Once, I was introduced to a guest at a dinner party as follows: “This is Victoria. She is…very pc.”
I know, it sounds like I’m making it up – but swap the term previously in favor of “political correctness” for today’s “woke” and it might start to make more sense. Over the years, I’ve pondered what the party host might have meant and concluded that he was warning other guests that I was, basically: not racist, sexist, transphobic or homophobic, so I wouldn’t be in favor of a weird joke. It was a warning to all right-wingers to keep quiet about old Jim Davidson lols. Maybe I should have thanked him?
But that puts a practical spin on it, doesn’t it – because if you try to define precisely what people mean when they accuse others of being “woke” (and younger generations seem to bear the brunt of any pejorative sneer), then the only definition I can find is this: “awakened” means to be tolerant, kind, compassionate, empathetic, inclusive. Having basic human decency, in other words. So why on earth we use it as an insult is beyond me.
Tell that to Oliver Dowden: The chairman of the Conservative Party gave a speech this week to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, in Washington DC, in which he claimed that the emphasis on introspection and self-criticism divides us more than it unites us. . He warned that neither Britain nor the United States can afford to engage in “painful waking psychodrama” when Western values are under threat; that so-called “social justice warriors” and “cancel culture” distract from efforts to defend democracy. Democracy itself!
According to Dowden, “being obsessed with pronouns” and attempting to “decolonize” the school curriculum (God forbid, we teach children the truth about Britain’s bloody history of Imperial rule) amounts, believe it or not , “to embolden Russia, China and other enemies of the west”. Phew, it’s all the cross to bear when you’re still in primary school.
Was Oliver Dowden at this dinner? He might as well have been – because we’ve all met Oliver Dowdens; we’ve all witnessed the dismissive “well, it’s PC who’s gone completely nuts, isn’t it”; while the (usually) white and (often) privileged speaker scoffs at serious attempts to right centuries of wrongs; to defend people deprived of their rights; restore some kind of balance.
It should perhaps come as no surprise to see the likes of Dowden condemn the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol, toppled because of its association with colonialism and slavery – after all, the people who benefited from colonialism and of slavery have, historically, been people like Dowden: privileged white men. Last month, the pope – another privileged white man – rejected “cancellation of culture” for “stifling freedom of expression” and erasing “every sense of identity”.
But while we shouldn’t be shocked by Dowden’s views on “cancellation culture” – he said in his speech that the silence of figures such as JK Rowling over their views on transgender people is ‘a dangerous form of decadence’, and called on conservatives in the US and UK to ‘combat’ woke ideology and thereby safeguard freedom and democracy – we should be, because Dowden should be in charge of writing his party’s election manifesto.
“These are basic Conservative principles and I think you will see a return to them over the next few years from the government,” he said. If you get shivers down your spine reading this from the ruling party, you are not alone.
The truly chilling thing is that Dowden’s comments cannot be taken in isolation. It all seems to be part of a protracted Conservative campaign to stoke the culture wars: just look at Priti Patel’s comments on the ‘gesture politics’ of kneeling; or Gavin Williamson getting upset about a university college removing a portrait of the Queen, when no one else was. They seem determined to do so as it inflames their supporters who see them as the saviors of free speech. Scratch the surface, and it’s nothing of the sort. JK Rowling hasn’t been cancelled, she’s everywhere. Children are not really taught to hate conservatives, despite Nadhim Zahawi’s fears. This is a diversionary tactic and should be reported as such.
Plus, we’ve seen how that commitment to ‘fighting’ for free speech really works: Boris Johnson’s ‘throwaway attack’ on Keir Starmer on Jimmy Savile appears to have had a direct causal trajectory for that Starmer is overcome by an angry mob. He (and Johnson) came off relatively lightly. But the next victim of racist, misogynistic, homophobic or transphobic violence on the street, so often the butt of those “harmless, unawakened” jokes about black people, women, gay people or trans people at dinner parties, might not be it. ‘to be.
Hate crimes have increased in recent years, amid a surge in anti-LGBTQ and transgender attacks; women are still being raped and murdered and racial attacks have exploded during Black Lives Matter protests, after a backlash from the far right.
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I’m proud to have been introduced as “very PC” (aka “woke”) at that dinner party. What if it stopped one person from making a racist comment? Good. Because words have consequences – and for every “offbeat joke” you tell over dinner, surrounded by people who are too shy, too nervous (or just too prejudiced) to disagree with you, that attitude accelerates; earns the veneer of respectability; whereas in the real world, people suffer.
Psychological studies confirm this: researchers have found that “smear humor” – the type of “lol” that offers hostile or prejudiced explicit messagealong with a second implicit message that “it doesn’t matter” because “it’s just a joke” – may in fact promote discrimination against targeted groups.
According to to this reportthe men above hostile sexism against women reported greater tolerance of gender-based harassment in the workplace exposure to sexist versus neutral (non-sexist) jokes. Disturbingly, other researchers have found that men are more susceptible to hostile sexism expressed a greater willingness to rape a woman when exposed to sexist humor versus non-sexist humor. Another study found that off-color jokes promoted discrimination against Muslims and homosexuals.
We should all be more “woke”. People’s lives literally depend on it.