Wake up, lefties, and reject wokeness

Clive Hamilton

It’s time the left pushed back against woke. Afraid of being branded a racist, misogynist or transphobe, the left has been browbeaten into silence by woke activists, even though the left enabled the modern movements for black rights, gay rights and feminism.

Left politics are about capitalism’s structural inequalities – corporate power, state capture, exploitation, consumerism and the brutalisation of everyday life for those at the bottom. It was committed to ending discrimination against marginalised groups before woke came along. But it knows that succeeding would still leave a society based on material inequality and power disparities.

Woke is neither progressive nor left when it reduces politics to individual self-expression and identity. And woke politics is anti-democratic when its call-out tactics and cancel culture create a punitive and exclusionary environment. Fear of being publicly shamed, bullied, cancelled or even fired is stifling sincere dialogue, not least among academics.

Bigots should be called out, but anathemising those with a progressive but different view is divisive and unfair. Opinions that are annoying, upsetting or infuriating are not necessarily intolerant or harmful, let alone “hateful”. They are an everyday part of living in a democratic society.

The only way to understand and effectively respond to opinions you don’t like is to first listen to them. Yet balaclava-clad woke agitators have threatened gender-critical feminists such as Holly Lawford-Smith, an associate professor in political philosophy at the University of Melbourne, so that now she needs security guards on campus. It’s unforgiveable. They want to silence her, going so far as to denounce students taking her feminism course as “fascists”. So, studying different views should be forbidden?

Despite its radical style, woke politics is perfect for the neoliberal era of individualism and identity-making. Woke politics is easily co-opted by corporations. They borrow woke’s language and symbols as marketing tools while continuing to exploit their workers.

Take Qantas, praised for its prominent role in the equal-marriage campaign, yet at the same time squeezing its workers for all they are worth. Gay CEOs of rainbow companies are just as capable of playing hardball with their workers as straight ones.

The sometimes-feverish performance of wokeness plays perfectly to the right’s love of a war over “political correctness gone mad”, enabling those on the right to present themselves as the champions of free speech. Because woke agitators have a hair-trigger for any sign of “oppression” of those marginalised by their race or gender, they appear to be left-wing, allowing the right to use their anti-democratic actions to tar everyone on the left with the same extremist brush.

When wokeness sidelines capitalism’s structural inequalities, wrote Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, it empowers the liberal elite to pose as defenders of the marginalised (think teals and woke-washed corporations). And it allows alt-right populists to become the champions of the “real people” against corporate and “deep state” elites (think Donald Trump).

Woke defines everyone by the identity that woke imposes on them. The marginalised become their trauma, and their trauma entitles them alone to speak. Of course, they should have a voice in matters that affect them. They’ve been silenced or drowned out for too long.

But when woke activists insist that “lived experience” is the only qualification for being heard, the restriction rules out broader political conversations. And it rules out dialogue with other marginalised groups with their own “truths”.

Woke rejects the Enlightenment’s primacy of reason. “Cries of pain deserve a hearing and a response,” writes leftist philosopher Susan Neiman, “but they are no more privileged a source of authority than careful arguments.”

When the marginalised are reduced to their trauma, they are trapped there. But a person of colour is more than their colour; a transgender person is more than their gender. We are all householders, workers, lovers, sons or daughters and citizens with an interest in our societies.

Indigenous people I have spoken with regard with wry amusement the awe in which they are held by woke activists. In the Greens, the worship of victimhood is rife, giving rise to some woeful decisions. And intolerance in the trans “debate” borders on the extreme with calls to punish those who do not toe the wokest of woke lines.

The youth climate movement that sprang from Greta Thunberg’s lone protest has been taken over by wokeness so that now it’s illegitimate to campaign for climate protection unless you campaign for social justice at the same time. Fixing the climate crisis is too urgent to wait for other problems to be solved first. Apart from diluting the energy put into climate campaigning, woke ideology is driving more conservative young people away.

There is more than one progressive view of Indigenous questions (ask Indigenous people themselves). There is more than one progressive view of equal marriage (assimilation into mainstream institutions means erasure of unique LGBTQ identities). And there is more than one left-wing view on sex and gender (there’s more to it than self-definition).

The left will always oppose discrimination and vilification of marginalised people and support their right to live in peace and dignity. But when woke activists demand that everyone speaks with a single voice – theirs – they do the marginalised and progressive politics no favours.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 7, 2023


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