Time To End The Use of ‘Woke’ As a Pejorative

If nobody can agree what it means, how can it be in any way useful? At the very least, we can stop using the word to insult people who are concerned about racism.

My colleague Briahna Joy Gray recently interviewed an author, Bethany Mandel, who had co-written a book denouncing the epidemic of Wokeness in schools. (Mandel is also the editor of a series of right-wing children’s books that have been reviewed in this magazine.) Briahna is a trained lawyer, and a good one, so she likes to be clear on what a conversation is actually going to be about. She therefore asked Mandel a basic question:

MANDEL:

Only seven percent of Americans consider themselves very liberal, and probably fewer of them consider themselves to be woke.

GRAY:

What does that mean to you? Would you mind defining “woke”? Because it’s come up a couple of times and I just want to make sure we’re on the same page.

MANDEL:

So, I mean, woke is sort of the idea that, um, I… [excruciating pause] This is going to be one of those moments that goes viral. I mean, woke is something that’s very hard to define and we’ve spent an entire chapter defining it. It is sort of the understanding that we need to totally reimagine and redo society in order to create hierarchies of oppression. Um, [pause], sorry, I, it’s hard to explain in a fifteen second sound bite.

GRAY:

Well, you can take your time. 


As Mandel predicted, the exchange quickly went viral (by the next day, there was an op-ed in the Washington Post about it). Many progressives argued that the reason Mandel struggled to come up with a definition was that “woke” has become a catch-all term for Social Justice-y Things I Don’t Like. Others suggested that perhaps Mandel realized in the moment that any definition she could give would not sound very good, because “to answer the question she was going to have to explain her coded slur to a brilliant Black reporter.”

Mandel took to social media to say that the reason she had blanked on the meaning of wokeness was that just before taping the show, Briahna had said that all parents are narcissists and since Mandel is the parent of six children,“this threw me off just a bit.” If you ask me, this is a pretty feeble excuse, but Mandel also finally came up with a definition of wokeness. It is, she said:

A radical belief system suggesting that our institutions are built around discrimination, and claiming that all disparity is a result of that discrimination. It seeks a radical redefinition of society in which equality of group result is the endpoint, enforced by an angry mob. 

Other conservatives also insisted the word was easy to define. Some of the various definitions they offered: 

  • 1) society is divided into oppressed/oppressor groups along lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc via 2) hegemonic power. But privileged people are blind so 3) we need to defer to the lived experience of the marginalized to 4) dismantle unjust systems
  • To supply my usual definition: being “woke” means you think The System is structurally oppressive today, performance gaps prove this, and the solution is equity.
  • Woke (noun): the expectation and/or enforcement of political and/or social conformity under the guise of protecting individual liberty. / Woke (adjective): the intentional inclusion of an actual or perceived political and/or social problem, even when such an inclusion doesn’t fit the context of the subject or degrades the subject’s quality or consumer experience.
  • An ideology that imposes Identity Politics, Social “Justice,” Thought Policing, Climate Hysteria, NeoRacism, Queer Pedagogy & Socialist Equity using statist/corporatist/cultural enforcement 
  • The new term for “politically correct”
  • Wokeness is an ideology that seeks to destroy all of our shared norms, language and understanding while replacing it with new norms (example: opening doors is sexist), language (ex: Latinx) and understandings (ex: men can get pregnant). Wokeness spreads like a virus largely from far left universities with full support from the Democratic Party. Major corporations have become enforcement agents for this ideology as woke college graduates climb the ranks of the corporate executive ladder (think ESG investing, equity hiring, etc). The media and Hollywood have acted as the PR arm of this effort. Their PR job was simple: They pushed an unpopular ideology of wokeness in hopes of convincing people that it was actually popular. Despite these gargantuan efforts, wokeness is absolutely hated by the vast majority of people who hunger for a return to normalcy, sanity and safety. If you’re wondering why I said safety, again, it’s very simple. Wokeness has begun to destroy our “justice” system via woke District Attorneys who’ve reduced consequences for or outright refused to prosecute violent criminals. This is all for “racial justice” of course. This leads to a rise in violent crime that then ironically hurts minorities the most. Wokeness is a ridiculous, dangerous, hateful ideology of victimhood and oppression that’s being forced on us by self important ideologues who are far less impressive than our pet bunny that my wife trained to use a litter box. That’s a concise description of wokeness for the left to chew on. Every single time some cultural demolition of this kind has been tried, it‘s failed miserably and often left a trail of dead bodies or countries as evidence of its failure. I believe it’s our greatest threat as humans and as Americans.

