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Stepping into the Big, Weird ‘Anti-woke’ Tent

To help us understand right-wing rhetoric, Francis Dupuis-Déri walks us through the ‘intersectionality of hate.’

Olamide Olaniyan 24 Jun 2024The Tyee

Olamide Olaniyan is associate editor at The Tyee.

The word “woke” — which has now lost any real or useful meaning since its origins in African American vernacular English — has become commonplace in right-wing campaigns and is being applied (seemingly quite effectively) to target anything and everything.

In B.C., the leader of the insurgent Conservative Party of BC, John Rustad, has raged against “woke ideology,” targeting trans people and sexuality and gender orientation education resources in schools (also known as SOGI 123).

When Rustad made comparisons between SOGI and residential schools last year, he was criticized and asked to apologize by politicians across the spectrum.

MLA Ravi Parmar, from the governing BC NDP, called Rustad’s comparisons “disgraceful” in a now-deleted tweet.

A post from the social media site X shows Ravi Parmar commenting on a post made by John Rustad.
Ravi Parmar, the NDP MLA for Langford-Juan de Fuca, denounced BC Conservative leader John Rustad’s commentary on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation as ‘disgraceful’ in a now-deleted post on X.

On a CBC Early Edition panel, Green MLA Adam Olsen denounced Rustad’s comments as “astonishing” and “inappropriate.”

And Elenore Sturko, then MLA for the Opposition party BC United who recently joined the B.C. Conservatives, called Rustad’s comments “incredibly insulting” at the time.

And then Bruce Banman, the B.C. Conservative MLA for Abbotsford South, summed up the criticism of Rustad’s comments as symptoms of a “hypersensitive, woke, far-left cancel culture” that he and his colleagues are trying to correct.

On a separate occasion, it appears that Paul Ratchford, a Conservative Party of BC candidate for Vancouver-Point Grey, referred to his now party member colleague Sturko as a “woke lesbian, social justice warrior.”

“Woke” is also deployed in conversations about drug policy in B.C.

Following a similar logic, Rustad denounced B.C.’s move away from letter grades as woke, too.

On the federal front, we’ve seen some more of the same.

According to Conservative Lambton-Kent-Middlesex MP Lianne Rood, bans on plastic straws and bags are woke, and so are Tim Hortons’ pizza and paper lids.

The word “woke” has come to span seemingly disparate issues from gender and sexual rights to health care to education to climate change.

What to make of this phenomenon? And how did we get here?

As Université du Québec à Montréal professor Francis Dupuis-Déri told The Tyee, this phenomenon is not new. It also can’t be perfectly encapsulated by a single term or concept.

But the “intersectionality of hate” can be a useful framework for describing how seemingly disparate grievances can overlap under a large tent, he said. And it highlights the emergence of a certain strain of right-wing movements in the United States, France and Canada.

When hate is intersectional

Dupuis-Déri has been a professor in political science and feminist studies at UQAM since 2006. He specializes in debates between the electoral system and direct democracy. In his words, he is involved “in collectives of anarchist sensibility, for example against racism, against police brutality and against the war in Afghanistan, among others.”

He has also studied conservative and reactionary discourses and more specifically anti-feminism with sociologist Mélissa Blais. His latest book on the topic (not yet translated into English) is Panic at the University: Political Correctness, Wokes and Other Imaginary Threats, which covers the “anti-woke” discourses in the United States, France and Quebec.

Dupuis-Déri explains that two people on both sides of the Atlantic forged the notion of “intersectionality of hate.” They were both inspired by Columbia Law School professor Kimberlé Crenshaw’s landmark work on intersectionality, a term that describes how overlapping systems of power shape realities and experiences.

As Crenshaw told the Columbia Law School on the 20th anniversary of the African American Policy Forum, “Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.”

Dupuis-Déri recalls that the day after Trump’s election win in November 2016, Rembert Browne explained in New York Magazine how Trump’s campaign federated voters: “Trump won the presidency by making hate intersectional. He encouraged sexists to also be racists and homophobes, while saying disgusting things about immigrants in public and Jews online.”

He also points to how French historian Christine Bard studied articles published in a far-right weekly and, in 2019, found that “the intersectionality of hate is associating feminism, homosexualism, Islamism and ‘immigrationism’ and that public figures are targeted with particular intensity if they are not only women, but also Jewish, Muslim or of African origin.”

“In both cases,” Dupuis-Déri said, “this conceptual innovation represented by the ‘intersectionality of hate’ was proposed to respond to a phenomenon associated with the radical right, whether we call it ‘alt right’ or ‘extreme right,’ even if it is not limited to it.”

Dupuis-Déri spoke to The Tyee about the “intersectionality of hate” and how it can deepen our understanding of right-wing rhetoric — particularly its structures and limitations. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: How does ‘the intersectionality of hate’ apply to places like Canada?

Francis Dupuis-Déri: The first important thing to say is that Canada is fortunate not to have far-right forces as influential and powerful as in the United States, France or other countries. In France, for instance, the far-right political parties are backed by about 40 per cent of the electors.

Yet, I naively thought for a long time that the Conservative Party of Canada would hesitate to criticize immigration, because a significant part of its electoral base comes from immigration from Southeast Asia, among others. And as a matter of fact, we didn’t hear that much about immigration in the latest federal campaigns.

But Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre now accuses immigration of being the cause of the housing crisis (rather than the free housing market, speculators, rental platforms for profit and the lack of planning of social housing).

