Why 'woke' is a useful word
Back on 15 December, Alan Rusbridger – the former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, who is now principal of an Oxford college – said the following in a viral tweet:
Silliest word of 2020 is “woke”. Orwell would have skewered it as a meaningless sneer designed to stand in the way of thought or discussion. It’s particularly sad to see it adopted by people who are usually careful about language. A very 2020 word.
Similar sentiments were aired in three articles published at the beginning of last year. The first, published in The Guardian, was titled ‘How the word ‘woke’ was weaponised by the right’. The second, published in the Byline Times, was titled ‘The Weaponising of ‘Woke’’. And the third, published in Stylist, was titled ‘How did the word ‘woke’ become weaponised?’ (Given the frequency with which people are accused of “weaponising” things, there may soon be an article on ‘The weaponising of ‘weaponising’’.)
As you might have guessed from their titles, these articles all make approximately the same argument: ‘woke’ is little more than an insult used by people on the right to discredit their opponents and/or to generate outrage. For example, Steve Rose writes the following in The Guardian:
going by the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition, woke means “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)”, but today we are more likely to see it being used as a stick with which to beat people who aspire to such values, often wielded by those who don’t recognise how un-woke they are, or are proud of the fact.
In an earlier article making more-or-less the same argument – also published in The Guardian, you’ll be surprised to learn – Afua Hirsch observes, “the person using the word is likely to be a rightwing culture warrior angry at a phenomenon that lives mainly in their imagination.” She goes on to claim that “there are no woke police”. Instead, she explains, there are “a lot of people who recognise that the progress that has been made is all the result of struggle.”
So far as I can tell then, the key elements in the case against ‘woke’ are: that the word is an insult, rather than a mere descriptor; that it does not have a clear meaning; and that it is now used exclusively by people on the right. I wish to contest all three of these propositions. To my mind, ‘woke’ is a useful word.
First, is ‘woke’ an insult? In the political and cultural spheres, there are many words that are sometimes used dismissively or derisively, which are nonetheless useful. For example, a left-wing person might say, “You’re just a bunch of Tories!” (In the UK, ‘Tory’ refers to someone who supports the Conservative Party.) Or a right-wing person might say, “You’re just a bunch of socialists!” Neither ‘Tory’ nor ‘socialist’ is an insult, but they can be used in a way that might be regarded as dismissive or derisive. In other words, just because a word is sometimes used to rhetorical effect, and sometimes employed inaccurately, does not mean it is an insult in the same way that ‘idiot’ or ‘moron’ are insults.
What’s more, until quite recently, many people openly identified as “woke”. (And it may have occurred to you that people rarely identify with insults.) Numerous examples can be found in this Vox article from last October. For example, ‘StayWoke’ was a major hashtag in 2014. There was a documentary titled ‘Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement’ in 2016. And in 2017, one Twitter user posted a picture – apparently taken at the women’s march – of a boy wearing a sign saying “i ♡ naps but I STAY WOKE”. She described it as “Today's best sign”, and the tweet got more than 89,000 likes. (It remains her pinned tweet.)
As the comedian Andrew Doyle has pointed out, The Guardian itself has run several pieces that use the word ‘woke’ without criticising it. In 2018, the paper ran an article titled ‘My search for Mr Woke: a dating diary’. In 2019, it ran articles titled ‘Toy stories: can a woke makeover win Barbie and Monopoly new fans?’ and ‘Why, this year, Last Night of the Proms will be woke’. In 2020, it ran an article titled ‘White clicktivism: why are some Americans woke online but not in real life?’ The Guardian even ran a piece titled ‘The more the word 'woke' is used as a slur and a joke, the more we need it’ in which the author concluded by saying:
it is because of the invention of terms such as woke and movements such as #MeToo (both started by black activists) that I, and so many others, have started speaking. I will not stop. And I will not stop trying to do the right thing ... or, if you prefer, #staywoke.
