Woke

Whether being “woke” is a good or a bad thing is a topic of fierce debate in America. The term has very different connotations and meanings depending on your view.

Woke is a term that generally refers to awareness of issues related to racism, discrimination and social justice, and support of policies or cultural changes to address purported injustices and institute more social equity or equality. However, the term is used both positively and negatively by those across the political spectrum, and carries very different meaning depending on who is wielding it and their view of purported social and racial justice issues — including whether they believe these are even legitimate issues in the United States, and whether proposed cultural, legal, and institutional reforms to address these purported issues would actually be helpful or harmful.

Being “woke” is generally seen as a good thing by much (though not all) of the liberal left. In this view, someone who is “woke” is awake or has “woken up” to purported racial and social injustices in the United States — the idea that our laws and institutions purportedly uphold systemic inequality and injustice based on race, gender, and/or sexual orientation. Someone who is “woke” is likely to support what they see as needed cultural, institutional, and legal reforms to remedy such injustices. From this perspective, "woke" is a term of positivity and allyship. In this view, someone who is “woke” sees the ways in which racism, sexism, heteronormativity, classism, and other issues purportedly affect their daily life, and how our identity markers (such as gender, race, and sexual orientation) affect the way we and others are treated by the traditional American culture, legal system and institutions. #StayWoke often accompanies social media posts about issues such as police brutality, systematic racism and the prison industrial complex — issues that the left sees as crucial to remedy and to address, being that they are rooted in implicit or explicit bias against minorities. 

In this view, being “woke” may mean someone supports necessary cultural and legal reforms such as implementing diversity hiring, shifting funding from police to community programs, encouraging LGBTQ identities, eliminating misinformation online, implementing reparations, eliminating whiteness and altering our economic system. In this view, “woke” people are critical thinkers who accurately identify key problems in American society.

However, leftists (those who are farther left than liberals and who are highly critical of the American establishment) sometimes do not use this term positively, instead using it as a pejorative. They do not disagree with the underlying premise that inequality and social injustice negatively affect daily life in America, nor do they disagree with reform, but they use the term “woke” negatively to describe corporate, liberal hegemony that they see as wholly performative and not helpful to overthrowing capitalism and instituting a more egalitarian society. In this view, “woke” is a person or corporation who pays lip service to reform, but does not actually achieve necessary revolutionary goals, and in fact upholds the status quo. Those who hold this view use “woke” as a pejorative to target gentrified, corporate, urban liberals who are seen as performing in solidarity with stated revolutionary aims, but not actually achieving anything good — ie., “Who cares if the CEO is a woman, if the workers can't afford rent? That corporation is woke.

Others, however — mostly in the center or on the right, but some liberals as well — use “woke” as a pejorative term for entirely different reasons than leftists. In this view, “woke” is used negatively to describe ideas, viewpoints, and policy changes that they believe would radically and negatively alter society. In this view, “woke” is bad because looking at the world through a lens of oppressor and oppressed, or through left-wing identity politics, is the precursor to harmful socialist reforms that would upend free and fair societies, expand the state and oppress most or all people — or would oppress specific groups the “woke” see as upholding perceived systemic injustices against minorities, such as straight white people. In this view, being "woke" is a negative thing, because it describes people who encourage ideological conformity and seek to institute harmful reforms such as upending the traditional family structure, eliminating the gender binary, opening our borders, defunding the police, refusing to prosecute crimes, re-writing history, eliminating market-based economies, canceling books and movies, and eradicating the American Constitution.  

Those who see “woke” as having a negative connotation typically deny that structural inequality due to racism or discrimination exists in the U.S. and attribute unequal outcomes to something other than unconscious bias, as the left typically does. People with this perspective use the term "woke" to describe people and corporations that they see as either misguided or deliberately implementing a radical and sinister agenda to upset traditional Western norms and values that have historically served to create free and healthy societies. They see fundamental harm in the “woke” cultural claims that the gender binary — man and woman — is a social construct and that children should self-determine their gender, and see wokeness as a threat to free speech. The woke are seen as only allowing speech that is in line with their worldview, cancelling people who have dissident viewpoints or pegging them as “white supremacists” — thus suppressing free thought and intellectual inquiry.

From this perspective, the policies and cultural changes that the "woke" seek to achieve actually invert society by conferring status and benefits upon those who claim to be a part of the most victimized groups, rather than those who work hardest and produce the most value. "Woke" ideology is the driver of a victimhood culture in which people argue in favor of taking away the rights, freedoms, and autonomy of others, seeing it as justified in order to service their victimization and unfairly elevate their group. "Wokeness," then, is mostly about the will to achieve power, rather than correcting injustice, and in fact only perpetuates injustice against certain groups.

From this perspective, people who are not “woke" are the true critical thinkers, because they reject what has become a hegemonic attitude and culture in America — the idea that society must be radically altered in accordance with seeing people based on their group identity markers.

Contributors: 

Julie Mastrine, Henry Brechter, Andrew Weinzierl

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