April 2, 2023
The constant use of “woke” by the right as a way of describing the evils of liberalism is an indication of their lack of real ideas and of desperation. However, it’s also a sad reminder of how debased our political discourse has become.
Although “woke” is tossed around so casually as to become meaningless, it has been defined. When I first came across it in 2018, I found that The Urban Dictionary advised us that “Being Woke means being aware. . . Knowing what[‘]s going on in the community.” More recently. Merriam Webster offered this definition: “aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” However, its current use has less to do with definition than with political warfare; it is used merely as an all-purpose insult and declaration of virtue.
A thoughtful recent article by Solomon D. Stevens noted that “woke” is used to refer to a baffling range of perceived social or political sins. Because of that muddle, “[t]he word ‘woke’ has no clear meaning, but to those who use it to condemn others, that doesn’t matter because the word is just a way of announcing one’s membership in a kind of club or gang. It is a culture war badge.”
Stevens refers to George Orwell’s 1945 essay “Politics and the English Language.”
Orwell points out that when we use sloppy, imprecise language, our thinking becomes sloppy and imprecise. In that respect, he says, our words can be both a cause and an effect. Our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” And that is the problem with using the word “woke.”Orwell noted that much writing in his day was characterized by “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision.” One falling into such habits may be “almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.” So with the use of “woke.” As Stevens puts it, “It is “employed to vilify others; ‘they’ are not simply wrong, they are enemies of civilization. Those who are ‘woke’ are portrayed as a threat to everything decent and good.” It is a variation on the old theme on the right that liberals are not real Americans.
10. See my note of October 6, 2018
12. “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell: Essays, Everyman’s Library (2002), p.956