Staying 'woke' in 
divisive times

A socially and politically conscious culture promotes a moral imperative to fight discrimination and injustice. But are more and more people backing it just to look good? And are those sitting on the fence perpetuating prejudices?

By Ehtesham Shahid

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Published: Thu 31 Mar 2022, 10:02 PM

Last updated: Thu 31 Mar 2022, 10:03 PM

“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised, and you’re politically woke, and all that stuff — you should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”

The words of former US President Barack Obama should have settled the debate surrounding the one word that has empowered a generation, and yet offends purists. “Woke” — often interchanged with “cancel culture” — is primarily about “being alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”. It also suggests being aware of what’s going on in the community. Yet, like almost everything riding on social media’s fragile shoulders, the trend routinely divides these days.

Even though it can be traced back several decades, the discourse surrounding “woke” reached a crescendo with movements such as MeToo and Black Lives Matter. It served its purpose and seemed on the way to becoming the modern versions of liberté, égalité, fraternité — a la the legacy of the French Enlightenment Age. With or without that exalted status, it at least became the modern equivalent of the idea that men and women are “born and remain free, and equal in rights”.

Yet, woke seems to have become too controversial. Somehow, the misuse or abuse of the term turned its flight of fancy upside down. Before we realised it, it transformed into something of a pejorative, often used in a disparaging context. On mainstream and social media, anything to do with woke-ness, cancel culture, or even critical race theory, became politicised, primarily in the United States domestic politics. Once the US sneezed, the rest of the world, especially Europe, was more than willing to catch a cold.

All this panned out in a matter of a few years. In the words of Aja Romano, a culture staff writer for Vox, “In the six years since Michael Brown’s death, ‘woke’ evolved into a single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory.” Romano writes that the call to “stay woke” was, for many people, unheard of before 2014. At that point, the idea was shared within African-American communities. It perpetuated the notion that staying “woke” and alert to the deceptions of other people was a primary survival tactic.

Following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, “stay woke” suddenly became the cautionary watchword of Black Lives Matter activists on the streets, used in a chilling and specific context: “keeping watch for police brutality and unjust police tactics”. “This framing of ‘woke’ is bipartisan: it’s used as a shorthand for political progressiveness by the left, and as a denigration of leftist culture by the right,” Romano describes the situation rather succinctly.

Wokeism is Fakeism

Naseem Javed is a corporate philosopher and chairman of Expothon Worldwide — a Canadian think-tank focused on mobilising entrepreneurialism protocols on digital platforms. He equates “wokeism with “fakeism”. According to him, every honest narrative in any culture often carries parts which may be deemed ‘offensive’ by other cultures. “[Instead] Engage and clarify — now weaponised as tools of tribalism to fragmentise social structures… the solution lies in bold and open discussions, and not in deep silence and wall-protected isolations,” he says.

Javed, whose book Alpha Dreamers is about “the five billion connected who will change the world”, believes celebrities have proven their lack of intellectualism by juxtaposing opinions to garner social media ratings; self-inflicted damages for higher scores are a norm. “Celebrities in majority, around the world, have not been able to solve justice issues but enjoyed roller coaster rides of photo-ops,” he says candidly. “Wokeism is now a carnival in search of clowns.”

‘Awareness is Powerful’

As an American artist, who was born in Los Angeles and who worked in the US and the UK, 34-year-old Gretchen Andrew has had an exciting career trajectory. She currently has a solo exhibition at Galloire, City Walk, Dubai, and from here she will travel to London to take up the role of artist-in-residence at the National Gallery (NGX) there.

She has pronounced views on “woke”, as the term originated in American culture. However, the term has since been accorded a sarcastic slant. “Perhaps it is no longer the best descriptor or [maybe] it carries too many undertones,” she says. However, Andrew believes that awareness is powerful even if the fight isn’t as active as it could or might be. “There are many methods and tools required to drive change. The peaceful protest is one route, but I don’t think it should exist alone without intellectual engagement and debate,” she puts her argument into context.

So, it is counter-productive to focus on one word and expect the world to unite over its meaning and purpose. This is where leadership becomes essential. Andrew refuses to paint all of them with the same brush. “I’d consider people like Greta Thunberg to be both a leadership figure and a celebrity [in a different way perhaps than we traditionally think of], so certainly ‘celebrities’ can add weight and value — it all depends who it is,” she says.

