By Terry Liew
It’s become somewhat of a liberal badge of honour in recent times or so to be considered “woke”; to be considered aware and hip to the intricacies of our vibrant, multicultural global society that we live in; to understand where the lines are defined, and to acknowledge the richness of humanity around us. Want to make a comment about appearances, or race and gender rights? You gotta stay woke. Make sure you know exactly what you’re talking about, or you’ll just end up sounding like, say, Trump, or a certain pharmacy label. Unfortunately, like all good things, it can also be taken too far.
“No!” I hear you, Mr Straw Man for The Liberal Left, say. “You can’t be too woke! How can being woke be a bad thing?” Uh, yes, it can. It’s a bad thing if you’re using it to validate your being an asshole.
Before we proceed, let’s take a look at what being woke has been all about.
Merriam-Webster notes that the term first entered pop culture with Erykah Badu’s 2008 track “Master Teacher,” where she sang about how she “stays woke”. In her piece on woke-ness, New York Times writer Amanda Hess refers to David Stovall, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Erykah brought it alive in popular culture,” says Stovall, “She means not being placated, not being anesthetized. She brought out what her elders and my elders had been saying for hundreds of years.”
The term, however, really kicked off three years ago following the Michael Brown shooting in America, and the inception of the Black Lives Matter movement (All Lives Matter, amiright?). Conversations about acknowledging the black struggle and the intricacies of white/black relations received a huge pop culture boost.
The term eventually extended itself to other cultural conversations: the place of the forgotten Asian in white American society, gender rights and norms, the LGBT movement. It rejuvenated social justice warriors everywhere – especially on websites like Tumblr, where you can’t go for more than a few clicks without getting into an argument about how you need to acknowledge gender norms, you un-woke cis white male scum.
And despite it having started as a black American conversation, the concept has lent itself very well to other contexts globally. It has done well here in Malaysia, being more or less second-nature to Malaysians used to navigating the weird waters of a deeply multicultural society. I imagine that liberal (i.e. less dogmatic) Malay Muslims, for example, by their very nature have to be woke to a certain extent – where is the line between illiberal religion and acknowledging other less traditionally acceptable cultures?
The same goes for the other races and cultures; the less dogmatic Chinese and Indians have to know where the boundaries should lie in this officially-Muslim nation. Malaysians as a whole have to remember that the Orang Asal and Asli, no matter which part of the nation they come from, have a much larger place beyond the “dan lain-lain” label (Hell, they fill the majority of two whole states). And as for gay rights, well, everybody knows it isn’t easy being gay in Malaysia.
By its nature, being woke seems anathema to the conservative, religious right. “Damn these liberals and their endless banging on about gay rights,” they say. “Homosexuality is a liberal, secular disease! We can cure it!” (cue intense water therapy) “Get religion!” They tend to hate the liberal tendency to, you know, acknowledge human rights.
Sometimes, though, I wonder whether liberals realise just unhelpful they can be at times to their own cause. They tend to be rather militant about their opinions. In fact, they can be just as militant as they think conservatives are, ramming their opinions down others’ throats. On the Internet, people react quickly to perceived slights on justice, posting and commenting the offending party down to oblivion. In some cases, the debate stops being one, and becomes monkeys in a cage match chucking shit at each other.
That sort of “debate” brooks no leeway. There is no room for actual agreement. It’s no wonder that the religious right feels cornered and threatened. That’s the opposite of conflict resolution; it’s conflict escalation. The more liberals push, the more the conservatives will feel like their way of life is at stake, and dig their heels into the ground.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I understand that the fight for human rights has to be loud and aggressive to get through the bigots and extremists, themselves being the poster children for “loud and aggressive”. Sometimes, we have to just break down the walls of prejudice. The recent Watsons blackface debacle is a perfect example of that; such ignorant rubbish really has no place in modern society today, and deserves all the flak it gets. After all, those who seek public attention will get it.
But liberals would do well to remember that actual, intelligent conservatives exist. They can be found behind the scenes, unrepresented by the talking heads in the media. These are the people liberals need to engage in conversation with. This conversation needs to be louder than anything else. It must rise peacefully above the militant roar of both sides. There’s a time and space for the Malcolm X approach, and a time and place for the Martin Luther King approach. We have to know when to come with closed fists, and when to come with open arms.
Ideally, the latter approach should take centre-stage. But it doesn’t. Instead, we have people shoving their woke dicks down everybody else’s throats. In some places, it’s become a dick-measuring contest to see who’s more socially aware. Take the recent Manchester attack for example, when an Islamic State-affiliated suicide bomber attacked an Ariana Grande concert. People died, children were hurt, families mourned…It pains me to say it, but well, we’re not unfamiliar with such circumstances anymore, not for a long time.
The Westerners reacted in much the same way they do in such cases: They held a benefit concert. It was fitting, considering how the previous party was ruined for all its teenage concertgoers. It was a statement in itself: no matter how the terrorists try, they will not destroy our capacity to hope and love. It was a brief Hallmark/Kodak moment in the midst of a very trying few weeks, as the Islamic State increased attacks all over the world.
Then the backlash began. An article in the Independent was posted following an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed 90 and injured more than 400. “Where is the minute’s silence for them?” wrote author Thaslima Begum. “There will be no one minute silence to pay tribute to the victims of Isis’s latest murder rampage. No “I heart Baghdad” captions or #JesuisKabul hashtags. But the atrocities that struck both of these cities are just as devastating as the attack that recently took place in Manchester.” It was a well-written, thoughtful piece to remind the Western world that violence happens everywhere, from all quarters against all quarters. The majority of those killed in the attack were Muslims, a sign that terror has no religion but itself.
It was a good reminder – one that “woke” people online instantly took up arms over. “Yeah,” they cried in Facebook comment sections, “where’s the minute’s silence for the people in Kabul? Where’s the benefit concert?” They may have thought that they were being super woke. They may have thought that they were doing their part in pointing out injustice – which, to be fair, they did.
But all that really came out was: “Look how cynical I am. I know my shit. I am an asshole”. Because you are hitting awfully low-hanging fruit if you are going to criticise a benefit concert for the victims of a suicide bombing…which itself happened at a concert.
We’re no strangers to the argument Begum made. It’s been made many times. #JesuisKabul is in itself a reminder of #JesuisCharlie, the hashtag that trended after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015. We live in an inordinately Western and Eurocentric world, a reality manifest in Facebook’s news algorithms and the other primarily American-made websites we use. There will always be more sympathy ready for Western attack victims; such attacks are viewed as attacks on the West’s bubble of safety and comfort, while killings in “war-torn” countries are treated as par for the course. It shouldn’t be so, of course.
All lives should remain equal, something that we must constantly remind ourselves of and move towards.
But it is completely an asshole move to use that argument on the Grande benefit concert. Let the children have their fun. We’d do the same if it were our children.
I started this piece intending to rant about these concert-hating killjoys. Before I could start, however, it became a collection of musings on what it means to be a woke Malaysian, because as Malaysians, we know sedikit-sebanyak about what it means to be oppressed, whether by the race-centric institution or by religious extremists. We have to constantly fight to be recognised as Malaysians and people, not just the colours of our skin or our sexual orientations.
But it is possible to take it too far.