Author Joanna Williams joins Brian Anderson to discuss progressivism in the United Kingdom, whether wokeness is an American export, and the effects of activism on the publishing industry. Her new book, How Woke Won: The Elitist Movement that Threatens Democracy, Tolerance and Reason, is out now.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Joanna Williams. She's a columnist for Spiked, which is an online magazine, and the director of Cieo, an independent think tank based in the U.K. She's written a couple of recent web pieces for City Journal on the publishing industry and on the gender pay gap, and she's the author of How Woke One: The Elitist Movement that Threatens Democracy, Tolerance and Reason. Joanna, thanks very much for joining us.

Joanna Williams: It's a real pleasure to be with you. Thank you very much for having me.

Brian Anderson: So let's begin with your book, which is an entrant in this new discipline, which we might call wokeness studies. You actually start in a place that I haven't seen anybody else start, in 1920s African-American culture, in which to be woke was to possess a kind of political consciousness attuned to the very real oppression that blacks then faced in America. But over time, you write in the book, the concept changed. So, we might say in contemporary woke parlance that it was appropriated by a very different group of people and put in service of entirely different and dubious ends. So why don't you just give us the short history and evolution of wokeness as you see it and as you describe it in the book?

Joanna Williams: Yeah, I think you've done a really good job of summing up the first 80 or so years of the history of the word “woke” there. Really, up until the late 1990s, early 2000s, that's exactly where we're at, that transition that you've just described of a word that was really African-American street parlance and not even terribly political. I think to stay woke was really to, in a very genuine sense, keep safe if you like, to keep a lookout for your own safety, to be on guard for very real dangers, we need to add, at that point in time.

But it's towards the end of the 1990s, early 2000s when the world really began to take on a much broader political motivation. And it was appropriated, as you say, really by white liberals, and black liberals as well, but particularly by the nascent Black Lives Matter movement as a much broader sense of being politically correct, you might say, of being aware of injustices and having this political awareness. And that's where the word stuck until about 2015, 2016, where it really exploded into popularity in that usage.

So you saw Jack Dorsey, boss of Twitter, taken to the stage at a conference with the Twitter little bluebird logo and the slogan “stay woke” on it. And these were the kind of people, these elite people who were very proudly woke at that point in time. And obviously when that word that they appropriated—that they were very proud to be associated with—was then used back against them to describe the coming together of a particular set of beliefs—which I'm sure we’ll dig down into more—around race, around gender, around identity in particular. When that word was then used to describe back to them how they saw themselves, they took offense and didn't like the word “woke” being used in that way.

So really since, I would say from about 2016, 2017 onwards, the word's been used essentially as a political football with some people on the left saying, Oh, it just means to be nice, to be kind, it just means being a good person, which I think is incredibly disingenuous. I think it means far more than that, and anyone who really thinks being woke is just about being a nice kind person is like I say, either a liar or incredibly naive. And it's been used by the right to really point out the authoritarian nature, if you like, and the often kind of hypocritical nature behind some of the woke values that people like to espouse.

Brian Anderson: A lot of these ideas associated with the woke phenomenon take their starting point from American political history and cultural history. So slavery, Jim Crow, or the more policy-driven ideas of closing the black-white wealth gap or cracking down on racist policing. What's striking is that these particular things don't necessarily make a lot of sense in the context of other countries. So in your home of the United Kingdom, it has its own unique history, very distinct from the United States. Its current circumstances with regard to policing and crime I think are, it's fair to say, different from those of the United States.

Yet, you look around and you see that this wokeness phenomenon has international appeal. Black Lives Matter became a kind of worldwide protest movement. Premier League soccer players were until quite recently taking the knee before games to recognize the death of George Floyd, which had happened in America, of course. And there's been incidents of this kind of protest behavior in France and other European countries. So what is going on here, and why is this export from America finding such support in various different locales that you wouldn't think would be paying such close attention to what's going on in America?

Joanna Williams: Yeah, I think that's a really good question. And unfortunately, I don't think there's one straightforward answer, but just to really reiterate what you've just said, it wasn't just at football matches that we had people taking the knee. So my hometown of Middlesbrough is a very industrial, very deprived, socially deprived area in the northeast of England, just about as far removed from America as you could get. And yeah, council workers were out in the town square there kneeling and protesting the killing of George Floyd.

