Anglo-Saxon Cultural Revolution

By Isabelle Liew

From #BlackLivesMatter to #MeToo protests, identity-based social justice movements are proliferating throughout the Anglo-Saxon world with America at its epicentre. Lumped under the umbrella term ‘woke’, some laud these movements as a force for much-needed reform [1] while others decry it as a destabilising force shaking the foundations of Western liberal democracy. [2]

While we may have only just found a (new) label to identify them with, identity and social justice have always intersected to drive millenarian movements. Looking back, the French Revolution, Latin American decolonial movement and the British suffragettes rode on a similar identity-based social justice narrative to campaign for greater equality. Closer to home, the 1965 Malaysian Malaysia campaign similarly called for racial equality in the Federation of Malaya [3] while the Singapore Council of Women successfully advocated for the Women’s Charter to be passed in 1961, a watershed moment which guaranteed women the right to property as well as rights and legal protection after divorce. [4] All these movements were arguably woke for their time and some have since been lauded as major milestones of human rights and freedom. Disruptions are jarring, but also opportunities for those quick to strike. Like its predecessors, wokeism may very well be another opportunity for civil society groups to capitalise on a more politically and socially conscious youth demographic to push for their vision of equality in Singapore.

Unlike past movements, however, wokeism has democratising technology on its side and is emanating most strongly from America. As the movement is fuelled by fundamental shifts in societies that have historically driven similar social justice movements, it is likely to thrive across space and time. Given its impending arrival on our shores, how can we begin to understand the movement and its implications for Singapore?

#StayWoke

Being woke is not new. The term was first used in the 20th century as a clarion call for a global Black consciousness that was attuned to the injustices of their social and political realities. These movements are often identity-specific and advocate for structural reform to remedy the injustice that particular identity groups face over others. [5]

The term saw mainstream resurgence after the 2014 #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) protests in Ferguson but remained largely used for racial justice activism. [6] Following a spate of identity-based justice movements in recent years such as the #MeToo movement, the 2020 #BLM protests and trans rights movement, ‘woke’ has evolved into a catch-all phrase to describe someone who is acutely aware of the social injustices faced by certain marginalised identity groups.

Broadly speaking, the woke movement and its proponents are motivated by the belief that individuals are functions of their group identities such as race, gender and sexuality. [7] In turn, these group identities define one’s position and experiences in society. But these identities are not flatly laid but stratified, where some identities are inherently oppressed while others, oppressors. In her critically acclaimed book on White Fragility, associate professor of education Robin DiAngelo mused that “white identity is inherently racist…I strive to be ‘less’ white”. [8] Her book has gone on to be a must-have in anti-racism and diversity, equity and inclusivity (DEI) training in many firms. Looking at college campuses, campaigns to decolonise syllabi also often criticise the exclusive focus placed on literature produced by cis-gendered, heterosexual white men while side-lining those produced by women or racial minorities. [9] Hence, we live in a Manichean world where some identities are oppressed over others, wherein oppression is an ordinary state of affairs perpetuated by institutionalised power structures such as college campuses, the courts and the press. Consequently, the movement typically advocates for society-wide structural reform because oppression is inherently baked into structures. This is evident from calls to #DefundthePolice during the 2018 #BLM protests and the #MeToo movement’s push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in America. [10]

The Trial by #CancelCulture

While street protests are the most visceral tool for woke activism, conservative pundits have taken greater issue with its social media counterpart: #cancelculture. This typically involves social media users criticising others for posting content that demean certain identity groups on public platforms, especially those that have been historically oppressed such as racial and sexual minorities. In this way, #cancelculture sees itself as a check-and-balance to hold users accountable to hate speech that slips through the cracks of social media censorship. In turn, it aims to get users to rethink their online behaviour and discourage them from posting offensive content which would otherwise be taken for granted as responsible, decent speech. By definition, #cancelculture is simply a grassroots, decentralised mechanism through which guidelines on acceptable online speech is enforced.

However, writers N.S Lyons and James Lindsay push back against this to argue that #cancelculture has become synonymous with the progressive, ‘woke’ leftists in American politics. [11] Echoing the rhetoric of various conservative politicians, they claim that #cancelculture is partisan weapon used by woke liberals to impose their totalitarian vision of free speech on the ‘unwoke’. Other writers have even likened it to the violent censorship of China’s Cultural Revolution [12] and an Orwellian dystopia come true. [13] Undeniably, #cancelculture has fallen down a slippery slope to encourage online vigilantism and trial by virtual mob rule. Instead of its proffered goal of educating users on what might be construed as offensive to others, the anonymous virtual mob often pounces to persecute the slightest infractions observed on social media, be it decade-old tweets or images taken out of context. [14] This has led to a culture of knee-jerk criticisms that risks valid but alternative perspectives being silenced in the name of hate speech, however vaguely defined that may be by the amorphous virtual ‘blob’. For example, New York Times staff rallied on Twitter to pressure the editorial page editor to resign after he published an Op-Ed by a Republican senator calling for military intervention against the 2018 #BLM protestors. [15]

