The most overused word of the new decade is actually in the past tense; a state Dorothy Parker described as Post-Coital.
“Woke”, no longer describes what happened when you stopped sleeping. A modern chap wouldn’t say he “woke with a stiffening of the loins”, but rather he “woke up with…” well, whatever modern chaps wake up with. But, like “privy” and “hep”, “woke” belongs to a different era, a mayfly word which had a brief life between the decline of “awoke” and the rise of “woke up”.
But now, like flares and vinyl, it’s back, with a new meaning and lease of life. The 2020s may just become the decade of “Woke.” It has become the beloved new adjective used by anybody erring – note the subliminal messaging – to the Right, to mock anyone Left, vegan, PC, environmentally conscious, LGBTQ+ sympathetic, racially sensitive or just making the effort to be aware of iniquities and inequities in our culture.
“Wholly Obnoxious Know Everything” one Daily Mail commenter believed it was an acronym for. Woke is the mot du jour, happily bandied in newspaper headlines because it’s short and unlike the previous incarnation, “virtue signalling” doesn’t have the word “virtue” in it.
Piers Morgan incants the word like a spell to ward off the “guests” he keeps inviting back. A team of publicity hungry, professionally woke, characters return to his show again and again, apparently just so he can keep shouting “you’re woke,” with the glee of a man who, in late middle age, has just discovered irony. It’s ironic because those who might be described as “woke” were, briefly, happy to self-refer. Erykah Badu’s 2013 soul rap mashup Master Teacher brought the refrain “I stay woke” which was then adopted by hip liberals and Hollywood celebs, to signal how caring and aware they were, whilst also implying that conservatives (small c) were somehow sleep walking.
But, as we found out in 2016, those who kept their laces straight – the traditionalists, the reactionaries, the squares – they weren’t asleep; they were screaming. One of the key beliefs of (what will become known as) the Liberal Era – 1968-2016 R.I.P. – was that language doesn’t merely describe the world, it creates how we perceive the world.
Sexy post-structuralist philosophers like Jacques Derrida argued that discourse shapes reality “both perceptions of reality and the concrete reality that is perceived.” I’m actually paraphrasing because in reality Derrida’s text is impenetrable, long-winded and French; parallel states which are never far from each other. So, to change how people perceived things that conscientious liberals believed caused conflict, (ie. fear of the non-white, the non-straight or the empowered non-male) all that had to be done was change the language. Thus began one of the largest social experiments in history. The role of every enlightened ‘woke’ Liberal was to correct those who said girl when they meant woman, chide those who said Indian rather than Native American, and to be constantly aware of whatever the current term for “Black” was which hadn’t been overwhelmed by pejorative meaning.
As it happens, “Change the language; change the culture,” turned out to be a bunch of, in Derridean terms, coquilles. All that happened was liberals were tarred as pedantic killjoys and a huge number of people felt vilified for noticing cultural and genetic differences in races and genders. Worse, they felt silenced by “political correctness” and emasculated by a “thought police.” Instead of their petty or visceral dislikes, hatred or fears, dissolving away when they could no longer be voiced, it turns out they were just suppressed and boiled away inside.
The lid of the pressure cooker was finally lifted by the internet: the opportunity to say things anonymously and discover that you are not alone. It took 12 years from the founding of Facebook to the great reactionary comeback revolution of Brexit and Trump. For many, and for conservatives and rightwingers and their spokesmen like Morgan, a tyranny of words is being overturned and how better to do it than to feed the self-congratulatory word “woke” right back to the tyrants of PC. The wonderful thing about “woke” is it sums up everything that traditionalists have found oppressive about progressives without being, apparently, racist or sexist. It can be used without inhibition.
So hardly a headline went by last month which didn’t damn Harry and Meghan as the Prince and Princess of Woke. Every aeroplane they take, every fashion statement they make, every tax-penny they rake is somehow worse because they, like Harry’s dad, expound environmental consciousness and eschew traditional values. Unfortunately Britain’s traditional values, as much as its Empire, were indeed built on racial differences and the belief that “a trueborn Englishman” was God’s gift to the world.
But, for those who think “woke” has no racial dimension, just the shift of verb to adjective should signal something. Linguistic misappropriation is often used by minorities to signal difference to the mainstream, a rebellion against the grammatical rules of the orthodoxy, and even the scant access to education offered. “Woke” as a political term actually originates in African-American culture, specifically from the 60s. Civil Rights activist Marcus Garvey had, in the early 20th century, tried to inspire poor black Americans to return to Africa and build a proud, black, First World continent, saying, “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!” In the 1971 play, Garvey Lives! by Barry Beckham, one character responds to the call: “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon’ stay woke. And I’m gon help him wake up other black folk.”
It was also the inevitable first syllable of an extensive catalogue of blues songs, which always started with “Woke up this morning…” before describing how depressing being poor and unloved is despite having somewhere to wake up and an awesome talent for the harmonica. So, headline writers, perhaps calling Meghan “woke” is a tiny bit more about her colour than you like to let on.
Now, no self-respecting liberal, would describe themselves as “woke”. Apart from the cultural appropriation, the word is almost solely used as a collective insult by the, newly voiced, illiberal rulers of the West.
The question is, will the “woke” go back to sleep, to dream of their lost Xanadu? Or can they actually wake up now, smell the Fairtrade coffee, or Gwyneth Paltrow’s This Smells Like My Vagina candle, and start to fight back?
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