Why do we need Woke Culture?
When I passed my philosophy exam half a decade ago, the essay question to answer was: “Is freedom threatened by equality?”. A daunting question for an 18-year-old, and one I never expected to henceforth regularly encounter, regardless of phrasing. In hindsight, the fact that it has should come as no surprise — this question has animated political discourse, in various forms, since the 1790s. The fight over political correctness and/or "woke culture" is just its most recent iteration.
This latest cycle began in the 1990s on American campuses, but has since expanded to many facets of daily life, with people of various creeds fighting to banish language and actions that may hurt groups who are (or feel) disadvantaged and discriminated against. The discussion seems to have yet again gone full circle as nations throughout the world struggle to define what “we” means in a political context, leading parts of the public to reject the concept of political correctness for having “gone too far” and threatening their very way of life.
Though some of their arguments are defensible, most people waving the anti-correctness flag have rarely, if ever, been impeded, insulted and belittled the way women and minorities have been and continue to be in large parts of the world. Thus, it ought to be argued that political correctness has not gone nearly far enough, as is regularly visible on every campus, at every political rally and in every YouTube comment section.
Comment sections are indeed central battlefields in this fight, as it is one of language and words. The phrase “political correctness” itself has become both shield and sword for a significant part of the political spectrum, used to protect bigoted beliefs from scrutiny by claiming to be oppressed by the liberal order, imbuing “PC” with political and cultural connotations, opening it to attacks in the name of free speech. Such tactics are a way to hide the fact that many requests that stem from political correctness are in fact not derived from subculture or identity politics, but from universal values. Having the same opportunities as others in the workforce and in school, being protected from violent language and being able to walk down the street with one’s head held high fits squarely with the principles of the religious-based “golden rule”, as well as Kant’s kategorischer Imperativ. An entire vocabulary has been created to obscure that very idea, with words such as “snowflake” and “triggered” used to discredit basic notions of empathy.
Those using language as a weapon are also quick to forget the difference between equality, equity and identicality, hoping it will not be noticed when these terms are used interchangeably. Though quotas are an example of asking for equity to repair past inequalities, most minorities (or, in the case of women, majorities) only ask to be equal to white, straight men, free from everyday fear, shame and ridicule, whether it be from crimes or small incivilities such as distasteful jokes. Claiming that equity is systematically sought is merely a way to construct a zero-sum game argument necessary for an “us vs them” mentality, a phantom enemy which is vital for identity-based political parties across the world. Similarly, the idea that identicality is actively pursued by the political correctness crowd is merely a straw man argument, regularly accompanied by a quote from Tocqueville for good measure. Identicality is not what is sought, and never was.
Having dismissed unviable arguments, it’s important to turn to worthwhile ones. One regularly brought up is the fear that by eroding and limiting discourse, people may be encouraged to fake their true beliefs, hence impeding the prevention of prejudice and the rightful punishment of sexism, racism… Indeed, flowery language does not fix the problem at the root, and is arguably impractical if the stigma survives. Philosophers claim that new words and euphemisms inevitably replace hurtful ones, yet individuals remain, potentially encouraged to commit further infractions and using new language as a form of moral self-licensing.
This has led Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek to encourage “friendly obscenities” and a “wonderful sense of shared obscene solidarity”. The irony of having a white, straight, male hold such a discourse seems to have been lost on him:
One does not get to decide how one’s words make others feel.
Similarly, other specialists argue that political correctness may be highlighting differences instead of fighting for the right to indifference, making parts of the population appear fragile, weak, and in need of protection because of their demands to benefit from the use of alternative sets of words.
Using this as an argument against change is misunderstanding the state of language today: the words currently used are not in any way fair to all, as could be claimed. Calling a young woman a “chick” for example has a connotation of superiority, and acts as a reminder of her station. Words are not merely descriptive, they shape reality, and can create pain by their very utterance. In fact, we know from scientific experiments that people reminded of their condition do worse in series of tests that people who aren’t reminded of it. Stereotype threat affects everyone and shows that words have the potential to diminish a person. If anything, this indeed exemplifies the need for change and protection.
Thomas Sheridan wrote in 1790 that “the wretched state of elocution is apparent to persons of any discernment and taste”. The fact that so much has changed and yet so many people continue to argue against the evolution of how we communicate shows the importance of past and present fights for political correctness. Words will evolve and be replaced, and though attitudes may not, the connotations and weights will forever be altered.
Language matter: “I have a dream” is just not the same as “I had a sleep-induced hallucination”.
Finally, let us also not forget that the detractors of political correctness are the first to claim some of its principles as their own. A president who regularly insults and belittles and rails against “political correctness gone mad” recently demanded a safe and special place in the theater, and is now asking for politeness when his staff is attending a dinner. Similarly, words such as “happy holidays” enrage the very same people who post pictures of bacon on social media during Ramadan. When white straight men hold signs on which is written “political correctness is a mental and spiritual disorder”, these behaviours need to be recognized for what they are: a defensive mechanism from people who think it’s disrespectful for others to fight against being disrespected.
The right to protest this dichotomy is not political correctness. It’s a political right, one the contemporaries of Franklin and Rousseau fought and died for.
The modern movement for equality is a spectrum, and as such is not exempt from extreme behaviour. From the suffragette movements to modern feminism, these extremes have always been brandished as a way to fight back against a power seemingly taken away. But the extremes are far from the median, and should not be used to cancel out an entire movement, though they should be condemned systematically. This is especially true on campuses, where teenagers find their voice through trial and error.
Yet, those are formative years, and using the term “snow person” is not as harmful as some may think. In fact, a judgement on moral standards as always been a staple of every intergenerational discussion. Aristotle wrote in Rethoric about young people that “They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it.”. That was 2,400 years ago. Those judging youth’s effort to change the world should be reminded of Khalil Gibran’s words about children:
“You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. (…) You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”
5 years ago, I sat in my chair in a stuffy Parisian exam hall, and was reminded of the declaration of human right’s first article, taught early in French schools: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. Freedom and equality are indistinguishable and cannot be separated, lest they become corrupted. As long as political correctness is not recognized as a population reaching for the universal concept of equality, it will be hard for any of us to defend the idea that we live in free nations.