There has been outrage in recent years from right-wing media about a ‘woke’ pandemic, as a politically incorrect stance from a neo-conservative framework of thought. It has many academics and ‘non-school’ scholars perplexed. It has only been recently and systematically articulated as outrage in James Lindsay and Charles Pincourt’s (2021) Counter Wokecraft: A Field Manual for Combatting the Woke in the University and Beyond. According to Lindsay and Pincourt, the Woke ideology is colonizing Western Civilization.
A simple search in references for the ideology, however, tells a different story. “Woke (/ˈwoʊk/ WOHK) is an English adjective meaning ‘alert to racial prejudice and discrimination’ that originated in African-American Vernacular English” (AAVE; Wikipedia entry). We are told that the phrase, ‘stay woke’, had emerged in AAVE by the 1930s, and that means the right-wing media, again, has entered into a-historical rhetoric, ignorant of the ideological frameworks across the spectrum. Lindsay and Pincourt’s other work, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – And Why this Harms Everybody (2021), has a number of legitimate claims to make, but it is confused in the history of ideology and political philosophy. What is legitimate is what Douglas Murray says much better, in The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity (2020), even though, he too sees the “interludes on the Marxist foundations of ‘wokeness’.” I agree forgiveness in political proceedings of reconciliation is what is needed, but the ‘Woke’ outraged argument is merely meeting the outrageous with the outrageous, and perturbating the culture-history war.
Enter Arthur Koestler (1905-1983). Koestler was no ‘leftist’. Koestler joined the Communist Party of Germany in 1931, but he resigned in 1938 after becoming disillusioned with Stalinism, and then became the most intelligent of the anti-communist writers in the twentieth century. In 1949, Koestler began secretly working with a British Cold War anti-communist propaganda department known as the Information Research Department (IRD), and he could be described as the earliest ‘neo-con’ of American-led foreign policies. However, he was no ‘neo-con’ in terms of social conservatism, and this was very true of his historiography, from his The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe (1959, 2014). The central theme of the book is the changing relationship between faith and reason, and surprisingly it has not much difference in what ‘leftist’ humanists say today. In fact, you would have dig very deep to find any difference between Koestler and the right-wing targets of ‘leftism.’ Koestler, after all, was a centre-right humanist. There is, though, difference, but it is it not ‘wokeness’ from either side.
The Koestlerian argument is what the right-wing has to be awoken. Persons, even critical thinkers and scientists, cling to cherished old beliefs with such love and attachment that they refuse to see what is wrong in their ideas and the truth in the new ideas that will replace them. The attack on cherished old beliefs appears to be ‘the crime’ charged by the right-wing media. Forgiveness might be an essential part of the process, but how can forgiveness prevail if there is no personable justice: “No Justice, No Peace.”
The phrase ‘Sleepwalkers’ indicated for Koestler that “Scientists have been at their best when they allowed themselves to behave as ‘sleepwalkers,’ instead of trying too earnestly to ratiocinate” (Toulmin, 1962). It is an odd argument from a humanist who is simply trying to point out the problem of over-rationalism, in the same way as Michael Oakeshott did (posthumous, 1991). The populist, unfortunately, has taken the philosophy and screwed it up into ‘woke’ outrage.
I was reminded that ‘wokeness’ can be virtuous. In a social media conversation, former students recalled what they had learnt from my father, a primary school music specialist who passed a few years ago. I did not recall much of what was reported, but what was reported was undoubtedly true. What gets overlooked in the family history trend is the limits of recall. I do not recall many items of public memory because of my conditioning in personal history. That is true for everyone. What we learn is driven by perception, and what we must do to learn, is to always challenge our perception by civil conversations, open to the perspectives of others. I was grateful for others teaching me about my father’s personal history. There was no ‘woke’ outrage.
Koestler, Arthur (1959, 2014). The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe, Penguin Books Ltd
Lindsay, James and Charles Pincourt (2021). Counter Wokecraft: A Field Manual for Combatting the Woke in the University and Beyond, Independently Published.
Lindsay, James and Charles Pincourt (2021). Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – And Why this Harms Everybody, Swift Press.
Murray, Douglas (2020). The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.
Oakeshott, Michael (posthumous, 1991). Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, Liberty Press
Toulmin, Stephen (30 August 1962). Book Review: Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers. The Journal of Philosophy. 59 (18): 502.
The Intellectual History: Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009), Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990), and Arthur Koestler (1905-1983).
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