In Defense Of Performative Wokeness
Countering the theater of patriarchy with the theater of the woke
Someone on my social media feed recently hailed Justin Trudeau as the ultimate poster child of ‘performative wokeness’. Back here in India, a mainstream movie and its associate multi-million dollar corporate machinery devised a brilliantly woke PR strategy, creating a movement out of ‘breaking the taboo’ around menstruation and sanitary pads for a movie that was conveniently titled ‘Padman’ while the feminists everywhere gaped at the vacuousness of the exercise.
Google ‘performative wokeness’ and you will be greeted with a page full of thought pieces solemnly listing the damages of this new malady that seems to have taken over the millennial world and all the reasons why ‘performative wokeness’, is terrible, horrible, artificial display of melodramatic empathy for causes that are not one’s own for the sake of earning liberal brownie points for being ‘oh so woke’.
I am not going to preach to the choir and list another fifteen reasons as to why performative wokeness is problematic and most certainly not enough to achieve the social, cultural goals of building a better, more inclusive, more compassionate societies.
Because the problems of the performative wokeness are undeniable. But does the fact that performative wokeness is not enough, and does not serve our purpose as a whole imply that it does not serve a purpose at all? Is it fair to decry a culture, however performative and artificial, that seeks to promote and reward, at least in terms of social currency and peer approval, a behavior that we as a society aspire for?
To understand the pragmatic utility of this theater of wokeness, one must step back and take a look at the other theaters that have been dominating our society and our conditioning for centuries — the theater of the macho, or what can also be known as performative patriarchy, the theater of racial supremacy, performative casteism and so on. For all their varied shades, the theaters of ‘unwokeness’ do all share similar characteristics in terms of how they seek to condition their patrons and enforce a kind of behavior as the dominant social structure.
Of course unwoke conditioning is far more deeply entrenched than any amount of wokeness can aspire to be. Mostly because it has an advantage of several centuries, systemic mechanisms supporting its larger vision and a very willing, very enthusiastic audience that readily embraces the half-truths of these theaters as their own personal, true values. It doesn’t mean the theater is redundant. It is in fact that theater, the performative aspects of this conditioning that, till date, make it sustainable and scalable.
People believe in racial, gender, color, caste, eugenic supremacy (and roles/expectations that are a part of existing hierarchies) because the people who mold their society, their beliefs have repeatedly displayed that this is how things are supposed to be, and that this is the kind of behavior and values whose display shall be rewarded, either directly via social approval or indirectly by ensuring that their privileges in the prevailing structure remains safe and intact.
These structures and systems are old enough and embedded enough that they don’t need the loud display and theatrics that is usually associated with performative wokeness. But even then, the displays and the theater is not entirely absent as was evident by recent the display of right wing activism back here in India and the infamous tikki torch protests by the White Nationalists in the US. And lest we forget, the shades of the unwoke theater are an inalienable, if sometimes subtle, part of our day to day lives, so entrenched we often forget to notice them. From the testosterone fueled bro culture to the outright puritanical practices that seem to focus on maintaining the purity of certain castes, the theater of the unwoke is everywhere.
So effective are the tenets of these theaters, that even the people who’d rather not be a part of the drama or who are the ones being constantly cast as the disadvantaged character in the drama too find themselves sticking to their roles, consciously or unconsciously, willingly or by virtue of pure conditioning. Women enforcing menstrual taboos and generally being complicit in promoting patriachal values (because that is the role the theater has taught them and in some perverse way rewarded them to play) is but one example of the theater of unwoke in action.
Performative wokeness is essentially a phenomena that simply replaces one theater with the other — and hence, inherits the problems of its predecessor like artificial players, misplaced messaging and blatant hypocrisy. Which automatically means that performative wokeness is not the solution we are looking for — not in the long term and not if we want to create a truly inclusive society.
Performative wokeness, however, has an undeniable importance in enforcing and creating a larger culture that is an exact opposite of the one that dominates our societies at the moment. Because for all its flaws, performative wokeness, in essence, is a reinforcement of the idea that any degree of wokeness is a behavior that will be rewarded in the same social currency that has been for the longest time a stronghold of sub cultures that were an exact opposite of being woke. Performative wokeness is a symbol of another of kind of sub-culture, where asserting things that reinforce gender stereotypes and caste/class/race superiority are no longer ‘cool’. This, of course, does not mean that personal beliefs and conditioned thought process, not to mention private hypocrisy, can be magically eliminated by such displays of wokeness. But what can definitely be achieved is a step towards a culture that promotes and rewards the kind of compassionate, inclusive, empathetic behaviors that we as individuals and movements and ideals aspire for.
We cannot punish the behaviors we expect and aspire to enforce.
