The Wokeness Monster

Article on Substack, May 27, 2023

In France, too, criticizing « wokeness » aims at minimizing the rise of fascism. New post on Substack, May 27, 2023.

Far-right protesters wave a flag of the French student political group GUD (Groupe Union Defense). AFP PHOTO / THOMAS SAMSON (creative commons).

In all democracies, including France, the contemptuous of « wokeness » are careful not to say what this term is about. In fact, it is above all an insult, “un épouvantail”, as we say in French. If we try to define it, we quickly realize that it refers to everything that the far-right hates: feminism, anti-racism, the fight for LGBTI rights, environmental justice movements, anti-neoliberalism. Those who do not belong to the far-right but disqualify their political opponents as « woke », sometimes in their own camp, could think it over.

Flooding public debate with the threat of « wokeness », based on anecdotes, amalgams, and rumors, meets a precise objective: to leave less room for commentary on the fascist threat, which amounts to minimizing its magnitude and dynamics, and thus to letting it prosper. It is therefore a political project which has been thought out and accepted, and owes nothing to chance.

In the United States, it is through local laws claiming to be « anti-woke », which are not anecdotal, that books are banned and removed from school libraries. It is through local laws that university programs in gender studies, the history of racism, slavery and segregation are censored. History is even rewritten and falsified to glorify a time of « the way things were » when men and women, Blacks and Whites were « in their place », when institutionalized masculinism and racism triumphed. A resentful white patriarchy, which holds most of the levers of power, is afraid to share it. It is through local laws that many states are ending funding for anti-discrimination programs in higher education.

Attacking critical thinking and social science research is a way to undermine democracy. « Universities are seen as spaces of resistance against identity-based nationalism and the rise of authoritarianism », as more and more academics note. Moreover, universities train « future conscious and critical citizens ». The obsession with identity of Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida – who has just entered the 2024 GOP presidential race –, or Viktor Orban, whose policies lead to the surveillance and punishment of teachers from kindergarten to university, influence all far-right leaders as well as those who would be very happy with their takeover or play with fire to weaken the left.

In France, two former ministers of the current President had, in 2020 and 2021, described race and gender studies as a threat to universities, which fought back. Today, in the National Assembly, where Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (former National Front) has nearly 90 deputies (out of 577), these attacks continue. Controlling thought, knowledge institutions, publications, the debate of ideas: such is the ambition.

So is the danger “wokism” or fascism? In the United States, researchers specializing in political violence have observed “the heightened use of bellicose, dehumanizing and apocalyptic language, particularly by prominent figures in right-wing politics and media”. According to the FBI, far-right violence is one of the greatest threats in the country. This observation is shared in European democracies, as the far-right goes mainstream. The Trumpist language, which has not only become commonplace in the US but has been exported very well, also consists of describing opponents or targets through a dehumanizing vocabulary, borrowed from far-right conspiracy. Violence in action has always begun with words. Fascist internationalism prolongs and amplifies an old dynamic, which is renewed in waves. According to some people in France, moreover, an imaginary “wokeness” has been imported from the United States, while Trumpism, which is real, has not.

The distortion of reality guarantees clicks. The fascination for exclusionary, pessimistic, nostalgic ideas works like an addiction. We should add that it is also the result of a collective intellectual laziness in France: political parties, some decision-makers, television programs, magazine editorial lines, social networks, and many top-selling books make it their leitmotif.

In France too, we invent new myths, magical creatures. Imaginary monsters are created from scratch: from the « gender theory » to the « woke » (and now « wokisme », supposed to be even nastier, with the suffix « isme »), passing by the “Islamo-leftism”, so many phantoms intended to make you believe that the ideas of progress and emancipation are playing against « the people » (they are not fooled), that we must not make visible the injustices that were invisible until now, and that everything must remain as it is: the allocation of power and responsibility, privileges, the non-sharing of resources. In other words: the unthought should not questioned. The Wokeness Monster does not exist. The echo chamber of fascism, on the contrary, because of sensationalism, because of the economic model of buzz, by contempt and hatred of others, by complicity, is very real.