And that really brought home to me just how utterly bizarre this whole kind of transatlantic global phenomenon was, because it's not as if a town like Middlesbrough doesn't have its own problems. It's not as if a town like Middlesbrough doesn't even have its own history of problems with multiculturalism, and racism, and integration, and a whole heap of issues that it would be very appropriate for people to be taking to the streets, perhaps, to protest about.

What we don't have in Middlesbrough actually is a black diaspora. We tend to have people from Asian backgrounds, there's an Asian diaspora, Pakistani heritage diaspora in Middlesbrough, but there isn't a large black group of people there. And we certainly do not have a problem with police killings in the U.K. Very few people die in police custody. Our police are not routinely armed. So it seemed utterly bizarre to be importing this global protest movement to a place that was so far removed and a problem that was so far removed from the issues that we are facing. But as to why, I think obviously social media plays a role, it's become a bit of a cliché, perhaps, to say that now, but I think the speed with which movements like this can travel around the world has obviously become accelerated through 24-hour news cycles and social media. I think both of those play a part.

But I think at risk of kind of trivializing what went on, I think it was fashionable. It became fashionable for an elite group of people, even in a town like Middlesbrough, there clearly is a social elite of people who are working for the local authority, often working for the local council who are paid essentially by the state and who are managing what's going on in a town like that. And it became a way for them to signal their knowledge of world events, their awareness of what was going on, and the fact that, as they would put it—I wouldn't choose to put it this way—they were on the right side of history.

And I think it was much more about sending a message to fellow citizens within the U.K. by showing that this one group of people is clued in to the injustices that are taking place around the world, particularly in America. But also by distinguishing themselves, by showing that they have far more in common with global elites in the U.S. than they do with the citizens of their own town in the U.K.

Brian Anderson: An interesting question that's emerged among people who study this kind of thing, social thinkers who are exploring wokeness, is what exactly it is, what kind of phenomenon it is. So John McWhorter, who often writes for City Journal, is a good example. He views it in a recent book as a fundamentally religious movement in a way. That the woke think of themselves as an elect to believe in the mystical force of oppression and that they're clued into the deeper reality. Others say it's been something that's emerged out of institutional history in America, so out of corporate human-resources departments or civil-rights law. And then there's another current that says this is something that has radiated out of the academy and into mass awareness. So I wonder, just to drill down a little bit, what's your view of where wokeness comes from?

Joanna Williams: I think all three of those explanations have a great deal going for them, and I certainly see a lot of parallels with religion and would share a great deal of what John McWhorter said there. Like I said, I think to some extent all three of those are true, but I think one problem is when we raise this question of where has all this come from, we're looking for positive trends in society, kind of things that might have happened, things that have impacted upon the world, if you like, or political developments or social developments. And I actually think in some ways it's a response to an absence.

So just to explain what I mean by that a little bit, I think if you look at universities, or religion, for example, or policing, or even capitalist enterprises, businesses, it seems to me that so many of these institutions or organizations have really lost sense with what their core purpose was intended to be. So to me, if you think about schools or universities—the institutions I'm most familiar with, having a love of knowledge, a desire to pass on to the next generation a real sense of what's valuable that humans know about the world. I'm aware I'm using quite kind of grand and elaborate language there that's perhaps far removed from the mundane reality of what actually happens in schools. I began my career as an English teacher, and I guess what drove me was a love of literature, and I really wanted to be able to pass my love of reading, my love of literature on to another generation.

This is over a number of decades, I would really trace this process right back to the 1940s, 1950s, really to the end of the Second World War. As institutions have become really hollowed out of that sense of purpose, they've had to look for something to replace it with. You can't have a school that is pointless. So we look for other things. It might be to teach employability skills or might be to protect children's mental health or boost their self-esteem, but you create a vacuum at the heart of all these institutions when you no longer have any belief in your original sense of purpose of what you were set up for.

And I think woke values come in then as this kind of quite neat, quite easily understandable, really easy to comprehend, black-and-white, essentially—and almost literally in terms of race—way of viewing the world that can make a certain sense to people who buy into this and actually gives them a moral agenda. I think quite a depraved and bankrupt moral agenda, but does give a moral agenda to people who feel purposeless in their lives or institutions, that feel as if they lack any sense of mission.

