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'Cancel culture', 'wokeness', 'wokism': thought-terminating clichés we must eliminate

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The media has been using words like "cancel culture", "wokeness" and "wokism" quite a lot lately. Usually amidst bellicose language, depicting it as a threat. Now this type of discourse is making its way to academia, says Nina Köll, Assistant Professor in Media Studies.

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After sharing an episode about sexually abusing a woman in his youth, amidst grotesque laughter by his co-presenters on the television show Vandaag Inside, football pundit Johan Derksen was sent on hiatus. The commotion on social and corporate media demanding Derken’s accountability became overpowering, at least for a little while. 

To minimise negative customer feedback, broadcasting company Talpa TV calmed the waters by sending the presenters off-air without demanding any accountability. The key strategy of online reputation management, however, is distracting and redirecting attention to ‘potentially damaging content’ from other people and companies. Enter ‘cancel culture’ and ‘wokeness’. 

Immediately following criticism of his behaviour, Derksen railed against the double-headed monster cancel and woke culture: “Woke and cancel culture are huge and they're against us. It's a powerful movement getting stronger and stronger, worse and worse... We cannot win this war."

Using bellicose language to mobilize counter-outrage in a highly politicized discursive sphere has proven successful. As of last week, Derksen and Vandaag Inside are back on tv. And yet, Derksen still stubbornly rejects any form of self-reflection and refuses to apologize.

If you agree with Derksen that cancel culture is a powerful movement threatening your livelihood, you probably did not think so three years ago. Research by King’s College in London has shown that in 2018 ‘cancel culture’ was featured in only six articles in British newspapers. By 2021 the term appeared in 3.670 articles in the UK alone. 

As Aditya Chakrabortty observes in The Guardian: “For news organisations that rely on web traffic for their revenues, it has become a vital phrase: a way of catching fitful attention and generating clicks that attract advertising. The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday account for nearly one in four of all uses.”

By now ‘cancel culture’ – as well as ‘woke/wokeness/woketopia’ - have become such loaded phrases that they invoke hostile emotional and ideological responses from a wide spectrum, from the far-right to liberal-left, in a variety of arenas, from politics to popular culture to academia. 

And here we are. In academia, a community dedicated to research and teaching, a community that prides itself on its dedication to rigour and righteousness (Utrecht University’s motto, after all, is Sol Iustitiae Illustra Nos, which means "May the Sun of Righteousness Enlighten Us"). Yet these freighted terms and their ideological underpinnings have penetrated academia without much resistance. 

Historical awareness and analytical precision reveal that ‘woke culture’ is not a coherent movement. This approach also exposes how ‘woke’, derived from Black American vernacular, has been instrumentalized by reactionary forces in the past few years by yoking it together with ‘cancel culture’, thereby provoking emotional responses towards anyone addressing social justice issues. These tactics undermine positions that address racist, sexist, ableist, and gender-related micro-and macro-aggression,  and which call for the accountability of the perpetrators (see Johan Derksen, above). 

In contemporary culture, the diluted notion of ‘cancel culture’ is used to refer to highly disparate rhetorical styles which potentially generate different types of consequences. 

More often than not, ‘cancelling’ appears to be criticism or dissent directed at someone more powerful, in a communicative style less hostile than most British Parliamentary debates. At times, this critique is accompanied by a specific demand, e.g. the demand to redress, retract or right a wrong. More extreme manifestations call for disaffiliation with a certain person, group, political position or company. “Cancel culture” is also used to refer to more aggressive recent phenomena such as “doxxing” campaigns (revealing someone's personal information on the Internet) or online harassment. 

Curiously, however, “cancel culture” does not seem to apply to any of the following: 
-    Florida banning 54 maths books because they “incorporate prohibited topics or unsolicited strategies, including Critical Race Theory.”
-    The French political elite deriding social theories on race, gender, and post-colonialism as “American imports undermining French society”, using bellicose language (like Johan Derksen) while echoing Thierry Baudet’s oikophobia (“’There’s a battle to wage against an intellectual matrix from American universities,’ warned Mr. Macron’s education minister”).  
-    The UK Government attempting to censor universities and cultural institutions which teach “victim narratives that are harmful to British society”. 
-    The Dutch far-right party PVV targeting academic freedom with their parliamentary inquiry following a BLM Statement issued by University College Utrecht. 
-    Online harassment and hate campaigns against scholars who engage with transformative justice, as researchers and public thinkers. Examples abound. The most prominent example in the Netherlands is the anonymous collective Vizier op Links
Too often it seems, people in power - often white men – can exclude, suppress, and outlaw whatever they want, if it maintains status quos and structural privilege. This can be observed in academia as well. 

This is why it is so disparaging to observe the backlash to social justice that aligns with the politics of fear harnessed by reactionary positions. 
A more considerate response would disentangle ‘woke’ from ‘cancel culture’ and seek to find a language which allows for analytical precision, while also maintaining a historical awareness of the intellectual, symbolic and material conditions that brought forth current social justice thinking. 

Yes, students who dare to question the dominant order by challenging us to take a hard look at ourselves, as individuals, as an institution, can be confronting (I too have been called out on numerous occasions) but by scapegoating them into a threat to academic freedom, 
we not only venture into ideologically charged territory - we also reinstate the university as an institutional enclave, protected from threatening challenges and bereft of progressive change. Institutions are not known to be the torchbearers of change. However, even institutions bear the possibility of openings. This does require the courage for self-reflection, taking accountability for injustices grounded in history and its legacy in structures that continue to crop up and creak. Continuing with business as usual, on the other hand, means hiding behind our self-image of scholarship as objective and non-political, and of us, as innocent arbiters of freedom of speech. It may be time to step down from our podiums and pedestals to just listen and reflect. 

DUB has asked Nina Köll to write this opinion piece to accompany our two articles on this topic: "Is 'woke' a threat to academic freedom?' and 'Real dialogue, nobody learns that'. We've also asked Floris van den Berg to publish a short version of the critical speech he made on "woke" as an opinion piece.
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