and teachers alike are currently distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that we should be equally concerned about the cultural pandemic that is ‘wokeness’. It is infiltrating our schools and threatening to infect the minds and souls of the most impressionable of our students.

Living in a ‘post-truth’ world

We are living in what has been defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as a post-truth world: ‘Relating to a situation in which people are more likely to accept an argument based on their emotions and beliefs, rather than one based on facts.’ It is a time when truth as we know it has been completely eroded. Only certain opinions count and rabble rousers who have previously been ignored for obvious reasons, are now finding ways to espouse their opinions as fact.

Critical thinking, now more than ever, has become the one skill which our children will require to navigate this post truth world. We should take note that this will need to be purposefully considered by both parents and teachers as they prepare to steer children on their journey through life.

Lines in the sand

It is my view that we will need to draw some very firm lines in the sand when it comes to group think, trends, fashion, ‘cancel culture’ and popular culture as we progress. We cannot allow mediocrity, social media and wokeness to continually get in the way of real education, debate, research, freedom of speech, cognitive flexibility and critical thinking. Wokeness, in its current form, silences voices; it silences truth and human dignity and is the enemy of belonging. Wokeness creates and fosters fear. Fear of voicing your opinion, fear of speaking truth, fear of debate, fear of making a mistake and fear of being ‘cancelled’.

Wokeness, in this form, encourages one-sidedness. It is a form of bullying and should be resisted at all costs in our school environments where we are attempting to create learning and thinking cultures that encourage independent thought and critical thinking. Wokeness does not tolerate dissent and if we allow an ideology that brooks no dissent, we will fail in our attempts to build an environment that fosters belonging. We must never stifle debate.

We talk of ensuring that young men and women are resilient, confident to speak up and engaged: what we do not want is a particular group feeling that they cannot be heard because of the howling ‘woke’. I am saddened by a number of conversations I have had with students around cancel culture. Some students live in fear of saying the ‘wrong’ thing for fear of being ‘cancelled’. We cannot allow this cancer to infiltrate our minds and erode our ethos. Silence as a result of fear will undermine our mission and vision as a school.

Preparing students for life should be our mission at schools. John Kane-Berman – a policy fellow at the South African Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom – argues: ‘If students can be traumatised by “insensitivity” on campuses, then they are unlikely to function as effective team members in an organisation that has to deal with everyday realities.’

Complex and difficult conversations have to involve everyone, not just the so called woke. What I consider to be pseudo-sensitivity around discussing difficult topics, particularly because they challenge a particular way of thinking, is, I believe, intellectually immature. More importantly it does not prepare young men and women for life in the real world.

Let’s cancel ‘cancel culture’

Asserting that cancel culture is obscene, Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, in a blistering essay on her website, argues that it has robbed a whole generation of the opportunity to develop their creative talents and to flourish as human beings: ‘We have a generation of young people on social media so terrified of having the wrong opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow.’

And if accepted, fellow educators, this would be the death knell of learning and thinking organisations.

Adichie goes on to say:

In certain young people today, I notice what I find increasingly troubling: a cold-blooded grasping, a hunger to take and take and take, but never give; a massive sense of entitlement; an inability to show gratitude; an ease with dishonesty and pretension and selfishness that is couched in the language of self-care; an expectation always to be helped and rewarded no matter whether deserving or not; language that is slick and sleek but with little emotional intelligence; an astonishing level of self-absorption; an unrealistic expectation of puritanism from others; an over-inflated sense of ability, or of talent where there is any at all; an inability to apologize, truly and fully, without justifications; a passionate performance of virtue that is well executed in the public space of Twitter but not in the intimate space of friendship.

While I need to reiterate that I do not think that all young people are ‘takers’, or ‘entitled’, or ‘have an inability to show gratitude’, or are ‘dishonest, selfish and filled with self-absorption,’ I have to admit that I can see this behaviour creeping into the very fabric of our communities and we will need to stand strong against those who have ‘an over-inflated sense of their ability and unrealistic expectations of puritanism from others.’

What we need to do

More and more, we need boys and girls in our schools to be authentic, first and foremost with themselves. We need young people who are genuinely kind and empathetic, not just on Twitter or Instagram. Our students should understand that humanity is messy and ambiguous. We should all be setting an example by showing that we will not always agree. It must be made clear that not agreeing is no reason to denounce or ‘cancel’ others because they do not live up to particular ideals or concur about a particular topic.

Becoming a mature thinker and debater is a process that can be learnt, while immature thinking habits can be unlearnt. To create a space where differing opinions and disagreement are welcomed, teachers need to inspire a hunger for knowledge and foster emotional intelligence. This means researching and reading widely; it means going beyond the material that affirms our own thought processes and ideals.

Totalitarian regimes rely on confirmation bias to intellectually prop up their ideologies. We need students who are excited to have their thoughts and opinions challenged. Our students should understand, at a deeper level, that life is complex and difficult and uncomfortable at times.

Students should be encouraged to embrace confusion and lean into it. We need young men and women who are comfortable being uncomfortable. Judging and weaponising words and responses is the antithesis of intellectual growth. Our schools should be places that nurture analytical and flexible thinking. We need complex problem solvers, not problem makers.

We want students who can reason and be reasonable and have the courage to change their minds. And we need young men and women to be cognitively flexible. Barbara Jacquelyn Sahakian defines this as: ‘A skill that enables us to switch between different concepts, or to adapt behaviour to achieve goals in a novel or changing environment.’ We need young men and women to realise that their opinion is not always necessarily right.

When will we wake up?

So, as Romy Dolgin says in an op-ed in The Harvard Crimson:

I don’t want to be woke. I don’t want to restrict my definition of activism and intelligence to only include those who agree with me politically. I want to be open-minded and engaged. I want to be informed and passionate. I want to be an advocate and a human being beyond political issues. Maybe we can broaden the definition of ‘woke’ to include these characteristics from both sides of the political spectrum, but until then I remain contently un-woke.

I, too, am proudly un-woke and until the philosophy and understanding of the word changes significantly, I will remain so.