So I think we need to really look at the role that an old elite have played, if you like, in opening the door to new woke elites to come in and really take over everything from art galleries, museums, the film industry, as I say, kind of business enterprise and all of these things. The question I often get asked is, why do businesses go woke? Surely, the number one aim of a business is to make money, and how is that compatible with being woke? But I think even on that very fundamental level of having the aim of making profit, I think people can't make the case for that in its own terms anymore. To actually just say, I actually just really want to make loads of money and be successful is something that people seem to be very embarrassed about doing.

And so if you look at, I guess Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, Coca-Cola, Nike, they're all hiding that aim of making lots of money behind a smoke screen of saying, “Well, we want to save the world and be anti-racist as well.” It actually gives you that moral mission that you feel you are lacking, if you just make money.

Brian Anderson: I wonder, how has the book been received since it was published? When did it come out exactly?

Joanna Williams: Oh, so in the U.K., it came out at the end of May, but it just came out in the U.S. last month, just in September.

Brian Anderson: And what was the U.K. reception like? Were you getting a hearing for these arguments?

Joanna Williams: Yeah, it's unfortunately very frustrating because—well, I guess it shouldn't be surprising: frustrating, but not surprising—that the response I've had from ordinary readers, just regular people who have heard about the book on social media or through some of the articles that I write, I have to say it's been incredibly positive. I'm very grateful to people who've got in touch to say how much they've enjoyed the book. And it suddenly seems to have sold lots of copies. So I'm absolutely delighted about that. But frustrating, but not surprising, perhaps, is that the mainstream media have shied away, I think, from covering it and it's not been reviewed in the major publications.

At risk of sounding conspiratorial, I don't think that's because they don't know that the book exists. I think there's just a decision made at some level, consciously or unconsciously, that rather than actually engaging with these arguments, it's far better just to ignore it and hope it goes away and not give it the oxygen of publicity.

Brian Anderson: I'd like to just turn to a couple of these recent pieces you've done for City Journal, which are certainly related to the themes of the book. The first kind of builds off of what you were just saying, that the publishing industry has changed in the woke era, and I wonder what your broad view is of how things are going on in the world of books.

Joanna Williams: Yeah, I think publishing's probably one of the best examples of all of this. It really seems to have been captured by woke values, people who espouse woke beliefs. And I think it's a real threat to freedom of speech, which I guess is one of my fundamental driving principles because it makes it very difficult to get a book out there, a book that does go against the grain and does push back to some extent against woke values. And you can see this at all levels of the publishing industry, from trying to secure an agent, a literary agent, to securing a publisher, to having your book stocked in bookshops, to having it appear online, to having your book reviewed.

And I think one thing that's very interesting and seems to be more stark perhaps in relation to publishing than in perhaps some other sectors, is a generational divide that emerges between younger people who are making their careers in publishing who seem to me to be at the forefront of championing woke values, and perhaps slightly older people working in this sector who have, it seems, more of a sense if they don't actively disagree necessarily with woke values, but have more of an awareness of the importance of free speech and the intellectual importance to publishing of being able to have a kind of diverse range of views out there.

But I also think it's just worth saying some of the arguments that are used by younger people who we've seen particularly in relation to, I think it's Hachette that publishes Jordan Peterson in the U.K., and it's Bloomsbury who publishes J.K. Rowling. The arguments that are put forward by junior staffers who don't want to have to work on these books is a kind of language of emotional pain and distress and you just think, “come on, get a grip, you're paid to do a job here.”

Brian Anderson: Well, your other piece was quite interesting. It was on the question of the earnings dynamics between men and women, and in particular this idea of the gender pay gap. In your view, as you state in the piece, the media celebrate the financial rewards of being female, single, and childless while expressing outrage about allegedly underpaid women with kids. So why don't you just give us the short version of the argument of that piece as well?

