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Belonging and Social Change: A Critique of the Politics of Wokeness

Being woke and seeing what is wrong serves no good purpose if it is not also aligned to engagement which is aimed at transforming social patterns.

Demonstrators march in San Francisco on Nov. 5, 2011. (Photo: Glenn Halog/flickr/cc)

Demonstrators march in San Francisco on Nov. 5, 2011. (Photo: Glenn Halog/flickr/cc)

We are in an amazing and dangerous time, where the chronic social problems which have caused so much trauma over so many years are coming to be seen as urgent and in need of attention by a rapidly increasing number of people. As so many people become “woke” to these problems, it is important that we develop a culture of social change that is ready to hold those people in a positive and supportive community.

And yet, in many social justice circles, and especially online, the world of social justice is in danger of becoming a circular firing squad, where people fight to see who is the most woke, and where they see activism as primarily about challenging the lack of wokeness in others. If we want to make real progress in fighting the forms of domination that are destroying our lives and the habitability of the planet, we need to find ways to support each other in learning how to work together for social change. Some of that has to do with having empathy for people who are just coming to consciousness. Some of it has to do with seeing what we are facing as related to institutional structures that need challenging, as opposed to simply being about identity and interpersonal interactions.

As people get woke about what is wrong with the world they begin to see the hidden patterns and structures of power underlying social reality. Hopefully, after that they find a way to take that understanding and turn it into action to build a better world. And when all is really going well, that engagement becomes a positive aspect of a person’s life. Challenging the mainstream, having the audacity to believe that one can make a difference, and committing time to challenging power are not easy. People stay in that game and are successful in making a difference when they feel that they are part of a larger team of millions of people who are building a world that worlds for us all.

That’s what happened for me. I got politicized in 1980 around opposing U.S. support for the dictatorship in El Salvador. I became engaged right away, and through that engagement, discussed, read, and analyzed. I ended up simultaneously doing work to change the world, deepening my consciousness, and coming into contact with amazing people who became close friends and allies, and who enriched my life.

I worry now that many people who are coming to have a clear understanding of what is wrong with the world are not also getting swept up into meaningful action or into relationships that sustain them. Recently, I’ve met many young people who are very aware of the systems of domination in which they live, but who find the world of social change so toxic they don’t become activists. Or if they do, they leave after a few short years.

Being woke and seeing what is wrong serves no good purpose if it is not also aligned to engagement which is aimed at transforming social patterns. And no one is going to stay in the work of social change in ways that make a real difference over the long term if they don’t find it nurturing and healing. Unfortunately, some people will stay in an unhealthy relationship to social change because like a moth to a flame, it satisfies a psychic need, without healing that need.

The Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire named the process of coming to see the problems of the world and simultaneously coming to see the possibilities for engaging in social change critical consciousness. Before coming to critical consciousness, people are likely to have an orientation to the world that takes things as they are as given, and positions them as following the mandates of society to carry out the roles that they are offered. This orientation to the world perpetuates systems of oppression. After coming to critical consciousness, in Freire's view, we see the structures of power, we see our own places in them, and we come to be agents capable of transforming society in ways that help us break the repetition of those entrenched structures of power.

But what happens when we come to consciousness of those structures of power in a social system that creates us as fundamentally disconnected from one another? Freire developed his work among non-literate peasants in rural Brazil. The peasants who Freire worked with were oppressed by capitalist economic practices, and governments that supported them. That system denied them access to the land they needed to survive. It policed the control of land through violence. But those peasants were not fully articulated into capitalist cultures of consumer consciousness. They lived in communities which were structured with deep patterns of domination, but also with complex systems of community interdependence. They were not raised in a society which told them from day one that their purpose for existence was to pursue pleasure and individual happiness.

In a more thoroughly capitalist world, where our connections with one another are structured by deep patterns of disconnection, where the systems of meaning through which we perceive our places in the world have been completely colonized by consumerism and individualism, the problem of critical consciousness has a new set of challenges.

People getting woke in twenty-first century industrialized societies often experience themselves as profoundly disconnected from others. Coming to consciousness in a toxic culture of individualism and consumerism can make it difficult to find the next necessary steps to unraveling structures of power: engaging in effective action. Effective action involves coordination with others to transform social patterns. It involves strategy. It involves action toward often far off and elusive goals. It requires persistence when it seems like things are going nowhere and the work isn’t especially gratifying. It involves relationships. All of those things require an investment of ourselves in collective work with others. And it involves seeing ourselves as members of something larger than our individualized self. Most effective work toward social change requires us to think strategically and to act boldly. It is about what we do to transform social structures more than it is about the purity of who we are as an individual. The history of the pains we have experienced based on our identities as members of oppressed groups can help us to see the depth of the problems we face. When we connect with other members of those groups, it can help us build strategies based on a deep understanding of the systems of domination we face. But what we do to build a movement for effective action is more important than who we are as individuals.

