A live issue over the past two weeks has been the ‘diversity’ intervention at Fish Hoek High School. Reports paint a disturbing picture of what went down: a closed session from which members of staff were excluded, which learners were not permitted to exit, content that they were forbidden to record and a speaker who hectored them about racism. My colleague at the Institute of Race Relations, Caiden Lang, has written about this. I am mulling a response, as there is a great deal at stake here. It seems to me that this incident belies the frequent call for ‘uncomfortable conversations’ – discomfort seems to be the aim, conversations less so. Thinking about the matter, I though back to a piece I’d written two years ago, a review of a book by Helen Zille, entitled #StayWoke: Go Broke: Why South Africa won’t survive America’s culture wars. In light of what we’ve just seen, one could do worse than refer to her book now. I hope that NEWSI readers will find my thoughts a fitting column for the week.
Helen Zille has written a book on Woke Culture … ‘whatever that is’, a dear friend of mine said on Facebook. I can’t help feeling some sympathy for his take on the matter.
‘Wokeness’ joins a list of ideas and phrases in our political lexicon that virtually all of us are familiar with, have some intuitive understanding of, but would struggle to pin down with any precision. We recognise it when we encounter it but would struggle to define it.
In fact, reading this book, which I did twice in preparing to review it, I couldn’t help but think of the notion of political correctness, something that signified stilted and scripted communication, regimented ideas and so on. But what strikes me as profoundly different is that ‘politically correct’ is an appellation conferred on others – and typically vociferously rejected. Woke, however, is not infrequently self-conferred, or at least expressed as a positive aspiration. For the Woke, it is a descriptor to be celebrated. #StayWoke.
Wokeness is, to use another obtuse colloquialism of the times, a thing.
Confusing it certainly is. Helen Zille’s book, #StayWoke: Go Broke: Why South Africa won’t survive America’s culture wars (and what you can do about it) represents a valuable and necessary attempt to wrestle with this idea and its implications.
I’m not entirely sure that she succeeds in nailing down a proper definition of Wokeness; although maybe this is in the nature of engaging such a concept. The closest she comes is to calling it ‘the politics of racial and cultural identity, mobilised to advance the economic and political interests of marginalised groups.’ I question this, about which more later…
Still, taken as a whole, I don’t think that Zille would disagree if I distilled a broader overall view of Wokeness from the book as an affected sympathy with the marginalised in society, but one that follows a rigid, dogmatic creed that brooks no argument. It seeks out offence, great or small, real or imagined. To dissent, to protest one’s innocence, is to invite moral opprobrium and confirm one’s guilt. It is to invite ostracism.
‘It is not in the nature of Wokeness to debate issues logically or rationally, nor to respect the rights of others to proffer a different opinion,’ she remarks.
Wokeness in turn is linked to a number of intellectual and societal currents that both underwrite it and amplify its reach. Following the analyses of such figures as James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, chief among these is the ever more influential academic paradigm of critical theory. This is a view of society that sees political and social interactions as defined by power structures and the ascriptive identities of various groups – race, sex, gender identity, ethnicity and so on – each of which embodies a particular degree of privilege or victimhood.
Critical theory is also unashamedly activist in orientation, as much a tool for action as for understanding or critiquing. It seeks to upend what it regards as unjust social relations. To wit, virtually everything must fall, not only racism and sexism, but capitalism, science, the very notion of truth. In their place, would be an assertion of relativism, and the aggressive promulgation of identitarian politics.
This has become entrenched in thought leadership – in academia and the media, often explicitly – and in popular culture. And it has found its way into policy and politics.
It is this that makes the subtitle of the book important: Why South Africa won’t survive America’s culture wars (and what you can do about it).
Zille argues that the pervasive presence of the United States in the world’s cultural consciousness (a phenomenon now amplified by the internet and social media) has globalised that country’s political dynamics. For some decades, this has taken the form of ‘culture wars’. Zille sets this out with some entertaining invocations of the ‘American phenotype’, the Marlboro Man, and the counter-mobilisation by a changing society and groups demanding recognition – ‘feminists, black people, the LGBTQI+ community and their allies’.