She also has a personal objective to build a more equitable society. “With the increasingly large stage my artwork gives me to speak from, I aspire to do what I can to offer education, which hopefully leads to avoiding injustice in the first place,” says Andrew. A lot is good and bad around “woke” topics of discrimination and race. However, that doesn’t mean the conversation can’t be one of openness and curiosity for someone like her.

‘Culture is everything; everything is culture’

A sought-after Arab culturalist, Dubai-based Nasif Kayed’s business card proudly proclaims “Culture is everything, everything is culture.” For him, as long as we keep the immense humanity in the background, we will remain fair and just as prejudice comes from personality and conduct. “We cannot blame others for who we are and what we do, how we feel, and treat others,” he says.

To further his argument, Kayed quotes verses from the Holy Quran (Surah Al-Hujurat 49:11-13), which has a specific message of guidance: “Believers, let not a group (of men) scoff at another group, it may well be that the latter (at whom they scoff) are better than they, nor let a group of women scoff at another group, it may well be that the latter are better than they. And do not taunt one another, nor revile one another by nicknames. It is an evil thing to gain notoriety for ungodliness after belief. Those who do not repent are indeed the wrong-doers.”

Kayed has a candid message for fence-sitters lurking in society. “You cannot see injustice and completely ignore it as if it doesn’t matter,” he says, adding that one “would want other people to care about your case and your situation.” However, he attaches a rider: “We should care, but we should care in the right manner by not being one-sided about one particular case and one particular category.” His message is loud and clear: rise above prejudices and participate equally at a humanitarian level.

Globally-connected races

Much of these wouldn’t have been relevant to our lives before the dawn of the new millennium. Excessive exposures to minuscule issues have now immunised the populace on racial issues. Naseem Javed asserts that narratives, good or bad, only wait for watershed moments. “The future of globally connected races and cultures needs a brand-new reset and thinking,” he says. According to him, dialogue is now a lost art, and practice is the missing link. “Public affairs programming disappeared, and intellectual narratives feared, as the truth became the enemy of the state,” he makes a rather gloomy assertion.

Unlike many observers of our generation, Javed doesn’t attribute “wokeism” to anti-intellectualism. According to him, the rise of anti-intellectualism is only in the news generation and media channels. “The underground story is the rise to new enlightenment due to 400 days of isolation during the pandemic. The global populace is slightly smarter and more exposed and connected than a few years ago. It takes about 5-10 years for such megatrends to become visible,” he says.

Some of the issues surrounding race and society often get murkier with celebrity endorsements. Usually, celebrities throw their weight behind subjects that move them, which is fair and deserves respect.

The problem starts with selective and biased support, and on issues that are often far too divisive to build a consensus. Perhaps this is why Nasif Kayed distinguishes between good and bad endorsement. “We need to address all issues of discrimination or injustice,” he says. “But if they say I am for this or I am for that, then we again tip the scale towards one issue, leaving another issue hanging by the wayside. That’s injustice in itself.”

Going by artist Gretchen Andrew’s views, how woke presents topics around discrimination and race determines whether it would draw the desired response. “There is a lot that is clearly good and clearly bad, but that doesn’t mean the conversation can’t be one of openness and curiosity… celebrities should not be banned from it because they are considered detrimental — nor encouraged just because they are celebrities,” she clarifies.

She cites the instance of her new exhibition, ‘Growth Hacking’, where she is inviting people into technical topics like artificial intelligence and information manipulation — but seeking to do it in a way where the barrier between woke culture and anti-intellectualism is not sustained. “Somewhere in the fake flowers, the glitter and the reprogramming of big-tech algorithms, the labels melt away,” is how she puts it.

But Andrew’s most telling remarks come in the context of anti-intellectualism and its seemingly symbiotic relationship with bigotry. According to her, the roots of anti-intellectualism are old. In the US, they go back to Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. “I believe something has happened with our reliance on digital technology (fundamentally binary). Something about this is seeping deeper into our consciousness and resulting in simpler black-and-white viewpoints, where there should be a lot more grays and gradation,” she concludes.

Going by her implications and the evidence available, woke is here to stay — alongside its attendant controversies.

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