And this includes, unfortunately, even the blatantly opportunistic behaviors that seek to piggy back on a social movement to seek validation. Because that opportunism in itself is a symbol of a cultural, social transformation, a kind of a movement, that can no longer be ignored. Whether it is a leader of a country going out of his way to ensure he always appears ‘woke’ or a profit driven corporate churning out money for a cause because there is an audience ready to lap it up — the vacuous symbolism not only enhances the visibility of the cause and movement but also marks an important paradigm shift. Because this opportunism in a perverse way is also, as the Millennials would say, symbol of the fact that we have arrived.
Ultimately, we will have to stop pretending that anything short of a comprehensive social movement will bring the change we seek and that adding to our tribe, to our ‘allies’ is not a favor but a compulsion to ensure we restructure the systems and hierarchies and social orders at the widest possible scale. We have to remember that societies and individuals are heterogeneous in nature, and in the end, much as we would like to bring the change from within, we will have to reconcile with the fact that at a lot of levels, the change is and will be in fact what we are able to project as the new normal.
We will have to promote and create defining models, for ourselves and the generations to come, that successfully convey our message loud and clear — not just in terms of authentic messaging but also in terms of numbers, and what is seen as the prevalent, acceptable norm. We have to uproot the understanding of what society believes as ‘normal’ behavior, its role models (because it helps to have a Trudeau’s mass appeal on your side,however much we may disagree with his MO) and how it rewards certain patterns, roles and hierarchical compliance, and replace it with a new model.
In the end, for all the enlightened wokeness that we hope for, we cannot deny the importance of social compulsion as essential to effect any systemic change. Performative Wokeness is a tool that enforces and reinforces that very compulsion from a fresh angle.
Because even though performative wokeness is not the shortcut we are looking for, if we are out to change centuries old structures and thought processes and patterns, every small step matters. Performative Wokeness is that small step, with the added bonus of its own penchant to hog the limelight and make as much noise as possible. And while we may dislike the motives and the methods and the integrity of the theater, the fact is, that theater does have a purpose and it does give our movements a visibility and attention and a sort of social desirability that adds to both the allure and the outreach of the movement.
So that we are clear, this does not mean we let go off the hypocrisy or ignore the nuances or stop spreading the right kind of message with integrity and authenticity. This does not mean we do not call out the blatant misuse of performative wokeness to hide abysmal private conduct. This does not mean we do not inform and educate and keep highlighting the real issues with all their nuances with an intent to enrich the movement, and not just ignorantly piggybacking it for appreciation and approval.
What this does mean is that we recognize performative wokeness as the tool it is to further our cause at a larger social level and promote a pattern of social structures and behaviors that we deem desirable and acceptable.
What this does mean is that we stop punishing the behavior we expect, even when they sometimes (often?) lack the understanding of the nuances. This is especially true when the said behavior is emerging from nothing more problematic than an annoying need for validation.
We have to be realistic in our expectations from our allies, from the fellow human being. Because of course it is impossible for a man to know, truly know the challenges of being a woman. Or for a White individual (however well meaning and empathetic) to understand the tribulations of Black lives. Or for an upper caste Brahmin to relate to the day to day struggles of being a lower caste person or a Dalit in India. Or for a straight person to make sense of the struggles of being an LGBTQ individual.
Not knowing is a fact, but not empathizing is a choice. That our allies are making an effort to empathize and understand and support, however flawed and problematic that support may be, is important. Not because it is a favor they are granting us. Not at all. But simply because for any social, cultural movement, they — the ‘others’ are an essential cog in the wheel. They are needed , we are needed— by the movements, by the societies and by us.
There is no dearth of satires and caustic thought pieces on the problematic phenomena of what woke millennials think ‘being an ally’ is. Not all that criticism is invalid. In fact, almost all of it is valid. But the fact is ignorance isn’t a crime. Seeking validation is not a crime. Resorting to behaviors that we think are ‘good’ or ‘noble’ or just the ones that will garner the most likes on the social media is also not a crime.
In our zeal to make everyone understand the nuances of our messages, our movements, our desire for change, we cannot and should not alienate the casual by-standers and the fence sitters. Because in doing so, we not only spook and scare the opportunists and hypocrites, but also the ones who had the right intent but maybe lacked in terms of knowledge or understanding or plain expression. The fact that it is hard to separate the wheat from the chaff makes it even more imperative for the movements to think through the kind of censure they want to employ, if at all.
This does not absolve hypocrisy or implies that movements and people and ideologues have to look the other way in face of all sorts of wrong doing. It just means a sharper awareness of how we define the wrongs and deal with them within the context of the ideologies we are dealing with.
Ultimately, a social and cultural movement thrives on its outreach, which means that a lot of times they will have to make way for both the wheat and chaff, if for nothing else than the numbers and social noises they are trying to amplify. Performative wokeness, for all its ills, is the microphone that most movements can make a good use of. And they should.