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'Woke' and Other Bogeymen

The Right has hijacked the language of the left

If you tune into any conservative news programme, it will only be a matter of time before you hear the word ‘woke’. You might even hear it in its many bizarre incarnations; from ‘the woke mob’ to ‘wokerati’ to ‘woke ideology’. It’s become a favourite buzzword of right-wing publications across the UK. Just today, The Telegraph published two pieces decrying wokeness. And things are even worse at the Daily Mail. Two articles? Try an entire section of the website dedicated to woke culture news. 

But what exactly does woke mean? And why does the right hate it so very much? In its initial form in Black activist circles, the word woke meant being well-informed or aware, especially with regard to racial equity and justice. As the Black Lives Matter movement picked up steam in the early 2010s, the word became increasingly ubiquitous — in large, and often uncredited, part due to Black Twitter. Woke became a call to action; it signalled that you were actively opposing unjust systems of domination.

This was, of course, anathema to the right wing: “Not our unjust systems of domination! We worked so hard on those!” So what did they do? They changed the narrative. Through a concerted effort in news, politics, and popular culture over nearly a decade, the right changed the idea of what it meant to be woke. What once meant being an activist now meant being an elitist. What once described a fight for social justice now described a sort of petulant whining. Woke became trivial, neutered, sanitised. The message was diluted, a rallying cry becoming a buzzword in one fell swoop. 

But something else happened, too. The right gained a new scarlet letter, a cudgel to add to its arsenal in its fight against all things just and equitable. Anything they don’t like has become woke. And if there’s one thing the right is good at, it’s finding things to dislike. Minority characters in television shows are “woke ideology infiltrating our media”. Trans people being allowed to compete in just about any event is “wokeism run amok”. Don’t like Suella Braverman and her draconian immigration policies? You aren’t an ensouled person with a heart and eyes; you’re a member of the “wokerati”. 

You might be starting to notice a pattern here. Woke is not just a buzzword anymore; it’s a dog whistle. Hidden in its meagre four letters is the bigoted baggage conservatives don’t want you to see. Because once you see it, you’ll realise it permeates their entire platform. More important than anything else you can learn from these culture war debates is this: the right has to be like this. It has no choice. There are real, systemic issues that words like woke seek to highlight, and the right has no solutions for them, largely because they are at fault for the issues in the first place. For their political survival it is critical that they get everyone bogged down in pedantic debates and work as hard as they can to obscure. Otherwise, a different four letter word becomes crystal clear when you look at the right: “hate”. 

Besides the obviously dangerous social consequences of this, right-wing word meddling does something equally destructive to our politics and language. Words used to mean things. Ideologies used to be coherent. Now? Quite the opposite. I’ve heard a myriad of ludicrous labels thrown around, from the nonsense ‘anarcho-capitalist’ to the equally confusing ‘socialist monarchist’. I mean, really? Socialist monarchist? What on earth does that mean?

In its endless quest for domination, the right has muddied the waters of discourse itself. I doubt I am the only one who feels that politics has become a battle of aesthetics more than a battle of principles. It’s less a fight to win and pass legislation than a fight to brand and humiliate your rivals. For the sake of debate and democratic politics this needs to stop. 

Enough buzzwords, enough dog whistles, enough bullsh*t. Maybe a little wokeness is just what our politics needs.

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