Wednesday, January 4, 2017
ON BEING WOKE - AND PROBLEMS WITH SPECIAL KNOWLEDGE
The first person I knew who had special knowledge was my father. He strongly believed that his view of the world was vitally correct, that it was hard won, and was shared by a very few. In his case, it stemmed from moving to a large city in his late teens, and being newly exposed to different races, cultures and ideologies. What he learned stayed with him, fully formed, for the rest of his life. His resulting political stance was resolutely conservative and ultra right wing. He had brief involvement with ultra rightist groups, but found them too liberal. He wrote many letters to the local newspaper on matters of race, and developed a small following among other older white men of similar ilk.
He found his special knowledge burdensome. He would talk at times about how he was on the losing side, that the world was being taken over by women and members of inferior races and how the weak and politically correct system enabled them to do this, despite their obvious lack of ability. He feared for the future, where the Anglo Saxon race would decline and ignorance would take over. He felt it was his duty to point these things out, but he was also doomed to remain unheard. He felt he had come to his understandings himself, over time, after careful thought, without influence, and the fact that it was manifestly true made up for the fact that it made him unhappy.
In other words, in the parlance of 2017, he stayed woke.
I disagreed with him on all counts, and I worried that his ideas hurt him and made him afraid. He died after a short illness, during which he was delirious. He believed he had been kidnapped by some sort of Maori cabal, who were secretly running the world, and that they were experimenting on him in a laboratory. It was painful to watch.
Staying woke is a phrase that came in part out of the Black Lives Matter movement and it's a great expression because it conveys independence of thought, passion and commitment. You can say 'she is woke, of course', or 'she isn't woke yet', or 'these woke guys have made some awesome music' or whatever. You can say 'stay woke, bro'. But really, it is about having special knowledge, or an understanding about social justice, culture and the future not shared by most people.
I doubt if I'm woke.
I have always had problems with special knowledge and what to do about it.
In my late teens, I belonged to a faith community where we were big on eschatology. We believed that the old world would end, not physically, but spiritually, and there would be a new era of world peace. We also knew that most people didn't believe this, and we felt sorry for them and wanted to help. At the time, I also hung out with people who had different and opposing eschatologies, and also people who belonged to other small groups, all of whom had the truth, and felt sorry for those who didn't, and wanted to help. Then there were the occultists and psychics who felt they had special knowledge too, but on a more personal level. They knew things no one else could possibly understand. And alongside, the activists, who knew about secret politics and dirty tricks, and also tried to help others grasp the real situation. All of these groups had special knowledge, and all of them saw this knowledge as radically true, and poorly understood or ignored by the general population.
This thread pulls itself through time and today I associate with activists, occultists, conspiracy theorists, light workers, healers and members of small religious orders, and they all have special knowledge.
So what are the problems with special knowledge?
The first problem is that it can make you an asshole. This is by no means inevitable, and for some, it is desirable in fact, because for them special knowledge makes it just plain hard to deal with idiots. And the world is full of idiots. However, if having special knowledge makes you cruel or worse, indifferent, then I think that is a problem. It is mean spirited to be pleased when others suffer, just because you know that the world will end in catastrophe any minute and only you and the rest of the chosen few will escape to heaven. It doesn't make for compassion. It makes your world smaller.
Special knowledge can also be hard to live with. It can exhaust you with activism, and splinter large groups into smaller ones as identity politics takes its prisoners. It can sadden and stress you as you acknowledge that your views are so marginalized. Knowing you are up against mighty and ignorant forces can make you feel alone and scared. It doesn't make you happy. It may be the price you pay, and you may pay it willingly, but that does not mean it's always easy.
The other, closely related problem, is what to do about everyone else. That is, the general hoi polloi, the masses, the sheeple, the unconverted, the non-woke. You can worry about them and try to help them, by proselytizing or social care. You can despise them and expect them to die. You can fear them. But because you are by definition in a minority, you can't ignore them, unless you live completely off grid, or in the ultimate echo chamber of only your own head.
I have never observed a group coming to grips with these problems. I have associated with groups that value unity and have hierarchical structures, and those that value free expression and conflict. They can be kind and inclusive, or they can make you earn your stripes before they will even talk to you. Same thing, though. These problems of what to do with special knowledge are just intractable, part of the dynamic of having ideas with other people.
The word 'woke' is interesting in itself. The idea of waking from sleep into truth goes back to Plato. I was asleep and then I awoke....I was blind and now I can see.... ignorance is like sleep, it may be comforting, but it is not reality.....reality is brave, clear and mature....yes, it is a good word, a quasi-religious word. Its antithesis I think, is SJW, or Social Justice Warrior, which is a pejorative. So what Woke is to passion, commitment, love and ferocity, SJW is to mawkish earnestness, following the fashion, picking fights about terminology, and splintering.
Of course it all seems pretty indulgent when you face real despair, as you would if you were in the snow at Standing Rock, or if police were likely to shoot you if you went out. Perhaps people like me can never really be woke. We can experience our own lives with as much honesty, bravery and class as we can, whoever we are, however, and I can say this. Anyone calling me and mine sheeple or sleepy hobbits can go - well, just go, just live their lives, and I will do the best with mine.