Following Humanistically Speaking's September edition dedicated to the theme of 'woke', Dorset Humanists staged an inter-generational dialogue on the topic between David Warden, Chairman of Dorset Humanists, and Daniel Dancey who is Dorset Humanists' Treasurer and Webmaster. They weren't sure how many people would turn up but there was an encouraging attendance of about 35-40 people.
David and Daniel, more than 30 years apart in age, wanted to explore whether there are different attitudes towards the phenomenon of 'woke' across the generations. It turned out that the main difference was in how we defined the term. Daniel defined 'woke' as 'political correctness' and he expressed concern about 'anti-woke activists and moral panics', whereas David defined woke as 'an increasingly authoritarian left-wing ideology based on the pursuit of social justice'. Happily, they found plenty of room for agreement.
We are publishing the transcripts below so that you can make up your own mind and comment in the comments section if you would like to.
"I am so glad this is being talked about, as it really is pertinent to all our lives at the moment, in so many ways. A great choice of subjects." Georgia
"Thank you David and Daniel for a great talk. This is exactly the sort of controversial topic Dorset Humanists covers really well: calmly, rationally and respectfully. The afternoon exceeded my high expectations." Barney
I'm very grateful to Daniel for agreeing to do this joint event with me, especially as I know he had some misgivings about doing it. It’s a good job we met up beforehand, because we discovered that we had different understandings about what the word ‘woke’ is actually referring to. Daniel thinks it’s referring to what used to be called political correctness, whereas I think it’s pointing to an increasingly authoritarian left-wing ideology based on the pursuit of social justice.
I'm not necessarily opposed to left-wing ideas. Over the last 40 years I’ve been a member of the Social Democratic Party, the Green Party, the Labour Party, and now I have re-joined the Social Democratic Party – the SDP for short. The SDP is left-leaning and social democratic in terms of economics, and right-leaning or conservative on social issues such as family and nation. It’s a hybrid of left and right views. For some time I’ve been calling myself politically non-binary. What I mean by this is that I don’t think of politics in terms of an epic struggle between good and evil. There are some good ideas on the left and some good ideas on the right. We need to have a conversation between the two – not view them as binary opposites. In terms of Chinese philosophy, there should be a Yin/Yang relationship between them, not an antagonistic relationship.
Steve Neel and I have been reminiscing recently about the hybrid concepts of 'Blue Labour' and 'Red Tory' (the political colours in the UK are blue for Tory/conservative and red for Labour/socialist and so these terms suggest a mix of ideas). These hybrid forms were quite fashionable about 15 years ago. I think we need to get back to this kind of conversation. So for example, I don’t see the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton as the devil incarnate. I've read his books and I think he’s got a lot of valuable things to say. Daniel appeared to be shocked when he found a book by Jordan Peterson in my sitting room. I think Jordan Peterson also has a lot of interesting things to say.
If I am opposed to anything it’s extreme libertarianism, or neo-liberalism, because I think that is essentially an amoral form of organising society, leaving everything to market forces. What we need is moral government, which seeks to create the conditions for everyone to thrive. I believe in the notion of equality as citizens, but I don’t believe in the pursuit of equity – which is one of the buzzwords of left-wing thinking today. We should try to make the game of life itself as fair as possible but I don’t believe that we can try to fix the outcomes so that everyone ends up with equal shares. That’s been tried and it either leads to economic disaster, or totalitarianism, or both.
I thought it would be useful to set the scene in terms of my political views first because I think Daniel is probably more on the left than I am, and hopefully we can agree that it’s OK for us to co-exist in a humanist group with different political positions. But I realise that there’s a tricky cognitive element to all this. The human brain builds pictures or models of the world based on different inputs and to some extent this process is iterative and evolutionary. Human brains operate according to certain algorithms, and they select inputs from the external world in an attempt to build a coherent picture or model of reality. And this can lead to delusion. So for instance, I might say to Daniel: “Look at that iceberg over there. We’re going to hit it if we don’t change course!” And Daniel might say “Don’t be silly – it’s just an ice cube”. Or Daniel might say to me: “Look at that ferocious lion over there – it’s going to eat us!” And I might say, “Don’t be daft – it’s just a harmless pussy cat”. How we get round this problem of human cognition is a difficult problem. The traditional way is to shun people who have the wrong world view. Or execute them. But we’re not going to do that. We’re going to set out our views and see if this binocular vision can help us to get a more accurate picture of what’s really going on. What we’d like to create is a kind of Venn diagram with our worldviews side by side but with a lot of overlap in the middle.
