Forrmer President Barack Obama, a figurehead of the Democratic party in the U.S. under the Trump administration, recently challenged the concept of being woke at a Chicago event for his foundation, according to The BBC.
The BBC describes being woke as “being alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice, along with being aware of what’s going on in the community.” The term is often used in social justice movements and discussions.
“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re politically woke, and all that stuff — you should get over that quickly,” Obama said. “The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”
Obama is correct in saying that people are not simply good or bad. However, wokeness is not intrinsically a bad thing.
“I get a sense among certain young people on social media that the way of making change is to be as judgemental as possible about other people,” Obama said.
The concept of canceling—or ending support for someone due to something they say or do—exemplifies what Obama said. Celebrities like Roseanne Barr (who tweeted racist comments) and R. Kelly (who has been indicted on child pornography allegations) have taken significant career hits due to cancel culture — and that is not a bad thing.
In fact, sometimes cancel culture can be used for good. It creates “a culture of accountability which is not centralized and is haphazard, but needed to come into being,” Lisa Nakamura, a University of Michigan professor, said to The New York Times.
Obama is likely not critiquing instances like the reactions to Kelly or Barr, but rather ones where the person who did something controversial was not as serious. The New York Times showed how celebrities like Kanye West, Taylor Swift and Chris Evans have been canceled by one group or another, but the cancellation did not last due to the controversy not being universally offensive.
Therefore, just canceling people is not a solution. As Obama said, “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you are probably not going to get that far.” When a public figure says something well-intentioned but uses improper phrasing or misses a point, they should not be punished. Instead, we should use that as a moment to educate our peers (and even that public figure) on how to be more appropriate.
The world is not divided into one woke half versus another un-woke half. Most people fall somewhere in the middle. If we really want to make the world a better place, we need to do a better job of understanding that fact so that we can try and raise people up rather than put them down.