Wokeism and cancel culture: Is the tide rising against it?

Originally used to describe those who are hyper aware of social injustices like racism and other forms of discrimination, the word ‘woke’ has come to take on a new meaning in recent years. Of course, being aware of injustices is essential in a world like ours, where people fall victim to all sorts of unspeakable things simply because of their race or gender. In her latest book, #StayWoke: Go Broke, Zille details the dangers of ‘wokeness’ and ‘cancel culture’, particularly in South Africa. In an interview with BizNews (read and listen here) Zille told Alec Hogg that “Wokeness, at its very best, aims to ensure that majorities who are in power become more insightful to their use of power at its very best. In SA – where the ratios are inverted [and] black people are the overwhelming majority – it doesn’t cause any self-reflection about the abuse of power. Quite the opposite. It provides a moral fig leaf for the continued concentration of power – and abuse of that power.” Below, the IRR’s John Kane-Berman looks at whether a backlash is growing against wokeism. – Jarryd Neves

Is there a growing backlash against wokeism?

Earlier this month English football fans took again to widespread booing when teams on the field performed the ritual of ‘taking the knee’ popularised by Black Lives Matter.

While the English team’s manager condemned the booing, as did the Labour Party, spiked-online called for more of this ‘working-class revolt against wokeness’.

The revolt seems to go beyond the working class, however. The vice-chancellor of Cambridge took down a website inviting the anonymous reporting of ‘micro-aggressions’ after some of the dons had complained that the university was fostering a culture ‘akin to that of a police state’.

While the Rhodes Trust, which runs the worldwide scholarship programme, is very woke these days, Cecil Rhodes’s own Oxford college, Oriel, has decided to keep his statue in place – causing 150 dons at other colleges to throw a wee fit and threaten to refuse to tutor Oriel undergraduates.

Neil Thin, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, was cleared by an investigation after he had been suspended for, among other things, opposing racially segregated spaces on campus. But a librarian at King’s College London was forced to apologise for e-mailing a photograph of the late Duke of Edinburgh, who had been a governor of the college for many years but who had supposedly caused ‘harm’ by his ‘racist and sexist comments’.

The lunacy which has overtaken higher education was highlighted by a headline over a spiked article about Lisa Keogh, a law student at Abertay University in Dundee: ‘I am being investigated by my university for saying women have vaginas.’ She had offended people by arguing that being male or female was a biological fact, not a matter of choice.

Before she was cleared last week she had commented: ‘If you think there isn’t a free speech problem on campus, then you don’t know anybody who is at university.’

She is right. Recent years have seen plenty of reports of intolerance in the form of ‘cancel culture’ on campuses in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Moreover, for every speaker whose invitations are withdrawn, there are no doubt even more who are never invited in the first place for fear of offending somebody or other in these days when the right of free speech is under threat in the name of a supposed right never to be offended by anyone who questions ‘climate change’, ‘systemic racism’, transgenderism, or the various forms of identity politics.

Tip of an iceberg

Frequent reports of incidents of intimidation, public humiliation, and intolerance are no doubt the tip of an iceberg. Once such incidents become commonplace, they drop out of the news. How much of a backlash there now is, is also hard to measure. But The Economist recently ran a headline to the effect that ‘a backlash against gender ideology is starting in universities’.

The magazine reported that the ‘transgender dogma’ – where ‘gender identity’ was a matter of ‘feeling’ rather than biological sex – had started on American campuses and spread to universities around the English-speaking world. It wondered how ‘an ideology that brooks no dissent had become so entrenched in institutions supposedly dedicated to fostering independent thinking’.

Citing cases at a handful of British, American, and Australian universities, the magazine said that ‘academics were speaking up against the stifling of debate’. It also noted that the British government was planning to strengthen free speech on British campuses.

It is bizarre that a government should plan to step in. Things are usually the other way round – universities fighting to protect free speech from intrusive governments.

But university authorities are sometimes part of the problem. Either through conviction or through cowardice and an appeasement mentality, they condone the intolerance of some of their students and teaching staff. A recent notorious example was at the School of Oriental and African Studies when the board of trustees joined in the public humiliation of Adam Habib over his entirely innocent use of the word ‘nigger’ in an academic discussion.

In the meantime, RR Reno, writing in The Wall Street Journal, said he would once have relished the opportunity to employ talented graduates from America’s elite universities, such as Princeton, Yale, and Harvard. But no longer.

‘Socialised to panic’

‘If students can be traumatised by “insensitivity” on [leafy campuses], then they’re unlikely to function as effective team members in an organisation that has to deal with everyday realities. And in any event, I don’t want to hire someone who makes inflammatory accusations at the drop of a hat’ after having been ‘socialized to panic over pseudocrises’, systemic racism, and fixation on pronouns.

Dysfunctional kids at Ivy League universities ‘are coddled and encouraged to nurture grievances, while normal kids are attacked and educationally abused’.

Students from large state universities and their satellite schools were preferable to Ivy Leaguers. ‘They haven’t been indoctrinated by the toxic political correctness that leaders of elite universities have allowed to become dominant.’

Mr Reno might also have to be wary of employing the products of some of California’s high schools. That state’s ‘instructional quality commission’ has put forward proposals to ‘dismantle racism in mathematics instruction’. To focus on ‘objectivity’ and ‘getting the right answer’ was an indicator of ‘white supremacy culture in the mathematics classroom’.

Maths should rather be taught so that it could be used for ‘social justice’ and as a tool to ‘change the world’.

‘Bonkers’ is the word that springs to mind to describe some of the ideas so prevalent in academia (and elsewhere) these days. But they are sometimes backed by hysteria, intolerance, viciousness, and malice which is doubly damaging both to the institutions and to the victims when academic authorities practise or endorse it.

Back to Mr Reno. ‘I find myself wondering about the silent acquiescence of most students. They allow themselves to be cowed by charges of racism and other sins. I sympathise. The atmosphere of intimidation in elite higher education is intense.

‘But I don’t want to hire a person well-practised in remaining silent when it costs something to speak up.’

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  • John Kane-Berman, a graduate of Wits and Oxford (where he was a Rhodes Scholar), is a former CEO of the IRR. Prior to that he spent ten years in journalism, where he was senior assistant editor of the Financial Mail and South African correspondent for numerous foreign papers. He is the author of several books on South African politics, and has also published his memoirs.

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