Until recently, the word “woke” seemed to belong to vocabulary reserved for American campuses, and really only for the most radical among them. It referred to a particularly active fringe of American students believing themselves to be in a crusade for social justice and more particularly concerned with questions of “race” and “gender,” and who were determined, in a way, to carry out a definitive lawsuit against the Western world, and more particularly, against the white man who incarnated in himself all his abjectness. This movement was recognized for its extremism, and even, for its fanaticism, being convinced that it had, and still has, a monopoly on the true, the just and the good. Barack Obama, in 2019, had warned the students claiming this: he could see that the claim they had to be awake, in front of a sleeping mass, or enlightened, in front of a people deep in the darkness from the past, could only increase tensions in an already very polarized society. A man of the left, to be sure, Obama nevertheless sought to remind these young minds that human nature is murky, and that social conflict cannot be reduced to a fight between good and evil.
In some respects, we see in Wokism the new wave of the movement associated with political correctness, which from the 1980s wanted to decolonize the American university and its knowledge by getting rid of the figure of the Dead White Male. Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare and so many others had all to be sent packing; their overwhelming presence had contributed to the marginalization of minority knowledge and perspectives, from which it would be possible to lead an epistemological and political revolution against Western civilization. A new relationship with the world had to be imposed. Back then, it was well and good to just laugh at all this, and to reassure oneself that this fad was destined to fade away. We even wanted to believe, in Paris, that this fad could never cross the Atlantic. That could never happen. Absolutely not. But political correctness is now institutionalized through the proliferation of departments and fields of university study essentially devoted to the repudiation of Western civilization. This fad now rules the American University. Wokism is the culmination of this movement of political correctness; and it is no longer allowed to believe that it is marginal.
Wokism deconfined from campuses quite some time ago and is spreading through public life like an ideological epidemic. Even more so, for it imposes itself upon the heart of public life on both sides of the Atlantic, and its concepts are normalized in media-vocabulary and in political and managerial discourse. These concepts colonize the collective imagination; or at least, its authorized expressions. Woke militants find themselves in positions of responsibility within municipal administration, which in turn makes these agencies accomplices and promoters of Wokism. It permeates the language of management and advertising. This religious left expands into collective life under the sign of fanaticism, and in front of a political class which does not quite know how to respond to it, let alone stand up to it, and is even tempted to make more concessions towards it, never understanding that it is not dealing with a reformist movement which is bringing reasonable demands in the public space, compatible with democratic logic.
All the power of Wokism lies in its Orwellian manipulation of language – its theorists and activists invent a diverse newspeak that functions like an ideological trap. The strategy of Wokism is transparent, and even demanded, in certain cases – it is a question of seizing a word that has universal disapproval and sticking a new definition to it, which is then said to be scientifically validated, because it is readily legitimized by militants disguised as experts who are now rampant in the departments of the social sciences. There are many examples, whether it is racism, white supremacy, discrimination, hate or hate speech. Too often, bona fide commentators or observers are fooled. Rightly horrified by the traditional meaning of these words, they fail to realize that these words no longer refer to the same reality.
Thus, from the woke perspective, racism today no longer designates an ideology calling for racial discrimination or the hierarchization of human groups according to a racial criterion. Rather, the refusal, precisely, to define people on the basis of the color of their skin, it designates as racist – it accuses those who do not want to consent to the racialization of social relations of racial color blindness. Racism thus culminates in universalism which then supposedly serves as a mask for the interests of the “white majority.” Apparently, it is no longer by going beyond or transcending “race” that we will fight racism, but by over-valuing racial consciousness as the primary form of collective identity. The claimed anti-racism therefore becomes uninhibited racialism.
White supremacy, on the other hand, no longer refers to movements like the Ku Klux Klan, or its descendants, but to the deep structure of Western societies. In France, for example, the racialist far left equates secularism with white supremacy. The concept of discrimination is also demonized. Discrimination, for the woke, consists in treating everyone as the same. Conversely, choosing someone according to the color of their skin, as long as they are considered “racialized,” is not discriminatory. Hate, finally, becomes one-sided, unidirectional – only the majority can be hateful by rejecting the definition that the self-proclaimed leaders of minorities often claim to give to those they claim to represent. We are thus faced with an ideological system that operates by reversing the meaning of the concepts it demands. Wokism makes us walk on our heads. In the name of intellectual hygiene, this exercise of analyzing Wokist vocabulary can be unending.
At the heart of Wokism, we must understand, is the white male who embodies absolute evil. It radicalizes political correctness, moving from criticism of the Dead White Male to the living white male, who should, in order to undertake his rehabilitation, engage in a process of permanent self-criticism, which takes the form of an atonement without redemption, because the pathologies constitutive of its identity are so inscribed in the processes of socialization defining it that it can never tear itself away completely. But by denouncing himself, by criticizing his privileges, by doing everything to become an ally of “minorities,” he will at least send the expected penitential signal. This is the only way, in the long run, that he will regain his humanity, or at least, that he can strive for it. He will also be able to thank people from minorities for allowing him to make his way towards his “un-whiting.”
The woke wave seems to carry everything in its path. It is, however, necessary to resist it strongly. We will only succeed when we learn to decipher its strategy of vocabulary manipulation, which forces us switch to a parallel world, a world filled with alternative definitions, which cuts off the relationship to reality, and forces us to evolve under the authority of accusatory ideologues who deem that those who resist them deserve social banishment – one does not speak without reason of cancel culture. But it also means not being satisfied with opposing Wokism by a sole reference to common sense. Faced with a violent ideological surge, which exerts a form of bewitchment on the new generations, often knowing no other language than its own, and who are fully socialized through social networks, where Wokism is dominant – it is necessary to rediscover the fundamental principles on which is based the civilization that Wokism wants to destroy.
Mathieu Bock-Côté is a Quebec sociologist, writer, essayist and journalist. His writing appears in various newspapers and journals, including la Presse, le Devoir, le Journal de Montréal and le Figaro. This article is made possible by the generosity of La Nef.
The featured image shows, “Promis’d Horrors of the French Invasion, or Forcible reasons for negotiating a regicide peace,” a print by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey in 1796.