Waking Up to and Canceling ‘Woke’ and ‘Cancel’ Cultures (and the Implicitly Woke Critics Who Try to Cancel Them)
Woke and Canceling: A Quick Look
In its healthiest manifestation nowadays, being and/or staying ‘woke’ refers to an attunement to or an awareness of social justice issues that need to be addressed, and ideally, taking action that addresses them. More generally being woke involves being increasingly able to see “what is” (not just around social issues) beyond the limitations of one’s personal, familial, cultural, etc. biases. No one (that I’ve met, read, listened to, heard of or been) does this 100% successfully. In its least healthy manifestation, being woke refers to an attitude of superiority — being more woke, seeing more than someone or some other group: I’m (or we’re) better than you are. So there. Currently, most folks accused of being, or claiming to be woke are characterized as being more liberal (among other things); most of their opponents and accusers are characterized as being more conservative. These characterizations tend to do more harm than good despite any partial truths they may contain.
A casual review of history demonstrates 1) that the general concept of being or staying ‘woke’ has been around since at least the mid-1800’s in the United States — as in the “Wide Awakes” abolitionist supporters of Abraham Lincoln (and elsewhere at least since Siddhartha Gautama famously woke c. 500 BCE); 2) the specific use of the word ‘woke’ (as opposed to “awoke”) has been around since at least the 1930’s — as in Lead Belly’s (aka Leadbelly) commentary at the end of his song, “Scottsboro Boys”; 3) many folks whose behavior embodies wokeness don’t talk about it or posture as being superior; they simply live as exemplars for the rest of us — the late Congressman John Lewis comes to mind, among others; and 4) as above, some folks who talk about their alleged wokeness wield it as a weapon to point to the shortcomings of others. They (we) can be found everywhere — in the media, government, our neighborhoods, our kitchen tables and even peering back from our bathroom mirrors. Uh oh.
The allegedly woke folks (not the actually woke folks) who wield their wokeness as a weapon of superiority, whom we’ll call unskillful, publicly judge and attempt to ostracize or ‘cancel’ the inferior sleepyheads — pointing out their inferiority, silencing them, and symbolically or literally canceling their membership in whatever they had previously belonged to. Woke critics work at canceling woke people, essentially practicing what they’re allegedly opposed to. If a government agent or agency does this, it’s a First Amendment issue; if anyone else does it, it’s inherently contradictory: if I’m truly woke, I don’t need to judge, shame, silence or cancel you. In fact, I’ll probably model my wokeness by engaging you, when possible, in a conversation that does more good than harm, beyond the talking points, so we can both be woke. Buddha and John Lewis, among others, engaged in such modeling and conversation. The late Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia regularly engaged each other in this way.
The Problem with Wielding Wokeness as a Weapon
The words and behaviors of these unskillful woke folks — again, those who are allegedly woke and behave as though they are superior and right, imply a binary “woke/not woke” universe. One problem with their implication is that they never mention (perhaps because they haven’t woke to them yet) numerous other “awakenings” that are available to us, awakenings that have been researched, identified and studied longitudinally for decades.
The current woke folks’ particular wokeness, whether skillful or unskillful, seems to refer to some of the perspectives that may accompany awakening from a modern to a postmodern worldview, such as a commitment to equal rights for all in practice — which would be the not-yet-realized promise of the U.S. Constitution, its Amendments and other legislation, which emerged in an awakening from a traditional to a modern worldview. Said differently, the framers’ documents outlined a move from “traditional” monarchy to a “modern” representative democracy. It was written by, for and about landowning white men (emphasis on landowning, white, and men). Modernity woke us up to the possibility of democracy, which is more inclusive, balanced and complex than traditional monarchy (Having to do what the king or queen says is waaay more exclusive, imbalanced and simple than electing some people to represent us and letting them tell us what to do). Postmodernity, among other things, woke (some of) us up to notice those pesky landowning (or otherwise wealthy/powerful), white and men traits, and asked where the freedom and equality were for everyone else. Again, modernity gave us the Constitution; postmodernity continues to demand that it apply equally to everyone, and that it be amended as necessary to reflect the realities of the times in which we live. Why would anyone want to cancel this particular wokeness?
There may be anywhere from two, to as many as six (as far as the research shows right now) awakenings available after postmodernity, and some four or five available leading up to it. So those of us who would wield our postmodern wokeness today as a criticism of others are not at the cutting edge of anything (in fairness though, whatever awakening is next for any one of us is our personal cutting edge). When we’re unskillful, we know what we know, we’re oblivious to what we don’t know, and we consider those who are “other” as less than or wrong — just as any fundamentalist or unhealthily reformed _____ (pick your own) does. How I hold my wokeness, not its content, is the issue. If I believe in and behave every day in ways that work toward equality and freedom for all, how much sense does it make to treat as unequal or limit the freedom of those who do not yet so believe or behave? A bit contradictory, yes?
We’ve Been Assuming Wokeness and Canceling Others for Centuries
The Europeans who kidnapped, transported and enslaved Africans, and eventually the Americans who continued and fought for the right to continue that enslavement, encountered cultures they did not understand, believed they were superior to (more woke than), and literally worked, and in some cases still work, to cancel these cultures through both legal and extralegal means such as slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, unequal protections and voter suppression, initially in the name of the economic advantages of unpaid forced labor and later (and still) in a bewildering embrace of white supremacy. The Europeans who bumped into the indigenous peoples on the continents now known as the Americas, and the Americans some of these Europeans chose to become — making that 18th-century monarchy-to-democracy move, believed they were more woke than these peoples whose land they coveted, and literally worked, and in some cases still work, to cancel these cultures through a history of trespass, theft, betrayal and slaughter (in the name of helping them be more like us). To take one example, “Indian” killer and remover, slaveholder, President, and fading face of the $20 bill, Andrew Jackson, stands out as an exceptional ‘woke canceler’, who as President remarked that he had “done his duty to his red children,” and that he would “now leave the poor deluded creeks & cherokees to their fate, and their annihilation.”
