Not so many years ago, ‘political correctness’ was an eye-rolling description of our culture’s tendency to self-censor in polite company, and to shame those who wouldn’t play along.
Soon after, the culturally observant noted the ascent of ‘identity politics’ — a growing pattern of pitting aggrieved minority groups against each other on the basis of sex, race, gender and other immutable traits. While the compassion and motive for justice was no doubt sincere for many, it became ever more obvious that this movement was causing considerable harm.
A new currency emerged in which faux-outrage could generate attention, praise and powerful political leverage. Meanwhile, the resentment and growing intolerance of the movement began to take on some of the worst features of right-wing identitarian groups.
Now, in 2020, these philosophies have made deep inroads into the corporate world. Known as ‘woke capitalism’, some of the world’s biggest brands have taken the plunge, using rainbow imagery and support for groups like Black Lives Matter to endear themselves to younger, ‘social justice’-oriented markets.
The latest revelation came last week, when an insider went public with training materials being used by Publicis Groupe, the world’s third largest advertising company whose subsidiaries manage brands like Coca-Cola, General Motors and McDonalds.
The training materials promoted the idea that the Trumpian slogan “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) was a form of covert white supremacy. Also listed as manifestations of white supremacy were phrases like “there’s only one human race” and “all lives matter”, along with so-called “white silence”, the “meritocracy myth” and celebrating Columbus Day.
All this came just days after Goodyear was exposed for allowing employees to support Black Lives Matter and LGBT causes while explicitly banning MAGA attire and public support for the police forces.
President Donald Trump responded by calling for a public boycott against Goodyear. Indeed, some companies have learnt the hard way that, taken too far, going woke means going broke.
But is the answer simply wishing bankruptcy on companies that have allowed identity politics to be professionalised and disseminated into their corporate structure?
At the root of this is significant cultural decay that is pitting us against each other and tearing at the fabric of our Western way of life. After all, what makes the West work is precisely the fact that we adhere based on our shared values, not blood-and-soil nationalism or other interests specific to identity groups.
Comedian Bill Maher recently noted that “there is a weird self-loathing going on among white liberals, and it’s not helping anyone”. He explained, “Lifting up those whom society has cheated or forsaken: that’s liberalism. Hating all things white: that’s just tedious virtue-signalling.”
Maher pointed out an ugly self-righteousness evident among those promoting concepts like ‘white privilege’ and ‘white guilt’:
“Black folks are not asking whites to always be flagellating themselves — because it makes everything awkward… It puts the burden on Black people to absolve you. It’s really asking Black people to again do something for you. “Forgive me. Absolve me. Recognise that I’m one of the good white people…” Haven’t Black people suffered enough? Slavery, Jim Crow, and now I’ve got to make some yuppy feel better about himself?”
Bill Maher is right. At the end of all such discussions is a society more divided and aggrieved, and more prone to absurdity.
Consider, for example, Australian feminist Germaine Greer who faces major criticism for maintaining a clear distinction between women and transgender women. For this ‘sin’, she is now decried as “not a real feminist” despite decades of feminist activism in the trenches, long before it was popular.
Or African American commentator Candace Owens, who has lamented that, “if you are born black, and you don’t accept your natural status as a victim, then the validity of your blackness is immediately called into question.”
Or gay billionaire Peter Thiel, who for his conservative political views was targeted by LGBT magazine The Advocate. Thiel was accused of not being well-versed enough in “gay culture” to truly be gay. The Advocate’s verdict was that “Thiel is an example of a man who has sex with other men, but not a gay man.” This wasn’t satire — but it sure sounded like it.
These endless, absurd divisions aren’t helping us.
Martin Luther King Jr remains a vital conscience for the West on these issues. When he described a world in which his children would be judged by their character rather than their skin colour, he sought to make immutable traits like race incidental to the Western mindset.
We seem to have overshot the equality of King’s civil rights movement into a strange new realm of re-segregation. Those promoting identity politics might claim to be an extension of the civil rights movement, but their philosophy couldn’t be more opposed to King’s.
Perhaps it’s time for every Westerner to go back and read King’s blistering speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Given how diverse the West is, it’s hard to imagine our civilisation holding together if we can’t build on King and find new ways to transcend our many distinctions.
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Kurt Mahlburg has studied architecture and theology among other interests of philosophy, history, surf, the outdoors and travel. He spent several years in Indonesia and has worked as a young adults pastor. He is now a teacher, a freelance writer, the Features Editor of the Canberra Declaration and contributes regularly at Caldron Pool & other online publications. He hosts his own blog 'Cross + Culture' at KurtMahlburg.blog.