So let’s deal with political correctness. In general, I’m in favour of political correctness if this means treating people with respect in the way in which you talk about them. So for example, I don’t think you should refer to gay people as 'benders' or 'faggots', or disabled people as 'cripples'. I don’t consider this to be an oppressive restriction on free speech. I think it’s about a code of conduct which we should, as civilised people, sign up to. This is not to say that we can’t have discussions about which words are acceptable and which are unacceptable. For example, I remember some people saying that we shouldn’t use the word ‘brainstorming’ because this might be upsetting to people who have epileptic seizures. I'm not sure where we are on that one, but in general we can have civilised discussions about these matters and no one should get hysterical about them. Maybe I shouldn’t use the word 'hysterical' because that’s a sexist term which, historically, was thought to be a condition originating from the uterus.
Minding our language in this way is about creating a culture of mutual respect. But it shouldn’t extend to controlling what people are allowed to think or believe or express. So, for example, if someone in a workplace believes that the definition of marriage is that it’s between a man and woman, or that gay sex is sinful, this shouldn’t be a disciplinary matter. It would only become a disciplinary matter if those beliefs manifested themselves in abusive behaviour or prejudice and discrimination towards gay people. So we need to make a distinction between philosophical, political and religious beliefs, which are protected by law, and behaviour or language which is abusive or offensive.
As a society, we seem to be finding it difficult to maintain these distinctions and I think this is because of an increasingly strident left-wing militancy. For example, Kathleen Stock, who was professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, resigned from her position after an extremely intimidating campaign by students demanding that she be sacked for expressing controversial views about the rights of trans people. Her union failed to support her and her position became untenable. If this is what woke is, then I’m opposed to it, and I think it’s antithetical to humanism, because it means taking away someone’s livelihood for expressing sincerely held philosophical views. Expressing philosophical views is what universities are for. They are not supposed to be places which only permit a certain range of views to be articulated. And we can’t have a situation where students have become mini-dictators on campus. When we met, Daniel said he doesn’t want people to be angry about woke. Well this particular case does make me angry because I get angry about oppression and intimidation, and about attacks on Enlightenment humanism.
A lot of the complaints about wokeism are based on what’s going on in America. For example, in 2019 a diversity professional called Robin Diangelo wrote a book called White Fragility. It’s a while since I read it and I’ve not had time to re-read it for this talk. But from what I recall, it says a lot about “white privilege”, that “whiteness” is a problem, and that we should try to be “less white”. Now this might have more salience in America with its legacy of slavery and racial segregation, but it does strike me as racist to say that there is a problem with whiteness. I'm opposed to racism. And I'm opposed to the kind of reverse racism which is implicit in this. And there are black people in America who are also opposed to this kind of racism because it traps black people in a victim mentality. One of the black intellectuals who’s opposing this is Professor John McWhorter. His latest book, published in 2021, is called Woke Racism: How a New Religion has Betrayed Black America. So if woke is a form of racism Daniel should be opposed to it. This is not to say that “white privilege” is a completely meaningless concept. But what we need is a more complex analysis which doesn’t blame all outcome differentials on racism.
This more complex analysis was provided by the 2021 Report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, sometimes called the Sewell Report, which concluded that “Outright racism still exists in the UK” and yet “the evidence reveals that ours is nevertheless a relatively open society. The country has come a long way in 50 years and the success of much of the ethnic minority population in education and, to a lesser extent, the economy, should be regarded as a model for other White-majority countries”. It found that “most of the disparities… examined, which some attribute to racial discrimination, often do not have their origins in racism.”
