Waking up to woke

Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 11 October 2019

While holidaying in Taupo, we visited the Huka Prawn Park. There, powered by recycled thermal energy from the power station next door, Giant Malaysian river prawns are raised in 26⁰C warm water. This form of aquaculture sustainably produces about five tonnes of prawns a year. The public can buy tickets for the park and go fishing.

OH-NBR-imageIt was an enjoyable family activity for us but the provided instructions irritated me. Below a big stop sign at the entrance, a ‘How to catch prawns’ text kept referring to the crustaceans as ‘he/she.’ Example: “The prawn will take your bait on a little walk therefore you must follow him or her with your rod until he or she stops.”

Confused, I tweeted about the grammatical surprise. “In my English classes, it used to be ‘it” for animals, especially those meant to be eaten,” I wrote. “So many things have changed since my school days.”

As it turned out, my innocent grammatical observation triggered a minor Twitter storm. Not, I should add, led by gender policy advocates. No, by vegans.

“Yeah, so many things have changed: We’ve done the work and figured out that animals are living, sentient creatures, who feel real pain, understand, emote and love,” one of them said.

Sure, we have all read the works of the great prawn philosophers: I spawn therefore I am.

Another Twitter activist admonished me: “I’d love to hear how you rationalise those which are meant to be eaten and those that are not.”

Well, that was an easy one: If they are farmed at an aquaculture park, clearly these prawns were destined for human consumption. Hence, they ought not be personalised by language.

Yet another vegan on Twitter asked me: “Would you refer to your dog as ‘it’?”

Well, no. Not just because I do not even have a dog. But if I had one, I would not want to eat it. Hence, I would use a male or female personal pronoun for it.

At this stage, dear NBR reader, you may be wondering what these observations on the gender, feelings or thoughts of prawns concern a business newspaper. But this is exactly where they belong, since NBR is the meeting place of intelligent business.

Please allow me to stress the ‘intelligent’ bit. Because, as a society, we are losing it. Big time.

First, it is grammatically idiotic to personalise crustaceans when the purpose is to eat them. And second, it is just bizarre to use this observation as a starting point of a moral crusade for animal rights.

But this is just a symptom of what is happening in society. Twenty or 30 years ago, had anyone started assigning genders to prawns in a fishing pond, they would have been laughed at. As would a person making a moral campaign out of crustaceans feeling real pain, understand, emote and love.

Meanwhile, today, putting emotions ahead of reason comes naturally. It is no longer necessary to have the better arguments. It is enough to demonstrate the right set of intentions.

The phenomenon has now entered the vernacular as ‘woke.’ Originally a term of African-American origin, it described the heightened awareness of racial and social justice issues. The idea was to ‘stay woke’ – and it was originally warranted.

When Rosa Parks protested racial segregation and when Martin Luther King Jr spoke about his dream, their concerns were fundamental human rights issues. In a similar way, the Stonewall riots against the homophobic US legal system were an expression of a genuine civil liberties issue.

In comparison, those issues that agitate woke campaigners today are of a different calibre. They are no longer working against crying injustices of the Rosa Park kind. Instead, they are dedicating themselves to signalling their good intentions on trivial matters.

Such virtue signalling can be highly entertaining, as in the case of the Huka Prawn Park. Seriously, to formally respect the gender identity of the prawns cultivated solely to be fished: you’ve got to be kidding.

But it can become much more problematic. Take the case of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand.

When challenged by Radio New Zealand’s Guyon Espiner on losing intellectual firepower at the bank, its Governor Adrian Orr responded: “Do we have a truly diverse and inclusive team or do we all look the same and think the same? This is what we’ve been doing at the bank in the past 18 months. Some people have chosen to continue on that journey. Some people were asked not to continue on that journey and that’s where we’re at.”

In other words, diversity and inclusiveness are the RBNZ’s response to an accusation of a perceived decline of competence. As if virtue signalling could be an alternative to sound qualifications. If the RBNZ’s research unit happened to consist solely of PhD-qualified economists from the London School of Economics, Chicago and Yale, would it be a problem if they all happened to be female and Asian? Or all white and male? Or are gender and ethnicity immaterial when researching something as technical and abstract as monetary policy?

Frankly, I could not care less about the gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or any other quality of people doing research at the Reserve Bank as long as they are properly qualified and are doing a good job. Which, by woke standards, probably makes me a dinosaur.

The woke culture also has a pernicious effect on our debates. People are self-restricting their freedom of speech for fear of offending anyone, even with minor transgressions. And so they are saying things they do not genuinely believe in themselves to please and placate the public and stakeholders.

It is high time we stop this nonsense. We need to stand up for reason and intellectual rigour when it would be fashionable to just follow the crowds. And that means we need to call out the virtue signalling when we see it (even if it causes outrage in the Twittersphere). We need to demand an ethics of responsibility when people are only offering their ethics of good intentions. We need to ask for facts when the other side only offers emotions.

If we do not do that, we will end up with speech codes resembling those of totalitarian regimes. We will not be able to have robust debates any more. And thus, we will not find the best solutions to our policy challenges.

It is amazing how much prawn fishing can teach you (other than patience). And as for the single prawn I caught myself, he or she tasted good.

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