Obama warns against social media call-out culture
On Tuesday, Barack Obama used the annual Obama Foundation Summit to criticize call-out culture, with his use of the term "woke" garnering particular attention. But what is woke culture, and did Obama really just call it out?
The term woke implies an awareness of social justice issues, and particularly those to do with race. It's thought to have first been used in a political context in a 1962 New York Times article by African-American writer William Melvin Kelley, but its modern rise has been traced to its use in Master Teacher, a 2008 song by Erykah Badu.
Badu would herself go on to forge a link between the term and social justice issues in a 2012 post on Twitter. "Truth requires no belief. / Stay woke. Watch closely. / #FreePussyRiot." The tweet was in support of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, whose members were arrested and jailed following a performance in Moscow that year.
Its use greatly increased in 2014 in connection with the Black Lives Matter movement, which campaigns against systemic racism and violence towards African American communities in the USA, and against black communities in Australia, Canada and the UK.
Today the term is associated with social media, and the broader trend of using social media posts to call out examples of apparent social injustice such as racism, sexism and homophobia. Where cases of prejudice or discrimination are overt, such call-outs tend not to be controversial. But the term is sometimes applied to those who call out more minor infringements of political correctness.
"This idea of purity, and you're never compromised, and you're always 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's comments may be timed to inform the race for the Democratic Party nomination to challenge Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. A feature of the race so far has been Democrat candidates apologizing for politically incorrect faux pas.
One example is that of Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat candidate who in August apologized for "mistakes" related to making claims of Cherokee Native American ancestry. After such claims were widely questioned, Warren took a DNA test which suggested some Native American ancestry going back six to 10 generations.
However, the DNA test was itself widely criticized. On one side she was attacked for how marginal the heritage appeared to be, and on the other because she appeared to conflate genetics and Native American identity. The Cherokee Nation itself criticized the DNA test on the grounds that tribal affiliation is legally conferred.
Warren's case gets into the tricky territory of cultural appropriation, or the use of elements of one culture by members of another. The issue is particularly controversial if, as in US racial issues, there is a historical colonial aspect. The term has been applied to appropriation at a national level, such as the British aristocracy's adoption of traditional Scottish attire, down to the clothing choices of the individual in the street.
The term woke is the subject of its own cultural appropriation debate, there being a question as to whether white people should use a phrase of unquestionable African American origin.
Beyond cultural appropriation, other examples of Democrat candidate apologies include Kirsten Gillibrand's for past use of the insensitive term "illegal alien" and Pete Buttigieg's for using the phrase "all lives matter" due to its connection to those seeking to criticize the Black Lives Matter movement.
"There is this sense sometimes of the way of me making change is to be as judgemental as possible about other people, and that's enough," Obama added. "Like if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn't do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, because 'Man did you see how woke I was? I called you out.'"
There's no suggestion that Obama was referring to any one of the Democrat candidates mentioned above. And it's arguable that each case was worthy of criticism. But though it's to be expected, say, for the Cherokee Nation to make a statement about Warren's claims, the extent to which others involved have a legitimate axe to grind is arguably more open to question.
It's perhaps possible to get hung up on the term woke in this case. Beyond his use of the word, Obama's comments speak to the wider issue of call-out culture on social media. It's easy to hit retweet and add a snarky comment. It's harder to turn around the mirror and ask if one has anything truly insightful to add to the conversation.
Source: The Obama Foundation