What is ‘woke’ and why is it a four-letter word?
By David Rapaport, adjunct professor of sociology, Trent University
In a previous article for the Advocate, I commented that the proper use of language is an essential component of honest and coherent political discussion. Certain words or phrases, when used frequently and maliciously, act as ‘dog whistles,’ or signals to an audience. What might seem harmless and neutral is in fact harmful and even dishonest, in the sense that it signals an entirely different meaning from what the word normally means.
Conservative commentators and politicians have adopted the term ‘woke.’ The term is a disparaging and even dismissive description of people who express concern and advocate for or act on behalf of the disadvantaged and the less privileged. The use of the term woke acts as a commentary on the character of those of us who speak out, donate money, or advocate for correcting historic injustices and real disadvantages that are still experienced by too many people. The term woke is now a slur, a dis, an insult, an affront. It transforms caring and sympathy into vices. Conversely, indifference and non-caring are transformed into virtues.
Ironically, the origin of the term woke can be found in Black American culture. It can be traced to the music of iconic folk singer, Lead Belly in 1938 when he warned Black Americans to stay ‘woke’ to racial prejudice. It gained more recent usage by Black Lives Matter activists in the mid-2010s, a call to be aware of the realities of racism. With the rise of the nationalist right, the term was adopted by ‘anti-woke’ crusaders around the world; Ron DeSantis in Florida, Balasz Orban in Hungary, the National Rally in France, Alternative for Germany, Trump supporters in the United States, and members of the so-called freedom convoy in Canada.
The Canadian conservative movement has joined this linguistic war against progressive, anti-discrimination politics. Maxine Bernier of the People’s Party frequently challenges and critiques ‘wokeism.’ On Twitter he recently wrote that “you cannot be a woke leftist if you are mentally sane.” In March, the Conservative Party of Canada posted a petition that began with “Tell the woke censors to keep their hands off the Internet.” Surely a petition against Bill C-11 could have been written more honestly and constructively. Pierre Poilievre, the CPC leader uses the term regularly – against the Liberal Government, the CRTC, the CBC, and many policies with which he disagrees.
The anti-woke campaign is a rerun of the politically correct charges of three decades ago. The terms woke and politically correct reposition the spotlight of important discussions onto the advocates and allies of the disadvantaged and away from those who are disadvantaged by inequality, homophobia, sexism, racism, and ageism.
If we are going to have a culture war, one that is grounded in our beliefs, our values, and our practices then let’s be honest about where we stand. If you are against programs, legislation and regulation that aim to correct historic injustices against women, Indigenous Peoples, people of colour, gays, lesbians, less-abled, and seniors – then simply say so. Come out of the bushes. Defend your privilege. Please spare us the dishonesty of hiding behind a false charge of wokeism, which points a finger in the wrong direction.
Let’s keep the discussion on discrimination, social justice, inequality, and privilege serious, meaningful and focused. Using terms like politically correct and woke only distract us and demean the community that is trying to address them. But address them we must. To do otherwise would diminish us as the social beings that we are meant to be.