Being woke is (now) about sensitivity to the needs of others. That is self-evidently good for everyone. How? In what specific ways can being woke be beneficial to well-being? As with almost all factors that help well-being, too much can be as harmful as too little. Where is the line between beneficial wokeness and toxic wokery?
Where does the concept woke come from?
“Woke” was originally a term from African American vernacular English, thought to have emerged in the 1920s or 1930s, meaning: to be aware of (awake to) issues surrounding political and social issues impacting African Americans.
At its best, its meaning has changed to being sensitive to the needs of others. At its worst, it is an insult, meaning so out of touch with the real world as to be rendered a threat to society. A quick search online will reveal a vast number of definitions. A more detailed search will demonstrate how woke is used in many different ways.
Woke has become a word which, as Humpty Dumpty said: “Means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” That is, people seem to use the word as praise or insult, or anything in between, depending on their intention.
Looking at the best contemporary meaning of woke: Being sensitive to the needs of others, it sounds eminently sensible; listening to and understanding the needs of others is an effective rapport formation, conflict prevention and resolution technique.
Has the call to “be woke” been abused? Oh yes. In the same way, almost every philosophical idea in history has been abused.
Almost any ideology taken to extremes becomes the very thing against which it strove, as was so skillfully illustrated by George Orwell in his brilliant book Animal Farm.
In the history of almost every religion, the extremists sought to destroy those who did not believe as they did. They care little whether the destruction is social or existential. Both are harmful to the well-being of those targeted.
Communist ideology, taken to extremes, removes the personal motivation to improve one’s lot in life. Why? All the extra time and effort that any one person puts in goes to benefit others who are not so productive or are plain bone idle. Discretionary effort is withheld when there is no reward or recognition for it. Seeking to have everyone theoretically owning everything has the effect of no-one taking responsibility or ownership of anything.
People without purpose perish; is wisdom as old as the hills. Communism, in its extreme form, led a vast number of people to lose the will to live or to have any concern for their own well-being. They would engage in reckless behaviour, such as drinking themselves to death.
Capitalism, taken to extremes, removes the personal motivation to improve one’s lot in life for vast numbers of people. Why? All the extra time and effort that most people put in goes to benefit wealthy others; those who own the means of production, those who have (by virtue of birth, nepotism, or educational advantage) access to capital that most people do not.
Socialism exists in countries that claim it does not. For example, some US citizens campaign bitterly against the prospect of “socialised medicine” because it is the “slippery slope to communism.” They seem to be unaware that the government they are trying to lobby, of whichever colour, is already a socialised institution.
They seem wilfully blind to the benefits of the socialism they already have, such as their country’s defence, education, public spaces, regulatory bodies, local government… All of these are run by pulling the resources of the many into shared public ownership – socialism. That benefits a vast number of people.
In the EU, every citizen benefits from socialised medicine in various forms. No one dies, for example, because they can’t afford insulin.
Wokery suffers the same fate, as the above extremes, with the same consequences for well-being. At moderate levels, being woke is hugely beneficial. At extremes, it is toxic and destructive. A quick search online will reveal the extend of the toxicity.
Choosing one area at random: “trans rights”. As someone who has been coaching and providing psychotherapy for over 35 years, I have helped many trans people. Gender dysphoria, in all its forms, is real. It has existed throughout history. Some societies even revered their trans people, using whatever name they were given in that culture (two spirits, third gender, ladyboys…).
Being sensitive to the needs of trans people is good citizenry; that is being appropriately woke. When people are surrounded by others who understand them, and accept them for who they are, their physical and mental health are better, and they live longer, more productive lives.
Accusing people who have not yet understood the needs of trans people of being “transphobic” is bad citizenry; that is toxic wokery. People who are subject to vexatious or malicious accusations, insults and false allegations because the don’t understand the needs of trans people, are themselves being treated insensitively, with disdain, and contempt.
Let’s look at the word, transphobic. If you or a relative suffers from the most common phobia, glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, you will know of the drastic change of behaviour, the fear, the terror, when there is even the prospect of being asked to speak in public. That is a phobia, real phobia. It is so severe that people can and do pass out with fear or are paralysed by fear. Genuine phobias impair well-being and can cause deterioration in health.
Few, if any, humans have ever been so impacted by the presence of a trans person. Yes, some people are disconcerted by the presence of a trans person. As with most racism, it is a function of lack of exposure and lack of understanding. Usually, because the disconcerted person is encountering something new, something unusual, something not understood. Experiencing what is perceived to be a potential threat is harmful to our well-being; it is a stressful experience.
Being an unusual person, and being treated as an oddity, is also harmful to well-being. The mental ill health and suicide rate among trans people is much higher than most in the population.
We are hard-wired to process something different as a potential threat. People who grow up in homogenous ethnic cultures are much more likely to be disconcerted when they encounter their first person of a different skin colour. When people meet their first trans or non-binary person, they react in the same way.
By contrast, when people grow up in multi-ethnic, multi-racial environments, they are much more likely to see human diversity as normal and have friends across races and ethnicities. If there was someone in their school who was gay, trans, or non-binary, they are much less likely to be disconcerted. What does that mean for well-being? That giving people contact with those who are different to them, is good for the health of all parties, long-term.
