What do people mean when they use the term ‘woke’ in a political context? By the time it crossed my radar, it had come to mean, simply, an acceptance that racism, sexism and other prejudices were still a problem for society.
With that definition in mind, I always thought it slightly weird for anyone to seriously describe themselves as ‘woke’ – especially if one was white and male. For a short time my Twitter bio was tautological-for-fun: Woke Free Speech Bro (until an incredibly embarrassing case of context collapse involving a famous author that I’m too embarrassed to link to).
I just realised that I don’t ever recall hearing the word ‘woke’ (in its new, political/social sense) used in a way that wasn’t pejorative or ironic. Are there still communities where it’s used seriously?
This led me to an interesting Twitter thread by @absurdistwords that explains the origin of the phrase/usage. It once meant something more specific: a recognition among black people of the pervasiveness of white supremacy.
It is frequently an identity shifting event when a Black person who has been indoctrinated in white supremacy since birth awakens to the truth of how it has lurked in every corner of their lives, shaping how they see and interact with the world
“Woke” was an acknowledgement
The process of becoming “woke” was one that involved a reevaluation of everything one had learned and experienced in a new light.
It meant looking inwards and finding the parts of oneself that did not belong and had been planted there by oppressive life education
I thought of all this again this week when I read a much praised and shared blog post by Nick Cave.
Wokeness, for all its virtues, is an ideology immune to the slightest suggestion that in a generation’s time their implacable beliefs will appear as outmoded and fallacious as those of their own former generation. This may well be the engine of progress, but history has a habit of embarrassing our treasured beliefs. Some of us, for example, are of the generation that believed that free speech was a clear-cut and uncontested virtue, yet within a generation this concept is seen by many as a dog-whistle to the Far Right, and is rapidly being consigned to the Left’s ever-expanding ideological junk pile.
This is simply a misunderstanding of what ‘wokeness’ originally meant. Cave is using it as a synonym for ‘political correctness.’ Both phrases are now simple perjoratives to throw at modes of thought that challenges one or more of your beliefs or ways of doing things.
Well meaning though he might be, Cave is engaging in precisely the kind of dismissals he abhors. Instead of engaging with the substance of what ‘woke’ people are complaining about or campaigning for, he simplifies a specific and particular concept, and then pigeonholes it as ‘anti free speech’ and unworthy of further engagement.
Free speech is not lost to the alt.right
I also disagree with Nick Cave that invoking ‘free speech’ is seen as a dog-whistle for the Far Right. Reading and engaging with activists on the social justice left (the people Cave and others might describe as ‘woke’), what they actually say is stuff like “freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences” or “free speech does not mean hate speech.” I have quibbles with both these mantras, but I think that this generation of activists has far more appreciation of free speech than their detractors give them credit for.
Indeed, there is one area where the ‘woke’ left is certainly far better at practicing free speech than anyone else, and that’s with regards to the isegoria aspect of free speech. This is the principle that to do free speech properly, you do not just need to permit offensive speech. You also need to give a voice to everyone within the society.
In the modern context, Isegoria is the principle behind affirmative action programmes, and the creation of opportunities for particular people (for e.g. a literary prize for women; an internship for BAME students; or an anthology of writing by transgender authors). Such initiatives are often criticised for being ‘woke’ or ‘politically correct’ or somehow undermining meritocracy that always, magically, sees the white men come out on top. In fact, these programmes are enabling free speech in practice rather than in theory, giving previously ignored people a platform and a voice.
From the Guardian, 14th October 2019:
Woke, meaning “well-informed”, first appeared in print in a glossary of “words you might hear in Harlem” in 1962.