Writer: Harry Zhao
Editor: Renata Daou
Graphic Designer: Pat Sevikul
The Origin of "Woke" and its Context
The term "woke" and other related terms, such as "politically correct" and "cancel culture,” are subject to high controversy in the current political climate. The term originates from African-American communities, where "woke" was used to mean "being alert to the deceptions of others," which was a basic concept in these communities. Following the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, black rights activists and protesters started using the phrase "stay woke" during the Black Lives Matter movement. It was meant as a warning to stay vigilant about the dangers that black Americans face and a call for others to "wake up" from ignorance towards issues such as systemic racism. The slogan "stay woke" was a phrase that enabled black Americans to share their common experiences of discrimination and to build solidarity. Soon, the term entered mainstream political discourse as a catch-all term for progressive, left-wing politics and attitudes towards social justice.
The Meanings of "Wokeness"
The term "woke" has no clearly defined and widely accepted meaning. It is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice." However, the term has come to adopt a negative connotation in relation to the political culture that it describes. According to columnist Alice Thomson and politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, most people who use the term are part of the older white generations, using the term in a derogatory manner to mock left-leaning, "sensitive" youths. Right-wing circles frame "wokeness" as an extreme, far-left progressive movement; whereas many left-wing circles tend to disassociate themselves with the term because of its negative public perception.
Right-Wing Weaponisation of "Woke"
Right-wing politicians and thinkers have co-opted the term and added a layer of negative and derogatory connotation to the word "woke" and related phrases. They attack "wokeness" for being a version of "political correctness run amok," and they dismiss "woke culture" for being overly pretentious and theatrical. Similarly, other pejorative terms are often used synonymously with "woke." For example, people are "snowflakes" to taunt the perceived hypersensitivity, exaggerated idealism, and political correctness of left-wingers, targeted in particular at younger generations. Another way the right-wing weaponized language against the left-wing is through fear mongering phrases, such as the "woke brigade" and "social justice warriors", which paints left-wingers as a united force of hostility. They twist and manipulate "woke" jargon such as "critical race theory" and "radical feminism" to incite anxiety and distrust, even going so far as to declare a "war on woke" in Europe. Therefore, the right-wing characterises the "woke" as a group of "cultural elitists" who are easily provoked and overly emotional, which makes their arguments appear illegitimate and drives people away from leftist communities and ideas.
These added nuances cast people who are branded as "woke" in a negative light, forcing left-wingers to abandon the label and creating a rift between the extreme and moderate left, the latter of whom may agree with the right-wing that "wokeness" is counterproductive or too radical. By labelling the left-wing as hostile, elitist, and unreasonable, their opponents can leverage the distrust of the left to gain more support for themselves. For example, figures such as J.K. Rowling, who has received criticism for expressing transphobic views, can claim to be victims of "cancel culture" to attract sympathy. This draws attention away from their hurtful actions and allows them to avoid responsibility.
Criticisms of "Woke" Culture
Many people have pointed out their concerns and criticisms of "wokeness" and "cancel culture." For many, "woke" culture appears overly pretentious and even dangerous, where a slight offense could lead to mob intimidation and backlash. This creates a toxic environment where political discourse and language have to be "diluted" to be politically correct, raising questions about free speech and unnecessary language policing. Speaking of language choice, "woke" culture is also attacked for its excessive use of jargon that hinders understanding and effective discourse, which is taken to be another sign of pretentiousness. Another criticism is that proponents of "woke" culture are self-interested and performative, using their "woke" agenda as a form of virtue signalling and gaining appraisal. It is argued that their engagement in "woke" culture is more about protecting their image rather than about helping and empowering the disadvantaged.
Furthermore, "woke" culture has also been targeted for being hypocritical and pretentious - for example, coining the word "Latinx" to refer to the Hispanic community. Although non-binary Latin-Americans may choose to use the word to identify themselves, an overwhelming majority of the Hispanic community does not use or identify with the term for linguistic and cultural reasons. Some argue that using "Latinx" to describe the Latino community is an act of linguistic imperialism, imposing an English neologism upon the Spanish language. Others disagree with the term because it is impossible to pronounce, and may opt to use other terms such as "Latine" for non-binary Latin-Americans instead. Another aggression from the "woke brigade" that is often cited is the decommissioning of controversial historical figures, which some view as the erasure and censorship of history that do not fit into the "woke" narrative. It is therefore argued that "woke" culture commits the same aggressions as they accuse their opponents of doing: neglecting cultural differences, erasing history, and disrespecting people's rights to choose the labels they wish to identify as.
Moreover, many see "wokeness" as "all bark but no bite." Although "cancel culture" is claimed to be a cultural and social threat by many right-wing politicians, many point out that it actually does little to address the issues that it argues about passionately. A number of celebrities admit that they feel insecure about their public image because of the constant threat of being judged or "cancelled" for minor actions. However, most celebrities who do get "cancelled'' face little to no considerable consequences as a result of it, and in fact, may use the occasion to grow their following and publicity as they come into the public attention and claim the victim status. One case is that of Kevin Hart, who was "cancelled" for making homophobic jokes, but proceeded to attack the queer community for "merciless public shaming" and calling out his problematic actions. Similarly, due to the online nature of much of the "woke" movement on platforms like Twitter and the overbearing attitudes of some "social justice warriors,'' people note that the movement produces no significant real-world or tangible change, failing to convince people in authority to change their policies or people with different opinions to change their minds.
In Defense of "Woke" Culture
On the other hand, there are also many who stand to defend "woke" culture as a vessel for social justice. For many activists, "woke" culture and social media movements are considered to be a powerful and infectious way to spread social change. For example, the #MeToo movement brought into light the sexual misconduct of many figures in power and allowed rape victims to hold their aggressors accountable. As a result, many of the accused aggressors were discharged from their jobs and forced to accept responsibility for their actions. Many consider movements like these to be examples of how "woke" culture can be used to challenge toxic norms and allow the voices of the disempowered, such as female rape victims, to be amplified and heard.
Another way in which "woke" culture is giving minorities a more visible platform is through Black Twitter. By grouping together and forming an undeniable internet presence, the Black Twitter community helps to expose the issues facing black communities, as well as the problematic tweets and actions of famous figures. The online platform balances the playing field, granting black users the ability to affect political discourse and to participate in redefining hurtful social norms. It also enables them to hold powerful and influential people accountable through methods such as "cancelling," which is analogous to older strategies employed by black communities such as boycotting to send a clear political message.
Many also see "woke" culture as the possibility for change in re-establishing new social attitudes, moral boundaries, and inclusive conversations. The advocacy for more inclusive language in relation to gender identities, such as "pregnant people" and "menstrual hygiene", is not accepted by all, but the usage of these terms creates a safe space for transgender and non-binary people where they can feel comfortable about their bodies and their health. The act of calling out discriminatory actions and language also plays a role in discouraging discriminatory attitudes and dismantling harmful preconceptions and social norms. With more clearly defined and progressive codes for moral conduct, "woke" culture could help ensure that hateful comments can no longer be excused as "jokes" or help disadvantaged people set up their own personal boundaries.
In conclusion, just like trying to define the word itself, attempting to evaluate the impacts of "wokeness" is a tricky task with multiple layered nuances. Although born of good intentions, "woke" culture is now widely perceived with disdain by many. With the right-wing vilifying "wokeness" as a movement that threatens traditional values and the inherent issues within the movement as a whole, it is important to also consider more constructive ways of advocating for social justice and raising awareness. Ultimately, "wokeness" does not have to be a vehicle for harm, but rather for growth.