Transcript: Joanna Williams
An interview with the author of How Woke Won
We talk a lot on this podcast about the ascendent woke ideology. But there is not yet anything like consensus on what this political movement actually is, what values define it — and, indeed, who advances its agenda.
My guest on the podcast today has tackled these questions in a new book. She argues that woke ideology is an elite phenomenon. That it has breathed new life into old prejudices like sexism, racism, and homophobia. And that elites are unaware how unpopular these ideas are with the public.
Joanna Williams is founder of the Cieo independent think tank and a columnist at Spiked. She’s also the author of How Woke Won: The Elitist Movement that Threatens Democracy, Tolerance and Reason.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Joanna, welcome to Lean Out.
JW: It’s a real pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.
TH: It’s so nice to have you on. I found this book so engaging. So I’m excited to speak with you today. Let’s start by defining terms. You write in the book that wokeism is not yet a coherent ideology, but let’s talk about its defining values. What exactly is woke?
JW: It’s a very good question. It’s also a very big question for such a little word. Clearly the term has become a bit of a political football over the past few years. And it’s changed a lot since its origins in a Black street culture, as a warning to Black people to be aware of real and present dangers — either from the State or from people who were genuinely threatening their lives. But it has clearly morphed a long way. What it seems to be now is partly an insult. Let’s be honest about it: An insult to a group in society who are perhaps extremely politically correct, have very strong views — particularly around identity politics issues, issues to do with race and gender — that are kind of notionally egalitarian and progressive. But I would argue actually take a very authoritarian and very regressive form. It’s very concerned with labeling people according to identity groups, putting people in boxes, and dictating how we should think and how we should relate to people according to those hierarchies that become constructed.
TH: Why does this movement resist classification so strenuously? People get very upset when the word woke is used. It’s considered a right wing term. Why is this movement so resistant to being called any one thing?
JW: I’m fascinated by the politics behind this. But in the process of writing the book, I really did become very interested in the word itself. And how the word has changed its usage over time. And some people who are woke actually don’t disown the term. A number of people are proudly claiming the term. And do turn around and say, “Well, it just means that you’re a nice person. That you’re kind. That you believe in equal rights. Anyone who’s not woke and not proudly woke should disappear.” I think that’s a bit disingenuous. I think when you look at what’s actually meant by woke, it’s about far more than just being nice and being kind — or even being egalitarian.
It’s about being nice and kind in a particular way, and having views that are really consistent with one particular outlook. But I think that people who are woke — and who we might describe as having woke politics — but deny the label, I think it’s very much in their best interest to do that. I think in some ways it’s genuine. There isn’t a political party that calls itself the woke party, for example. And in some ways, it looks like just a disparate range of interests. You know, some people are interested in gender; some people are interested in issues around race. Just different issues. And it’s not until you start connecting the dots, and you see that if people take one particular view in relation to gender, then they’re quite likely to also maintain particular beliefs about identity more broadly. I think it’s not really in many people’s interests to present this as a coherent view. It certainly makes opposing it easier if it’s seen as a coherent outlook.
TH: You trace some of the seeds of this movement quite far back, even to the Frankfurt School. But the ascendancy of it is really, as you say, the last five or so years. Since Brexit, since Trump. Why was that such a turning point for this?
JW: Yeah, I think it really was. Let me give you an example. Back in 2016, I was working at a university in the UK and that was when the Brexit vote was announced. It really struck me at that point in time how upset people were. It was very acceptable to be upset in public. I’m talking about people actually sitting in university cafes and bars literally crying in public about this. You got these very upfront and explicit displays of emotion. It was a safe environment for people to do that because there was clearly a sense of groupthink. People knew they could do that safely because it was the majority view. Many of the people shared that consensus.
It seemed like the initial reaction was to grieve. But very soon it solidified into a sense of, “We must work harder. We must pull all the levers at our disposal to emphasize things like global citizenship.” It’s almost as if you could ride roughshod over the democratic vote. People became quite aware, I think, of their own power. People not just in universities, but in other institutions. And for the first time were confronted by a democratic vote which came as a shock — which they didn’t like. But then they realized they could actually do something about it. That they almost didn’t have to put up with democracy. That they had powers which superseded democracy. I guess for academics, that would be a captive audience of thousands of young students that they would come into contact with every year. If they wanted to promote values such as global citizenship, and challenge what they saw as being some of the views that drove the vote for Brexit, they were able to do that from their institutional position.
I think that view transcended academia. In schools, for example, I think teachers became aware that they had a power as well. To be able to promote certain ideas, particularly around, again, race and gender and identity, that I guess in the U.S. the vote for Trump would have been the key driver at that time — I’m choosing my words quite carefully here because I don’t think it’s accurate. But their perception of what drove Brexit, what drove the vote for Trump.
So if you didn’t like Trump, and you didn’t like what you saw, you didn’t actually need to worry about democracy. That you could change these things from your own position in a school, or in a university. Or even in the media, in business.
TH: It certainly sounds familiar to me, coming from the media. [Laughs] This segues into the fact that these are elite politics, as you point out in the book. You are arguing here that what we’re witnessing is the turning of the tide from the old establishment to this new elite. Who is this elite? Who, who are they — us?
JW: Again, a really good question. And something which is perhaps quite difficult to pin down. I would say they are definitely graduates. There’s a kind of professional graduate class who are seduced by their own supposed expertise, and have a real sense of themselves as being highly educated — and perhaps better educated than the general population. Even if that’s not true in some ways, the paper qualifications give them this sense of identity and status and expertise. So I think in that sense, they’re quite new. It’s quite new because it’s, in the UK, a much more substantial chunk of a population than it would have been in in previous eras.
These are also people whose jobs give them opportunities to tweet and engage with social media throughout the day. One term that’s been used is the laptop class. People who have some kind of flexibility, have soft power through their work, and a nice lifestyle that goes with it. But also a security that comes from having their wage often quite literally paid for by the taxpayer. Or are in a privileged position in an institution — often they have very strong links to what would in the past have been known as HR departments. Human resources, or, if you go back even further, personnel departments. Those departments used to be concerned with writing paycheques and making sure maternity leave or sickness pay was covered. And now have now pushed into equality, diversity, and inclusion. That agenda gives them much more power.
TH: Exactly. On power, you’re arguing here that the balance of power in society has shifted away from elected officials to state institutions and third sector organizations, a move which basically circumvents the need to win public support. I want to read a quote from the book: “Woke allows members of the cultural elite to carve out a role for themselves in managing the alleged divisions between oppressors and oppressed.” You go on to say: “Woke ideas and identity politics justify a system of mass bureaucracy.” When it comes to this project that you’re outlining, you have mentioned a few manifestations of this — in the universities and in the schools. What are the other tools at the disposal of the elites?
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