From about 1954 through 1974 four U.S. presidents tried to cancel Vietnam’s sleepy insistence on self-determination. Using espionage, bullets and bombs, and despite the experiences of the Chinese, Japanese and French before us, we attempted to impose our bipartisan woke democracy on the Vietnamese (in the name of helping them be more like us). In 2003 we tried it again in Iraq. More recently almost every Republican in the U.S. Congress, led by the 45th President, attempted to cancel the 2020 election results, resulting in an attack on the U.S. Capitol. More examples exist; these will suffice.
While political, media and personal clamoring about “woke” and “cancel” culture is currently popular, it is not new, although its motivations, tools, language and tactics shift with the times. Nat Hentoff’s 1992 volume, Free Speech for Me — But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other, clearly captured our dysfunction and attempts at mutually canceling censorship. Today, elected officials, news commentators, family and friends don’t know how, or choose not, to disagree (or even agree) in respectful, civil conversation. We point our fingers and wring our hands, on average we kill others with guns 39 times a day, we commit suicide 63 times a day with guns, and another 62 times daily by other means, we terrorize American citizens of Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese and other Asian ancestries because we blame the Chinese for a pandemic, we are disengaged or not engaged, anxious and depressed at work (and were before the pandemic). And yes, that’s a selective and limited catalog of issues. We have so much that we need to awaken to and that really does need to be canceled, so to speak, and yet we play on social media trying to cancel voices we don’t like or understand or both. Freedom, equality and justice for all, indeed.
Wherever and however each of us is, another awakening awaits. It doesn’t require (or desire) that we cancel anyone, not even the paradoxically grave and goofy current version of our one precious self, who is longing for an increasingly inclusive, balanced and complex way of being in the world.
Copyright © 2021 by Reggie Marra
Parts of this essay are based on excerpts from Healing America’s Narratives: Owning and Integrating Our National Shadow (forthcoming in 2022).
Notes and Selected Resources
“…characterizations not very useful”: See my Enough with the…Talking Points: Doing More Good than Harm in Conversation (2020).
Lead Belly’s “Scottsboro Boys”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrXfkPViFIE&t=181s
“Postmodern to modern awakening” among numerous others: Some folks who make the transition from one developmental worldview to another wield their new perspective as a weapon in this manner. The postmodern-to-modern “woke” move mentioned in the text is one example.
Useful notes: levels of development can manifest in healthy or unhealthy ways (would you rather live in a healthy monarchy or an unhealthy democracy?); later levels of development are more inclusive, balanced and complex than earlier levels (as in our monarchy-to-democracy example above).
Knowing about development and actually developing are different and neither makes problems disappear, but actually developing does help clarify patterns and differentiate perspectives. Not knowing about development doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. An over-simplified example of earlier through later development can be expressed in the following way, (less woke to more woke): Self-centric (it’s all about me) >> Group-centric (it’s all about us, where “us” can be anything from a couple, to a family, to a team, to a branch of the military to an ethnic group to a corporation to a religion to a nation, etc.) >> World-centric (it’s all about all of us — aka “human-centric”) >> Kosmos-centric (it’s all about all that is — both exterior and interior realms). A significant majority of humans on the planet live through group- and ego-centric perspectives. Some of us can understand what “world-centric” means, and even espouse that view, but we don’t live there. Caring about “all of us” does not mean that we no longer care about specific groups or ourselves; it means that the groups and the self are no longer primary.
A brief sampling of books related to adult development:
Fowler, James. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1981.
Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993 (1982).
Kegan, Robert. In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.
Kegan, Robert and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2009 (pp 11–30).
Plotkin, Bill. Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World. Novato CA: New World Library, 2008.
Wilber, Ken. The Religion of Tomorrow: A Vision for the Future of the Great Traditions. Boulder: Shambhala, 2017 (especially pp. 180–250 / charts pp.190–95).
“bewildering embrace of white supremacy” Some would argue that “states’ rights” and not white supremacy were and are the real issue. The states that historically make that argument all fought to keep slavery, and then to terrorize freed African American slaves. Implicitly inherent in each, and often explicitly expressed, is a belief in white supremacy.
“‘done his duty to his red children’” In Claudio Saunt, Unworthy Republic, p. 97. Saunt cites The Papers of Andrew Jackson Digital Edition, ed. Daniel Feller (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press: 2015). I generally don’t endorse the imposition of current values and perspectives on people of the past, who often did not yet have access to what the present allows us to understand. In this case not everyone thought killing Native Americans was honorable, and there were plenty, albeit not enough, abolitionists during Jackson’s “Indian”-killing and slaveholding days.
“kill others…we commit suicide…” These numbers are based on five-year averages from 2014–2018:
2014–2018: 14,307 gun deaths/year avg. (not suicide) = 39/day; 22,925 suicide by gun = 63/day / 37,232 total annual gun deaths = 102/day: https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/ Accessed April 21, 2021.
2014–2018: 45,500 suicides/year avg. = 125/day: https://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/leadcause.html Accessed April 21, 2021. Search criteria = 2014–2018 / all causes, races, genders and ages.
“we are disengaged or not engaged…at work”: https://news.gallup.com/poll/241649/employee-engagement-rise.aspx (e.g. “34% of U.S. workers are engaged, tying highest in Gallup’s history”)
Among many sources on suicide, depression and anxiety:
Additional works cited:
Hentoff, Nat. Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Saunt, Claudio. Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory. New York: W.W. Norton, 2020.