This has morphed into an incendiary assertion of identity group politics, primarily – in Zille’s view – focused on race. It has found outlets on both the right and left of the spectrum, the ‘populist right’ and the ‘Woke left’ in her formulation. It is the threat posed by the latter that informs this book.
Why is this? Zille states that her concerns arise from her own experience of dealing with young members of the Democratic Alliance who have imbibed much of this ideology as self-evident. Wokeness also exercises a seductive pull on the imagination and public discourse of South Africa – more accurately, its intellectuals – given the country’s history and the enduring tensions around it, the contestations around culture and symbols and the extent of socio-economic deprivation and inequality.
Add to this the prioritisation of ‘lived experience’ over empirical evidence, and for many commentators, the claims of the Woke movement become unassailable.
Wokeness and fallism
Perhaps nowhere in South Africa was all of this this more visibly on display than in the so-called Fallist movement – starting in 2015, and ongoing – during which socio-economic, cultural and political claims were fused into far-reaching demands that effectively repudiated post-Apartheid South Africa in toto.
Readers will enjoy – or at least find interesting – her take on how this manifests itself through the cases she cites. The humiliation of Cape Town waitress Ashleigh Schultz at the hands of Fallist activists, Zille’s account of the controversy occasioned by her ‘colonialism’ tweets, which came close to crashing her career in the Democratic Alliance, the Ashwin Willemse saga, to name a few, give the pages of the book a relatable and contextualised quality.
Ultimately, her thesis is that Wokeness leads to a misdiagnosis of the nature of South Africa’s problems, and is a gift for the African National Congress in shifting attention from the latter’s misplaced ideological predispositions and its misdeeds. In its obsessive focus on identity and taking corresponding offence, Wokeness stands in the way of rational and productive reflection on the drift of policy, in particular whether or not it will ameliorate the real-world problems that confront tens of millions of South Africans.
At one point, an annoyed Zille tells a colleague: ‘This is ridiculous. Surely we can still have adult conversations in South Africa?’
This is probably the key line in the whole book. Can a society that surrenders its capacity for free discussion to ideological enforcers, and determines the worth of an argument less by the quality of the reasoning or the marshalling of facts than by the identity of the speaker, really hope to conduct any sort of reasoned debate?
Perhaps the operative word here is ‘reasoned’. Some time ago, I attended a discussion in a group composed entirely of upper-middle class white folks to discuss racism (with one exception – the kind of person who might be understood in the critical studies lexicon as ‘white adjacent’). There was much impassioned discussion of internalised racism, white privilege and the imperative of ‘white work’. I probably didn’t make any friends when I questioned some of the positions, arguing for logic and consistency. I said of the attendee who opined that he could never be anything other than a racist, that if this was the case, it was incumbent on him to identify what specifically he was doing and thinking that made him a racist, and to take appropriate remedial action. And if racism was the pressing societal problem that this earnest assemblage declared it to be, it made sense to challenge it systematically, case by case, not give it a free pass in some instances – I had in mind the line-in-the-sand that the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation adopted with regards to a controversial advert by Swedish clothing retailer H&M, while completely ignoring a condescending blackface performance about Africa on a variety show on Chinese state-owned television (available on YouTube).
I was taken to task by one attendee who rejected the very notion of reason in this context. It needed to be abandoned. The host chimed in that this had to be about the heart, not the head. Well and good. That would indeed make conversations impossible, and perhaps all that would remain is (dare I say it) narcissistic self-flagellation and ongoing resentment.
