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Defining ‘Woke’ (a Word We Should Probably All Stop Using)

It’s fine to concede the (originally) progressive nature of wokeism, so long as we also call out the movement’s betrayal of core liberal values

· 7 min read
Defining ‘Woke’ (a Word We Should Probably All Stop Using)
A photo of one of the many wokeness-themed T-shirts for sale on Etsy.

In the (unlikely) event that my grandchildren ever ask me for a capsule summary of the culture wars of the late 2010s and early 2020s, I may simply direct them to two viral clips, both starring women who’d been asked to define a contentious word.

The first instance occurred a year ago, during the second day of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s US Supreme Court confirmation hearings. “Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?” asked a Republican senator. “No, I can’t,” responded the judge, before adding, infamously, “I’m not a biologist.”

Earlier this month, it was a conservative’s turn for embarrassment, when pundit and book author Bethany Mandel was asked to define the word “woke” while appearing on a YouTube show produced by The Hill. Mandel, a mother of six who later reported enduring a kind of on-air panic attack, was left speechless. This produced a particularly embarrassing spectacle given that Mandel’s latest book is basically one big takedown of wokeness. On the very first page of its introduction, in fact, Mandel and co-author Karol Markowicz wrote, “We named this book Stolen Youth, but we could have just as easily called it Woke War on Families.”

Quillette has published a number of articles putting the lie to Brown’s suggestion that distinguishing men from women requires specialized knowledge. Wokeness, on the other hand, is a word that many of us use without pausing to define. And it is to this latter project that I dedicate the blog post that follows.

While “woke” carries a negative connotation for most of us, one still finds highly progressive personalities who cling to it unironically, as a self-identifier indicating elevated insight, compassion, and (this element being typically unstated) intelligence—as with the Washington Post writer who intoned, “If being ‘woke’ means knowing the full story of your community and country, including the systemic racism that still shapes them, then every thinking adult should be [woke].” (I will confess that I find it difficult to absorb these self-valorizing formulations without thinking of the passive aggressive spouse whose maudlin quarrelling technique is to declare, “If loving too much is a crime, then I do naught but plead guilty.”)

Another, larger faction of progressives takes the opposite approach—rejecting the “woke” label as a slur, and even refusing to engage with anyone (including fellow leftists) who seriously acknowledges the problem that the word represents. (Needless to say, this crew was clicking its collective heels when the Mandel video went viral: Look! Even conservatives can’t summon this imaginary phantom into existence.) As anti-woke leftist Freddie deBoer recently wrote on his Substack, this is part of a longstanding pattern of rhetorical evasion:

It’s absurd that so many people pretend not to know what woke means, and the problem could be easily solved if people who support woke politics would adopt a name for others to use. No to ‘woke,’ no to ‘identity politics,’ no to ‘political correctness.’ Fine: Pick something. The fact that they steadfastly refuse to do so is a function of their feeling that they shouldn’t have to do politics like everyone else.

Meanwhile, many conservatives, recognizing the generally negative connotations that “woke” carries among ordinary voters, have weaponized it in such a broad way that it now can refer to pretty much anything conservatives dislike. When asked in late 2022 what the word “woke” means—the same question Mandel flubbed a few months later—the communications director for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said that it’s a “slang term for activism … progressive activism.” This kind of definition would sweep in, say, union activists seeking better wages and conditions for workers, as well as tenants-rights activists pushing legislatures to make it harder for landlords to evict families—mainstream leftist causes that are entirely unrelated to the race and gender fixations lying at the heart of wokeism.

A lawyer for DeSantis answered the same question by saying that wokeness signifies “the belief [that] there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.” But that, too, is overbroad. To take my own case as a counter-example: Few of my regular readers would mistake me for “woke,” despite the fact I’ve freely conceded that some forms of systematic racism have been baked into American society.

I’ve tried to limit my use of the word “woke” in recent months (though it’s sometimes unavoidable in a compressed format such as a tweet), largely for the same reason cited by deBoer: “It’s too much of a culture war pinball and now deemed too pejorative to be useful.”

DeBoer prefers the term “social justice politics,” which has the disadvantage of being excessively charitable to wokesters (since who among us wants to be seen as opposed to the mother’s milk of “social justice”). But there is no perfect choice. And even if there were, it wouldn’t take more than 15 minutes before the people we now call woke find some reason to object to it.

In choosing a preferred term, my own priority is this: At the very least, the language we use should invite (or at least not instantly disqualify) the rapprochement among traditional leftists, classical liberals, moderate conservatives, and libertarians that will be required to decisively push back against—and now I reveal my preferred choice—illiberal progressivism.

