How Woke Won by Joanna Williams (Spiked, 2022)
Reviewed by K.J. Petrie
In this slim volume Dr Williams discusses Wokeism, describes many of its features and examines its hold on contemporary intellectual society. Starting from the origins of the word woke as an adjective in Afro-American slang, she traces its development to the present before turning to the values Wokeists promote in the current world. She examines the powerful “elite” vested interests which maintain its presence and ensure it will always perceive itself to be needed, and attempts to criticise the World View on which it is based. Finally, she addresses how society might be alerted to the dangers it now faces and awoken from this particular nightmare.
This book is a good start, but I can’t help thinking it isn’t quite ready. Much as I would agree with its basic position, I found it a little unsatisfying. There are a number of shortcomings I found disappointing.
First of all, I didn't find it succeeded in answering the question implied by its title. I hoped to understand after reading it the process by which Wokeists had taken over the heart of our cultural institutions and apparently seen off critical thinking, which was surely the key value of all academic activity until recently. When I studied for my degree, just over 30 years ago, no statement was considered academically valid unless justified by a soundly-based continuous argument. That seemed to be the firm foundation on which all academic study was based and was as fixed as the Northern Star. Where has it gone? Dr Williams does refer to the refusal of Wokeists to engage in debate in her final numbered chapter, but my lecturers would simply have told them their ideas were unfounded until they did. You had to show your working so it could be scrutinised. Truth had to stand up to scrutiny and “Asserted, not argued” was one of the worst comments a student could receive in a marked essay. I gained no clear insight into how that bedrock came to be replaced with sand. The nearest I found was a hint that institutions had lost confidence in their original core purpose, particularly examined in Chapter 5, which could be a starting point for thinking about the reason.
My second crticism is that much of the book is repetitive. I lost count of the number of references to a Cultural Elite. That Wokeists consider themselves superior to others in some way is not in question; it is natural for people to think they are right and point to their qualifications for evidence. Nor would I question that they seem to have gained control of our culture. However, once it is argued that they constitute a cultural elite it becomes tedious to read the term over and over again.
Similarly, many passages seem too strident. There is an emphatic tone in much of Dr Williams’ writing which might well originate in her desire to get her point across, but does little to give the impression of a serious, well-ordered argument. It feels indignant, and perhaps it is. I would admit it is hard to see what has happened to common sense without feeling indignant about it.
That said, this is a worthwhile effort in that at least it speaks up for the idea of reality and exposes the absudity of Wokeism, giving many examples. Indeed, the book could almost be seen as a list of examples, which might explain why it fails to draw the lessons together. Maybe fewer examples with more argument might have made a stronger case. For instance, rather than simply asserting, in Chapter 9 that transgender activists “demand the freedom to name themselves and the world as they see fit...” and “insist that other people obey these decrees and use the language that they prescribe” before going on to discuss the power this gives them, maybe a more thoughtful explanation of why this infringes the rights of others (see my article Why Pronouns Matter) would have highlighted why this approach is morally indefensible.
Perhaps my biggest dissatisfaction arises not from the book itself, but from my desire to see an objectively true outworking of the issues this non-debate raises and the difficulty in securing that. Science, and especially biology, is never quite cut and dried. Sex is determined by a variety of factors in different forms of life. Some creatures are hermaphrodite, like snails and earthworms. Others change their sex at a certain stage of life. Social insects are mostly female but also mostly infertile, requiring a special diet at the larval stage to become fertile. For the most part, and certainly for mammals like human beings, it is determined by the combination of a single pair of chromosomes, usually referred to as X and Y. XX is female, which appears to be the default position, since that is a pair of similar chromosomes. Swap one of those for a Y and the person becomes male, a modified version of basically the same thing, if we think honestly about it. After all, men have breasts and nipples, just ones that never develop and enlarge because we don’t produce the right hormones at puberty to trigger the enlargement.
However, while recognising there can be anomalies in this state, both at chromosomal and developmental levels, which result in individual people with indeterminate features, we also have to realise the usual experience of this has influenced the typical person’s World View. Human beings think of the sexes and the attraction between them as opposites. Once we see opposition as a core feature of human identity we start to see it everywhere: in electromagnetism, in temperature and lighting levels, in morality, in politics and the legal system, in any debate or transaction. However similar two views are, we focus on the differences and treat them as opposites. Even the UK Parliament is divided between the Government and the Opposition, a division resulting in the ridiculous weekly fiasco of Prime Minister’s questions.
