Woke Madness Hot Potato

25 March 2024
Woke Madness Hot Potato - Featured image

The fight against wokeness is winnable if we embrace our heresy and champion Enlightenment values, writes IPA Research Fellow Lana Starkey.

Woke is the West’s most misunderstood nomenclature, topping the list of the most searched for slang words this year. While the Oxford English Dictionary added the term in 2017 and defined it as “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”, it seems to have become a casualty of the ‘culture wars’ and evolved into an elastic single-word summation of leftist ideology and the actions that signal it, allowing it to shift from aspirational to insulting and back again.

How Woke Won: The Elitist Movement That Threatens Democracy, Tolerance and Reason
Joanna Williams
John Wilkes Publishing , 2022,

A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable (Australian Edition)
Brendan O’Neill
Connor Court, 2023,

In 2021 The Guardian praised The Wiggles for “going woke” by announcing they would “better represent today’s Australia across age, race, and culture”. However, only two months later an article titled ‘We need to discuss the word ‘woke’’ featured writer Rebecca Solnit announcing woke’s death. “Woke was kidnapped and has died”, Solnit mourned. “Woke’s youth was among young black people but its illness and decline came after it was kidnapped by old white conservatives”, she moaned. In her book How Woke Won: The Elitist Movement That Threatens Democracy, Tolerance and Reason, Joanna Williams considers cultural elitists such as Solnit, who are the most vocal proponents of woke values but now reject the label—claiming “anyone using the word is now likely to be a right-wing culture warrior”—and reveals them as censorious hypocrites who continually fight shy of democracy. We watch as she exposes the kind of shifty contortions by which these people operate, denying the label ‘woke’ while accepting woke thinking as common sense beyond reproach:

The woke elite accuses critics of ‘starting a culture war’, despite the fact that those raising questions about changed policies and practices are often commenting after the event, on actions that have already been set in motion—it is their values that are being called into question.

How often have we heard the elites claim cancel culture does not exist, only to then enact its wrath upon anyone unlucky enough to find themselves in their firing line? The names Peter Ridd, Holly Lawford-Smith, and Israel Folau come immediately to mind, as does the IPA. Whenever the Australian elite deny cancel culture, the cri de coeur ‘freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences’ is trotted out; an equivocation, if ever there was one. “Woke”, Williams writes, “refers to the side in the culture war that denies it is waging a culture war, yet which repeatedly fires the opening salvos”.

After establishing that woke is a means for the elite to avoid democratic accountability, Williams notes how they veil their privilege in a cloak of oppression:

Many figureheads of the new woke elite enjoyed middle-class, privately educated upbringings, yet they use their identities to distract from their

social-class privileges and claim victimhood.

This brings to mind the recent trend of wealthy and powerful celebrities coming out as ‘nonbinary’ or ‘genderqueer’, claiming victimhood when detailing their ‘battle’, ‘journey’, or as nonbinary Netflix star Lachlan Watson put it, “their [his] revolution against the system … I don’t have to live my life and do the things to my body that the world tells me that I have to do”.

The ease with which one can now assume an identity has become mindboggling and it reached its zenith in the case of Rachel Dolezal, who after presenting herself as black and falsely claiming African American ancestry, was outed as white, and in response uttered “I identify as black”.

But woke is serious. How did we end up in a world where we had Joe Biden, on his first day as US president, signing an Executive Order permitting boys who identify as girls to compete on female sports teams and enter female changing rooms? Williams answers this by showing how woke values came to dominate our most important institutions, and how the elite came to accept woke thinking as common sense. We find that while demonstrating woke opinions allows the elite to differentiate themselves from the masses and sustain their position, its most pernicious trait is that in an increasingly vacuous world it “provides morally vacuous leaders with a sense of purpose”.

Williams’ definition of the cultural elite encompasses those who govern, as well as the ‘non-governing elite’, a larger group of “technocratic civil servants, the professional managerial class … and the media, academia, and the arts” who now effectively run the state. This group expanded considerably over two generations and was initially characterised by a focus on science and expertise and “had no moral or political mission”. Each specialty kept to its own interests, which were “distinct from both the working class and the capitalist class”. In the 1970s, however, technocratic neoliberalism replaced the post-War compromise between the working class and the old elite, and the left’s concerns changed markedly.

