Wokeness, Sleepwalking and Stupors: The War on Social Justice Discourse

deadline for submissions: 
August 31, 2021
full name / name of organization: 
Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

The world as we know it is undergoing dynamic transformation. Many gains have been made in recent decades towards loosening the grip of some of the belief systems that have enabled many systemic inequalities in the modern world. The ideological underpinnings of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy and coloniality, for example, have been rigorously challenged and are being steadily eroded, leading to changes in legal frameworks, social practices and the norms of acceptable everyday behaviour. The highly visible and vocal Black Lives Matter movement, which regained international momentum following the murder of George Floyd, has become a widely recognized recent manifestation of this refusal to abide the injustices and indignities of the past. The Rhodes Must Fall movement, started by students at the University of Cape Town in 2015, has also inspired similar student protests in many parts of the world against colonial institutional cultures and curricula. These movements have also encouraged the mainstreaming of critical theory and concepts such as ‘privilege’ and ‘systemic racism’. 2 As these pressures of norm change accelerate, coupled with shifting demographics within nation-states and moving geo-political dynamics, the resistance and mobilization against change has also accelerated, a fact indelibly etched on the global imagination in the images of the attack on the US Capitol Hill by right-wing groups, egged on by the erstwhile President of the US, Donald Trump. One of the most virulent forms this resistance has taken is the war on Critical Race Theory and Gender Studies as discourses supportive of social change. Attacks on these fields accompany right wing, and often populist, efforts to erode and thwart social justice initiatives aiming to redress historical oppression. We can cite so many examples of these dynamics. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has promised to “combat gender ideology” in his neoliberal and heteropatriarchal war on Marxism and Freirean social justice pedagogy. In Hungary, Gender Studies has been attacked as a field that threatens traditional family values and impairs national fertility rates. In Poland, the ministries of science and education have committed to eliminate the influence of gender, including pledges to strip the national accreditation of gay and lesbian studies. Similarly in India, despite the revocation of Article 377 from the Indian Penal Code that criminalized same-sex relationships, hatred against same-sex relationships and denial of same-sex marriages continue to be institutionalized. Hatred and denial are logically systematized by arguing that the practices of same-sex relationships and marriages are against the indigenous cultures and traditions of India. Alongside growing efforts to discredit Gender Studies in these and other countries, attacks on Critical Race Theory are gaining momentum. In his last few months as US President, Donald J. Trump issued a directive purging Critical Race Theory from trainings for US federal agencies. Subsequent to this move, efforts to ban CRT have accelerated in many states, with CRT being fully banned in a total of six States. Efforts are also underway in the United Kingdom to restrict the teaching of CRT in schools. In India and widely in Southeast Asia, the discourses on CRT occupy a backseat through a consistent denial of the existence of racism within the habitual existential spaces. Accompanying these institutional measures is a rise in conservative populism, seeking to counter civil rights and social justice advocacy and to render hate discourses along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, and disability respectable once again. Right wing incursions into 3 critical theory and knowledge, which have accompanied social justice advocacy for historically disenfranchised and oppressed groups, must also be seen in relation to broader attacks on academic research and expertise. The consequences of denying and devaluing scientific expertise have been tragically observed in contexts where right wing governments have denied the existence of COVID-19, with dire social, economic and health consequences. Notable in this new, and global, iteration of culture wars is the emergence of intergenerational fault-lines. Younger generations are often ridiculed for their culture of “wokeness” and for creating the controversial practice of “cancel culture”. Efforts to denigrate youth calling for historical redress and equality have been largely deployed through rhetoric of “common sense”, which actively conceals ethnonationalist, neoliberal, and heteropatriarchal interests embedded within nostalgic recollections of “tradition”. Conservative accusations that critical “wokeness” is out of touch and even dangerous for traditional cultures and national economies provides a powerful example of the relationship between epistemic and social in/justice. Our conference picks up on this metaphor of “awakeness” and wishes to invite thinking on awareness, social conscientization, critical consciousness, and the attempts to prevent, reverse, and generally provide all manner of soporifics, sedatives and lullabies in both political and popular culture to counter democratically-inspired discourse. One such soporific that comes to mind immediately isthe wide-spread uptake in conspiracy theories, another is the recycling of eugenicist thinking that has informed some discourses on the Covid-19 epidemic, where notions of sociallysanctioned dispensability of “less useful/productive/valued” human lives, particularly those of the elderly and disabled, have once again surfaced. How do “sleeping,” denial and ignorance generate social productions by those who prevent the marginalized individuals and communities from gaining and sharing knowledges, or actively erase indigenous knowledges and other marginalised epistemologies? But then again, how are other forms of consciousness-policing operationalised within spaces of wokeness, thereby producing “sleepwalkers”? We hope to facilitate the presentation of thoughts that tease out the nuances of these metaphors in relation to the production of social justice thinking. The conference will not take the form of traditional presentations and Q&A but will rather ask participants to present their thoughts 4 briefly, and then engage in conversations with fellow panelists. We envisage conversations to span topics/fields such as:

• The censorship of Critical Race Theory; gender, sexual and reproductive knowledge and other diversity discourses

• The “war on wokeness”

• Cancel culture

• Freedom of speech/academic freedom and critical approaches to hate speech

• New forms of eugenicist thinking, as in language of genetics, or populist Covid-19 discourse, especially as these impact people living with disabilities and the elderly

• Critical sleep studies – sleep as a form of resistance, for example

• The role of social media in creating/suppressing critical social justice thinking

• Epistemologies of ignorance

• Decoloniality, epistemocides & epistemological disobedience

• Control of historical knowledge

• Different lullabies of gaslighting in the age of neocolonialism/neoliberalism/post-race/post-feminism

• Activism, conscientization and challenges of anti-foundationalist thinking

• Policing of “wokeness”

• Ecocidal thinking

This is the first call for abstracts, which are due on 31 August 2021. Abstracts should be between 250 and 300 words. Send to conference.wicds@wits.ac.za, accompanied by a single paragraph bio. Keynote speakers will be confirmed soon