Therefore, in assessing Wokeism, it might be worth reflecting that one of the wokeists’ favourite labels, non-binary might have some application, though not in the narrow and invented context in which they use it. There is a way through this failed debate which could enable us to throw off both the Wokeist yoke and some of the unthinking prejudices against which they protest if we took the trouble to re-examine matters in depth. That is, I suppose, what Diverse Diversity is all about. However, that requires an open and honest academia, which we currently, as this book testifies only too clearly, lack.
How, then, did we come to lose the open and honest academia we had and so badly need? Without a body of research I can only hypothesise. Dr Williams’ book does set a useful starting point. Let me go on from there with a possible exploration. Britain lost its wealth and much of its moral confidence in fighting the Second World War. Though on the winning side, we relied on American help, and never recovered our previous position in the world. As we began to work with others to set up the United Nations we had to abandon our hitherto Imperial position, seeing the horrors perpetrated by another attempt at empire and recognising the importance of establishing a principle of independent sovereign nations secure within their own borders. It is for that principle Ukraine currently fights and because of the importance of maintaining it we are eager to help them in any way we can.
This change has put the United States in the driving seat of the Western World, and led to a progressive American cultural imperialism while rejecting territorial imperialism, as the US originated by breaking away from the British Empire and has ever since regarded empires as evil (hence the use of the term for the villainous side in films like Star Wars). Wokeism is an idea originating in American culture and, I have suggested, traceable to many developments going back all the way to their civil war, 160 years ago.
The post-war dominance of American culture seems to have led to a rise of American values in business and more widely in management and governance and that inevitably changes how institutions are viewed. One trend which arose in that period was a transformation in management from skilled and experienced workers rising to run their industries to professionals trained in business and management dropped in to run businesses in which they had probably never worked. Such managers know less about the businesses they run than the ideology of management as a concept isolated from the thing managed. The same has become true of modern politicians, who are much more likely to be graduates in political subjects making a career in the field than genuine representatives arising from the communities electing them. This, then, would be the rise of Dr Williams’ managing elite, a class of people dedicated to running things looking for something to run, rather than people with expertise rising into management. The product is the top-down approach to governance described in this book. So, the Health Service is no longer run by doctors and the universities are no longer run by academics. Instead, they are run by imported managers who know everything about current good practice in management, but not necessarily much about hospitals or universities.
It would follow, once governance and management has passed from those with relevant experience to a professional management class, that a uniform understanding of what constitutes good management would become the universal guide of how organisations should be run and what their values should be. This new understanding, it should be obvious, would have little connection with the purposes and required environment of the particular organisations. Instead, all organisations would be run to serve the requirements of the managing class, according to their understanding of how the world should be. The most obvious effect of this would be on academia, for taking control of the values of Higher Education out of the hands of the educators and putting it in the hands of non-academics must inevitably undermine the function of Higher Education, which is no longer about the pursuit of knowledge and now about running a business. Instead of being free to pursue their research, academics are teaching staff bound to values imposed by the managers who know nothing of the need for free thinking (not bound by values other than the pursuit of truth).
Business is less concerned with truth than with keeping customers happy (as Dr Williams also mentioned). Indeed, I once heard a sermon in which the preacher expressed his bewilderment after he wrote to a train operating company congratulating them on the efficiency and courtesy with which they had run a particular service, only to receive in response a letter of apology and a £50 refund! Clearly, no one handling his letter had actually engaged with what he wrote; they had simply sent the usual reply. Businesses avoid controversy, especially when faced with angry, noisy protest. On the other hand, it is precisely the job of academics to engage in controversy and seek to resolve it in a detailed analysis, something business will desperately avoid. The two methods of working are clearly incompatible.
The policies of the Major and Blair governments in expanding the university sector and blurring the distinction between training and education will also have contributed to the process, as Dr Williams describes, weakening the purpose of universities and losing the distinction between the former universities and polytechnics in their respective rôles. This again reduces the status of the Faculty, rendering them little more than glorified teachers training students less to think than to learn the curriculum presented to them.
If the above hypothesis is correct it could be seen as another case of the indifference addressed by the SDP Green Paper The End of Indifference, a microcosm of globalisation on an intellectual rather than geographical scale, an indifference to the specific needs of a particular environment and the expectation that universal values of a particular type must apply.
However, though these thoughts have been triggered by reading Dr Williams’ book, her analysis stops short of considering the area and leaves us to speculate on the causes and the process which got us into this mess. It would have been good to have seen those causes addressed, because remedies depend on reliable diagnoses. While pulling together might help, opposition can only go so far. What is really required is a constructive way forward.