Judith Collins’ worrying contempt for ‘woke’

Opinion: Judith Collins' use of the term ‘woke’ in her dismissal of NCEA arts and creative subjects should make us all feel uncomfortable, writes Neal Curtis.

National Party leader Judith Collins. Photo: Lynn Grieveson, Newsroom

In what was dubbed the first Leaders Breakfast on NewstalkZB on Monday morning, Judith Collins spoke on a range of topics including education. On secondary education she told the host, Mike Hosking, "The trouble with NCEA, Mike, to be frank, is there’s too many photography classes, too much media studies, too much woke stuff."

Aside from the evident contempt she holds for the arts and creative expression, at a time when wellbeing and mental health should be paramount, this use of the word 'woke' is interesting but also troubling. The term itself originated in black politics in the US, dating back as far as the first half of the 20th Century, and is African-American vernacular for being aware of issues pertaining to social injustice, the history of that injustice and the social institutions that enable such injustice to persist.

That Collins should be so dismissive of concerns about racism, discrimination and prejudice comes as no surprise, but the idea that a person looking to hold the highest office in a country with a colonial history, the legacies of which are still so evident, should make us all uncomfortable. It is also part of a shift in National Party rhetoric towards the language of the hard right that has increasingly appropriated terms like ‘PC’ and ‘cancel culture’ to dismiss calls for equality, justice and better political and cultural representation.

I understand that this turn to hard right populism might be tactical. She is no doubt looking to pick up voters that have found a new home with ACT or the New Conservatives. It is also in keeping with her echoing of the alt-right meme "It’s OK to be white" when she was asked about the lack of diversity in Todd Muller’s first team. "Is there something wrong with me being white?" she responded. As I say, we might simply dismiss this as canny political strategy, but does the country really want the leader of one of its two major parties bringing alt-right tactics into the mainstream? Is this really where we want to go?

Given our heightened sense of risk and anxiety, simple narratives that seem to make sense of the chaos offer us a modicum of security, even if such security is a delusion that’s actually putting us at even greater risk.

This is also a time when the alt-right and the radical right, which includes a range of traditional conservative, nationalist and neo-fascist parties, are using new and old media to run very successful campaigns. These are often premised on misinformation, disinformation and ‘fake news’. With the help of Facebook in particular, the radical right is also succeeding in recruiting to its cause through the use of conspiracy theories that take advantage of our post-truth condition and an increasing incredulity towards journalists and experts in any field.

During this pandemic we have seen how effective, but also how damaging and divisive these conspiracies can be. They are also incredibly attractive. Given our heightened sense of risk and anxiety, simple narratives that seem to make sense of the chaos offer us a modicum of security, even if such security is a delusion that’s actually putting us at even greater risk.

These attacks on expertise also erode fundamental democratic norms. We cannot operate as a functioning democracy if we cannot tell truth from falsity, fact from fiction. The added irony of this particular interview, of course, is that Collins was talking to a radio host who only recently was found to have mislead the public with his interpretation of scientific data.

Anyway, in such times, an understanding of how our media work is essential. This is even more urgent when we reflect on just how media-saturated our lives are and how much we delegate to the algorithms that run the websites and applications we constantly use in daily life. In fact, our relations with media are so intimate and all-encompassing that media scholar Mark Deuze recently suggested we can no longer think of ourselves as living with media, so much as living in media. We live completely mediated lives.

Teaching young people what this means is absolutely crucial for them as citizens. Yes, education should prepare them for jobs, but if we don’t also prepare them as citizens we fail them and our democracy. And on this matter I just want to close on a small, revealing aside that Collins also made in this segment of the interview.

When asked what she’d do instead, she rather predictably said she’d promote the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). She also talked about the importance of financial literacy and the importance of economics. However, she quickly qualified what she meant by economics, which she believes should be "less theoretical" and more practical "like how you buy a house".

In an ideal world, our young people would be sufficiently financially literate to understand that the causes of the Global Financial Crisis were rooted in decades of deregulation, but one can only assume Collins doesn’t want secondary school kids developing any sort of socially critical capacities.

She justified her claim about there being too much media studies by saying there’s no jobs in that field, but an education in media studies is suitable to a range of occupations. But this is not really the issue, her use of the term 'woke' tells us her real concern is young people developing an ability to challenge the system and challenge those who seek to be their representatives. At a time when democracies around the world look increasingly fragile, a critical understanding of our media is of the utmost importance.

Dr Neal Curtis is Associate Professor of Media and Communication in the Faculty of Arts.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Judith Collins’ worrying contempt for ‘woke’ 7 October 2020.

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