Stray thoughts on contemporary anti-“wokeness” rhetoric

When, during one of her concerts, Taylor Swift encouraged her fellow Tennesseeans and fans to vote for democrats in the 2016 elections, she reaped the whirlwind of US conservative wrath and was accused of practicing a kind of “competitive wokeness” that has allowed her to “calculatedly climb the cultural ladder.” “Wokeness” really is a rhetorical battle-axe of the right, something that contemporary conservatives can wield against anyone who is aware of problems of social justice and dares to speak out about them. As a Comp Lit person in Asia, however, I often think of this adjective in just the opposite terms, as a concerned “wakefulness” about social problems, that comes to mind whenever waking up is invoked, i.e., Lu Xun’s famous anecdote of the “iron house”:

“Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?…But if a few awake, you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house.” – Lu Xun, Preface to Outcry, 1922

A hundred years after he wrote this, the modernist ambivalence of Lu Xun’s thought experiment with “waking up” has become one of the paradigmatic dilemmas of our age. There are some important differences between China in the 1920s and the US in the 2020s, however. In Lu Xun’s case we have to keep alive the hope of overthrowing social injustice, and therefore we should feel the need to help others get “woke;” by contrast, with the conservative rhetoric against the sort of “wokeness” we see in Taylor Swift, merely stating you are committed to progressive values is an avowal of demagoguery.

Such an attitude should not be scandalous: when Lu Xun was writing Chinese history was moving rapidly toward a catastrophic civil war and far right nationalists like Adolf Hitler, General Francisco Franco, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek were consolidating their power around the world. Indeed, just five years after he published the above lines, many of Lu Xun’s friends and students would be executed or imprisoned by Generalissimo Chiang, in the notorious Shanghai Massacre of 1927. The stories in his next anthology, Wandering, would be much different and have strangely ambiguous endings.

What concerns me most about the contemporary rhetoric of “wokeness” is how it never really seems to become a part of a debate about earlier, even more fundamental, uses of “enlightenment” and “awakened consciousness.” I suspect this is because what conservatives really want is the opposite: for everyone to go back asleep, to drown in the iron house, or at least to remain silent, alienated and suffocating quietly in its cracks. Moreover, their cynical suggestion that celebrities and public figures are trying to cash in on victimhood” issue of “competitive wokeness” is bullshit:

[As a rich elite liberal] “You’d be foolish not to emulate the highest-status people you could find. Thanks to social media, you can access their opinions on all and sundry in an instant. The result is a kind of swarm effect in which high-status moral entrepreneurs declare the right position to take on a given issue, and then, within minutes, hordes of epigones scramble to adopt and enforce the new orthodoxy.

The author outdoes himself here, showing us how progressives and liberals are cynical “moral entrepreneurs” enabled by rabid leftists who use social media to issue-swarm like angry hornets. Smearing the left as a bunch of mindless liberals competing to out-liberal their peers is probably convincing to people who read The Atlantic, but most thoughtful people would probably agree that being open about your politics (even if they center on the doings of entertainment celebrities) is a good thing for society. However, they may not know that “liberals” on social media are nothing like a homogeneous hornets’ nest of “SJWs” (who don’t actually exist but are yet another urban legend weaponized by the right). What one finds instead is a diverse group of people who are fragmented, confused, who may or may not be high on some form of identity politics. I’m willing to grant that much, but, to follow Lu Xun, if a few can be awakened to our unjust social system then the future of the iron house is not as certain as it sometimes seems these days.

Opinion | The Problem With Wokeness

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Opinion | The Problem With Wokeness

Earning the ‘Woke’ Badge

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Earning the ‘Woke’ Badge

“Competitive Wokeness” and Taylor Swift

Didn’t quite get it when I saw this Onion tweet:

But a conservative from the The Atlantic clarifies that “Taylor Swift Succumbs to Competitive Wokeness” (Oct 11, 2018). There he explains:

“I get the sense that the most aggressively “woke” young people are precisely those who find themselves in the most fiercely competitive environments. Status and prestige matter to everyone, of course, but they matter to some more than others. Most of all, they matter to those who find themselves in precarious industries where one’s reputation counts for a great deal and, just as important, to lonely, unattached people who long to feel valued and desired. Delayed marriage and child-rearing ensure that many more young people spend many more years in the mating market and, by extension, orienting their lives around fulfilling their own social and sexual appetites over the care and feeding of children. This is especially true among children of the culturally powerful upper middle class, who’ve been trained to fear downward mobility in a stratified society as much as our primitive ancestors feared being devoured by toothy predators. The result is what you might call a culture of “competitive wokeness.”

Basically: “liberal elites” are convincing young people that they need to be loonie lefties and this is generating a ‘competitive wokeness’ that makes celebrities want to show off how socially progressive they are….Hmm, right. The Onion said it more persuasively with one headline, but it did so in a way that proves the Atlantic guy is wrong: so-called liberals are sensitive to pseduo-wokeness too. “Competitive wokeness” is a rightwing red herring.

Pop Culture’s Great Awokening

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Pop Culture’s Great Awokening