Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.
Every day brings fresh examples of the woke revolution rolling through western institutions.
The last couple of weeks saw Edinburgh University ‘cancelling’ the great Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume, taking his name off one of its buildings. The BBC broadcasting a comedian joking about killing white people. The Parliamentary authorities considering making MPs undertake “unconscious bias training”. The Natural History Museum reviewing displays relating to Charles Darwin, because the voyage of the Beagle could be seen as “colonialism”. The SNP administration in Edinburgh trying to push through a “Hate Crime” law – despite being warned by everyone from the Police Federation to comedians and novelists that it threatens free speech.
In the US, where the woke agenda is further advanced, it was announced that films must now hit diversity quotas to be eligible to win an Oscar. The English department at the University of Chicago announced it will admit only those graduate students who plan to work in Black Studies.
I’ve written before about what’s wrong with the woke agenda, but others have put it better than me, and in response to the woke revolution, there’s now a diverse group of thinkers pushing back.
Ed West and Douglas Murray have chronicled the excesses of wokery in books that are funny as well as perceptive. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have explained the origins of the woke agenda in the “critical theory” sweeping universities over recent decades. Tom Holland, though not a political writer, explains how much the woke agenda owes (without realising it) to Christianity.
For me, one of the most compelling critiques is by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, two liberal professors in the US.
They are worried the woke agenda isn’t just undermining basic liberal ideas like free speech and debate, but encouraging younger people to think in ways that are damaging.
They diagnose three bad ways of thinking which have become engrained in US universities: a belief that young people are emotionally fragile and have to be protected from ideas they might find upsetting; a belief that you should always trust your emotions, prioritising emotion over reason; and forms of us-versus-them thinking which divide the world into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, with no in-betweens.
As Haidt and Lukianoff write, making universities into ‘safe spaces’ with no intellectual diversity is setting people up to fail: students don’t get used to disagreeing reasonably; or understanding that people who don’t agree with you may not be evil. As someone pointed out: you don’t help someone get strong by taking the weights out of the gym for them.
Their book contains hair-raising accounts of the kind of protests and madness this agenda has led to in US universities, increasingly a world of ‘trigger warnings’, ‘no-platforming’ and everyone walking on eggshells for fear of committing ‘microagressions.’
While this may seem remote to us living in Britain and not working in universities, the truth is that ideas from the US relentlessly percolate into the UK.
Whether it’s the Black Lives Matter protests in London, or British teenagers referring to the British police as “Feds”, ideas always blow over from across the Atlantic, so what happens in the US today will likely happen here tomorrow.
I find the woke agenda alarming because it promises a future very different from the one I grew up hoping for. When I was a teenager the future was going to be that we would be increasingly colour-blind. That people would be treated as individuals, not members of races. That everyone was capable of fitting into our shared modern, western culture.
Instead, wokeism tells us we should increasingly see each other as members of different races. That ethnic minorities can’t assimilate into a modern, western culture because that they are (in some ill-defined way) incompatible with that culture. That young people from ethnic minorities should be on their guard at all times, because they live in a culture which seeps racism from every pore.
Worst of all, it tells us that we must stay in our lane. That we can’t enjoy another culture, because that’s “cultural appropriation.” That values like working hard or objectivity or the nuclear family are characteristics of white people, not others.
I’m not the first to say it (indeed there’s comedy sketches about it) but in the same way that the extreme left and extreme right are kind of similar, the woke agenda and the racist one have some powerful similarities.
If we think the woke agenda is damaging, divisive and illiberal, what can we do about it?
There’s now a number of campaign groups dealing with different aspects of it. The Free Speech Union does what it says on the tin. The Campaign for Common Sense brings a thoughtful take to the big questions raised by the woke agenda. The Equiano Project and “All In Britain” promote grown-up, non-hysterical discussion about race and diversity.
But what should we do as a Party and a Government?
While the Prime Minister is quite right to speak out on absurdities like the Last Night of the Proms saga, he simply can’t be everywhere, since he has a virus to fight, an economy to save and a Brexit deal to land. So the Government needs to empower a minister, or group of ministers, to lead and deal with this.
Different solutions are possible in different fields. For example, in the civil service, government has more control. The Government could end programmes like “unconscious bias training” which don’t work and waste money, but have official backing and are compulsory for all staff in many departments. The other day, it was revealed that the Ministry Of Defence has more diversity and equality officers than the Royal Navy has warships. Do we need so many people in such roles in the public sector?
In other fields like broadcasting, universities and cultural institutions, government has less direct control. Ministers like Oliver Dowden and Gavin Williamson have rightly rapped institutions over the knuckles when they have done things that are unacceptable.
But as well as intervening, government also needs to communicate why this agenda is wrong and divisive, and what it opposes.
Margaret Thatcher could not intervene personally in every departmental squabble. But she didn’t’ have to. Civil servants didn’t have to wonder what her view on an issue would be. You knew. Because she took time to make arguments of principle, again and again.
That’s what’s needed now. One common theme in many woke rows is that people in positions of leadership simply don’t understand where the boundaries are.
For example, permanent secretaries of various government departments tweeted their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The Civil Service Race Forum attacks government, claiming “many anti BAME policies originated in Whitehall.” Several department’s intranets have promoted highly contentious material about “white privilege” and Britain’s “systemic racism.”
Officials need to understand that they are not posting neutral stuff that everyone agrees on, but one side of a political argument.
When the British Library promoted materials to staff suggesting they should back a campaign by Diane Abbott, how could its leadership not spot that they were violating the rules on political neutrality?
The truth is we all live in bubbles, and if you run a large arts organisation in London most of the people you know probably have a certain world view. Such people need to be reminded that the taxpayers who pay their wages don’t all agree, and they have an obligation to be neutral.
To get them to understand where the boundaries are, government needs to set them out clearly and wholeheartedly. The Prime Minister has even bigger battles to fight. But he should empower a minister to lay down the law, and wage war on woke.