Understanding the new weapon word of the conservative culture wars
They're not "conservatives," first of all. They're radical authoritarian fascists.
Woke, to me, means "Aware."
"Woke" falls into one of the victims of what I call the rightwing's Space Roach approach to language.
In the first Men in Black movie, the archvillain was an evil cockroach-like alien that crash-lands in Earth. He lands in the field of Vincent D'Onofrio, who played a misogynistic coot of a farmer who goes outside to confront the roach. The roach ends up killing the farmer by devouring him from the inside out and wearing the skin as a costume. (The joke throughout the film is that the skin starts to decompose and the now-dead farmer and the roach are so temperamentally similar that people think the farmer is merely ill and not a literal monster.)
This is what is happening constantly with rightwingers inhabiting the discourse. They interact with a phrase, annihilate its meaning and intention, and basically wear the word around as a disguise for their own darker meanings and intentions.
Other words and phrases that have been devoured by the Space Roach: liberal, progressive, socialism, liberty, freedom, elite, globalist/ism.
I don't use it, but the first time I heard it used, maybe a decade ago, it was a gentle pejorative among progressives. It meant a fellow progressive who was trying too hard and acting holier-than-thou. It tracks the history of "politically correct" pretty closely, which was also, when I first heard it circa 1980, an in-joke among lefties for the comrade who was a little too doctrinaire.
I have never used "politically correct" or "woke" positively because (1) they're sneers that trivialize politics as states of mind (2) I would never try to gather up everything they seem to refer to in a single word. I don't even like the term "progressive," which seems to me vague and self-congratulatory. It also carries terrible historical baggage. At the moment "woke" just seems to mean "whatever irritates me" for a certain kind of person.
You make a valiant effort at definition with "diversity, equality or general sensitivity" but you can see the problem there. "Politically correct," also stretched to include basic politeness. "This may not be politically correct but..." became a way to say something rude while pre-empting rebukes.
I do not use “woke” as a perjorative. It’s basically the N-word at this point. The first time I encountered it was on Twitter as in-jargon among Black people: “Stay woke” when another Black person noticed a disguised or hidden bit of racism. It’s appropriation by racist white people is distressing.
Awake to and aware of societal injustice.
I don't use woke as a pejorative. It comes from the African-American vernacular and (to me) means being aware or awakened to reality (also a very Buddhist perspective). Which is why there's such a big backlash from the right, those Trumpublicans who want to return to a time that never existed when America was "great". BTW, the New Yorker Radio Hour recently had a very interesting podcast interview with an Afro-British linguist about the origin of the word "woke" in the American vernacular. I found out this word with its current meaning goes back farther than most of us thought (first recorded instance of its use was in the 1950's), but has only recently been employed by a weapon of the right. This weaponization of the word "woke" has spread to other countries; in France for instance the right now uses the term "wokisme" to attack any policies from the left they don't like.
To be honest, I only use with sarcasm, the same as I do when the word freedom it thrown about. Sorry my governor is desatin...
A word I remember using circa-2000. That conservatives have finally heard of it says something about how dated the term is 🙃 In its positive interpretation, an educated and activist world view in context of class/race/gender/etc.
https://consortiumnews.com/2023/02/06/chris-hedges-woke-imperialism/Diversity is important. But diversity, when devoid of a political agenda that fights the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed, is window dressing. It is about incorporating a tiny segment of those marginalized by society into unjust structures to perpetuate them." Chris Hedges says it really well!
It is a fact that the term rose to popularity within social justice circles, and wasn't an invention of any rightwing messaging node. However, the term has come to be far more a part of rightwing messaging than a natural and native term from social justice communities any longer. The hard right has made "woke" their word now. Very much like New Right campaigners from the late-70s to early-90s took total control of the term "liberal." (Interesting that I have trouble thinking of instances where progressives have snatched words from reactionaries and used them as weapons against their original owners, but that's a digression.)