Most importantly, #cancelculture has escaped the digital and creeped into the physical world. As our digital and physical lives grow more synonymous with each other, being cancelled online has very real-world consequences. Ever since the 2018 #BLM protests, companies have rushed to jump on the woke bandwagon to display their solidarity with social justice movements by dismissing cancelled employees and proactively implementing DEI/anti-racism training. [16] While some perpetrators may have deserved their online comeuppance, the bitesize nature of social media allows for information to be easily decontextualised and judged by mob rule, resulting in firms sometimes dismissing cancelled but innocent employees without due diligence. In his 2021 book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion has Betrayed Black America, American linguist John McWhorter argues that illiberal neo-racism is masquerading as antiracism today. Instead of fighting for racial justice, the woke movement’s version of antiracism is harmful to Black Americans because it is more obsessed with performing virtue and dismisses years of monumental progress since the abolitionist and civil rights movement. In this way, the movement’s use of #cancelculture not only stifles civil discourse and hijacks due process, but only encourages low-cost, high-noise virtue signalling and not productive reform. [17] Nevertheless, the rush for social media users and the private sector to ally themselves to the woke movement reflects the allure of its flexible, and easy-to-apply worldview of identity politics.

This appears to ring true as many of the movement’s key ideologies have already spilled over to neighbouring Anglo-Saxon countries. The 2018 #BLM protests inspired a wave of similar protests in France, South Korea and Indonesia. [18] Beyond the grassroots, the United Kingdom has introduced increasingly draconian hate speech laws and Canada has implemented laws protecting specific identity groups such as expediting access to hormone therapy and sex change surgeries for trans individuals. Closer to home, #cancelculture is gaining traction as various public personalities, such as local political candidate Ivan Lim, have suffered from social media backlash and boycotts after online allegations of elitism and/or racism. [19] These examples signal that elements of the woke movement and its ideologies on identity politics are virulent enough to find footing outside of America and in our own backyard.

Fundamental Shifts are at Play

Underlying the virulence of the woke movement are three fundamental shifts in society, namely a generational, technological and psychosocial shift. Given that these shifts are not exclusive to the Anglo-Saxon world nor are they likely to reverse in the near future, we can expect woke ideologies to persist across space and time:

Generational

Youth intellectuals are at the epicentre of this movement, as they have historically been at other points of cultural change. Writers James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose credit the rise of the woke movement to a university ‘lab leak’, [20] where youth intellectuals, disgruntled by the failure of the existing world order to explain persistent social problems, look towards alternative ideologies that they were first exposed to on college campuses. A leading school of thought within the movement is Critical Race Theory (CRT), an offshoot of the Frankfurt School’s Critical Theory. Adopting a similarly structuralist approach to understanding the pathologies of society, law professor and CRT juggernaut Kimberlé Crenshaw described it as “a way of looking at law’s role platforming, facilitating, producing, and even insulating racial inequality in our country”. [21] As much as Republican senators lambast CRT as divisive and indulge in it as a political flashpoint, [22] there is allure to alternative ways of thinking for college-educated youths who observe persistent social injustices that remain unresolved by the incumbent order.

While Critical Theory is far from novel, the central role it plays in motivating the woke movement in America may be due to a generational shift. Writer Tanner Greer quipped that “culture wars are fought for the unborn” as new ideas are not meant to appeal to contemporaries but to future cohorts that preserved and refined them. [23] This generational churn may explain why Critical Theory, although not particularly new, is finding ground amongst college-educated youths and racial justice activists. [24]

Similarly, Robert Putnam argues in Bowling Alone that changes in social capital, trust and norms in 20th century America did not occur because people replaced old ideas with new ideas; instead, a cohort change occurred where new people with new ideas replaced old people with old ideas. [25] Building on this idea of generational change, Putnam and Shaylyn Garrett’s new book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, hypothesised that America will enter a new Progressive era because of an “I-we-I” cycle. [26] Much like America today, the Gilded Age was characterised by growing economic inequality, worsening political polarisation, low social cohesion and unfettered individualism. Following the growth of trade unions, universal high school education, democratic reformists and an emphasis on family and community, America entered the Progressive Era which saw greater economic and social equality, a vibrant civil society and a communitarian culture. This then reversed or at least flattened since the 1970s, pushing America today to the cusp of another upswing to come. Hence, the youth dominated woke movement signals the return of ‘we’ culture and a reformist instinct that will usher in an era of egalitarian reforms, common prosperity and social cohesion. Regardless of whether the woke movement is a boon or bane, it is undeniable that it is fuelled by a generational shift that is unlikely to be reversed. As more youths become college-educated and enter into positions of power, we can expect woke ideologies to persist into the future and spread beyond the ivory tower, onto the streets. But will this allow the movement to spread beyond the American or Anglo-Saxon context?

