The word has taken on a slang definition of late: “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)“. This new use of the word was “invented by those who view themselves as culturally hip and clever.” It has become a code word for all sorts of culturally damaging scenarios. Unlike the old-fashioned use of the word, which was the past tense or past participle of wake, this new twist should give us pause.
Why? Well, let’s get George Orwell’s opinion. He wrote an entire essay on the manner in which words can be redefined to mean something other than what you think they mean. As he suggested, all it takes is a large number of people who agree. That is the case today, and it is a sad but true reality.
The act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue. (Urban Dictionary) According to token conservative David Brooks of The New York Times: “To be woke is to be radically aware and justifiably paranoid. It is to be cognizant of the rot pervading the power structures. The woke manner shares cool’s rebel posture, but it is the opposite of cool in certain respects. Cool was politically detached, but being a social activist is required for being woke. Cool was individualistic, but woke is nationalistic and collectivist. Cool was emotionally reserved; woke is angry, passionate and indignant. Cool was morally ambiguous; woke seeks to establish a clear marker for what is unacceptable.”
This new adjective woke is a stamp of approval, a self-congratulating label, a goal, a challenge. Most importantly, it’s a boundary line separating people. The word is a floating signifier serving as a PC litmus test while concealing the often shifting requirements to pass. Someone who has been woken is finished with sleep. In millennial political slang, it means someone who has awoken to the progressive truths of intersectionality. Amanda Hess, writing in the New York Times, explains: “Think of ‘woke’ as the inverse of ‘politically correct.’ If ‘P.C.’ is a taunt from the right, a way of calling out hypersensitivity in political discourse, then ‘woke’ is a back-pat from the left, a way of affirming the sensitive. It means wanting to be considered correct, and wanting everyone to know just how correct you are.”
It also has a history deeper than the typical superannuated focus of internet subcultures. Writing in Fusion, Charles Pulliam-Moore traces the origins of the word’s use in pop culture to Erykah Badu’s 2008 song “Master Teacher,” with a roughly similar meaning to its current use—staying aware of the continuing political struggles of African-Americans. After a brief hibernation, the word experienced a popular resurgence around 2012 following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Even then, the word was tethered tightly to a fairly coherent group of political objectives centered on police reform and an acknowledgement of systemic racial oppression. But around 2014, writes Pulliam-Moore, the word got hashtagged and memed. Even if you disagreed with the politics behind the original usage, the word was then at least bound to subjects which required serious moral consideration. By 2014 it was used to describe almost anything. Your “inner hoe.” Justin Bieber. The Footlocker website. Matt McGorry.
After woke drifted into the miasma of what Rod Dreher calls “Weimar America,” a funny thing happened to it. It was simultaneously diluted of specific meaning while maintaining a kind of informal authority by virtue of its association with African-American culture. The linguist and professor John McWhorter explains:
Even if on a certain level we think of black casual speech as riddled with “errors”—though, we shouldn’t—on another level we hear it as truth. The white pop singer who wants to become famous must enunciate with a Southern black cadence to some extent. Have you noticed how many voiceover artists for faceless institutions, like banks and medicines, are now black ones?
McWhorter frames this as a victory for African-American culture. As he puts it, “Black Language Matters.” But the more broad association between the pop-rebellion of hip progressive culture and its appropriation of African-American slang isn’t a new one. Norman Mailer wrote about it in his 1957 article for Dissent, “The White Negro,” a garrulous rant that was more an incandescent exhibition of linguistic heat than intellectual clarity. Nevertheless, while drawing his broad-stroke sketch of why mid-century hipsters came to appropriate elements of African-American culture, he had more than a few useful insights about the “language of Hip” giving “expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share, at least all who were Hip.”
Mailer notes the variety possible within a closed solipsistic loop when he writes about how the semantics of African-American vernacular are so fungible that a word such as “dig” could have countless meanings but could be interpreted only by someone who was on the same cultural page as the speaker. The word could be literally referring to any number of things, but the final question it posed was always: Are you hip? Are you like me? Language like this isn’t meant to be precise or to persuade. It is meant to draw an us/them binary and judge experience from within experience, or based on “what one feels at each instant in the perpetual climax of the present,” according to Mailer.
Thus woke is more than a throwaway word. It’s a slang term working as a cultural clue. It signals that cultural progressivism is a secular spirituality in want of a coherent theology. In the catechism of this ersatz religion, woke is a kind of creed. It epitomizes the decay of deep engagement with cultural and moral issues into a cheap buzzword which mutes debate and confounds discourse. “Are you woke?” is a question meant to be answered with a simple yes or no, but the correct answer is always yes.
To not be woke is to be regressive, straining against the current of moral history. As the goalposts constantly move on what might constitute political and social wokeness, it’s helpful to keep in mind the late Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce’s description of modern progressive secular ideology as “the idea that man is capable of self-redemption, i.e., of achieving salvation through action” and the belief that “the advent of perfection on earth will be achieved as the outcome of human initiative.” Anything standing in the way of this terrestrial utopia tethers us to the “nightmare” of tradition, the “hell” of rooted memory. Or, as Marx pithily put it, “Everything that exists deserves to die.”
The immense weight of all of these progressive assumptions is carried by the single diminutive syllable of “woke.” As Andrew Sullivan suggests in his take on intersectionality and the attack on Charles Murray at Middlebury College, radical ideology trends toward stifling debate, usually on dubious “moral” claims. And despite all the parallels with gnosticism, this is where the metaphor ends. Ultimately, the progressive goal becomes not truth but power.
Apparently, coronavirus is ‘woke’ and takes a break if the cause you’re championing is left-wing.