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‘Woke’ isn’t dead – it’s entered the mainstream. No wonder the right is furious | Gaby Hinsliff
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‘Woke’ isn’t dead – it’s entered the mainstream. No wonder the right is furious | Gaby Hinsliff

Is woke dead? Is it over? Has it “peaked”, run its course before we’ve even properly agreed on what this endlessly controversial but somehow never quite defined social justice movement actually was? Though American rightwingers have been hopefully pronouncing its last rites for a while now, until very recently rumours of its death seemed exaggerated in Britain.

Sure, some vegan restaurants have gone bust lately, but sadly so have plenty of other restaurants in the face of a cost of living crisis. And yes, oat milk sales are down. But is that because it has been toxified by political association, or because it has fallen out of favour with the wellness lobby, or just because it’s expensive? Even reports of a YouTube-fuelled anti-feminist backlash among some young men, or of young women lapping up the original (not very woke) Sex and the City series on Netflix didn’t feel like much of a tipping point. But then came the paediatrician Dr Hilary Cass’s landmark review on treating transgender children, which found that medical interventions have been underpinned by “remarkably weak evidence” and made clear treatment should be holistic, seeking a full understanding of everything going on in children’s lives.

Though Cass has stressed that she wasn’t seeking to undermine trans identities or the right to transition, and though she carefully avoided broader political or philosophical arguments, the political fallout is still going on a fortnight later. Gender-critical feminists, long vilified for saying pretty much what the review says about puberty blockers, want an apology, and the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, duly obliged. The education secretary, Gillian Keegan, who once defiantly declared that trans women are women, says she wouldn’t use those words now. The Labour MP Dawn Butler had to retract claims that the Cass review excluded more than 100 research studies from its deliberations (she was quoting a briefing from the LGBTQ+ pressure group Stonewall, which Stonewall now admits was wrong). And in Scotland, the SNP-Green party coalition has imploded amid tensions over the scrapping of supposedly unrealistic climate-change targets and the Greens’ reluctance to accept Cass’s findings.

The tide, in short, is visibly turning against a particular strain of trans activism, leaving tough lessons to be learned about the kind of scolding tone and morally absolute refusal to engage with reasonable opposition that can be fatal to progressive causes. Yet the appalled public reaction to Rishi Sunak taunting Keir Starmer over trans rights, on the day that the mother of the murdered trans teenager Brianna Ghey visited parliament, suggests there is still broad public sympathy for trans people themselves.

So where does all of this leave woke itself, or the broader push for social, racial and environmental justice that has been growing roughly ever since the death of Michael Brown in 2014 sparked the Black Lives Matter movement? What happens now to the idea of being more open to sometimes uncomfortable challenge from minority perspectives that were previously suppressed: of saving the planet; uncovering forgotten histories; inclusivity at work; “be kind”? That isn’t dead. If anything, it’s quietly going mainstream.

For what else do you call it when the 60-year-old head of MI6 declares his pronouns on the social media channel X, or retired GPs and priests are getting arrested on climate protests? When the right complains that everything is woke now – from the Metropolitan police and the British army to the National Trust’s scone recipe and even parts of a Conservative party that Liz Truss startlingly accuses in her new book of undergoing a “shift to the left” in recent years – what they’re describing cannot be an edgy radical movement but one becoming normalised, and learning as it goes.

We’re all slowly, if sometimes painfully, getting more used to acknowledging conflicting views based on different life experiences. Net zero targets are now broadly popular, though people still worry about the cost. Woke is no longer wildly anti-establishment; increasingly it’s becoming the boring old establishment, to the point where teenagers will doubtless soon be ripping it apart on TikTok, since turning into baby conservatives is the only thing really guaranteed now to confound their parents.

It is radicalism that initially breaks down doors. But what usually ends up walking through them is a version with the sharp edges smoothed off that most people find they can live with, and that’s where woke is heading now. It’s not dead. But it is evolving, and that’s how living things ultimately survive.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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Source: theguardian.com