The report was widely criticised by people on the left who seem to be determined to maintain the narrative that Britain is a racist country. It’s not difficult to find an ideological motive for this. Radical ideologies thrive only if evil in society is persistent and enduring. If it’s admitted that progress is being made towards the desired aim then the ideology loses it edge and its appeal. So it’s not really possible for a radical ideology to admit that any meaningful progress is being made in the direction of the stated goal because then it would go out of business. This seems to be what happened to the LGB group Stonewall. Once gay marriage had been achieved, it came under pressure to add trans rights to its roster of concerns. Now I don’t have a problem with this in itself. Trans people have rights and I want trans people to be treated with respect. But this should not mean that everything which trans activists are demanding should be put beyond debate. We must have a vigorous democratic debate about how and whether trans rights need to be amended, especially where they come into conflict with women’s sex-based rights and the safeguarding of children. Trying to put these things beyond debate is anti-democratic and dangerous. And smearing people who debate these matters as transphobes and TERFs is a form of intimidation and oppression. I'm against intimidation and oppression. And I get angry about this as well. Now of course there can be intimidation and oppression on both sides. Everyone needs to calm down so that we can have civilised conversations about these matters. But our media landscape has made that increasingly difficult. v
Royal Family 'terribly white'
A fairly trivial but irritating of example of wokeness was when the black actor who played Lady Danbury in the Netflix series Bridgerton (Adjoa Andoh) complained that the Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace was ‘terribly white’. This may have been an allusion to fact that the Duchess of Sussex was absent, but even if she’d been there it would hardly have made much difference to the appearance of the Royal Family. They are a white family with Anglo-German ancestry. How can they be anything other than terribly white? Complaining about their whiteness is racist.
Another example of wokeness was when footballers started ‘taking the knee’ in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white policeman. The trial concluded that this murder was not racially motivated but of course this does not fit the narrative. Football fans who protested about the ritual of taking a knee were denounced as racist. But maybe the fans were simply objecting to what has become known as ‘virtue signalling’. Virtue signalling is compelled behaviour which signals that you have adopted the correct set of beliefs about what is going on in society. I think we should resist compelled behaviour. We should promote freedom of conscience and belief. And people should be free to make, or not to make, whatever moral gestures they want to.
There was another upsurge of wokeness in 2020 when people started attacking statues and sometimes throwing them into nearby harbours. I used to attend events at the Colston Hall in Bristol and I had no idea that Edward Colston was involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Colston died in 1721 and the statue was erected in 1895 to commemorate his reputation as a philanthropist. I think the people who pulled the statue down and threw it into the harbour should have been found guilty of criminal damage. Whether the statue should have been removed by democratic consent is another matter. Maybe it should. But should all historic monuments be removed if they have links to slavery or other actions which today we consider to have been oppressive? I'm not sure we would have many historic monuments left. I'm opposed to the idea that we can get back to a kind of ground zero of moral purity in the public square. Surely the answer is education not demolition.
