The dangers of good intentions
The performative compassion of the woke has blinded many to their tyranny.
There have been many attempts to explain the ascendency of wokeness – that extreme, irrational and unreasonable ideology that has taken over our institutions. Some blame postmodern relativism. Others point to the left’s cultural turn, which has entrenched new forms of identity politics. Add to this the different mindset of newer generations – Millennials and Generation Z are accused of being more sensitive and censorious than their forebears – and the emergence of social media, which have polarised and poisoned political discourse. These explanations are okay. But another reason is seldom mentioned. The truth is, wokeness was allowed to take over.
It was allowed to happen because today’s fanatics appeared to begin with good intentions. They called for tolerance towards gay people and those who don’t conform to gender roles. They were nominally against racism. They wanted to ‘save the planet’. Who could have argued with such noble, commonplace sentiments when they were initially being uttered 20-odd years ago? Few did. It was obviously all well-meaning and nice. And that was why so many let their guard down.
Twenty-odd years later, when much woke-think has become mainstream and even enshrined in law, we must rue forgetting that old adage: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That is the lesson of history. Beware pious idealists with good on their side, boasting ostentatiously of their righteousness and compassion, for they are tomorrow’s fanatics and tyrants. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in 1883: ‘Where in the world have there been greater follies than with the compassionate? And what in the world has caused more suffering than the follies of the compassionate?’
Wokery, including its allied movement of radical environmentalism, emerged a few decades after the fall of a genuine form of ideological totalitarianism: Soviet and Eastern Bloc Communism. From the early 1920s to the mid 1950s, this had seemed an attractive prospect to both insiders and outsiders on account of its good intentions. Yet it went bad from very early on, and it was partly allowed to do so because its crimes and misdeeds were for the ‘greater good’ and therefore excused. George Orwell became attuned to this barbaric, exculpatory mindset during the Spanish Civil War. He satirised it in Animal Farm, with its deluded cart-horses, Boxer and Clover, working themselves to death for an apparently noble cause.
And so it has proved to be the case once more. Wokery is, in many respects, a turbocharged form of 1990s political correctness, which we were all assured was merely about ‘good manners’. Today’s advocates of woke, such as football pundit Gary Lineker and comedian Kathy Burke, likewise protest that it is simply about ‘decency’. Or as the headmaster of Eton College put it this week: ‘If by woke people mean I believe in kindness, understanding, respect, tolerance, treating people decently, trying to have empathy, trying to understand things from other people’s perspectives – then, guilty as charged.’
As with its forebears, wokery began with supposedly good intentions and has ended with all-too-familiar results. There is now censorship, self-censorship and self-condemnation (see Strictly Come Dancing star Amanda Abbington’s apology this week for criticising drag queens for twerking in front of babies). There are public denunciations. People are cancelled or even airbrushed from history (see JK Rowling’s erasure from a Seattle museum’s Harry Potter exhibition last week). Police make arrests for ‘hate crimes’ and offensive social-media posts. Crude binary thinking divides society into enemies or friends. Anyone who isn’t anti-racist is racist; those who question trans ideology are transphobes.
Today’s prevailing ideology clings stubbornly to its founding language of ‘caring’, which is why it has to denounce its foes as merchants of ‘hate’ – even though, ironically, it is the conspicuously compassionate who are now the chief purveyors of hate. Banks speak the language of inclusion and diversity, yet, intoxicated with power and virtue, have no qualms about closing the accounts of people whose politics they disavow. In today’s new doublethink, hate is called love, exclusion is called inclusion and conformity is called diversity.
Self-styled exemplars of moral purity, like the eco-zealots of Just Stop Oil, feel at liberty to behave exactly as they please because people with righteousness on their side always do. The radical trans movement becomes ever more violent for the same reason. The merchants of racial division feel free to foment civil unrest because, after all, ‘Black Lives Matter’ – another ostensibly caring slogan.
Those who boast their good intentions the loudest should always be trusted the least. We should have been on our guard from the outset. As French aphorist La Rochefoucauld wrote back in 1665: ‘Whatever care a man takes to veil his passions with appearances of piety and honour, they always show through.’
The problem with intersectionality
The doctrine of ‘intersectionality’ asserts that all sections of society that aren’t white, straight and male share a common bond and common cause. This was always a self-contradicting, historically illiterate fantasy. The fact that Canada’s Muslims are currently rebelling against prime minister Justin Trudeau’s advocacy of gender ideology should come as no surprise. Drag queens and preferred pronouns were never going to be an easy sell to socially conservative Muslims.
In any case, life is far more complex than intersectionality allows for. Sometimes rich women can be the class oppressors of working-class men. This is why many British male socialists opposed the Suffragettes, who they suspected were seeking the vote to try to shore up their class privilege. Many sub-Saharan African cultures were homophobic and patriarchal long before European colonialism. Historically, Arabs were among the greatest traders in black African slaves. Today, white working-class males in Britain are at the bottom of the heap, educationally and financially. So much for ‘white privilege’ and ‘the patriarchy’.
Out in the real world, there is no neat pyramid of victimhood or privilege.
Down with ‘UK plc’
One of the most deplorable, egregious terms we hear today is ‘UK plc’. It’s used by those who think that the economy is the sole end of politics, not the means to an end of better living standards. It’s used by those who think of human beings as mere units of production and consumption, as cogs in the machine. It’s used by those who have little concept of Britain as a country composed of communities, or as one community, of people.
It’s no coincidence that the term ‘UK plc’ is invariably uttered by those Remainers who have never accepted Brexit and who want to rejoin the EU. These are the types who love money and love cheap labour, and who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Patrick West is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times, is published by Societas.
Picture by: Getty.