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Systemic domination leads to trauma. When social change work is done right, being involved can be incredibly healing. Much social justice work involves putting our pain into a larger context of systems of domination, and working to change the things which have harmed us. Seeing oneself not as a victim, but as an agent of social transformation, can help us develop new empowering narratives of ourselves as part of a large-scale process of healing. And in that work, it is possible to heal oneself as one heals the world.

But there are also ways that this work can go wrong. A focus on one’s own pain, which constructs the individual as a lonely victim, can actually entrench that pain further. And when that work is done without developing positive relationship with others, and real action toward change, it can lead to further isolation.

Unfortunately for the development of effective action for a social justice, there is a tempting bypass to the hard but rewarding work of developing real relationships around effective action to heal the world. That bypass resonates beautifully with so much that is wrong with the world as we find it: the politics of wokeness which thrives in the world of social media activism.

Many people who have consciousness of what is wrong with the world then use that consciousness as a cudgel to bash others with who aren't quite as woke as they are. They engage in what scholar and activist Elizabeth Martinez called the Oppression Olympics. By focusing on the ways that one is oppressed and calling out people who don't see the problems and know the language of domination as well as themselves, they gain a sense of righteousness that makes them feel good in the very short term. But that sort of righteousness does not contribute to healing their individual trauma or the social traumas that cause them pain.

Discussing her disillusionment with social justice communities, author Kai Cheng writes:

i became quite valorized in my local community as a “good” upholder of social justice because I was very good at using the right language and doing the right things, and i tended to apologize unreservedly and perfectly when i “fucked up.” i now recognize this as a skill borne of trauma: the ability to ceaselessly and accurately scan the people in one’s environment for a sense of what will please them and to enact it, no matter the cost to one’s long term health. this skill is a brilliant short-term survival strategy, as most trauma strategies are, designed to negotiate the unpredictability and cruelty of punishment — and unfortunately, much of social justice is deeply embedded in a punishment narrative.

Cheng goes on to argue that it is crucial to base our social justice work on compassion and building a healthy world, as opposed to punishing people who are oppressive. She quotes Adrienne Maree Brown, who, in her book Emergent Strategy, writes:

You have the right to tell your story […] You do not have the right to traumatize abusive people, to attack them publicly, or to sabotage anyone else’s health. The behaviors of abuse are also survival based, learned behaviors rooted in some pain. If you can look through the lens of compassion, you will find hurt and trauma there. If you are the abused party, healing that hurt is not your responsibility, and exacerbating that pain is not your justified right.

The alternative to playing out our trauma by living online and trying win the Oppression Olympics, is to focus on the bigger picture of the beloved world we are trying to create, and to try as much as possible to enact that world in our work to get there. Prefigurative politics is a concept developed in the 1970s by feminists who wanted to develop a politics that was not just about working miserably for a future utopia. Rather, it focused on trying as much as possible to live those utopian values of care and non-oppression in our work to build a better world. And just as most of us are targets of some form of oppression, we are also in a variety of ways carriers of privilege. I have found that as people begin to develop critical consciousness, doing a little bit of work to focus on the ways that one has privilege and to develop a sense of humility based on that, can go a long way to cutting through the toxic culture generated by only focusing on how woke one is based on the ways that one has been oppressed.

Another important cure for destructive wokeness is to take one’s politics offline. In the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements we can see that there are forms of connection we have online which can be effective at spreading useful ideas, sharing strategies, and transforming cultural meanings. But so much of what is transformational in both of those movements has happened when the energies unleashed by those connections, which flow so quickly online, have been also captured and mobilized by people working in communities of practice on the ground to achieve common goals. The relationships which are formed in face to face work, which also involve sharing meals, sharing fun, and relying on each other for mutual support, are a crucial counter to the feelings of alienation, and the experiences of cruelty, which are routine online.

Many of us who have been targets of systems of oppression carry trauma from wounds of misrecognition, silencing, violence, and poverty. Social justice work is about creating a world where those things don't happen to people, where we transform the social systems that cause most of the trauma that people experience. And yet as we work to challenge the systems that create that trauma, we need to ask if what we are doing is simply playing out our pain. Or are we transforming the systems that cause that pain, and building a better world for ourselves in the present, and for others in the future. Doing that requires an investment of time and energy in building positive caring relationships with others who are also engaged in the effective thoughtful work challenging systems of domination.

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Cynthia Kaufman

Cynthia Kaufman

Cynthia Kaufman is the author of Getting Past Capitalism: History, Vision, Hope and Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change. She is the Director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action at De Anza College. She blogs at cynthiakaufman.wordpress.com.

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