The Burden of ‘Wokeness’

Source: SBS

OPINION - If your every word is under scrutiny and you’re paranoid about causing inadvertent offense, then good people disengaging from important conversations becomes the default option, thinks Lauren Rosewarne.

‘Political correctness’ first appeared on my radar in 1995. I was in Year 10 and a boy I was too fond of asked me whether I was a “PC person”. Confidently, my 15-year-old-self replied, “No, I have an Apple Macintosh.” He laughed and then I laughed, trying to assure him that he was hilarious. I’ve had an uneasy relationship with the term ever since.

Political correctness has become a slur bandied by the Right, used to lambast anything that challenges their world view, sniffs of progress or power redistribution, and dares to defy the status quo. The Left, however, isn’t immune to similar silencing techniques. While progressives are generally the ones wanting to include and empower, we’re often the ones criticising our allies and holding them up to ridiculously righteous standards and spotlighting even their slightest infractions.

For a select few, my privilege (my being middle class, white, heterosexual and educated) means I will never be woke enough to teach them.

In lecture theatres today, ‘call-out culture’ is changing the dynamics of the education experience. A small number of very vocal students have dedicated themselves to demonstrating that they’re the most enlightened. Quick to call-out use of a “wrong” word, to preach the evils of certain scholars and to willfully ignore my lectern sarcasm and elect to be wounded, such students are, ironically, participating in their own kind of silencing.

For every “triggered” student who has been offended in my lecture theater, I’ve had at least a dozen more express concerns about self-appointed Language Police making them feel reluctant to contribute to conversations for fear of being shouted down. When students self-censor or electively mute themselves, fearful of reprimand by know-it-all, seen-it-all, heard-it-all ‘Most Woke’ peers, then we’ve got a serious problem.

On the one hand, the Language Police are earnest and passionate, and these are the qualities that make university campuses such vibrant places to be. On the other hand, their tactics are alienating at best and aggressive at worst. Last year, I had a student claim – in the very first lecture! – that she was “triggered” by a three-minute video by the National Organization of Women titled “This is What a Feminist Looks Like”. In this case, the student used the term ‘triggered’ not because it triggered a PTSD reaction for her, but because it was considered an 'insufficiently intersectional representation of contemporary feminism’.

My teaching experiences are mostly enormously enjoyable. Most students want to be there, most don’t consider themselves victims of my facetiousness and most appreciate that I genuinely care about the material and their engagement with it. But for a select few, my privilege (my being middle class, white, heterosexual and educated) means I will never be ‘woke enough’ to teach them. And their peers – most commonly middle class, white, heterosexual and educated – won’t ever be ‘woke enough’ to debate them.

Talking to people outside of universities – progressives but not self-identified activists – they often speak of feeling shut out of the discourse. As they see it, the focus on identity politics, the vigilance of call-out culture and the ever-evolving lexicon where woke suddenly means more than not asleep, is too cliquey, too narrowly focused on individualism. Not unfair accusations.

When students self-censor or electively mute themselves, fearful of reprimand by know-it-all, seen-it-all, heard-it-all ‘Most Woke’ peers, then we’ve got a serious problem.

There isn’t an easy answer. There are, however, grave consequences of continuing on this path. Donald Trump is a product of the backlash against our contemporary way of doing politics. Donald Trump is who we get when we become excessively inward-looking and ignorant to the needs of others who, like it or not, are also on the electoral roll. And Donald Trump, alas, is who we get when we’re arrogant enough to think we already have all the answers.

Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne and the author of nine books on gender, sexuality, politics and pop culture. She co-hosts Radio National’s “Stop Everything!” pop culture show and can be found at: www.laurenrosewarne.com