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The paradox of 'wokeness'

  • 22 April 2024
  I’ve written before in this space about my fondness for the idea of ‘wokeness’, at least as a sense of being awake to the world and its history, people and stories. However, I was interested this week to come across an article by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek which raised some interesting questions about the limits of ‘wokeness’ as a force for change.

I’m late to the piece – it was published in February 2023 – and I recommend reading it to understand his arguments fully. But I was particularly interested in a reference to a phrase from a black writer, John McWhorter, from a recent book Woke Racism. The phrase highlights what he believes to be one of the major paradoxes related to the goals of ‘racial wokeness’: ‘You must strive eternally to understand the experiences of black people / You can never understand what it is to be black, and if you think you do, you’re a racist’.

While the above quote relates to black experiences, one could easily substitute in ‘gay/homophobe’, ‘female/misogynist’, or ‘trans/transphobe’. While paradoxical, it’s not necessarily wrong for marginalised groups to demand understanding, even with those limits. We might never fully understand the experiences of people who are different to us, but it’s good and enriching to seek to deepen our knowledge.

However, in wrestling with this paradox, Žižek points to the psychoanalytic notion of the superego – ‘a cruel and insatiable agency that bombards me with impossible demands and mocks my failed attempts to meet them’. In the context of wokeness, he argues, this ‘superego pressure’ is not an authentic call for justice. For the ‘woke elite’ (ie. those educated people from marginalised groups most strident in calls for understanding), it’s less about changing the world and more about achieving a position of moral authority. For others, he argues, ‘submitting to woke demands offers them an easy way out – you gladly assume your guilt insofar as this enables you to go on living the way you did’.

Reflecting on this argument, what struck me was how it centres ‘wokeness’ on the word ‘understanding’. If our goal is simply to ‘understand’, then yes, there is an underlying paradox in that we can never fully understand anyone else. Not only that, ‘understanding’ is a passive act – we can spend all our lives learning while doing nothing to put that understanding into action. The only way to overcome this problem is to find