The word ‘woke’ has quickly degenerated into a meaningless term of abuse. Nobody says ‘I am woke’ these days, at least not seriously. It‘s like claiming to be a keen nanny-statist or ‘bien-pensant’.
At one level, then, wokeness exists only so that journalists like me and social media warriors on the center or right can fight it.
It’s not just the word that has become hackneyed. The whole idea of being woke – suddenly alert – to racial or social injustice is not real, and never was, and therefore the movement against it is similarly fake.
Right-wingers have the same concept and call it ‘redpilling’; in both cases, it means a sort of lobotomized enlightenment for people who enjoy feeling aggrieved. Scratch the surface — go beneath the endless viral spats between trolls on social media — and you realize that nobody means what they are saying. Nobody is redpilled. And nobody, come to that, is woke.
This occurred to me the other day when I saw a clip of Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu explaining on British morning television why white people are not allowed to ask for evidence of racism against Meghan Markle. They don’t have the lived experience of black people, said Shola, so they must agree that the Duchess of Sussex is a victim of bigotry — end of. What crap, I thought to myself, as I felt the familiar righteous aggravation bubbling inside me. Then I realized that I’ve met Shola: we did a podcast together ages ago about Donald Trump. Shola was quite combative during the recording, but sweetness and light when the microphones weren’t on. I’m not sure she really believed what she was saying: it’s just her gig, her media market. There is a massive appetite for woke talking heads because media consumers are so hooked on the feelings of anger that they generate. Maybe I am wrong, but I don’t believe that Shola, in her heart of hearts, is utterly convinced of the words she spouts about white privilege. It’s a schtick that helps pay the bills. She’s like a stand-up comic who specializes in offending people. Except instead of being un-PC, she is ultra-PC, which is even more offensive to larger numbers of people.
The same thought strikes me when I look at social media. Many of my friends spend hours virtue-signaling (another word that is fast approaching redundancy) on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. But if I ever ask them about it, they’ll explain that they only shared the sanctimonious meme because everyone in their office did, or they just thought that is what you have to do. They don’t really ‘believe all women’, they just think that’s what you say online. It’s like they’re all agnostics in the Middle Ages. It’s easier to repeat the litany than go against the grain.
There’s often a profit-motive, too. I know a woman (who shall remain nameless) who spends her time promoting her feminist bona fides on Instagram. She posts endless shots of herself with cod-motivational messages about her body shape, the #MeToo movement, or the importance of her orgasms. She used to be a close friend so I always found her Insta-feminism particularly cringe-inducing.
Then, at a wedding recently, we had a cheering, drunken rapprochement: we bonded over how awful Instagram is. She only does it, she said, because she is trying to find her way as an influencer — one of the few career avenues open to cash-poor Gen X mummies in suburbia (now that is a feminist issue worth raising). The woke version of herself wasn’t true: it was a digital career move.
Here’s another example: I once did another podcast about the royals and mental health campaigning with the Telegraph’s Bryony Gordon, who knows Prince Harry and is herself a mental health campaigner. I took the perhaps fogeyish line that the royals should probably not spend quite so much time talking about their struggles. Bryony disagreed, but politely. Like Shola, she was charming off-mic, before and after. We both seemed to understand that, while we may disagree, the media is just a game and no need for bad feelings. A few days later, I saw on Facebook that Bryony had written a post essentially calling me a **** for demeaning the mentally ill.
Again, I may be wrong, but I don’t think that was the real Bryony. That’s the Facebook Bryony, the Bryony who is just developing her brand as a campaigning media personality. The real Bryony isn’t truly woke. She’s rather nice, all said.
At some point the mask becomes the man, as in the story of the Happy Hypocrite. We are what we emote. If we spend our lives hectoring and censoring each other online, that will eventually bleed into everyday life.
But it’s useful sometimes to remember, as we all gorge on offense culture every day, that most people don’t mean it and nobody is really woke.