The ‘war on woke’ and law and policy commentary – and the importance of responding to illiberals but not on their terms

19th February 2021

There are various ways of seeing the current ‘war on woke’ being promoted by certain politicians and their media supporters.

One is to see it as a growing threat: that certain divisive issues are being ‘weaponised’ by those seeking and holding political and media power as a means of mobilising and consolidating sufficient support so as to obtain and maintain political and media power.

Another way is to see it is as the signals of declining political and media power: certain divisive issues are being ‘weaponised’ with increasing frequency as a means of holding off falls in political and media support, with each promotion of illiberalism illustrating the law of diminishing returns.

Either – or neither – of these things may be true.

One hopes for the latter, but one fears the former.

And perhaps which one is (or will be) true is down to what liberal and progressive people do now, as few things in human affairs are inevitable in any direction.

But there is the question of how, if at all, a law and policy blog should engage with each of these blows of the trumpet.

Should each blast be taken with anxious earnest solemnity – and risk being ‘owned’ like a ‘lib’?

Should one point and laugh and jeer – and risk being portrayed as having some metropolitan sneer?

Both of these responses are, of course, factored into the provocations – they are the desired results of the pulls on the chain.

Yet a third response, of ignoring the provocations – not ‘feeding the trolls’ or ‘giving oxygen’ – carries the risk of something significant being ignored that can then grow and manifest itself into a thing unwanted: such as the lack of engagement with Ukip ended up with a Brexit with the United Kingdom outside the European Union single market and customs union.


So what, if any, is the best chess move to make?

The approach of this blog – for what it is worth – is to acknowledge that there is an attempt to start a culture war, but to not participate on the terms of the aggressor.

As a previous post asked: what happens if they started a culture war and nobody turned up?

Instead – perhaps too boring and unconfrontational for the tastes of some – the claims of illiberals will be patiently set out and the merits of those claims examined.

Invariably those claims will be found wanting.

And that will be because the claims are not intended to be serious contributions to law and policy but instead political – indeed, populist – speech acts.

Such claims need – somewhere – to be pointed out as such.

But this approach itself is problematic.

As I have previously averred, pointing out lies and disinformation does not make any difference if people want to be lied to – or do not care.

But it is a public good anyway, and it still should be done even if there are no obvious benefits.

And at least it will be a resource for those who do want to know the facts of matters before making media and political choices.


The reason for setting this out is that have some have critically responded to recent posts – for example setting out how a government minister was getting the law about statues wrong or how a pro-Brexit politician was misrepresenting the Human Rights Act and what, if any, was the significance of such misinformation.

It was contended that these very acts of engagement were wrong – that it, to use that most dire of hackney phrases, ‘played into their hands’.

I think, however, what ‘plays into their hands’ is to allow your response to be defined by the provocation.

Dull, plodding, matter-of-fact posts setting out the false law and policy premises and incorrect facts about various provocative claims do not seem to me to be ‘knock-on’ effects that are desired by the provocateur.

Indeed, it may well be the most irksome of all possible responses – for it removes credibility without adding any drama or excitement.

Of course: such responses do little or nothing directly to politically counter the provocateur.

For that, one must look to opposition politicians for leadership.

And that is certainly not a job for a non-partisan blog – for partisanship is the enemy of useful commentary.


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13 thoughts on “The ‘war on woke’ and law and policy commentary – and the importance of responding to illiberals but not on their terms”

  1. Thank you David for thinking about the terms of engagement as well as the actual moves. I was wondering something similar after the first US Presidential debate last year, when Biden was criticised for his way of engaging with Trump on the night. The question for the pundits afterwards was not whether Biden performed well (he didn’t by many accounts) but more of how SHOULD one go about debating with an aggressive mendacious loud-mouthed bully (to which no really satisfactory answer was forthcoming).

  2. “The ultimate problem is not that politicians lied
    It really isn’t
    The ultimate problem is that voters do not mind being lied to”

    Time, I think, to wheel out once again my favourite quote from Hannah Ahrendt:
    “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
    (The Origins of Totalitarianism)

  3. Engaging directly with the purveyors of misinformation is extraordinarily difficult for those of us who have spent a lifetime trying to understand truths and making decisions based on the best information available.

    As an engineer this approach became totally ingrained. Using dubious information was always likely to result in expensive failures and possibly even dangerous outcomes.

