November 29th, 2021

The Human Condition: The rock garden

By Daniel Schnee on November 24, 2021.

In the city of Kyoto, Japan there is a world renowned Zen rock garden of immaculate design. And if you visit, you may notice that one of its 15 stones is obscured from view, no matter what angle you view it from. It is a beautiful reminder that there is always some view point we haven’t considered, or even aware of.

This all too human trait does not mean everyone is guilty by default. But in the following case, older people and the meaning of words are that hidden rock.

The term “woke” or “wokeness” – referring to people being both aware of and seeking to correct social injustices – is what you might call a progressive word: a sign that you are anti-racist, support the Black Lives Matter movement, and so on. But just as quickly as it arrived it apparently became passé.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (aka AOC), a prominent American social activist, recently said “wokeness is a term used almost exclusively by older people these days. The average audience for people seriously using the word ‘woke’ in a 2021 political discussion are… [older Democrats and] conservative news pundits. So that should tell you all you need to know.”

What do we need to know? According to AOC, it is not that the word is being used incorrectly, but that older people and consumers of conservative pundits are using it. The implication is clear: the word is devoid of meaning when older people use it.

Leading social justice advocate Ibram X. Kendi, in a recent interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival, defined racism as “a collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequality, that are substantiated by racist ideas.” This is a circular argument, like saying the definition of green is “a collection of green things.” Kendi did not describe racism at all, rather used this potent word as a kind of blank space into which any activity, idea or person can be placed at his convenience. AOC seems to suggest our use of ‘woke’ is likewise.

Older people have been using the word correctly, in context. Wokeness means something different to us. You could say we define it in the following way: a false sense of virtue that masks what it pretends to oppose. She did not challenge the definition, she outright dismissed older people for using the word in the first place. Neither the word “woke” nor older people should be dismissed outright, even if we have to take more daily vitamins than she does.

As descendants of 19th century immigrants, my family never oppressed a single Canadian, before and after their arrival. In fact, patriotic German-Canadians like us were discriminated against, though they were white and hated those who would be unjust toward any Canadian. Wokeness to me has come to symbolize openly ignoring reality to hide racism in one’s inner rock garden. My family learned this long before AOC was born, every time woke people virtuously threw rocks at them.

She should never be marginalized due to her age and choice of media, but it is a basic anthropological precept: old Conservatives ignore those who ignore them first, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may still be too young and Liberal to know it. She will, though, when next all the old people vote.

Dr. Daniel Schnee is an anthropologist who studies Japanese creative culture

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