Woke culture has taken the world by storm as energetic Gen Zers demand changes to the way things have been for thousands of years. Initially isolated to the Western world, the hype has landed on South African soil. But what happens when progressivism is taken too far? It heads straight into fundamentalism.
In recent weeks, the South African public reacted with starkly diverse opinions on a leaked draft document from the Department of Basic Education (DBE) that proposed unisex bathrooms. It also encouraged teachers to move away from using gender specific pronouns when addressing learners.
The outrage was bold. So, too, were the defenders of the progressive agenda (a.k.a woke culture). What ensued was a conflict of ideologies – one that is set to prolong for years, if not decades to come as the world tries to keep up with (and resist) mounting changes demanded by a restless generation entering adulthood.
In his time, Immanuel Kant defined progress as a shift from barbarism towards civilisation. Later on, in the 19th and 20th centuries, cultural liberalism extended the fundamental ideals of progressivism to encompass the rights of individuals to choose whether to conform to cultural norms. This was cultural liberalism, defined in the words of Henry David Thoreau as the right to “march to the beat of a different drummer”. Woke culture in the 21st century took this even further, with cultural progressivism. Adherents of cultural progressivism advocate that family structures and marriage should be left up to individual decision. The core idea is that, as long as one does no harm to others, no lifestyle is to be considered better than any other.
Is progressivism necessary?
One could argue, of course, that progressivism in its simplest form is (1) inevitable with the growth of society and (2) is indeed necessary for the development of a well-functioning societuy. History offers us a myriad of evidence in favour of the need for progressivism. Progressivism has allowed us to push for, and achieve, significant reforms over time. Take, for example, the world’s awakening to the brutal reality of eugenics in the 20th century. For decades, such beliefs held on the basis of pseudoscience were acceptable despite the undue harm and torture perpetrated against minorities from America to Africa and Australia. But there inevitably came a time when the world realised the sheer inhumanity of such practices, and a movement was in order to put an end to it. A point to progressivism, there.
There are dozens of other successful reforms that could be attributed to progressivism. Take, for example, economic reform in the States. Even the reforms brought to the pagan Arabs of the 7th century with the advent of Islam could be described as momentously progressive. Islam ushered in reforms that disrupted the status quo. It condemned and ended, among other barbaric practices of the time, female infanticide, exploitation of the poor, murder and theft. Talk about Muslims being diehard conservatives!
Generation cycles and activism
A phenomenal writer of the present era, Robert Greene, writes that there are four generations alive at any given point in time. The zeitgeist (or, simply, spirit of the times) of each generation creates an interesting diversity of opinions and ideas, leading to fierce ideological battle as we have seen it play out. The oldest generation could be described as the ‘Revolution generation’ (born through 1945-1967), the second generation as the ‘Preserve generation’ (Gen X/Millennials; born through 1968-1989), the third generation as the ‘Conservative generation’ (Gen Y/Millennials/Gen Z; born through 1990-2012) and finally the fourth generation as the ‘Crisis/New Revolutionary generation’ (iGen/Gen Alpha; born in 2013 onwards).
But here’s what seems to have happened: Gen Z prematurely reached for a New Revolutionary. Though the exact cause is up to speculation, I may hazard a guess that the Covid-19 pandemic upset the cycle. To illustrate this, woke culture was on the rise since the 2010s but witnessed exponential growth in the aftermath of significant events that unfolded during the pandemic, such as the George Floyd murder. Bear in mind this generation – my generation – began its transition from adolescence into adulthood at a time of great uncertainty; at a time when people were correctly questioning traditional ways of doing things. Add to this that more than half the planet is on social media, so there exists a massive platform for the exchange of ideas and opinions. Some more fuel for woke culture.
As has already been stated, progressivism has delivered much-needed reforms to society over thousands of years. The drawback, however, lies in the way it is necessitated upon interpretation. There must come a point – when necessary reforms have been achieved – when the fight is no longer about progress but about individual preferences being thrust forward as a cause for greater good; essentially diverting from progress and ignoring more pressing issues at hand. As groups fight for a cause, they tend to become entrenched in a kind of fundamentalism, whether they would like to admit it or not. They end up believing their way is the only way.
Woke culture is so vibrant in the digital age that this line is easily overstepped and its proponents plunge it straight from progressivism into the spectre of fundamentalism. A clear example of this is the push for unisex bathrooms. In fact, it has been stretched so far that it may even be declared a regressive movement rather than a progressive one. In America, public toilets were only separated by sex at the end of the 19th century, when women began joining the workforce. In keeping with Victorian values of modesty and privacy, more states began implementing segregated toilets until it became the norm everywhere.
What further demonstrates gender neutral toilets as regressive is, embarrassingly, the fact that fundamental purposes of woke culture would appear to have been abandoned in favour of rehashed unisex bathrooms. That is, the idea that ‘it is unacceptable if it makes a person uncomfortable’. The public outrage against DBE’s plans exemplifies this. A kind of fundamentalism has emerged, where only one way appears to be the way forward. What then about people’s preferences being trampled upon? In a country where rape is rife, surely sense must prevail.
All things considered, progressivism was necessary for the evolution of mankind into a properly-functioning society. In its simplest form, it is still required if we are to change people’s attitudes towards current injustices – Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, unfair labour practices, racism, discrimination, war… and the the list goes on. However, it must forthwith be declared that progressivism becomes detrimental when taken over-the-top. It slides to the other end of the pendulum – fundamentalism. When the objectives become muddled, unworthy causes are sensationalised to no good end. That is where we need to draw the line, and woke culture has stepped beyond it.