Woke, not asleep

County View

County View
John Healy

We have, over the last couple of years, been introduced in public debate to an entirely new lexicon of terms to describe changing social mores. One in particular is ‘woke’, a term which this scribe fondly imagined to be the opposite of ‘asleep’; if you were not asleep, the reasoning went, you must have been woke.
Not so, it turned out. Not by a long shot. Being woke, it seems, means being alert to injustice and discrimination, especially of the racial or sexual identity type. It means recognising bigotry and prejudice in any form, and being ready to expose its malevolent intent for what it is.
‘Wokism’, together with its first cousin, political correctness, has its champions, although often disparaged by those of a more blunt turn of mind. Thus, ‘woke warriors’ often find themselves belittled as snowflakes, overly sensitive, ready to take offence not only on their own behalf but on behalf of others, self-righteous moralists who go out of their way to find something to be offended about.
Ireland had its own woke controversy in the last couple of weeks when an independent member of the Seanad, Sharon Keogan, held forth with her views on the subject of surrogacy. The occasion was the appearance of a number of witnesses at an Oireachtas Committee at which they sought to express their views to the parliamentarians on what they considered the injustices of current surrogacy legislation.
Senator Keogan was, to put it mildly, less than sympathetic to their cause. Taking no prisoners, she told the witnesses that she wholeheartedly objected to the whole process of ‘commercialisation of the human child’. Surrogacy, she opined, was akin to the relegation of vulnerable women to the status of wombs for hire and the exploitation of the poor.
It was hardly the most diplomatic of contributions to such a sensitive issue, and Ms Keogan duly came in for a furious backlash of condemnation from all sides. Her comments were labelled disrespectful and offensive by her colleagues, she was roundly censured on social media, newspaper columnists fulminated, there were repeated calls for a public apology.
However, in the following days, two trends began to emerge. A sizeable chunk of the public seemed to agree with the senator – however clumsy and ill chosen her words were – that surrogacy is not a clear black-and-white issue. Like so many ethical questions of the day, there are no easy answers; there are both for and against; there are reasons to be accepting and reasons to be cautious.
But an even greater number, many of whom disagreed with the senator, were concerned at the shrill demands from some commentators that there should be a mechanism whereby Ms Keogan, and those like her, should be silenced. “What should we do when Senators go too far?” one columnist asked, a question that seemed to contradict the idea of free speech that the woke people hold dear.
The writer and broadcaster Stephen Fry, whose natural inclination would be to side with contrarians and protestors, once warned that political correctness was its own worst enemy. Political correctness, he said, claims to espouse diversity but yet it seeks to shut down diversity of opinion and silence the voices it does not agree with. It claims to espouse inclusivity, but only for those who share its opinions and sing to its tunes.
Silencing the Sharon Keogans of public life – however detestable their opinions might be to some – is no answer to anything. Reasoned debate and logical counter argument will enable the public to assess the merits or otherwise of what is being preached.