Podcast # 193: Understanding Wokeness as a Make-Work Strategy for the Privileged Class
Quillette podcast host Jonathan Kay speaks with Swedish Marxist Malcom Kyeyune, who argues [] that nominally progressive theories of race and gender are actually aimed at securing influence, employment, and prestige for underemp…

This is a term that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, I grant you. But it’s a politically balanced formulation, in that it concedes the (originally) progressive nature of wokeism while also calling out the movement’s subsequent betrayal of core liberal values—such as free speech, due process, race neutrality, and individual equality. Moreover, it doesn’t embed any denigration of traditional socialism, which (as discussed in more detail below) is very much at odds with the snobbish precepts of wokeism. I know many conservatives who insist on describing wokesters as neo-Marxists (or “cultural Marxists”). But this is profoundly ahistorical, given that the principal beneficiaries of wokesim are not the world’s downtrodden, but rather cliques of highly privileged academics and diversity consultants.

What follows is a more detailed, long-form definition of wokeness—or illiberal progressivism, as I should now get used to calling it. It’s something I wrote back in September, on the request of a Canadian education critic who was looking for a thoughtful means to call out progressive extremism in our public schools without echoing the toxic (to most Canadians, at least) political shorthand imported from the United States:

The term “woke” was originally popularized by progressive activists who saw themselves as having (metaphorically) awakened to bold new insights about the racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia that supposedly contaminate every corner of western societies. In recent years, however, “woke” has been more commonly used as a pejorative term to describe extremists who extrapolate these well-intentioned principles in a radically ill-advised manner. In many cases, this includes performative gestures—on social media or otherwise—that are clearly intended to burnish the ideological bona fides of woke individuals and groups, as opposed to providing real assistance to the allegedly oppressed masses whose wellbeing ostensibly lies at the core of the woke mission.

Some woke ideological positions are so extreme that they directly contradict core tenets of liberalism, including free speech and due process. At its outer edges, moreover, wokeism closely tracks policy prescriptions associated with reactionary 20th-century social conservatives. In schools, government agencies, and woke corporations, it has become increasingly common to celebrate racial segregation as a means to create “affinity groups.” Some woke ideologues and diversity consultants also claim that qualities associated with professional life, such as punctuality, attention to detail, and a commitment to merit, betray the influence of a nefarious force called “whiteness”—thereby channelling the racist idea that non-white individuals cannot meet baseline standards of intellect and behavior.

Woke manifestos and policy documents typically embed slogans that cast entire swathes of the Western world as “oppressive” (or even intrinsically genocidal), and which call upon followers to engage in gestures of righteous “anti-capitalist” rebellion. Canada, in particular, is routinely denounced as a “white supremacist” state whose very existence must be “disrupted.”

Unlike traditional forms of leftist thought, which have been aimed in large part at assisting working-class individuals, wokeism exhibits an unconcealed hostility toward underprivileged members of society who have not internalized faddish ideas about race and gender. Woke ideas are communicated using academic jargon densely cluttered with newly conceived acronyms such as 2SLGBTQQIA+, AMAB, and BIPOC. As with many cultish movements, the unintelligible nature of this idiom is treated as a feature not a bug, since mastery of such terms permits an acolyte to signal his or her elect status within a woke organization or clique.

In other words, wokeism comprises not only a set of anti-liberal ideological concepts masquerading as progressivism, but also a status-seeking strategy within upper-middle-class white-collar social and professional subcultures.

Many highly woke proponents plainly imagine themselves as secular priests, communicating revealed truths to their (more ignorant) workplace or classroom parishioners. While their language often is full of nominally self-incriminating flourishes about “whiteness,” “internalized white supremacy,” and their status as “settlers living on unceded land,” such admissions are actually intended as badges of enlightenment—much as a religious fundamentalist might demonstrate his or her devotion by pontificating about the shameful depths of his or her original sin.

Overall, woke ideology rejects the idea that human beings are fundamentally alike insofar as we all might enjoy the benefits—and observe the responsibilities—of a single, commonly observed social contract. Instead, society is conceived in dystopian terms, with “intersectionally” delineated groups experiencing daily life as an endless series of joyless, spiritually exhausting struggles for their very existence. Like all totalizing belief systems, it leaves little room for dissent, casting even minor doctrinal disagreements as manifestations of injurious bigotry that must be investigated and punished.
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