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'Woke' to right-wing attempts to enrage and misguide

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Cartoon by Mark David/@markdavidcartoons

The word "woke" is deployed by conservatives to poison the public discourse and appeal to our worst instincts, writes Paul Begley.

“From my faith, I derive the values of loving kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others.”

THIS SENTENCE is from a male MP’s maiden speech to the Australian Parliament on 19 August 2008.

It references six positive values: loving kindness, justice, righteousness, compassion, common humanity, and the welfare of others. In claiming those values for himself, the speaker attributed them to his “faith”, by which he meant his faith in a Christian God, an additional value which took his list of personal virtuous claims to seven.

On the face of it, making claim to those values would appear to be blatant “virtue signalling”, an expression that has commonly been used by conservative advocates to discredit progressive hypocrisy but has been largely replaced by a single word: “woke”.

Which brings us back to the sentence in the MP’s maiden speech. It was delivered by former prime minister politician Scott Morrison, ten years before he rose to become perhaps the most incompetent and self-serving public figure to assume the title of prime minister of Australia.

A cursory look at the wording of Morrison’s sentence leaves the impression that it would be difficult to find an utterance by an Australian politician which has a greater claim to being woke. That said the word woke has travelled a curious semantic path since Morrison’s 2008 speech.

Before disappearing into a twilight zone of meaning, being woke initially referred to being alert to racial prejudice and discrimination, and later came to mean being aware generally of inequalities connected to racial justice, sexism, and so on. With respect to Morrison’s maiden speech, its wokeness simply follows from it being alive to the virtuous attributes contained in the speech, followed by him rhetorically making claims to possess those attributes, greatly stretching credibility in light of his behaviour in public life.

A few weeks ago the Governor of Arkansas, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, banned the use of phrases that she condemned as woke. They included terms such as “pregnant people”, “labouring person” and “birth giver”. The phrases deny the realities of women as the exclusive sex that gets pregnant, goes into labour, and gives birth. It seems politically correct progressives smugly reject those realities and see themselves as virtuous for doing so. That combination of offences earns them Huckabee Sanders’ contempt, best expressed by the conservative trigger word woke, thus warming the hearts of voters from the right.

The problem with Huckabee Sanders’ intervention is that it involves believing there are a great many people, aside from a few ideological outliers, who commonly use these phrases, which is highly doubtful if not fanciful. It’s highly likely Huckabee Sanders was beating up a straw man.

It’s an old trick and one that Huckabee Sanders tried in the past when she was press secretary for President Donald Trump. To support one of Trump’s lies, she claimed that many FBI agents had told her they had no confidence in FBI Director James Comey who had been summarily fired by Trump. When subsequently asked under oath for more detail on which agents and what they said, she admitted making the story up

Huckabee Sanders might be a one-trick pony but she is not alone in using that technique. During Barack Obama’s presidency, it became widely believed, as a matter of fact in "MAGA" circles, that Obama was the leader of a politically correct anti-Christian resistance to the practice of wishing Americans a "Merry Christmas". Only, he wasn’t. Obama publicly wished the nation a Merry Christmas on each of his eight Christmas seasons in the Oval Office, enthusiastically embracing the Christian feast.

The conservatives’ technique involves thinking up something they wish politically correct progressives had said or done and then act as if progressives had actually fulfilled the wish. A former Australian minister in the Morrison Government, Angus Taylor, had signed up to that strategy when giving his maiden speech to Parliament in 2013. To demonstrate his heroic anti-woke credentials, he retold a story about being at Oxford University in 1991 when U.S. feminist author Naomi Wolf lived a couple of doors down the corridor from his college room.

Taylor led the charge, according to his account, against Wolf’s “shrill elitist moral vanity” in attempting to ban the erection of a Christmas tree in the college. His story came unstuck, however, when Wolf heard about Taylor’s speech and made two points: one, she was at Oxford from 1985-88, some years before Taylor claimed to have lived down the corridor from her, and two, despite being Jewish, she loved everything about Christmas, including Christmas trees.

She wondered, in addition, whether Taylor’s reference to her being among the elites was an antisemitic dog whistle.

It may not have been antisemitic, but the conservative temptation to accuse progressive opponents of being elitist is absurd in a special way when it comes from someone like Taylor, a privileged rich boy who was educated at the exclusive and expensive Kings School and Oxford University. He then took up a seat in the Australian Parliament where he exercised the powers of a government minister in the Morrison Cabinet.

By characterising opponents as shrill elitists who foist their moral vanity upon ordinary people like them, even when that characterisation is without foundation, influential conservatives like Taylor and Sanders are then free to stand up and pretend to be suffering indignation as victims.

Huckabee Sanders claimed:

“Frankly, we have had enough, enough of trying to erase women and girls, enough of denying our biological differences from men, and enough of the craziness that is taking over our country."

Powerful rhetoric if you can believe it. The "MAGA" faithful tend to believe it and people like Huckabee Sanders and Taylor know their audience will not have the wherewithal or inclination to question its veracity. No amount of evidence will convince them that the woke Obama happily wished Americans a Merry Christmas year after year despite Trump openly suggesting the contrary in 2016.

Declaring their enemies to be woke has largely replaced other conservative slurs against progressives.  The word woke has increasingly lost touch with its original meaning and become befuddlingly vague. It adds to the existing confusion that purposefully occupies the public space. When an outbreak of fact and clarity would be fatal to populist demagogues, confusion founded on baseless assertions is their best friend.

Injecting the nebulous word “woke” into the space as an accusation against progressive opponents is disarming because the word’s hazy imprecision makes it difficult to digest or contest.

Conservative leaders like Morrison want to signal their claim to virtue and do so constantly. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton accused Anthony Albanese of being divisive during the recent referendum on the Voice, calling on the PM instead to make an effort to unite Australians.

Dutton was the powerful Home Affairs Minister in the Morrison Government who falsely claimed in 2018 that Melbournians were frightened to go out to dinner because “black gangs” were running amok through the city.

Dutton knew, even as he introduced divisive narratives into the public space on racial grounds, that unifying Australians was the virtuous thing to do. He claimed that virtue for himself during the referendum campaign, while dismissing Albanese’s support for the inclusiveness of the Voice as another example of his Government engaging “in the woke agenda they are pushing out”.

Paul Begley has worked for many years in public affairs roles, until recently as General Manager of Government and Media Relations with the Australian HR Institute. You can follow Paul on Twitter @yelgeb.

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