By Greg Spearritt
You’re currently most likely to encounter the term ‘woke’ as an insult or an expression of derision. This is especially so in the organs of a certain media empire, but even liberals and ‘progressives’ can be in on the act.
You may have heard that comedian John Cleese recently ‘blacklisted’ himself from speaking at an event organised by Cambridge Union, a debating and free speech society at the University of Cambridge, which happens to be Cleese’s alma mater. He cited ‘woke rules’, noting that the Union had blacklisted art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon for impersonating Hitler in a debate on the notion that ‘there is no such thing as good taste’. Graham-Dixon was actually trying to demonstrate that bad taste and bad morality go hand in hand.
The pejorative form of ‘woke’ nowadays mostly means being concerned about deeply embedded injustices in a shallow or performative manner, as a means of virtue-signalling. Cambridge Union’s action on Graham-Dixon could be understood in this light – or even more so as ‘political correctness gone mad’ (another favourite phrase of those under the spell of the aforementioned media empire).
Use of the term ‘woke’ in fact goes back to the 1930s, among Black communities in the US. Vox, which has a detailed history and excellent analysis of the term, notes:
the phrase “stay woke” turned up as part of a spoken afterword in the 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys,” a protest song by Blues musician Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly. The song describes the 1931 saga of a group of nine Black teenagers in Scottsboro, Arkansas, who were accused of raping two white women.
‘Staying woke’ meant looking out for danger and deception in an environment in which people of colour had substantial cause to be on guard. George Floyd and many others have shown us there is still a need for this (and in Australia as well), but ‘woke’ has evolved since the 1930s and has – like many Black terms – been appropriated by white left-leaning people (even for advertising).
Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English and Christianity and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary is quoted in the Vox article as saying:
In my conservative Southern Baptist community, the term has become an insult that is used against anyone who is concerned about justice and racism. They use the word like a weapon.
So where to from here? How is the divide, as the Vox article puts it, “between the ‘woke,’ the anti-’woke,’ and the conscientiously non-’woke’ “ to be bridged? Prior says:
The solution [I’ve] arrived at, when someone does use a term like that as an insult, [is] to ignore the insult [and] respond to what might underlie the insult … the bigger concern. Because the polarization is only going to be defeated by transcending the binary categories of the argument.
I seldom hear the word used in self-description, but more often, à la Prior’s community, as a weapon against others. But I suggest that in many instances, ‘woke’ views can be genuine. Indeed, the term is often a synonym for ‘decent’.
The alternative, of course, could be ‘asleep’. Arguably most of us have spent much of our lives unaware (and many still are) of the deeper injustices in our society that manifest in hurtful and unhelpful attitudes and assumptions. ‘Woking up’, if accompanied by genuine action, might indeed help create a better, fairer society.
Disclaimer: views represented in SOFiA blog posts are entirely the view of the respective authors and in no way represent an official SOFiA position. They are intended to stimulate thought, rather than present a final word on any topic.