Pop culture is always evolving and rarely beholden to any set of norms regarding what’s in fashion and what’s not.
The same can be said of the English language. In March alone, Dictionary.com added 300 new words to its database, including “antifragile” (becoming more robust when exposed to stressors) and “liminal space” (a transitional state). The meanings of words are always changing, too. For example, the original definition of silly was “blessed with worthiness.” Nice used to mean simple or foolish.
When a word takes on a new meaning, it is called a neologism. One word that’s been in the cultural zeitgeist for some time now is “woke,” and it has different definitions depending on who is using it. What was once a declaration of a supposedly enlightened individual by some on the left has become an easily accessible term of derision for those on the right.
A new poll from the Wall Street Journal (April 21) shows that most Republican primary voters find fighting “woke ideology in our schools and businesses” to be more important than protecting entitlement programs from cuts. As reported by Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post (March 27), a University of Chicago poll indicates that “wokeness is winning.”
As with most things, the reality lies somewhere in the middle. And with apologies to Paul Harvey, now it’s time for the rest of the story.
The origin of “woke” can be traced to African Americans Vernacular English (AAVE) in the early 1930s. More recently, it has been adopted by progressives who believe themselves to be awakened to the social injustices of the world and inspired to make positive changes.
Based on this definition, why wouldn’t someone want to be woke?
The conservative interpretation of woke is much different. For those on the right, being woke is equated with those who want to trash social norms, upend long-held principles, and engage in unreasonable campaigns to eradicate American culture.
From this vantage point, who doesn’t appreciate familiarity, communal ideals, and thoughtful prudence?
But a growing number of liberals have developed a great distaste for wokeness-run-amok as well. For a burgeoning bloc of those otherwise committed to social, environmental, and cultural progress, the ideology of wokeness has fractured the left into two factions: those who court reason and those who court unbridled passion.
Editorialist Byron Williams claimed that wokeness has become an existential threat to some. This is a valid assessment. Unfortunately, he’s oblivious to the fact that there is agreement on this threat across more of the political spectrum than he suggested.
Wokeness poses real concerns for the future of civility and reason, and it’s not simply because conservatives see it as a bugaboo. It’s because wokeness is the embodiment of irrationality, overreaction, and hypersensitivity to cultural issues.
But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that these outlandish traits span the political spectrum. As with any political satire, there is more than enough irony to go around.
Liberals typically lead the charge for the changing meanings of social categories and terms, something conservatives have done in this instance with their reclassification of wokeness. It also bears mention that liberals are quick to attack those who “appropriate” cultural artifacts, language, and identities, yet this term was lifted from AAVE.
And as editorialist Richard Holt noted about the MAGA crowd, conservatives have painted themselves into a corner when it comes to the use of the term.
Numerous Republican critics of wokeness have been left looking foolish when asked for a definition. It seems the spokespeople for MAGA let their trains leave the station before loading the cargo. Typically, you want to define whatever it is you criticize before you engage in that critique. It helps to not have to hit a moving target.
Regardless of one’s political persuasion, it isn’t hard to see what woke has devolved into: a self-righteous position embraced by those who consider their beliefs to be the only option; those who think otherwise are only worthy of shame and scorn. Red or blue, Democrat or Republican, progressive or conservative, the label fits universally.
Towards the end of his essay, Byron Williams said that “Wokeness is invariably used as a ‘pejorative’ because someone lacks serious ideas to move the nation forward.” Unfortunately, wokeness has become synonymous with those who live life as victims-by-proxy, regardless of their political affiliation. As Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, said, “The country’s full of people eager to be offended.”
Blind ideological allegiance has been in vogue for too long; it’s time that “woke” gets updated.
Woke 2.0 are those who pursue the cultural enforcement of their beliefs against the wishes of the crowd, sacrificing common ground and opportunities for compromise to their ideology. In our current state of cultural disorder, all would do well to take the temperature of the masses before engaging in the force-feeding of propaganda.
‘Serious ideas’ are only moved forward if they’re grounded in reason. That’s something the Woke 2.0 should take to heart, though these days reason seems to be in short supply.