Fergus Finlay: Ignore the sneering and wear your wokeness like a badge of honour

Those who try to make the labels like 'woke' feel like something dirty do it out of fear of the kind of progressive change that undermines their power and authority
Fergus Finlay: Ignore the sneering and wear your wokeness like a badge of honour

Republic of Ireland players take a knee in support of the anti-racism movement prior to the international friendly match against Hungary at Szusza Ferenc Stadion in Budapest. Picture: Laszlo Szirtesi/Getty Images

Liberals ended slavery in this country — a liberal republican did that. Liberals got women the right to vote. Liberals got African-Americans the right to vote. Liberals created social security, and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty. Liberals ended segregation. Liberals passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. Liberals created Medicare. Liberals passed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. 

So when you try to hurl that word 'liberal' at my feet as if it were something dirty, something to run away from, something to be ashamed of, it won’t work. Because I will pick up that label, and I will wear it as a badge of honour.

You know how sometimes you hear stuff, and you immediately think “I wish I’d said that”. It wasn’t me who wrote the previous two paragraphs. I was quoting Matt Santos, the guy who was fighting for the Democrats to succeed Jed Bartlett in the White House. 

If you can find the scene, on YouTube or wherever, he was hesitant at first. But when he decided to go for it, there was no stopping him. 

That was fiction, of course — the last series of The West Wing. But the sort of fiction that, every now and again, can inspire.

There’s another label that’s thrown around nowadays. It’s actually a word that has a history, but when you hear it or read it now, it’s always said or written with a sneer.

There’s an entire industry, in print and commentary and social media, that wants to turn it into a label to run away from. That label is 'woke'.

I want to pick it up with pride. So, I’m woke. Politically correct. There. I intend to wear my wokeness like a badge of honour.

In fact, I may not be woke enough. I make mistakes now and again. Say inappropriate things that I think are funny. 

I’ve written before about how I once spoke slowly, in words of one syllable, to a brand new colleague who was African; and was mortified when he responded — entirely graciously — in not just an articulate but an erudite way.

I don’t think I was being racist — perhaps unconsciously I was — but I was certainly being condescending. And I was motivated by colour. These, I hope, are lessons learned.

All my life, I’ve hated the idea of wearing badges. I don’t think I’ve ever put anything on the lapel of my jacket, unless it was for a really important reason — unless there was an urgent need to make a visible statement — and then only for the least amount of time I could get away with. 

If you’re out canvassing for something, it’s important to make the thing you’re campaigning for as visible as possible; to wear the colours of your cause.

But it’s always made me uncomfortable. I am what I am, I believe what I believe — that’s the way I’ve always thought about the world. 

I don’t need to wear my heart on my sleeve, I reckon, because anyone who knows me knows where I stand.

Besides, woke is a somewhat insipid thing to be. At least alongside other political values that are far more important. 

Values like equality, solidarity, community, democracy, freedom — they’re the values that changed the world. 

Nobody is ever going to sacrifice and die, or trudge through the mud and pain of warfare to make the world more woke.

But here’s the thing. The attack on woke-ism is, at its heart, an attack on all those other values. 

Those values, which are at the core of old-fashioned (real) republicanism, or socialism, or social democracy, are under pressure all over the world and have been for 20 years or more. 

It has got to the point where left-wing parties throughout Europe are afraid to call themselves left-wing, and are frantically searching for ideas and narratives that can recapture the public imagination.

The only area in recent years where left-wing leadership has made a significant impact are, oddly enough, the non-economic areas. 

There was a time when human rights were expressed in equality legislation and access to better healthcare, among other things. 

Now there is a sharp division between economic and social rights, on the one hand, and civil and political rights on the other.

So it has now become possible — trendy and desirable even — for parties to be “socially progressive” (up for equal marriage, for example) and “economically conservative” (worried about the consequences of a right to housing, as an opposite example). 

Not all rights are equal, it transpires.

There is no credit for the left in progressive social change, as much as the left might believe in social change. 

It was the Labour Party in Ireland who spearheaded the removal of the ban on divorce; successive and progressive changes in family planning legislation; the ability of everyone to love and marry regardless of sexual orientation, and the removal of the 8th Amendment.

Who knew? Who can remember the Labour ministers and leaders who did the spadework, the heavy lifting, that led to those and other changes?

I’m not saying any of that in a peevish way. It’s just a fact. 

It reflects, among other things, the reality that the battles between left and right used to be about class and economic issues — workers’ rights, access to income supports, those kinds of things. 

Women’s rights were part of that battle, because every concession to women was opposed on economic grounds.

A lot of those battles have been replaced in recent times by issues of identity instead, and many of the fiercest battles now are fought on issues that are not about economics.

But they are important battles nonetheless. 

When Irish footballers take the knee in a Hungarian football stadium, they are making an important statement of solidarity with people who have been oppressed on the basis of colour. 

When Hungarian fans boo that statement, they are taking a position of their own.

And then when Irish opinion-writers attack the team and its manager for being woke, as happened at the weekend, they are doing that age-old thing. Trying to make the label feel like something dirty. Something to run away from. 

And they are doing it out of fear themselves — the fear of progressive change that undermines their power and authority.

Over a long working life, working alongside other people in a variety of causes and battles, I may not have learned much. But what I have learned is that there is one human quality above all others that binds people together — respect. 

Respect for the people you work with. Respect for yourself. Respect, above all, for the people you’re trying to serve. 

The best leaders, the only ones worth following, are the ones who respect the people they are charged with leading.

For me, 'woke' means respect. In its essence, it means respect for people who have never been respected enough. They’re usually people we place at the margins of our comfortable world.

So I’m having a badge made. I’ll carry it in my pocket, until I need to put it on. It’ll probably be slightly clumpy, because it will say “Respect and Equality. WOKE and Proud. Beware of us.”

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