This was published in 2019. I also came across an online workshop from The Allied Genetic Conference 2020 titled ‘Raising a Woke Generation of Geneticists: How and Why to Include Eugenics History in Genetics Classes.’
Second, does ‘woke’ have a clear meaning? A key argument made by those who object to ‘woke’ is that the term is too vague, or that it simply functions as a catch-all for people who are against sexism, racism etc. To the contrary, ‘woke’ does have a clear meaning, and it does not simply refer to left-wing people or those who are against sexism and racism (assuming those terms are properly defined). Various definitions have been put forward, but if I may quote myself, ‘woke’ refers to:
a specific ideology which sees identity groups like sex and race as the primary units of society; which attributes to some groups the status of victims and to others the status of oppressors; and which posits that various ‘structural’ and ‘systemic’ forces stymie members of the former groups while conferring ‘privilege’ on members of the latter.
In other words, ‘woke’ refers to a particular strand of leftism that is distinct from other strands, such as old-school Marxism or traditional left-liberalism. And indeed, many leftists who identify with these other strands have been critical of the ‘woke’ strand. One such critic is the black Marxist intellectual Adolph Reed, who – ironically enough – was cancelled last year by the hyper-woke Democratic Socialists of America. Another leftist who has been critical of woke antics is the British comedian Jonathan Pie. Many others can be found among the signatories of last year’s much-discussed Harper’s Letter. (Incidentally, I am not saying that all these individuals like the term ‘woke’, but rather that they dislike the strand of leftism to which it refers.)
There have been some profound cultural changes in the English-speaking world over the last 5–10 years (collectively known as The Great Awokening) and it is crucial that we have a word for the ideology on which they are based. To pretend that no such ideology exists is simply disingenuous. Alternatives to ‘woke’ include ‘regressive left’ and ‘left-wing identity politics’. The former has an appealing resonance with ‘progressive left’, but it strikes me as obviously more derisive than ‘woke’, which – to remind you – is a term many people identified with until just a few years ago. The latter is perhaps more academic, though it has several disadvantages: it’s a mouthful; it has no straightforward adjectival form; and it could be said to encompass certain left-wing nationalist movements, which are in no sense woke.
Third, is ‘woke’ used exclusively by people on the right? No. We have already seen that The Guardian – the UK’s wokest newspaper – ran articles in 2018, 2019 and 2020 that used the word ‘woke’ without criticising it, and that they ran an article in 2019 where the author explicitly defended her “woke” identity. What’s more, no less a left-wing figure than Barack Obama has criticised “woke” call-out culture. At the Obama Foundation summit in 2019, he said the following:
This idea of purity, and you’re never compromised, and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff. You should get over that quickly … I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, that the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people. And that’s enough. Like if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right, or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself because “man, you see how woke I was? I called you out” … That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change.
In summary, the case against ‘woke’ doesn’t hold water: although the term can be used derisively, this is true of many political terms that are not insults; it does have a clear meaning; and it is not used exclusively by people on the right. ‘Woke’ refers to an ideology that has been extremely influential over the last 5-10 years, so until a better term comes along, I will continue using it.
Image: Frederick Schafer, Morning on Mount Shasta
Academics targeted for cancellation in 2020
On 30 December, I wrote a piece for RT on the top 10 academic targets of cancel culture in 2020. Here is an excerpt:
Academics are supposed to be engaged in the disinterested pursuit of truth. And universities are meant to be places where you attack the argument, not the man. But in recent years, many scholars in the English-speaking world have found themselves embroiled in controversies just for expressing an unorthodox opinion or – in one case – pronouncing a Chinese word correctly. The individuals below were all targeted for cancellation in 2020. Some were investigated by their employers; others lost book contracts, speaking engagements and even university positions.
There is no paywall, so do read the whole piece.
Thanks for reading. If you found this newsletter useful, please share it with your friends. And please consider subscribing if you haven’t done so already.