Identity politics lends itself to a large bureaucracy.

Left activists came to see the failure to bring about fundamental social change as the fault of a working class all too happy to buy into consumer culture. Questions concerning the material conditions of people’s lives were sidelined and the left instead focused on the identity of their members, as well as turning to ‘deconstructing’ words and images seen as reinforcing the dominant hegemony via media and ‘culture’ en masse. “Forget standing on picket lines, there are human-resources policies to be written. Forget winning the backing of unemployed coal miners, there are European Union bureaucrats to persuade”, Williams surmises appropriately, and so left-wing activists moved into HR departments, schools, the cultural industries, and universities. Finding that many of these institutions had lost their sense of moral and intellectual mission, “the path was cleared for them to sell their newfound expertise and import their values”.

By the 1990s, neoliberalism was in full swing and the public good was being defined along increasingly individualist lines. Social mobility rather than national prosperity became the goal, and the university became the means by which to achieve this.

Williams’ discussion of the university is welcome in light of several recent books that equate ‘woke’ with a form of Marxism. These books read the abstract left-wing theory that informs identity politics sola scriptura, as some sort of blueprint that directly explains how woke values came to dominate the university and in turn every aspect of our lives. Williams points out this can make it seem as though these ideas won out because of their sheer intellectual strength, and she argues convincingly that the university bowed out long ago:

The ascendancy of woke has less to do with the intellectual authority of critical theorists and more to do with the abject failure of an intellectual elite to defend Enlightenment values such as rationality, reason, liberty, progress and tolerance.

Noting “employability skills came with a side order of customer satisfaction”, Williams makes the sharp observation that while once tasked with cultivating young minds, universities are now at the whims of ‘vulnerable’ customers who demand to be kept ‘safe’. Williams shows how various systems in our society benefit each other by becoming and staying woke. She shows how identity politics lends itself to a large bureaucracy as people are placed into smaller and smaller boxes to be arranged into hierarchies of privilege and oppression by an endless chain of ‘managers’ and ‘experts’ whose positions are justified by ‘moral’ notions such as diversity. These largely white and privileged ‘experts’ are overseers who mask their privilege by hiding behind the act of distributing ‘power’ to the favoured ‘oppressed’ groups. Big business operates in a similar fashion and Williams observes that unlike the professional-managerial class in the years immediately following WWII, woke values are often shared by the capitalist class, producing a blurring between the two groups. Long gone are the ideas of public service that characterised the governing class of the Victorian era. The new cultural elite purses its own woke interest, oblivious to the public good. The book’s later chapters reveal why the title How Woke Won is deceptively pessimistic. The elite may be charging forward with this new doctrine, but the public are not behind them, and Williams assures the reader the fight against woke is winnable. In considering how best to push back against woke, Williams points “to the one thing its proponents cannot abide: democratic scrutiny”.


In Brendan O’Neill’s latest book A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable his subject is also our ‘woke’ world, however unlike Williams he eschews any definition of ‘woke’ choosing to focus instead on the term ‘cancel culture’. ‘Cancel culture’, however, also fails to capture the magnitude of what we are now up against, “That phrase”, he writes, is “too soft”, “too quaint”, “cute, almost”:

It’s like referring to the Inquisition as information management or to Salem as accountability culture […] That phrase makes it sound like we are experiencing a mere inconvenience—the bloody drag of occasional cancellation—when in truth we are living through one of the gravest reversals of free thought and of Enlightenment itself of modern times.

Cancel culture, ‘woke’, or “whatever we are calling it”, O’Neill asserts, represents not just an over-the-top clampdown on speech, but a crisis of Enlightenment:

Every enlightened idea—science is real, race is not, women should have rights, freedom is good, reason is the best tool for making sense of our world—risks being crushed under the forever spinning wheel of correct thought.

Correct thoughts are, of course, the new woke orthodoxies, and the great gains of the modern era—the Enlightenment values of liberty, democracy, and equality—are continually being scarified at the altar of this new correct think “that poses, so falsely, as progressive thought”. To bear witness to this; to the turn against reason, truth, and the rejection of the idea that people have the capacity to work out for themselves what is right and what is wrong, is not adequately captured by ‘cancel culture’, because we are not just bearing witness to the intermittent silencing of controversial commentators anymore. We now live in a world where you can be expelled from polite society for saying sex is real: “For saying men are men … For saying that if you have a penis, you are not a woman”.

