a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Vive les bonobos: what is woke?

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wokewash?

So the term ‘woke’, which appears to come from the USA, or has gained much of its popularity there, is a bit of a mystery to me. It seems to be a four-letter version of ‘politically correct’ or PC, if perhaps more extreme. I know that the term PC was much in vogue in the 90s, and I recall reading Pinker, in The better angels of our nature, making the reasonable enough claim that political correctness is the small price we may have to pay for living in a civil society. So, taking that on board, I’m prepared to be accepting of wokeness…

So here’s how Wikipedia puts it:

Woke is an adjective derived from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) meaning “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination”. Beginning in the 2010s, it came to encompass a broader awareness of social inequalities such as sexism, and has also been used as shorthand for American Left ideas involving identity politics and social justice, such as the notion of white privilege and slavery reparations for African Americans.

So given this explanation, and its association with the political left in the USA, it’s no surprise, given the extreme ideological divides there, and to some degree here in Australia, that it has become the right’s new dirtiest word. Criticism of the term has also come from the other side, as some in the African-American community have complained of cultural appropriation. I do find such complaints, which occur not only in regard to language, but also dress, music, cuisine etc, a bit tedious myself. Language, music, food habits and so on tend to spread, adapt and change. They don’t have borders, thankfully.

Wikipedia presents a rich, and quite moving (to me at least) account of the term’s proud history, featuring Leadbelly, the race horrors of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and its wider usage in recent times. It seems to me that this widening usage, and the slangy tone of the word, helps to unite people in being alert to every kind of oppression everywhere, in terms of race, class, gender and lifestyle. A kind of monitory democracy (see previous post) emanating from the underclass, for the most part. And its allies, sometimes mocked, or self-mocked, as ‘social justice warriors’. The moderately conservative socio-political commentator David Brooks wrote that “to be woke is to be radically aware and justifiably paranoid. It is to be cognizant of the rot pervading the power structures”.

So I need to adjust my understanding. it’s not so much about ‘political correctness’, or ‘ideological soundness’, an older term. It’s not so much about watching our own language and ideology and eliminating its elements of prejudice, dismissiveness and mockery. Or about the elite being aware of their privileged status and trying to be more inclusive and ‘generous’. It’s a term born of and owned by the underclass and spreading out to its sympathisers and fellow-travellers.

It’s also a more divisive term than ‘political correctness’, mocked more or less gently by the likes of John Howard in the 90s. That’s because politics itself has become more divisive, not to say toxic, in the USA, the birthplace of the ‘woke’ meme. To the point that legislation is invoked in conservative states to prevent the woke critiques of elitist institutions and practices from gaining traction within the education system and society in general.

One important element of the woke mission, to me, is its critique of ‘American exceptionalism’, about which I’ve written from time to time. The complaint list bears some comparison to the Australian situation, but there are obvious differences. Here are its main issues in regard to race:

a belief that the United States has never been a true democracy; that people of color suffer from systemic and institutional racism; that white Americans experience white privilege; that African Americans deserve reparations for slavery and post-enslavement discrimination; that disparities among racial groups, for instance in certain professions or industries, are automatic evidence of discrimination; that U.S. law enforcement agencies are designed to discriminate against people of color and so should be defunded, disbanded, or heavily reformed…

In Australia, of course, the ‘people of colour’ are also the original inhabitants, with up to 60,000 years’ knowledge of how to survive and thrive on one of the world’s most inhospitable continents. For many decades before the 1960s there was an active governmental policy of ‘soothing the dying pillow’, a concept still seriously advocated by the likes of Shiva Naipaul on visiting the country in the 1980s, but by then attitudes were changing, and more and more articulate indigenous voices were being heard. Currently, an Aboriginal voice to Federal and State Parliaments through the Australian Constitution is being mooted, and a referendum on the matter will be held later this year. It is more than likely to succeed, which will further enhance the status of our indigenous people. As the Indigenous Desert Alliance puts it:

The Voice will enable Indigenous communities to have a direct line of communication with Government, allowing us to offer practical solutions to the unique challenges we face. This is vital for the voices of Indigenous people living in Australia’s desert regions who represent less than one percent of the Australian population but are looking after one third of the Australian land mass.