I suspect that a significant part of the political loading of this term is the fact that it comes from African-American vernacular English as an equivalent or interpretation of "awakened." This origin, of course, makes it rife for mockery and abuse by people who would almost-certainly deny being motivated by their obvious feelings of racial superiority. So the eternal white derision of African-American vernacular is a dimension that makes it fun to mock. It's a buzzword that's "sticky" for the racist imagination.
But this same origin lends the term a more menacing aspect, as it implies the militant black power organizing of the post-Civil Rights era, and therefore making rightwing overreactions to those they tag with the term rationalizable.
As for ideas about how to countermessage about/with the term, I'm reminded of the skill that Bernie Sanders has shown when responding to the tag "socialist," especially deep behind enemy lines, as when he was invited to speak at Liberty University. The easiest, but weakest, response is to reject the label; but Bernie Sanders doesn't reject the label "socialist," he rejects the implications that his detractors project on the term. He embraces the term and presents it with new connections that the audience will agree with, both historically/factually and morally.
There is no margin in running from the term, because showing weakness is how they get us every time. The question is how to select the indisputable implications of the term (to have been awakened from . . . what?) in ways that the audience will have to accept.
I am struck sometimes how interwoven contemporary rightwing politics are with conspiratorial paranoia (I shouldn't be, because that kind of paranoia was the beating heart of American reactionary politics consistently after World War 2). They say that they have awakened from false, cheery dreaming; their metaphoric image of the "red pill" connects to this idea. Maybe one approach would be to mockingly tag them as "woke" in a contemptibly credulous and embarrassing way. Turn the word they hate so much against them, while embracing it for ourselves in a more realistic, adult way, as a turning away from fables about the goodness of our economic and political system.
I see the original, sincere use of “woke” as being connected with “consciousness raising” in a Black feminist sense: “aware”, as another commenter wrote, and thinking critically. I saw it entering broader liberal consciousness through Deray McKesson’s 2015-era tweets around the movement for Black lives, and thereby being coopted. In my progressive, predominantly white workplace circa 2018, “wokeness” was floated as an aspirational attribute of our customers. This was met with criticism from my Black colleagues about co-opting movement language, and the suggestion died there.
I think the liberal cooptation of “woke” is what made it a target for reactionaries at the same time it became unappealing to the movements it was taken from. So now it can be used pejoratively from the right, to dismiss any suggestion of communal care, as well as from the left, to deride ineffectual, performative liberal groupthink or kente cloth worn by House democrats.
Woke involves education that leads to caring. The right wants to eliminate caring.
My message: Governor woke is a joke.
Here's a rundown that might be useful. By 2017 or so, "woke" was around in progressive advocacy world and it simply meant "this person is really with it." On the ball, nimble of mind, etc. It did not necessarily connote that a person said "Latinx" instead of "Latino" or that the person wrote "LGBTQAI+" instead of simply LGBT. Just a few years later it could have been (I heard it) used in progressive circles with a touch of irony. An organization that always said Latinx etc. was "very woke," and the implication was that they emphasized things like just the right choice of language at the expense of being effective -- it was performative but not terribly useful. The mockery of "woke" by the right was then a short hop away. To answer your question: I don't hear ANYONE using "woke" in progressive circles these days, either as a pejorative or as an affirmation. It is a modifier attached to Republican epithets, e.g. "woke capitalism." To my mind, "woke" is now simply another linguistic vessel for a politics of resentment at an inchoate elite that allegedly does not share the values of real America. And -- this is important -- it's a criticism that Republicans can throw at corporate America that doesn't really commit them to any serious policy change that would cost Wall Street et al. real money. It's a head fake to populism.
Once upon a time, we were called "Politically Correct." Now, we're "woke." It means we aren't cruel and bigoted. We care. We try our best to understand our prejudices and misconceptions about ppl who aren't the majority and work to overcome them. Those who call us "woke" are mocking that instinct to better ourselves.
“I think we’re just communicating wrong, because, like, what I know ‘woke’ to mean is, like, learning new things about people or the world, and then acting accordingly. Like, basic kindness. Maybe a gesture of care to people who are more vulnerable than you. You know what, actually you wouldn’t like it — it’s Jesus stuff.” — SARAH SILVERMAN