Technological

What distinguishes the woke movement from previous revolutions is the pivotal role that technology has and will continue to play. The advent of Web 2.0 and its emphasis on user-generated content means that users around the globe have unprecedented access to each other’s ideas. [27] Hence, the technological shift has created a ripe environment for woke beliefs to travel beyond the streets of America and into other parts of the world instantaneously. In addition, sharing functions such as upvotes, hashtags and Reddit forums have created new modes of organisation, allowing for like-minded individuals to collectivise into virtual communities. With the ease of mobilising virtual mobs unconfined by geography, localised identity politics are also rapidly broadcasted in real-time to a global audience. In turn, this internationalises local identity politics and pressure for local reforms will increasingly be backed by a decentralised but global network of activists. This can range from mounting simultaneous movements within their local contexts as seen from the “Koreans for Black Lives Matter” protest [28] or indigenising these narratives as seen from the French #BLM and the #PapuanLivesMatter movement in Indonesia. [29] Following the resurgence of the #BLM movement in 2020, Singaporeans were also expressing allyship with the movement by linking #BLM resources on their social media accounts, or even blacking out their accounts for Blackout Tuesday. [30]

With social media as its super spreader, woke beliefs and its narratives on identity politics can no longer be contained to the American or the Anglo-Saxon world. As more youths port their lives over to the digital world, a cultural change in America may soon find greater footing in the rest of the world. Armed with #cancelculture, woke narratives of identity politics and social justice are likely to grow into implicit rules to abide by in the virtual world. As the boundaries between the physical and virtual world continue to blur, these virtual rules, as defined by the virtual mob, may very well be translated and applied to the physical, regardless of geography.

Psychosocial

Economist Tyler Cowen once expressed optimism that woke principles will become America’s next big cultural export and deliver the ‘right’ liberal democratic values to the rest of the world, especially to countries that “could stand to be a little more woke” like Saudi Arabia. [31] But, people are not mindless consumers of American media. Underlying these shifts, there is something much deeper at stake that may predispose people towards woke beliefs. Referring to the rational modernity of 20th century Western society, Sociologist Max Weber argued that the relentless pursuit of science chained mankind to an infinite staircase to nowhere, robbing modern life of meaning and control while engendering deep-seated disenchantment. [32] Echoing Weber’s disenchantment, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman posited that we are living in an age of liquid modernity, where globalisation has created relentless flux. Therefore, identity is not a given fact but an exercise in self-building and communities atomise into utility-driven units. [33] This can become crippling for the self as a sense of identity, meaning and community are key psychosocial needs that are hardwired in us all. Given the rational and liquid modernity of our times, woke beliefs appeal to our disenchantment by offering that much-needed identity (being woke), community (organised around a collective consciousness of identity-based injustices) and meaning (the goal of ending these injustices through pushing for structural reform).

In their essay on Postmodern Religion and the Faith of Social Justice, James Lindsay and Mike Nayna argue that the Woke movement has evolved into an ideologically motivated moral community not unlike established religions. This is partly because it feeds into those basic psychosocial needs, as did older religions. [34] But then again, this is not particularly new. Looking into history, political theorist Angelo M. Codevilla draws parallels between the millenarian mobs of history and the woke movement. Spanning the Crusades, the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, revolutions are often born out of ordinary struggles by appealing to a disenchanted populace suffering from injustice. [35]

The woke movement echoes these past revolutions and their millenarian mobs in its quasi-religious zeal to eradicate identity-based injustices. Like their predecessors, the disenchanted youths today may simply be looking for something to plug the god-shaped hole in their souls carved out by our rational and liquid modernity.

Re-Enchantment is Knocking

These psychosocial needs are not exclusive to the American or Anglo-Saxon context. Within Singapore, re-enchantment may already be here: megachurches and its charismatic authorities have garnered a significant following amongst youths. [36] In Indonesia, woke narratives have also been indigenised to local identity politics. In this way, the woke movement may grow to be another re-enchantment narrative for the disenchanted to find identity, meaning and community again as well as to respond to persistent social problems that have yet to be resolved. This means that we can expect it to continue growing outside of the Anglo-Saxon world and in our backyard.

In spite of the excesses of #cancelculture and the woke movement, this may not be a particularly bad thing for Singapore. The French Revolution, abolitionist and suffragette movement were arguably woke for their time, and yet are lauded as watersheds of progress today. If being woke will create a more socially and politically engaged youth population that is motivated to push for change, are those not valuable qualities for our future leaders?