It may be more difficult to defend the bombastic historian David Starkey but I’ll have a go. Let’s start by reminding ourselves of the well-known quotation by Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This is often cited as the bedrock of free speech so let’s see how it applies in the case of David Starkey. David Starkey is gay and he identifies as a liberal conservative. As far as I know, he has not produced a body of work which could in any way be described as promoting racism. You may remember that in 2020 he was interviewed by the TV presenter Darren Grimes – another hate figure for the left. During the interview Starkey said that people should not "go on about" slavery because it had been abolished in 1833 and that "slavery was not genocide, otherwise there wouldn't be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain would there? An awful lot of them survived". Well, there are two things going on here. Obviously the phrase ‘damn blacks’ is grossly offensive but I wonder whether this was a slip of the tongue. It seems unlikely that Starkey would deliberately use the phrase in an interview that was going to be broadcast. It seems more likely to me that he got his words round the wrong way. If, instead of saying ‘so many damn blacks’ he’d said ‘so damn many blacks’ then the word ‘damn’ would have functioned as an intensifier, modifying the adjective "many" to add emphasis. But he got it the wrong way round and ended up saying the wrong thing. In any case, he apologised, but all hell broke loose. UK politician Sajid Javid described his comments as racist and the black historian David Olusuga said the comments were "truly disgusting”. The Historical Association withdrew a medal from him. The magazine History Today removed him from their editorial board. Lancaster University revoked his honorary degree. Harper Collins terminated their book deal with him. And so on and on. (Source Wikipedia.) He was thoroughly and comprehensively cancelled and he was even investigated by the police. Part of the controversy seems to have been Starkey’s contention that slavery was not genocide. Well, I suppose you can argue that the Atlantic slave trade had the effect of genocide. The lowest estimate is that 1.5 million Africans died in transit by ship. But the United Nations defines genocide as an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The Atlantic slave trade doesn’t fit this description so David Starkey was making an accurate observation.
So what should we make of all this? Why was there such a reaction, arguably an unjust overreaction to Starkey’s comments? Everyone rushed to condemn him as racist on the basis of this one unsavoury comment. We seem to have arrived at a situation where one comment, or one slip of the tongue, or one tweet, is enough to condemn you with no attempt to place your remarks in a wider context. This is a form of extremism and I'm against extremism. It’s the woke equivalent of a lynch mob. Obviously it’s not as bad as literally being lynched. Starkey was not strung up on tree. But the same kind of summary justice and moral cowardice seems to have been at play. Every institution and publishing house he was connected with felt they had to disassociate themselves from him so as to avoid a kind of moral contagion or guilt by association. None of them had the courage to take a more moderate stance for fear of mob outrage. The writer Andrew Doyle – another hate figure for the left - has called his book about social justice The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World. What seems to be going on is a new form of puritanism. And this is not progressive. It’s taking us back to the 17th century.
Another example of woke gone mad is the debanking of Nigel Farage. I'm not here to debate Nigel Farage’s political opinions but the fact that Coutts Bank was keeping a dossier on him which concluded that his values were incompatible with the values of the bank should, I believe, alarm all of us (Source Wikipedia). China allegedly operates what’s called a social credit system. If we’re moving towards a situation where basic facilities like having a bank account are dependent on having acceptable opinions it means that we’re sleepwalking into a totalitarian society. A form of liberal totalitarianism.
I don’t think the social justice movement in this radical form is compatible with liberty, freedom of speech, or humanism. It’s making us hypersensitive, intolerant, fanatical and punitive. And this is what religion is like when it gets the upper hand. Woke can be alluring to humanists because it’s radical, it claims to be progressive, and it claims to pursue social justice. But radicalisation is not always a good thing, as we know with radical forms of Islam. If social justice or woke means eliminating prejudice and discrimination then of course humanists are in favour of it. But we should be careful not to turn the pursuit of social justice into an ideology or a secular religion which divides the world up into oppressors and victims and which conceptualises the world as a mythical struggle between good and evil.
It may be the case that the loss of Christian belief in Western societies has left a kind of religious vacuum in people’s lives. The neural pathways which religion exploits are still there in the human brain and it’s very easy for secular religions to exploit the same neural pathways. Humanism should resist dogmatic religion in all its forms, whether theistic or political. The way to spot a religion is to ask yourself whether these things are present:
The people who follow the religion or ideology are rigid and dogmatic in their thinking
Their beliefs are not up for debate
They see the world in terms of an epic struggle between good and evil
They believe that evil people should be punished
So my basic argument is this: social justice and political correctness, in general terms, are a good thing and humanists should support them if they are trying to eliminate prejudice and discrimination. But when social justice or political correctness mutate into a radical ideology or a secular religion that’s a bad thing. And we should be opposed to it.
I agree with almost everything that you've said, although as you said at the beginning of your speech, we do agree with each other on most things except for the definition of wokeness. You did mention a couple of statements or examples of unreasonable and radical ideas, like saying that the Royal Family is terribly white or even that we should try to be less white, and clearly that is unreasonable. But I don't think that all woke people are as unreasonable as that, and I don't think that we should get very angry when we do hear people saying unreasonable things.
