In 2009 journalist Bill Bishop wrote a compelling book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. He makes the case that over the past several decades people have been living, working, worshipping, recreating, and vacationing in places where other people are more and more likely to think and vote the same way. Bishop demonstrates that the gulf between different perspectives is growing wider—and people are less willing to understand one another, making it easier to cancel the other side out. If there is no relationship, there is little pain.
On the flip side of cancel culture is the pride in being “woke,” yet another relatively new cultural locution. It refers to being awakened to the realities and injustices suffered by others. I am more familiar with woke from the progressive side, but it also exists on the conservative end. Conservatives by and large acknowledge the scourge of slavery and racism, but have become woke to what they portray as an insidious attempt by progressives to rewrite America’s past by force-feeding whatthey consider a skewed history called critical race theory to its students.
Woke progressive people make the claim that they can see systemic racism, white privilege, and the urgency of climate change while others can’t or won’t. Addressing systemic racism, white privilege, and climate change are laudable and necessary enterprises, but embedded in the language of “woke” is an arrogant belief that some are awake and others are asleep. Implicit in woke language is that non-woke people need to think, speak, and see as the woke do. Listening loses out to sermonizing; and any discussion is framed in a calculus of win/lose.
When I arrived in Japan fresh out of college in 1973, I carried some pride with me that I had purged myself of “Ugly American” tendencies, which was the pejorative phrase of the day. My engagement in the anti-war movement had, I thought, cleansed me of cultural imperialism. It hadn’t.
About a year into my two-year tenure, something felt off. My Japanese housemates and I weren’t understanding one another as well as we had when I arrived. I was missing something. I sought out a graduating senior, who had been the most critical of my presence, for some feedback. He did not hesitate to provide it. He said that I seemed to be unaware (unwoke?) to the fact that I was younger than all the seniors but commanded a level of authority that I didn’t deserve (age is a very important benchmark in Japanese culture). He said that all the Japanese students in the house where we lived were committed to speaking in English. Most of them were fluent in the language, but my facility in my native tongue meant that I would invariably win every argument and dominate every conversation. And I was bigger than everyone else, he said, and I lorded my size over them.
I got woke. It was devastating. It broke my heart. But the conversation opened me up to new and uncomfortable dimensions of myself. And because it was so painful, there was a part of me that never wanted to go through that again. I didn’t want to be woke again. Which is the problem with woke; it gives the illusion that one has arrived; that one’s vision is completely clear. That all the necessary growth has taken place. Growth in awareness will inevitably involve pain—the pain of our myopia and self-centeredness, and the pain of inflicting pain on others tomaintain our own sense of stability.
A corrective to the arrogance of “cancel” and “woke” comes from South Africa and the Zulu (Bantu) language: ubuntu. As it has been presented to me, ubuntu means “I am because you are.” It is deeply relational. Ubuntu implies a desire to really see someone else—not as a category or projection, but as another fully actualized human being. It is not possible in the framework of ubuntu to cancel each other out because we are linked together, whether we want to be or not. The irony of ubuntu is thatit comes from a part of the world where cancel culture was official policy, carried out in horrific ways.
To my knowledge there isn’t an English equivalent to ubuntu. But if there is not a language correlate, there is a process one: listening with respect. Listening not to fashion the most effective retort, which is an egoresponse; but to listen to and for the soul. A listening that can open our eyes to new ways of seeing. Where is the person’s center? How might we be alike? Where and how do we share our humanity? How can we truly see one another? Such a process makes it much harder to cancel, dismiss, or demonize.