In my previous post Common Sense as a Legacy Project, I explored how common sense becomes a way of defending national culture, social traditions and social institutions from perceived threats. The book Common Sense Conservativism for a Post-Liberal Age repeatedly evokes wokeism as a summary of threats to common sense: the woke are those who are trying to take what is ours for themselves, denying reality, truth, stealing our happiness as well as our history.
Readers of this feminist killjoy blog are probably very familiar with these uses of wokeism. The projects of widening participation and social inclusion are often dismissed in these terms. Diversity training in public institutions: that’s woke! Disabled dancers and “mismatched same sex couples” on Strictly Come Dancing: that’s woke! A Black mermaid or a Black James Bond: it does not matter if it’s a mythical creature or fictional character, that’s woke! Putting your pronouns in your signature: that’s woke!
Woke is a much-used term, a useful term, because of how much and how many can be dismissed by it. These dismissals can be understood as techniques. My task in writing this follow up post is not to try to persuade anyone of anything (let alone those whose careers rest on the “anti-woke” wave). I am writing this post as I think it helps to try to explain what is going on as it is going on. Let me identify three key aspects of anti-wokeism/ common sense conservatism.
- The imposition of change
A primary implication of the argument for common sense conservatism is that traditions or conventions are or would be unchanging without the imposition of change. One way culture and history are treated possessively is to suggest change comes from outsiders. This is why the refusal to recognise the dynamic nature of culture is central to common sense conservatism. In my book, What’s the Use? On The Uses of Use I name institutions themselves as anti-life: to stabilise the requirements for what you need to survive and thrive within institutions is to stop changes that would otherwise happen because of the dynamic nature of life. We might call these techniques for stabilising the requirements reproductive mechanisms. When diversity work is understood as imposed change, this is in part a reflection of the investment of some people in institutions not changing (and when I say investment I mean it: those who benefit from institutions do not want changes that might risk their benefits, that transmission of legacy).
When we are judged as imposing change, what is not recognised is the imposed nature of what we are trying to change. What is understood as “the way things are” has become naturalised or habitual. A good example of this is pronouns. Some people seem to experience being asked to respect other people’s pronouns as an imposition on their freedom. Freedoms can be predicated on being unthinking: some people do not want to think about, or be conscious of, social conventions such as how we refer to other people.
Institutions also have habits.
Let’s take one example from my own study of complaint. I spoke to a lecturer about her experience of appointment panels. Her university had introduced a numerical system for evaluating the performance of job candidates in an effort to ensure equality of treatment. She described what actually happened during the appointment process: “Someone would say, that woman’s presentation was outstanding, but, really, he’s the guy you’d want to have a pint with, so let’s make the figures fit.” The figures are made to fit when a person is deemed to fit. The person most likely to be appointed is still the one who can participate in a shared or common culture; “the guy you’d want to have a pint with,” who you can relate to, whose company you would prefer. Hiring can be a habit, how the same sorts of people keep being appointed, reflecting back who is already here. When new policies and procedures are introduced to break that habit, they do not always stop what is habitually done from being done.
When change is treated as an imposition, it is made harder to change things.
Those who try and change how things have been done are often represented as having an “ideology.” So “critical race theory” is treated as ideology, which is central to how the polished view of empire keeps passing itself off as reality (you will quickly find arguments that “critical race theory” is being imposed in schools as soon as teachers try and include a history of the British empire from not-polished points of view).
And also, when the project for trans liberation is understood as motived by “gender ideology,” what is disguised is how gender ideologies, that is, convictions about what women and men are and what they are like (mostly, I would add, with reference to sex, that is assumptions made about men and women on the basis of the nature of their bodies) are reproduced everywhere else. These convictions often disappear, that is, they do not appear as ideology, precisely because of how they become common sense. Ideology often works by demarcating or bracketing ideology itself as happening somewhere else.
This is why freedom struggles often mean coming up against what other people call reality. Feminists should know this: our fights for freedom have often been framed as flights from reality (biology, nature, history, and so on). But given how some feminists dismiss trans liberation as a flight from reality (even using an arm wrestle to signify that reality – I am keeping this point oblique for the time being), it is clear that lessons are not always learnt.
2. The reversal of power
Common sense conservatism (as with other conservative political arguments) positions those who are fighting for equality as not only motivated as a desire for power but as having power. And those who have power (for example in the media and government) also then represent themselves as without power.
I explored this reversal of power in the first chapter of The Feminist Killjoy Handbook. Consider how racism and transphobia are often articulated as if they are unpopular or even minority positions (or to be more specific many people in the public domain position themselves as being censored when their views are described as racist or transphobic).
The positioning of racial or religious minorities, especially Muslims, and of trans people as too easily offended leads to an increase in racist and transphobic speech acts. There is an ‘incitement to discourse’ in a story of the suppression of discourse: so many people continue to make racist and transphobic statements by saying they are not allowed to make them. One comedian at the end of a set that included much transphobic content claimed, ‘I think that’s what comedy is for, really – to get us through stuff, and I deal in taboo subjects because I want to take the audience to a place it hasn’t been before, even for a split second.” This so-called ‘taboo subject’ is in fact a well-travelled path, where we are used to going rather than where we haven’t been; a confirmation of, rather than challenge to, the transphobia of mainstream culture. But then, if you call it out, give the problem its name, that person will most likely represent themselves as “cancelled” and quickly embarking on a cancellation tour. And so, we end up with some people speaking endlessly about being silenced, given more platforms to claim they are no-platformed.
