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The Moral Problem with Woke Protest in the West

Karim is an English Student at the University of Cambridge. He explores the increasingly binary nature of political understanding in the UK, with the ‘left wing’ being associated with a morality that reduces a more nuanced view of politics. Within this article, he investigates the repercussions this new oversimplification has on protest, particularly those which are held online.

Protests are nothing new but, in the modern age, they can easily seem never ending. With the rise of social media providing protesters with access to a global audience, anyone with an internet connection can feel connected to, or confronted by, the enthusiasm of activists. An unprecedented level of connectivity has supercharged the progressive instincts already inherent within modern British culture. A tendency to view morality, through a secular lens, as constantly evolving towards a higher perfection has been taken to new extremes by a woke contingent of mostly young activists who are unparalleled in the content of their radical ideas and the strength of their moral confidence.

This has left the country divided: old conservatives condemn woke folk for their alleged presentism, sweeping judgments and messianic enthusiasms whilst young progressives hail the new religion as a source of worldly salvation and condemn the reprobates who stubbornly stick to regressive philosophies. This description of the generational divide is, of course, a generalisation, but from my own experience I feel confident in testifying to its broad accuracy. It is crucial, however, to note that this is not at all a defence of British conservatism in the face of woke protest. Conservative political culture has its own problems of moral vacuity that will be addressed in due course; as a young person who is far more familiar with my own generation, however, the primary focus of this piece will be the problems of the woke political culture of protest.

A tendency to view morality, through a secular lens, as constantly evolving towards a higher perfection has been taken to new extremes by a woke contingent of mostly young activists who are unparalleled in the content of their radical ideas and the strength of their moral confidence.

Though principally concerned with matters of social and political justice - prison reform (or abolition), immigration, poverty, sexism, and LBGT+ rights - a conspicuous quality of woke culture is its totalising coverage of all of life’s issues. This quality is particularly evident in the wake of George Floyd’s horrific murder wherein the popularity of books like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility encouraged and mainstreamed a focus upon microaggressions and general etiquette in relation to the issue of racism. Ironically, it is the sense of righteous indignation at serious injustices, like George Floyd’s death, that reinvigorated a woke preoccupation with the trivial niceties of politically correct etiquette (at the expense of systemic concerns, I would contend).

On an average day of scrolling through social media and reading the news, I witness a barrage of moralising opinion pieces and homiletic Instagram posts devoted to said issues: ‘How to be a better white ally’, ‘How to centre black voices’, ‘Reading lists for white people’, ‘So you want to talk about whitesplaining’. The serious problem of police murders was railroaded by a focus upon interpersonal obsessions and private pieties that do nothing to address the substantive political problems at hand. Arguing for a certain kind of manner in interpersonal interactions, or a particular approach to personal and formal education is fine, but suggesting that a widespread conformity to said etiquette, or educational agenda, will stop state violence against its citizens is bizarre. One may interject that a person can, and should, care about both the interpersonal and the structural, but I would contend that the woke obsession with superficial politeness has obscured our view of substantial political issues and laid the foundations for political idolatry (whereby individual politicians are sanctified for their adherence to woke etiquette whilst their serious abuses of power are ignored). This claim may seem intense, but a consideration of the recent history of protests justified its use.

I can still remember the proud smiles and giddy excitement of fellow classmates recollecting their participation in the marches against Trump’s inauguration as they arrived at school the next day. There was a widespread understanding that Trump, in his politics, mannerisms, and rhetoric, had crossed a moral line and deserved our uncompromising rejection. By comparison, his predecessor Barack Obama was, and is, subject to almost ubiquitous adoration with he and his wife being practically sanctified in the eyes of British liberals and moderate leftists.[1] One may now interject, well duh! Trump was overtly racist and widely accused of sexual misconduct; he deserved to be treated as especially evil. This is true, there is a basis for making a moral distinction between the two leaders; what is unfair, however, is the disparity in their relative treatment. When it comes to the strictly political issues most controversial under Trump - immigration, war crimes, racism, and a general propensity for hard-heartedness - Obama’s record more than matches his successor: from deporting 2.5 million people [2] to committing extensive war crimes via drones (including the killing of a 16-year-old American citizen without trial) [3] to dismissing the issue of poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, that had killed dozens of people,[4] by pretending to drink the water so as to falsely suggest that it was safe for consumption. [5] In valuing politeness, therefore, many protestors completely lost sight of substantive political issues in their construction of absolute binaries: Obama the saint versus Trump the supervillain.

