#179: Ecce Homo: Wokeness Beyond Caricatures

A lot of things are labeled as “woke” nowadays. Contrary to the original intention of the word itself, the very term “woke” has become a caricature, a word that is meant to now quickly dismiss whatever is termed as such. Someone is called out for what could be understood as an insensitive or insulting remark, whether rightfully or wrongly? Wokeness. A movie is cast with an eye to diversity in casting? Wokeness. Media reports point to a possible connection between extreme weather with climate change? Wokeness. Pandemic politics require us to wear masks to protect each other? Wokeness. Morality is called for in foreign policy? Wokeness.

And so it goes, and probably all of us have seen this.

There are also indeed – as with any movement – positions that may well be over the top, demands calling for the silencing of other opinions, as well as calls to end the debate on an issue that activists claim has been settled. I won’t name any examples, you can probably think of some yourself.

There are always, in any society, those who want to work towards some sort of utopian ideal for the future, and those clinging to a retrotopian idea of the past (to use Zygmunt Bauman’s term). You can call this future- or past-orientation. Ideally, we all fall into both categories. Certainly we are not as arrogant to believe that we already have known all there is to even know, nor that we will do everything better in the future.

Thus the first mistake we can make is the following, and it is crucial: We are all complex human beings, and none of us is a caricature of only one aspect of ourselves. All of us – if we are really honest about ourselves – know that what we think may well have to do with how we are living in the moment. If we are poor, we seek to improve our economic situation, and may thus be more open to radical change – but if we are more saturated, our focus may be to keep what we have so as not to be poor again. Or, a hungry person thinks about food differently than a satiated one. You can recall that Marx called this “being determine consciousness” – or you can realize this as common sense (If you believe that the hungry person can think about nothing else but food, you will be mistaken as well – poverty, hunger and suffering may influence your priorities, but have never prevented people from thinking higher-order thoughts – this is where some people go wrong if they think that university-educated elites know best).

Now, we ourselves will be different people all through our lives, depending on our situation. We certainly perceive the way differently as children than as adults, as parents than as non-parents, as professors than as students, as elected politicians than as activists. We may perceive constancy in who “we” are, but we can and probably will play different roles throughout our lives if we live long enough. We see ourselves through seemingly the same eyes, but we are not really the same exact person anymore at the end of our lives than we were at the beginning. Knowledge and experience will have shaped us just as genetics, society and culture have all through our lives. We may even grant ourselves some exceptions if we misbehave, because we very well know why we acted the way we did, or what we did in order not to remember. We ourselves look at us, and no matter how disappointed we may be with ourselves, no matter how proud, no matter how familiar or alien that face looking back at us from the mirror will seem throughout different stages of our lives: we see the human, we ourselves answer to the call of “ecce homo” – “ see the human” – see yourself. This is where all compassion, all philosophy, all science needs to start, with the realizations that you come to when considering yourself as a human being.

Being “woke” means nothing else than that, only with relation to the wider society at large. “Ecce Homo” becomes the principle not just to look at yourself with both kindness, criticism, grace and eventually forgiveness – in short, with (critical) love – but to do so towards society as well, but towards all of it, not the best parts. Just as you scour your face in the mirror for that wrinkle, that freckle, that hairline, or this or that feature you may like or dislike, we need to scour society for all those things. We need to be awake (alas, woke) to the things that our collective “we” has done right, and to the things that our collective “we” has done wrong, or where we were positioned somehow in the middle (probably always). We need to do so with kindness, but also with some sense of urgency.

Why the urgency? Because we don’t have forever. Just as our own lives are short, societies can thrive and collapse. Most societies in the world have eventually fallen. That is a fact. We need to make sure that we leave the world in a better state of affairs than we found it – again, that is a rule of common courtesy which so many seem to ignore nowadays. This is neither progressive nor conservative, it comes out of the realization that things fall apart far more easily than they can be put together again.

We may feel good about our own country, and if you live within the so-called Western world, we certainly have a lot to be thankful for. Potable water, plumbing, food, overall public safety, peace between our countries, education, scientific progress, democracy, a system of justice rather than outright corruption, freedom of expression, ample entertainment – etc. Nothing is ever perfect, but compared with the past, we live like no other person has ever lived before. I have visited my share of medieval castles and would not ever wish to switch places between now and royalty of the past. But many countries are not that fortunate, and we may want to help.

But is our help wanted? Do we really live in the best possible society worthy of emulation? Are we headed in the right direction? This is where all this introspection and self-criticism comes in. You can say that this follows the ancient exhortation at the oracle of Delphi of “Know Thyself”, or you can listen to Luke 6:42: “Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” We need to have our house in order now before we get it ready for the future or before we can even begin to claim what others need.

Philosopher John Rawls famously reflected upon the “veil of ignorance” as a principle of justice: Put simply, a just society is one into you would happily be born into, no matter what position you would have to inhabit. Whether right, poor, majority, minority, young, old, able-bodied or not, you would be confident that you could live the best possible life. What do we have to do to achieve such a state?

Now, all of this brings me to the following points: Wokeness, ideally, means nothing more than all of that: Looking at our society with critical care, addressing – as much as we can – historical wrongs to create a better future, making sure that however you are represented in society as both an individual and as part of the many groups you belong to, that you can feel that justice, more or less, is done, or that there is a clear trajectory towards a future that will do justice to all.

This is all it is. It is utopian in the sense that we may never get there but still need to try, it is hopeful, it is the outcome of the promise of all our Western democratic constitutions. It is not – or rather, should not be – an instruction manual to do to others as may have been done to you.

A “woke” world aims for justice, not retribution; for constructive criticism, not destruction; for care, not carelessness; for inclusion, not exclusion; for the future, not the past. There is nothing in principle that is new about that movement, with one exception: a sense of urgency, a sense of impatience, for have we not been promised that the dream would be fulfilled by now? If we behold humanity, if we behold ourselves, right here, right now, are we doing justice to us?

Is all of this maybe a bit too pollyannish, a bit too hopeful, a bit too juvenile maybe even in its insistence on the power of possibility? Yes, of course it is! Why? Because hope is always better than despair, kindness is always better than meanness, and anybody can be a cynic. This is far too often a cruel world, should we not aim to make it better?