The word ‘woke’ is used often by those in the student activist communityMathias Gjesdal Hammer

The word ‘woke’, which you are quite likely to encounter in Cambridge, is not helpful to political debate. Woke and ‘problematic’, a term which I previously explored, share several features. Thus, I need not discuss how the word is exclusionary, or the way in which it deliberately alienates outsiders to the discourse of student politics, although it is and it does. However, there is a distinctly different, and somewhat deeper, problem with woke.

Political wokeness becomes a status one has to prove on a continual basis

On some level it encourages a way of thinking about the world that is frankly, well, conspiratorial. Regardless of how you think about the world, we are all encouraged to be woke; we are expected always to look a layer deeper. We are encouraged to look for an underlying structure, or the hidden conspiracy behind every aspect of society. The problem is that our life is governed more by cock-up than conspiracy.

I’m not saying woke is a conspiracy theory term, or that it’s what ‘Obama truthers’ use, or flat earthers (although they do use phrases like ‘wake up’). Obviously there are differences between conspiracy theorists and this particular strand of the student political scene. It is true that the extent of development of conspiratorial thinking is much deeper, more extreme or fully developed. Yet, while I doubt that somebody dressed in ‘wavey garms’ is going to inform me that Australia is a made-up country staffed by actors before proceeding to discuss the latest Turf all-nighter, I do think the ‘politics of wokeness’ does encourage a certain way of thinking about the world that is too inclined to see woods rather than trees. It asks you to look for patterns where there may not be any.

Wokeness, in practice, in our more commonplace student life is a semi-jokey code for somebody on the political left’s ability to see things as part of a bigger picture. Yet, we must pay attention to the ways in which the word woke itself implies something somewhat corrosive. The politics of wokeness often becomes a politics of extremes. Political wokeness is not about amendment; it is not about fixing minor flaws. Wokeness is for people who want to pull down the whole house. Of course it is valid that some people are opposed to wider ‘systems’, and I am not arguing that their voices are invalid. However, as a society we shouldn’t unquestioningly lionise people who are seeking extreme change.

Again, much like the conspiracy theorists, political wokeness evokes the idea that some people are asleep to the world’s problems, and that some other people, normally a select few, have ‘woken up’ and are seeing clearly. This political righteousness has selective and dangerous implications.

Sometimes a prom dress is just a prom dress. Sometimes somebody’s reaction or overreaction to that prom dress is just an overreaction

And the sense of moral righteousness does not stop here. Even when somebody has highlighted a structural problem, or delved a layer deeper, we often find that this is not the end of it. You are encouraged to begin the whole process again, in a competitive struggle to be the most cynically awake to the world. Yes, that’s a woke opinion, but what is even ‘woker’? This makes the whole political process just a touch exhausting. Political wokeness becomes a status one has to prove on a continual basis – there is no break from demonstrating your ability to perceive politics, culture, life at a deeper level than others. Yet obviously there is a limit on the number of things for which structural analysis is appropriate or true.

An example from social media that has been discussed among students within Cambridge and across the country lately aptly highlights many of the issues I have highlighted with this semi-ironically used term. With end of year balls, proms and events being central to many students’ minds worldwide at this time of year, a girl posted a seemingly innocuous picture of herself in a prom dress on Twitter. However, this post gained a lot of attention as another user responded with “My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress”, provoking mass debates about cultural appropriation. The girl who had posted the photo in a traditional Chinese dress was upset by the political critique, asserting she had worn the piece with respect and appreciation of the culture from which it was inspired; the person who commented on the photo was also hounded with abuse by (probably young, angry) men on the internet all claiming this was evidence of how the vegans were taking over, or something of that sort. The whole situation was decidedly unpleasant.


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I could not help but think this whole social media ruckus could have been avoided if we weren’t, as a society, searching for the evidence to support our woke theses and prove our political convictions. The men who hounded the commenter believed they were uniquely aware of how the ‘feminazis’ are on the march; the woman who posted the comment believed that she had uncovered racism in this perceived cultural appreciation in the desire of a single girl to enjoy prom night.

Sometimes a prom dress is just a prom dress. Sometimes somebody’s reaction or overreaction to that prom dress is just an overreaction. Sometimes we don’t have to think about the bigger picture or the underlying structures. Sometimes we can just be nice to each other. Because if we’re searching all the time for an opportunity to open our eyes, to wake up, then we can’t always see the plainer facts that are staring us in the face.

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