Last week, Republican Glenn Youngkin won a surprise victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race, edging out the Democrat Terry McAuliffe by two points. A key issue dividing the two candidates was education.
McAuliffe had promised to “diversify” the teaching profession, noting that “50% of the students … are students of colour and yet 80% of the teachers are white”. Youngkin, by contrast, had vowed to ban Critical Race Theory. Under his administration, the Republican said, children would not be taught “to view everything through a lens of race”.
Youngkin’s victory has sparked renewed debate over the term ‘woke’. And passions are running high. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the feisty Congresswoman from New York, said it’s “a term pundits are now using as a derogatory euphemism for civil rights & justice.”
Likewise, The Atlantic writer Adam Serwer claimed that the term “expresses sentiments the people using it would be uncomfortable articulating directly” (by which he presumably meant bigotry).
And the Slate writer Joel Anderson went so far as to call it a “racial slur”. He then followed this up with the rather ominous statement, “It doesn’t mean I’m gonna do anything to you, or that anyone else will. But it doesn’t mean I won’t either.” That escalated quickly…
Should the word ‘woke’ be retired? I would argue: no. Although the term can be used derisively, this is true of many political terms that are not insults (e.g., “you’re just a bunch of Tories!”). What’s more, ‘woke’ isn’t used exclusively by people on the right; until quite recently, in fact, many leftists openly identified as woke.
They key issue is this: over the last 10 years, a new strand of leftism has emerged, which has been incredibly influential, and precisely because it’s been so influential, we need a simple way of referring to it.
Existing terms like ‘left-wing’, ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ won’t do. And that’s because this new strand of leftism is, in some respects, directly opposed to traditional leftism (as frustrated leftists keep pointing out). For example, traditional leftism says, “judge people based on character, not skin colour”. This new strand of leftism says the reverse.
‘Woke’ seems like a perfectly good label. So why all the hostility from left-wing activists? One possibility is that ‘woke’ no longer has a clear meaning. But that’s just not true. As I myself have noted, the term refers to:
a specific ideology which sees identity groups like sex and race as the primary units of society; which attributes to some groups the status of victims and to others the status of oppressors; and which posits that various ‘structural’ and ‘systemic’ forces stymie members of the former groups while conferring ‘privilege’ on members of the latter.
And if you consider my definition too vague, try defining the term ‘liberalism’, or ‘conservatism’ for that matter.
Various alternatives to ‘woke’ had been put forward: left-wing identity politics; left-wing identarian; regressive left; postmodern neo-Marxist; cultural Marxist; cultural socialist; left modernist; social justice warrior; political correctness. But none of them has quite the same resonance as ‘woke’.
The best alternative is probably ‘left-wing identity politics’. However, it’s a mouthful, and it has no straightforward adjectival form. One solution might be to use ‘left-wing identity politics’ as the noun, and ‘woke’ as the adjective. (After all, ‘wokeness’, ‘wokeism’ and ‘wokery’ sound a bit odd.)
One suspects the real reason that activists like AOC want to do away with ‘woke’ is that it’s much harder to fight something if you don’t have a name for it. They want us to believe that woke politics is just traditional leftism: you know, helping poor people and that sort of thing. But that’s not what it is at all.
The woke recognise the power of language better than anyone, which is why you might have seen medical journals referring to “bodies with vaginas”, rather than “women”. Note: this is a clear attempt to change reality through language. And pretending that ‘woke’ doesn’t have a clear meaning stems from the same impulse.
In a recent article, the non-woke leftist commentator Freddie deBoer wrote, “please just fucking tell me what term I am allowed to use for the sweeping social and political changes you demand”. Notwithstanding the profanity, deBoer was sincerely asking for a better term than ‘woke’, and said he’d “happily use one if offered”.
If the woke do want to come up with a better term, here are the rules. It can’t be ‘left-wing’, ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ (those are already taken). And it can’t be too cumbersome (‘person who believes in social justice’ isn’t going to fly). So why not just ‘woke’?
Stop Press: Watch a Free Speech Union discussion about wokeness with Professor Frank Furedi.