Britons divided on ‘wokeness’ and ‘culture wars’, academics find

Britons are divided on whether ‘woke’ is a compliment and are unaware of an apparent ongoing ‘culture war’, academics have found. 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘woke’ as aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice) and, depending on the company and the intention, can be used as either a compliment or an insult.

As a result, the UK public are as likely to think being ‘woke’ is a compliment (26 per cent) as they are to think it’s an insult (24 per cent), researchers have found. However, most people are more likely to say that they do not know what the term means (38 per cent).

In the first study of its kind analysing culture wars and identity politics in modern Britain, the Policy Institute at King’s College London (KCL) and Ipsos MORI surveyed almost 3,000 adults and found that a majority of the public have hardly heard of the phrases ‘cancel culture’ or ‘identity politics’, and that there is limited awareness of the culture war debate more generally in the UK – despite a surge in headlines on the subject in recent years.

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Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute, said: “An incredible surge in media discussion of ‘culture wars’ in the UK has not yet been matched by widespread public engagement with key concepts in the debate, or an understanding of their meaning – as seen in the very different interpretations of being ‘woke’. 

“It’s vital to recognise that the vast majority of the public are currently not deeply interested in the heated language and content of culture war disputes. 

“But this doesn’t mean they are unimportant: the evolution of culture wars in the US shows that these sorts of conflicts often start from the top, with broader political and media messages working their way through to public consciousness, and ending in a greater sense of division.”

The research marks the first in a series of reports that provides an in-depth assessment of the UK’s culture wars. It found that 82 per cent of the public say they have heard at least a little about the term, ‘white privilege’, including 55 per cent who say they have heard a lot about it – by far the most widely known concept of those asked about.

In contrast, 72 per cent of people said they have either never heard of the term ‘microaggressions’ or have heard of them but know very little, while 61 per cent say the same about both ‘cancel culture’ and ‘identity politics’, and 54 per cent are similarly unaware of ‘trigger warnings’.

Furthermore, while most people say they have heard at least a little about various other culture war terms, this is often almost matched by substantial minorities who are less aware of them. For example, 53 per cent report hearing a lot or a little about ‘cultural appropriation’, compared with 46 per cent who say they know very little about it or have not heard of it at all.

Major events and social movements in recent history have apparently contributed to the emergence of a culture war in the UK – a concept which is historically more closely related to US society. 

Attitudes on race, gender and sexuality have changed dramatically between generations and have more recently been amplified by historic events and movements, including: Brexit, the murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, protests and counter-protests and the debates surrounding statues of controversial historical figures including Cecil Rhodes, Winston Churchill and Edward Colston – whose statute was toppled in Bristol last year. 

However, Professor Duffy suggested it was arguable that we have a culture war in the UK because the media insists there is one, and because this is a sentiment that is only amplified by social media. 

His research found that there was “a huge surge” in related media coverage in recent years, from just 21 newspaper articles focused on the issue in the UK in 2015 to over 500 in 2020.

But the concept has also infiltrated the Government. Gavin Williamson, the education minister, plans to install a “free speech champion” inside the regulator for higher education, after speakers from across the political spectrum found themselves disinvited – or ‘no platformed’ – from events. 

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He announced the plans earlier this year, warning against the “chilling effect” that “unacceptable silencing and censoring” has on university campuses. 

However, the Joint Committee on Human Rights conducted an inquiry in 2018 and concluded there is no free speech crisis on campuses.

Responding to the research, Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos MORI, said: "Culture wars are not new – but the recent focus on them is largely driven by the media and politicians themselves. 

“Our research shows that in fact the public have a much less clear understanding of what ‘culture wars’ mean, and which side they are supposed to be on. 

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t meaningful differences along the spectrum, as seen in the different reactions towards being ‘woke’ by young and old, Labour and Conservative voters, Remain and Leave. Our future releases in this research programme will explore the public’s views in detail: how divided do we think are, what are the faultlines, and what do the different tribes think of each other?”

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