Anti-woke activists and moral panics
Originally, woke was meant to mean that you are awake to progressive social issues, but over time, I think the anti-woke activists have poisoned that word by using it to describe various behaviours that we see as deviant, and then labelling everyone else who has those other woke attributes – awake to progressive social issues – as being equally deviant. It ‘others’ that group and makes them seem like the enemy.
I think there have been a number of moral panics over time. The health and safety panic where we thought that the health and safety police are going to come and get us and stop us from using any stepladders. There was a political correctness moral panic: the idea that you can't even sing Baa Baa Black Sheep in schools nowadays is one claim that came up at one point, because there was a school somewhere in the country that thought that it wasn't a good idea to sing that song. And then almost everyone in the country heard about it and got upset about it, thinking that someone was going to come along and stop you from singing it. I remember my grandmother was quite upset that we couldn't have Golliwogs anymore, because she played with them as a child, and she felt that some PC Brigade had come along and taken away her favourite childhood toy. And now that same fear, I think, has continued into a fear of the Woke Brigade, which is essentially the same fear as the previous political correctness and health and safety brigades, and is a fear of what I think is a fairly imagined culture war.
I've never had a time when someone has come along and beaten me with their wokeness and forced me to change my views or not say something, and I don't think many of us have ever actually individually experienced that, although if you look on Twitter, you will find examples of people sharing those angry views. Somewhere in the world, someone is going to be saying something unreasonable, and I don't think we need to be angry about it here.
There are lots of issues that get described as woke. In researching this article or this speech, I was reminded of the phrase 'happy holidays' being described every year as woke and an attack on the word 'Christ' in Christmas, health and safety, LGBT rights, pronouns, cycling, even environmentalism, gender-neutral bathrooms and competitions, the advertising agency, the BBC, sex education, the police, publishing books in modern language, women's equality, race equality, even the Teletubbies [British TV show for children] have all been described as woke by someone. The reason that Teletubbies was criticised as woke was that the actor playing Tinky Winky was gay, Dipsy was black, La La was a woman, and Po was Asian, and some people were very upset about that.
A globalist woke elite?
But where do these woke ideas come from? Is it a committee somewhere deciding on what the new woke thing is going to be? Let's imagine, actually this did happen, a pet website or a vet website made an article about gendering your pets. Is it unfair to call your pet a he or a she when you don't really know their gender identity? I think most of us will see this as a bit silly, at best it's a bit of harmless fun. But it's not inconceivable that some right-wing thought leader will share an image of this article and say that this is the new woke thing, we're not even allowed to call our dog a good boy anymore because it might hurt his feelings. Well, I don't think there really is a shadow government coming up with all these ideas, and there is, I think, among some people an idea that these ideas are being produced by some kind of group of globalist elites as part of a new world order trying to change our society. But really, that article was just written by somebody who wanted to draw traffic to their vet website, and it was just one person with an idea who put their idea on the internet, and there's no real reason to get upset about it.
Some people have noticed that there might be more woke content in brands, the media or in advertising. Well I know somebody who's quite upset that most adverts that you see now seem to have more black people in them than they used to have, and that's upsetting to them. But it's not part of a big conspiracy to make this happen; it's just that when individual brands decide to make their adverts, they all individually decide to make an advert that they think will sell the most products. A while ago, Nike made an advert featuring Colin Kaepernick, the guy who took a knee, and this made a lot of people very angry. There was a hashtag #BurnYourNikes and lots of people burned their Nike shoes and bought new ones. In fact, as a result of all this fantastic free advertising, the value of Nike went up by $6 billion. Not long afterwards, Gillette made an advert talking about how men should maybe take responsibility and not sexually harass women and not bully people. People thought that was more woke nonsense, and there was a similar hashtag campaign against Gillette, and their value went up as well. What other kind of advert could they have made that would actually get everybody talking about their product for weeks on end? The reason these adverts are apparently woke is just because it's really clever marketing. A commonly heard opinion is that woke is bad for society, and I do believe that anti-woke discourse actually is equally bad for society. It sweeps up long-standing social justice movements like anti-racism, anti-sexism, and pro-LGBT rights and frames those movements as abnormal extreme political positions based on a fear of being offended or an unrealistic expectation of fairness.
