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.