In the USA, where woke has gone to die, if the alt-right (and not just them) have their way, the First Nations people have also had a rough time of it from the European colonists of the past few hundred years. The warfare, slaughter and dispossession started early, culminating in the Indian Removal Act of 1830. I recall as a young boy reading a history of ‘the wild west’ I received as a Christmas present, and shedding tears at the carnage and betrayal these people experienced over many decades. I was still ignorant at that time about the treatment of Australia’s indigenous peoples.

Needless to say, then, I’m not impressed with the way many people have apparently declared war on ‘woke’ for political purposes. Staying with the USA, a nation that incarcerates more of its own people, per capita, than any other democratic nation, and by a long way, a nation that has the most absurdly lax gun laws in the world, a minimum wage that is less than half that of Australia’s, and considerably greater wealth inequality, as well as a political system screaming out for reform, as I’ve pointed out in many previous posts – that the USA’s conservatives feel that fighting ‘wokism’ is the ‘real issue’ to focus on, is one of many indications of that nation’s apparently permanent ill-health. That’s to say, in the USA there’s plenty to be woke about, but the state of wokeness is probably a sign of good health everywhere. Reading about the history and development of the term, and of the call to Stay Woke, it strikes me as a proud and moving call to recognise injustice and structural inequality, especially in those who suffer from it. So why the negative reaction?

One of the claims of conservatives is that much wokism is mere ‘performative activism’, presumably insincere and self-serving, unless practiced by true sufferers. This would suggest that only victims have the right, or the moral authority, to complain, and not their associates. It’s essentially an ad feminam/hominem argument, and so  fails, as it ignores the injustice an sich. Another more general criticism is that of self-righteousness or holier-than-thouism. Again this tends to distract from taking woke criticisms seriously, when in fact structural inequality is everywhere, though the structures may change over time from, say, landed aristocracies and their semi-enslaved tenants, to scions of business heavyweights in their hilltop gated communities and the great unwashed down below.

The USA’s anti-woke movement, which unsurprisingly holds sway among the wealthy and established elites, is  seeking to take legislative action against such developments as ‘critical race theory’, which presumably seeks to enlighten young students on the slave trade and other injustices, in the way that my ‘Wild West’ book enlightened me about the dispossession of native Americans and the attempted suppression of their culture. Their idea, in keeping with US jingoism, is that everything has turned out for the better in the best nation ever to have existed in the multiverse.

However, having said that, I do bristle against some of the more extreme examples of wokeness. I’ve written previously about the obsession with the ‘horrors’ of blackface – a person darkening/blackening their skin to impersonate someone, perhaps a hero of theirs, with different levels of melanin and tyrosinase (see below). I’ve also been taken to task by a very woke-to-woke teenager for using the word ‘nigger’ in a second order way, and many years ago I was told that, as a male, I couldn’t be a feminist. Perhaps some females still think that way. To me, these are minor aberrations that I refuse to take seriously. More disturbing, of course, is the hypocrisy of various capitalist enterprises using woke ‘virtue signalling’ while continuing with exploitative practices to maximise shareholder profits. What needs to be highlighted in criticising these enterprises is their practises rather than their signalling.

Unfortunately, anti-wokeism seems to be eclipsing wokeism in the popularity stakes at present. We need to recognise that issues around political correctness are far less important than issues of real disadvantage, exploitation and ethnic discrimination. That makes woke a favourite four-letter word for me, going into the future.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woke

https://ussromantics.com/category/us-exceptionalism/

https://www.indigenousdesertalliance.com/voice-to-parliament?gclid=Cj0KCQjw6cKiBhD5ARIsAKXUdyZX2Ir8RQ-dfE8IHkUsBzbjb9VOHVkqKLTdU9YLXEtpHf6BJlMDimYaAtrfEALw_wcB

https://www.bridgew.edu/stories/2023/united-states-treatment-native-americans

some thoughts on blackface, racism and (maybe) cultural appropriation

Written by stewart henderson

May 5, 2023 at 5:14 pm

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