The Promise and Problems of Being Woke

Many people are woke to society's challenges. Here's when that's a problem.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

Siphotography/iStock
Source: Siphotography/iStock

It's undeniable that society has a long history of bigotry, sexism, racism, discrimination, homophobia, and related ills. In humanity's checkered past, most people have not been treated fairly, equally, or even humanly. There have always been certain groups of people who claim that they are superior to others by sex, religion, ethnicity, family name, and so on. This perceived superiority by groups in power has frequently justified their maltreatment of other minority and/or disempowered groups. It's easy to treat others as less than equals if you believe they are inferior. 

While frustration and righteous anger over various types of discrimination and mistreatment has been around as long as civilization itself, it seems like things are coming to a head. With the recent killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, we are seeing protests against racism and discrimination not just the United States, but across the world. Confederate monuments and memorials are being torn down left and right in America. Streets and schools that were named after Confederate leaders are being changed. Across the globe, citizens in other countries are also realizing their brutal histories, and tearing down statues of dictators, despots, and racist leaders (e.g., Belgium's King Leopold II). 

Just What Do We Mean by "Woke" Anyway?

Many people, especially the youth, have a heightened awareness of our troubled past and, understandably, seek to correct our collective wrongs. This is where the term "woke" comes into play. It is defined as, "aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)." Given that we have a long history of racial and social injustices, it seems like being "woke" to such problems is a very good thing. How can we address such problems without first being aware of them? Movements such as Black Lives Matter, at their heart, are about correcting racism and injustices that have long been ignored or swept under the rug. We need to wake up. 

When Wokism Creates a Wake

Perhaps the long-overdue correction of wokism is, sometimes, leading to an over-correction of sorts. This can happen when people who are "woke" call out or cancel those they perceive not to be woke (or woke enough). "Canceling" someone occurs when one person says or does something to which others who are woke object and then that person gets roundly shamed and criticized, usually on social media. That person's reputation is sometimes ruined, and he or she might not ever be able to recover from being canceled. 

In 2019, in an interview for the Obama Foundation on youth activism, President Obama expressed strong concerns about wokism and the call out/cancel culture that is emerging. “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff,” Mr. Obama said. “You should get over that quickly." He went on to explain, “The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”

Be Woke, but Be Mindful and Compassionate as Well

While it might be tempting to call out, shame, or cancel those who are not woke (or woke enough) to racism and social injustice, doing so can create a number of problems. No one wants wokism to be the road to hell paved with good intentions. We must proceed mindfully so that wokism doesn't have unintended consequences. 

  1. No matter what one's religious persuasion is, there are deep words in the wisdom of Jesus when, before a woman was to be stoned to death for the accusation of adultery, he said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Can you think of something you've said or done in the past that was stupid, ignorant, mean-spirited, demeaning, callous, insensitive, or perhaps even racist, sexist, etc.? If you can't think of one thing, well, either you are in denial, have a horrible memory, or are Jesus. Let's face it, we all have. What if you had a bad moment and said or did something that was blasted out on social media or caught on video? Even more troublesome, what if this thing you did or said was totally taken out of context and not representative at all of your true views or feelings? Can you imagine how horrible that would feel to be tried and convicted as a racist or worse by one thing you've done or said? 
  2. Who we are is not the mistakes that we've made. If someone calls another person a racist, the person is being put into a category. It is as if that's their whole identity is that of a racist. The problem is that we can't change an identity. However, we can change our behavior. For instance, there's a big difference between saying to oneself, "I'm an idiot!" when we make a mistake versus "That was a stupid thing that I did!" We can learn from doing a stupid thing and change our behavior in the future. But if we label ourselves "an idiot," how are we supposed to change that? Labeling a person a racist (or a sexist, etc.) doesn't leave a door open for change. The label becomes a prison from which escape is impossible.  
  3. On a related note, labeling one as a "racist" doesn't inform the person in question what they did that was offensive, why it was offensive, and what to do to change that behavior. Likewise, if a person gets "canceled" for a perceived transgression, how can one seek redemption or restitution when their status is canceled? 
  4. Calling someone a racist or similar name is offensive in itself. The recipient of such a label is unlikely to hear or respond favorably to anything you say or do because, in effect, they were just punched in the face. They will likely react with hurt, anger, resentment, or hostility. 
  5. The fear of being called out or canceled can restrict free speech and honest differences of opinion. For instance, if Jeff thought a particular social policy advocated by a woke group wasn't going to be particularly effective at achieving the desired ends, he might be afraid to voice his concerns about the policy for fear of being called out or canceled by the woke group. When it rises high enough, woke activists might become, in effect, a "thought police." At this point, wokism might start to represent McCarthyism or some type of Orwellian future in which freedom of expression becomes severely restricted.  
  6. Our ego is very sneaky. It is always looking for a way to judge ourselves as superior to other people and other groups. When we judge ourselves to be "woke" and others to be..."not woke" "unwoke," or perhaps "asleep," that is, in effect, putting ourselves in a superior position to them. We have the moral high ground. "I'm woke, and you are not." It's almost like we are saying, "I'm better than you." Ironically, instead of judging ourselves as superior by race, sex, intelligence, religion, we are judging ourselves superior to others because we are woke and they are not. We should be wary of any version of "my tribe is better than your tribe." Yes, this is a slippery slope. We might rightly argue that we are morally superior to Adolf Hitler, Nazis, or Leopold II, but that's a version of a straw man argument. The more pervasive concern here is that a person like Jeff is being called out or canceled because he does not share a woke group's views on the effectiveness of a particular social justice policy. 
  7. In response to "wokism" there is a brewing "anti-woke" backlash. Moderates and conservatives are pushing back against progressives who have strong liberal woke agendas. Thus, the woke who are judging the "un-woke" as, in some ways, inferior for not being woke are now being judged by the anti-woke as inferior for being self-righteous, judgmental, moralistic, and overly sensitive. The judges are now being judged. I guess, in a manner of speaking, I'm claiming to be woke to the anti-woke who claim to be woke to the woke. Um, now you might be woke to me for claiming to be woke to the anti-woke...ah, I think we just entered some kind of recursive Möbius strip wormhole-thingy at this point. 
  8. If we think of "woke" as having its roots in "awakening," that has a very deep, and even spiritual, meaning. In Buddhism, "Buddha" is a Sanskrit word that means "one who is awake." In a manner of speaking, to be awakened means we have an enlightened state of consciousness. If we feel the need to show and tell everyone how enlightened we are and criticize others we perceive not to be, are we really enlightened? In a way, an awakening precludes claiming to be awoken. 
  9. If our goal is to decrease racism and increase social justice, what is the best way to do that? What is the conduit for change? How do we help others to see that many corrective actions for societal injustices are in order? Here is a fundamental reality: We are most likely to influence others by having a relationship with them. When we "cancel" those who believe differently than we do, we lose the very conduit through which we are most likely to influence them. No relationship, no change. Know relationship, know change.  

I came across a quote from Nelson Mandela years ago. I can't find the exact quote, but it was something to the effect of, "Try to assume the best of other people because you will help bring it out in them." When someone does or says something hurtful or offensive, avoid assuming they are a "bad" person. Like all of us, they are flawed. Like all of us, they want to be a "good" person and to be liked by others. Remember, they are not their shortcomings. Look for the good in them. It's in there. I promise.