Lest anyone think this is a position confined to suburban bien pensants or the fantasies on foreign shores, a good reality check is a paper by Rhodes University academic Anthea Garman entitled ‘Anger, Pain and the Body in the Public Sphere’. In it, she argues explicitly for the downgrading of reason and argument – logos – in favour of the character and disposition – ethos and pathos. It’s a densely worded piece, difficult to follow in places (for all the protestations of the academy, it is an inherently elitist institution), but it posits a version of public debate in which personal positioning and ‘lived experience’ would be decisive. Truth is all relative and a function of power. Some voices, embodying ‘violence’, might legitimately be excluded.
‘I am arguing,’ Garman says, ‘for a different way of seeing the public sphere and behaving in our interactions with one another. This entails, firstly, going back to Aristotle (via Bickford) to insist that statements can never stand alone without their speakers and listeners to interpret them; and, secondly, understanding that statements are always embedded in regimes of truth (there is no such thing as a free-floating opinion or idea) and that several regimes of truth are operating simultaneously, but also that some regimes of truth are oppressive and need to be rejected.’
This, from within the perspective of Zille’s book, would be a fine example of Wokeness in action – in all its destructive splendour. Can we still have adult conversations? Maybe it’s a matter of definition (again), but I wouldn’t bet on it.
The importance of science
To what might be called my own ‘lived experience’… I often find an intellectual centre in the thinking of Carl Sagan, the renowned American astrophysicist whose 1980s television series Cosmos was intended to encourage scientific literacy. It’s still a great watch, going beyond an exposition of hard science into questions of what science means for us, what it means as a human endeavour and therefore, what it means to be human, and a denizen, for now, of this small blue planet, and an inhabitant of a much grander and infinitely more vast Cosmos. It is a moving perspective.
The scientific method, building upon innumerable contributions from across some 40 000 generations throughout history and across the world, is one of humanity’s finest achievements. Science, Sagan argued, was a tool that enabled communication across barriers of culture and civilisation. It was a language that would give us our best chance at understanding beings from another universe. ‘The laws of Nature must be identical no matter who is describing them,’ he said.
Scientific progress, Sagan argued, would produce a profound ‘deprovincialisation’ of the human condition, and never more so than when seen against the background of billions of years of evolution and the immensity of the universe: ‘Humans everywhere share the same goals when the context is large enough.’
If I could point to one of the most terrifying moments of the Fallist campaign it would be the video of a highly articulate young woman at the University of Cape Town declaring her opposition to science. It is a ‘product of Western modernity’. ‘The whole thing should be scratched off, especially in Africa.’ The ability to call down lightning strikes through supernatural energy – which could not be explained scientifically – was no less real, she said. Science needed to be abolished and recreated from a culturally specific perspective.
If this is to be entertained, it is to dismiss the indispensable role that science plays in improving the human condition – it is a tool, Sagan said; one often misused, but the best we have. Indeed, on a more prosaic level, a dearth of skills in the hard sciences is recognised by policy makers as a dire threat to societies’ competitive edges and potential for prosperity – this has been flagged in locales as diverse as the United States and South Africa, the problem in the latter being exponentially more serious.
And it is being entertained. The pull of ideology has always lurked around the fringes of scientific progress, whether in the guise of religious dogma or political fanaticism, in the form of such insanities as Lysenkoism or Aryan Physics. The UCT students who dismiss the universality of science fall squarely within this sordid tradition. Nor are they unique, since identitarian ideology is now steadily seeping into the hard sciences – the so-called STEM fields – via such things as anti-racist guides for maths instruction that have appeared in California under the imprimatur of prestigious academic institutions. Right and wrong answers, apparently, have racist connotations.
The price for this will be high and measured not merely in forgone opportunities and stunted development. It envisages a world of primal loyalties, each one invariably raised against the other. Sagan saw science as language that might one day let us speak across species and interplanetary distances; a generation of activists seek to prevent it mediating a conversation among neighbours.
