A Beginner’s Guide to Woke

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If you do not know what ‘woke’ is, then read this book. You will know all about it by the time you finish. Joanna Williams explores and exemplifies ‘woke’ from its historical and linguistic origins through an identity virtue signal to what it is now: essentially, a term of abuse used by those who consider themselves not to be ‘woke’ for those they consider to be ‘woke.’

The concept of ‘the long march’ through our treasured institutions (well described by Marc Sidwell in his book of that name) and the more recent The War on The West by Douglas Murray—reviewed recently in these pages—trace, respectively, the history of how major public bodies became infiltrated and undermined on the one hand, and the manifestations of that infiltration on the other. While major public institutions, such as the BBC, have been captured and divert their resources to indoctrinating the public about race, gender, and identity politics, ‘woke’ is like a mind-altering substance widely consumed by the population which blinds them to what is taking place and ensures that ‘progressive’ values spread unimpeded.

The roots of the term ‘woke’ lie in American black jazz where it meant being ‘right on,’ ‘with it,’ ‘cool,’ and other platitudinous terms that one group uses to identify itself as different from and better than those who they consider to be none of these things. The term was then used to indicate political awareness with reference, for example, to oppressed groups and became a watchword of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, it soon became associated with the culture war more widely and is applied to any range of disputed concepts such as white privilege, unconscious bias, and transsexualism.

‘Woke’ works by stealth. Nevertheless, to the uninitiated the outcomes can seem quite shocking and widespread. Thus, we must accept that all white people are oppressors of black people, biological sex is not real, straight actors cannot play gay characters, and public and sometimes private individuals must apologise and suffer greatly, often to the detriment of their careers and livelihood, for careless remarks, sometimes made decades in the past. Straight white people must ‘stay in their lane,’ while to watch almost any random television series in the UK is to get the impression that at least 50% of the population is composed of people of colour and that professions and the higher echelons of industry are full of them.

Each chapter is self-contained and all of them could be read, like essays, in isolation. But chapter three, which is titled “A New Cultural Elite,” is one of the key chapters in the book. Here Williams describes who the cultural elite are, and it is worth paying attention as these are the people implementing the ‘woke agenda.’ Frankly, they are everywhere. When you grasp this then you realise why ‘woke’ is so pervasive. These activists, who inevitably hold left of centre views, no longer protest like they used to, through striking and trying to undermine the economy of the capitalist state. As explained beautifully, and I make no apology for quoting at length, by the author:

Forget standing on picket lines, there are human-resource policies to be written. Forget winning the backing of unemployed coal miners, there are European Union bureaucrats to persuade. This move into HR department, schools, the cultural industry and universities allowed left-wing activists to discover a new sense of purpose. In turn, they found that many of these institutions had lost their sense of moral and intellectual mission. The path was clear for them to sell their newfound experience and import their values.

Therefore, the same type of people can be found almost anywhere in large corporations and often the same people turn up in different places to do the same job. As Williams explains: “the barriers between private sector and public interest, and between the domains of the state, business, politics, academia and charities, are highly permeable.”

My own observation from experience in academia and the health service is that there is an elite group of people who, if they were all sacked tomorrow, would have no adverse effect on the productivity or standing of their institution but, while they are employed, have a profound and damaging effect.

The progression of ‘woke’ is then traced through a series of three chapters where the influence of ‘woke’ values on school children is explored, followed by universities, and then in the existence of Orwellian ‘thought crimes.’ Children are being indoctrinated to accept a lack of parental authority whereby teachers become their primary educators and use this position to instil notions such as choosing gender, the superiority of ‘diversity’ no matter how bizarre, and usually of a sexual nature, and made to feel guilty about their background and upbringing … if they are white. The objective of school education is no longer education per se; if children learn anything it is by accident rather than design.

However, the real boot camps of wokeness are the universities. Here students are decreasingly taught how to think, in favour of being taught what to think. ‘Woke’ views are promulgated within courses and curricula, by student unions and societies and enforced by groupthink. Dissenting views are silenced using methods that would have made Chairman Mao proud. Anyone going against the ‘woke’ grain risks dismissal from their courses, and Williams describes the terrible case of Lisa Keogh who was investigated by Abertay University for declaring that women have vaginas and sharing that a transwoman (i.e., a man) should not compete against women in sports.

Who will enforce the ‘woke’ agenda and censure miscreants? You could be forgiven for thinking that the police would be too busy fighting crime to deal with what people think and what they express; especially in a country where free speech predominates. Well, not in the United Kingdom where a category of offence called the non-crime hate incident (NCHI) exists. As the name suggests, this is not a crime. But it is an incident which merits police intervention, recording of the ‘offender’ to their detriment, and is designed to limit what you express and, thereby, what you think. In a country where the vast majority of crimes are no longer solved, hundreds of thousands of NCHIs have been recorded. Despite instructions from the Court of Appeal to stop recording these and to expunge the records of those so recorded, the guidance on NCHIs remains in the College of Policing manual and the police continue to intervene. When it comes to ‘woke’ values, the police are above rather than servants of the law.

Nothing escapes ‘woke.’ Even capitalism, the pursuit of profit, is not immune. Thus, major corporations are stacked full of the products of our universities—HR officers and chief executives—who are only too willing to implement the ‘woke’ agenda within their realms of responsibility. There is no evidence that this increases profits; in fact, some say ‘go woke, go broke.’ But the above-mentioned people are less concerned with profit and the well-being of their workforces than with having opprobrium heaped upon them by those from whom they crave respect. If only it stopped there. Instead, we are lectured to along woke lines by major corporations such as John Lewis, Ben and Jerry’s, Chocolonely, and Gillette about inclusivity and toxic masculinity.

Race, gender, and identity occupy three of the final substantive chapters of How Woke Won. Some of the arguments around race and gender are rehearsed in earlier chapters but the concept of class identity being replaced by the alternative ‘woke’ identity politics is fascinating. The problem with class is that it unites across race and sexuality, for example, take the case of the lesbian and gay movement supporting striking miners in Wales in the late 1980s, depicted in the film Pride. But that does not fit the ‘woke’ agenda where identity is redefined and granular in such a way that anyone can be caught misidentifying another group. Strangely, however, this does not apply, for example, to the Muslim community who must be identified as a group and excused for any atrocity committed in the name of their identity.

The book concludes with ‘The Weaponisation of Victimhood’ which means that, provided you can claim an identity (disabled, mental health problems, black) you should be automatically privileged and excused. The ‘woke’ progressives seem incapable of seeing the irony in patronising someone due to their membership of a group. The book concludes with a chapter entitled ‘Is the Future Woke?’ I most certainly hope it is not.

Roger Watson is a British academic and former professor of nursing at the University of Hull. He is the editor-in-chief of Nurse Education in Practice and an Editorial Board Member of the WikiJournal of Medicine. He was the founding chair of the Lancet Commission on Nursing, and a founding member of the Global Advisory Group for the Future of Nursing. In 2020, Watson was elected vice president of the National Conference of University Professors. In 2022, Watson was elected president of the National Conference of University Professors.