Opinion

Change can be intimidating, but that doesn't justify turning words like 'woke' into slurs

The bloodstream of the body politic is receiving a transfusion, and while a few toxins might sometimes be flowing, we’ll all likely be a lot healthier for it, writes Michael Coren.

The bloodstream of the body politic is receiving a transfusion, and we'll all likely be healthier for it

People protest the appearance of Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos in Berkeley, Calif., in this Feb. 2017 file photo. Yiannopoulos was on the last stop of a tour aimed at defying what he called an epidemic of political correctness on college campuses. (Ben Margot/Associated Press)

This column is an opinion by Michael Coren, a columnist, broadcaster, speaker, and the author of 17 books published in 12 languages. He is also an ordained cleric in the Anglican Church of Canada. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Back in the late 1970s while living in the U.K., I took a university course on modern British history. In one tutorial we discussed pre-war fascism and its leader, the repugnant Sir Oswald Mosley, whose black-shirted followers would randomly attack Jewish people in London's East End. One of the young men sitting around the table said, "We had that chap speak at our school once."

Silence. I broke it by asking if there were any Jewish children at the school. Pause. "I rather think there were," he drawled. How, I asked, do you think they felt? His reply: "I have absolutely no idea."

No, he certainly didn't.

It's increasingly fashionable to make fun of, dismiss, even insult concepts of "political correctness" and "woke," and to describe progressive comment as "virtue signalling." The habit, a spasm really, used to be the preserve of the hard right, but has become increasingly common in the mainstream.

The well-known British actor Laurence Fox recently became something of a hero to some, for example, when he appeared on a highly popular weekly television show and made the correct noises for conservative-minded viewers. He then solidified his status by claiming that he would never date a woman under the age of 35 because they are "too woke" and that "woke people are fundamentally racist."

In Canada, federal Conservative Party leadership contender Erin O'Toole ran an ad in January in which he said he would, "defend our history, our institutions against attacks from cancel culture and the radical left."

Cancel culture — the most important issue to everybody in Canada! No doubt he said it because he thinks, or was told, that it hits home within right-wing circles, among people who genuinely believe that free speech and contrary opinion are distant memories. And it probably did.

 Which is odd, because almost every weekend when I look at Twitter I find right-wing journalists trending because of yet another ultra-conservative and provocative opinion expressed in their newspaper column. I also see the same types of people – white, usually male, invariably from similar backgrounds – dominant in politics and business.

Erin O'Toole addresses a federal Conservative leadership forum during the annual general meeting of the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative party in Halifax on Feb. 8. He ran an ad in January vowing to 'defend our history, our institutions against attacks from cancel culture and the radical left.' (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

 I graduated from the University of Toronto last year as a mature student after spending three years studying for a Masters of Divinity degree. Based on all the noise around woke culture, I'd confidently expected a hotbed of censorship and intolerance. In fact, it was incredibly similar to the university I'd attended in Britain three decades earlier, other than the students were generally more studious and less self-indulgent 

Which is not to say that there are not problems. As society evolves and power is redistributed, there will be abuses and extremes. The healthier rhythms of a balanced and just culture will eventually settle, but it's hard to deny that there are people on the far left, sour and jargon-adoring puritans, who seem to define themselves by how offended they are. Sometimes about everything.

They seek to control, curtail and ban, and they can be harsh and even violent. We learn about their excesses, however, not because they are particularly common occurrences, but usually because those who are their victims, tellingly and ironically, have access to media.

But these zealots are a small and vocal minority, and are little different from those on the far right with similar notions.

I appreciate that change can be intimidating, and I say this as a 61-year-old white, straight man. But this doesn't justify sweeping generalizations and turning 'woke' and similar terms into abuse.- Michael Coren

Six years ago, after I embraced a more open and radical view of my Christian faith and in particular spoke out in support of equal marriage, I was banned from speeches, fired from jobs, harassed and vilified. My children's Facebook pages were trolled, my wife received letters demanding that she leave me, and I was accused of being a rapist and a thief. By the very sort of people who shout "woke" at those with whom they disagree. I know this because they said it, and still say it, to me.

That alliance of the polarized and irrational is hardly surprising, and both sides — the far left and the far right — are convinced that it's the other, not them, who is the problem.

I appreciate that change can be intimidating, and I say this as a 61-year-old white, straight man. But this doesn't justify sweeping generalizations and turning "woke" and similar terms into abuse. It's not only facile and inaccurate, it also reveals an enormous misreading of life's realities.

What we might think of as political correctness is, at its best, being socially aware and sensitive.

It's about developing a visceral and emotional understanding, openness to transformation, and the ability to admit painful and often shocking truths about oneself. Privilege isn't linear, but it is genuine — and about the only people to deny that are those who fail to grasp their own possession of it.

A image of Cardinal John Henry Newman is seen at a beatification mass in Birmingham, England, on Sept. 19, 2010. (Andrew Winning/Reuters)

The recently canonized Cardinal Newman, although often adored by modern conservatives, wrote that, "To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." That implies a permanent revolution of new vision, an ever-expanding circle of sympathy and ideas. It's not easy, and if it were it probably wouldn't be the real thing.

It was not very long ago that jokes about racial minorities, LGBTQ2 people, and anybody else outside of society's circle of dominance were mainstream and common. Today most of us cringe when we recall that time, but some still try to justify it with, "They were just jokes!"

Not for their targets.

I'd much rather signal a virtue than scream a vice. And while I've no idea if I'm "woke" or not, I hope I'm not asleep.

The bloodstream of the body politic is receiving a transfusion, and while a few toxins might sometimes be flowing, we'll all likely be a lot healthier in the end.


About the Author

Michael Coren is a columnist, broadcaster, speaker, and the author of 17 books published in 12 languages. His latest book is Reclaiming Faith, about which Stephen Fry writes: 'These essays reveal the integrity, wit and passion of a fine advocate for the best of Christian thought and a faith that encompasses the human as well as the divine.' Coren is also an ordained cleric in the Anglican Church of Canada.

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