Commentary: Complaints about “political correctness,” “purity” and “woke culture” are all mind-numbing clichés.
With a bit of effort, we could be more precise. Is the object of scrutiny being pedantic, unreasonably partisan, impractical or hypocritical?
Those distinctions allow us to have a conversation, at least; but conversation may not be the point. Keep in mind that the function of these clichés is more often to close down reflection and discussion; and that serves existing power relationships well.
Former president Barack Obama drew bipartisan applause along with some jeers this week for remarks he made at the close of his foundation’s summit for young leaders in Chicago.
"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. People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you."
On the surface he was criticizing social media commentary, sometimes vapid and often mean-spirited, typed by presumed "keyboard warriors" who remain aloof from action.
In a broader context, he speaks at a time when his party is debating the virtues of centrism versus running on a bold political program. The Democratic Party is arguing over how best to challenge President Donald Trump (or perhaps Mike Pence) in 2020, while also evaluating the consequences of Obama's policies.
Embracing the cliché of the circular firing squad, Obama has issued warnings to Democrats lately about “shooting at your allies because one of them is straying from purity on the issues,” which has become a familiar argument as the party’s left flank has grown stronger and more popular.
The valid point Obama makes is that elected legislators need to bargain and cut some deals to pass laws. More deeply, the ability to discuss values in depth with those who weigh issues differently, the ability to encounter ambiguity thoughtfully, is helpful not only for lawmakers, but for citizens and community leaders, too.
I wonder, however, whether we actually have a "purity" problem so much as a desire to defuse challenges to existing power relations.
While Obama's message about political pragmatism strikes me as sincerely felt, it also serves to discipline activists who might argue for changing how society behaves — and act on such convictions. Don't be so rigid, the mentor says: Relax your expectations. Don't be "woke."
One person’s “rigidity” is another person’s spine. Certainly individuals can be unreasonable or dogmatic. It is also true that the discourse of our political establishment emphasizes expediency over moral clarity, seeking accommodations for power rather than challenging it — or, worse, redistributing it.
The mythology of the virtuous center serves to preserve power relationships, allowing space for criticism yet discouraging action that might shake up arrangements. Instability, after all, is hazardous. The world is messy, like Obama said.
“Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations,” Henry David Thoreau wrote long ago, “it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was.” (Thoreau had little hope for politics in this respect, it must be said.)
The effects of climate distortion are accumulating and accelerating, political institutions and alliances among nations are cracking, and the viability of our species depends on unprecedented transformations of energy production and consumption along with our institutions of power and economics.
However much of a long shot that is, any decent attempt at it requires moral conviction and a call to action.
So let's be judgmental, let's be difficult, and by all means let's be "woke."