The latest high profile casualty of our culture wars is chairman of the National Trust Tim Parker, a man with a wild Harpo Marx hairstyle who traditionalists in the organisation found unbearable. He is to stand down, as they say, after seven years, having been faced with a revolt by parts of the membership of the charity.
His position was also menaced by remarks from Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, about such “woke” initiatives. His crime was to want to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement, and the wider cause of racial justice and sensitivity, and reflect the ugly reality of colonialism and imperialism in the presentation of the trust’s properties and chattels therein. It was supposedly too much for them to take. I’d like to think he’ll declare the the trust hideously white on the way out, but he seems too nice a chap for that.
For some of us taking sides in this culture battle, Parker is a woke folk hero, willingly or not. After all, say what you will about the gifts the British bestowed on the world – cricket, the English language, William Shakespeare (I hear there’s an exciting new biog of him on the way) – there’s not much point in trying to justify slavery or looting.
Parker did his bit to respond to the changing face of Britain, and move with the times – a very difficult task indeed in an organisation devoted to preservation and conservation, if not conservatism.
So the woke warrior has fallen, while Rhodes, for example, still stands, for now, and there seems no end to the culture war, though many of the public don’t fully understand the jargon and the concepts.
As if on cue, King’s College London has conducted what appears to be the first proper study of what we might term “wokery,” and the results are as you’d expect, or more so. Thus, the British are as likely to think being “woke” is a compliment (26 per cent) as they are to think it’s an insult (24 per cent) – but most, poor things, are most likely to say they don’t know what the term means (38 per cent).
Naturally, the woke alignment is closely related to politics: Labour supporters (36 per cent) are three times as likely as Conservatives (12 per cent) to say they’d consider it a compliment if someone called them “woke”, and there is virtually the same divide in views between Brexit Remainers (37 per cent) and Leavers (13 per cent).
However, the researchers point out that one in four (24 per cent) of Labour supporters and one in five (21 per cent) Remainers, nonetheless, say they would interpret being called “woke” as an insult, which suggests that wokery has some work to do even among its most receptive demographic.
Of all the other bits of jargon, such as “microaggression”, “cancel culture” and “identity politics”, most people have little idea what they mean; the exception is “white privilege”, which people have heard of, and think they understand. It doesn’t seem to be a winning slogan, though, as far as one can see, because it implies all the wrong things about the poor white working class, and it isn’t meant to.
It all seems a great shame. “Woke” values are not much more or less than traditional Great British values, of the kind rightly celebrated and cherished by National Trust members and wider society. They are really about tolerance, respect and courtesy, treating folk equally and with sensitivity, and avoiding offence.
Like the term “political correctness”, which has quietly gone out of fashion, “woke” is wilfully misinterpreted by those who should know better, and misunderstood by those who should not. And so it gets distorted, caricatured, discredited and, indeed, becomes a term of abuse.
I’d like to imagine that if only we replaced the word “woke” with “polite”, then the battles would subside, and we could see what we have in common. But maybe the fact of the culture war is now inevitable, seeing as everyone wants to have a go. We know which side we’re on even though we might not understand why, and off some of us go anyway, to the trenches of social media, pounding the enemy with hate and death threats.
After all, we now live in a world where a medical mask can be taken as a hostile assertion of a political credo rather than a simple public health precaution, and I can’t help thinking that if we were all a bit more woke then the world would be a better, safer place.