J.K. Rowling and cancel culture
Claims of cancel culture can even be used to attack legitimate criticism of racist, sexist, or anti-LGBT views. There are some problems with cancelling; it can be used to stifle legitimate criticism. For instance, I think that a lot of the criticism that was aimed at J.K. Rowling was correct, but now it seems that any criticism of her is labelled as cancelling and unfair. There is a YouTuber I really like called ContraPoints, and a few years ago she made a video on YouTube and she had as a guest actor a transman. He's an older man and he has some views that nowadays would be considered outdated by some and not very popular in the trans world. He's a trans medicalist, so he thinks that the only valid trans people are people who experience gender dysphoria. He thinks it's a medical condition and he's not a big fan of all this new non-binary stuff. So he's not very popular nowadays. ContraPoints got cancelled for giving him a platform and even the people she's associated with ended up being bullied. I don't think that's great. Often, progressive people involved in cancelling aim their anger more easily at people who are meant to be their allies than they do their opponents. This might come from an idea that 'you should have known better.' People are often wrong, and nobody is born with a perfect view of politics.
On the issue of summary justice, it is true that when someone gets cancelled, it can seem like summary justice. This is similar to the #MeToo movement where public pressure is used to remove men from positions of power based on allegations. I agree with the belief that we should generally believe women, but it's not fair to equate cancelling with being unfairly punished without trial. Some say that cancelling or wokeness is anti-freedom of speech because it's used to protect discriminatory language. Arguments against such language can easily be framed as anti-free speech or even Orwellian. Some people think that all the new pronouns are Orwellian because you have to live with them in your mind. However, I don't think that pronouns are as big a problem as some people think. Most people you meet will use 'he' or 'she,' and maybe you'll encounter someone who uses 'they/them'. When people use a more complex pronoun, they're usually just trying to better describe their experience. Adding more language to describe how we feel is not Orwellian. In George Orwell's 1984, the Newspeak dictionary was made smaller to limit the capacity for dissent. New LGBT terminology is different; it's new language we can use to describe a richer range of experiences. It doesn't replace the old language. No one's telling you you can't say that you are a he or a she if you feel that you are one. Some people do feel like they've just described everything already, so they don't need to go through it again. Some people say the phrase "sex is real" as if that's a revolutionary statement, or brag about their basic understanding of chromosomes. They imagine that trans people are rejecting basic biology, thinking their sex is changing from the sex they were born with or that they're magically changing their chromosomes. That's not true. When someone says they're a trans man or a trans woman, they're saying their gender doesn't align with their birth sex. They're not saying they're changing their birth sex.
It's unfortunate that the law in this country describes gender as sex when you get a gender recognition certificate. Trans people are not being as unreasonable as some people like to paint them. Piers Morgan is one who likes to say that everything he doesn't like is woke. I searched 'woke' on The Sun newspaper and found about 100 different articles of him complaining about woke teachers, woke schools, woke racing, and woke everything. They're looking for examples of wokeness to shock their viewers. I don't think we need to be very angry all the time, so I would encourage you all not to buy The Sun newspaper.
In summary, someone somewhere is acting unreasonably, but that shouldn't prompt us to be extremely angry, or to feel that we're being attacked. There's not really a mob against us. I mostly described 'woke' as being a moral panic based on the fear of the 'health and safety brigade,' the 'political correctness brigade,' and now the 'wokeness culture war brigade.' We do see the definition of 'woke' as being a bit different, but I do agree with almost everything that David said. Most people are thinking of the thought police who are out to get you if you give your pet a gendered name, or stop you from singing 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' anymore.