Yesterday I fired off a Twitter thread about Orwell and political correctness. It was my good fortune that the author Dorian Lynskey (author of a ‘biography’ of Nineteen Eighty-Four) chose to retweet it, which meant a few other people did too. I thought I might as well set out the thread here, as a service to those of you who still prefer an artisanal blog post over commodified, disposable tweets.
I see people are discussing George Orwell with regards to ‘political correctness’ and ‘wokeness’ which they regard as ‘Newspeak.’ I think that’s a mistaken analogy. #
What do people mean when they use the term ‘woke’ in a political context? By the time it crossed my radar, it had come to mean, simply, an acceptance that racism, sexism and other prejudices were still a problem for society. With that definition in mind, I always thought it slightly weird for anyone to seriously describe themselves as ‘woke’ – especially if one was white and male. For a short time my Twitter bio was tautological-for-fun: Woke Free Speech Bro (until an incredibly embarrassing case of context collapse involving a famous author that I’m too embarrassed to link to). ‘Woke’ has become a term of derision and mockery. Over the summer I asked this:
I just realised that I don’t ever recall hearing the word ‘woke’ (in its new, political/social sense) used in a way that wasn’t pejorative or ironic. Are there still communities where it’s used seriously?
At last! A neologism for a concept that I have long believed needs to be named and critiqued. In a discussion about political correctness on the Ezra Klein Show podcast, journalist Adam Serwer describes what happens when members of a politically powerful group get outraged. When candidate Barack Obama said that certain people ‘cling to guns’… when candidate Hillary Clinton called a segment of the electorate ‘deplorables’ … when Labour MP Emily Thornberry posted a picture of white van and an English flag on the streets of Rochester… they were vilified. Yet somehow, none of these furore were coded as Political Correctness, which was something I moaned about at the time of the Thornberry gaffe. It seemed to me then, and now, that the label ‘political correctness’ is a right-wing stick with which to beat minority group concerns, an act of dismissal and de-legitimisation. Serwer says that we need to give a name to the kind of right-wing outrage that comes when one of their groups is shown disrespect. He suggests ‘populist correctness’ which sounds just right to me.
Over the past few days a debate has erupted concerning a tweet posted by the historian Mary Beard. Here it is.
Of course one can’t condone the (alleged) behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti and elsewhere. But I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain “civilised” values in a disaster zone. And overall I still respect those who go in to help out, where most of us wd not tread.
This Tweet provoked a furious backlash from people accusing her of a kind of veiled colonialism. Professor Beard wrote a follow-up blog to clarify her remarks and posted a photo of herself in tears. One of her Cambridge University colleagues, Priyamvada Gopal, posted a scathing critique of Beard’s tweet and clarification, writing
I’m afraid that your good intentions notwithstanding, it is precisely this genteel patrician racist manner and this context of entrenched denial in which your tweet on Haiti, ‘civilised’ values (scare quotes noted but not enough, I’m afraid) and disaster zones was received. … Your subsequent blog post, to not put too fine a point on it, did little to help your cause and is regarded by many as a ‘no-pology’, a stubborn refusal to see what was wrong with your original post and taking refuge instead in the familiar posture of wounded white innocence.