“It was a linguistic indication that revolutionary consciousness had made ‘the long march through the institutions.'”
t appears that the shelf life for the term woke is approaching its end.
Of late, its use in a derisive manner seems to have become more prominent than its application as a point of pride. There has then arisen a backlash against this, with those perfectly fine with corporations, sports leagues, universities, and governments becoming ever more woke striving to reclaim it.
But there are indications that the public is finding the back-and-forth tiresome.
The etymology of the term is rather interesting. The folk singer Huddie Ledbetter used it in his 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys.” The song deals with a particularly ugly racial incident and subsequent set of trials. Ledbetter cautions anyone to “best stay woke” when traveling through the area in Alabama where the incident took place. In 2008, R&B singer Eryka Badu’s song “Master Teacher” includes the refrain “stay woke.”
When the term first came into common usage in a positive sense a few years ago, it had the strong scent of self-congratulation and superiority. It was a linguistic indication that revolutionary consciousness had made “the long march through the institutions.” When enthusiasts pointed to a woke organization, the message was clearly that the organization would not be going back to old bigoted ways, that it was in the vanguard of a new day.
And what a new day it is. The notion that the human being can invent himself or herself is now codified into rules not only in private organizations but the entire federal government, per the November 2021 “Government-Wide Strategic Plan to Advance Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility in the Federal Workplace.”
As the academic Carl R. Trueman points out, this notion is a relatively new phenomenon. In his 2020 book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, Trueman traces how this all came about, from the thought of Rousseau through the Romantic poets to Darwin, Marx, and Freud and on up to Hugh Hefner putting the sheen of sophistication over the commercialization of erotic arousal.
We now speak of a “community,” the members of which are bound by an embrace of dimensions of sexuality that were not even dreamt of 30 years ago at the outside. This is uncharted territory indeed.
In the rush to put as many supposedly aggrieved demographics under the identity-politics umbrella as possible, some have conflated racial concerns with those focused on human sexuality. This has not worked out seamlessly, as evidenced by the position and work of the Coalition of African American Pastors. That group has been vocal in opposing same-sex marriage and, more recently, the participation of trans people in women’s sports.
Progressives have become more adept at coining terms that provide them cover when previously used terms become unpopular. When “critical race theory” obtained a stigma, the Left continued with that same agenda under the brand of “culturally relevant pedagogy.”
At this point, the term woke is mainly bandied about by adherents of Trumpism, who have lamentably succeeded in confusing the general public about what conservatism is and is not. Granted, Trumpism shares conservatism’s concern about the stunning pace at which identity politics has inserted itself into the core of our social and cultural fabric, but it is in the means used to address this that the distinctions become clear. “Exhibit A” of the Trumpist response can be found in the way Florida’s legislature and that state’s governor have dealt with the decidedly woke Disney corporation. On the other hand, the preferable conservative response to Disney announcing its intent to work to repeal the education law would have been to say, “Good luck electing a legislature to get that accomplished in a state such as ours” and beyond that leaving it to local school boards and cultural influencers.
So usage of the term woke mainly elicits a roll of the eyes from those who are fine with the cultural victory that identity politics has achieved.
It gets thornier still. There are some admirable conservatives who are striving mightily to clarify the distinction between themselves and Trumpism. On the matter of identity politics, however, there seems to be an acceptance among some of them of the encroachments of diversity, equity, and inclusion. They speak as if they had forgotten that there are other pillars of conservatism along with limited government. So they are among those rolling their eyes.
Does the apparently not-far-off obsolescence of the term woke indicate that the woke agenda is a done deal, or is the struggle between that agenda and a more historically-rooted understanding of human nature entering a new phase?
That is not presently clear. What is clear is that that conversation is far from over.
Barney Quick is a frequent contributor to Ordinary Times, hosts Precipice, a Substack, and can be found on Twitter at @Penandguitar