To Be, or Not to Be, Woke

In France as in the United States, we are currently transitioning from political correctness, now an obsolete term, to a further stage: woke ideology.
A Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles, June 2020. © Sean Lee

It all started in the United States in the early 1980s. Originating in academia, the expression “politically correct” first took over campuses before spreading to Europe. The ambiguous term implied that it was now necessary to be careful of one’s language and behavior towards those who were different in terms of their origins, their sex, their habits, their values, or their way of life. “Politically correct” was at first intended as an insult by its adversaries, but then gradually took on a positive meaning, reappropriated in the same way as the terms “intellectual” and “Impressionism,” which, in France, were also initially terms of derision.

The main point of political correctness was to call for a purging of language, both spoken and written, following the recognition of how much certain words could be like bullets. This revolution brought about the disappearance, first in the United States, then in Europe, of the word “negro” in favor of the term “Black.” This rule is not hard to follow in conversation, but what is to be done with old texts? An emblematic example is whether we should stop reading and teaching Mark Twain in schools on the pretext that the author is always speaking of “niggers,” even though he was in fact against slavery. Must political correctness be retroactive, requiring us to revise the past, or at least our reading of the past?

I would say that watching one’s language so as not to offend someone, even inadvertently, is clearly a step forward socially and morally; it costs me nothing to say “African-American” rather than “the N-word,” if this modest effort of self-control avoids causing suffering. Nor is it hard for me to accept the fact that those who are obese, of shorter stature, living with disabilities, homosexual, or transgender are just as normal as I am; they are simply different. By accepting such differences, we reduce the suffering of “minorities” that are thus no longer minorities, while learning something about ourselves and our supposed normalcy. This process was theorized in the 1970s by the philosopher Michel Foucault, who in the United States is considered the founder of French Theory. Foucault was certainly in a league of his own as an exposer of the institutions and laws that exist behind words and of the violent exercise of power under the fallacious cover of the majority and its normalcy. Foucault took this to excess, but excess is sometimes appropriate to make one’s voice heard in the tumult of debates among intellectuals and in the media.

Because of this very excess, we are currently transitioning from political correctness, now an obsolete term, to a further stage: woke ideology. This is true in both France and the United States. The term, borrowed from African-American slang, simply means “awake.” To be awake is to be aware of all offenses. The list is long, obviously. To be awake is to be particularly attentive to all minorities and to reread the history of our societies from the point of view of their experience. This logic, taken to absurd extremes, expands the notion of minorities: Is not each individual by themselves a minority? To be woke thus requires us to attack all oppression, objective and subjective, even when it is backed up by democracy. #MeToo is the best-known aspect of this woke revolution – a necessary revolution that sometimes leads to condemning the innocent for imaginary harassment. But then there is no revolution without a few innocent parties losing their heads. To be woke, implicitly or openly, requires moving from a patriarchal civilization, now declared archaic, to a new one based on the triumph of difference. To be different is better. This inversion of norms, a kind of cultural carnival, taken to its logical conclusion, leads to what in the United States is called “cancel culture” – not the cancellation of culture, but the culture of cancellation.

This culture, popular in academic circles and on social media, leads to the total silencing of those who do not adhere to the woke ideology, either present or past. The toppling of statues representing formerly praised oppressors, the revision of history books, and the replacing of street or school names are part of this cancel culture. Thus, certain American schools are abandoning their traditional names of Jefferson or Washington, even though these men were founders of the United States, because they owned slaves. In France, according to this same model, Colbert should be relegated to the garbage can of history. While he founded the modern administration under Louis XIV, he also organized the slave trade between French ports (notably Nantes, La Rochelle, and Bordeaux), Africa, and the Caribbean.

If being woke motivates us to reread our history and our philosophies by taking the side of victims rather than victors, it seems to me that this ideology, all things considered, enriches more than it harms – as long as we make good use of it. We can reread history, but not rewrite it. It may be unfortunate that Europeans conquered the Americas, but we cannot behave as if they had not conquered them or erase these conquests. This has practical consequences: Some African-Americans demand reparations because their ancestors were transported against their will to America. But who should receive reparations, from whom, and on what basis? Should we share these reparations with the Arab and African traffickers who delivered the slaves to their colonial masters? If we are going to be woke, let’s go all the way and not only when it is anti-white.

The main risk of the woke ideology is its incoherence. Its sycophants are ablaze for far-off causes, but they fail to apply their investigative methods to themselves. To conclude with a concrete example, I would favor adding some mention of Napoleon’s crimes and his numerous victims to his tomb at Les Invalides in Paris. But I would leave intact the tomb that testifies to his era. To be woke is fine if it adds to what we have, but if to be awake is to take things away, then we sink into insignificance.

Editorial published in the June 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.