    In that way people like me aren’t that well equipped to deal with people who have little interest in facts, but just in gaining loyalty those who find their ideas provide some form of attractive way out of a real or perceived problem.

    We can, as David says, just appear boring and possibly disappointing too.

    But we do need to keep the faith. There are enough out there who will listen to proper factual arguments delivered with conviction and backed by sources and accessible data. Just keep it up relentlessly.

    The mainstream media in this pandemic have provided a good example. They’ve found and given lots of airtime to scientists who are knowledgeable, articulate and convincing, but above all are honest about areas of doubt.

  4. “Dull, plodding, matter-of-fact posts…” I realise this may be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but as a long-time reader (if not commenter), can I just aver that I find the posts neither dull nor plodding?

  5. I am glad that you are (and I paraphrase) setting out the false law and policy premises and incorrect facts about various provocative claims in a matter of fact manner. Indeed, that you focus your analytical mind and extensive knowledge on many current political and policy events, I thank you. I am currently reading Anne Applebaum’s latest book ‘Twilight of democracy’, and am trying to understand why people allow themselves to be lied to, even when the lies can cause so much damage. I understand that there are motives for lying (power/ revenge/ greed etc), but why do the recipients allow the lies to flourish?

  6. There are some quite considerate and thoughtful people who are getting radicalised by anti-woke propaganda. I was recently surprised by a Twitter friend who was, it seems, initially persuaded by his friends who are opposed to trans women. It’s not hard to see how the stereotype I was brought up with of cross dressing comedians using sexual innuendo for laughs has translated into an older generation susceptible to anti-trans bigotry, but it’s harder to see how younger, liberal, educated people have become drawn into the moral panic about trans people in bathrooms and changing rooms, all of which are now subject to safeguarding requirements in the UK so are probably some of the safest in the world.
    On Twitter, I’ve spent considerable time over the last couple of years challenging a number of “gender critical feminists” when they appear on my timeline, simply explaining and repeating our Equalities legislation & safeguards. Without exception, the conversations end up in disengagement, graphic sexual content or abuse.
    But what surprised me about the recent conversation with my Twitter friend was that he said that I was the only woman who’d challenged him about his GC views. And indeed, his GC friends had apparently built on his new radicalisation so that he started telling me about a range of apparently unrelated right wing conspiracy theories.
    As with anti-migrant sentiment being used to enable Brexit which has now led onto an apparently eugenic Covid response, it feels like anyone who’s susceptible to any one of these moral panics risks being pulled into them all. Like you, I feel all we can do is keep patiently reminding everyone we can of reality. Because if we don’t keep holding people back, they’ll be lost to dystopia

  7. It is the blessing of the ignorant that they know what they know.
    It is the curse of the knowledgeable that they know what they don’t know.

    It’s poetic in Greek but prosaic in English but I think the sentiment is discernible, and suggests that calm exposition of the facts and a Socratic dialogue will lead to enlightenment.
    To those who replace doubt with certainty, perhaps education is impossible, because certainty the shield of fear.
    Perhaps we are addressing the wrong problem. Maybe we need to show the benefits of rational discourse and that the foundations of law are not politics but universal traits of honour, kindness and respect.
    It’s it time to bring not law to the fore but jurisprudence.

  8. On a tangential point – is it not a sad indictment of the modern world that simply giving a toss about people other than yourself is seen as something to be mocked and vilified?

    Ironically, this mocking and vilification is a perfect example of the kind of (non-existent) “Cancel Culture” that voices on the Right so often rail against when they perceive themselves to be the target…

    1. Keith – I couldn’t agree more.

      For what it’s worth I have no problem being referred to as woke. If it means that it shows I am interested and aware of issues that concern social justice and racial justice it seems like high praise to me. So perhaps the appropriate reaction is to reply to the accusation with, “thank you for calling me woke”, and watch their tiny heads explode.

  9. My starting point would be that the way to engage with anyone is by telling the truth and using evidence.

    There would have to be a good reason not to do that – and I don’t think any such reason applies in ‘the war on woke’ or any other contentious issue.

    As for not responding to illiberals on their own terms – that is exactly what you should do, if you want to change minds.

  10. The success of scientific endeavour and entrepreneurialism in finding a way through the pandemic must surely strike a cord, even among ignoramuses?
    When the truth of Brexit finally strikes home in raised costs, increased bureaucracy, and reduced consumer choice – surely the double barrel right between the eyes of populism will register?
    Won’t it?

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