In recent years, the term ‘woke’ has become popular among many progressives in the US to describe their awareness of injustices across a wide range of social issues, particularly targeting racist and sexist beliefs and behaviours. The phrase originated in Black American culture, dating to 1961 when the civil rights anthem ‘Keep Dealing Woke’ was published, and activism flourished under the banner of ‘stay woke’.
However, the idea and meaning behind ‘woke’ has been hijacked by many conservative commentators who use the term to denigrate the views of politically liberal voters. It has become a criticism of those who support social causes and embrace progressive perspectives on traditional values such as marriage and gender roles.
In response, the Left has expressed alarm about the implications of the term’s politicization, worried that some people might be too critical of progressive ideas. They argue that just because someone is ‘woke’, doesn’t mean that they subscribe to a particular ideology and should be judged according to their sensitivity towards minority groups and issues of social justice.
The right sees ‘woke’ as a buzzword for those in thrall to political correctness and believes it to be a tenet of leftism. It tends to be used mockingly or jeeringly and has been hijacked as part of a culture war, trading barbs and insults between opponents who inhabit opposing camps of the political marketplace.
Many of those on the left counter that this misappropriation of the term is damaging and undermining its important historical context and meaning – the push back against racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. To turnout in any kind of drive to address these issues rhetorically is a good thing, but to use ‘woke’ as a tool to bolster a particular point of view is not so.
There is no doubt that ‘woke’ originally had a positive connotation, but its increasingly controversial usage in political discourse is a result of its commodification and misuse—with the terms ‘woke’ and ‘wokeism’ being used to marginalise, belittle and dismiss certain beliefs.
This politicization has left ‘woke’ open to misinterpretation and hyper-criticism, and those who use the term are often accused of being part of a particular ‘movement’ or ideology that embraces an extreme interpretation of justice-oriented perspectives.
The misuse of ‘woke’ should be a warning for all those engaged in social and political discourse who wish to use language responsibly and respectfully. It’s still possible to embrace progressive ideas without conforming to a one-size-fits-all attitude or fashion. The real power of ‘woke’ is in its action—and its context in the history of minorities and their struggle against racism and discrimination. We must not let the term be hijacked for the wrong reasons.