Crowd of anonymous people on street in city center, selective focus

Weekend Reads | The Global ‘Awokening’

by Kevin Schofield

I will admit upfront to my hesitancy in using the term “woke,” since the partisan American right has co-opted it to attempt to label and stigmatize any progressive policy they oppose without having to address its merits. But hearkening back to its roots as a watchword for Black activists to describe awareness of and opposition to racism — both implicit and explicit — the phenomenon has been with us long enough now, expanding to include a wide range of progressive ideas, that social scientists have begun to track its spread and evolution.

This weekend’s read is a recently released paper by David Rozado of Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand attempting to quantify the “Great Awokening,” both in the U.S. and in other parts of the world. Many people here in the United States have the impression that it’s largely a domestic phenomenon, but is that really the case? Rozado looks at new media from dozens of countries spread around the world and analyzes the occurrence of specific terms related to prejudices of various forms (e.g., racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism), as well as social justice discourse, as a proxy for rising public awareness.

He found that there was a sharp increase in use of all of these terms globally beginning in the early 2010s — and, if anything, the United States was a couple of years late to the game. 

Average min-max scaled yearly frequencies of positive terms often associated with social justice discourse (green continuous time series) and negative terms used to refer to prejudice (blue discontinuous time series) in popular news media outlets across 36 countries representing six different world regions. From top to bottom rows: English-speaking West, continental Europe, Persian Gulf region countries plus Israel, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America. The Pearson correlation coefficient between both time series is shown on the upper left of each plot.
Figure used under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.

The topics discussed also differed from country to country. In the United States, the conversation has centered around racism, with less discussion of other prejudices. There were some unsurprising trends in other parts of the world: In Israel, there was a concentration of discussion on antisemitism and racism; in Spain, the conversation is about sexism; and in the Persian Gulf region, they talk about Islamophobia.

Average relative frequency of terms that denounce prejudice in countries' news media content within the 2015-2021 time interval.
Figure used under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.

Rozado also notes that in many countries (including ours), the trends for “negative” words associated with prejudices and “positive” words associated with social justice have risen in lockstep, but in others, one leads the other — though by 2021, they arrive in the same place nearly everywhere.

Average min-max scaled yearly frequencies of prejudice-denoting terms in popular news media outlets across 36 countries representing 6 different world regions. From top to bottom rows: English-speaking West, continental Europe, Persian Gulf region, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Figure used under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.

He also points out that a deeper analysis shows the words used in different contexts: While in Western countries they have been embedded in an introspective conversation, in nations that are antagonistic to the West (most notably China and Russia), they are used to attack Western nations for their failure to eradicate prejudice and suggest their moral failure, without even a cursory look at their own state of affairs at home.

Rozado closes his paper by looking at possible explanations for the global rise in awareness and discussion of prejudices and social justice, at least in news media. He suggests several: prejudice may, in fact, be rising globally and the news media are simply reporting it; countries may be getting better at noticing and denouncing prejudice; there may be “creep” in the definitions of what constitutes prejudice; global news media may be mimicking the U.S. media (though this doesn’t hold up, since other countries’ media ramped up their usage before the U.S. did); cultural changes worldwide, including a “hypothesized victimhood culture”; increasing intellectual homogeneity in newsrooms; the rising importance of disseminating articles through social media by emphasizing negative sentiment; and that the rise is not organic but purposeful, encouraged by the handful of global media conglomerates that control news media outlets around the world and the small number of organizations that provide funding to struggling news media outlets. None of these alone is a particularly convincing explanation; it may instead be some combination of factors.

What the author doesn’t explore — yet — is whether the global rise in conversations that denounce prejudice ultimately leads to a reduction in prejudice: in attitudes, cultures, policies, and practices. It may still be too early to tell.

The Great Awokening as a Global Phenomenon

Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

📸 Featured image by SergeyIT/

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