On Zille’s #StayWoke: Go Broke

Helen Zille’s new book, #StayWoke: Go Broke aims to tell us why “South Africa won’t survive America’s Culture Wars”. I read it out of some strange sense of obligation, and perhaps intending to write a review. A short version of the comments below is the one-line review that first came to mind: the book doesn’t say enough to merit any attention.

This isn’t to say the book is not interesting, but probably not for the reasons Zille would hope for. It captures all the stereotyping, superficial analysis, and conservative paranoia that those of us who keep an eye on South Africa’s anti-woke, last line of defense against “cultural Marxism” have watched evolve for quite a few years now.

So, instead of being told you’re misinterpreting her Tweets, you can now assess her views on this topic over 200 pages, rather than only 240 characters.

My criticisms of the book are probably too routine to catalogue, and also, it’s probably pointless to record them. Because we know, from the outset, that we are dealing with one group of people who will view criticism of the book as an apologia for “wokeness”; another group who will be disappointed that I’m not being rude enough about the book and/or its author; and then, a shrinking number of people scratching their heads and thinking “wtf is going on? And since when do all arguments and analysis of culture have to rely on stereotype and motivated reasoning?”.

Because, in summary – and even while the book notes at one point that Twitter isn’t representative of majority sentiment – its entire premise requires that the examples of epistemic exuberance we’ve all seen (and that is satirised by folks like Andrew Doyle, aka Titania McGrath) are representative of a significant number of humans (or perhaps more saliently, voters).

I don’t know about you, but outside of social media, it’s pretty rare to find genuine, panoptical confirmation of the sorts of “problems” this book tries to articulate. Yes, there are many such examples, and Zille recounts some of the more memorable ones, but “many” still makes up an infinitesimally small proportion of human beliefs and interactions.

To argue that they confirm a trend, and even worse, a trend that will “destroy” a nation (whatever that means), requires a bit more work than mischaracterising what goes on at universities through using cherry-picked examples (e.g. of a 19-year-old student making bonkers claims about lightning).

I’ve been at a university (the University of Cape Town) since 1991. Yes, some of my colleagues are a bit mad, and many of them are insufferable. And I cannot for a moment deny that there are tensions and disagreements on some issues. But it is incredibly rare to find those disagreements expressed in the terms that Zille’s stereotype – and those of the sources she cites – requires to make the case they are deployed in service of here.

Humanities faculties do not routinely teach the things she says they do (in very brief summary, a version of Critical Race Theory that scoffs at objective truth, while reifying personal identity and the beliefs that flow from that). And, it’s telling that the book doesn’t include even a cursory survey of any curriculum, of any university, whether in South Africa or elsewhere.

Some courses, and some staff – at least at my university, and from what I know of others – have these sorts of views, and presumably present them to students. But students have access to opposing views too, and there is no hegemony of thought that inhibits them from having debates and making up their minds regarding the merits of those views.

As I’ve said before, on an adjacent topic:

There’s a middle-ground here, even though it’s a tricky one to define and occupy. Just as politics in general tends to polarisation, the situation at universities does also. You can be impatient with caricatures of safe spaces and trigger warnings, as I am, while also believing that some members of the university communities might invoke these concepts too frequently.

Someone else can catalogue their agreement and disagreement with individual chapters and claims in the book. My general concern is that the book is as reductionist as the concern it purports to address, and therefore, that it would likely support exactly the same binary analysis of this iteration of the culture wars, except for being a salvo from the “other side”.

So, if you want your biases about the “woke” confirmed, read it. If you want your biases about Zille confirmed, read it. If you want to read a thoughtful analysis of this issue that isn’t agenda-driven, read something else.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.