is there such a thing as too woke?
It's been quite a week of hot-takes.
You might think there’s nothing wrong with phrases like “kill two birds with one stone” and “bring home the bacon”, but according to PETA these are both examples of ‘anti-animal language’. Earlier this week the charity tweeted that many of us are guilty of ‘speciesism’, and then went on to make a dangerously misguided analogy: “Just as it became unacceptable to use racist, homophobic, or ableist language, phrases that trivialise cruelty to animals will vanish.” The social media backlash was unsurprisingly swift, ranging from GIFs of sizzling bacon to bemused posts from actual minorities, who rightly pointed out that there’s a huge difference between malicious slurs and words like ‘guinea pig’ (which we should replace it with ‘test tube’, apparently).
Depressingly, these tweets aren’t even the worst thing on the internet this week. It’s been a chaotic few days for very shit hot-takes: one publication accused Ariana Grande of blackface and transmisogyny in a damaging op-ed followed up by an editorial apology and a response piece; another (now-deleted) The Cut article argued (perhaps intending to be tongue in cheek?) that Priyanka Chopra –– award-winning actress and Bollywood royalty –– was a ‘social climber’ and a ‘scam artist’ for marrying Nick Jonas. These examples all push wokeness, a term lifted from AAVE and popularised by the Black Lives Matter movement, to its parodic extreme, repurposing social justice as a tool to generate clicks and online outrage.
But most importantly, they trivialise actual discrimination. The Guardian recently conducted research which confirmed what every person of colour already knows: racial bias is very much alive and well. Other statistics show that hate crime rates have spiked, that street harassment is a daily reality for minorities and that homophobia isn’t going anywhere. As several users wittily tweeted at PETA: there are bigger fish to fry.
“Racism has been an issue for generations, and homophobia too,” says Rico Johnson-Sinclair, a Birmingham-based programmer with years of social media experience. “We’ve only just got our basic human rights, and look how long we’ve been fighting for it! Yes we’re having conversations about trans rights and cultural appropriation, but that’s because social media has given minorities more visibility and a voice. Still, we live in an age where our rights are under threat. For PETA to trivialise these issues in the current political climate is abhorrent.”
The animal rights charity has come under fire in the past for using shock tactics and perpetuating the ‘militant vegan’ stereotype that has Piers Morgan foaming at the mouth, but the organisation is unapologetic about clickbait. “We try to make our actions colourful and controversial,” reads PETA’s official website, which outlines a desire to grab headlines and “spread the message of kindness to animals.” But there’s a way to do so without making clumsy comparisons that throw marginalised communities under the bus. “Attaching animal rights to human rights only further dehumanises minority groups,” summarises Rico.
Still, there’s obviously something to be gained from shock tactics — plenty of users saw the funny side and revelled in mocking the company. “I think it’s absolutely humorous,” says Yewi Omotayo, who works in marketing and partnerships. “I think PETA has an amazing marketing team, because we’re all talking about this!” She’s not wrong, and the company regularly engaged with some of the more sarcastic responses, indicating that its core aim was to provoke.
If that was the case, mission accomplished. Headlines have been generated and callout culture has flexed its muscles, but Jenny Bernarde, who works in social media for creative digital agency Bozboz, cautions against pissing people off just for clicks, as it can create an audience full of “people waiting for the next mistake,” she says.
But isn’t that the point of the internet now? More importantly, isn’t controversy highly profitable? Forbes recently released a list of this year’s most lucrative YouTubers, all of whom were white men and plenty of whom had been embroiled in scandal over the last few years. Logan Paul’s trivialisation of suicide saw him dropped by brands and lambasted online, but all it took was a rebrand and an apology video to keep fans tuning in; accusations of anti-Semitism similarly severed some of PewDiePie’s commercial partnerships, but the clicks kept rolling in. Sure these men were temporarily ‘cancelled’ online, but the hate comments still translated into dollars.
What’s frustrating is that this week’s shitshow of extreme wokeness only reinforces the social justice warrior stereotypes trolled by alt-right media and feared by baby boomers. Haphazardly accusing Ariana Grande of transmisogyny distracts from real anti-trans rhetoric around the world, and it implies that minorities have nothing better to do than scour through a music video looking to be offended. When PETA tweets inflammatory messages about ‘anti-animal language’ it similarly plays up to this stereotype, and for what? Is a clickbait chat show tagline and a few days of trending on Twitter really worth it?
It’s no secret that the media is driven by relentless content and controversial headlines, but companies need to think long and hard about who they might be alienating in the long run. Hannah Anderson, a social media expert at Media Chain underlines this point, reiterating that “the backlash from shock marketing can be catastrophic”. This ties into the way we all use social media to curate our own personal brands; we have a responsibility to not piss people off online and to be kinder, especially when cyber-bullying and the aforementioned prejudice is still so prevalent. In essence, if you’re a dickhead there’s also someone online to screenshot and call you out.
While tweets and articles can be picked apart and scrutinised, it’s important not to ignore that the media works to shape and uphold discrimination. Negative stereotypes don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re built and then exploited by corporations who understand that marketing relies on demographics and profiles to succeed. Social media teams are supposed to know not only how to engage these audiences, but also how to make them tick. By playing up to the ‘militant vegan’ stereotype PETA has raked in the clicks, but it’s worsened the damage of the aforementioned terrible articles, which prove one key point: there is such a thing as being ‘too woke’. Pushing social justice to its most ridiculous extreme might be good for engagement, but it’s a worrying trend which is undermining the centuries of progress that marginalised people have fought so hard to secure.