The Oxford Union is a debating society where popular notions frequently go to die. Murder is too often the cause of death and sophistry its likeliest usual suspect. Never before have I seen a more clever (and sophistry-laden) attack on climate change activism than at the hands of the Russian-born British comedian Konstantin Kisin at the Oxford Union. And, as with other climate science scoffers, he is wrong.
The problem is he proceeds from a false premise. His premise is — and it’s one he shares with other conservatives — that there really does exist a thing called “woke culture” as he defines it, and that those of us who care about the planet and fight to preserve it are its make-believe and virtue-signalling victims.
Woke culture, Mr Kristin insists, is that naive thing that we who live in the luxury of indoor toilets and regular meals (except, presumably, when we’re fasting) enjoy far too much of. We are soft, and he is here to preach the hard reality of our own folly and why we are so misguided. And that folly, Mr Kristin insists, is the folly of what he keeps referring to as “woke culture.”
It was inevitable that this thing we refer to as being “woke” would ultimately be snatched from us, redefined by conservatives and repurposed as a Republican tool in the politics of mockery. Being woke has cynically become weaponised in order to create division and sabotage social progress. It has been subtly and systematically converted into an obscenity.
If you think otherwise then I put it to you. Ask the average person who uses the word as a familiar and bitter pejorative in the heat of any political discourse to define it. They can’t. All they can do for sure is endlessly parrot that wokeness is the enemy and that people who are woke are baa-ad.
It has been a hugely successful propaganda-driven redefinition of a good word. Just as, back in the 80s, some of the more craven among us referred to being liberal as “the L-word” thanks to Republican destruction of a perfectly fine political leaning, being woke is quickly establishing itself — even among “intellectuals” from Oxford dons to Bill Maher — as a thing to scorn.
But being woke began its life as an adjective derived from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) meaning “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination.” To fight it in its rawest early form is too overtly racist for 21st century conservatives. So instead they developed a narrative to associate it with its most ardently silly followers.
This alchemy was achieved with the same dishonest political legerdemain that associated the Black Lives Matter protests with only that minority part of the movement that caused violence and the destruction of property. It is the goal of Republicans to pervert our own words into rank obscenities that they can then smugly use against us.
So if you bought into the notion that being woke is somehow something to be laughed at then, congratulations, you fell for it. You are the one who bought the propaganda. You are the one who allowed yourself to believe, like Mr Kisin, that something obviously good is something paradoxically bad.
Those among us who think being woke is a bad thing don’t know exactly why they think that, they just know it’s so because, well, so many people they mistakenly think are “clever” have said so. And that, brothers and sisters, is where madness comes from. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.