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The meaning of ‘woke’

April 5, 2023

I have been meaning to blog about the word woke for some time now. I’ve kept putting it off; I’m not sure why. Perhaps because the word is something of a political minefield; perhaps because I haven’t exactly formulated my own thoughts about it. But let’s try. 

            The original meaning, dating from 1930s America, signified alertness to systematic injustice towards Black people. According to Susan Neiman in an article in Unherd, it was coined by the blues musician Lead Belly in his song Scottsboro Boys – a protest song about an unjust rape charge against a group of Black teenagers, containing the phrase ‘stay woke’. I’ve listened to this song on You Tube but I can’t hear that phrase. No matter: we know the word comes from that time and place and context.

            But the meaning has changed a lot since then. Once it was used as a positive term by woke people themselves; people self-identified as woke. Not any more. It is now almost invariably deployed as a criticism, by non-woke people, signifying… well, what, exactly? 

             There are those who claim this critical use of the word is only deployed by right-wingers (far-right, alt-right, whatever) to signal disapproval of the word’s original significance: alertness to injustice. But it can’t be as simple as that. If the word just meant alertness to injustice then we’d all be woke. No one likes injustice. The point is that we disagree about what counts as injustice. Personally, I’m alert to the injustice experienced by JK Rowling. But that wouldn’t be a ‘woke’ position in modern parlance. Supporting JK Rowling isn’t woke. Why not?

            It seems to me that wokeness could be summarised as the principle that the individual is not the moral unit.  The moral unit is the group one belongs to.  Injustice towards an individual doesn’t register, if you’re woke; that is, unless the individual belongs to a group designated as oppressed. Rowling is opposed to some of the claims of some of the representatives of a group – transgender people – which is deemed to be oppressed. For the woke, that’s enough to put her beyond the moral pale. It’s nothing to do with the reasonableness of her arguments. She’s in the wrong group. 

            There are further features associated with wokeness. The three principles identified by Lukianoff and Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind  (‘What does not kill me makes me weaker’; ‘Always trust your feelings’; and ‘Life is a battle between good people and evil people’) are all articles of faith for the woke. So, too, is an unshakable belief in what Bertrand Russell called the delusion of ‘the superior virtue of the oppressed’.

            You’ll probably have gathered that the woke worldview is not one I endorse. That’s right, it isn’t. But I don’t tend to use the word very much. Simply dismissing a view by labelling it is the sort of thing the woke themselves do. I’d rather engage in specific arguments. 


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One Comment
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Suspect you’re right,Brandon in that the issue is very tribal with “woke” on one side and “far-right” on the other. Woke has essentially replaced “right-on” as an attitude with far-right instead of, I’m not sure… Conservative? Reactionary? Old? and both seemingly provide a range of off the shelf opinions.
    It’s always been slightly dispiriting that once one has discovered someone’s view of one random topic that their opinion on virtually every other subject can be accurately determined without asking but those opinions seem to be getting more deeply entrenched on both sides.

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