Pierre Poilievre also attacks gender minorities, such as transgender people, and he has used the web platforms of the anti-feminist community MGTOW [Men Going Their Own Way] to spread his messages.

He also supported the “Freedom Convoy,” in which some individuals were linked to the Canadian far right.

We must also look at the People’s Party of Canada and its leader, Maxime Bernier, fortunately very marginal. For example, he recovers the victimhood notion of “anti-white racism.”

That said, we have in Quebec, whom I know better, polemicists in the most influential private media whose speeches express the intersectionality of hate: they are violently xenophobic and use metaphors that echo the far-right thesis of the “great replacement” (they say instead that immigration is like a flood which will submerge the Quebec majority, etc.), they are obsessed with Islam and they systematically criticize feminists, gender and sexual minorities and Indigenous demands, in addition to attacking environmentalists.

Finally, there are also some small extreme-right groups here whose speeches fall under the intersectionality of hate, even if we fortunately do not have extreme-right groups and even neo-Nazis as numerous and as armed as in the United States.

Talk to us about the “anti-woke” movement.

The anti-woke movement is a copycat of the anti-political-correctness movement that made a lot of noise around 1990, at the end of the Cold War.

At the time, it was said that the Black Power and feminist activists had taken control of U.S. campuses (where 65 per cent of the population will never go, which makes it easier for polemicists to invent horror stories about it) and were imposing censorship in the name of “political correctness.”

It was even said that the students could no longer read the “dead white males” (Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Shakespeare, etc.) and that we were obliged to read Frantz Fanon and Rigoberta Menchú.

Obviously, rigorous empirical studies have shown that this was totally false, and even though I spent years on Canadian and American campuses between 1985 and 2001, I never had to read Fanon or Menchú, but I had to read many times Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.

As a university professor, I never made my students read either Fanon or Menchú. Even today students still have the famous “dead white males” as compulsory reading, 25 or 35 years after it was claimed that they had been thrown in the trash.

Never mind these plain facts: these catastrophist discourses are back in fashion, and we have once again started to present white men as poor victims of sexism or reverse racism, on campuses and elsewhere.

We replaced the threat of “political correctness” with that of “social justice warriors” a few years ago, and now with the “wokes.”

The “scandals” about “wokes” often involve rather insignificant symbols, such as the gender of an M&M candy character (not a true living being, by the way), or the “race” of the Little Mermaid in a Disney film (not a true living being either, by the way).

I am always impressed to what extent conservative or reactionary figures take fire over such issues. Obviously, it works, since the conventional media relay these “scandals” and “controversies,” the other political parties react to it and here we are arguing among friends and family.

A middle-aged man in a dark button-down shirt and jeans sits at a wooden desk, looking at a white desktop iMac computer while using a black landline phone. He is sitting by a window through which light is shining. To his left and right are anarchist posters decorating the doorway of his office.
‘The anti-woke movement is a copycat of the anti-political-correctness movement that made a lot of noise around 1990, at the end of the Cold War,’ says Francis Dupuis-Déri. Photo by Maude Petel-Légaré.

How useful is this “intersectionality of hate” for the right? There are big successes like Trump’s first term, but I imagine this broadening and complication would lead to more opportunities for splits and fights.

There are also women who vote for Trump and there is even a Women for Trump organization, just like there is Black Voices for Trump.

In France, the far-right Rassemblement national party increasingly presents itself as gay-friendly, to reject homophobia on the side of Islam, and there are also Islamophobic and transphobic feminists.

These paradoxical figures are not necessarily easy to explain, and undoubtedly go beyond the framework of the intersectionality of hatred.

We must see the influence of other causes, for example personal calculations and strategies as to what seems best on different fronts, class alliances, but also rejection postures, like the angry Muslims at the moment against Biden because of the catastrophe in Gaza.

A lot of categories of hate have often connected in the past and influenced each other, like the way the Ku Klux Klan terrorized a lot of people, including Jewish people and Catholics and women, in addition to terrorizing non-whites. What makes this moment different?

If we compare to 30 years ago, Donald Trump has obviously a lot of influence, having been president of the United States and taking control of the Republican party. This influence obviously extends beyond the borders of the United States.

We also see the importance of Islamophobia post-Sept. 11, 2001, then during the useless war in Afghanistan to which the Canadian Army participated, the Islamist state in Syria and Iraq, and today in Gaza.

Finally, fear and hatred towards gender minorities, trans identities, has partly replaced the traditional homophobia.

We can also see a backlash expressing the intersectionality of hate by conservative and reactionary forces exasperated after a decade marked by important progressist campaign and mobilizations: the waves of #MeToo (feminism) and of #BlackLivesMatter (anti-racism), transgender identity advocacy, Indigenous mobilizations (Idle No More, Indigenous-led railroad blockade, Indian residential schools scandals, etc.) and, today, the pro-Palestine mobilizations.

How can we begin to identify and counter this rhetoric as we enter election season in B.C.?

As elsewhere in Canada, there is resentment against Indigenous people who currently are said to have too much of a say, and there is even a sort of denial about residential schools.

That said, B.C. is a bit like the rest of Canada, with the possible exception of Alberta: far-right populist discourses have little influence there, fortunately, compared to the United States or France.

Obviously, there are sectors of society which are more sensitive to it, such as the rural Interior. However, the B.C. Conservatives promise if elected (which is unlikely, that said) to repeal the provincial Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, to set up a committee to review all school textbooks and literature to ensure they are “neutral.”

That said, there are also small far-right groups in B.C., which a few years ago included the most important branch of the Soldiers of Odin neo-Nazi network in Canada.  [Tyee]

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