The Dream of Being Woke

In American Black slang of the mid-20th century, to be “woke” was to be aware of issues of racial oppression and injustice. The expression has since come to denote enlightened awareness for any group threatened by a hostile social environment. Thus it has been adopted to reflect feminist and non-cisgender concerns, for example.

Anyone outside a threatened group who understands and shares its concerns may also be considered woke, and increasing the awareness of outsiders is presumably an important goal of woke communities. This is sometimes made problematic by the idea that others outside the group cannot understand its experiences, do not fundamentally share its interests, and therefore cannot be “woke” in the right way. In such cases, the project of spreading wokeness is limited to recruiting or mobilizing members of the affected group who are not yet woke, while outward activity is confined to resisting the inherently non-woke members of other groups, challenging their power structures, and so on.

Under the pressure of this lingering mistrust, and the polarizations of 21st-century discourse, the original sense of “woke” has become distorted. In some circles it is now used with a touch of sarcasm, which may be mistaken for a dismissal of wokeness itself. In fact the sarcasm is usually applied in the context of so-called “cancel culture” (for want of a neutral term), which is a specific tactic for fighting oppression and injustice by refusing to allow it any space. The point of this tactic is to oppose the systemic entitlements that perpetuate injustice, including the so-called “right” to resist and obstruct the progress of a disadvantaged group. Opponents of this tactic find themselves fighting the woke community on the grounds of freedom of speech and open debate. Thus the dispute between the woke community and its sarcastic detractors has split into two different frames. It’s now either about enlightened awareness of social injustice and its insidious mechanisms, or enlightened awareness of freedom of expression. Since the sides don’t share the same frame, true argument is impossible, and we are left with the raw opposition of incompatible paradigms.

Just as any proverbial frog in a cooking pot becomes “woke” when it realizes that the water is getting uncomfortably warm, any group that perceives a creeping threat to its welfare may conceivably be called “woke.” One could therefore contend that the unreconstructed defenders of “tradition” or “family values” or “the American way,” who see wokeness as an exclusively left-wing phenomenon, are themselves “woke,” in the sense that they are vigilant against what they experience as a threatening environment.

Because of its frame, this supposedly threatened group is less likely to engage in “cancel culture.” There are notable counterexamples. The followers of Donald Trump seem prepared to “cancel” their political opponents by obstructing their ability to vote, or by overriding their votes using legal manoeuvres or even insurrection. On the whole, however, critics of cancel-culture tactics allow their opponents to be heard, because this is consistent with their Enlightenment frame. This is to be contrasted with the “woke” frame, wherein speech in support of the status quo perpetuates the oppressive power structure, and resistance cannot successfully be mounted within the frame of that power structure.

When we cast the debate in terms of power structures, we place it within a more generic paradigm of “enlightened awareness of a threat,” as opposed to the other frames, where the threat is more specifically either social injustice or restricted freedoms. Within this paradigm, it becomes clear why the defenders of tradition are not normally regarded as “woke.” They may feel threatened; but to the extent that they are part of the dominant power structure, they are not really threatened. Something about “wokeness” requires genuine oppression.

Whether traditionalists are actually part of the dominant power structure is a matter for discussion. From their perspective, power in society has shifted to the postmodernists of the university campuses, or the licentious hedonists of the cosmopolitan centres, or to Islamist terrorists and their useful idiots, or to the woke community with its cancel culture, or to some ominous confluence of such forces. Discussing who really has the power, at this point in history, is at least a tractable question for both sides. It may even be amenable to quantitative analysis, in terms of distribution of resources, favourable media coverage, or other measurable indicators of power. Unfortunately, both sides probably think the answer so obvious as to make the question risible, and so a genuine discussion on this common ground is unlikely to proceed.

One can be “woke” to one threat or another, without being woke to an even greater threat as understood through a different paradigm. This includes reformers and traditionalists alike—even if right-wingers wishing they could shake left-wingers awake don’t normally think of themselves as “woke.” The discourse one chooses (or falls into), and the actions one takes (or accedes to), can hold unrealized dangers. In such cases, it’s better to wake up and notice. At a time when our social world is being ripped apart by centripetal forces, we need to “stay woke” to the nature of those forces. Instead, we have allowed ourselves to be swept up in them, and our attitudes and counter-attitudes around “wokeness” are making things worse.

Related Topics

The Death of Argument, Part I: Cut to the Chase
Perception, by Proffitt and Baer: An Oblique Review
Ontology and Personal Identity
Philosophy and Paradigms
History as Myth

Additional Resources

What is the history of the word ‘woke’ and its modern uses? (The Independent)

3 thoughts on “The Dream of Being Woke”

  1. There seems to me in the woke and counterwoke thingy an unspoken assumption that seeing oneself as victim of oppression or reverse oppression or whatever makes you the ethical protagonist.

    I think this is a deeply mistaken belief.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If we assume that to oppress someone is unethical, then to be the oppressed someone is to be subject to unethical behaviour, which I guess would make one the “ethical protagonist.” I think that’s what you might mean, but I’m not sure.

      Is the assumption that oppression is always unethical a fair one? I suppose a serial killer could feel oppressed…

      Liked by 2 people

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