‘The New Language of Intolerance’ by Dave Kavanagh

When a master wordsmith such as John Banville gets himself into hot water for saying something as apparently offensive as 

I despise this ‘woke’ movement—it’s become a religious cult’,

does it mean he is against the principle of ‘Being Woke’ or ‘Staying Woke’?

In conversation with Niamh Horan in 2012, Banville said, 

To hurt other people is the worst thing you can do. To be hurt oneself is bad enough, but hurting other people is unforgivable… Unforgivable. Literally unforgivable. I think that one has to take responsibility for one’s life and one has to take responsibility for one’s bad deeds as well as one’s good deeds. One has to, as I say, be responsible… Failure in art, or failure in making a living, or a success — none of them compares, everything pales beside hurting other people, because, you know, we are here for such a short time and basic life itself is so hard one has a duty to try to be decent to other people‘ 

It is hard to believe such a man is not acutely aware of issues concerning social and racial justice. His record on supporting and championing female writers would suggest he is very much au fait with matters of inequality.

The very expression Woke, which has been used politically since God was a gossan (or garçon, as we are speaking of language) has now evolved and like so many other words has become weaponised. 

When Banville uttered those foolish (but misquoted) words, ‘I despise this ‘woke’ movement – it’s become a religious cult’ it triggered outrage in many people, much of it fuelled by the baying media who love nothing more than to drag a good man or woman down. 

But, here’s a confession. I wasn’t one bit outraged. In fact I would go as far as to say John Banville is as ‘Woke’ as the ‘Wokest’ man or woman among us. 

Sure, maybe he doesn’t make all of his decisions based on the new definition of being ‘Woke’ or ‘Staying Woke’. But in saying (and this is the bit left out of the headline) ‘Why were they asleep for so long when all the same injustices have been there?’ indicates clearly his abhorrence not of the ‘Woke Movement’ but rather of the virtue signalling of those who pretend to adhere to the new religion of ‘Woke.’ Those who, when making decisions about matters that should be judged on merit rather than ethnicity, gender, social status, class or political affiliation, fail to do so. 

Responding to an article in the Guardian that deliberately misquotes Banville in the headline, Bernadine Evaristo, last year’s joint recipient of the Booker prize tweeted 

To be ‘woke’ means striving to make society more equal & less discriminatory, so how can you despise it? Yet the term ‘woke’ is now being vilified, just as ‘feminism’ was for years. ‘When entitlement is the norm, equality feels like defeat.’

And of course, the inevitable comments from Evaristo’s sycophants (of which I am one, but for her writing, not her opinions) shredded Banville, his writing, his person and his achievements. 

I was disappointed in Evaristo. As an author, I would have expected her to read beyond the headline but it appears she didn’t. Not only did she ignore what Banville actually said, but she exacerbated the situation by suggesting that he demeaned not only the Woke Movement, but that he also took a shot at the feminist movement too. 

I find her rally cry at the end of the tweet ironic 

‘When entitlement is the norm, equality feels like defeat.’ 

Isn’t that the very same point that Banville made?

Maybe Evaristo did read the article, but chose to take the argument in a different direction. Either way, in her tweet she chose to attack Banville for the word he chose rather than for the argument he was making. 

When I launched the Aware Award through Chaffinch Press in 2020, we stated that the award was aimed at writers that spoke to or of the challenges faced by individuals or groups due to ethnicity, gender, faith, social class or caste. Work that addresses the absolute necessity to tear down the barriers that currently exist for so many.

A wag on Facebook commented, ‘How very woke of you’ 

Was Banville daft? Perhaps he was, but if so it was only in his use of the word ‘Woke‘, a word that means one thing to some, but obviously means something entirely different to others.

About the contributor

Dave Kavanagh
Dave Kavanagh is a writer and is the current managing editor of The Blue Nib.

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