By Jonathan MS Pearce
Jonathan Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist and public speaker from the UK. His latest book is 30 Arguments against the Existence of "God", Heaven, Hell, Satan, and Divine Design (2022).
Woke is the mot du jour. It’s everywhere. It’s what Tucker Carlson, formerly of Fox News, uses all the time. It’s what presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis platforms against with his “anti-woke” campaign agenda. It’s what my father-in-law uses when he’s angry with, in his own mind, some new nonsense – “Oh what’s that word…yes, that’s it, bloody ‘woke’!” It’s what the Daily Mail rails against. It’s what the BBC supposedly is. Or Disney. Or Goodyear.
There is a real confusion about what this now surprisingly common word actually means. So much so, indeed, that the American conservative author Bethany Mandel recently had a car crash of an interview where she froze, completely unable to define what “woke” means. This is somewhat surprising given that she is an author of a book against “wokeism” (Stolen Youth: How Radicals Are Erasing Innocence and Indoctrinating a Generation, where she attacks “wokeness” as being “a new version of leftism that is aimed at your child”).
It seems commonplace that people on the right accuse the left of “wokeism” that then underwrites a “cancel culture” instituted by the left. The reality is somewhat different, as I argued against evangelical Christian and 2016 presidential candidate David French on Premier Christian Radio.
Present Republican nominee for President, Ron DeSantis, said in 2021 (one of many tirades against wokeism), “What you see now with the rise of this woke ideology is an attempt to really delegitimize. They really want to tear at the fabric of our society.” I am probably the “them” to his “us”. I’m the sort of person who wonders why “social justice” has become an insult, as if that is something bad towards which we should not aspire.
What does woke actually mean?
So what does “woke” actually mean? Well, not really what it originally did in this general context.
In its earliest iteration, “woke” was part of the phrase “stay woke”, being a phrase used within black communities to refer to being awake and “alert to the deceptions of other people”. It was “a basic survival tactic”. The phrase appeared in a 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys,” a protest song by Blues musician Huddie Ledbetter (known as Lead Belly) – a reaction to nine black teenagers accused of raping two white women. He said of it, “I made this little song about down there,” and continued “So I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”
At the same time, “stay woke” also literally meant to stay awake, in black vernacular. in 2008, R&B artist Erykah Badu released a politically-themed album with the song Master Teacher, in which the phrase is used with several different contextual meanings, bringing it back to the fore. Fast forward to 2014, when Michael Brown was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and the phrase came back to life. Needs must.
The context of the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement saw the phrase, now shortened to “woke”, being associated with anything to do with racial equality. It was only a hop, skip, and a jump to it representing anything and everything liberal in the world. Because racial equality is the purview only of the left, OK…? A black person on a BBC show where you might not expect to see them? Woke. (Think the new Little Mermaid film or the recent Lord of the Rings series.) Silicon Valley Bank collapsing? Woke. Yale physician advocating sensible Covid policies? Woke (“…mind virus attempting to destroy civilization” as according to Elon Musk). It’s rather dizzying keeping an eye on the myriad uses of the term.
Woke has become the bogeyman of the right
In fact, here linked are more than 200 things conservative TV channel Fox News has labelled as woke. A few examples might help to show how woke has become the bogeyman of the right. And it’s a little embarrassing now.
Artificial intelligence: Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk declared that artificial intelligence will “become a woke super-weapon,” specifying that OpenAI’s ChatGPT will “make the left’s takeover of the West more efficient.” [Fox News, The Ingraham Angle, 2/21/23]
Federal Reserve: Fox Business guest anchor David Asman said, “There's a lot of pressure being put on banks by the already woke people in the Federal Reserve and other banking regulatory institutions not to give out loans to oil and gas companies.” [Fox News, The Story with Martha MacCallum, 3/31/22] And Fox Business host Charles Payne criticized the “woke Fed” for failing to raise interest rates to curb inflation. [Fox News, Your World with Neil Cavuto, 1/14/22]
Economic policy: Fox Business host Larry Kudlow called the Biden administration’s economic policies, including the Child Tax Credit, “woke economics.” [Fox News, The Story with Martha MacCallum, 7/15/21]
Republican Cory Mills (Florida) argued that since “the airline industry is so subsidized … they will always, you know, follow the woke method because they have no fear of going broke.” [Fox News, Gutfeld!, 1/11/22]
Xbox: Fox & Friends host Ainsley Earhardt complained that Xbox’s new power-saving feature proved the company was “going woke … because of climate change.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 1/24/23]
Covid: Former Fox contributor Lara Trump praised Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for taking “a common sense approach to COVID” instead of “caving to the woke politics and saying, like, shut everything down.” [Fox News, Fox News Primetime, 4/12/21]
Homosexuality: Fox host Kayleigh McEnany said Disney’s Toy Story spinoff Lightyear failed to impress at the box office because it was “a bit too woke.” She specifically mentioned its same-sex kiss scene, which “left some conservatives to blame what they call the movie’s woke agenda.” [Fox News, Outnumbered, 6/21/22]
The military: Fox contributor Mollie Hemingway claimed that “woke generals” are “destroying” the military and represent an “existential threat to the country.” [Fox News, The Ingraham Angle, 6/22/22]
And so on and so forth. It’s a long list. And when you look at every subject included in that list, you quickly realise that “woke” is a very large umbrella term. Gathered under the protection of this term is every single liberal. And every single centrist. And every single person who happens to hold an opinion that someone angrily hopping about quite far to the right doesn’t agree with. When you use a term so much, in so many contexts, and it is used to attack so many ideas and so many people, then the term loses its meaning. It loses its utility. In economics, this is the Law of Diminishing Returns. The first pint of water in the desert is very useful and rather refreshing. The 31st?–somewhat less so. We are now at a point that the term “woke” is empty. Vacuous. It is the new “libtard” (a contemptuous term for a person with left-wing political views). If that’s where we are at, then count me out.
