By Theo Burman
If aliens were to land on Earth and study our language today, they would assume that “woke” is and has always been a political insult – a word used to slander progressive social movements. The varied history of being “woke” would be lost on them, in favour of the meaningless definition it has taken on in modern political discourse. Woke is now just another reactionary buzzword, used in a generic string of phrases that the right use to describe their opponents.
Linguistically, “woke” is just a cog in the machine designed to label any social activist a post-left cultural Marxist. These phrases don’t mean anything, because the paranoia of the reactionary right means this list of descriptors is used against anyone critical of the status quo. This same reactionary group is the first to claim that accusations of homophobia and racism don’t mean anything because of how much the left throws them around, but they fail to see that they have done the exact same thing with terms like “woke”.
Woke doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s been hijacked by the right to be used as a criticism, a way to satirise the left. The people saying “woke” nowadays aren’t activists, they’re reactionaries poking fun at campaigns and individuals striving for social change. The original meaning of woke – understanding the nuances of modern social activism – has been subverted by a new definition that sees more use in compilations of Ben Shapiro destroying college liberals with facts and logic.
If you open up YouTube and search “woke”, all you get is a bunch of videos complaining about the impact of social movements on culture. ‘Parasite’ winning Best Picture at the Oscars is woke, the ‘Matrix’ trans allegory being confirmed by its directors is woke, the decolonialisation of academia is woke. Under the definition that the right uses, every incremental change to the way we talk about and approach social justice is part of the woke conspiracy. Reactionaries need this broad definition of “woke” because otherwise they have nothing to react to.
The only definition of woke that still holds true refers an extremely specific section of the left: the neoliberal elites, the people who have to be woke because they aren’t willing to back real systemic change. It’s the brands who change their profile pictures during Pride Month while profiting from child labour and countries that execute LGBT people. It’s the New Yorkers who believe racism in America ended after one black President. It’s Boris Johnson claiming that his cabinet is the most diverse in British history, while that same cabinet ruthlessly cuts migrant rights and systematically downgrades working-class exam results.
If woke means anything anymore, it means someone who meaninglessly claims identity or diversity points without committing to make things better for the people they claim to represent. The establishment, the people in power who are a millimetre to the left of the political compass middle line, can’t make the changes that actually matter, so they overcompensate by conforming to the caricature of woke leftists that reactionaries have presented: people obsessed with identity rather than the issues those identities face.
Image: Alex Radelich via Unsplash