Zille provides the rudiments of a response to these threats, both in respect of individuals accused of violating the codes of Wokeness as well as resisting its pernicious influence in society at large. This is a combination of appealing to reason, holding fast to one’s convictions, and building cooperative relationships with others who share concerns. Of key importance to her, understandably enough, is building a centrist political force that will be able to reassert and protect South Africa’s constitutional values and institutions – under fire both from the ANC and the Woke movement, both for ideological reasons, albeit from different and sometimes opposed starting points.
So does she get this right? My own sense is that this book makes an important contribution, but is not the last word. I’m not convinced that Wokeness should be understood quite as it is presented here. Perhaps Zille has assembled the pieces, but not arranged them in the correct order. To me, Wokeness seems more a Zeitgeist or an attitude than a system with the coherence that the book implies, though I hasten to add that this does not detract from the dangers it poses, and which Zille so passionately describes. Similarly, is a prioritisation of race over other identities necessarily a feature of Wokeness? Perhaps this is typically the case, but not in all instances – I’m not sure that, say, a black evangelical pastor would receive more deference than a white transgender activist.
Wokeness and race nationalism
In fact, it would be interesting to investigate the deeper relationship between Wokeness and other pathological ideas that are gnawing at South Africa, foremost among them being race nationalism. My sense is that while Wokes would probably eschew nationalism as backward, a sympathy for identitarianism would discourage criticism of race nationalist impulses. A useful form of ‘allyship’, perhaps – and so banishing Wokeness would represent at best a partial victory.
One issue that would have enriched the book would have been some analysis of the rapidly changing nature of societal values. It seems to me that much of the momentum behind wokeness has come from the assertion of ‘authenticity’ – the desire on the part of people to live in a manner that they find personally meaningful and fulfilling. This is positive and something to which many of us would be instinctively supportive.
The space for this has expanded at a magnitude and pace that probably has no precedent in history. Think about this in perspective. After millennia, the abolition of slavery was the work of centuries between the 1700s and 1900s, the emancipation of women the work of decades, predominantly over the 20th century. Neither is entirely complete globally, and there are arguments to be had about their efficacy, even where they have been advanced more fully.
As recently as the 1980s, same-sex orientation was approached cautiously and gingerly (the soap opera Dynasty was considered quite transgressive for featuring an openly gay character in its initial line-up), and was hugely stigmatised by the advent of HIV. In 2008, Barack Obama could campaign on a platform that rejected same-sex ‘marriage’, while accepting the marriage-lite of ‘civil partnerships’ – and be hailed as the very avatar of progressivism. Today, it is doubtful that this position would be met with anything other than condemnation, not least among many liberals.
Similarly, transgenderism has taken up a place of prominence that it didn’t have 20 years ago – and its mainstreaming has made some pretty extensive claims on how people see and experience life and the world.
As demand for the recognition of new forms of being arise, many will struggle to keep up; nor is the assertion of authenticity that they embody necessarily uncontroversial or logically coherent. People of the stature of JK Rowling and Richard Dawkins have experienced the chilling consequences of stepping outside the rising Woke paradigm.
How do we as liberals navigate a natural inclination to support and affirm people’s individual choices, without pushing the prescriptiveness and vengefulness that characterises so much contemporary culture? And accepting at the same time that traditional loyalties and beliefs are powerful impulses, for many a source of profound strength and comfort? Or for that matter, how do we balance open debate with recognising the real pain of historical memory? I for one have no easy answers. But perhaps engaging with matters that defy effortless resolution is the burden of an adult citizenship worthy of the name.
This is, in sum, a book that puts a valuable set of arguments on the table. By rights, it should be a prompt for debate, for Zille’s detractors as much as her admirers. Whether it will be remains to be seen – it challenges some powerful assumptions in which much of the commentariat is deeply invested. Zille herself, as she illustrates in these pages, has never been shy about giving offence and has cultivated a portfolio of critics. If this undermines discussion of these ideas – makes the adult conversations impossible – it would be a pity indeed. The issues it highlights are of existential importance. This is the case, whatever Woke Culture may be.
First published on the Daily Friend.