Essentially, it’s a very lazy term. And the label now triggers me. If anyone mentions it, I take an instant dislike to their politics, to their morality. Because it says more about them than it does about me or their intended target. I can very often successfully sum up someone’s political positioning with their single use of that term in the same way that I can if they use the pejorative “libtard”. It carries about the same degree of nuance.
Let's have a reasonable debate
If you have issues with the use of pronouns and gender identity, (and let’s face it, it’s something of a complex philosophical battlefield), then let’s have a reasonable debate. The same goes for climate change. And pandemic responses. And equality – racial, sexual, or otherwise. And…and… However, if you are going to add into your debating rhetoric the use of the word “woke”, then you have lost me because not only is it completely simplistic, but it is a pejorative: it is used as a term to insult the opposition.
If I were to call every position or person I disagree with “fascist” or “Nazi” then these terms would lose their strength and utility and I would rightfully not be taken seriously. For “woke” I would prefer the term to be replaced with “progressive” in many cases because the intention of the target people or ideas is to make the world progressively better. The use of the word “woke” does a real disservice to the original meaning. When used as a pejorative like this, it becomes crass.
I am a socially-liberal, economically-centrist philosopher and a politically-motivated person. In the political psychology underwritten by the work of psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt (and his moral foundations theory), there are traits that are more associated with liberals than conservatives and vice versa. For example, liberals tend to be more inclined to an openness to new experiences, and fairness, whereas conservatives (the clue is in the name) tend towards conserving the status quo, being driven more by tradition. We can see how some shifts in modern society might irk conservatives and motivate liberals. Some ideas are consistently seen as the beating heart of “wokeism” – perhaps gender identity, critical race theory and suchlike. (And so often, they are completely blown out of proportion.) Unfortunately, much of the problem comes when every other idea that (conservative) critics don’t agree with also get incorporated into the label.
We must remember that it is often ill-advised to listen to those with the loudest voices. The UK is following America’s lead when it comes to the right shouting about culture wars issues. All you need to know is that when politicians and pundits shout about the war on Christmas, or transgender restrooms, or political correctness gone mad, or the woke BBC, then they really have nothing substantial to talk about. Culture war discussions belie a fundamental lack of policy. We have seen this in successive US elections and it is starting to creep into UK campaigning. One side is serious about governing, and the other side has nothing in the locker but a woke checklist. Do not be fooled.
The bandwidth of political discourse is being strangled with culture war whinges about woke, and it helps nobody. We have existential crises facing us the likes and scale of which humanity has never faced: climate change and ravaging wildfires, the reignition of the Cold War into a very hot one, population, pandemics, wealth inequality, healthcare and education. The list is long and worrying. But when the right distract you with the woes of woke, they are deceiving you. They care little about these other topics, let alone have any actual workable policies on them. There’s an awful lot of work to do without being misdirected by a shoddy magician’s sleight of hand.
It’s probably a tad inappropriate here, but the words of British comedian Kathy Burke (unlikely to be labelled “liberal elite”) are apropos: “I love being ‘woke’. It’s much nicer than being an ignorant fucking twat.” If I was to be less abrasive and confrontational, I would simply say, “I’m woke. And?” Or, better still, “I’m nuanced. Challenge me on substance rather than throwing about lazy, childish labels.”
The progress towards a better future will be fraught with bumps in the road. We won’t always get things right, but shouting “woke” at anything and everything will end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Simply put, if someone brings up wokeism at the beginning of a political discussion, then they have their priorities firmly in the wrong place.
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