Right-wing writer Matt Walsh, whose vicious Nazi-like anti-trans propaganda film was reviewed in the pages of this magazine, said that ultimately “woke” is just another way of saying “the left,” and the left are people who hate heterosexual white men: 

If I was asked to define “woke,” I would say that it’s a cult — or a secular religion — which teaches that society is systemically oppressive towards certain supposedly marginalized groups. The cult believes that our institutions were built expressly with the purpose of oppressing these groups, and the only way to combat the oppression is to tear down the institutions and restructure them according to the doctrines of the cult. Nothing can exist for its own sake. No institution can have any purpose above or beyond the enforcement of those doctrines. The ultimate goal, according to the cult, is equity. And equity simply means that the imagined oppression of their favored groups has been counteracted by policies that artificially elevate those same groups. Of course, in the woke religion, the Satan figure is the heterosexual white male — each member of this group inherits the collective guilt of the oppressor. In fact, you could probably define the term this way too. A woke person is anyone who thinks that heterosexual white males are the villains of history. If they hold that belief then it’s almost certain that all the rest will come with it. If some conservatives struggle to define the term woke, it’s only because they are being too generous. Some on the right want to see the Woke Left as distinct from the Left generally. They seek to define wokeness in a way that lets what they consider to be the average leftist off the hook. There is no way to do that. Wokeness is just another word for leftism. 

A particularly interesting attempt at defining wokeness came from Marxist writer Freddie deBoer. We all know perfectly well what woke means, deBoer said, and even if Mandel can’t define it succinctly, it is nonetheless entirely real, and people who support “woke politics” should admit to what they support rather than “pretending not to know” what wokeness is. DeBoer explains: 

“Woke” or “wokeness” refers to a school of social and cultural liberalism that has become the dominant discourse in left-of-center spaces in American intellectual life. It reflects trends and fashions that emerged over time from left activist and academic spaces and became mainstream, indeed hegemonic, among American progressives in the 2010s. “Wokeness” centers “the personal is political” at the heart of all politics and treats political action as inherently a matter of personal moral hygiene – woke isn’t something you do, it’s something you are. Correspondingly all of politics can be decomposed down to the right thoughts and right utterances of enlightened people. Persuasion and compromise are contrary to this vision of moral hygiene and thus are deprecated. Correct thoughts are enforced through a system of mutual surveillance, one which takes advantage of the affordances of internet technology to surveil and then punish. Since politics is not a matter of arriving at the least-bad alternative through an adversarial process but rather a matter of understanding and inhabiting an elevated moral station, there are no crises of conscience or necessary evils.

DeBoer says that “wokeness” uses academic terms like “intersectionality,” is focused on purifying language rather than changing power structures, and sees progress as a matter of “individuals mastering themselves and behaving correctly” rather than “calling for true mass movements.” 

Each one of the people I have quoted is very confident that critics are being unfair by saying that “woke” has no clear definition. “It’s very clear, how can you deny it?” they reply, and proceed to give an extremely specific definition of wokeness, which they say is obvious. The only trouble is: the definitions contradict each other! It’s not that nobody can give a definition, it’s that there is no generally agreed-upon definition, which is necessary for words to be meaningful instruments of communication. 

Take DeBoer’s definition, which he says is extremely obvious, so much so that anyone who denies it is operating in bad faith. Wokeness, he says, refers to a style of doing (liberal) politics that emphasizes “right thoughts and right utterances” over movement-building. In other words, wokeness does not refer to the belief in systemic injustices, but to a particular way of responding to those injustices that tries to fix our language and interpersonal behavior rather than strike at the root of the problem. 

This is not at all what Matt Walsh means by the term. While Walsh and deBoer would both agree on some of the people who are woke (Robin DiAngelo, under any definition of wokeness, is woke), for deBoer wokeness is more about how you do politics. For Walsh, wokeness is just leftism, and includes the belief that “society is systemically oppressive towards certain supposedly marginalized groups.”

Here we have a problem: deBoer and Walsh can have a conversation with one another where they both insist wokeness is terrible and has to go. Neither of them likes wokeness. And they might both cite Robin DiAngelo, who is indeed very annoying, as a clear example of what’s wrong with wokeness. But they’ll be using the same word to talk about very different things: deBoer will mean that we should have a more effective radical leftism by focusing on altering “material conditions” rather than eliminating language, while Walsh will be talking about the need to eliminate leftism altogether. Two people could mean entirely different things by, we must end woke-ism (but both think their meaning is completely clear), which is why it’s not a very helpful term.

The problem here is that “woke,” like “political correctness” (which in many ways it is just the successor term of), is just too vague. It covers too much. If you’re against wokeness, are you against people who believe systemic racism is real? Or are you just against people who “virtue signal” about their anti-racism? DeBoer says that woke-ism prioritizes individual soul-searching over mass movements for policy change. Okay, but then is Black Lives Matter (a mass movement for policy change) woke? 

Take the definition Mandel eventually managed to come up with. She says it’s the belief that “our institutions are built around discrimination” and “all” disparity is a result of discrimination. Wokeness seeks a “redefinition of society” to achieve “equality of group result” and is “enforced by an angry mob.”