Appropriate sensitivity to the needs of others comes from a combination of exposure and a well-balanced attitude to life.
Alas, there are members of our population who combine a lack of exposure and dysfunctional mental behaviours to cause much harm to the well-being of those around them.
Those with an authoritarian disposition will use whatever social norms exist to manipulate and coerce others.
What would a narcissist do with the concept of woke? They would make it all about them. “You”, you will be told, “ought to be sensitive to my needs”. Which translates from “narcisspeak” (to coin a phrase) into actuality, to mean:
- You need to respect my needs, and if you don’t, you are a bad person.
- I don’t need to even think about your needs.
- The sooner you understand that this is about me, me, me, the better.
That is toxic wokery. It has been known for sometime that exposure to such people is responsible for deterioration in mental health.
The Machiavellians behave in similar ways: “I know you are someone who is respectful of, and sensitive to, the needs of others. Don’t you think you ought to…” at which point their desired manipulative call to action is inserted.
That, too, is toxic wokery.
As for sociopaths and psychopaths, they typically exhibit an exaggerated and more nefarious, version of the above two.
When engaged in their wrongdoing, they will mobilise any ideology to get their way. They will gaslight, deceive, mislead, make false accusations, ask you to behave in one way, and then accuse you of wrongdoing when you do. If you challenge their wrongdoing, you will be accused of “not trusting me,” “undermining my credibility,” “damaging my reputation,” “lacking in sensitivity,” “being incapable of changing your behaviour”, and worse.
That is, expressing legitimate concerns of any kind is twisted and presented as an attack on the person engaged in the wrongdoing for the purposes of controlling the target. When being woke is used as a front, a false flag, to damage and destroy others, it is toxic.
Toxic wokery at its worst, has all the negative impacts you can imagine on the well-being of its targets.
Appropriate levels of wokeness improve relations, but when it reaches the point of intolerance of those who are not ‘woke’, it is becomes toxic. Balanced wokery is progressive, and toxic wokery is oppressive.
That is wonderfully illustrated when people praise themselves for being woke, yet complain when others accuse them of being woke. Being toxically woke is about: “I am right, you are wrong.” That is a classic symptom of paranoid personality disorder.
Authoritarian personalities follow woke culture unquestioningly. They will do any harm to anyone who does not believe as they do. Every genocide in history has been committed by such people. The same is the case for the toxically anti-woke. There, too, you find narcissists, Machiavellians, sociopaths and psychopaths.
At its mildest level, toxic wokery, or toxic anti-wokery, consists of ‘deplatforming,’ and public vilification of those who hold different views.
As with most movements, there is good intention at the start, until there is push-back from people with other views. Then the claims emerge that those who oppose are evil or other. Once the oppositions have been ‘otherised,’ justifications start to emerge as to why those who oppose ought to be harmed or destroyed.
Toxic wokery has followed that same path. Many people agreed that being sensitive to the needs of others is wise. Wokery spread. Then those who were concerned that wokery was being used as a cover to harm them, pushed-back. Then the extreme ‘wokies’ started making accusations, being intolerant of those who didn’t share their view of tolerance. That led to the woke culture war that is now raging between wokies and anti-wokies.
Most ideologies become toxic after they enter the realm of hypocrisy. In wokery, too, that has already happened.
At the same time the cultural appropriation of ‘woke’ was taking place by wokies. Those same wokies were complaining that cultural appropriation was anti-woke. Those who have read George Orwell’s Animal Farm may remember the hypocrisy unfolding: “Four legs good, two legs bad,” with the inevitable drift of the ideology becoming the thing it set out to oppose, morphed into: “Two legs good, four legs bad.”
Alas, that is where toxic wokery is now. Those who express legitimate concerns about the wrongdoing of wokies, (their hostile attacks on others, their insensitivity to others) are targeted and vilified online. Such vile behaviour has changed the meaning of woke.
The Urban English Dictionary listed woke as meaning: The act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue.
For many wokies being woke is no more than virtue signalling. That is a mild form of toxic wokery: claiming to support a cause, but not doing anything about it. Many organisations claim, form example, to value equality, diversity and inclusion, while acting to exclude people from rights, or not publishing the figures for their staff EDI demographic stats. You can imagine how toxic, and harmful to well-being it would be to work in such organisations.
Toxic wokery, in the form of virtue signalling (and not acting on the claims), teaches our young people, by example, to say one thing and do another.
People who are expected to do the opposite of what they say, as in toxic wokery, have more physical and mental health problems. They learn the dark art of public deceit. That, in the same ways, as so brilliantly captured in Animal Farm, destroys trust in people and institutions, and well-being.
That is why so many young people are angry at the world they have come into. They can see through the tissues of lies.
How can we go forward in a way that is beneficial to well-being? We can be sensitive to the needs of others, including those who disagree with us. We can resist the temptation to otherise those who have not yet had enough exposure to people of apparent difference to realise that they, too, are trying to make the best life for themselves in an authentic way; by being themselves.
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.