Have we all become so polarised that we can’t unite against prejudice?

The use of the word ‘woke’ as an insult in response to criticism of discriminatory comments on social media has popped up on my timeline several times recently. After a particularly difficult news week that once again highlighted deep-rooted societal and systemic racism, sexism and misogyny, I wanted to take a moment to consider the implications of this.

Marianne Coutanche (30462797)
Marianne Coutanche (30462797)

‘Woke’ is defined as ‘having or marked by an active awareness of systemic injustices and prejudices, especially those related to civil and human rights’. The question that immediately springs to my mind is, why is this a bad thing?

When Piers Morgan left Good Morning Britain after being challenged for his repeated personal attacks on Meghan Markle, Julia Hartley-Brewer tweeted, ‘When every single person on your TV screens is identikit, dull as dishwater, toeing the line, spouting the same woke nonsense to keep the Twitter ghouls happy all day, every day, you’ll all be bored out of your bloody minds.’

Again I ask, why would this be a bad thing? Why would anyone want to continue to exist as part of a society that is as divided as we are right now? Why would it be a bad thing if the discourse that perpetuated discriminatory hatred toward minorities was to stop?

Let us consider that Twitter is effectively the canary in the coal mine. We need only look at the online discourse around Brexit, Black Lives Matter and coronavirus to see how divided society has become. Nuanced political debate is giving way to populist extremism under the guise of free speech.

Comments I have seen lately include, ‘Woke journalists are a curse’ and ‘I’ve unfollowed a load of plebs that I had no idea why I was following. And it feels loads better!’ The polarisation and vitriol is worsening and I believe we should be concerned about this.

Last week a Twitter user suggested, ‘…if ppl cannot handle comedic observational content, then maybe they should remove themselves from platforms where free speech is encouraged’. Someone else called those who challenge offensive and discriminatory views ‘offendertrons’ looking for or expecting to be offended. Another asked, ‘What about the many people who didn’t and don’t find it offensive? Do they not matter?’

All important points, but points that demonstrate precisely why there is a need to raise awareness and improve education about the origins and causes of discriminatory behaviour at every level.

As equality campaigner Jade Ecobichon-Gray explains: ‘If the people affected by racism are calling [something] racist, then it’s racist… It’s about how it’s received to the demographic of people that have engaged with… and felt offended by it.’

And to those who when challenged refer to a ‘cancel culture’, this isn’t about having a different political view. We might argue that a particular political belief system is wrong. We may disagree about policy issues like housing, welfare and health. We all have a right to that political opinion.

But there is a difference between a belief that a political view is wrong and the fact that discrimination is wrong. It is wrong to discriminate against a minority. There is no circumstance in which this is acceptable. Whether it is unconscious implicit bias or overt prejudice and attack. It isn’t dependent upon nuance, circumstance or point of view.

Preventing or dismissing someone’s political views is cancelation. Calling someone out for being discriminatory is woke – and in my mind, this is a good thing. It is wrong to ignore discrimination. It is worse to condone, encourage or perpetuate it.

When Sarah Everard went missing last week, it was widely reported in the media that police had advised women in the area that they should not go out alone. In response to this the ‘woke’ began to circulate this meme on social media: ‘Protect your daughter. Educate your son.’

The purpose was to highlight the injustice of imposing a curfew on the persecuted, rather than address and tackle the institutional and structural bias that allows misogynistic rhetoric and behaviour to continue to exist.

After George Floyd was killed when a police officer knelt on his neck while dismissing his repeated pleas, the ‘woke’ behind the Black Lives Matter cause began to recirculate the meme ‘I can’t breathe’, reminding the world that his was not the first death as a result of police brutality that is rooted in structural and systemic prejudice against a minority.

And these prejudices exist at the highest levels. Donald Trump was elected President of the United States despite audio recordings betraying a vulgar and reprehensible attitude toward women. He went on to maintain this position despite repeatedly betraying an implicit bias against ethnic minorities throughout his time in office. This demonstrates how a lack of woke within government and the electorate can lead society to a dangerous place.

There is a difference between right-wing politics and right-wing extremism. We need to be careful to recognise when that extremism has been allowed to infiltrate. The danger presented by people like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage is that they dress up extremism as free-speaking conservatism. We need to be alert to that.

Have we become so polarised that we can’t unite to challenge discriminatory and offensive behaviour that leads to the perpetuation of systemic prejudice and discrimination and the inevitable tragedy that follows?

Every year we come together to remember the millions of people who have lost their lives as a consequence of war fuelled by hatred and division. If history should have taught us anything, it’s that no matter where we stand on the political spectrum, we all have a responsibility to find the offence in the jokes and comments that perpetuate an ugly social reality. Perhaps we all need to be much more woke.

For more comment and opinion pieces, see today's Jersey Evening Post.

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