Those who are more represented in the public domain tend to represent themselves as more censored.
I have described this mechanism in earlier posts.
Whenever people keep being given a platform to say they have no platform, or whenever people speak endlessly about being silenced, you not only have a performative contradiction, you are witnessing a mechanism of power.
Note also the new habit of scholars who have best-selling “anti-woke” books representing their popularity as a sign that the public are tired of wokeism. It is rather amusing. But it is also sad and pathetic. Of course, their books are bestselling because of the alignment of their arguments with the views of the powerful: governments that are willing to stoke the anti-woke to increase their popularity; not to mention the global rise of fascism.
That’s the wave you are riding on baby.
Diversity programmes and equality initiatives are also treated as evidence of wokeism. Let’s pause here. Elite, white and male-dominated institutions are represented as “woke institutions” on the basis of the existence of programmes designed to make them less so, less elite, white and male dominated. Of course, many of these programmes fail because of how hard it is to intervene in the reproduction of power (that these programmes are called woke is one of these reproductive mechanisms!). Recall my earlier example of how a new system was introduced to try to ensure equality of treatment in appointments. That very system, which might be used as evidence of wokeism, was bypassed in order to select people who were deemed to fit or to fit in. One senior manager I interviewed for my complaint project summarised this mechanism as “policies are for the others.”
Power can be exercised by the bypassing of policies and procedures designed to intervene in the reproduction of power. This is also how institutional change can be prevented by appearing to be enabled. An organisation can be called too woke because of its diversity initiatives, and still be successful at reproducing whiteness and other forms of power and privilege.
As feminists of colour, we know how diversity can be polish. Organisations create the appearance that something is being done; and yes, they sometimes use us, to do that. We also know that even polished versions of diversity can be quickly framed as “too much,” as an ideological imposition, a way of re-naturalising hierarchies and habits of many kinds.
Consider the use of terms such as “race equality industry” to dismiss a whole history of efforts to bring about race equality or the use of the term “trans lobby” by many gender-critical feminists and their anti-woke allies. Any programmes designed to enable trans people to live their lives on their terms, to have access to public resources including health and welfare become treatable as a consequence of a “trans lobby.” This is how trans people who are under-represented in positions of power in media and government can be represented as powerful.
A fight for survival is treated as the formation of an industry.
The reversal of power is how power is retained.
As soon as you try to stop someone who has power from abusing that power, you will be identified as motivated by a desire for power. I think of a conversation I had with a woman professor who supported students who made a complaint about sexual misconduct and sexual harassment by a lecturer at her university. The professor defended his own conduct thus, ‘He came up to me and said, “It’s a perk of the job.” I could not believe it. He actually said it to me. It was not hearsay; this is a perk of the job. I can’t remember my response, but I was flabbergasted.’ The implication is that having sex with your students is like having a company car; what you are entitled to because of what you do. She added, ‘The women: they were set up as a witch-hunt, hysterical, you can hear it, can’t you, and as if they were out to get this guy.’ In this case, the complaint was not upheld and the lecturer returned to his post with minor adjustments to supervisory arrangements.
When you describe an entitlement as harassment you are understood as depriving somebody of what is theirs; the complainer-as-killjoy could characterize this deprivation.
3) More with Less
The “common” in common sense matters. If there is a reversal of power, there is also a reversal of position. Consider how when we try to widen the curriculum you are treated as damaging the tradition. We want more, and we are treated as stopping this or that writer from being taught. By asking for more, we are treated as less, as lessening the value of something, but also as removing what or who is already there.
I think there is another reversal here: more with less. Let me explain.
In my previous post, I described the experience of a woman of colour academic who as dropped from the diversity committee after “mentioning things to do with race.” It is worth asking: why did she keep mentioning those things? Racism, that’s why. She told me that in her department’s research meetings, senior white men professors frequently made racist comments. This is just one example, “I’m from London and London is just ripe for ethnic cleansing.” She described how people laughed and how the laughter filled the room. She decides to complain. She gathered statements from around twenty people in her department. A complaint can be a collective. A meeting is set up in response to her complaint. At that meeting she was described by the head of human resources as “having a chip on her shoulder,” “they treated the submission as an act of arrogance on my part. A grievance is heard as a grudge, a collective treated an individual. She leaves, and “it was all swept under the carpet and the same things continued.” Sweep; sweep; polish, polish. The same things keep happening because of how much is swept away, who is swept away.
The transmission of a legacy is dependent on stopping those who trying to stop the same things from happening.
When she is dropped from the diversity table for mentioning things to do with race, her colleagues are given permission to make racist comments at that same table. This is how, under the banner of diversity, you are allowed to be racist but not call something racist, perhaps because the latter speech act brings the whole thing into dispute, or even just into view, the table itself. If her complaint is treated as me not we, racist speech is heard as we not me, as what we should be free to express around that table.
Common sense can work both by turning a me into a we (society matters as an extension of my hand) and a we into a me (a complaint as a will to power). And so, we learn, common sense is not as common as it is presented as being (how a few make themselves many), whilst complaints are more common than they are presented as being (how many are made into a few).
When those of us fighting against abuses of power are dismissed as having a will to power, we are treated as depriving others of what is theirs. Some understand and describe “theirs” as “common sense.”
The story of how some are losing their hand is a story of those who treat the world as their hand.
We are telling other stories.