Zooming out: Points of Friction

Within America, woke beliefs have undoubtedly begun influencing key institutions in civil society, from mainstream press to college campuses and even its foreign policy. Writer N.S. Lyons argues that woke will be at the heart of a global ideological competition akin to the Cold War. In his first foreign policy address as President, Biden emphasised that the world was at an inflection point, and that his foreign policy would be geared towards waging “a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies”. [37] His vision of liberal democracy, however, echoes certain elements of the woke movement. Both share a concern for protecting the universal freedoms of specific marginalised identities, which has spanned from conditional military funding to international alliances such as the GoF IE SOGI (Group of Friends of the Mandate of the United Nations Independent Expert on Protection Against Violence and Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) which America helped pioneer. In October 2021, the White House released the National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality which claimed that the US was unparalleled in gender equity and hence, was responsible for advocating for it internationally. This includes encouraging other countries to adopt policies such as making abortion universally legal and accessible and letting transgender athletes compete anywhere in the world, free from discrimination. [38] These moves suggest that woke ideologies may become a cornerstone of Biden’s foreign policy, reviving the post-Cold War liberal hegemony with a twist. Will this usher in a new world order led by a woke America?

But fears of the woke movement may be overstated. Referencing various tipping points in history, Professor Sheri Berman argues that crises are common, but fundamental shifts in the way nation-states organise within and between themselves are not. [39] While the proliferation of woke beliefs in American society is a force to be reckoned with, discontent with the status quo alone is not enough to push the needle forward. To her, two conditions need to be fulfilled: a shared and cogent alternative order that is more appealing than a patched-up status quo and leaders with sufficient political capital to unite the movement and effect necessary reforms.

Domestically, the growing influence of the woke movement has allowed it to become a rallying point for the conservative right who often denounce it as a radical left-wing liberalism threatening American democracy; in fact, 11 GOP speakers spoke about the ills of #cancelculture during the 2020 Republican National Convention. [40] Given pushback from the right, it is more likely that America will descend into greater in-fighting over identity politics and worsened political polarisation. [41]

Globally, other countries have not shared Cowen’s optimism towards woke beliefs. When the 2018 #BLM movement inspired similar protests in France, Macron denounced it as US-imported “Anglo-American liberalism” that will rip open new and existing identity rifts and threaten national unity. In response, the French education minister established an anti-woke think tank to promote a French secularism or la laïcité, which allegedly champions an egalitarianism that transcends race, gender, and religion. [42] For China, the scars of the Cultural Revolution will likely put a lid on any potential woke-inspired movements that threaten to destabilise the existing domestic order. Chinese social media often refers to the woke movement as 白左 [translated as white leftists or a pun for idiot leftists], criticising them as self-righteous liberals from wealthy, imperialistic countries that have shallow moralistic views of the world. [43] This grassroots sentiment is echoed in the government’s statements describing the woke movement as hypocritical self-abasement. [44]

This is not surprising. In his 2018 book, The Hell of Good Intentions, political theorist Stephen Walt argued that liberal hegemony was the fatal flaw of American foreign policy. According to him, liberal hegemony has not and will not work as America can no longer ride on its unipolar hubris in a world with new competitors and democratic backslide. [45] Once again, a new world order formed around woke beliefs with America at its core will face both domestic and global pushback, alleviating the overstated fears of some within the conservative right.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the woke movement and its ideologies remains a key area for government to keep a lookout for both domestically and globally. Given that it is fuelled by fundamental shifts in society and has proliferated throughout the Anglo-Saxon world, it will likely persist across space and time. Looking back at past movements that have ushered progress, we should be careful not to dismiss the movement as a disruptive and therefore, malevolent force. Instead, it can help to create a more socially and politically engaged community that is committed to pushing for much-needed productive change. But, given Singapore’s multicultural context, we should also be wary to avoid the excesses of the Woke movement that stifle civil discourse and subject individuals to trial by virtual mob rule. Looking beyond Singapore, woke beliefs may make a greater appearance in American foreign policy. While there has been significant domestic and international pushback against a new woke world order, it remains to be seen how far a woke foreign policy will take America into the future.

Isabelle Liew was Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic Futures.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.

Endnotes

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  44. Josh Glancy, “Now China has found America’s wok spot, it is turning the screw”, The Times, 21 March 2021, accssed 10 May 2022, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/now-china-has-found-americas-woke-spot-it-is-turning-the-screw-wxn8mj6hc.
  45. Stephen Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy, (New York: Macmillan Publishers, 2018).

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Welcome to CSF Singapore’s blog site, a space to share our shorter think-pieces and reflections. Visit our main website at www.csf.gov.sg