A similarly counterproductive binary formed in the minds of many young progressives on the issue of Brexit. I can still remember the palpable sense of shock and horror amongst my classmates, as we walked into our final GCSE exam, traumatised by the news of a Brexit victory. Though few knew, or cared, about the finer details of EU membership, there was a symbolic sense of loss: the cosmopolitan, tolerant, open-minded, economically-literate Remainers had lost to a hoard of marauding morons revelling in the recklessness of national suicide. A focus on policies would have forced despairing Remainers into a more nuanced frame of mind, as they would have acknowledged the undemocratic and xenophobic elements of an institution they increasingly romanticised, but the disinterested sobriety of such an analysis could not match the cathartic appeal of hating a caricatured political other and desperately protesting their destructive errors.

Nigel Farage Breaking Point Poster for EU Leave campaign

Nevertheless, outrage at the Brexit campaign’s racism was justified: Nigel Farage’s awful ‘Breaking point!’ poster, [6] depicting large crowds of non-white immigrants, combined with the dishonest suggestion of imminent Turkish entry into the EU, grossly obfuscated an important debate over the EU’s merits and drawbacks with an appeal to hateful prejudice. [7] In this polarised climate, however, the EU developed an undeserved reputation as a paragon of internationalist generosity.

By allowing the repulsive personalities of many Brexit campaigners to dictate our thinking about the entire EU question, a shallow politics of symbolic mannerisms was once again undermining our engagement with a serious issue. As students embellished themselves in EU iconography and, jestingly, petitioned for an independent London, the real EU was enforcing a brutally xenophobic regime of deterrence against desperate migrants and refugees. [8] Remainiacs praise the exceptional examples of the EU’s generosity, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to take in several hundred thousand refugees, but ignore the EU’s norm of deterrence.

By allowing the repulsive personalities of many Brexit campaigners to dictate our thinking about the entire EU question, a shallow politics of symbolic mannerisms was once again undermining our engagement with a serious issue.

From the spring of 2017, the Italian government decided to effectively criminalise the coastal rescue efforts of NGOs saving migrants arriving in unstable boats via the Mediterranean, with 16 separate criminal investigations having been opened up into their alleged collusion with people smugglers. [9] Furthermore, lest one believe that this is unique to Italy, Matteo Villa, researcher at the Institute for International Political Studies, declared that this expressed ‘the sentiments of all EU governments at the time’.[10] In the absence of large-scale search and rescue operations provided by these NGOs, a direct consequence of this approach was an increase in migrant drownings. Something is clearly wrong when a general perception of tolerance is praised over a complete apathy towards the drowning of migrants in Europhile protests against Brexit.

Turning back to Trump, a similar phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, encouraged by a shallow engagement with symbolic gestures over political substance, is evident in the relative reactions towards Trump’s Muslim ban and more serious attacks on religious freedom by EU leaders. Whilst Trump’s attempt to bar Muslims from entering the United States was outrageous, and rightfully condemned by many, its impact on religious freedom pales in comparison to the highly restrictive regulations enforced by France under the guise of laïcité. These restrictions include the criminalisation of wearing a hijab in public schools and the civil service and, in a more recent absurdity, banning the niqab whilst mandating face masks.[11] Though it is possible, and necessary, to condemn discrimination from Trump and Macron, one should always exercise prudence and appreciate the proportion of relative wrongdoings.

It is a mark of a political culture alienated from sound moral thinking that American idiocy incites greater condemnation than the quiet oppression of France. It would be easy to take refuge in the excuse that this is simply because British people do not care about French politics but do take a strong interest in American affairs, but this trend is representative of a wider issue. When politics is treated as a source for excited, cathartic outrage by woke folk, a US-centric focus fulfils this agenda with its flash, but if morality is our primary concern then we surely ought to care about the conduct of our closest continental neighbour.

This is not to say that one should never feel offended. Of course, all moral people should be offended by that which is evil but substantive moral judgements should be anchored in a deeper moral framework. It is precisely this deeper framework that contemporary Britain lacks in its liquid ethics which shifts with the tides of public opinion. Popular passions form the basis of our moral thinking, feelings are given preeminent moral authority and offence becomes the worst crime imaginable. Moreover, though this problem is most visible amongst progressives, conservatism is not the solution because maintaining a tradition that is itself constantly evolving amounts to nothing more than a slow-motion progressivism. As a Muslim, I am entirely comfortable with accepting God as the basis for moral authority, and thus escaping the tyranny of weathervane ethics, but for those young people who are entrapped by the myth of progressive morality, there seem to be only two choices: renege on disbelief (in God) or accept the rational impotence of the new progressive religion.


[10] Ibid.


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