The fight against woke is winnable.

O’Neill dares begin with this—with biology and the assertion that it exists—and notes that he is giving voice to ideas that he estimates around seven years ago would have been considered completely uncontroversial. He does so without euphemism (the petty and the prurient beware!), and it is a treat to watch O’Neill traverse this now-controversial territory.

Brendan O’Neill
Photo: iMDB

Most importantly he gets at the truth, however uncomfortable or unpleasant, and the message of A Heretic’s Manifesto is that truth—and so words—matter and that limiting language limits one’s capacity to think. Perversely it is those who refuse to think that are the one group of people who are most free to speak in our new world, and O’ Neill shows how their words are filled with bile, how they drip with contempt. These are the people who scream “Gammon, TERF, Tory scum, coconut (for Tory scum who are also black)” yet oppose ‘hate speech’. These are the woke elite, the arbitrators of speech, that O’Neill correctly characterises as not at all concerned with tackling hate, but with sanctioning hate. In their crusade against hate, the elite give themselves a warrant to hate: a license to loathe. Some heretics are worse than others in our new world and O’Neill examines several of them throughout his book. ‘Climate sceptics’, he finds, are treated not unlike witches were in the 17th century, and although we do not hurl them into Vulcan flames, one radical magazine’s headline reads ‘Thirteen climate criminals that should be in jail’. An academic study asks: ‘Deceitful tongues: is climate change denial a crime?’ This is Biblical language, O’Neill observes, “literally—right out of Psalms”. Hypocrisy abounds and he notes that while the intellectual classes have been pondering the social construction of scientific truth since the 1960s, somehow climate change science is never socially deconstructed. On the contrary, it is “sacralised, made utterly unimpeachable, put beyond the grubby questioning of both the layman and the expert”. Try squaring that with the assertion that biological sex is a social construct and with the moves to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ and weave ‘Indigenous knowledge’—an equally valid way of knowing, apparently—into scientific discussion.

‘COVID deniers’ or those not happily in lockdown are likewise heretics to be scorned and dismissed. O’Neill sees COVID as a metaphor for what the elites view as human society’s sickness. Following Susan Sontag’s work on illness as metaphor, he notes how COVID was turned into a parable of human toxicity and the disease seen as “an instrument of nature’s wrath”. Modern human society, with our economic development, but also, crucially, our unrestrained social engagement: “of unchecked speech, of human noise”; that, O’Neill asserts, was the true ‘other pandemic’: words, ideas, us. “Social control, the more severe the better, was the remedy”, O’Neill writes. COVID was a judgement on our political development, too. The plague was viewed “not only as a disease of globalised industry, but also as a disease of democracy” and it echoed the metaphors of 19th century syphilis. This was worsened by the political phenomenon the elites fear the most—populism—which O’Neill discusses in ‘Rise of the Pigs’. Tracing the history of the use of porcine terms to denote enemies of culture from Edmund Burke’s the ‘swinish multitude’ through to ‘gammon’—the insult du jour of the British left—he shows how under the cover of attacking ‘populism’ the cultural elite are really attacking democracy.

O’Neill ends by observing that free speech is what makes democracy possible, and he rejects defences of free speech in the name of “civil dialogue—the biggest weasel word of all”, noting that here “colour and daring are discouraged in preference for the soothing hug of free civility of therapeutic censure”. Freedom of speech is not social work, and O’Neill writes: “Heresy hurts. It is meant to … (we) forget the hurtful, wild, unruly nature of unfettered speech at our peril”.

In the recently released Australian edition of the book—which former Prime Minister Tony Abbott urges us to read “before it’s banned by the new inquisition”—O’Neill finds that “Australia is teeming with eco-heretics, apparently”. This is a cause for celebration, he writes, and suggests that:

DH Lawrence’s observation of Oz still holds true… that it shook off England’s ‘aristocratic principle’ that the ‘superior classes’ must instruct the little people on how to think and behave, and instead believes that ordinary people should be ‘the only source of authority’. To the fury of the global guardians of neo-orthodoxy, Australia often hums and crackles with dissent.

His book is a call for the heretic to speak; to make the tyrants tremble.

This article from the Summer 2023 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA Research Fellow Lana Starkey.

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