When I read this, the first thing I wonder is: am I “woke”? I wouldn’t say our institutions are built “around” discrimination but that there is a lot of discrimination in our institutions. I wouldn’t say “all” disparities of any kind are the result of discrimination but do think where racial disparities exist, it’s reasonable to have a presumption that observed disparities are unfair and that they may be, at least in part, systemic in origin. “Equality of group result” is too vague for me to say whether I agree with it. And one person’s “angry mob” is another person’s popular protest, so I’m not sure whether I am pro angry mob. Were the George Floyd protests an “angry mob”? 

Briahna Gray, reflecting on her viral exchange with Mandel, said similarly that the whole reason she asked for a definition was that she was trying to understand whether she agreed with Mandel or not. She wasn’t trying to produce a gotcha. She just understands that people understand the term to mean many different things, so if someone doesn’t offer a clear definition, it’s impossible to know what they’re actually talking about when they’re talking about wokeness. Brie is a critic of some of the things that can be included under that label (as I am). But she wouldn’t agree with an anti-“woke” guest if they were using the Matt Walsh definition of wokeness as leftism. (Although note that even Walsh doesn’t offer a workable definition. I’m a leftist who wrote a book called Why You Should Be A Socialist but I don’t believe in “collective inherited guilt” or think heterosexual white men—I am one myself—are Satans.) 

Devorah Blachor, in an amusing McSweeney’s piece mocking Mandel, suggested that for such people wokeness is much more a list of distasteful things connected by a common vibe than it is a precisely definable analytical term: 

Listen, I may not be able to define woke, but I can tell you some things that are woke, like M&Ms, Megan Rapinoe modeling for Victoria’s Secret, gas stoves, tofu, Critical Race Theory, the media, wheelchair ramps, the military, diversity and inclusion, saving the planet, women who don’t want to marry men, and anyone I decide to call a groomer. 

In fact, “whatever it is on the contemporary left that I don’t like” is as close to a universally applicable definition as one can get. (At least when woke is used pejoratively.) After all, that covers both deBoer and Walsh. DeBoer uses it to describe the things on the left he doesn’t like (i.e., shallow focus on linguistics rather than material change) while Walsh uses it to describe the things on the left he doesn’t like (i.e., all of the left). This seems to solve the definitional issue. The only problem is that until someone has given you the list of things on the left they don’t like, you can’t know what the term means to them, which means they might as well just give you the list instead of using the term. So the word won’t ever be useful. 

It can, however, be pernicious, by conflating things that are not defensible on the left with things that are. So I think White Fragility is a terrible book, but that Critical Race Theory has a lot to recommend it. I think the corporate use of social justice language to paper over crimes is sinister, but I think diversity is an important consideration in hiring. When we talk about “wokeness,” we’re unable to make important distinctions which would allow us to critique existing social justice politics while at the same time not condemning the core values of anti-racism, feminism, socialism, etc.

There’s something ugly about negative uses of woke, too, given the history of the term. Since the earliest recorded use is Lead Belly telling Black people they needed to “stay woke” in order to avoid being lynched, there are some pretty sinister historical resonances when Ron DeSantis says Florida is “where woke goes to die.” I recently interviewed blues and roots musician Samuel James, who played me some of Lead Belly’s music and talked about how the word is heard differently to different people. If you still hear in it the original warning given by Lead Belly, being “anti-woke” sounds a lot like being on the side of the bigots. 

The worst book I have ever read was a book called Woke Racism by John McWhorter. (When I say it was the worst, remember I have read some absolute doozies. I’m someone who has read both Maps of Meaning and Donald Trump Jr.’s autobiography.) McWhorter is very anti-woke, and what irritated me most about the book was that it seemed to be a bunch of complaints about annoying tendencies among anti-racists, but he didn’t seem interested in evaluating those people fairly or charitably. (In fact, when I interviewed McWhorter, he even defended his stance on not even speaking with the Woke Racists, because he believes they are beyond the boundaries of reason.) McWhorter said that wokeness had become a literal religion for its adherents, who were authoritarian thought-policers. I’ve never found these types of criticisms of social justice politics compelling, because I think the concept of The Woke as a group of monolithic, mob-like creatures is just the classic bogeyman stuff that is at the core of right-wing politics. McWhorter, like deBoer and Walsh, does not quote extensively from the people he is criticizing, I suspect because it would be much harder to make them seem unreasonable to the point of insanity if they were heard in their own voices. If we are to make progress in having sensible discussions about the problems with contemporary social justice activism, we’re not going to get there with an imprecise “boo word” like woke. That leads in the direction of absurdity, like Tucker Carlson’s condemnation of “woke M&M’s” and a Wall Street Journal columnist suggesting that Silicon Valley Bank had “gone woke” by having a Black board member. I cannot imagine any sensible discussion in which the pejorative use of woke plays any constructive role. 

The good news is that polling shows Americans aren’t really getting on board with the anti-wokeness scare, with most seeing the word as signifying little more than an awareness of injustice. If the right is going to criticize progressive politics, they’re going to have to get more specific.

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