Awake not Woke: Lessons for Indian Academic Space

A novel awakened approach to politics of solidarity in academic spaces, and, by extension, to politics in general, is required; it must be India-centric and contribute to nation-building.
Keywords: Woke, Academic, Debate Politics, Social, Conflict, Radical, Narrative, Nation, Ideology
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One of the most relevant questions in the contemporary Indian Academic space is how to understand the politics of solidarity and deal with its perverse form– Wokeism, which is rampant in Western academia and now, albeit sporadically, has begun to surface here too. This problem can no longer be dismissed just as a media/social media-created conflict as there are real costs attached to the problems posed by wokeism. With the rise of identity politics, identity issues are constantly being conflated with longstanding social and political questions whose answers may not be available with radical politics. This woke approach has now been given an illiberal and intolerant shape in the public sphere that evokes instant outrage, judgements, labelling, and even cancelling but hardly promotes education or seeks solutions. The political and social narratives that cancel culture introduces on the back of wokeism do not just threaten the principles of learning in academia but also have bearing upon the rubrics of Indian society where identity and belonging run into innumerable intersectionalities. With the involvement of big corporations which presumably seek to build a politically correct image, there are insidious threats for a democratic polity as well. A novel awakened approach to politics of solidarity in academic spaces, and, by extension, to politics in general, is required; it must be India-centric and contribute to nation-building. 

The word – Woke 

It is to be understood that the word – woke, itself, was not always a problem but was conceptualised as a term of political awakening. In fact, the word woke has authentic African-American cultural roots; it was formulated during the long socio-political and cultural struggles of the African-American community against Slavery and Racism in America. It invokes a social history of surviving Slavery, of fighting for dignity and equality and of struggling for Civil Rights under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. among others. It represents a ceaseless struggle against discrimination and injustice while creating political awareness and developing a sense of community – all of which are very significant to the African-American struggle. The terminology itself is embedded in a quest for Justice. 

For a community that was denied education, basic human rights and dignity for nearly three hundred years under the harsh conditions of slavery and subsequent Jim Crow laws, African-American usage of the English language has also been very tactical. The use of wit, humour, riddles, religious symbolisms, and vernaculars have moulded the mainstream English language and shaped African-American English. Delicate linguistic manipulations in the cultural, social and political spheres allowed the African-American community to circumnavigate the restrictions imposed by the mainstream language and society. Musical cultures such as Jazz, Blues, Rock & Roll, Rap, and Hip-hop which directly or indirectly evolved from such incorporation of the vernacular into English were also a part of this larger cultural experimentation that the black community had to rely upon to compose and send messages of political solidarity and struggle. The word Woke has its genesis in such marginalised but simultaneously contorted usage of conventional English. 

Narrativising Woke

The usage of the word becomes problematic when its inherent political, moral and emancipatory potential was appropriated by the liberal left for its self-serving narratives. It is the selective narrative-building part that has become a major problem. Narratives have been successfully created and propagated by the organised Left and its sympathetic  peddlers with an intention to dismiss and eradicate any other political approach. Social media, given its nature, has facilitated such high-sounding, politically correct, gratifying and judgemental political culture. The narratives thus formed not only advocate a political goal but also impose a moral hierarchy. The outrage that is thereby manufactured has a real cost attached to it, often affecting careers and lives. This has also reduced politics from a deeply immersive and considerate people-based approach to frivolous hashtags and unreasonable pronouns and even denied any scope for redemption, education, or the recognition of subjectivity.  

The resultant cultural conflicts are being played out on all kinds of media and are no longer contained within the classroom or restricted to academic discussions. Academics  in India have to be mindful  that such partisan cultural and political divisions stem from narratives that may not even have any grounding in our social reality and often push the agendas of the global North. It must be emphasized that the global South is still dealing with fundamental issues such as nutrition, education, employment and development and cannot benefit from pronoun wars or gender-neutral toilets. In the name of wokeism and critical thinking, a genuine distrust of our traditions and institutions is being created and must be countered. The modern constitutional welfarist state of a democratic society, despite its deep historical, religious and cultural roots, is being equated with the colonial/neo-colonial system without any nuance or disclaimer. 

The Way Forward

In a democratic civilisational polity like India, the exchange of ideas has always been welcomed. Political ideas have travelled across time, space and a full gamut of thought. Across the history of ideas, several movements such as women’s movements, social justice movements, anti-colonial struggles, rights movements, etc. have helped in the genesis and maturation of each other. As a movement towards a more inclusive and sensitive society takes place in India as well, political ideas based on solidarity and empathy will continue to be welcomed in the public sphere. Such ideas, when formulated in an empathetic spirit, will serve as a counterpoint to Woke radicalism. In this context, academic spaces will play a crucial interventionist role in the dissemination of the right kind of political thought. The metanarrative of the inclusive, participative and democratic nature of our society must be the ideational basis for combating wokeism. 

Additionally, It is very evident that youth, often major victims of woke politics, look for purpose and responsibilities in their formative years. Wokeism provides that immediate gratification and moral high ground which they misread and misunderstand as a substitute for genuine political life. As a response, Indian academic spaces will have to cultivate and nurture a culture of awakening. Youth seeking answers should not be discouraged but directed towards ‘Awake culture’ where the quest for purpose should lead to taking responsibility of nation-building. Interventions beyond education also have to be brought in so that superfluous discord between spirituality and science can be moderated, questioning and learning can coexist, and innovation and sensitivity can be equally cultivated. 

Similarly, a return to real politics which deals with Indian social realities as compared to the symbolic politics of woke culture should be propagated. Reformative thought and action as compared to radical politics should also be given its legitimate space in society, which will also encourage a culture of exchange of ideas. Politics of sensitivity and solidarity must also be encouraged as they represent our civilisational values. Hurt, grievances and anger, historical or social, must be written about from a self-reflective point of view. However, they need not be the sole basis of political life. Indian academic spaces should be convinced that an open and intellectually rigorous public sphere where the production of knowledge happens through able Indian scholars will provide a counter to wokeism.

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Abhinav Piyush

Dr Abhinav Piyush is presently working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Tagore Govt. Arts and Science College, Puducherry. He received his PhD from the Department of English, University of Delhi. He has also completed his MPhil and MA degrees in English from the Dept of English, University of Delhi. Having a teaching experience of more than 10 years, he has taught several papers such as Indian Classical Literature, European Classical Literature, Literary Theory, History of English Literature and American Literature over the years. He has recently conducted an ICSSR-sponsored National Seminar on National Education Policy 2020 and its Implementation. As an academician, his research primarily focuses on modern Hindi Dalit writings, African-American literature and Indian literature in general. He also writes on contemporary socio-political discourse in reputed magazines and newspapers.

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