The false promise of ‘woke culture’
The recent resignation of Alastair Stewart from the BBC over a controversial Twitter post marks yet another milestone in the history of political correctness and so-called ‘woke culture’.
The latter term takes its origin in African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights and once served to remind us of persistent inequality and racism. More recently, however, the term has come to represent those who conflate social justice with social niceties. Proclaiming to champion the rights of historically oppressed groups the movement has seen people sacked, silenced or publicly disgraced for making edgy remarks or sharing questionable material on social media.
Muslims, it has been argued, are among the main beneficiaries of this phenomenon. In countering Islamophobic rhetoric these social justice warriors enforce politeness and courtesy towards the Muslim community. But is this really the case and could this movement be doing more harm than good?
Firstly, we should remember that woke culture does not only protect Muslims but also supports women, the LGBT community as well as numerous ethnic and religious minority groups. We need only remove our rose-tinted spectacles for a second to see that these groups are not always natural allies and that their claims to equality might come into conflict.
Such contradictions exist in all pluralistic societies, but they can be managed by promoting respectful disagreement, self-irony and mutual goodwill. Yet by hampering debate and heightening our sensitivity, woke culture does the exact opposite. It breeds clandestine disagreement and mutual resentment concealed by inorganic and disingenuous civility.
In a family or friendship group, an unusually high level of politeness is usually a symptom of underlying tension and fragility. Likewise, a diverse society where we play safe and regulate strictly what can be said in public is unlikely to be stable or cohesive. Political correctness and woke culture can perhaps be seen as a way of papering over social problems and leaving them to fester.
Political correctness also prevents Muslim voices from being heard on matters which are vitally important to them. Take, for example, the rights of Palestinian Arabs who are treated as second-class citizens in their historic homeland. The matter has become impossible to discuss in any Western country without fear of being accused of anti-Semitism. Many Western governments have adopted the bogus IHRA definition of anti-Semitism which arbitrarily delineates what can and cannot be said about the State of Israel, especially concerning the Nakba of 1948.
The gains brought by political correctness and woke culture to Muslim communities have been dubious to say the least. Primarily these have included the denial of public platforms to some public figures and the sacking of ordinary people, most recently an elderly Asda employee, for sharing culturally-insensitive posts on Facebook and Twitter. But it is difficult to see how Muslims would benefit from this. If anything, they become more vulnerable to an emboldened far-right movement while their own advocates will be made to seem ridiculous.
Islamophobia is a very real and prevalent problem in Western countries. According to YouGov polls, 60 percent of the ruling British Conservative Party believe Islam to be a threat to Western civilisation whereas 40 percent do not wish to see a Muslim prime minister. We see a continuous increase in the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes and ongoing success of populist rightwing political parties.
Yet none of these problems will be resolved by enforcing a high level outward politeness. Far more likely, we will silence and discredit voices friendly to the Muslim faith while creating a cold and dishonest society.