KOCHI: A couple of days ago, social media woke up to some stirring news that triggered outrage. Two young women emptied two cans of tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s masterpiece ‘Sunflowers’ at London’s National Gallery.
The women were part of an activist group in the UK, and they were protesting against the fossil fuel industry. As the soup hit the target, one of them shouted: “What is worth more, art or life?”
Social media pundits pummelled the protest. Even moderate liberals were aghast at the mode of protest and the possibility of such a rare artwork being ruined.
“It was a symbolic protest,” says award-winning filmmaker Krishnendu Kalesh.
“And they created news and garnered attention. Now, people are talking about it. In that way, yes, they succeeded in creating conversations, which is the aim of a symbolic protest. Anyway, would oil companies care about art?”
The discussion delves into a deeper topic: woke culture or ‘wokism’, the latest ‘ism’ of our times.
The Oxford dictionary defines ‘woke’ as an informal adjective that means “aware of social and political issues, especially racism”.
Under the definition, a note reads: “This word is often used in a disapproving way by people who think that some other people are too easily upset about these issues, or talk too much about them in a way that does not change anything.”
In fact, what started off as a noble concept has slid into a subject of revulsion and ridicule. But, as the cliched line goes, you may hate it or love it, you just can’t ignore it.
The “tomato soup protest” yet again revived the debate over the woke trend.
Critics trash wokism as a “dangerous” cult-like philosophy that could “infect” vulnerable children with ideas of misguided activism, turning them into rebels without a cause or nonconformists. Supporters, however, maintain it is all about heightened social consciousness.
“Woke culture or being woke is fundamentally a good thing,” says Krishnendu, known for the anti-war film Prappeda. “I think the term first came about during the Vietnam war time when people started questioning some unfair social practices or systems.
“Be it the war, or the discrimination against certain communities, especially African-Americans and
gender minorities. This is reflected in the films, too. People started rightfully questioning some comic scenes and lines, etc.”
A cultural shift happened in the West, Krishnendu adds. “People became more vigilant. And Hollywood also visibly changed,” he says.
“Minority and women’s representation increased. Racial slurs decreased.”
‘Cultural shift happening’
In India, the ideas of “political correctness” came much later, he says. “With more access to technology, books, social media and films, a new worldview emerged,” says Krishnendu.
“That’s how, for instance, the Me Too movement became big here. So, yes, a cultural shift is happening here as well.”
Young poet Aleena Aakashamittayi believes being woke is something positive inherently. “For me, being woke means accepting that each human being is complex, with their own feelings, thought processes and surroundings,” she says. “We can build love, sisterhood and friendship based on it. And correct the wrongs of the past.”
She points to the recent controversy in Google. “The firm had to cancel a speech about caste bias by Dalit rights activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan due to pressure from upper-class Indian immigrants. The Indians in the West are part of the brown, South Asian community. However, when you discuss caste, a lot of them have to acknowledge their privileges. Hence there was pushback against this woke discourse,” she says.
However, Aleena adds, there often crops up hypocrisy. For instance, corporates celebrate Pride Month (June) or Black History Month (February) by changing profile pictures, but there would be little palpable action.
“The social media celebration would be huge,” she says. “However, those in power will never adopt this ‘wokeness’ to their professional and personal lives. Be it hiring minorities or working on the ground for their welfare. This is also a reality.”
In the West, Aleena adds, businesses are aware that woke people are a huge consumer market. “So they would do some woke marketing. For example, the black mermaid in an upcoming Disney movie, The Little Mermaid,” she says.
“They have cast Halle Bailey, a black actor and singer as the mermaid, triggering outrage among some white supremacists. ‘Isn’t the mermaid a completely fictional being? So, what’s the issue?’ the other side replies. But I feel another point is couldn’t Disney create an original diverse character, a black heroine?”
‘A politically incorrect world’
Techie and social observer Anuraj Girija K A say being woke is difficult in a “world that is unequal and politically incorrect”.
“Every day, each one of us says or does something ‘unwoke’. It is impossible to always be politically correct, but that is what we should aspire for,” he says.
“We cannot expect the same kind of political correctness from a person who is struggling for survival, say, a headload worker. So, we need to consider nuances while looking at different sections of society.”
Anuraj believes the privileged get uncomfortable with the idea of wokism, as their privileges are questioned, sometimes with some provocation.
Krishnendu agrees, saying this was evident when The Great Indian Kitchen came out. “Many people were shocked while watching the film. Their homes and kitchens were, perhaps, just like what was shown in the film, but no one questioned that till then,” he says.
‘Lack of diverse views’
Wokism or the woke culture is not something that is defined, it is not an ideology, says writer N S Madhavan. “It means being alert to injustice in society. Earlier, it was especially about racism. Now, it has evolved into and contains various meanings and areas,” he adds.
“There is also the problem of herd mentality where people follow, say, a social media post, without reading much about the subject or its nuances.” Wokism is often linked to cancel culture. And it happens both ways woke folks cancel as well as get cancelled.
“When I hear about cancel culture, the first name that comes to my mind is Meesha by Hareesh S,” he says. “In India, you won’t find woke activism as much like Britain or the US. Here, the term ‘hurting religious sentiments’ has much more power. Anyone can go to court if they think something hurts their sentiment. The same kind of blasphemy laws exists in Pakistan, too. I believe most countries that were victims of colonialism might have some laws like these that curb freedom of expression.”
Smacks of hypocrisy
Researcher and social observer Sreejith Panickar says the lack of a clear definition makes wokism confusing. “There is no standard definition for woke, I believe,” he says. “There are a lot of proponents, practitioners, and exponents. Most of these people are often left-liberal, liberal or extremely progressive. It’s a mix of various kinds of people. There are many who are hypocritical, too. Like someone who opposes crackers during Diwali on social media, but bursts them at home or a party.
“Such people are mockingly referred to as woke — be it a sportsman or a celeb. I think ‘woke’ has transformed into everything that initially it was not meant to be.” Social observer Praveen Ravi believes wokism has evolved into a social issue. “Anyone who counters the narratives of the people who call themselves woke is attacked by a ‘mob’ and gets cancelled,” he says.
“This results in lack of space for discourse. Take the example of woke feminists. If one criticises feminist narratives, suddenly he or she is branded and tarnished as anti-woman.” Aleena says not all “apostles of woke culture are actually woke”. “There are power imbalances within the liberal, politically correct, woke circles,” she adds. “For instance, there are upper-caste, upper-class women who take advantage of the marginalised women. Also, the saviour mentality is there.”
What happened to Van Gogh’s painting?
“Coming back to the climate protest, yes, it created discussions. And, thankfully, the painting is intact,” says Aleena. “But who cleaned it up? The lowest-paid workers in that museum.” Krishnendu quips that protestors should carefully choose their targets. “Van Gogh was a poor person, never celebrated life, and suffered from mental health issues,” he says. “So, their selection needs some research; maybe, a Picasso?”