Joanna Williams: Yeah, so if you look at the statistics in both the U.S. and the U.K., up until about their mid-thirties, there isn't really any gender pay gap worth speaking of up until people hit their, like I say, mid-thirties. And, often in major cities in the U.S. and I think throughout most parts of the U.K. now are younger women in their twenties, especially, and in their early thirties, are actually earning more than men. And I think one point I wanted to make was just how little that narrative is actually put out there. It doesn't fit the dominant feminist story at the moment, which is that women are victimized, women are oppressed, there's patriarchy conspiring against women in the workplace, which is what we're all supposed to assume is the reality.

And actually looking at the statistics completely challenges that. And I think it's really not helpful, particularly for younger women who are just leaving education about to enter the workforce, to constantly be told that they are going to be victimized and oppressed when they start work. I think actually telling younger women, Do you know what? The world's not a bad place and actually you're going to do all right, I think is not a bad thing to do at all.

But I think the flip side of this is then obviously the reason why your gender pay gap opens up when women hit their mid-thirties is because that's the point at which women are tending to become parents, having their first child or they're having more than one child at that point. So it's not a gender pay gap, it's a motherhood pay gap. And this is often spoken of as a penalty. And I also just really wanted to push back on that idea because I think what's going on, and certainly in my own experience, the experience of the other women I know, is that actually what's happening at that point in women's lives is they're really making a choice, and they're not making this choice on their own or even making this choice as “women,” they're making this choice in families with their partners, taking into consideration the kind of broader aspects of their lives about not even necessarily to leave work all together, but to perhaps cut back on their hours, to not go for the promotion that might mean a lot of traveling. Just to change their priorities in life.

And the fact is that for a lot of women, I don't think that is a negative thing. I don't think it is a penalty, which is how it's discussed. It can actually be quite a positive thing, and it's something that women are wanting to do because they're choosing to be able to spend time with their children or might only be for a few years, but this is something that they want to do. But again, I think that the kind of dominant media narrative about a penalty just makes it seem like it's a much more negative thing and it taps in, I think, to our general kind of cultural consensus that the family and having children is really a burden rather than a privilege and pleasure.

Brian Anderson: Yes, it's a theme that one of City Journal's writers, Kay Hymowitz has written about in the past as well. A last question, Joanna, just about your think tank at Cieo. It's spelled C-I-E-O. Why don't you tell us a little bit about what that's about?

Joanna Williams: Yeah, so really its aim is to provide a bit of a platform for academics or just anybody, really, who's got something interesting to say, that's not getting an opportunity. So again, to go back to what we were saying earlier about the publishing industry, I just really wanted to get some different voices out there. So my own background, like I said, I started as a school teacher, but I then worked 12 years in a university and spent some time working in London, in Westminster, in think tanks. And you realize there are an awful lot of very frustrated people out there, particularly academics, who I'm the first to criticize, but the ones I know and like actually are aware of the problems that there are in universities right now, and know more of the problems highlighted in academic publishing, where even at best it can take a couple of years to have a piece peer-reviewed and published in one of the top journals.

And if you are wanting to actually make an impact with your work, you don't want to have to wait two years for something to actually be published, you want to engage in debates which are taking place right now and make an impact that way. But also just to provide a platform where people are not constrained by either the woke strictures of a discipline that the peer review system—I discuss this a lot in my book, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity—the peer-review system was set up for very good reasons. It provides a check on knowledge and through debate with your peers, essentially that's how knowledge advances.

But the problem is, when you have groupthink in academia, the peer-review system completely falls flat. It doesn't serve as a means of advancing knowledge, it actually serves as a way of curtailing knowledge, and it stops new ideas coming to the fore and only reinforces ideas that are already out there. It confirms rather than challenges the consensus. So again, what I wanted to do with Cieo was to look at how we can get ideas out there which are not necessarily hitting mainstream of academic publishing or think tanks. It's very important that we're not aligned to any particular political party either and maintain a genuine and hopefully rigorous intellectual and political independence.

Brian Anderson: Well, thank you very much. Our guest today has been Joanna Williams. She's the author of a new book How Woke Won: The Elitist Movement that Threatens Democracy, Tolerance and Reason. You can check out her work for City Journal on the City Journal website, We'll link to her author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a nice ratings on iTunes. Joanna, very nice to talk with you and thank you for coming on today.

Joanna Williams: It's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you very much indeed.

Photo: Altayb/iStock

More from 10 Blocks