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Life The rise of performative wokeness

Mar. 16, 2020
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While we’re all more than familiar with the term “woke,” the word itself appeared unannounced—seemingly taking over every corner of the internet in a matter of days. Like the “baes” and “lits” before it, “woke” cemented itself in modern-day rhetoric and popular culture. In 2017 “woke” was officially added to the dictionary, but the origins of the word trace back to the early ‘60s. First coined by novelist William Melvin Kelley, it reestablished popularity more recently when it was used by the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Without a doubt, being woke is an inherently good thing. We should all be aware of the societal barriers, structures, and actions put in place to foster extreme inequalities between different groups of people. We should also be aware of our own place within them and how we can help change them. When the world is in complete disarray, to be woke is the only viable answer. But wokeness itself isn’t the issue—it’s the performative nature it inspires that’s a bigger problem. While it’s meant to be used in the name of progress, performative wokeness or “virtue signaling” as coined by James Bartholomew, often impedes it. 

Being a positive term, especially to liberal communities, woke is a character trait people aspire to. But today, rather than taking action to help untangle the systems that keep injustices in place, people pay lip service to causes. This is damaging for a number of reasons, but what’s almost more damaging is how easily people declare wokeness without thinking their statements through. We’re quick to outrage, speak out, and cancel without discussion. This is all exacerbated by the speed and ease with which social media allows us to do the bare minimum to build our personas. 

Cancel culture is no new concept, but it’s fueled by the drive to be seen as progressive. It’s the easiest way to display your values and beliefs without actually having difficult conversations and addressing the issues that face our society. When we cancel, we eliminate the potential for meaningful discussion with people who think differently. We’re offering little to no room to begin to dismantle the oppressive systems that we face. Of course, there are exceptions. When people act inappropriately without any concern, remorse, or desire to understand, there’s little you can do to force them. And yes, people should bear the consequences of their words and actions. 

But to shame without opening up a dialogue is to drive the wedge between those with opposing views even further. Performative wokeness feeds into an us versus them mentality that’s currently suffocating left-leaning politics and turning liberally-minded individuals against one another. When our first reaction is to jump down people’s throats, we aren’t allowing ourselves the time to think critically. We aren’t opening ourselves up to discussion that can help educate and inform both parties on issues that need to be highlighted. 

When we do all of this—stifle conversation, villainize people—all in the name of solidifying our own reputation, we give certain groups the ability to weaponize the term “woke” and divide us even further. And they’re missing no opportunity to do so. Just take a look at the likes of Piers Morgan and Jordan Peterson, who use their platforms to express regular disdain for the “social justice warriors” of the day. We tend to laugh them off and disregard their views entirely, but in a world of Brexit and Trump’s America, we can’t afford to underestimate the power this language has to shape perception and affect our everyday lives. 

Clearly, a very real and very large subset of people use this victimhood to cling to the power they’ve sat comfortably with for decades. But it isn’t just the far right we alienate when we virtue signal and, quite frankly, there probably isn’t enough reason in the world to have them come to some grand middle ground with the left. It’s the moderates and other left-leaning individuals we tend to polarize and drive away with extreme language and willingness to criticize. 

Speaking from personal experience, I’ve heard many of my fairly liberal friends, family members, and coworkers express outward and vocal disdain for expressions of wokeness both online and offline. While I don’t always agree with them, the worst thing for me to do in those moments is get heated and use the visceral language that’s made them feel that way to begin with. You can’t change everyone’s mind, but without two-way conversation you’ll get absolutely nowhere. If we want to combat the forces that are taking over our politics, we need all of the help and unity we can get amongst liberally-minded communities. 

We’re supposed to be tolerant, but at our worst we can be hopelessly closed-minded and unwavering. So how do we address this and move forward? First and foremost, we need allyship. It is not enough to fire off a single Black History Month tweet or share an International Women’s Day post on Instagram. Being true allies means helping move conversations and efforts forward when no one is watching. It means having difficult conversations with people you love, people you hate, and everyone in between. Being frustrated, but carrying on anyways. 

It’s not yelling into the vacuum of people who already agree with us and starting to bridge the divide with those who don’t, where possible. It’s being more open and empathetic to parties we don’t necessarily agree with, as uncomfortable as that may be. Because it’s only when we stop using comments and likes as tickbox exercises for our internal values that we can start breathing new life into a broken system. 

Check in with yourself from time to time. Question the motivations behind your comments, posts and statements. Better yet, ask yourself if there’s anything you could do to create real change and open up helpful discussions. Let’s all agree to be more conscientious and, little by little, we’ll reclaim woke.